Another interview from the Spectres of Spectacle commissionees. Nathan Walker discusses FANTO his 'graphic score' for Forest Swords' Ground rhythms project.
Nathan Walker is co-founder of O U I Performance with artist Victoria Gray. Together they programme contemporary time-based performance in York, North Yorkshire, including the amazing Action Art Now.
This interview was conducted by email on 27th September
you can see a really nice interactive of FANTO on Nathan's website here
This piece we've commissioned from you is a funny one isn't it. In a way I feel like we've asked you to employ some of the tactics you've developed with objects and actions, in trying to express someone else's message. Of course, the result is very your work, but do you have a different feeling of ownership over it? What was the process?
Its always difficult responding to other people's work, but useful to come at your practice from a different angle. I think I've been quite privileged to hear these three tracks, basically on repeat, when the public will only here them once on x-ray vinyl, but conceptually this is comfortable territory. The core of my practice is live performance which sits at the margins of art because the work always only happens once, in a live situation, everything after the event is a representation - like a photograph or a review. So I'm into this idea that Forest Swords is, in effect, making tracks for a live performance situation, and resisting a commodified objects like a CD or downloadable tracks. Although an important distinction to make is that performance art is not self-destructive and these x-ray vinyl's are, but that's what I liked about the project. Its a situationist idea, like Durutti Column making their album in a sandpaper sleeve so it destroys itself and the other records on the shelf. Its nihilistic and that's an appropriate notion for digital music in 2011, to undo itself and resist the finite. The score I've ended up making is, as you say, another work in itself. I've called it FANTO and its really an attempt to produce a graphic translation of the three tracks. I think I was wary of this score as being the equivalent of photographic documentation for a performance, so I tried to make it difficult for myself by using analogue processes to begin with; techniques and tools that related to unique performative production like typewriting and letraset, and so there were a number of stages and drafts that distorted the process, so I could never 'undo' it (in a photoshop sense). I then scanned these schematic versions and processed them digitally. The result is an artists book, where each of the three pages is a graphic score for each of the three Ground Rhythms tracks. There are images as well as letters, and letter-like things, shapes, things that index and rhyme with other things visually but this is not a musical score in the traditional sense. I did however transcribe musical notation from a piano sample on one of the tracks and include that. Also it isn't really a textual translation but a kind of hybrid, I was thinking about the idea of an X-ray and the use of light and chemicals, so the scores are printed in wax onto transparent sheets and hand-bound with an eyelet through the center, you can't read them separately, doing so would mean you had to destroy the book, but you can turn them in 360degree directions, which means that the configuration has the ability to change and alter, they're not rigid, the pages move and so in a sense their meaning is fluid. This idea is also explored through the print, as we printed with wax, so if you warm the pages the ink will run and the marks will be destroyed. Hauntologically I wanted to reference the idea that ghosts trouble the visible, ghosts appear but are invisible and there's something of that in FANTO responding the Forest Swords' initial inspiration for the tracks being places that are no longer there.
It was also difficult not to create album art (although maybe this could make some interesting album art) but instead make a book object, something which I do anyway but something that pushes my practice to attempt new things.
Could you point us towards some influences on this kind of page work? I know we spoke about 'dirty concrete' poetry at the beginning of the process, but I can see now that there's something here about text in a broader sense, as graphical arrangement.
I always work on pages, even when making performances, the actions are given titles or assigned symbols and how they overlap and map themselves into the space begins with the page through drawing and writing, plus I often work on more than one thing at the same time so they influence each other. I make a lot of collage and they are restricted, strictly, by certain rules. This is a private part of my practice and although I show some of these on my website they've never really been exhibited anywhere but I keep making them and they definitely inform a kind of innate composition making game that I'm playing with my work. I think this is the main influence for FANTO, placing things (images, words, non-words) next to and on top of each other to create relationships and its tripled by the fact that the pages a placed flat on top of each other and you can see all the way through them, I even played all three tracks at once on my computer to see what they would sound like. Other influences came from poetry, artists like Steve McCaffery and older concrete works like Carlfriedrich Claus who was a poet and graphic designer but FANTO is much sparser than these works, there's a lot of space for the pages to move into, when the audience engages with them, they'll really be able to make their own texts. I did try to reference some of these influences by using the type-face 'Futura' which was a favourite of the concrete poets.
Another material I used to make the work was a collection of images from 'Gestuno' which is a photographic version of international sign language, I have a book version from 1975, which is full of photographs of people 'performing' sign language for the camera, with tiny white arrows and other symbols to show how the action is performed, I liked this as a reference to action AS text and notation AS sound, it seemed to work really well with these tracks, something to do with deforming form at the point of the signifier - which is a McCaffery idea, something that he says sound poetry does.
You're a performer and poet, right? But a lot of the work I've seen of yours lately hasn't involved you performing in a sense that I'd expect. There seems to be some sort of tactical game involved where objects, images and words, are explored in terms of their relation to each other. How did you get to this kind of practice, and what's next?
I would never say I was a poet, but I think poetics preoccupy most of my processes. My interest in poetry, specifically L/A/N/G/U/A/G/E Poetry and Objectivism, have led me to consider arrangement, reading, composition, layout, order and notation and apply these to my work. If I'm working with objects in a performance or images in a collage I always approach them as texts and think of these activities as language experiments. I'm not really sure how I got to this point in my work, I have a background in Theatre and teach on a theatre course but my practice developed beyond theatrical forms and into very non-theatrical action based performance activities. I'm at a place where the distinctions between the different forms I use has blurred. Its not a conscious decision necessarily but I've found that making collage and making texts, interrupts making performance, they inform each other. In one respect these approaches are similar but the outcomes are different. I work with material objects (words included) and arrange these on a surface (a page, a screen, a room) my body is the trouble, carefully and carelessly getting in the way. In terms of what's next I think I want to explore video more, I made my first video-work this year for the Hunter Gatherer Exhibition at Project Space Leeds, and I'm really keen to make collages for camera with post-production text effects, everyone else seems to be over video and maybe I'm behind the times, but I keep on talking about how collage is time-based and so its a necessary next step for me. Working with sound is also becoming important, speaking and shouting text in performances, using analogue recording equipment and sound poetry play a big inspiration for that, so once again I find myself reading about poetics but I'm very clear that its not poetry.
All this arranging of bodies puts me in mind of curatorial practice. You've got an amazing programme of work planned with OUI Performance - the organisation you run with Victoria Gray - want to tell us a bit about that?
Victoria and I have curated a forthcoming series of events entitled 'Action Art Now', its a really exciting programme showing work by the next generation of performance artists, outside of an institutional canon. There are only a handful of place in the UK and indeed the world that promote this kind of work, and I think its the largest programme of action art in the UK for a long time, and its very grassroots, we run the organisation from our dining room, just the two of us and we're a great team. Action Art Now starts on 8th October 2011 with events in Nov, Dec and Feb 2012. Then in June 2012 we're doing an Action Art Now Weekend with a great line up of artists from the UK, Ireland, Venezuela and Japan. We started curating performance art in York because we were tired of not being able to see the work we liked and because York's contemporary art scene was virtually non-existent, since starting in 2010 we've shown over 25 new works by artists from the UK and Europe and now the city is beginning to change, more groups are forming and more artists are running their own events. Action Art Now is funded by Arts Council England.