Video art has suddenly become ubiquitous. Thought experimental just a few years ago, video is now regarded as just another art-making tool by a generation of artists raised on televisions, VCRs and camcorders. Their output is so varied that one can no more make generalizations about video art than one can about photography.
Indeed Gillian Wearing’s art casts doubt on the efficacy of most assumptions we make. When she was nominated for England’s prestigious Turner Prize, the judges described her work as “confessional art in which she persuades her fellow citizens to reveal their most secret thoughts and desires.” “Persuades” was too strong a word—“permits” might have been better. Influenced by vox populi television documentaries, Wearing has asked people encountered on the streets to scribble their immediate thoughts for posterity, plumbed the depths of a relationship between a mother and her sons, and interviewed children about their innermost joys and fears. To encourage intimate disclosure, Wearing has offered concealment to her most recent subjects. By disguising identity, she locates an uneasy disjunction between facades of normality and inner worlds that don’t quite fit those facades. The 34-year old artist also undercuts popular assumptions about young British artists: as her American debut at Jay Gorney Modern Art last fall made evident, Wearing is more interested in disquietude than shock value.
We spoke by phone shortly after Wearing was named winner of the Turner Prize, only the second woman so honored. Suddenly the subject of intense media interest, she was at home in Southeast London between taping interviews with the BBC (ironically, this time Wearing was the subject of a documentary) and installing a new show in Japan.
Grady Turner Congratulations on the Turner Prize. That must have a great impact on your life.
Gillian Wearing It’s such a huge prize, and it’s a live broadcast with all this media attention. It’s hard to ignore.
GT There’s even betting on which nominee will win.
GW People were coming up to me about a month before, saying, “I put twenty quid on you, so you’d better win.”
GT Did the media coverage focus on potentially scandalous details, like the naked dwarf in your video 10-16?
GW When I was nominated, that photograph from 10-16 went out. I’d only recently exhibited that video. But people got this image on their desk and said, “This is what Gillian Wearing has been nominated for? Why is this art?”, without looking at the video or knowing the context. 10-16 has adult actors lip-synching to recorded remarks by children, and one of the actors happened to be a dwarf. Tabloids make things into one-liners to shock people and make it provocative. The Turner Prize makes people run in all different directions anyway, looking for things. It’s as if people are looking at you through a microscope.
GT People talk about your work in the context of confessional television programs, like Oprah Winfrey. I guess one could look at the content of your work and say that it’s not alien to the interests of tabloids.
GW Yeah, but the tabloids don’t go to the art shows. When I was nominated for the Turner a lot of people hadn’t seen my work. They read that I did confessional work. And when they heard that people wear masks in the Confessions tape, the tabloids insinuated that I was getting people to make smutty comments under cover of the masks. That sounds as if eliciting smutty remarks had been my intention. It’s all very twisted. I elicited people’s confessions but I didn’t know what they were going to say. I didn’t know their remarks would be so sexually orientated.
GT Video is so difficult to reproduce out of context. It’s easy to misrepresent it.
GW The tabloids are always about misrepresentation and ambiguous headlines. That’s the way they’re used to conducting business.
GT Was much made of the fact that the four finalists for the Turner Prize were women?
GW Quite a lot, at the beginning. But as soon as the work went up, that diminished. Because what mattered was the work. What is so special about gender? All of us have been working for years as artists and it’s never been a problem when we were put into group shows… Of course we’re also called the YBA’s, the Young British Artists, as if everyone’s the same and we’ve got the same thoughts. Those things don’t occur to me when I’m making my art. I’m an individual, and I actually don’t discuss my work with any artists. I have friends who are artists, but my work is something I have always kept quiet.
GT You don’t really talk to other artists about your work?
GW Say I’ve got an idea in my head and I’m about to pursue it…I’d never discuss it. I’ve always been quite a secretive person, that’s just the way I operate. Privacy is my modus operandi. I’d like to think that art is something idiosyncratic. If you start talking to other artists, you start picking up the way they do things. You might drop the train of what really keeps you idiosyncratic.
GT Yet film and video can be so collaborative. One can write or paint alone in a studio, but as a video artist you rely on the co-operation of actors and interview subjects, so others are involved in the process.
GW What do you mean?
GT I mean it’s not work you can do entirely in isolation.
