Isla Leaver-Yap: I want to talk about the tension in your work – the tension between the aesthetic formalism of your installations and the materials it displays. This strategy initially appears to engage with early structural film and video – you often use synced or looped images and sound, for example – but, by the same turns, you also reject that legacy by stressing subjectivity and content. How did that friction arise?
Charlotte Prodger: When I was studying at CalArts, I was absorbed in their 16mm film facilities. The film school was very process-oriented and works within the history of structural film. This context seemed in complete contrast to how a friend, in the studio next door to me, was spending all her time obsessively watching amateur videos on the Internet. I think she was having a small moment of crisis in her own work and got sucked into that vortex of endless content. I’d visit her at various points along the journey. She showed me all kinds of things: boil squeezing videos, kittens, porn on XTube, videos of guys cutting up new Adidas trainers with scissors and knives. We both got really into this click-watch, click-watch, click-watch scenario. There were a lot of videos of people wearing sports clothes while getting into baths of custard. In one of the videos, I remember noticing the guy was wearing a Rangers football strip. I had this sudden awareness of being someone in Los Angeles, watching someone in my hometown of Glasgow get into a bath of custard. I felt a jolt between the extreme distance and anonymity of the situation, and a moment of extreme close-up. I enjoy that feeling of vastness turning into extreme intimacy.
ILY: Some of that footage of guys cutting up trainers found its way into your installation :-* (2012). The videos were on a couple of synced monitors, while a boombox played a spoken-word narrative describing you and your friends’ experiences of early rave, gay cruising and minimal techno clubs. Did you have a sense of the assembly of :-* before sourcing content?
CP: I actually didn’t go back to the trainer videos until a year later, and when I did, I couldn’t find the original video. Instead I came across another guy, called NikeClassics, who been making trainer videos for over five years. Watching it then, I realized I’d been spending all this time exploring ideas in parallel to those I’d seen in the trainer videos: the process of measuring, cutting, aesthetics, of visual and material pleasure. I’d also been exploring the form of bodily gesture in an earlier slide piece, Desert Sign/Psychic Hand (2010), which was a combination of found Xeroxes of a man’s clenched fist, and a reconstruction of a woman’s hand copying his gestures in the desert. Film possesses finite parameters; it requires you to think about how to “fit” content inside material, within fixed-length reels, or a certain number of seconds per Bolex wind. There are tensions that this fitting-in can bring to the process of filming content, and I explore this tension in my work. I considered NikeClassics’ videos in relation to these problems, of “trainer-whole” and “trainer-destroyed”, and how this fits content into a material beginning and a material end.
ILY: With this “fitting in”, you re-use a lot of your display props, and material – it’s a continual reconfiguration or working out. You rework narrative, too. I was thinking about the boombox playing the cassette tape of you reading an email from a couple of female friends, Anna and Lucy, sent with the subject header “Re: homos and light”. They describe their time in Berghain, the Berlin nightclub, their observations of the dancing and sex happening inside the club, and also where daylight begins to seep into the room. This story also pops up in your film installation I Was Confused About the Dancefloor Code (2009/10), while the boombox player is carried over from a recent installation, Handclap/Punchhole (2011). What are your tactics of re-use?
CP: I’m beginning to approach my work as remixes of one another, rather than individual entities. The anecdotes, motifs and materials get repurposed and, as the body of work amasses, it gathers new components. The boombox in Handclap/Punchhole was originally used to emphasize the tape strip and its physical similarities with the celluloid strip– the slippages and tension of both materials. They both have a rigidness, and their pairing allowed me to circumvent 16mm’s overly romanticized, ephemeral beauty. I also wanted to use a tape player without the look of a teaching aid or old-world device, which is something 16mm projectors often give off in their display. So I used an object that resonates bling. I’m interested in the interchangeability of things – that “same but different” element. This is true of the anecdote from Anna and Lucy. Originally, Anna casually told me about going clubbing while we were chatting on MSN. It was just a thing she had done that weekend. Months later I wanted to hear it again, so asked her and her girlfriend Lucy to separately email to me their recollections of it. They differed, of course. I amalgamated their versions and edited it very heavily to fit 30 feet of 16mm film. This was I Was Confused About the Dancefloor Code, where each film frame comprises a single letter from their emails. Then, making :-* two years later, I read out both of their separate unedited emails for the tape played on the boombox.
