Manchester School of Architecture 'Sinister Dialogues'   2014

{ Laura Sanderson} How important do you think images and artefacts are in triggering memories?

{ Abigail Reynolds } Well, I am just trying to think about how I trigger memories if I don’t have objects and images and I suppose that when you remember you automatically create an image. Memory is image based for me to the point that I find some objects and images just too much. When my mother died there was so much stuff around that was suddenly redundant and it all became a bit disgusting for me and I didn’t want it around. They became so overloaded with memories. It is the same as going to an exhibition like the Ashmoleum in Oxford where there are so many objects and there is something airless and claustrophobic as all of those objects are so dense and weighty and just so resonant. It means there is no space left and they can become oppressive.

{ AR } I don’t ever work with images and objects that are from my personal history. I use images that are widely distributed and they are not images which are ever taken to describe a personal memory. They are all a collective memory. I work a lot with images from press, news reported images which are, well, an image cant be objective, but they are taken with that sense of an attempt to give an impartial view, not saying that there really is one. They are certainly positioned very differently from a personal archive.

{ AR } I recently met a woman locally from St Ives who was at Greenham Common Women’s Peace camp. She showed me her personal archive of photos from Greenham but those images read very differently to her than they do for me. I don’t really want to get into the side of her reading of it because then it becomes very cluttered. I am always trying to detach images from the specifics in a certain way so that they can float freer and they can connect up more easily to other culturally produced images which also are descriptive of an ideology and a moment in our cultural life rather that to get bogged down. Otherwise I find it very oppressive. I also never take my own photographs for that same reason because if I have taken the photograph there is no way I can cut through to the bigger picture it is just too cluttered.

{ LS } Martin Clarke said that in your work “there is a restless search to reconnect and make sense of the broken elements of a fractured world.” With this in mind how do you choose the agendas for your assemblages?

{ AR } The way that the work happens is that I try and work really intuitively and a lot of the decisions that I make are post rationalised. I try to allow myself to be attracted to things that attract me and to not to judge what it is that interests me. I often work with images of popular protest and I think that is because I find popular protest quite an emotional area and I don’t participate in protest marches and things myself and again I think it is because I want to feel that there is this detachment or this perspective which allows me to keep everything at a distance, so that I can reach out and connect things together in a way that is just freer. I am always trying to free myself.

{ AR } I try not judge the images very much and I know that, for example, I have recently been working with the guardian archive in London and in the archive they have the original prints for a lot of the photographs they originally used in the paper and those that they didn’t use. They photos are all a little bigger than A4 and all have writing on the back and the original crop marks. When I visit the archive I have to call for what I am interested in looking at and the way they have referenced and categorised the images is quite wayward. For my next solo show in Kestle Barton, I am thinking of using the title “Box A” because that is how the information is categorised. In Box A there is abattoirs, avalanches, abortions, accidents, accountants, acrobats, acupuncture, advertising, aerosol sprays … and so on. And then under accidents you have another recategorisation so you accidents pertaining to aircraft, buildings, cars, climbing, drowning, gassing … as so on. And I think that is how I use images. I called Box A for either architecture or agriculture but I am also quite interested in avalanches or astronomy or aupairs or auctions and they are all potentials.

{ AR } There is this free floating mass of images that are being produced, any of which could have some interest to me. It might be that in Box R under reptiles there is are images of a tortoise which are really interesting to me because of something to do with the formal qualities of that image which seem to me to be very speaking. But I cant know that. So when I am looking for books for my personal archive I cant buy a book unless I have seen it, even if the subject matter is technically in my area of interest. It may be that the quality of the photographs absolutely does not interest me and vice versa so it make it very hard for me to search. And I quite like that as there is no direct way for me to arrive at where I want to arrive at.

{ AR } I like to spend my time just image trawling until that magical moment when I find two images which seem to have a lot to say to each other but I don’t know why. Because I don’t really want to know why. Because if I know why then I have probably flattened it. It will have flattened too quickly until it becomes obvious or the connection become prosaic. I want it to be this floating kind of magic connection which is the most exciting moment. I suppose an artwork is not there to be solved. It is there to be intriguing.

{ AR } Once I have put images together I can often find lots of reasons. For example where I have cut the image of Cleopatra’s Needle in this pattern (showing a work from 2014 ‘Cleopatras Needle 1897 / 1909’) which for me is very much to do with the Vienna Secession and the architectural Avant Guarde conversations which were happening then, whereas actually Cleopatra’s Needle is about Colonialism and not about the impeding doom of the World War. If I was being literal about Cleopatra’s Needle and I would have cut a very different pattern. Later on I might think it is the Viennese Secession bleeding though which it might not have done if I had not been in Vienna. But at the same time it is not really the Secession as it has none of the ornament or detail of that either.

