Ed Atkins on bodily fluids and death

The groundbreaking young moving-image artist on disembodied heads and emotional rawness

Arts+Culture Q+A
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Taken from the January issue of Dazed and Confused:

If you had to pick one artist currently having a profound impact on his contemporaries, you would have to choose Ed Atkins. His films burst the concept of what moving image can be, touching on ideas around CGI, high definition, the representation of surface and the use of sound, poetry and narrative. He programmes almost all his computer animation himself and writes exceptional stream-of-consciousness poetry that feeds into his works. His rise has been meteoric over the past two years, with solo shows at Tate Britain, Chisenhale and PS1 and pieces in the Venice and Lyon Biennales. He is the current Whitechapel Gallery writer-in-residence and was one of the finalists in the Jarman Award 2013 – and he only graduated from the Slade School of Fine Art in 2009. We decided to have a chat with him about what roles disembodied heads, internet trolls and bodily fluids have in his work.

Dazed Digital: There is something emotionally slutty in your work. What is interesting about feelings?

Ed Atkins: I’m just trying to work out who the character is that I often end up speaking through in the work. It’s often quite sweary and a bit abusive. It’s a bit over-the-top and it’s probably a response to the demand on a lot of us to mediate our emotions, the way we actually feel about things – your public presentation through social media. But also the professionalised way of being. It’s this thing attached to an emotional rawness blurting out desires and demands. Almost like a troll. That anonymous figure that probably has a Facebook account and it’s all very nicely tended, like a nice garden, but then they have this other side designed to write horrendous or abusive or sexy things.

DD: It’s rare in a conceptual art context to see something expressing emotion. You’re not supposed to be talking about how you feel...

Ed Atkins: Absolutely. If there is any risk in the work, it’s the risk of suddenly realising I’ve been speaking about closely autobiographical things. Offering one’s own vulnerability in order that the audience would go with that and feel that. 

DD: The disembodied head is a repeated motif throughout your work? why?

Ed Atkins: A lot of it comes from surrealist and Bataillean theoretical things, and the philosopher Julia Kristeva – her comments around abjection were particularly  important. The severed head was really to underscore the fact that this thing was dead. I’ve been filming things with a camera for quite a long time – never a person’s face really, a lot of backs of heads. I wanted a protagonist and to get to that point where I could have a figure, but I didn’t want what would happen narratively. Writing about the ethics of these things and the mask, I finally worked out that I could have a face if it was a CG face because it wasn’t a real person, it wasn’t harming them in any way by capturing them – I was inventing them dead already.

DD: It is a great metaphor for the deadness of objects, the deadness of the medium. The fact that film is a non-living thing.

Ed Atkins: Exactly. It seemed important that so much of the work would return an audience to some place or something where their body was felt again, particularly in the cinematic thing that worked so hard to detach the viewer from their body – viewers in chairs in the dark and just projecting into this world. That you could be returned through the sheer deadliness of this thing that would remind you that you weren’t dead.

“I like it when you feel risk, when you haven’t taken the advice that it’s dangerous to confuse ‘professional’ with ‘private’”

DD: Is that why you use glares or breaks or smashes or holes? Because we are seduced by the image that is broken or cut?

Ed Atkins: Totally. The most pleasure I ever get is in creating a really particular space that then is so far away from the next space that the transition is travelling faster through time and space. That you land back and that you’re shunned, in a way. All of this spectacular stuff would seduce and then reject you. A lot of this stuff started with me trying to understand the movement, the part of the body and the medium and the image itself and how convincing that was. Then obviously CG adding this extra thing. Its entire attempt is to be more and more convincing, but it can never do that without undoing itself. If you watch really heavily CG films they can’t resist adding another bead of sweat, but at the same time showing exactly what it can’t do.

DD: You do a lot of your own programming, which is surprisingly rare with Digital film artists. You’re appropriating code – is that how it works?

Ed Atkins: It’s just about getting really good at using certain tools. I’m getting more help, particularly from one guy who started off just doing the hair for me. At the same time, it’s important that I get to find the footage again. I get loads of versions sent back and then I play with it. It’s always lots of transparent layers and then I can start building up again. So much of the imagery in the last three videos is like, 20 to 25 layers. You have the background and then a shadow on that and then maybe one other thing, like a plant here, and each one of these are transparent PNG files.

DD: The repetition of phrases or words in your work is reminiscent of Lucky’s monologue in Waiting for Godot, when the words pour out of his mouth.

Ed Atkins: It is. I’m coming up to this point with another piece – I’m going to have to lock myself in a room for a long time and completely give in to this thing where the distance between me and it isn’t really there any more. 

DD: One of the reasons your work might be more successful and progressed than your contemporaries is because you are dealing with that embarrassment.

Ed Atkins: I like it when you feel risk, when you haven’t taken the advice that it’s dangerous to confuse ‘professional’ with ‘private’. The best feeling is when you look at somebody’s work, particularly someone you know, and you go: ‘I don’t know you, do I?’ 

DD: Your use of sound brings to mind online R&B mixtapes when you hear the buttons being pressed. the clicks, the presence of technology.

Ed Atkins: In a way it’s cowardice that I rely on other cultural forms as my reference in order to not have to think about art or something. I never was that interested in art, really. Literature, cinema and music definitely – if there was ever a hierarchy, art would be right at the bottom for me. I think the image is built up mostly like a paragraph. I tend to think of everything textually, I guess. The punctuation functions like syncopated rhythm. The marks sort of judder around the place and upset themselves. I’m using punctuation with impunity. I’m terrible really; a grammar pedant would have a field day because I’m throwing colons and semicolons in all over the place.

DD: It’s a perfect reflection of how technology is influencing language.

Ed Atkins: Yeah, and I think again it’s precisely that point of trying to understand how one is represented through that stuff. The next piece is more explicitly around trolling. Sort of ‘fuck grammar’, but then shrill, perpetual, hysterical. Like Cassavetes in Husbands. It’s just this histrionic performance.

DD: There is a lot of fluid and liquid imagery in your pieces.

Ed Atkins: A lot of that grotesquery comes from that bodily aspect, but also it’s a paradigm of CG. Liquid, hair - these things that are excessively difficult to do. There’s a software called RealFlow for liquid, which I’ve just started using. In my latest one, Even Pricks, there’s quite a lot of gloopy liquids and it’s super excessive. The desire to talk about love, sex and death – ridiculously big things like that – is a desire to get to a limit, find what’s possible within representation. I want it to be super-viciously artificial, but telling you to check the mole on its shoulder.

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