ILY: The work seems to be triggered or activated by the structure of anecdotes you’ve picked up or overheard. It’s an uneasy narrative structure, the anecdote. It occupies that strange space between parable and evidence.
CP: Yes, anecdotes travel through time and space, with mutations in syntax and changes in content; they become versions of themselves. I view them in parallel with analogue reproductive materials (film, tape, paper), which also mutate as they move. They share a physical sympathy with the content. I’m drawn to anecdotes describing emotional experiences or interactions, which are held within a material environment of light, sound, rhythm. They’re often linked to the experience of nightclubs, where the materiality of pulsating light and pounding sound breaks interactions down into a highly subjective experience of gesture – communication becomes intensified, staccatto fragments. I place these fragments, gleaned from different sources and stages in my life, alongside each other.
ILY: Among those people whose videos, emails, and bodies you present, where do you position yourself?
CP: I present my writing and experiences as a way of meeting the videos of someone like NikeClassics. My text allows me to move around them. Some people tell me the footage I use is so weird. But I don’t think of them as weird. I’m keen not to present them as objects of touristic otherness. On the contrary, I relate to his videos. But there’s a point where my comprehension stops, but he keeps on going. He’s been going for five years! So that moment, where a line is drawn between us, is crucial to the work. It provides a space of speculation. In the new video I’m making for the Studio Voltaire show, NikeClassics wears Adidas Forest Hills gifted by one of his followers on YouTube. He goes to some bedrock and scrapes against it. He presents material actions that occur without explanation; the emotional or erotic charge of the action doesn’t require articulation. If anything, it’s deferred to the language in the comment threads below the videos. These threads provide a social context. It’s also where the title of :-* originally came from.
ILY: The comments articulate the action, its erotics. It makes me think of how eroticism belongs to a certain culture and context as much as it does to an individual – it becomes more pervasive in its permutations. But beyond that social aspect, NikeClassics’ video in :-* underlines a cyclical quality to the narcissistic gesture of the video medium. The repetitive actions are reminiscent of Vito Acconci’s Portapak camera works, where he’s essentially playing with himself.
CP: [Laughs] Just because he could.
ILY: Acconci’s gestures were so niche back then that they had to belong to the realm of contemporary art! But as these things played out within a burgeoning technical democracy, that on-screen narcissism seems to have been swallowed, generalized and regurgitated by mainstream television culture. Now it’s gone full circle: these minority tastes are celebrated within the widening margins of post-television platforms and, of course, in art, too. You’ve often spoken of your interest in queer subjectivity, a term I understand as a category of knowledge made up of a shifting constituency of people, rather than a fixed term for homosocial groups. But it’s also a problematic term because its representation of things is, paradoxically, to do with the deconstruction of those very representations. It’s a crumbling phrase. How do you understand it?
CP: A lot of my work is about men, and, as an extension of that, my masculine identity is an important part of my queer experience. I’m interested in NikeClassics’ subjectivity, for the same reason I’m drawn to displays of extreme masculinity. I often write about cruising spaces. It’s a space that is part of my critical framework as a queer individual – it’s in my sphere of proximity. But, as a female, the issue of access and denial is a complicated one. I touch on this in the narrative of :-*, where I describe travelling to a gay club with a male friend. We stop at a gas station where he gets out the car to have sex in the toilets, then he gets back in the car. I’m interested in those points of affinity and distance.
A version of this text appeared in Mousse Magazine no. 35 October 2012
Charlotte Prodger is represented by Kendall Koppe