{ AR } For me there are always multifarious (I used this word because it reminds me of ‘nefarious’ which is also true of my reasons) reasons none of which are necessarily genuine but all of which are definitely plausible. I do not want it to be a point to point. I want it to be a constant unfolding. And that is how I work with images.

{ LS } In the UNIVERSAL NOW series you use two images of the same place are laid over each other at different times. This concept of time seems to be a recurring theme in your work and many pieces allow the viewer to inhabit two different timeframes. To what extent is this a reflection on how time affects perception?

{ AR } Looking at something at one time and then at another is a little bit like the Chinese Philosophy about the river never looking the same because it is always moving. We are moving in this flow of time which means that everything the same is radically changed because you are in a different time. You are a different person in a different time. And you bring all of that stuff to that moment in of looking. Which is something which is really embedded in art discourse because works of art stay the same but you can revisit them and they are different because you are different looking at them. It is something which is embedded in the idea of why it is still valuable to look at artwork a number of times because it is different because you have changed.

{ AR } You said before that all my work is about place, which is true, but actually I think all my work is about time but I use place because time is an abstract concept. You cant approach time directly or I don’t think you can meaningfully approach time directly. And particularly memory time. As actually memories are very distorting, you can have memories of things that didn’t occur and you can have nostalgia, or a longing for something that wasn’t ever there. It is all fictionalised but I attach all of this sense of memory and time to these things which are not fictionalised.

{ AR } People often ask me if I reprint, I partly don’t reprint because it means I could fabulate. If I use the original it is evidently something which is a given, it is something which still attaches to the world and an idea about fact. To work with a photograph that was taken at a given time they become historical documents for me. And therefore I can’t mess with them because they mean something to me. They are like a real concrete landmark and off of that I feel a firm ground to stand on to talk about memory and the passing of time, which we are all horribly locked into.

{ AR } All of us would like to escape time, we would like to not grow old and would like not to die but we are all stuck in time, whereas these materials live in time but in a different timeframe to us. Some have a longer lifespan and some have a shorter lifespan so I suppose I feel like I am really talking about time and just use place to talk about time.

{ LS } Photography is incredibly important in your work and Andrew Berardini of Artforum refers to you work as “a shift of lens” (2012) which I think is a particularly fitting. What qualities are you looking for when you search for an existing photograph?

{ AR } What I am looking for I think is something which absorbs me. It is interesting that I often work with images which are literally printed on absorbent paper rather than shiny paper. I am looking for something which can soak me in and this is often in the details or something which just attracts me.

{ AR } So in Perimeter (2011) I was attracted to the image because it is like the England of my childhood, not the dry stone wall but the huge banks of what I call Keck, which is what they called Cow Parsley where I grew up. I love Cow Parsley, it is a weed and a disregarded flower but its feathery and very summery to me and very beautiful. And these huge overarching trees, this sense of a very long time timespan and this narrow road. But it is not actually about anything. There is no subject to this picture but it is very well proportioned. It almost follows the rule of thirds although it does actually hover at the centre point. I am often looking for some formal enjoyment. Simple, formal, aesthetic pleasure and something which can trigger for me some very emotional responses.

{ AR } Another thing I often look for is a good fit. So the second image (of Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp) in Perimeter was just a good fit. It is a not an image I particularly like (though I had wanted to use it because of the subject) but it is clear and you can just about read the word police on the van. The texture of snow and the texture of Cow Parsley is also very similar and the perspective lines run through.

{ AR } An another thing I often look for are details that I like. For example in this early UNIVERSAL NOW image called Westminster Abbey 1912 / 1952 (2008) of Westminster Abbey is of course so much more interesting because of this solitary boy who is standing and leaning against a bollard, and he is nearly the same height as the bollard and there is something so monolithic that I almost cut the image around this boy in a way.

{ AR } I have read photographic theory, as everybody has, and Roland Barthes writes about the Punctum which is something from a photograph which reaches out and punctures you, and that puncture itself punctures the surface of the photograph so that you have this sort of emotional connection. So for him the Punctum is always literally like a point or a detail like a pin point.

{ AR } I also use pins all the time because of the way I cut through one piece of paper into another I use pins to locate the places in the photographs so I can bring the images together where I want them to come together.

{ AR } I agree with him about the fact that often it is the very small details in a photograph. For him it is like a wound or a puncture and although I am not working with photographs with a high emotional content in a certain way because I find that too oppressive, I am compressing, there is a lot of compression and by compression you are upping the tension in each photograph. It is like have two full bowls but somehow wanting both full bowls to be contained within another bowl the same size. I am sort of doing something impossible. So emotionally I feel that both images are already loaded but then I am crushing them together.

