Interview Fiona Crisp

Fiona Crisp was artist in residence August 2015 and it has taken a while to finish this interview.
But now it is here!

Skype conversation between Fiona Crisp and Tone Myskja 

Tone: You’ve been to Norway twice? One time in 1999 and one time in 2015. When I think of your art practice as I know it, it involves spending a long time in relation to a space or the space you have chosen to work with/in. Both your visits to Norway have been short in relation to time. I am interested in how this affected you working process in Norway?

Fiona: Yes, you’re right, in both instances the actual time that I was working in Norway was very short but the thought processes that proceeded those visits were really quite protracted. When the first opportunity came for me to come to Norway I was really pleased because for a long time before that, I had wanted to make photographic work in the northern hemisphere during the summer when you have light nights, but still I wasn’t sure how the work would manifest itself. The images that I took from the hut in the mountains were not consciously made as ‘works’ and, to be honest, it took me a long time before I recognized those images as being able to function. So, in answer to your question, sometimes I do spend long periods of time actually in the place but for other series of works, it’s more to do with the time I spend beforehand, thinking about a place combined with the time afterwards, mentally and literally processing the work and recognizing what functions.

It’s quite an interesting thing – often the vivid images that you think at first will be the work, end up being discarded and the quiet images that stay in the background and that you can’t quite assimilate, they end up being the important ones. That’s how it often works.

Fiona Crisp Norwegian-series no 3


Fiona Crisp – Screenshot

Tone: Yes, that is fascinating. Very often when you spend so much time thinking and constructing you might lose something on the way and it is the work that you haven’t thought so much about that has a quality in themselves.

Fiona: Yes, but I think that idea of construction is really interesting. There is no construction in terms of conventional post-production (photoshop for example) but I do very much think about construction in terms of what comes before and after the image being made. I work a lot with the specifics of how the camera is placed in relation to the world – in this respect it is not necessarily what is being looked at that is important but how that looking takes place.  And then there is the process of really working with the subsequent image – how it’s going to be shown, which images are going to be shown with it, how it’s placed in relation to the viewer – all these are elements of the construction. It’s quite a complex thing but ultimately it is about a relationship with the viewer. It’s only with a viewer that the work comes to fruition and it completes itself.

Tone: Yeah, thinking of constructions, when I got to know you, you were working with a pinhole camera which in some ways are taking you away from the viewfinder or away from looking at the view. And now, the last time you were in Norway, you had constructed this box or space you were looking through. I felt there were a similarity between those two boxes/objects although with a very different function. It seems that you always construct something in front of the view, a distance.

Fiona: Yes, very much, it’s that space that happens behind the aperture of the camera – whether there’s a lens there or not because, of course with a pinhole camera it’s just the copper hole. But it is also often the space that I create in front of the camera.  Both these ‘rooms’ I think about as proxies for the head or body, so a visual/intellectual space but also a felt or embodied space.

I was working on the spaces for the images and video works that I’ve just made when I came to work with you in Norway, for about three months before arriving. For these I constructed a number of models or rooms which would then act as a kind of framing device or prism through which to look at the landscape.

Tone: So in some ways, it’s a second view. You have the view of your choice and then you create the body in front of the view again. You are looking at the view that is looking at the view that is displayed. That’s quite interesting.

Fiona: And I think it’s also about creating a liminal space – a passaging between an interior and an exterior and thinking about what sits on the boundary. This passaging is literal but also psychological and the spaces play with our notion of what is visual and what is habitable space, conflating the two…. For instance the ‘real’ image of the fjord that the camera is looking towards hangs like a cinematic projection on the end wall of the ‘constructed’ room so although we intellectually know the relative values of what we are looking at, we are nevertheless having our perceptions messed with!

Tone: I remember when you had the artist talk in Hov (Søndre land, Norway) in August, some people felt that this box was somehow alienating the viewer, or keeping the viewer at a distance. Maybe alienating is a too strong word, but distancing the viewer from the image.

