Artist of the Month
April 2017

Artist of the Month: Laura Cooper

Our Artist of the Month for April 2017 is Laura Cooper. Her video work considers people and the places they inhabit. In this interview, she explains more about her practice, the process of filming and her upcoming projects

Tell us a bit about your practice, how would you describe the work that you do?

My work begins with an attempt to have encounters with places and their inhabitants. Put very simply, it derives from a curiosity about other people and how they relate to their environment. I am interested in the confinement of one’s awareness to our own body and the un-knowableness of other people, species and material forces. I often ask people to perform playful actions that are abstractions of their everyday situation, re-appropriations or misuses of the space in which they take place, and document them in works made of performance and installations of video, drawings and objects.

My works often start with my own awareness and sense of my body in relation to a place, as the most immediate sculptural medium in relation to any site. Subsequently, this leads me to explore how people attempt to control, measure or transcend their environment, as well as how they relate and communicate. In exploring these issues, through sometimes-absurd gestures or odd juxtapositions of actions and materials, I try to break apart and understand spatial dynamics, gender roles, socialised behavior and our relationship to nature. So although much of my work is an exploration of urban public space, I am increasingly interested in the complex relationship between humans, nature and other animals in an increasingly strained ecosystem.

Works can be diverse in scale and orchestration—ranging from creating a whistled code with a group of young men in the London financial district, documenting Mongolian nomads terminology for horse colors through western paint colors, filming a business woman climb over a public sculpture and to reenacting an ancient fox hunt in central London with a tribe of women—all are attempts to interrogate how public spaces can be inhabited and transformed, working with ordinary people to subtly or poetically reclaim them.


BIRDS, 2012

I am interested in the camera as a witness or enabler; I use it in two distinct ways that have different physical and psychological implications: either as a fixed frame, to establish a territory as a picture plane that flattens and suggests a set position to the subject where an action can unfold from only one position, or in a shifting, disorientating, relational way in a response to the subject, complicating the position of the viewer to the subject and situation. The lens contracts and responds like an eye, hand or a mouth to sound, heat, dust and light, and sculpturally, sensorially entangles the viewer.

How do you see the internet and digital technology having an impact, or being visible alongside things such as people's history, heritage and tradition? And how do you consider these things in your work? I am thinking here of Color Poem, where we see a comparison between the methods of identification used by traditional horsemen and in 'western' interior decoration, also in BIRDS, where twitter and text messaging are used alongside bird calls.

In both works, the internet and digital technology were used as filters or ways to sieve and re-contextualize place-based oral traditions by drawing attention to what is lost in this process. My work is always made in relation to place and is about a physical, material and sensorial experience of place and time, which is rather counter to the internet.

Both Colour Poem for Hyesou's Herd and BIRDS both stem from of my interest in indigenous peoples' specific relationship with the geography and landscape they live and survive within and the oral traditions that developed around these physical places. I often borrow from these traditions and transpose them into different places, activating them in unusual ways. Sometimes, in this de-contextualization, a lot is lost and a lot of new mis-representations are gained in this process of sieving site specific cultural practices or traditions through the limited understanding and representation of various forms of technology—the camera, computer screen, etc. I use technology to draw attention to the limitations of my own interpretations, framed by my own subjectivity and cultural background often arriving as an outsider.

The internet and digital technology is of course a wonderful tool to connect to other people across vast distances and create exchange, understanding and new encounters with and without misunderstandings and interesting bi-products.

BIRDS came from an interest in how groups/gangs of boys in the area of London I was living used whistles to communicate over a kind of medium range in the city, across streets, buildings and public spaces. I was interested in the tension between the gentle, almost serene sounding whistles, the way there faces softened and lips puckered to deliver this sound that was in fact territorial and deviant. I started looking into whistled languages that had evolved over hundreds of years by mountain herdsmen in the Canary Islands, used to communicate from one side of a valley to the other. The frequency of a whistle travels much more effectively than that of the voice, whistles developed into a coded form of musical language. So in BIRDS I gathered together a group of young men to recreate, learn and perform their own whistled communication game negotiating the towering buildings (substitute mountains) in Canary Wharf. We used twitter and text messaging as they grew out of how we developed the code together it was easier to create a written code with keypad symbols to back up sonic whistled communication in case it got lost in the sound of the city. I was interested in how out of place these young people felt and looked in the financial center in Canary Wharf, the phones acted as a protective barrier from being harassed too much by security patrolling these privatised public spaces, but it also created a way of scoring and documenting the performance.