GW You can’t just be in your head. You do rely on others, but I’m not working in the corporate film world with big crews and lots of producers pressuring me. I work in a much smaller way. I don’t have anyone telling me that I can’t do this or that.
GT When you tape interviews are you alone with your subjects?
GW When I tape interviews I am—but not always when I’m filming a scenario. I sometimes have a camera person, because I find it very difficult to direct if I’ve got technical worries. I don’t want to get bogged down with the camera. It stops me from trying to fill out what the people in front of the camera are doing. I still do all the editing.
GT Let’s talk about the video 10-16. It must have been a challenging piece. You recorded interviews with seven children between the ages of 10 and 16, then taped middle-aged actors lip synching the children’s voices. The children’s faces were not seen. The voice of a 10-year old boy describing his treehouse came from the mouth of a man reclining on a couch. A woman sitting primly on a bed mimics a 12-year old girl who has “no worries, really”—except abortion. A 13-year old boy plotting the demise of his lesbian mother and her lover is portrayed by a naked dwarf in a bathtub… The final interview comes from a businessman who painfully relates a 16-year old’s sexual confusion and self-loathing.
How did you find children to interview? How were the interviews conducted? In your relationship with the subject you’re filming, there’s clearly some measure of trust; these children confide things to you that perhaps they don’t tell other people. As I was preparing to do this interview I thought, here’s an interesting quandary, I’m interviewing someone who is such a skilled interviewer. Let’s talk about your process in putting 10-16 together.
GW It took me quite a few months to get the right age ranges. It’s very hard to interview young children, because they’ve got a lot of peer pressure. They want to make sure they’ve said the same things as their friends, or believe the same things as their friends. They’re scared of being different. They’re all at school and they’ve all been processed through the same system. I was trying to find lots of individual voices that came from a child’s point of view, but at the same time had very particular things going on in their lives. I wandered around the streets asking children, or asking their parents, if I could talk to them. I had found it quite hard to get a 16-year old, and then this boy came along and made the piece. Really, it was about him. At 16, he’s just realizing that he’s an adult and his body has become this mask. He’s also realized that he’s innocent. You still get captured innocence throughout 10-16. You can feel adolescence creeping through those years. It reaches its pinnacle at 16, at that point you first feel the adult. When people first saw the piece, they didn’t realize that adult actors were lip synching children’s voices. They thought there was a problem with the audio. They were saying, “Why is that man saying those things about his sexuality?”
GT You talked to kids you encountered on the street. Did you also work through schools?
GW People get a bit wary of you when you approach children, and I understand why. I was going through one school, and then all of a sudden, the teachers said, “No, you can’t.” If the children were young, I’d ask the parents if I could interview them. With the older ones, sometimes the parents didn’t know because I thought they were mature enough not to have to ask. It’s a great responsibility when you’re asking children about themselves. You feel the weight of your power as an adult. Their identities are protected by the fact that you don’t see their faces in the video itself. And so they become anonymous. Obviously, I’ve had a lot of press on me, and the children realize that people have been talking about them within the art gallery context, which they’ve all accepted. But they fear being on television, given the way television exposes people. I always reassure my subjects that I never give anything away. I don’t even know the 16-year old’s telephone number or his real name, he gave me a pseudonym. I had to reassure him that in the future I wouldn’t recognize him on the street.
GT So he created his own mask to protect himself from you. But you have taken on a certain responsibility as his confessor. You know things about him that he felt a need to tell. You now hold his secrets.
GW Yes, but I don’t have any access to him. As the years go by that voice remains in the piece, but the person goes on. We all have secrets, we all have things that we contain within our lives. He’ll be a very different person in the years to come. The one thing I found with the work I’ve done is that when problems start young, they do affect you for the rest of your life. That was the point I was trying to make in 10-16: Childhood is where the biggest problems happen.
In one of my other tapes, Confessions, I actually advertised in Time Out: “Confess all on video. Interested?” I put those who came forward in masks, to protect their anonymity. One of my confessor’s foremost memories as a 16-year old was watching his sister and brother kissing. His whole sexual life has revolved around this memory. Now he’s a 36-year old virgin. He visualizes his sister when he wants to kiss someone. It’s very difficult for him. He confessed this on the video because he wanted someone to say he was absolutely normal, and he didn’t have to worry, that everyone does that.
