(This article first appeared in NeoAztlán in 2008)
By Kate Green
Angela Bulloch’s dynamic installations need people. Rooted in the artist’s inquiries into how and why we order the world around us, these multi-faceted projects transform industrial material into experiential, theatrical environments that humanize the rigid nature of their subject matter. In The Disenchanted Forest x 1001 (2005) Bulloch spins Berlin’s meticulous system of monitoring its trees into a thought provoking multi media installation, while in a series of “pixel box” pieces, begun in 2000, she transforms cinematic moments into digital programs that are associated with specific characters or scenes and then transmits these programs in a wall of her pixel boxes.
Several of Bulloch’s spare, early works actually required human interaction: a visitor’s movement might trigger canned laughter or jeers (The Laughing Crowd Sound Piece, 1990) or the illumination of lights (Before and After Follow Each Other, 1990).
Read the interview below to find out how the Berlin- and London-based artist wants visitors to interact with her installations, what she thinks about rules, and why she decided to change the name of the Canadian town where she was born.
Kate Green: What is the role of the human body in your work and how has it changed in recent works?
Angela Bulloch: Recently, at the Tate Triennial, I exhibited The Disenchanted Forest x 1001. It could be described as a complex work employing many different media in both an intimate or human scale and an architectural scale. The piece was conceived of and exhibited in Berlin at the Hamburger Bahnhof in the context of a prize exhibition called Preis der Nationalgalerie für Junge Kunst 2005. As I have been based in Berlin for a few years now the work really did grow out of that experience. However, although the work was conceived from within and for a particularly German context, I did not feel that it could not be exhibited elsewhere, at Tate Britain for example. At Tate Britain, the exhibiting space was more confined so I did alter the installation in terms of how it crossed and filled the room. I was careful, though, to keep the idiosyncrasies present in the original German found text stenciled onto the wall, so that those details of language existed also in the English translations.
Your question about the body in relationship to or within my work: I think about doubt and what produces doubt. When making this work in particular I did not feel, and I still don’t feel, that it is necessary to prohibit, allow or even encourage certain behavior within the context of an artwork. In making this piece I have produced a kind of world, but I have not made or given the “how to behave” guide for that world, as I think that must be a matter of discovery for those who choose to engage with it.
KG: Were you pleased with the Tate Triennial work? Did you hope visitors would have a particular intellectual reaction or physical interaction with that piece?
AB: The sound track was made by Florian Hecker to work within the parameters I gave him, and yes x 1001, I was very pleased with his sound track and with The Disenchanted Forest x 1001. The affect of the particular type of sounds (Hecker) composed with and played through the specific kind of sound equipment I used results in the sound really “touching” people. The bass speakers are actually called “bass shakers” and they were set into free moving parts in the floor so that they could effectively tickle one’s feet. The sound waves are so exaggerated that they become physical and press upon the body. I have heard many different responses to the work.
KG: Your piece pointed out the absurdity of the human desire to order the organic. In contrast, you pixel box works re-order, or break down, the manufactured order of cinema. You’ve also done a series of text/book works about rules. Do you have an antagonistic relationship with rules? Do they give you comfort, safety or parameters to create within?
AB: Never give a straight answer in an interview…
I made a book called Rule Book (2000), which is an edited publication from an ongoing collection of material called Rules Series (begun 1993). Rules Series is a collection of rules that have been culled, found and slightly perverted, whenever I feel like it, from a wide variety of sources.
KG: Rules are the glue that binds societies to some degree and, perhaps, what differentiates cultures from one another. How have you found the rules that you live with in the UK, Germany or Canada different from one another?
AB: Of course there are quite big differences in life and society between London, Berlin and Rainy River, Canada. Rules give people something to react to and reflect on. They also demand a state of consciousness and a certain awareness of others.
KG: How does Canada play into your work?
AB: I chose to change the place of my birth from Fort Frances, Canada to Rainy River, Canada. Rainy River is the Indian name for an area near a river called Rainy River not far from Rainy Lake in Ontario. Later on, British people came to that area, built a fort and established a trading and hunting post, which they called Fort Frances. I think that Rainy River is a far more beautiful and satisfyingly descriptive name for the place I was born so I changed it on my CV from the time I first exhibited the piece The Disenchanted Forest x 1001 in Berlin.
KG: So rules, like those dictating that we call towns by their government-sanctioned names, are meant to be broken. What other places have you wanted to, or have, re-named?
