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Heather Phillipson: Why Try To Describe It

The British artist and poet speaks about her latest video and live event and the influence repetition, montage and sensation has on her work

For Heahter Phillipson, words suggest images, and images suggest sounds, and the possible combinations seem quite literally endless. Intensely aware of the role of the voice, the artist and poet comes across as a prodigy of John Baldessari‘s philosophy of montage, but was only a child growing in eighties Britain while he taught in LA. ‘Why Try to Describe It’, her latest video and live event, in part relates formative experiences, where the overwhelming presence of images, objects and sensations creates a vitality of interactions.

Dazed Digital: What first inspired you to use cuts, repetitions and contrast techniques to bring together your videos, art and poetry?
Heather Phillipson:
Greed! I’m only half-joking. Making, I think, requires omnivorousness. It involves an acknowledgement of multiplicity, being taken by different intensities from different sources. The jumps between modes reflect this displacement of a ‘centred’, objectifying point of view; they allow for contradictions, refutations, non-sequiturs, mis-directions. Also, I don’t see images, sounds and texts as necessarily separate. A principle mode of the work’s expression is plasticity. Perhaps every image implies a word and every word implies a sound and every sound implies an image, an object, a sensation.

Music, for example, is a brazen undercurrent in my moving images and events. They’re underscored by rhythm, repetition, key-change, tempi, counterpoint. They attempt to be contrapuntal in the philosophical sense: even when linear, opposing elements coexist and conflict within them. At the same time, music punctuates the images and voice-off, suggesting song. Its placement alongside speech gives the tone of some strange, blank opera. To paraphrase Godard, it’s a regret that life’s not lived in music. So I could say that my practice – mixtures, leaps, doublings-back – is compelled by an emptying of the brain, plus the crazy idea to include (almost) everything. Why live simply when it’s so easy to make life complicated.

DD: In ‘A is to D what E is to H’ you’re very aware of your own voice. You talk about ‘the voice’s’ boring tonality or your momentary inability to control what it says. Would you say your artwork is almost about poetry?
Heather Phillipson:
Thomas Bernhard wrote that the moment you say something, you find you’ve made an ass of yourself: ‘Open your mouth and a ridiculous statement is sure to come out.’ Maybe the work is a confrontation with articulation. Speaking, image-making, living – it’s all improvisational, potentially humiliating; like starting a sentence, I have no idea when I start making a new piece how it will stop. It’s a series of surprises.

Regarding the voice, the unabashed use of first-person speech is a verbal undressing. It invokes the schism between the (disembodied) voice and the corpus it inhabits: the mouth is a portal for both language and sensual/embodied experience. Also, speech is inherently social: it’s a body addressing itself to another body. This, in turn, relates to the use of humour as a fundamentally communal device; Wittgenstein likens it to playing catch: I throw the ball, you catch it, you throw it back. But sometimes the other person catches the ball, then puts the ball in their pocket.

I could say that the works are a kind of audiovisual catch. Hence, perhaps, the monotonous delivery. My style of delivery could certainly be described as monotonous. It’s the voice of a person who recognises that they are, in all probability, a congenital moron.

DD: How important is it to perform your voiceover live rather than record it as part of the film’s soundtrack?
Heather Phillipson:
The live body/voice is crucial for the ‘talking pictures’. I am, if you like, the video’s pit-orchestra – a visual cue which displaces attention or, at least, returns it to the immediate physical site in which it’s experienced. These events function like a Beckettian double-act in which two characters are essentially the same character talking to herself. I like the idea of the recesses of being trying to communicate with the outer layers. The dual voice sets up an absurdist relationship to the self, while underlining the tragic impossibility of ever escaping it. And all along, the body as the material origin of vocality is consistently visible. To return to Bernhard, the body and the mind are, as he puts it, gruesomely interwedged.

DD: The piece ‘A Mark on the Wall’ starts by looking at the narrator’s own inability to focus on one view or thought. Is one of the subjects you’re interested in the clash between different media we’re subjected to from all angles?
Heather Phillipson:
It’s true: we’re subject to an invasive and relentless visual, aural, tactile and olfactory bombardment. As Bifo says, ‘Attention is under siege everywhere.’ We inhabit a cognitive space ‘overcharged with incentives to act.’ But I like this; it satiates (and exceeds) my appetite for stimulation and action! Yet there’s a question of how we navigate these stimulants, like selecting dishes from an infinite banquet. It’s all much more complicated than it seems because, I think, much simpler than it seems: you just pick up what picks you up. Like love.

Heather Phillipson's 'Why Try To Describe It' is screened this Friday 9 September 2011. 6.45pm at the Vitrine Gallery