Interview between Mer/Maggie Roberts and Tony Marcus.
London. April 2011.
Do you mainly work now by yourself? When we first met in 1994, at London’s Cabinet Gallery you were part of the collective 0rphan Drift. But now you work alone?
Mer: “Yes. Mostly. But still 0rphan Drift, now 0rphan Portal, is always present. I still believe very strongly in hive minds and in that kind of collective unconscious software concept that William Gibson came up with. I’m helping my friend Delphi Carstens work out his PhD which is about manifesting the apocalypse and Ranu Mukherjee and I are planning more collaborations as 0rphan Portal next year. I do feel very linked to people even when I’m working on my own. But working in a studio in a cocooned environment by the sea at the bottom of Africa, I am very alone. There’s no one around me locally – there’s people who appreciate the work but rarely someone who gets it in a way that I find inspiring. I am approaching galleries. That will be different. And I am completely connected by the internet, in a very honed way… but not in physical proximity with the people I’m collaborating with. Which is a new experience.”
When did you move to South Africa. How long have you been working like this?
“Eight years ago. But work has only been a serious part of my daily life again for the last four years. I had a break, travelled and built a house and studio after 0rphan Drift’s intensely collaborative process of 12 years.”
And to clarify, when did 0rphan Drift finish?
“It doesn’t ‘finish’, but rather phase change. Two of us, myself and Ranu Mukherjee are still collaborating but she’s got triplets and is following an individual art career in San Francisco so the collaboration isn’t continuous which suits me as it’s partly why I moved away from London. The other two core members, who want to remain white label, are pursuing other trajectories for now.”
When did you leave London?
And what was the last work you did as 0rphan Drift?
“As the original collective, there were 2: ‘Century City’ at the Tate Modern in 2001, where we did an 0d tag poster with much sheen and gleam called ‘Slik’. And subsequently we did a big 5 screen video installation in Vancouver, called ‘Double Walker’ when I was already in South Africa – we all remade certain movie moments specific to our differing current locations- a response to 0D being geographically far flung and nomadic. Ranu and I then made the video/animation ‘A Wilderness of Elsewheres’ in 2009-2010 – a futuristic post apocalyptic installation piece. I sent her the video and loads of stills and then we both made a screen each with the same material.” By then we were collaborating as 0rphan Portal.
But for many years you worked together intensely as a group. You lived near each other…
“Within quick cycling distance.”
I feel, when I interview you, that we’re doing a sort of rock’n’roll interview… it is like ‘there was a band, the band is sort of mythic, and now you work solo’…. So I feel this rock’n’roll narrative. But when you were working as 0rphan Drift did you see yourselves as art workers or an art collective or a kind of band? Did that come up?
“More the idea of the white label. That was very important. Band would involve personalities and egos and stage image. All very exciting but we were actually trying to deconstruct individual egos so we were more like a white label electronica group in a way. Digital music completely influenced the rhythms and structures of our video work – feedback loop, replication, different textures – it was all utterly music oriented. But definitely not the band idea.”
Recently there has been some media and writing about 0rphan Drift. Sometimes I really feel you have left this mythic, almost rock’n’roll narrative behind – and there is interest. Isn’t there?
“And in response we’re developing a large archival website because we have very little public record of anything we did. And we don’t want to disappear down a black hole because we were absolutely part of an avant-garde underground phenomenon in London for a decade. I’ve accepted that is now past tense – which has granted an interesting freedom. That took me a few years to do before I got deeply involved again in art practice -to stop feeling loss and nostalgia for a particular context and manifestation.”
And there was an essay about you recently by…?
“Simon Reynolds. We were ‘Renegade Academics’ along with CCRU in an essay Simon contributed to ‘Sound Unbound’, DJ Spooky’s book. There’s been a few others. Many reviews, an Audio Arts interview, also in Fringeware Magazine. And my colleague Delphi Carstens has written on me in an article called ‘The Image as Contagion’ which is on my website. And there’s a chapter on us in his forthcoming PhD.”
To recap. You’ve been working by yourself at the end of the world – from a small village at the bottom of South Africa. And you were saying it took you some time to let go of the past, to let go of London. But then what happened?
“I will never let go of London. And I spend time there regularly, keeping London art connections going, gathering material to splice with the African influences. Yoga practice is helping my focus immensely. Also living by the ocean, frequency wise. All those theta or alpha waves, the deep subconscious pulse which I’ve always been into. A lot of my contributions in 0rphan Drift were mesmeric trance like hallucinations of dreamy liquid worlds. So living by the ocean was actually a natural, inevitable experiment for me. I still feel completely part of the London art scene in terms of what I’m interested in making work about, what I’m using, materials wise and in terms of formal influences. And with the internet matrix, in many ways geographical location is less obvious in a lot of work made now.”
