Ask a farmer when there's no need for an accountant

23 Mayıs 2018

Tumblr Inline P968qewdvz1u3cpgv 500 Production image of Jingle (<i>Bureau of Unspecified Services</i>, SALT Galata), 2018
Production image of Jingle (Bureau of Unspecified Services, SALT Galata), 2018
İpek Ulusoy of SALT Research and Programs interviewed Chris Evans on his artistic process through a range of media, including photography, sculpture, sound and books, as well as the involvement of collaboration in his practice and his new works at Bureau of Unspecified Services (B.U.S), programmed by Sohrab Mohebbi as part of SALT’s Conversations series.

İpek Ulusoy: Chris, you’ve recently developed two new works that are currently on view at SALT Galata. The first one is Home Economics, Istanbul I-III (2018), a series of photographs of hob paintings you made in several SALT users’ kitchens, and the second is a sound piece titled Jingle (Bureau of Unspecified Services, SALT Galata) (2018), where you’ve worked with a local farmer. What was the first curatorial prompt that you received and how do these two seemingly very different works respond to that?

Chris Evans: Sohrab and I spoke about the relationship that SALT intends to build with its users, and how it is a magnet for young people, particularly college students who study and socialize there. We also discussed the title of the exhibition, which led to a conversation on the utility in art, if an extreme counter to this is the notion of so-called “radical uselessness” and what forms other counters might take so that they wouldn’t rely on their resonance being manifestly polemical. I have spent some time at SALT Galata during my Who’s in town? talk in February 2018, observing the way users engage with the institution. Considering this and Sohrab’s prompt for B.U.S., I grew an interest in how this context might become a part of the means of production.

İU: So let’s start with Home Economics, Istanbul I-III. There is a painterly aspect to these photographs that makes us feel like we are witnessing the aftermath of something. We are tempted to learn more about what we might have missed, what we are not part of, in other words, the performative aspect of the work. I am curious to hear more about your process, choice of media, and also why the work is not perhaps a video documentation of a performance but a series of photographs.

CE: The work begins with my experience of staying at short-term rented flats in foreign cities making paintings on absent strangers’ cooking hobs with their herbs and spices, and later photographing them for no good reason. I had kept these photographs on my studio wall for a couple of years as I didn’t know what to do with them at the time. There was one of these pictures on the wall when Sohrab started telling me about the exhibition. I wondered how the site and context of SALT and the exhibition might shape it as a piece of work.

First, SALT asked some of its users for permission so that I could enter their homes and make paintings on their cooking hobs. What had begun as a solitary act a few years ago had now become a public operation with us arriving on masse to make the work. There was myself, a photographer, an assistant, a project manager, and, of course, the homeowners themselves. Busy kitchens.

Dsc0291 1 2 Chris Evans, <i>Home Economics, Istanbul I</i>, 2018<br />
Photograph: Mustafa Hazneci
Chris Evans, Home Economics, Istanbul I, 2018
Photograph: Mustafa Hazneci

İU: In the photographs, you intentionally avoid giving any clues as to where you shot these, whose kitchen and so on?

CE: My impulse was to hide the back drop. I didn’t think there would be anything to gain from seeing the whole set up – a circus of people, lights and camera – and if we were to hide the apparatus I wondered what we would be revealing about the homeowners. It could easily veer towards a quasi-sociological study. Instead, I was curious to see how this process would affect the work and in-explicitly become part of it.

İU: Perhaps we can briefly discuss the title of the series. The term “home economics” (or ev ekonomisi in Turkish) has a very personal resonance for me as I first heard it from my grandmother. For her, it was about using the leftovers and turning something which was not necessarily functional into something that is. So, it meant re-assigning value to things that might simply be sitting at home, giving function to others and making better use of the resources in the domestic setting.

CE: Home Economics is named after a class that was integrated into the school curriculum in the late 1800s in the US. The original intention was to teach methods to structure home maintenance so that household chores would take up less time opening up more free time for other activities. The class still existed when I was at school, but drained of much of the initial focus on managing relationships between people, families and communities.

The work is about how value might come into play in a stranger’s gestural paintings made with the homeowners’ selection of herbs and spices. How can we determine the value of this or is the work perhaps the product of not having to?