AB: “Government-sanctioned names?” Where’s your sense of history? Names are not just doled out or administered by faceless officials. People do get involved in their making in many various ways. Where’s your sense of humor and adventure? Panorama Island was the name I gave to a pier in the river Thames that is connected with an underground tunnel for the delivery of oil to fuel the power station. That power station produced the energy to run the London Underground. That pier was dismantled and the power station is now Tate Modern.
KG: Not to be contrary, but just curious, why not give a straight answer? Do you feel that revealing too much about the artist detracts from the work or is unnecessary?
AB: I was just being contrary when I said that. To honor the interview and to faithfully represent one’s feelings and thoughts within the reply can be difficult to do well. I was ducking the task and making a joke.
The artist as subject can be very interesting but this artist prefers to speak about her work rather than herself out of a sense of modesty or fear even. To be judged, observed and consumed as a person can be an uncomfortable, unpleasant experience.
KG: Fair enough. The relationship between artists’ desire to avoid biography and the public’s appetite for it is interesting. The connection between celebrity and artists is arguably greater in the UK than in the US (the Tate’s Turner Prize is a public spectacle; the Guggenheim’s Hugo Boss Prize is unknown to those beyond the small art world). Do you think this aspect of life in London has encouraged you to foreground the art rather than the artist?
AB: The media does much to fan the public’s prurient or vicarious interest into the private lives of people other than themselves.
KG: Why did you settle in London?
AB: I chose to go to an art school in London (Goldsmith’s) because that’s where I wanted to be. I come from the forest and I always wanted to live in the city. My background has absolutely shaped me.
KG: How do you feel about being part of the London group of artists labeled “Young British Artists (YBA)” in the 1990s? Do you think the energy in London at the time, not the background of any of the artists in particular, united the artists?
AB: I don’t think it’s true or useful to talk about a kind of ambient energy as affecting or inspiring young British artists during the early nineties. People and their ideas affect other people. Relationships between artists can be very productive and full of conflicts or a sense of competition. That can happen anywhere.
KG: Absolutely, I suppose by energy I meant that between artists working in London (rather than the energy of the city in general). Is a money-centric explanation for the YBA group that Charles Saatchi and other collectors created the idea of the group off-putting to you?
AB: The label YBA is off-putting to start with. It was not Charles Saatchi or any collector who coined the term. It’s a not a term or label that any artist I know accepts or uses to describe themselves.
Conflicts are not necessarily negative; they can be very productive in gaining an understanding as to what is at stake, what really matters. It is a fantastic thrill to be part of a discursive scene where what you think about and what you do matters within a specific context. To develop a language and a voice with your own practice that others can share, comment on and respond to is like being at “home.” Money is useful, but it never was and is still not the main goal in making art for me.
KG: Why did you choose to start living/working part time in Germany?
AB: I had some projects to work on in Berlin and I found that there were many interesting people there. That was appealing to me. It is a great luxury to have enough space to work in and to be able to walk to it from where you live in the middle of a city; that works for me. That’s not easy to find in London, let alone afford. I love to visit London and I do just that as often as I can.
KG: I suppose shuttling between London, Berlin, Canada, and trips elsewhere make you a constant stranger in each place to some degree. Do you still spend time in Rainy River, Canada?
AB: I left Rainy River on my eleventh birthday and I haven’t been back, although I have been to Canada: I made an exhibition of my work at The Power Plant in Toronto last year and I also visit my sister, who lives in St. Catherines, occasionally.
KG: The relationship between art (and artists) and society is different in the UK, Germany and Canada. Do you solve work problems differently depending on where you are?
AB: That’s an interesting idea and yes, I would say that different locations do affect the process of my thinking and behavior. I am planning a trip to Korea to finalize production of a new work soon and it is really exciting because I feel a kind of freedom with this project that I don’t often feel when making work in Berlin, for example.
KG: Do you teach?
AB: I was a professor for two years at the Academy in Vienna. It was both a rewarding and a demanding experience. I stopped in order to devote more time to my own practice. I might well do it again if a good opportunity arises. It’s always a question of getting the right balance.
KG: With whom ‘living or dead, real or imaginary’ would you like to talk to about your work?
AB: Enough talk already, I’d prefer some action…and now for my next piece…
Kate Green holds an M.A. from the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College and a PhD in Art History from the University of Texas at Austin. From 2001-2003 she worked at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center and Dia Art Foundation, both in New York. As a curator at Artpace San Antonio from 2003-2007 she developed single-artist shows with Trisha Donnelly, Kota Ezawa, Luis Gispert, and Frances Stark, among others, and group shows such as “City Maps,” “Power Play,” and “Spanglish.” She has contributed to publications such as Artlies, Art Papers, Modern Painters, and NeoAztlán.