You were initially making video in Africa?
“Yes, but never only video, and then I had some interesting conversations with Ranu where we both decided that possibly discrete objects would be an interesting thing to experiment with rather than video installation. It came out of talking about redefining ourselves and 0rphan Drift’s identity. I just genuinely believe that 0rphan Drift is this sort of avatar, predictive signal, and science fictional entity. I am still completely channeling it, possessed by it – and as for the definition of who I am as an artist, it’s quite a ridiculously hard position for me. I’m not even sure what my name is. And all that’s a legacy from being deeply involved in the collaborative artist/avatar 0rphan Drift and it’s a bit of a setback or handicap when people who don’t understand that part of my identity ask me my name and I can’t easily answer. So now I’m trying to deal with personality construction – I hadn’t realised how deeply I am committed to all that hive mind stuff.”
Which was the attempt to…
“Deconstruct. Somebody once did a kooky reading on one of us and said she was ‘disassembling her DNA’ which I thought was the best compliment ever. And we basically achieved that. Working in a slightly drug addled zone mostly. But that’s just a fast track way of doing it. Now I’m finding Yoga is a much more grounded way of experimenting with the boundaries of the self.”
The work you’ve been doing recently, the paintings and collages, I find it hard to tell the difference between them.
“That’s great. That has been my huge formal experiment of the last few years. I’ve been involved in a very alchemical fluid process – looking at surface marks, gesture, paint and sheen media fused with collage elements. Because a lot of the works I’m making are images of sort of mutants that inhabit a fluid environment – whether that is artificial fluid, alien fluid or earth fluid. They are not really referencing a geographical ‘scape’ – more space or texture that is fluid, perhaps abstract, quantum.
In relation to the ‘formal experiment’ – you have been looking at paint, pigment, techniques, ways of using paint?
“Ever since I was at art school where I was attempting to merge the monumental stillness and otherworldliness of Piero della Francesca with the alchemical iconoclastic materiality of Sigmar Polke. I’m interested in viscous texture – the becomings and accidents you get in floating seas of experimental liquid and varnish. I’ve been working with things that repel or attract each other or fuse. Like water and oil don’t work together. They repel and create interesting magnetic fields and strange attractor zones in pigment. And I’ve been flicking bits of glitter and gold leaf and using all the trade secrets that I’ve spent a lifetime fiddling with – how different mediums react alchemically and how one can make sheen surfaced collage elements e.g. photographs and magazine cutups, become seamlessly meshed with painterly gesture. I’m interested in the way things work together or don’t work together in fluid. It suits my current work- mutations and evolutionary possibilities, global warming and becoming amphibious. And always I’m trying to achieve the translucent reflective quality of a screen from which the images emerge. Another way of fusing media- the digital or cinematic screen and the canvas.”
And I like the intricacy I see in some of the work.
“Certain detailed areas in the work are getting more and more like bits of Persian miniature as I start to do very fine work. Explosive bits dripping off or mutating from there. And then there’s the central collage elements where I’ve been using a lot of source images of underwater deep, from the regions where everything is completely alien – all those skins, sheens, weird tentacles. And also a lot of haute couture elements from magazines – both the far out fabrics and taking for example an image of a model and cutting out the tendons in the neck and putting that into the computer so that it becomes abstract flesh with a bulge. And then you stick that on somewhere and can start to grow a body. So it is a very painstaking but intuitive process.”
Has it taken you a long time to find this working method?
“I think I spent about a year, while I was wondering who I was, cutting out bits of paper day after day until I had this entire floor of color and shape that I’d cut out and disassociated from the original source material. Then I could pick out and re-assemble. I was going to assemble artificial intelligences but they became these beings – more like avatars or constructs, part-human. I’ve been thinking about environments, contexts for them, which is what I’m working on at the moment. The kind of ‘Solaris’ autistic ocean worked well for the last video piece, but I’m wrestling with portraying a more digital ‘quantum plenum’ right now.”
The environments are backgrounds for the beings, the par-humans?
