Artist of the Month
November 2017

Fritha Jenkins

Our Artist of the Month for November 2017 is Fritha Jenkins. We talk to her about working with water, sludge specialists and alternative education programmes.

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

I’m sitting in my studio writing this now and there are large bags of wastewater I collected and bagged up last weekend lying across the floor. All quietly leaking. Up high on the wall there’s a translucent blue freezer bag full of pieces of the Thames foreshore which I collected from the river in June. It’s hanging from a nail that’s been hammered into the wall at a downwards angle, and the tied bag on the nail is at full stretch. I hung it up when I first got the studio as a temporary measure, and it’s stayed there. Precarious. Just about. Hanging on. I’m attracted to materials which are unfixed, and fluid or in transitional states, dirty and messy. I get lost in my everyday life - a lot, and recently I’ve been letting myself get more lost in relation to my work. I use browsing too, and have started going with the moments of stumbling or getting stuck, or chasing the sense of something.

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Remote Handlings, 2017. At Chisenhale Studios

Outcomes vary - performance, sculpture, video, sound, print and drawing. I'm interested in flow, in relation to; bodies, water, waste, time, power, domestic labour, care and gender. On my desk at the moment I’ve got a book called ‘Under the Mediterranean’ by Honor Frost given to me by Angela Croome, a friend and writer specialising in popular science, hovercraft, and underwater archaeology. I’ve begun working with some of the many images, texts and papers which she left when she died last year. Angela has marked passages in the book with scraps of paper. The first reads, ‘light in diving is somehow illustrated by a cathedral: for the first few metres where the windows are there is colour, but the floor below is shade, though there is still enough light and one can read if one wants. The explanation of the gradual disappearance of colour underwater is, of course, that as the sun’s rays diminish with increasing depth, so the world goes monochrome. Red disappears first, after about 15 metres, yellow is the last to go about 30. I discovered this for myself when I cut my finger at 50 metres. My blood oozed black as ink, and when I looked at my nail varnish it was black too. I can now gauge the depth at which I happen to be by the colour of my nails.’ 

On my wall by the studio door there’s a b&w photograph from the 50’s of the releasing of a radiosonde balloon from the meteorology hut in Antarctica. The typed caption on the back reads, ‘Balloon has just come through overhead doors. Snowflakes near the camera lens look very large.’ Next to the photo is a handwritten note from a friend on a scrap of green paper saying, ‘flexible as a jellyfish’, and some slightly dishevelled looking feathers I’m collecting from the streets to make a London feather Parker to wear if I ever go to the Arctic with my friends David and Rebecca.

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Orator: A fountain and a collective meander, 2015. Supernormal Festival 

Your work can be quite ephemeral, often involving processes, cycles and flows of energy. Tell us more about the materials you use – earth, ice or water, where do they come from and how these function in your work.

As a child I watched water, dug puddles into ponds, played with the colander in the sink whilst washing up, and collected rocks. My working process, alongside the materials I use has become more fluid in recent years, with stopping points in the form of exhibitions and performances, which often then transform or unfold into or as an element of the next work. In Orator (2015), I collected and transported London Thames foreshore material upstream to Oxfordshire where participants were invited to carry the rubble on a 5 mile silent walk across the fields before washing it in the younger Thames river and performing a ‘public fountain’. In Fluence (2016), I approached the shooting of video footage on site visits to a water treatment plant as live collection, gathering footage through interactions with the camera, site and body. This was then ‘treated’ (animated/cut/effected) in the editing process until settling into a new form, as commissioned video in a gallery setting. I’m drawn to systems of circulation and transformative processes of production. My installation Chamber (2016), was an ‘elsewhere’, in which objects formed from frozen Thames river water and feathers picked up from London streets were suspended. As they melted they dripped onto Anagama ceramics, ash and rocks alongside a projected film of me washing made in my bath with a POV camera. During the show I spent time in the gallery filming and made a 12 minute film, which was selected for Ruskin Shorts, Modern Art Oxford (2016) where it played out as another drier site - close up, messy, discomforting.

Using materials which are in states of transition, or by removing them from one context and handling them in another allows me to set up conditions for performance to be found, for alternative narratives to be explored, and for ‘elsewheres’.

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Tender: Frozen Thames river water, 2014. Harbour Exchange London

There is often a collaborative aspect to your work, how does this come about? How do you like to work with other artists or specialists in your projects?