GT It’s very similar to what the 16-year old was saying, as he sorted out what is uniquely his own experience and what is the experience of being an adolescent.
GW Most people don’t start analyzing at that age, so the 16-year old is very mature in that sense. But that maturity was holding him back. When I was young, I was just stumbling into things, whether they worked out or not. You stumble in and then you learn through experience. He was analyzing but not prepared to experience things because he was so worried.
GT The 36-year old man’s identity is protected in Confessions in a straightforward way; he wears a mask. 10-16 was more scripted, more produced. You matched actors with edited tapes of the children’s confidences. As you conducted these interviews, did you plan to use adult faces for the children’s voices?
GW Yes. I didn’t want straightforward documentary. In Confessions, the mask changed the overall effect of the confessor. The mask was a facade behind which people felt protected, people were more honest because of the veiling. In 10-16 the masking wasn’t just about protection, but about those feelings that you have when you’re young. You never lose those doubts. They inhabit your body forever. We see our bodies as vessels, and what goes on inside is often much more complex and complicated, that disparity between the look of a person and the things going on inside is what I wanted to bring out in that piece. Nietzsche said something to the effect of, “Adults and children have more in common than adults and adolescents.” There’s a whole story between what they’re saying and what they look like. Adults and children are more independently-minded. In the 10-year old it’s all about optimism. His stream of consciousness about his treehouse, and his joy of life—you know some of that will be knocked out of him in the next few years. Little children, mentally, are going through the world and finding things out. Adolescents have a lot of peer pressure. They take on their parents’ judgments, and have all these influences hitting them at once.
GT Adolescents were included in one of your earliest documentary projects, Signs That Say What You Want Them To Say And Not Signs That Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say. For this project you asked people you encountered in the streets to write down their thoughts on paper, then you photographed them holding the sign. Some of the adult responses were surprising, like the conservative young businessman who holds a sign reading, “I’m desperate.” But the teenagers’ signs seemed to be an extension of their self-image. Two boys wearing Guns N’ Roses T-shirts held signs saying, “Guns N’ Roses, Fuckin’ Excellent!” They were of one mind about the subject.
GW I remember my own teenage years. The only thing I cared about was what I dressed like, and going to the right parties and clubs. We all go through that same funnel. It’s very hard to break away. And also, you haven’t done anything with your life yet, so you’ve all got the same experiences and you’ve yet to find out who you really are.
GT What types of documentaries have most influenced your work?
GW I was brought up with those fly-on-the-wall television documentaries from the ‘70s, like Paul Watson and Franc Roddam’s The Family (1974). It was more exciting then because it felt like a new medium. I didn’t know they were going to eventually influence me. But I was very addicted to them. Michael Apted’s 7-Up series—he interviewed a group of children (now adults) every seven years. Watching it, you could see what life was like, being slightly removed from it and having it change within the television set. When you’re in life, when you’re with your friends, you don’t notice those moments, you don’t articulate them. But those documentaries allowed me to see things in a new way, small things in the way people behave, details that probably weren’t considered important at the time.
GT It sounds like you think more about documentary television and film than documentary photography.
GW Yeah, I’ve never really had any direct influence from photography, although I do like looking at documentary photography. People said to me, “You should look at August Sander and Diane Arbus.” And so I did, and I found their work amazing. But I was influenced subconsciously by the documentaries on English television. They hung around in my memory. I had an emotional response to them and I’m still trying to grapple with that. Those documentaries were quite intimate family sketches. Maybe I saw things that would not be allowed on television under other circumstances. Today everyone has a go at it, they all own camcorders and cameras, people are more aware of their behavior and more self-conscious. It would be much harder to catch that intimacy today.
GT You say you found Sander and Arbus amazing. Did their photographs have the kind of intimacy or reality you saw in television documentaries?
GW You have to be careful with that word, real. The classic argument in photography, one which has been going on since photography began is: What is the truth? I believe that all you can say is what you prefer or what you like, because the camera lies. When August Sander was taking those photographs of manual workers… Why do we think there is more truth in a photograph because it’s historical? Photographers set up things then as well. Even in documentary photography, those photographers were creative with their trade. People weren’t haphazardly put in front of cameras. The compositions are very powerful. These people were artists, they didn’t see themselves as straightforward, technical camera people.