Colour Poem [For Hyesou's Herd], 2015

In the case of Colour Poem for Hyesou's Herd the question is: what is lost in the attempt and process of translating a nomadic herdsman’s colour names for his herd of horses into western interior paint shades? The limited ability of my camera and colour matching online tools to capture the different shades between horses in the shifting Mongolian light become more important than what is gained. I started out being interested in the way paint brands named shades of paint with just nostalgic or exotic names such as 'Nomadic Glow' 'Lazy Mornings''Seat at the Globe' or 'Savanah dust' ; I was concerned with how you could represent and own a colour and the ridiculousness of this type of seductive and manipulative marketing language. The resulting Colour Poem was a video and number of printed charts, which are part of a larger project and installation made up of print, video and sculpture called Nomadic Glow. Nomadic Glow attempts to record—in a deliberately limited, schematic fashion—the elaborate naming system that these Mongolian nomadic herdsman use to identify each individual horse in their herd, which is based on their nuanced perception of horse coat colours and is a detailed naming system passed on from generation to generation of herds.

When visiting the Mongolian Steppe, I brought with me a range of industrial paint colour chips and invited Hyesou—a local nomadic herdsman—to match the horses in his herd through this limited selection of paint colours. The poem is the result of his selections. The voice in the video has been auto-tuned and restricted to a colour scale where colour tone corresponds to musical tone. I like the absurdity of the poem, which is a list of the colour names, laid out in a grid layout that contrasts strongly with the openness of the vast Mongolian Orkhan valley. I suppose I was thinking quite sculpturally here, by placing a foreign grid over this place in an attempt to glean some understanding or extract some kind of raw knowledge, what would remain would be as much an imprint of the grid itself.

Lure Camo

LURE, 2017 (Work in Progress)

I wanted to ask about LURE – In the film we see a hunter tracking and hunting with a crossbow as dawn breaks on the day of the US presidential election in 2016. After the conclusion of the film he makes his way to vote.

Tell us a bit more about the build up and intent for filming this work, and then since the result of the election if your are visioning it, or approaching it differently (I notice it is described as WIP on your page)?

The piece was the result of spending a month at a wonderful residency program called 108 in a rather rural part of Upstate New York. The landscape was vast and nature powerful and abundant, so very different from my experience of New York City. I began by investigating ideas about territory and appearance/disappearance in relation to the illusion of camouflage. Most of the local people seemed to wear camouflage clothing all the time; I also started seeing a lot of pro-Trump signs and pro-2nd amendment signs, people were keen to protect their way of life that seemed to be connected to guns and their territory. I realised I had to scrap all preplanned residency plans and that I needed to make contact with the people wearing camo gear and owning guns (who seemed to be mostly hunters) and I learnt that the ritual of hunting all sorts of animals from bears to turkeys was a big thing. I became aware that I was picking up on a certain tension and a performance of power, one that is often performed through gender and class.

After some deliberation and questioning from the residency director I decided to put an ad on Craigslist to try to meet and film a hunter by going on a deer hunt as it was deer hunting season. It was by chance that the filming of Lure began on the US election day although in a way it was a way of facing and addressing the mounting doubts I had about Hillary Clinton’s supposed easy win. The day before, I had met up with Patrick, who had responded to my ad on Craigslist. Patrick and I agreed to meet the next day at 4.30am at the edge of forest to go deer hunting with a crossbow (and a gun in case he didn’t get the shot). I had washed all my clothes and body in the required scent-blocking products and set off. We sat for hours in an elaborately camouflaged tent, waiting as the night gave into the light, allowing the camera to prey on the hunter who attempted to lure his prey.  Apprehensive, scared even at first now, it seems important to have made this connection, and to have spent the election day in close proximity to a man with a weapon in the woods, who, after we finished shooting, was going to place his vote.

The film is shot in whitetail deer breeding season so Patrick’s calls and gestures are attempts to perform sounds, scents and movements to seduce or challenge deer luring them into shooting range.

I am still working on this project yes, and still very much in dialogue with Patrick. I plan to meet and film him again, especially since the result of the election and the inauguration, for some reason I feel l had more time to spend with him or more to understand even if it doesn’t make it into the final work. Sometimes I sit on footage for a while and other times I can turn it out almost instantly, I am sort of sitting on this footage like a chicken on her eggs at the moment. But I am also working on realising the piece as a dual screen installation and I have more footage including an 8 minute shot of Patrick’s finger on the trigger of the gun and the gun barrel that results in the firing of three shots as dusk falls. By underscoring spatial relationships, in the film and in the installation, I want the subject and the landscape to become framed through my subjectivity wherein the viewer also becomes inexorably linked to relationships I establish, both constructed and real.


Trials in Unbecoming, 2016

Choreographing the people within your films is obviously a crucial part of the work you make. When did you first start thinking in terms of choreographing people, rather than performing yourself? What freedoms did it give you?

I didn’t begin performing in works alone; back in 2006 I started choreographing both myself and family members together involved in repetitive tasks in front of the camera. These early works such as Exercise Ice (with Dad) and Exercise Curtains at first seem to be concerned with formal painterly ideas of shifting colour fields and the illusionary depth of the picture plane/video screen but were also defining intimacy and space between people.