{ ARl } I sometime find this too potent and have started to create works where I keep the images separated which I often do now. So a very recent pieces would be this piece I have made as a semi permanent piece where the same woman, Marie Rambert, has taken the same pose at two times and in two locations. I could have cut them through each other but, not only would they not do it very well but at the moment I like finding space and having space in between so there is more air. Compressing two images can sometime feel quite airless.

{ LS } Artslant state that your “collages serve as a commentary on photography’s notion of the ideal perspective and the medium’s inability to operate without bias. The repetitious perspective in the found book pages confirms man’s conscious or subconscious impulse to represent place with strict precision.” (2009). With this in mind I wondered to what extent a photograph can be trusted as a true signifier for a specific memory of a specific place beyond the view of the photographer themselves?

{ AR } I am going to go to a work which explains this really easily. This is the first UNIVERSAL NOW that I ever cut (Tower Bridge 1946 / 1979 2004) which shows and 1946 image of Tower Bridge where the photographer has very definitely lined himself up with this man who is posing for the photograph, he is an industrial worker with his flat cap on actually sitting on a barge. So the whole story of Tower Bridge is about the Thames as an industrial powerhouse. In 1946 this was the might of London and still this productive, industrial centre and shows the Thames as a working river. And in 1979 which is the colour image going through, the photographer has lined it up with this navel war ship in front of the bridge. So two boats, one which is talking about London as a place of industry, which could be naval, and this one which is very much more specifically about the navy and the year thinking about the Falklands War and London as a military base in the late 70s. Centre of the military, navel force, Britannia rules the waves kind of thing. So what was interesting to me about putting these two images together was exactly that. Both photographers have an agenda which really clearly runs through. So they are not just taking a photo of Tower Bridge they are taking a photograph with a much wider socio political environment.

{ AR } Not all photographs do that so directly but I think all do it. Sometimes it is more latent and more supressed and I really like that. I want to be able to use the word objective but as soon as I do I have to steer away from it because of course there is no objective view.

{ AR } For me I am interested in the political, socio economic view, the photographs which are trying to speak about a whole community rather than an individual basically.

{ LS } Martin Clarke said that “like various neo-romantic artists such as Graham Sutherland, John Piper and
Paul Nash (you) use the British countryside
as a site for (your) exploration of past, present and future.” He then goes on to say that “like them, (you are) interested in the collapsing of histories onto place.” (2013). I am particularly interested in how history can be read, reread, written, rewritten and reinterpreted throughout time. How do you begin to unravel and understand the history of a specific image and a specific time?

{ AR } It is nearly all visual but of course I do take them all from books so the books are nearly all descriptive of the images. All of the images do come with a text and although a lot of it is to do with a visual reading I am also taking them out of a context where the basis of the information I need is always there. So for example with Chrysanthemum Field 2011 the image is Willington Dovecote. So in the 1937 book that I took this from it talks about the dovecot. It was build because Henry VIII was visiting the area and in order to be impressive there was this frantic building. SO this is a sort of relic of this feudal England and this really strange form that is took, really ridiculous folly of a dovecot but it represents something about the state of Britain the, what was valuable, what was important, what needed to be represented and for whom. And the image I cut in was the Isle of White festival and this comes with a series of text about the festival and the image.

{ AR } I always have text actually because of where I get them from but I don’t usually go too far. If I work with images like the one I showed you of Marie Rambert where I met the photographer, which hardly ever happens, I could have asked them but I don’t really know if I want to know.

{ AR } I think London is different because when I started making the UNIVERSAL NOW using monument of London I had been living in London for a very long time. And I cycle in London so I know London really well. If you cycle in London you are always amongst it and you join it up. You are always coming at monuments from different angles and you are at your own pace so you can stop and start. It is very different to experiencing London on foot, which is too slow for me, or on public transport where you cant call the shots, you are on these predetermined lines of inquiry or journey lines. So that is different.

{ AR } I made one piece of work (Kaisersaal 2009) where I used a photograph of the entrance hall at a Tudor stately home just outside of London (Hatfield House) and I decided to go there and I will never again because my whole interest is in the photograph of that room. When I entered that room I found it really flat. All the detail and interest and absorption for me was in the photograph which had been taken in that room. And the room itself was meaningless to me. Afterwards, when I had been and had walked into the room and found it so disappointing I thought, well of course that is true because in the works that I am making I am living in the photograph, and the subject of the photograph isn’t really the interest for me. This image of this place and also the moment and the way it has been reproduced and the colour saturation and perspective which has been used.