Fiona: Yes, I think that’s true. It’s very like the way architectural models work, where you experience both the interior and the exterior simultaneously. It’s quite a peculiar position to be in and can feel alienating.

Tone: Especially now with your latest work with the architectural model box and the view of the snowy mountain landscape scenery on a very far distance. Something very strange is happening and especially with the third element of including sound. Maybe it is interesting to talk about the sound, especially since you’ve now been working with video and not a still image. And you said that it was important to have the sound in real time. How is this affecting your work that you’re suddenly working with sound and moving images?

Fiona: I think that’s something that I’m working through at the moment. It does create a very different temporal space for the work – not only because it is a video rather than a still image, but also because you are experiencing  sound simultaneously. This interests me because, again, it places the viewer in relation to that idea of habitation. In some senses, the sound makes this act of the landscape being framed and limited for us explicit: we can’t perceive our normal angle vision and we are only offered a very prescribed view of this vast landscape; But at the same time, you can be experiencing a sound which is really intimate. So you might be hearing an insect at very close proximity whilst you are looking miles into a distant landscape, disrupting the idea of the sublime. And I think in relation to Norway particularly, the areas that I have chosen to work – the overview of the fjords, the lake, the waterfall – these all feed back into ideas of the picturesque and the sublime in Norwegian art and identity.

Tone: I noticed when I went up to one of your locations, the one by the lake. It’s so beautiful. I wanted to take a picture, but it’s not possible to frame what I see with my eyes and body. The camera limits the view. And that’s interesting how you construct these views and take us away from the place.

Fiona: I’ve spoken a lot in the past about the ‘failure’ of photography – in a sense that’s what motivates and interests me as much as anything else.  When I place myself and the camera in these phenomenologically powerful locations – whether it’s underground or whether it’s vast views of landscape – I’m thinking about the failure of the photograph to embody our felt experience of these places. It’s interesting how we are in an era where people are pushing more and more for experience to be recorded though – you know skydiving with GoPro cameras….

Tone: Yeah, people carry them everywhere.

Fiona: ….but still, at the root of it all, is this phenomenological failure.

Tone: Nowadays, if you go to a pop-concert, what you see is people holding up their telephones, continuously filming the concert. They are experiencing the concert and at the same time recording their experience. This is a very different way of experiencing/relating to music compared to just a few years ago. It will be interesting to see how this will develope in relation to more non-commercial situations. Now it is mostly selfies infront of big international names or historic, touristic places.
Talking about that, you have also been working in historic places or sacred places. Like the ones in Rome, the churches, the catacombs and also the other subterranean spaces? Were they also open for the public to visit?

Fiona: The show Subterrania brought together five different series of works that were all made in various underground locations over quite a long period of time. The catacombs were the beginning of those underground works and these were spaces that I experienced by chance when I was in Rome in 2001 for a fellowship.  I just went on a tourist trip to the catacombs and was astounded by the sculptural presence of the space and the idea of them being a kind of architecture made by extraction rather than construction – in that sense, they are spaces with no exterior. I ended up working in the catacombs for four months using pinhole cameras – which seems entirely perverse as there was almost no light at all so the exposure times ran into several hours.

Looking back at my work over the last 20 years I can see that these subterranean works fall into one of the two main tropes of space that pre-occupy me.  There are the liminal works that involve a passaging between an interior and exterior as I’ve already described; and there are the hermetic spaces that are entirely interior like the catacombs.

Another series that is occupied with this hermetic space is the images that I have been taking in performance auditoria – theatres, concert halls etc. Like the catacombs you are removed from ordinary timeframes but in a theatre space this is for different reasons. In a theatre we are expected to suspend our usual perceptions of space and time to construct a new, temporary reality.  I am fascinated how this impacts the construction of the photographic image that I make because all my work is ultimately concerned with a type of ‘impossible space’, that’s what I’ve been wrestling with all these years – it’s how to create a space which is essentially impossible.

