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Transcript and Review: When artists get it ‘wrong’

Artist Anna Walker shares an account of her event as part of the Research Network: Duties of Self-Care series

The evening was a rich and fruitful discussion about the role of the artist, and their responsibility when making work about trauma. The two artworks presented seemed to be well received and stimulated an interesting dialogue about appropriation, accountability and the embodiment of trauma.

I’ve recently been reading ‘Matters of Care’ (2017), in which Maria Puig de la Bellacasa attempts to ‘treat haptic technologies as matters of care, and in doing so continues unpacking and co-shaping a notion of care in more than human worlds’ (p.95). This notion of the haptic is an important component of the artwork I make. My intention, in ‘Six Fragments’ was to impart the experience of trauma from my body, to technology and an audience; to research the transmission of ‘affect’ and elucidate on my desire for the work to ‘touch’ people. This, I argue, in itself suggests a level of care. For example, ‘Breathe Wind Into Me Chapter 1’, (the second film presented) is a communicating and sharing of the breath, my breath with an audience through technology.

I remember the evening as follows:

Tonight, I’m going to show you 2 artworks each part of larger projects. The first is 3 sound and moving pieces from ‘Six Fragments’, part of PhD research in which I explored the meeting place of trauma and memory. The second is new work, ‘Breathe Wind Into Me, Chapter 1,’ which was recently shown with Chapter 2 as an installation at Fabrica Gallery, Brighton as part of the Making Space programme.

The first moving imagery art work I want to present—Falling—is just, 1:12 minutes sandwiched between 2 sounds pieces, ‘These are my Mountains’, and ‘Walk’.

Briefly, let me give you the background of this work. In the second year of my PhD research, I attended a lecture at Plymouth University. Salome Voegelin gave a talk on dissonance and noise. She played a sound piece by Merzbow, a Japanese Sound Musician. It was extremely loud and filled the auditorium. I had a flashback of the World Trade Center falling. I should say here that I used to live in New York, not far from where the towers used to be. I was part of the clean-up crew and should have been there on 9/11. But at the last minute my plans changed. So, there I am 11 years later hearing the towers fall for the first time. Such an experience changed the direction of my research and I became really interested in what we keep hidden, even from ourselves, until we are ‘ready’ to process or bring into consciousness the traumatic event and file it to memory.

After, I went in search of the noise of the towers falling in an effort to lay something to rest. The sounds and imagery you are about to see were the culmination of this research. In 2015, at a workshop in Berlin, I presented the work to PhD researchers and showed them ‘Falling’. There were 3 Americans in the group, none of them were in New York on the day, but all were offended by my presentation. I was accused of irresponsibility and failing to maintain an ‘artistic code of conduct’. Too shocked to explore the remark in situ, I mumbled a somewhat shameful response before being saved by a fellow artist that took umbrage on my behalf.

After this dialogue, I was intrigued by the notion of the ownership of collective trauma, who gets the right to research it, represent it, discuss it, and how do we have discussions about difficult and/or traumatic situations.

Just before we start, I should state—both of the artworks you are about to see were made for exhibiting on large screens with stereo/ surround sound. I was interested in the affect, how an audience interacts with the work. I wanted to transmit something of what I had experienced on an affect level. So, the work was made to sit in, surround and immerse you in the experience. Obviously, you will not be able to participate in the work on this level, but hopefully you will get a sense of my intention.

Play first clip of film ‘Six Fragments’

Before, during and after 9/11, I kept a journal and didn’t open the journal again until starting the research in 2012. The research was a deconstruction of my memory and the memories held in the journal, I wanted to go deeper into it, pulling back the layers and breaking it apart so I could understand what had taken place, how and why I responded the way that I did, and what I could do to now manage the situation.

Are there any questions about ‘Six Fragments’?

Where was all the footage from?

YouTube. I looked at hundreds of hours of footage and filmed it with a macro lens close to the computer screen, capturing the digital ‘grain’ and my reflection on the computer screen. I was deconstructing the imagery as a form of investigation. The pixelated grid of the footage became a holding space, a symbolic gesture to manage my relationship to the explosiveness of the footage. The actual footage from Falling was taken from Joseph Kittinger’s Space Jump on August 16, 1960.