{ AR } Also the way I work with photographs, because I split them up and because of the way I frame the image I am always pointing the viewer to specific formal aspects of the image and the detail there. For example this is a piece I am working on at the minute using images from the Guardian archive which shows a line of people used in a news story about some huge weather disruption, so all these people are queuing to get a boat into London because they cant use the roads. And this is a plane which has crashed into the banks of the M1 in 1989 so I am thinking about the two lines.

{ AR } In this image which is one of the Interiors, there are five images which I have collapsed together. And I have not made these for a long time as they get really really dense. But when I cut these up I am isolating details. For example in this piece called Life after Death (2010) the person who had their house photographed left this book clearly on the table called Life after Death and I have cut it with this floating face which starts to occupy the rom. So by the way I fracture the images up I think the view has to puzzle them back together so you use a different sort of look. And in fact because the details are isolated from one another you really do see them as themselves and then have to piece them back together as part of a whole.

{ LS } So you are relying on the viewer to be a participant?

{ AR} Yes. I give them a lot of work to do.

{ LS } How do you view the relative positivity or negativity in an image and do you think this is, in some way, affected by your own personal ideals, ethics and experience?

{ AR } I suppose it is most obvious with the works that I call Land. I would say that I definitely bring all my own values to my work and my own sense of what is of interest and what is of value and what is not, but I think my values will be shared by the kind of people who go to art galleries who are unfortunately reasonably narrow. I would say I am neo liberal, new romantic feminist and I think most of the people looking at the work are too probably. My values are not going to be surprising to anyone who is looking at the work and I also don’t think they need really stating so I sort of oppress them. In fact I never actually think about them.

{ AR } There are a lot of image which I find hard to use. In fact I have a lot of images of Aberfan which is a colliery disaster where there was a huge slag heap built up above Aberfan and one of them collapsed on top of a school and killed all the children. It is like a revenge of landscape and it killed all the children in one year. And I cant use images of it because find it too strong and I am very aware that there are people living who remember Aberfan and people living who had children who died at Aberfan. If that disaster had happened in Brazil then maybe I could work with it but I feel that it is too potent still for me to work with and what it means is there is no other image which I could put with it that would sit flat with it. Like the valency of two images need to be similar for me to be able to put them together and I have not got anything similar. So I cannot work with images of Aberfan. Maybe something will change and I will but I am very aware of it being an emotional register in an image for me and probably the viewer and that has to somehow be balanced up.

{ LS } There are certain images as well that people just don’t want to look at and this is something which I have been finding in architectural examples. How do you draw the line between depicting history and depicting horror?

{ AR } I made a piece of work in a series called TRANSPOSED, called Berghof (2010) bacuase it is Hitler’s house. It is made form a book page where I have cut the page down the middle and swapped the sides. I can do this because in Hitler’s hallway there are two doors, one on either side of the portrait. So in the original photograph the doors were on the outside and in the centre of the photograph was Hilter’s self portrait above a chest of drawers. So if I put them back together you get a door that you cant open. So for me this is a piece about this very potent space which is very strong which is quite unusual for me as I never normally work with these sorts of images. It was just the fact that I could cut it in half, cut his face in half and then bring the door back together to make a door that wont open either way. It was something about that time and that stuck door that makes something quite grotesque and broken in the middle and you know it is not going to open this way or that way. So that is a very strong image which was actually bought by a Jewish lady in New York. But that is unusual for me because it is so potent. The intervention I have made is so simple probably because the image is so potent. You don’t need to know anymore. You probably don’t really need to know that this is the Berghof because anyone displaying an image of Hitler in their hallway is already way up on the valency of disturbing sensibility so I do something very simple to it. My feelings are there but they are sort of everybody’s. They are how we feel about Hitler at this point in history now. 

{ LS } Do you think there is an importance in exposing the inherent negativity in certain historical events? Is this something you seek out when choosing an agenda or simply a bi product of some of the images which you have used in your work?

{ AR } I think for me what is important is that, you asked before what attracts me to an image, and I think that partly I am attracted to images where I don’t really know what I think about them but I know I feel something about them. With the Crash Barrier (Twyford) 2012 image {Mies Van Der Rohe Tugendhat House spliced with an image from the Road Protest at Stanworth Valley} I want to put myself with the road protestors, with the people who were prepared to stand up for the landscape. Standing against progress in the form of the motorway but I drive to London and I drive on the Indian Queens Bypass. I use those roads all the time and I use it because I want to get from here to London as quickly as possible and I don’t want to fly. When I drive I am the baddie, I am the person who wanted to bypass to be created. But I am also aware that it is very complication, the bypass allows people who live in villages to not be choked up by traffic and to be able to live their lives properly. So it is compleication and I don’t know.

