Katherine Bull has been practicing as an artist for two decades. Last month, she put together an exhibition at the Michaelis Galleries which was part retrospective and part opportunity for reflection on her practice, with a series of open conversations set in the space. Bull’s work has often been performative, treading lines between digital and analogue media. With that in mind, we met physically in the space and then followed up with a Skype chat. The conversation we had is below.
Chad Rossouw: The title of your show was Lessons in Transformation, which has two curious terms: lessons, implying some sort of pedagogy in your practice and transformation, which is altogether more mysterious (I presume it doesn’t mean corporate transformation)
Katherine Bull: The title comes from a performance I did last year at the Cape Town City Hall called Lessons in Transformation_The Speech.
CR: So it does refer to political transformation?
KB: In that case I was reflecting on political transformation. Where have we come since Mandela’s speech in 1990 on the steps of the city hall? But it is also was an acknowledgement for me of noticing a cycle in my own practice. In this performance I seemed to be revisiting my MFA body of work Positioning the Cape: A spacial engraving of a shifting frontier (1996-8) in process and content.
CR: What then was the broader transformation?
KB: For this exhibition the title Lessons in transformation was intentionally ambiguous. I wanted to reflect through the mode of conversation on what has the transformation been in my own practice over the last eighteen years, question my role as a lecturer in tertiary education and my private teaching in which I use creative processes for personal transformation. I saw the conversations as the ‘lessons.’ How visitors to the space would engage through the visual documentation and prompts and reveal to me aspects of myself through their ‘eyes’.
I was challenged about the title by a few visitors (in the light of discussions around transformation at UCT), which led to some good conversation around what is transformation for each of us. I did realize that it might be contentious, but I did not think that some might take it literally and see it as exclusionary or that I was taking an authoritative position. In hindsight, I should have put a question mark at the end.
CR: Why did you decide to have a series of conversations? Why is it important to reflect on your practice through others?
KB: To help me see the wood for the trees, to help see blindspots, to be on the spot. As my work is performative, it is relational to those who come and engage. It is not only my performance but also how I see teaching as an exchange. If you stop learning through your exchange then you are dictating not growing knowledge.
CR: You talk about a cycle in your practice. Why did you feel it important to reflect at this point in your career?
KB: Josh Ginsburg had this book with him when he came to have a conversation. It reminded me of the need to spring clean. The past comes back to remind us of what is the same and what has changed. So the idea for wanting to publish an artists’ book reflecting on my work emerged from noticing myself revisit previous concerns (socio-political ‘frontiers’ and the historical archive) and processes (engraving). After my MFA work in which I interrogated the colonial archive within an intricate engraved installation drawn from a reconfiguring of printed representations of the Cape at different frontiers of time (15th, 18th & 21st centuries), I moved into working with investigating the shift from analogue to digital in representation through a series of live portraiture drawing performances (data capture series). Then in 2010, I began inverting the process of drawing in a digital space from life to drawing or painting from live and moving digital source material.
CR: Lets shift towards your actual work. One of the most noticeable things is that you consistently put impediments in the way of representation (like using left hand, painting videos, etc)
KB: I can trace the origins of the impediment in part to my training in undergrad as a printmaker. In the printmaking process there are aspects of deconstruction of perception (like colour separation), mediation of process in that you are working indirectly from one surface to another and then handing over to the mechanism of printing where you are not sure of the outcome. The deconstruction of perception has played out from the early engraving series (Colour Separation 1999), through the digital drawing performances in data capture series (2004-2009). I can see the surprise element of not being able to see what I am doing play out in my more recent work where I am working with front and rear projection in painting. Where with the rapid movement of the subject I am on the edge of control. This physical frontier of perception and dexterity points towards an unlearning and the making of memory in the present, particularly when I am working from archival references.
CR: What do you feel you gain from this approach?
In the case of the ambidextrous paintings from live webcams or Skype connections, I see the impediment more as a prosthetic or expansion of seeing, while also splitting the recording in two and therefore acknowledging the viewer’s active role in the perception of the work.
I see the impediments as a controlled way of surrendering to the moment and the unknown. There is no room to think or be self-conscious when I am doing a live digital drawing or painting.
Bringing awareness to the present moment is important for me as it is drawing attention to the creative action as a powerful process of potential connection and disconnection. The contingency of the moment that you can never quite grasp.
The conversations during the exhibition helped me to see the threads of this back to my MFA work. I was interested in spatio-temporal measurements and the impact of larger cycles of time, like the turn of the century as moments of change (or transformation –used here to imply a big change– or turnaround). I explored notions of the ‘frontier’ as an unstable zone – where parallel and often-opposed ideologies co-exist for a time before one takes dominance. And seeing how this is a powerful yet volatile creative space. In the mid-to-late nineties this was the case, and I see parallels now in the global challenges of environment and political climate.
CR: The digital or technological often seems to play a role in your work. How does this play into your search for the moment, or for connectivity/authenticity?
KB: Information technology and digital communication technology are often seen as spaces of disembodied connectivity. I think I have been trying to draw attention to how the body can interact and in fact be a space of deeper empathy and connection.
But this takes me back to your question from our conversation in the exhibition around am I trying to find authenticity by making it physical and visa versa? And does this imply giving more importance to the analogue?
CR: Exactly, does authenticity lie ultimately in the physical and analogue?
KB: I do not think I am doing this due to the process base and performative aspects to my practice. In this way the digital and analogue are shown to be relational and the authentic is the experience of the moment that can never be recorded. And as I move between the two –digital and analogue– a parallel can be seen in my ambidextrous process. Where by drawing attention to the multiplicity of viewing, the perception is always a projection of the past, albeit a split second before.
In a few of my conversations, there were some nice observations made about the residue of my painting performance for the exhibition implying an in-between space or the fourth dimension. I like that people were sensing multiple dimensions to experience and the searching beyond what we see.