I am Interested into the aspect of layering between female voice (song) and male voice (air traffic controllers)

The female voice is mine and the song was one my mom used to sing when I was a child. The song captured her desire as a migrant to return to her notion of home. I layered it into this track because it captured for me a ghostly presence. In the twenty years I lived in New York my mom came to see me only once. We visited the Towers and stood on the viewing deck. For some reason she softly hummed this song and the memory stayed with me. So, it’s my memorial to the dead. The male voices are those of the traffic controllers who were working on the September 11th. They, like me at the time, were trying to understand what was taking place. I wanted to capture how surreal the events of the day were from both the inside and out.

Play second clip of film ‘Breathe Wind Into Me, Chapter 1′

Are there any further questions?

Can you say more about your concept of embodiment and technology?

As I mentioned earlier, both films were made to be screened in a large space with stereo and/or surround sound. The first film was shown in a cinema, so the imagery was as big as this wall and you sat IN it, so the audience became part of the work. My intention was to impart on a physical and emotional level what it was to have lived through such an event, a transference of the ‘affect’ of trauma. The technology was/is an important component of this transference.

The second film was part of a 2-screen installation, recently exhibited at Fabrica Gallery in Brighton, as part of the Making Space. The screens were positioned at either end of the darkened gallery with speakers position down one side of the space.

For both projects my intention was to impart through the film, my embodied experience and making  to the audience.

Do you feel responsible?

I’ve thought a lot about the conversation about my work in Berlin, and my responsibility as an artist. When I trained to be a psychotherapist, I took a vow to do no harm. I didn’t take that vow as an artist. In fact, it’s important for me that there’s the freedom to make work whatever the consequences and/or response of the audience. Working with clients one-to-one or in workshops, you have a sense of what ‘harm’ is and how to contain and/or hold it. As an artist I have no control over how an audience responds to the work, what one member of the audience may or may not find traumatic will be different from another. I don’t make work to deliberately traumatise anybody, but I do make work to understand trauma and understand how my body responds to traumatic events. I can only speak for myself, I can’t speak for any other artist and there are those who deliberately make work to incite conflict, but that’s not how I operate. I do believe that artists can create forums to hold conversations about difficult issues.

Concept of ownership and appropriation, can you say more?

This question came up in my PhD VIVA and I still feel the same way now about using YouTube footage. It didn’t feel like appropriation because these were my memories, footage of my experiences. Filming it with a macro lens for this project was an attempt to reframe the event, which I saw as a necessary process to making this work. I was collecting the views from all these different witnesses to find my own version of events and locate myself within the collective trauma.

I do like this idea of appropriation of cultural and collective fragments, a kind of recycling, when there is so much imagery already in existence. I use YouTube and found footage all the time. Like a cultural magpie.

Can you say something about the footage of the second film, is it all found? And what was your reasoning for the juxtaposition of film next to the closeups of the beating heart etc.?

I filmed all of the footage for second film, which I collected over the past 18 months. The footage of the lungs and hearts were filmed once again using a macro lens. I spend so much time at the computer editing and filming, that I wanted to make a direct link to the computer and what I was looking at. I also wanted to interrupt the film footage with animation, and close ups of the lungs. It was a way of connecting the footage to a medical perspective.

Do you get enjoyment over one aspect more than the other?

I’m not sure I’d use the word enjoyment, perhaps the word is pleasure. It’s a more complex word with many layers. And I find all aspects of the work pleasurable.

What are your plans for the future?

I planned for ‘Breathe Wind Into Me’ to be made up of 3 Chapters: The Breathe, The Word, and The Poem, but I think this might extend to a lot more than that, I like how it’s unfolding.

Further reading:

Donna J. Haraway, (2016) ‘Staying with the Trouble, Making Kin in the Chthulucene’, Duke University Press.

Maria Puig de la Bellacas, (2017) ‘Matters of Care, Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds’,University of Minnesota.


Video credit: Anna Walker. Clip of film 'Six Fragments' and 'Breathe Wind into Me, Chapter 1'.