On the surface it seems that Stuart Whipps (b.1979) is an artist that works with ideas relating to shifting ideologies, where he addresses the impact of certain socio-economic and physical changes to places. But what may not be so clear immediately is that within this practice, he also develops an encyclopaedic knowledge of a particular moment in history, drawing on a myriad of sources. Through primarily using photography and often implementing archival practices, he manages to illuminate in detail, the complexity of questions regarding historicity, singular narratives and cultural legacies.
Over a number of meetings, we discussed new works in the lead up to his show, ‘Why Contribute to the Spread of Ugliness’’ which is currently at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham and runs till 5th February 2012. The following is an extract taken from these conversations.
19 of 487 uncatalogued boxes (2011):
A multi-screen slide projection combining three strands of subject matter: John Madin archival boxes, their contents (printed materials relating to John Madin’s projects and the construction industry between the 1950s and 1970s) and the buildings to which they refer.
Apexa Patel: Archival processes get compounded within your work, if considered in relation to Markus Miessen’s work with ‘The Archive as a Productive Space for Conflict’, do you think it is possible to view what you are doing as a point of rupture where (as Miessen suggests), ‘topological, architectural structures for archives overcome existing models of storage units’‘
Stuart Whipps: If I think about the idea of spatial permanence in terms of the physical process of the archive existing - it has to be recognisable to me that it comes from that part of that world. I went to see the head of archive studies at the University of Liverpool and the term respect des fonds came up. It’s this understanding that all of this material has been put together in certain way for a certain reason, it may be counter-productive to your aims but you make the minimal of interventions to that in the work that you are making.
AP: Jan Verwoert talks about this prevalent attitude of an artist who sees the treatment of history as a dart game and aims strategically at the right part. There is this conflict between being referential and then also being reverent.
SW: To me it’s not about respecting an intention or historic, chronological lineage but just to have a position on it so you’re able to activate it in a certain way that isn’t about circus. James (Langdon) was talking about a term with reference to a Robin Kinross interview - isomorphism - [‘where the form corresponds to or enacts the meaning, or the two mirror each other, or become embedded in each other’]. It’s about a generation of designers now that are not responsive to the material and that there is a problem in some senses. I would probably try to do that with my own work, make it more responsive - it won’t be so radical a departure.
AP: Could your interrogation of these boxes be seen as an invasion, especially viewed with Warhol’s anxiety of how dying is the most embarrassing thing that could happen to you, because someone has to take care of your details’
SW: I think that is undermined by putting it in a library archive, the message there is the best thing that could happen is that people go through these. When this work is finished, I will archive it all - the correspondence I’ve had, the word document, the 400 pages of it, etc. One day if someone wants to go through and pull out the bits that are shoddy on my part, I am fine with that.
AP: This organisation of one’s legacy may be a better idea than the premature autobiography.
SW: I don’t want to ever look at it, and I just want it to exist. It doesn’t matter how insignificant it is. I like the idea that you could create another place to keep all of the activity as a footnote.
AP: Is a generosity at play, where you’re just willing to give it up’
SW: Hans Aarsman, gave away all of his work, you can download these high-resolution files from a website. He made these Dutch landscape photographs, which he got sick of. The criticism/comment that used to get him the most is that the best compliment that someone can give you as a photographer is that it ‘looks painterly’. It’s another big thing of photographs looking like Caspar David Freidrich paintings because there’s someone small in the foreground, looking over, from an elevated viewpoint.
AP: ‘The Principles of Categorization’ begins with a Borges quotation, naming different categories (i.e. ‘those that have just broken a flower case’ or ‘the fabulous ones’). Is it an attractive conceit that (as Eleanor Rosch states) only appears in the imagination of poets but not in practical or linguistic classification’
SW: In Jack Kerouac’s introduction to ‘The Americans’ by Robert Frank, there’s this list of the type of things that are in the photographs, it works as an ordering system. And if I were to talk about this work, in terms of how it’s ordered, then this is it as a starting point: it’s photographs of boxes, it’s photographs of things in boxes and photographs of places that are referenced in boxes. Within the edit of the book and within the show, that breaks it down to redacted boxes, or broken boxes, so you can start to establish subcategories. In the end you have to make another structure to accommodate all of those things.
AP: Dieter Roelstraete talks about a semantic triangle of urbanism, architecture and photography within Susanne Kriemann’s work. Similarly Christian Höller speaks of three elements - a woman, an apartment block and a camera within Christopher Williams’ work. In both cases, there are these variations on Walter Benjamin’s repertoire of portraits, pictures of cities and the world of objects. Do you think this triangular structure is almost in-built’
SW: When you teach the technical aspects of photography, you talk about the exposure triangle - the shutter speed, the aperture, the ISO. It is a regurgitation of the same, triangulated structure. It certainly wasn’t conscious with this work; it has been with other works such as the East installation. There were these three parts to that work: items in a vitrine case, photographs and screen prints. There is always something about the way they feed into each other but in a way that undermines one another as well.
AP: The statement you wrote for East International was attempting to keep all of the references within that the period of 1979. Is this focus on a particular moment important’
SW: The Kazys Varnelis’ piece on atemporality made me think about what I did by focusing on 1979. It also reminded me of a Birmingham Post article from 1907 that had this lament that agricultural land would be taken and repurposed for industrial use. Everything about it meant that you could’ve picked it up and placed it in a copy of the Birmingham Post from 2005, when the Longbridge factory closed. So that cyclical nature that runs contrary almost to the idea of fixing that series of events in a number of photographs - this idea that you would have a definitive take on it, or a definitive image. One of my images was used by the Guardian, for looking back, at the 10 years or so of new labour. It stands in for that time and I want to get away from making images that function in that way.
AP: The past is played in forwards and in backwards with that article. In a similar way, your trip to America (retracing John Madin’s trip), you attach yourself to somebody else’s temporality, experiencing different strata of time. If time were symmetrical- the past, the present and the future don’t need to go in that order. Do you think that this misalignment applies’
SW: Yes, Catherine (O’Flynn) talks about this in her essay, that the archive itself and this presentation of it almost telescopes time. The earliest flickering of an idea outlives the materiality of it, that you can pull all that together, take away the chronology of it and just be presented with it. It’s one of these things that I keep meaning to get hold of - the B.S. Johnson book that comes in a box, so it can be read in any order, you can move things around.
AP: With, J G Ballard’s ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’, you’re supposed to start by reading paragraphs at any point in the book. But how do you write a book that you can start at any point’
SW: The link between photography and literature is quite strong in terms of editing, structure and punctuation. So if you take something like a Walker Evans photograph, as an example - that idea of pace within a body of work that’s just photographic - probably relates more to literature than it does to anything else. What’s a paragraph’ what’s a sentence’ what’s a word’ or what’s a punctuation mark’ within this collection of things. And I was thinking about that in relation to this slideshow that people would access at any point