ALICE CHANNER with Barry Schwabsky
The day after the opening of British artist Alice Channer’s current exhibition at Lisa Cooley Gallery (Cold Blood, through December 23), Barry Schwabsky met her at the gallery on Norfolk Street and they decided to stroll across the Williamsburg Bridge to Brooklyn while discussing the show and its background in her two educations.
Barry Schwabsky (Rail): You installed your show in only one day?
Alice Channer: And a half.
Rail: Okay, the half makes a difference. But why?
Channer: Why did I install it in a day and a half? I only had a day and a half! Because of the hurricane. But I think I planned it as much as I could. I prepared it, I built a model. And I think I know the objects quite well and know what they want. Luck was on our side, it seems. We had great installers.
Rail: I always think of you as an artist who knows what she wants. I remember the first time I saw your work, I think it was at the Frieze art fair one year, it must have been 2008, and the Dicksmith Gallery had some pieces. I was really taken with them and had a long talk with those guys about them. They told me that you were still a student at the Royal College and that they wanted to show your work, but only after you’d finished your degree. Which certainly made sense to me. But it seemed like the work was already very resolved and already very certain of itself, and not very studentlike. So from the first time I’ve seen your work I’ve seen a sort of clarity of intention.
Channer: That’s funny because at the time I felt very, very committed to being a student. I went to Goldsmiths to do my B.A. then I went to the Royal College to do my masters. And each time I applied to a college I just applied to that one because I felt so certain that that particular college would give me something unique that I could use as material, that that was what I needed at that time. I went to Goldsmiths because I wanted to be a conceptual, critical artist and I thought that that was what that college was. It was completely interdisciplinary. You have absolute freedom, anything is possible. That’s a really tough position to put yourself in, I think. And I wanted that to begin with. But by the time I finished there I had some really specific questions about objects and I was fascinated by this range of objects called sculpture. I wondered what that was. And I had also begun to get quite frustrated because there was a lot of emphasis on speaking about work, presenting work. I always felt like people would respond to what I said rather than to the works and the objects I was presenting. So I wanted to go to what was, I thought, a very traditional, conservative sculpture school. And the Royal College seemed to be a place where sculpture was seen as the big heavy object in the middle of the room. I think it’s changed a bit now, but it was like putting myself in an environment where I had the luxury of parent to rebel against. But more than that, they had all these workshops, all these technicians, and I knew that I could go there and that it would be like a playground. So the two art schools I went to really formed me—I think I used them as material to react with and against, and now I look back at them and I see them as the mind and the body. Goldsmiths is the mind and the Royal College is the body. And they’re both kind of equally dysfunctional extremes, but in my work I want the mind and the body, I want both. The body and the mind.
Rail: Was there a big gap of time from when you were at Goldsmiths and when you were at the Royal College?
Channer: No, I went straight from one to the other. I was 26 when I went to art college. There were various reasons for that. But one is that in the United Kingdom we have something called an art foundation course, which you go to before you go to art school, and it’s in order to decide whether you’re going to be a typographer, a graphic designer, a fashion designer, chair designer, fine artist, and you spend your first term there doing all these different things. Then you decide and you specialize and you make your portfolio and they help you apply to art school. But anyways, I went to foundation first, and I wouldn’t admit it to myself at the time, but it was too difficult. Because I knew I really cared about art. But it was really, really hard and I think I wasn’t ready for that. I needed to be free for a bit, and grow up. I went and did my English degree but, mainly, music was really important to me. I was really involved with electronic music. I went to live in Brighton and I became part of this sort of free-party scene—techno-parties in the hills outside of Brighton. And in a funny way, at that moment music gave me something that art couldn’t. It became a way of being in a world that art couldn’t provide me with. And it’s only recently that I’ve come back to think how important that was. Anyway, after I did an English degree, I finished writing a dissertation on Samuel Beckett, the materiality of the language in his prose. I finished and then really quickly thought, right, I need to go to art school. That’s what I should have done all along. But I had no way of paying for it. It was going to be quite difficult, but I managed.
Rail: How did you manage that?
Channer: I worked—the most important thing was that everyone that I loved told me that I shouldn’t do it because they didn’t understand why I would make this big change. I knew it was really important because I was determined to prove them wrong. I worked in advertising agencies and design agencies doing research for several years and I saved up the money. Then finally, when I was 26, I got in. I think that it took me that long because I had to be so determined to make it happen. I really used it when I got there. It was great. I think that if I had gone there when I was 18—whoa.
