As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
Technological distortion, motherhood, and painterly approaches to video.
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
Laura Buckley describes her video installations as “painting with light,” her work variously playing with music, rotating mirrors, and multiple projectors, wires laying bare on the floor, displaying her means of construction. Her use of video blends analogue, abstract, and painterly forms along with homemade footage, shot on phone and video camera, purposefully incorporating the everyday. Glimpses of her children sometimes appear, fusing her life and work.
Buckley is currently shortlisted for the Jarman Award, and her nominated piece, The Magic Know-How (2013), is currently on tour across Britain before being shown internationally by the British Council. The award’s winner will be announced in December. I caught up with her to find out more about her process, and the experience of being an artist and mother in London.
Rob Sharp Were you surrounded by art growing up in Ireland?
Laura Buckley I grew up in a small town in County Galway, was educated at a convent school, and they didn’t really encourage art very much, so it’s something I discovered for myself. It happened very naturally, initially through painting and drawing. I was always going to go to art school, and thought maybe I would do design. I didn’t see art as practical, but I was really encouraged to paint. I thought I’d do the degree, and look to do illustration or something else afterwards. As I delved more into what art could be, I got hooked.
RS What was your transition from Ireland to London like?
LB My introduction was the MA experience at Chelsea College of Art and Design. I had a six-year gap between my BA and postgrad. I wanted to wait until I was really hungry and I knew I had to leave Dublin to fully expand my practice and ideas. I wasn’t a typical student. I’d already had my first daughter ,who was ten months old when I started my master’s, so it wasn’t like I was hanging out much. Then on leaving, my MA show was bought by the collector Anita Zabludowicz and that was a great boost.
RS Why did you make the change from painting to “painting with light?”
LB It was a natural progression that I hadn’t planned. I had come to the end of my practice with painting. I’d been questioning function, imagery, and surface and moving between abstraction and representation using photography and, more importantly, holes in walls and mirrors as a stand-in for painted representation. About ten years ago I bought a video camera to document my daughter’s first years. By experimenting with the camera and moving the supports or props I’d been working with, I found I could express myself much more directly. I began to enjoy the production of space, composing and then deconstructing it, all the while moving out of the studio into a more real-life environment. I wasn’t coming from a film or video background so I was immediately attracted to using light projection as a sculptural medium. The interior became the support and by projecting onto wood, Perspex, mirror, or metal I could maintain the tangible element of my practice. I wanted to ground the projected image onto the object or support. I use moving reflective sculptures to refract video all around the walls, ceiling, and floor of the space, as well as onto the viewers themselves. I’m still applying color and imagery, it’s just in a much more complex way. I wanted the viewer to step inside and become a part of the work.
RS How has the experience of being a mother and artist in London changed since you started?
LB It’s improved a lot since I had my first daughter. It’s more acceptable, you see a lot more babies at gallery events. But I got some very negative responses initially, putting forth the attitude that you can’t be both a successful artist and a mother. I was told a man could but that the woman would always be the main caretaker. It’s something I feel strongly about discussing. There’s so little support, and I think that’s really sad. It’s hard to keep going without the structural frameworks of support available to women in other industries. I think that when you look at much of the successful contemporary female artists it’s often suggested they had to sacrifice motherhood for their practice and I think that’s a very negative message. Why should we have to make that decision? The attitude and silent negativity need to be discussed. There are some really strong feminist groups that are coming up in the last few years. The East London Fawcett Group and artist and activist Rose Gibbs are doing lectures and seminars concerning these issues.
RS It seems like a very harsh assessment. What was people’s argument?
LB Well that’s the question I’m asking. It’s something I think is unusual. Personally, my kids are a big part of my work. There are some major artists who have documented their children. I don’t document mine, but they are part of what I do. Some artists say they had to sacrifice having children to reach the level they are at, but I know that I wouldn’t be where I am if I hadn’t become a mother. It completely changed my practice. It changed my perspective.
Before, my practice was a very strict kind of painting, installation, and sculpture that was very formal, quite cold, unfeeling and quite macho, really, trying to be one of the boys through the legacy of minimalism. Having a baby just allowed loads more color and feeling into the work. It completely loosened me up, made me less self-conscious. You might get a voice or a hand movement involving my children but they are not recognizable, since it’s not important that they are my children. But yeah they are part of the work, so maybe that’s why it’s something I’m keen to discuss.
RS That looser feeling to your material must come from taking a camera everywhere. Is there one method you use, as in, do you film material by chance and then marry it with the more abstract footage in your studio?