İU: Can you speak about spice-as-material a little bit more and the potential of your process finding another form of expression?

CE: I used herbs, spices and cleaning products that were around in these hob paintings. Only when we had set everything up, met the homeowners, arranged the camera and lighting that I had to determine what marks I would make. How might the situation of making the work (spiraling out wider, the situation of making it in Istanbul) find itself crystallised in the resulting images? There’s no way of directly addressing this but it is eventually encapsulated in what is made. It was an unnerving experience having to consider what I might be expressing with these gestural sweeps of spices. I was aware that it might have appeared comical: putting the finishing touches to a dish over and over again.

The series has led to a new body of work for a solo exhibition at CAN, Neuchatel, Switzerland. In these new pieces, I paint with herbs and spices directly into slicks of resin which, in my opinion, resemble cooking oil spills. The hobs then get displayed vertically on the walls. They’re simply a consequence of making the works for SALT; one thing led to another.

İU: At SALT Research, I’ve recently come across your Job Interviews (2017), a publication which you’ve edited and illustrated. You’ve previously worked on other artist books, such as Magnetic Promenade (and Other Sculpture Parks) (2006) and Radical Loyalty (2002-2005). In thinking about how works manifest themselves in different shapes and forms, we can perhaps take this moment to explore how making books is relevant in your practice?

CE: My most recent book, Job Interviews began with my own writing. I was creating fictitious plots around various real people who have been at the periphery of the artworks I have previously made. Here, I was interested in the ritualistic aspect of job interviews, how they are like a courtship, conditioned by protocols that require a quite particular display. Social relations become material, there’s a dance of conformity, and there’s also this attempted imagining and echoing of expectations.

Going back to your question, making books is particularly important to me as it is a way of pulling in a wider context around things that interest me. Back stories are usually encapsulated into the works themselves. Producing books then becomes an excuse to do the opposite, to spiral off on tangents, but in a medium that to me feels more fitting; written narrative and depictive illustration. It’s also an excuse to work with people whose work I very much admire. To my mind, Natasha Soobramanien’s story and Holly Pester’s poem in Job Interviews are fantastic works of writing.

İU: At one point during your Who’s in town? talk, skill and context came up as two interesting notions in relation to your illustrations in Job Interviews. You mentioned that you were a better illustrator when you were sixteen, skill loses its importance in time, and building narratives around works of art come to the foreground. Can you expand on this idea further?

CE: I had a steadier hand when I was sixteen! I actually didn’t mean much by it; I was just talking about my personal experience and how I found myself using the same medium I used when I was a teenager. Also, how the consequence of the drop in expertise might mean that the context around the work has to take up the slack. In addition to making airbrush paintings that accompany anthologies of writing, I also use them to make “artists impressions” of proposed work, singular paintings, and posters. For an upcoming exhibition, I recently proposed a sculpture to be installed outside one of the windows of the Minister of Culture’s home of residence in Neuchatel, which will be accompanied by an airbrush painting depicting the sculpture seen from outside his home, the minister’s viewpoint.

İU: Dealing with a range of critical questions around artistic practice, patronage, authorship and sources of inspiration in your work, you often engage constituents from outside and beyond the art world including directors of institutions, public organizations and individuals from different segments. Your new work Jingle (Bureau of Unspecified Services, SALT Galata) (2018), and a previous piece titled A Needle Walks into a Haystack (2014), where you persuaded jewelry makers Boodles, major supporters of the Liverpool Biennial, to respond to the Biennial’s press release, immediately come to mind. What are your motivations for collaborating with people and organizations coming from non-artistic practices? Also, do you have initial expectations going into these relationships and how do you navigate through them?

CE: In collaborating with people from non-artistic practices my motivation is not towards ideas of inclusivity, and, in each occasion, little is revealed about the process itself. Conversations and negotiations remain hidden, their content becoming encapsulated in the artefacts. I want to solicit the dream life of honchos and henchmen, and I select the people I work with in relation to their symbolic or public role. In the case of the jingle, the options were a local animal farmer or an accountant.