Rail: But, you know, a lot of musicians’ careers, since you were talking about music, are practically over by the time yours started.
Channer: I think art takes a bit longer. I would say it’s harder.
Rail: It’s taken us a long time to get to where we can actually see the water as we walk the bridge. Did you expect that?
Channer: No. That’s the reason this bridge is remarkable to me. Because of the scale of it. You have to walk so far onto it. It’s this massive industrial structure unlike anything that exists in London. Or maybe the London Underground. I’m always aware that when I’m in that I’m in this huge underground industrial structure. It’s like a giant machine.
Rail: One of my favorite places in New York, which I bet you’ve never seen, and if you’re interested in things like that, you should go: the George Washington Bridge bus station.
Channer: Nope, I’ve never seen it.
Rail: It’s not very large, but it’s got an extraordinary roof that was designed by an Italian engineer called Pier Luigi Nervi who apparently is a special person in the history of structural engineering. Yeah, parts of this bridge have that old fashioned technological—
Channer: Blade Runner was a really important film for me because of the way that it sees the future. This thing that William Gibson says—oh, what does he say?—just that the future is here, that it’s mixed up with the past kind of time that we live in. I think that in the works in the exhibition, I’m trying to layer different kinds of time. There’s industrial time, because of the materials and the way a lot of them are made, also post-industrial time, especially in the works using these digital prints, which are incredibly flat, then there’s pre-industrial time—a lot of the works use bronze, which is a metal from antiquity, or even earlier, from the Bronze Age. Like the layers that you see in the city, different kinds of time.
Rail: There are also different kinds of forms of representation in the show. I was very surprised to see the fingers which are not just traces of the body as you’ve had them before but representations in a full-bodied sense, no matter how fragmentary.
Channer: Well, to go back to art school, it seemed to me that there was one really kind of cliché thing to do, which was make a full body cast. So I never did that then, but I can see why people would do that, because it’s fascinating to cast part of your body and look at it. And the casting workshop was full of these body casts made by decades of students—attached to the walls and the ceilings. It was a very strange workshop to be in for that reason. So about a year ago, I started making casts from my fingers and I was laughing as I did it, because I thought, “Oh, Alice, art school, you never did this in art school, it takes you this long.” It also seemed an outrageous thing to me, to make something that figurative. But my finger is right at the edge of my body. My fingers are things that are used to touch but they are also things that are used to point, and this goes back to wanting to have a body and a mind in the work because I want to touch things and I also want to point at them. Pointing seems to me to do with the eye and the mind; touching seems to do with feeling and the body.
Rail: But at the same time, you don’t think to look at what it points at, it just points to the gesture of pointing.
Channer: Yesterday someone asked me, “What do the fingers signify?” I didn’t know how to very gently say to him, “I don’t want the work to be a sign or a symbol.” I want the works to be objects. Not just to do with representing something else. I want them to be things in their own right. The cast fingers are made in a very specific way—they’re made of two different metals. Some are cast with bronze, which is very heavy. When I hold it in my hands, even a small cast of a finger, it pulls my hand down. Some of the other casts are made with aluminum, and I always thought that aluminum has such a strange materiality. Whenever I pick it up, my hand moves up. It’s like helium.
Rail: It’s an airy metal.
Channer: It’s weird. If you look up aluminum on Wikipedia, it says aluminum doesn’t occur naturally. It’s dispersed amongst other elements. So it’s only in the last 100 years that it’s been possible to extract it in big enough quantities for it to be used. So I see that as a sort of very dematerialized metal. And it doesn’t have as big of an art history as bronze. So using those two metals seems to me a way of including, in a really practical, experiential way, different kinds of time in the work. Some of the fingers have been sand-cast and there is a guy in London in a big, open air foundry, it’s just a sort of roof structure and its near the Thames barrier. You can bring any object and he’ll push it into sand on the floor and then fill the imprint with metal. There’s something really primitive and energetic about it, and fun. But then others—I made 3-D scans of plaster cast of my fingers—and then when I had the 3-D scan, I stretched it, then I made a 3-D print from the stretched finger, and then I made a bronze or aluminum cast from that. As I was doing that it felt to me like sort of pushing my fingers through virtual space. So they’re made in very different ways. Some of them have a manicure as well. I took them to a nail bar on Norfolk Street, just a block down from the gallery called the Le Chic Nail Salon, Inc. And I took five and a half of the fingers to the nail bar. It cost me six dollars for them to be manicured without their cuticles being pushed back. I can show a picture.