LB It’s changed so much because of the technology. A lot of stuff is just filmed on my phone these days. I’m not making cinema. I don’t have this level of perfection, it’s very much about pocket technology. When I started you had your bulky camera bag and you went out specifically to make work. That was when the whole real life element started coming through so much more. Now the camera is always there. My life and work completely meshed. There’s no separation between the two.
RS A lot of what you do seems to be about reaching out to a more general audience.
LB Yeah, it’s about really creating an experience for the viewer, exploring the idea of it being a group or a shared experience. As a viewer you have a shared experience with the artist and also with whoever is in the space with you. I always have this in mind, whether they are people who know each other or strangers. It’s about taking people out of their everyday life to observe reality in a different way. They see something that might be just a moment walking down the street or something very mundane pushed through these processes to enter a different world.
RS How did the social element of art become interesting to you?
LB When Anthony McCall showed at the Serpentine [in 2007] he kind of went beyond meaning, creating this pure physical reaction for the visitor. I remember enjoying watching the other viewers almost as much as the work itself. And then with someone like James Turrell you’re completely taken out of yourself and it’s the closest to a religious experience. That’s the work I’m most moved by. Sound and light are very primal elements. Further to that, my films are structured in acts or movements. Within an installation there might be six different acts where there’s a common theme, and you’re notified that you’re going into the next movement. You’re going through different states of mind as you progress, which climax at the end with a big finish. It might get more trance like, or you might start at the beginning again. But it’s done in a very abstract way.
RS How did The Magic Know-How come about?
LB It was commissioned by Site Gallery in Sheffield for a solo show last year. I’d previously made installations that were anxiety based or more melancholic. The Mean Reds (2011) was an anxious kind of installation. Waterlilies (2010) was more tranquil, but also kind of melancholic. For The Magic Know-How I knew I wanted it to be celebratory. That’s how the piece is, very colorful.
Over time I am constantly collecting footage and starting to bring things together, getting groups of clips and forming the skeleton of the film. Then I worked with [musician and half of the band NYPC] Andy Spence. He said, “Just give me a word,” and I said “euphoric” so he went off and composed this piece of music that’s in the finale of Magic Know-How, Distortion Site. It’s all broken down into different passages with different names and this piece Distortion Site is set against moving bands of color.
Generally we will have the conversation by e-mail and I’ll start sending him some clips, then I’ll go into the studio and we’ll make a palette of sounds. I’ll take away the files then and then I’ll compose them into the piece and layer them with real sound that exists in footage, so it exists very much between studio produced sound and real sound.
The visual side of the piece is produced in three different ways. The initial starting point is taking footage from life so you have scenes from, say, an airport with a fish tank, or images from the school run with my children, which might include a cherry blossom tree and footage of mud in the park. Second to that, over the last few years I’ve been working a lot with two-dimensional scans so I make a lot of prints using my scanner. It started off in quite a static way, then I started moving the images along with the beam of the scanner, so I was getting these very morphed, very painterly but very distorted images which were very interesting to me because they go between an abstract and real form continually.
RS They really seem to mesh well with the footage you shoot outdoors.
LB I found that I just really enjoyed animating by manipulating my scans on the screen. So further to the found footage and the scans, I also set up my camera in front of my computer and just film the manipulation of going in and out of the windows of these different images. That form of manipulation creates two of the main movements in The Magic Know-How.
The images come from all sorts of sources, there’s a telephone key pad, stuff I’ve recorded on my iPhone that’s morphing, and you get traces of fingerprints and traces of hands and things in the second movement. There’s a lot of personal stuff in there too, I’ve got my daughter’s hair in it, there’s a blood sample, and there are objects which are very important to me, like a shirt of my mother’s, so all of these things are feeding in. I also produce imagery by making photographs of some of the props I use, so I’ve got colored pieces of Perspex that are photographed and then I feed them into Final Cut. I animate them in such a way that they create this flickering movement so it’s another way of making moving image using a still image.
RS Why is it important to deconstruct what you’re doing?
LB Just because I want to demystify process and keep it open. I don’t want it to be this removed, slick thing. I’m making technology more personal and handmade.
I’m using it in the wrong way, in an analog way. I really just enjoy subverting technology and pushing it beyond its design, that’s really interesting for me. That’s the fun part, like when you’re just starting out painting and you’re throwing the paint around, you’re really being physical with it, when I work with technology I get the same satisfaction out of discovering what it’s going to do. I could decide, Okay, I want to make an image that contains these things and I go to retouch it to make it how I want, but I never retouch my prints. It’s never so planned out, I bring certain structures and materials and ideas to it, but try to keep it fresh. Otherwise I wouldn’t bother doing it.