Fiona Crisp – Subterrania

Tone: Like you were talking about auditoria, it ́s a space where a lot of new thoughts have been developed, knowledge gained. It is somehow still there in the walls. Is it something of that atmosphere or energy you want to get hold of?

Fiona: Yes, but they are also spaces where that act of looking is very explicit. The works that I’ve been making in performance auditoria place the camera on the stage, looking out at the audience but having the view compromised by the stage lights pointing directly at the camera. It therefore reverses the idea that camera looks at a subject which is illuminated and instead places the camera itself as the subject on the stage. So everything that you have been told about photography – never to point the camera at the light for instance, is undermined. It’s also problematizes light which is another thing that runs throughout the work – how light functions in the image.

Theatre Royal, Fiona Crisp

Tone: This is also very alienating with the light directed towards you. The light is strong, dangerous in a way. And in your installation at Matt ́s gallery you have these benches, painted grey, that gives them a metallic feeling. You combine hard elements/materials together with these very beautiful images. Are they some kind of a keep away sign?

Fiona: It means that there is some kind of ‘push and pull’.  With the benches, there is the invitation to the viewer to sit and when you sit, you directly feel bench – in other words you have a haptic experience with the material. For me, the bences allow for a ‘license to look’ that is both concentrated and distracted.  The park bench is a particular trope of exterior seating.  By bringing it into the gallery (and alienating it as you say into this silver grey) the viewer feels they are being invited to watch a work or series of works in a concentrated manner.  At the same time though, the nature of the park bench speaks of resting, taking in a view in a relaxed, distracted fashion. So the ‘act’ of looking becomes part of the choreography of the installation.

Tone: Yeah, that’s very nice. You invite people to watch, take their time, to be able to take in the whole space.

Fiona: You’re pushed away from the images, because you literally can’t inhabit them but yet you have this experience of inhabitation and presence with the seat in itself.

Fiona Crisp – Matt´s Gallery

Tone: You have worked a lot with scientists. And in your work, it seems to me that you have some kind of a scientific attitude. How did this relation/collaboration start? And how did it work?

Fiona: It’s difficult to say, I guess it’s another layer of perverse desire to try to wrestle with things that are imperceptible!

My working directly with scientists was really initiated by the final series of works for the Subterrania exhibition. These images were made at the site of an underground dark matter laboratory that is housed in the UK’s deepest working mine. It is one of the sites around the world where they’re looking for the 95% of the universe that’s unaccounted for. Again, like the catacombs I was really struck by how physical this space was.  The laboratory and all its equipment has been set up over 1km under the earth and the effort to do this, along with the ongoing health and safety regimes of keeping it going, is staggering.  And all this physical effort is so that the scientists can detect particles that can never be seen or sensed directly – only indirectly as a trace. So you can see how this all plots back into my preoccupation with impossible space!

Slowly I’ve developed relationships with scientists who are trying to vision the universe in some way. For example I’ve been working a lot with different groups of scientists in Durham, UK (which is near where I’m based in Newcastle).  One group is the Institute of Computational Cosmology where they have developed a doppelganger of the Universe from data. They use this second Universe to test out hypotheses and to achieve all this they use one of the biggest computers in Europe – COSMA. So I have been filming this powerfully physical thing (the computer itself) as a way of approaching the deeply abstract and invisible concept of a Universe built purely of data.

Tone: They are trying to contain it in a way?

Fiona: Yes and the computer itself is so physically powerful mostly because of the incessant noise of the cooling systems.

So at the moment what I’m building on is the relationship between the phenomenological, physical presence of the spaces and apparatus of fundamental science on the one hand and the abstract, imperceptible areas of human knowledge that is being pursued in them on the other.

Tone: It sounds very natural from how I know your work that this would be a space that you would be interested in doing work in. It sounds very exciting.

Fiona: Yes, it has taken me quite a long time to understand that all these works really orbit around my central questions about photography – about what we are looking at and about how we perceive the world.

The COSMA computer