Rail: That’s amazing. Oh, we have to ask them if we can have one of those pictures in the magazine. So they just used the same equipment for metal nails that they use for actual nails!
Channer: Yeah. I used a very dark grey nail polish. It seems to me a very industrial color. I suppose it’s like the color of this bridge. It’s got this sort of off-ness to it; it’s a slightly uncomfortable color to use as a nail polish. Between something human and something non-human. The title of the show is Cold Blood, and it come from a David Attenborough box set of DVDs that I was watching in the summer called Life in Cold Blood. And they’re about amphibians and reptiles. Reptiles particularly fascinated me—
Rail: I thought of Truman Capote when I saw the title—In Cold Blood. But that’s a very different thing from David Attenborough and reptiles. Although I think that when we call someone a cold-blooded killer, we’re thinking of them as reptilian. Anyway, this is your first one-person show in New York. How does that feel?
Channer: It’s really liberating. Of course it’s a big moment. I feel like in New York you sink or swim. It’s part of culture here. In London it’s just a bit quieter. It seems like everyone comes to see things here, everyone make their minds up. At the opening people were asking about the work. People don’t do that in London.
Rail: And what does it mean to you to make an exhibition as opposed to making work or making a group of works?
Channer: That’s a good question because I see myself as an exhibition maker, as much as I see myself as a maker of a practice and as a maker of individual objects. I would describe it by saying that when I make an object it feels like holding myself in several different places at once. One of those places is in the place of an object—an autonomous, complete sculpture. But the other place is in the way in which the object will relate to the other objects that I’m making and to the room that they will be shown in. I wouldn’t call it site-specific, but I do think it’s responsive. I’m fascinated by stretchiness, in really literal ways. So I have to use elastics in the work, or objects that are stretchy. A lot of the materials in the work are used as if they are liquids.
Rail: Yeah, you kind of stretch things, but then you freeze them in their stretched state.
Channer: Yes, they have to solidify in order to make an exhibition. I always feel when I finish an exhibition, things change state—they solidify. And also I walk away, they’re not mine anymore. So I turn my back—my job is to turn my back face-forward, make my next works. But it’s my responsibility to arrange these objects in a particular way, in a solo show, that will never happen again.
Rail: So then do the works just become sort of souvenirs of the exhibition? Let’s walk north now that we’ve touched ground in Brooklyn.
Channer: I hope they don’t become souvenirs of the exhibition. I think of them as beings—I think they have a memory. I think that they have a body as well as a mind. They’ll go on to be shown in group shows on their own. And they’ll be recognizable as themselves, but they’ll have changed. One way to describe it is to say that they have the character of clothing. If I lent you my coat it would still be recognizable as my coat, but it would look completely different because you’re a different person.
Rail: So tell me a bit more about some of the other “beings” that are in the show. For instance, the floor pieces with the polished bars and the casts of leggings.
Channer: Those floor pieces are an attempt to make a backbone, in a really loose way. It’s me thinking about figurative sculpture. I think all of my work is figurative, but figurative without a body. I’m also wondering why in figurative sculpture would the figure always be a human figure. And I was looking a lot, when I was making the backbone pieces at the skeletons of snakes and other reptiles, which are horizontal. It’s also a backbone for the room, so the room becomes a kind of body. But it’s made of particular materials which are materials made by humans, and they have a really interesting relationship to life because they’re materials that protect us, but they also threaten us because they’re toxic. The resin particularly—I started working with colored resin this summer, sort of translucent polyurethane resin, which I hadn’t worked with since I was at art school. I found a way to use it as a flat surface, which is strange—and all of the works are made of flat surfaces. That’s just my sensibility. Whether I like it or not, I’ve always made things from flat surfaces. But the resin, which is a liquid, I make a cast from, and the cast is taken from a pair of Topshop stretch stirrup leggings. But the cast is flat; it’s only one side of the pair of leggings. And that’s a strange thing to do because usually the cast is a three-dimensional object. So it’s a flat cast, but whilst the resin is still bendy and soft, I take it out of the mold and curve it around a piece of curved metal to give it kind of shape and movement.