RS You talk about material being an anxious work or a euphoric work. Do you get yourself into that state when you’re making it? Or is it just reflecting how you are at that time?
LB It’s just how I am overall. It’s just a new area to be discovered and to look into and delve into and maybe I might not want to, but it’s something I think might be interesting to explore. With the Mean Reds show, at Supplement Gallery in 2011, that came about because I was staying in Tarifa, on the lowest tip of Spain and you’ve got these two very strong winds there. One of my best friends is a kite surfer there, and we went to visit. It can be beautiful and stunning but you get these days at a time where the winds are incredibly strong. It caused this massive anxiety inside me. Our youngest was a baby and you know how you feel they could just get swept away? Doors slamming and crazy howling wind all of the time. I thought it was hilarious when I looked back at the footage. Apparently there’s a really high suicide rate there, the wind can drive people mad. That was basically where that work came from, that energy I felt. Obviously I was trying to hold the camera against the wind too.
RS There are a lot of influences in your work from John Cage the idea that everything can be incorporated into the work, the Far Eastern influences, the use of ambient sound, can you tell me how important he was in steering you?
LB During my BA in Dublin I was exploring painting as an idea and painting as a surface. The contrast between abstract and representational images. I was really confused about how I could work between these two areas. I felt the way Cage used sound was very helpful to me at that time. I was looking at a lot of architectural surfaces and was working with painting on wood and using mirrors. I was looking at the exhibition as a construct almost as a kind of trade fair, before I had been introduced to the main art fairs, before Frieze had happened. I researched the framework of how these false walls would be built and where their inner framework would lie, exposing that as part of the show. I was looking at the system as a construct and where painting functions and where it fits. That was me coming away from painting as well. So I felt I could relate to a lot John Cage’s earlier texts. Along with Anthony McCall’s show many years later they galvanized what I was doing at the time.
RS Is the frequency at which we experience digital imagery, for you, a blessing or a curse?
LB Right now it’s a blessing as it’s where my work exists. It’s what it is about in many respects. My installations often feature numerous projections running simultaneously with the moving image being pushed around the entire space using reflective structures moving mechanically. Also the videos are edited quickly with lots of chopping and repetition, so that the viewer enters this hyper-real,time montaged environment of intense moving imagery. This imagery also beams onto the viewer encompassing them completely. As a younger artist I struggled with how to perceive images, I found it hard to navigate the visual world and find a way of expressing or making sense of it. It influenced the pace of my editing, I normally tend not to go over a few seconds per clip. This definitely comes from interpreting the wider visual media of the world.
At the same time my approach to video comes from my background in painting. In this way the videos are not like narratives and do not require the viewer to consume them in any set time frame. There is no beginning or end. The video never demands the viewer remain seated, they are always free to come and go, and, importantly, they can walk around the work, view it from all angles, physically penetrate it.
RS Are there specific memories you have of music or architecture in relation audio-visuals that you keep coming back to?
LB I enjoy the production of early Depeche Mode, where they incorporated industrial sound. I was into dance music in the early ’90s but I don’t think it’s particularly influenced what I do. Maybe there is a trancelike element, taking things up and then taking them down again, taking the viewer on an audio-visual journey.
RS When you make something like SEE ME (2014), what painters are you thinking of? To what extent did you collaborate over the music?
LB With that work, I was thinking more of a Zen-like Japanese landscape, all these floating glitter hexagons moving around the entire space and areas of lace and underwear fabric resembling mountains and sections of landscape. The title SEE ME is a play on the seduction of imagery, and visual attraction. Where previously I avoided producing work that looked so enticing, I wanted to push those boundaries and question the limits of what is acceptable or tasteful. I wanted to examine how much we rely on the visual spectacle that is not usually acknowledged or mentioned.
This is the first installation I created where I didn’t produce the sound. It features three separate tracks; the first is a track by Dave MacLean from the band Django Django. The sound was made for an online project for outoffocus.biz, I made a video called Digital Skin which Dave made the audio for. I worked it into SEE ME as it worked well and I wanted to include it on a real as well as virtual platform. The second track is by Andy Spence that was made specifically for this installation. The final one is by an electronic duo called Plaid.
RS What are you looking forward to doing next?
LB At the moment I’m working on a new collaboration with Paul Purgas of Emptyset. Its a live audio-visual piece that will be performed in December at the Whitechapel Gallery as part of the Film London Jarman Award program.
See more of Laura Buckley’s work at her website.
Rob Sharp is a freelance journalist based in London.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.