Artist Interview: Cécile B. Evans
Wysing Arts Centre Residency Programme 2013: Convention T
Interview by Beth Bramich
Over the last five years Wysing Arts Centre has experimented with different programmatic structures in order to support artists to make new work. During 2013 they will be further exploring how structures, some visible and others implied, might be used to uncover meaning, narrative, paradox or indeed certainty through their prestigious residency programme. This year there will be two sets of residents, the second group is made up of artists-in-residence James Beckett, Cécile B. Evans, Michael Dean, Seb Patane and maker-in-residence Rupert Norfolk. The programme title, ‘Convention T’, refers to logician, mathematician and philosopher Alfred Tarski (1901-1983) who applied logic to sentence structure in order to make the truth visible through language. Tarski created a structure, a meta-language, that could be applied to real, everyday, language in order to generate true statements, known as T sentences - ‘A and B’ is true if and only if A is true and B is true translates as Snow is white if and only if snow is white.
Artist-in-residence Cécile B. Evans is a Belgian-American artist who lives and works in Berlin. Her work focuses on how contemporary society values emotion: its production, hierarchy and representation within culture. She often sources material from science, film or the internet, and is interested in building structures with no hierarchy.
The reputation of Wysing’s residency programme has grown considerably over the past few years, to the point where it is now extremely prestigious to be selected as both the numbers and standard of applications is very high. Why did you apply and what did you hope to gain’
I applied because of the reputation Wysing has amongst my peers as a place that truly nurtures artists. When my application was accepted, they were immediately in contact to find out what sort of support they could provide. This is incredibly reassuring as an artist, to know that you have people on your side and most importantly on the side of the work. It’s especially vital to receive this from an institution that has such a reputation, it gives you what you need to take risks that the work necessitates.
What did you initially propose to develop through your residency’ Did you put forward a particular project with a goal or a more open investigation’
The specifics of my proposal have changed quite a bit but the core remains the same, a desire to challenge the methods that I’ve employed in the past. A large part of my work deals with the value of emotion in contemporary society and I have often used representations of emotion in the work. Now I would like to question those representations.
What does ‘Convention T’ and its connection to logician, mathematician and philosopher Alfred Tarski mean to you’
I remember being a kid and being fascinated by exceptions. Things like “i before e, except after c” gave me great dramatic license. I remember being told by my parents that the Tooth Fairy wasn’t real because she didn’t exist. My reaction was that if I was afraid of her, she must exist in some capacity, the possibility that an established truth becomes obsolete in the face of experiential subjectivity. I suppose what I was most interested in is the opportunity to break from logic - if truth can be tied to a structure or even to a sentence, then what happens when you change the sentence’ What is on the other side of that’ Alongside these thoughts is Taleb’s theory of black swan events, which in oversimplified terms is an event that comes as a surprise and has great impact. I am not a logician, so obviously my understanding of these is limited to the time I have spent on them but I find them incredibly inspiring as a layer to the work.
The residency allows you to work closely alongside three other artists and a maker-in-residence during an intensive period. What are the benefits of taking part in a group residency’
I’ve already used the word support - what has been great is sharing time and space with artists who have such an honest approach to their practice. These are people whose intentions are trustworthy and whom additionally have talent behind those intentions. It can be really confusing to work in an industry whose public is focused on priorities that have nothing to do with the making of work. It’s comforting to leave those voices behind and listen to some people who are getting through it and making good work.
Has this residency given you the opportunity to pursue anything, a new method or form of research, that you would not normally have been able to’
Wysing arranged for me to meet Professor Alan Blackwell, from Cambridge University (who also runs workshops at Wysing), who set up a meeting with several researchers working with affect and emotions in the context of computer science, or “Affective Computing”. Much of my recent work has addressed emotion using available new technologies but meeting them was an opportunity to think about how new technologies are developed. As a result of this I am interested in looking at representational looping - these researchers are examining people to classify emotions, using these classified emotions to develop technologies, which could eventually be used by those people, who will even more eventually be examined by researchers. I am only at the very surface of these ideas but this meeting definitely served as a catalyst.
This Autumn there was a day of academic talks and artists’ screenings that launched your residency. Did you find anything shown or discussed particularly useful or relevant’
I’m pretty slow, a lot of the things that I am exposed to in my time here will become relevant in a month’s time or even later. I think that’s why it’s thoughtful that the final exhibition doesn’t occur until February. There’s time to marinate.
Your digital commission for Serpentine Gallery, AGNES, has just launched. Has your time at Wysing and your engagement with Tarski’s ideas impacted on its development’
AGNES is a spam bot that lives on the Serpentine Gallery’s website and wants to be your friend, share information with you. The thing about AGNES is that she can only share subjectively, that is what she feels is important rather than information that objectively explains something. No one wants to be friends with spam bots, our general reaction is to delete them from our inbox or report them immediately.
There’s a wonderful Rainer Maria Rilke passage that asks what happens if all the dragons in our lives are just princesses that want to be loved. What happens when you create a spam bot that just wants to share’ I think this is a great question to ask in the face of a digital realm that is increasingly being co-opted by objectivity. Even our emotional over-share is being folded into statistics and targeted marketing.
I suppose how this affects AGNES is that I’ve become less concerned with rationale or algorithm (a step-by-step procedure, used in computer programming and pop-songwriting) and more concerned with development and intuition. AGNES will happen in phases and communicate in ways that are less finite. The most basic example I can think of is that for some reason, the written word has become the most commonly used form of communication online. This is the most concrete and objective, certainly the best way to collect information, but not the most effective means of talking. AGNES will try to avoid it.
AGNES does things that aren’t acceptable online anymore - she collects data she may or may not use, she asks to contact you offline, she is written to behave intuitively.
To finish your residency you will be taking part in a closing event on 9th November. Is there anything you are currently working towards which you are interested in presenting to the public’
In previous works, such as Trilogy, I’d grown comfortable exploring emotional states in the digital realm through their own commodities - again, using components within culture that are meant to contain, represent, or produce an emotion. I wanted to investigate our relationship to loss, an unwieldy subject, in a way that somehow subverted how it’s usually presented and aim towards something that’s less objective. I came across a passage in a Philip K Dick novel that describes grief, or the experience of loss, as a following rather than a leaving; grief is you going with the person or thing that you’ve lost. I started thinking about an instance in which the physicality of loss is apparent. Phantom Limb Syndrome is an exact example of that. In my research, I came across a nurse scientist Dr. Cecile B Evans, who specialises in Phantom Limb Syndrome. This encounter is the point of departure for a new video work, presented in stereoscopic 3D. It will be premiered at the Palais de Tokyo and also shown at a special screening for the closing event at Wysing.