{ AR } I don’t protest myself and partly that is because I kind of don’t believe it is a effective way of adversary and yet I am very attracted to the idea of protest and am very touched by it emotionally. So I am mostly attracted to images where a feel a quite complex set of emotional and intellectual responses to that image. It is not very clean for me. Therefore I am working with a tension in myself. In terms of the Tugendhat House I love modernist architecture and I find it extremely attractive but it is part of this modernity, it is part of the car, and the history of modern art and all the politics of today.

{ AR } There is nothing simple. There are no simple photographs but I think nostalgia often renders things simple when they aren’t. A lot of people are nostalgic for the road protests and certainly a lot of people who were there but they have risen them up and tidied them up and I don’t want to do that. I want to keep it in all of its irreconcilability and spikey complexity and to leave it there. And I think that is why I like using the original source and why I often leave the text off. And try and leave it in its moment in time when it wasn’t nostalgic, when it wasn’t tidied up and hen it was a live issue and I don’t think there is a final decision on what that moment in history means and what we think about it now. It is constantly under debate.

{ AR } When I printed this booklet I sent one to the photographer for the Stanworth Valley image because I wanted t see what he thought of this, because I hadn’t asked him, I didn’t seek position. I thought he could possibly hate it and find it quite offensive, that I am recontextualising his photograph of a moment when he was there, he was there with this dead dog and I am putting it together with something that I find meaningful. And he really liked it because for him this is a moment in news where for him, the image gets printed one day in the Guardian and then it is just consigned to the dustbin of history, with all that other stuff that we don’t really care about. But it is bringing it back into a wider context of things that we are still thinking about and which do still have relevance. They are not finished, like the dustbin of history is not actually a dustbin.

{ LS } That links in well with how people might feel in a building as well. In the book by HG Merz on the remodelling of the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in Berlin the forward is written by one of the survivors of the camp who had been invited back for the opening of the museum in 2007. It is interesting to hear from someone who was actually connected to this history and it all comes back to time again. How soon after. How close to home. How it makes us feel is all rolled into how you reuse. 

{ LS } Finally, I have been reading a text recently entitled ‘Old Buildings as Palimpsest’ by Rodolfo Machado which looks at the writing and rewriting of a building over time. He states that “remodelling is a process of providing a balance between the past and the future. In the process of remodelling the past takes on greater significance because it, itself, is the material to be altered and reshaped. The past provides the already written, the marked ‘canvas’ on which each successive remodelling will find its own place. Thus the past becomes a ‘package of sense’ of built up meaning to be accepted (maintained), transformed or supressed (refused).” (1976 : 27). Do you see the works you create as a new layer of history and meaning for the images which you rewrite?

{ AR } Yes and that is why I wanted to produce them in a format (for ‘The British Countryside in Pictures’ booklet 2013) where they could come away in two. They are just in this flow. I am putting them together in this moment because it makes sense to me know but later it might be different but the fact that all the pages in these books are sort of free flowing they are own there own trajectories and there is no final reading. That is a kind of obvious thing to say but I feel that paper is a sort of ephemeral material and I am stilling them and cutting them which is sometimes problematic to me.

{ AR } I think that a key thing that happened to me is was that I used to spend a lot of time in Albuquerque in New Mexico. And in Albuquerque there is only one layer of history. Because it is built in a desert there is no rust. When somebody abandons a car, it just stays there. And there is tonnes of land so there is no reason to over write there is no reason to knock a building down to rebuild because they just build it next to it and it just keeps going on and on and on. And in my experience of coming back to London after spending a period of some months in Albuquerque made me so aware of how every square millimetre of London have been over written, over written, over written and reshaped and retiled and repositioned and how dense it is an experience. Quite overwhelmingly dense.

{ AR } And how that is what I know, I am British and that is what I know. A sense of the landscape and the urbanscape being the accretion, this massive accretion of time that you cannot possibly really understand but that is just normal. And I didn’t really understand that until I had been away from it to somewhere like Albuquerque where there isn’t that sense of time and they have a very binary sense of time, whereas we have not had a revolution it has just always been this continuous line. There has never rally been any breakage in our history and that is what I am used to. I think that is the base level that I work with and take for granted sometimes. I can I can just embrace that and work within it as a given.

{ LS } I do quite like the word Palimpsest as it has that sense of physically having to scratch away in order to do something else and it fits well with both your work and that of an architect reusing a building.

{ AR} Yes and working literally from the same ground and how even when you have scratched it you cant erase it, it is a visible thing.