GT This gets into that very interesting area of your work, the distinction between art and documentary. Maybe one becomes aware of the staging in an August Sander or Jacob Riis, but one is immediately hit with it in your work.
GW The most straightforward photographs I’ve ever done were the first ones, Signs That Say What You Want Them To Say. Those photographs were a simple collusion between the people and what they wrote on those pieces of paper. The photographs were done very quickly. The people were photographed as they were in the street, there was no consideration of how they should stand and how they should look. I was so nervous that I had even gotten these people to do this while other pedestrians were walking around, and I hoped they wouldn’t feel too embarrassed. But in the work I have done since, I have become more aware of the elements, those moments, and it shows.
GT This earlier period in your work of a chance encounter with the subject shifts in your later work, like 10-16 and Confessions, to in-depth interviewing of subjects you have found in advance of the interview. The later works introduce the protection of identity, with secret identities and masks. When did this happen?
GW It was in 1994. I wanted to do things more in-depth. There’s this spontaneous moment where you catch people and they’re not prepared, so you yourself are not preparing for everything. They can be natural in that context. But when people answered my advertisements for Confessions, I noticed that they had taken time to mull over what they were going to say. One or two actually brought pieces of paper to prompt themselves. Things were set up, and it was more ambiguous—that is where the art or the fiction came in.
GT This is where your work began to differ from traditional documentary photography. There’s more engagement with the subject, in bringing out the story of the people you’re talking to.
GW I had been heading that way anyway. I started the documentary-type work because I wanted to get to know people. I wanted to get into their heads. The chance encounter was the first way of talking to strangers, having that brief moment. I wanted to see if I would make something that could stretch that—which becomes more difficult because trust becomes important. On both sides, you have to establish a trust. And you have to meet people who are open to that, and that becomes harder. But going from photography to video was natural because the photographs were like talking images anyway. It made more sense to have them speaking to a video camera rather than holding up pieces of paper. I wanted to do something in that gray area of filmmaking—having stories and slight narratives with real people. I wouldn’t know how to sum the works up because I don’t want to think that I can so neatly sum them up. I’m trying to articulate things in new ways, really, and film is the medium that I feel most natural with.
GT For 2 in to 1 you interviewed a mother and then her two sons separately about their relationships with each other. What you showed was a video of the mother lip synching her son’s responses and the boys mouthed their mother’s responses. Originally, these were private conversations with you, and one senses that they told you things they would never say directly to one another. The brothers said cruel things about their mother. It was devastating to watch the mother repeat her son’s description of her as a failure, then hear her voice coming from her son’s mouth agreeing with that assessment.
GW Yeah, it’s a difficult thing to undertake. I think with profound relationships it does become all mixed in, things do get complicated and entangled. The boys are picking up opinions from their father—they’re very astute boys, incredibly bright. I think that tape is a bigger metaphor for what relationships are like in general. When I took the transcribed text back to the family for them to learn each other’s parts, I thought they were going to say, “No.” I was lucky they were such an honest family. I come from a much more reserved background, where we weren’t allowed to say intimate things about each other to strangers. I can’t do that family justice when you think about it. But putting each other’s words in their mouths said so much more about how complicated and also contradictory, how filled with love and hate relationships are.
GT The mother and her sons tended to couch their criticisms of one another in praise. This comes from their affection for one another. That’s different from 10-16, where the actors performing the lip-synching know the subjects only as a voice on tape. They bring their own memories of childhood and their abilities as actors to the experience. Were they actually professional actors?
GW Yeah. When I was looking for the actors, I was looking for their particular faces. I had done some auditions—many actors turned it down because of the content. They found that the words of these children were very difficult to rehearse. I was looking for a gentleman-type person to play the 16-year old. When the actor walked through the door for the audition I thought, Yes! Something about the way he walked in, how serious he looked, I knew he could carry it off. He said that he would play the tape of the 16-year old boy speaking and then he would cry about recording his piece.
GT Working with the actors put you in the position of a director, an entirely different role than your interviews with children. How did you rehearse actors? What was your directorial process?
GW Many of the actors found it hard to lip sync children’s voices. Some off them had done voice-overs, but that’s not what I wanted. You have to be very well paced. I did a lot of rehearsals, and it was quite frantic. It was very, very difficult. I don’t find directing natural. I thought it would be easier with actors because they can be instructed, but it’s still a complicated, technical process. Every vignette took a whole day’s shooting. They were forever dropping words, or saying it wrong…
GT Why did you cast Gary, the dwarf, as the 13-year old boy who despised his lesbian mother?