Rail: Kind of wavelike movement, typically.
Channer: Yes. And the floor at the Lisa Cooley Gallery is this polished, shiny, wet-looking concrete, and that to me seemed a really exciting surface to put this weird, reptilian backbone on. But they’re brittle as well, I mean they’re hard, though they were once liquid. And then the metal bars that they’re moving across are aluminum that’s been curved and then chromed. And I think of the metal, of the aluminum, as a liquid. The only reason that it can be curved in the way that it’s curved is because it was a liquid. If the temperature in the room was different it could still be a liquid and that fascinates me about metal. All metal is essentially liquid that has solidified in a particular shape. So there’s the long, long kind of backbone sculpture, and I guess those pieces kind of move towards these two—there’s this movement from the horizontal—that sculpture which is horizontal—to these two very, very extreme verticals. They’re called “Primordial Fluids.” They’re attempts to make classical columns which will hold up the ceiling of the gallery, but the columns are made from massively, violently stretched images taken from the sides of Pantene Pro-V shampoo and conditioner bottles.
Rail: From the shows of yours that I’ve seen, you always like to have recurrent elements and then introduce new ones. Is that a conscious thing on your part, or is that just reflective of the way your process of thinking and making things develops? Is it about bringing your audience along with you?
Channer: I think my work is me being in the world and picking up new things, continuing to kind of process things that still interest me. It is theatrical to make an exhibition, and I want to bring in new things to do that—sort of unknown elements for myself. In a really simple way the show is me being in the world at a point in time, and it’s a way of existing.
Rail: When you said “a way of existing” you made three horizontal gestures with your hands—what is that horizontal?
Channer: You seemed to be talking about something horizontal; the kind of layers—and there’s this horizontality that in the last couple of years really emerged in the work. So in the South London show there were the first—they were the first very long, low, horizontal free-standing sculptures that I’d made. And in this exhibition, that’s kind of continued; there’s this sort of horizontal movement that really I’ve started to realize is like a kind of evolution [laughs], which seems to me utterly ridiculous. You were asking me about what it is to have an audience, and I think it’s a really difficult question to ask because I feel making an exhibition is political because of the responsibility that I have. You’re given power as an artist. Because you’re an author, so what is it to do that? I don’t think I make obviously political work at all, but if I have the responsibility to make an exhibition, I don’t want it to be just one thing that I restate again and again. I want it to be many different things, because that, to me, is what my existence in the world and with the world and as part of the world feels like. And so I would describe the work as me talking to myself and talking to the world that I live in and the objects and the materials and the processes that it’s made up of, and that we interact with as part of our existence. It’s not made as a message from one person to another, but it’s not made in ignorance of the fact that other people will come to see it.
Rail: So in the politics of this work and of exhibition making, even if it’s not polemical in that sense, to what extent is the accent on gender politics?
Channer: I get really frustrated when I feel that people—I don’t see myself as a woman artist; I see myself as an artist. I’m using my subjectivity to make work. Part of my subjectivity is made up from my gender, but that’s just one part of it. I think that’s complicated by the way in which capitalism repeatedly identifies me as female. We’re divided up in order to be sold to; we’re put in different boxes, and I’m using all of those materials and I’m using the things I’m attracted to, the things I want to buy. Do you think I’m making women’s work? Why are you asking me that question? I felt like that’s a question that I should evade.
Rail: It’s not that I have a certain answer that I’m looking to hear about that.
Channer: I was looking back over the catalogue for the South London Gallery and I noticed in my bio that a lot of the three-person exhibitions I’ve been in have been with three female artists. And often people would say to me, “Oh it’s a group show; it’s all women.” And I’m usually the last person to realize that.
Rail: Yeah, I tend to think with those kinds of shows there should actually be a token male just to have somebody out of category.
Channer: I also feel like my job is also to evade categories, and I wouldn’t want anyone to fix the work as women’s work. I think that would limit it. A human first, a woman second, and an artist third; or a human first, an artist second, and a woman third?
Barry Schwabsky is a poet and the art critic for The Nation. His recent books include Heretics of Language (Black Square Editions, 2018) and Landscape Painting Now (DAP, 2019).