Often the works include an uneasy partnership between public and private bodies. In A Needle Walks Into a Haystack (2014), for example, we’ve worked with the luxury jewellery firm Boodles, which was one of the main sponsors of the Liverpool Biennial. I asked the company to design a piece of jewellery in response to the Biennial’s press release, interpreting the exhibition’s core ideas as a creative brief. Boodles made a platinum and yellow gold ring with sapphires and helidor and I made a relief tablet and vitrine to house it. The imagination of a luxury brand becomes mixed up with artistic vision, blurring the roles of everyone involved.

The jewellery that Boodles makes can be photographed from 100 metres away and still sparkles. You might see them adorning the necks of celebrities and members of royal families in the pages of magazines like Hello!, Look and Grazia. Despite the fact that they cost a fortune, they are popular and somehow seem accessible. I thought that, given this popularity, the jewellery might attract a wider audience to the Liverpool Biennial, which like many other biennials promotes itself and raises capital on the promise of providing access and reaching a wider demographics. I was also interested in the rhetoric used by the Biennial to intrigue and excite. I wanted to give the press release to Boodles so that they could interpret it in their own way; I was curious to see how they would navigate its language and the parallels between how the jewelry-makers and the biennial promote themselves.

İU: The jingle, a brief pre-recorded sound plays every time someone walks in or out of the exhibition space at SALT Galata. In a book on display practices I once read, the author described how the direction in which people start their visit a gallery varies in different countries. I cannot remember the specifics of it, but I think more people tended to move towards the right when they walk into a gallery. So, I wonder whether positioning the work towards the right side was a conscious decision.

CE: This makes me think of the way that supermarkets are structured and how it impacts people’s flow and shopping behavior. But no I didn’t think about it at the time. I didn’t even specify. In previous installations in Graz, Portugal, Amsterdam and Hong Kong, the work’s loudspeaker has been positioned on the left hand side but I will definitely think more about the impact of where it’s situated now that you mention this. I think what was more important for me was that the work consists of a relatively small speaker on a stand whose presence would feel like a doorman, and not a security guard.

İU: Yes, it’s present but not so intimidating. It’s placed at a reasonable height, which is not too high.

CE: At the height of vital organs. There’s a very simple logic that decides how I proceed with making each jingle. I either work on these with a farmer or an accountant . If the institution considers itself to be financially stable then I record the first, and if not it’s the latter.

I often think about how all of us carries a soundtrack in our heads that’s dependent on what we do in life. I chose farmers and accountants because there are distinct sounds that we’d associated with these vocations. I thought that in asking them to make non-verbal sounds there might be a residue of these, let’s call them vocational soundtracks. When I was recording the farmer Soner Gümüş, I thought there might be subtle instances where he might sound like one of the animals that he tends. This wasn’t the case but perhaps it speaks of our expectations and in a way that I think, and hope, the work defies this caricaturization.

İU: Can you further expand on your process and how much context the people whose voices you record knows?

CE: I work on the jingles with the artist Morten Norbye Halvorsen. Whenever we’ve made them it’s always been the institution that’s been in touch directly with the farmers or accountants. I did not provide so much information as it’s good to go into the recording sessions without preconceived expectations. Prior to the sessions, Morten puts together a sequence of percussive sounds of short duration – noises that we feel would encourage non-verbal sounds. I ask the farmer, or accountant, to mimic the percussion noises. We keep going with it until there’s a flow and the vocalisations feel unfamiliar. These recorded vocalisations are later assembled into the jingle by Morten and also include a musical sequence of bass guitar that I record. I have in mind those bassline interludes that are familiar to ‘changes of scenes’ in American sitcoms like Seinfeld. Whilst the bass is used as a transitional device so too are the jingles situated at the point of entry and departure of the exhibition.

İU: I noticed that many were very conscious about the work, particularly the first instance they hear it. Did you get a chance to observe how people respond to it when they first hear the sound?

CE: I wanted the short sound sequence to briefly proclaim and broadcast a visitor’s arrival to the exhibition and, for the person entering (or exiting) to become the focus of attention. It behaves like an audio ID, bracketing and, to some extent, conditioning the experience of Bureau of Unspecified Services (B.U.S.).