They involved learning about negotiating ethically with others in my works and I realised I was interested in asking people to be vulnerable, testing our relationship, communication, trust and boundaries. They allowed me to see that I was interested in the body, gesture and non-verbal communication. 

In 2008-10 I lived and participated in residencies in Thailand and South Korea; I was keen to find ways to engage with communities despite language barriers, to relate and interact with places that I was foreign in and to. So I developed the ‘Exercise’ type of task-based works in my early works as a way to engage people freely and so everyone understood set parameters that we could work within or break apart. Similarly, I started to use acts of play to structure my engagement with people and interventions, not in a frivolous or innocent childlike way but to get people to behave outside of their comfort zone and also to avoid being too in control or making theatrical gestures.

Now even if I am not performing in the work myself I feel the way I develop relationships with people and ask them to be involved and sometimes become entangled with them is in a way quite performative, it is this subjective, sometimes blurred, relationship that the works emerge from.

My work varies in staging and mediation; sometimes my presence and simple requests while documenting someone’s ordinary actions are enough of an intervention or a type of choreographing. Other times events are staged and people are given complex codes and games to interact with and learn to the level of disruption and absurdity; I am interested in the similarities of spectacle here.


Silence of the Valkyries, 2016

Often due to the fleeting or precarious relational nature of the works they are documented in video although sometimes they are only meant to be experienced live. I enjoy the control, intimacy and mediation video offers and the new relationship gained to another audience in the gallery. Editing is vital to the mediation: I let the footage become its own truth or reality through editing, which I always approach in a very musical way and most often edit to on-camera sound or to the rhythm of bodily movement to try to sensorially envelop the viewer and work on them from the inside out. The people I engage with and performances I instigate are highly attuned to the dynamics of the public spaces I document, through installing works in the gallery context I aim to keeping those dynamics or recreate them in installations that juxtapose live performance, video and objects so another layer of choreographing the viewer is present here too.

Which artists working at the moment do you admire?

I am willfully side stepping this question as there’s too many awesome practices to list and I don’t like to take the risk of excluding anyone. But over the last year there has been a few films that have really made me somersault and created a visceral and powerful reaction. I just re-watched a mysterious and unnervingly moving feature-length film called ‘The Fits’ made on a tiny budget by Anna Rose Holmer. This film made me feel physically uneasy, its a powerful exploration of the fear of ones changing body and emotions especially the adolescent body and also a timely consideration of the vulnerability of the young black female body in the USA today.
I was also blown away by the soupy Leviathan (2012, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel) that came out of investigation from The Sensory Ethnography Lab’s at Harvard University.

I admire the way artists pull together to create communities and ways of working through and processing ideas together, here I am specifically thinking about a group called the Political Animal Group— a reading group about our relationship with other species, that I was introduced to by an excellent artist and dear friend Hermione Spriggs—who also runs a group called AooA or the anthropology of other animals.

Flutter, 2016

What projects have you got coming up?

I am currently preparing for a project that will take place in May in Milton Keynes with the organisation Tracing the Pathway, in partnership with Groundworks and Milton Keynes Arts Center. Milton Keynes is a new town built entirely on a grid structure with wide streets at right angles to one another and from above, the town layout is geometrically crisp and alien to the surrounding rural villages and uneven shaped fields. I have always been fascinated by and often employ the use of grids as visual frameworks, containers and uncompromising flattening devices in my work and my project for Milton Keynes will be an attempt to soften the grid layout of the town. I hope to work with a falconer to attempt to re-imagine the right angles and dizzying roundabouts through the circling flight of a bird of prey.

I will be traveling to Finland in July for the three-woman exhibition The Third House at Titanik Arts Center in Turku. The show looks to ways to re-frame our relationship to nature and culture, exploring alternatives and escapes from this binary relationship. Here I will exhibit a section of existing works as well as a new series of prints and possibly a video that attempts to portray the reduced colour spectrum in which reindeers see their world.
I also have a few exciting collaborative projects in development. Next week I will be developing a performance with artist Ian Giles in New York called ‘we can’t make colour but we can make sound’ which will be performed at Global Committee in Brooklyn.
Later in the month I am looking forward to spending time doing some experiential research for a collaborative project with artist Hermione Spriggs called ‘Underwood’ that we will deliver at ‘In Other Tongues’ at Dartington College. Underwood will explore what humans can learn from forests as interconnected systems. Based on pioneering research exploring the idea that trees in a forest relate and communicate with each other through a complex rhizomatic network of roots and fungi, through which they share resources. The workshop is both a performative experiment in group dynamics and an attempt to make a physical map of a section of the forest. Hermione and I come together to collaborate on special projects, we draw from our hybrid backgrounds including ethnography, drawing, medical hypnosis, performance and horse whispering. This involves learning via performance, observation and experimentation.

Published 03 April 2017

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