GW When Gary came along, we were trying out different things, and with him, the child’s narrative flows, it’s got a beginning, middle and end. He’s telling you this story. It was already surreal, but with Gary—an adult the size of a child… It caused a lot of talk in England.
GT Can you talk about putting yourself in the role of the performer, as in Dancing in Peckham?
GW The model for that video was a woman dancing with a jazz band at the Royal Festival Hall. She was dancing completely out of sync to the music, but there was something so seductive about it. I admired that she could be so involved in her own world. Everyone else was fixated on her rather than the jazz band. It was as if she were on the wrong stage, or in for the wrong part…it didn’t seem to relate at all.
It’s quite idiosyncratic for me to dance wildly anyway. Everyone says I never talk at parties, I only want to dance, so there was something of me in her. If there’s any kind of wild abandon in me, if I ever lose any of my inhibitions, it’s in dancing. So I was attracted to her for these things I know about myself. She gave me this idea of dancing in the wrong place at the wrong time. I decided it should be in a shopping mall. It comes again to our bodies as masks. We go through society knowing how we should fit in, how to walk down the street, how we should behave—you know how everyone acts toward people talking to themselves. All of these conformities pile on top of you, and you want this other side of life, to do that once in your life, to get over your inhibitions. I’m just seduced by people who are able to do that. I stopped myself from asking her to dance on camera because I thought it would have been patronizing, really. You have to draw the line somewhere. So I had to do the dancing on tape myself. Plus I enjoyed doing it. I couldn’t bear looking at it for a couple of years, but now I don’t mind it. It feels quite good.
GT You memorized popular songs, then danced without music to them playing in your memory. It really was difficult to watch. It seemed that you weren’t enjoying it, it seemed unpleasant to have to do, like an endurance. I just kept wishing the song would be over.
GW There were several songs. Michael Jackson, Nirvana, Gloria Gaynor, Queen…it went on for 25 minutes.
GT Mall security didn’t walk over and send you out?
GW Security guards were only present at the beginning and at a distance, to make sure I didn’t do anything to put the shopping center into disrepute. And in Homage To The Women With The Bandaged Face I Saw Yesterday Down Walworth Road I was quite seduced—that’s the only word I can think of—by another one of those wonderful moments, where someone takes you by surprise with their behavior. It’s not unruly behavior or nasty behavior, it’s just not blending in, shall we say. I saw a bandaged woman, she was with a friend, and to this day I can’t work out if they had bandaged her face for fun, or if her face was damaged, or if she was just eccentric. I wouldn’t want to try to decode it because the glory is in the story not being completely told. I’m not into nicely finished-up stories. I put myself in that position—I’m the one that was not blending in this time, people were looking at me oddly. I wanted to work out some of those feelings and fears from my point of view.
GT You walked down the street with a bandaged face, holding the video camera to get the responses to you from passersby. The only person who spoke to you was a mechanic who intended to mock you, but backed off as he got closer. You seemed disappointed when he failed to confront you.
GW When he came close, I kept this veil of silence. I wasn’t going to give anything away, and that disconcerted him.
GT Of course you also had the control of the camera which may have intimidated him.
GW Yeah, maybe. But he did have his friends around. It had more to do with that sense of bravado, whether he could turn a situation around or not. He wasn’t prepared to try because I think he thought it might not have worked. It was my silence. What people fear more than anything is silence. Quiet makes people very defensive, doesn’t it? They’re offended by it. But obviously, the bandage on my face looked quite bizarre, anyway.
GT Looking back over your earlier work, there are often situations where people are so engaged with their private worlds that their public actions seem ludicrous.
GW It feels like a split personality, doesn’t it? It is really hard for me to analyze this disjuncture of the senses. But those are relations that go through my work. Everything is dislodged and slightly off kilter. I’m deeply interested in people, that’s the crux of all my work. And I’m interested in documentary, and other, more subliminal threads that do keep on popping up in other guises. A lot of my ideas mull around for years, I think about things for two or three years before I even get to them as art pieces.
—Grady T. Turner is Curator of Education at The New-York Historical Society. His art criticism appears regularly in Art in America, ARTnews, and Flash Art.