“Sometimes I put them on massive bits of photographs. Feedback loops are happening a lot in the work process. It’s very 0rphan Drift – there were photos we used for the show at The Cabinet Gallery – through a friend working in a photography lab at night I was able to access the equipment and produce all these 20×16 luscious, drug-addled trippy cybertastic sheens. I actually took some of these with me to South Africa and they have become the grounds for some of the collages. Not all of them, but some, where appropriate. This and other feedback tactics – imagery that re emerges and goes into the collage, perhaps changed in scale, or is ‘photoshopped’ into something using replication and distortion – all those lovely Photoshop tools. And then maybe I’ll paint that as a watercolour. It’s the same techniques we used in 0rphan Drift of skimming across multiple media simultaneously and looking for unexpected ways of weaving them together or re presenting them. I’m still doing that. Hybrids both in content and technically.”
I’ve seen some of these painting-collages. The ‘hybrids’. They form very attractive surfaces – the colors, the blues, the gold leaf, the light – do you experiment with form and technique until you arrive at something that looks ‘attractive’, pretty even.
“That’s interesting. I really love aching beauty, whether its fabric or sunset or light-plays. I’m inspired a lot by fabric these days. Couture is making some wild sheen tech fabrics. There’s a gothic-ness, a deathliness, a liminal presence in the beauty I try to create. I just love Alexander McQueen. I like his beauty because it fascinates and compels but there’s something eerie about it. I couldn’t be satisfied if a whole picture was just pretty.I can’t really do pretty generally.”
I know it is very subjective to say ‘attractive’ and ‘pretty’ – but I have a feeling that visual artists are aware of certain registers or images or ways of presenting images that are successfully read as ‘attractive’ and ‘pretty’. I imagine that having power over those zones is part of the business of visual art.
“Indeed attraction is the tool. As an artist you should know those zones intimately. They are part of your manipulation tools.”
Unless you deliberately walk away from them. Have nothing to do with them.
“I’m hook line and sinker a lover of beauty. But beauty that is unsettling, uncanny, sublime.”
Is there anything we haven’t mentioned that is important to you?
“There’s a phrase I saw or read in something recently- ‘evolutionary fever dream’. I thought that was a very beautiful phrase. Because it suggests both the deranged and ecstatic and future possibilities, which are things I’m very interested in… it’s reminding me of J. G. Ballard’s ‘The Drowned World.'”
The phrase ‘evolutionary fever dream’ makes me think of the character in Phillip K Dick’s novel ‘Martian Time-Slip’ – the boy who can see the future, in glimpses. He can see these terrible high-rise buildings on the surface of Mars peopled with lonely, suffering pensioners. An old-age version of himself. And you used this book in your own ‘0rphan Drift’ book (‘0(rphan) d(rift)> Cyberpositive’)- that boy has some kind of future dream, feverish, haunting – he sees glimpses.
“Manfred. He was autistic and outside linear time.”
But you like ‘glimpses’. Or maybe seepage from other worlds and times. I often think that was there in your video work.
“Still is. I never want to be didactic. I like glimpses, suggestions and contagion. Bleeds. ‘Holes, hooks for the future’. That’s Nick Land.”
Ever take that literally. Do we humans get hints or glimpses of the future?
“Yes. Oh yes. I think we do. Culturally. Collectively.”
In those sci-fi books the story is often that ‘the world isn’t as solid as it seems’.
“But that is another ‘fiction’ that you take for granted after some serious ketamine moments…”
I love the near final scene in The Matrix were Keanu sees through reality and realises that it is all flashing, streaming green code. I always think The Matrix is ridiculously significant…for me anyway, mainly for that scene.
“Yes indeed. My other favourite was the 2nd Predator film.”
Why ‘The Predator’?
“Because it’s very sexy in an inhuman reptilian way that seduces very well. The idea that the predators coalesce in moments of extreme human violence – that is the premise of The Predator movies, that they hunt around the energy of violence in humans. It may not be so important but it made me think about intense frequencies and things that we create or emanate without taking responsibility for what is produced.”
I suppose ‘The Matrix’ is quite positive in comparison. Because when Keanu sees ‘through’ reality, it becomes something he can master. He can manipulate the world revealed as code and flux. But I suppose in your work, the sense of other realities is more Lovecraftian – we see through the fabric of linear time but what is on the other side is not necessarily benign – the place on the other side can be uncanny and unknown. Even horrible.
“I don’t think in only Lovecraftian terms. Also Deleuze and Guattari, William Gibson, Voudou, China Mieville, Maya Deren. I think the ‘other side’ is her white darkness, beautiful but somewhat un-nerving, terrifying even because it can’t be navigated as a fixed boundaried self in linear time. In that vortex you fall into…you’ve got to dissolve into it. My house, where I live, is called ‘Liquify’. My email is ‘Liquify’. It’s an order to become liquid. Preparation for the future.”