I think my background as a musician probably feeds into this - I like improvising with other people, and with objects, and ideas, and in shared development of ideas with others. Collaboration often comes about through just being with people. Sometimes it starts as a chance conversation - a shared desire to go to the Arctic, or rolling pots around a friend’s studio floor, or getting stuck for a day in the middle of nowhere together. Over the last couple of years I’ve also found myself spending time with anthropologists, Japanese potters, sludge specialists and an anatomist in an anatomy lab. I met a geologist who I’d wanted to talk to about digging up clay, and asked, ‘what do you see when you look at a rock?’, at which point he jumped out of his chair and took me on a geological tour of the architecture of Oxford in which, as I crawled around on my hands and knees, he opened up narratives of distant sea life burrows, landscapes and time scales in the exhaust filled present. My most recent collaborative project has been with Meg Jenkins, who is an artist, and also my daughter - we decided over breakfast to make a piece of work together and went on a rollercoaster journey exploring power relationships and play which was shown as a performance and video piece last month. In 2015 my granny’s house had to be sold to pay for her care in a home for people with dementia. She had a love of garden birds and had been collecting feathers from the street for years and had them dotted around the house in jam jars. I saved the feathers as the packing up was happening, and took them to the care home where she was living and handed them to her. She wasn’t speaking much by then but we had a rich and long conversation with the feathers and found and experienced something together, with no predetermined goal or outcome. I use handing over as a method in my wider practice too, giving things out to the public and allowing interactions to occur. I’m interested in finding, and found, performance, and in growing and learning with others - collaboration is a space where this can potentially happen.

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[in the mouth] skltloctloctlo, 2016. In collaboration with Rebecca Glover

I noticed you have taken part in the AltMFA and also an alternative PhD programme, tell us a bit about the experience of these type of programmes. What motivated you to take part in them?

I’ve spent a lot of my life working and being involved in education in one form or another, across art, music and performance, and it has always fed into of my practice. I strongly believe in the importance and necessity of arts education and in access to free education. I’ve studied in formal institutions and value what I’ve gained there immensely but also think alternative models offer something dynamic, accessible and can shapeshift in a way which is vital in learning, and which is becoming increasingly difficult in institutional settings. In terms of Alt MFA; anyone can join, there’s no application process, meetings take place every Monday, and the curriculum and content is formed by whoever is in the group at any particular time. I joined at a time when I felt isolated and was struggling to balance practice with the everyday challenges of being a lone parent.

Through it, I’ve met some of my closest friends, who remain an ongoing source of support, and we’re still growing together - intellectually and creatively. The alternative PhD group is less established and we’re just starting out and thinking about what research might and might not be, sharing thoughts and experiences, and testing things out. A year or so ago members of alt MFA put together a recipe book. This is my recipe, some snippets which give a flavour of my experience as a member.

Handling a flyer
A friend has heard Louise and Clare banging saucepans at Goldsmiths College and taken one away. ‘Here you go’
One email
Just come along, they reply
Here you go
Sitting on the floor in a flat
Eating biscuits, listening to the fireworks outside, talking architecture and sound
Snacking at Lucie’s house
Alex is new and is drawing in his sketchbook as Rebecca talks field broadcasts
Huddling around a fire in a pub that isn’t a pub anymore
Neela reads out horror. I read from Fluid Pasts with woolly gloves on
Louise shows videos on her mobile of her actions around London at Campbell Works
George takes us on a tour along a sewage pipe and we stop; an unscheduled pony encounter
Gwen is fox
Ask that question again
Skyping Marion from her gated community I want to cry
Inflating hundreds of Whoopee cushions
Breathless listening to the story of the night time walk with George and the bones
We are unfolding Alex’s modular studio at Gracechurch street, and there’s a bell ringing on the quarter where the paper mountain used to be
Lily talks about costumes in the pub after the Michael Archer lecture
Megan is singing in the quarry near Merz barn and I’m collecting weeds with Louise around Broadway market for our sculpture which doesn't really work
Working out
For a time carpeted empty offices are everywhere. Free play
Eldi’s daughter performs with my collection of Grannies feathers from the top of the ladder. Everyone is wearing Grannies dresses
Showing together again
Unperformings are important
Going on foreshore foragings and going on foreshore foragings
Cooking, eating and washing up
Being together at Guest Projects feels like family
Naima serves hot riverside food at Artlicks and Sadie pulls a ladder out of a bag
Looking through a crack in the boarding at James and the tyres
Mapping out
Maru’s rabbit has been walking around the park with us
Sitting in a broken-down van with George for the weekend is long and Lily’s straw creature tends to go everywhere
It’s the lake district residency and Gillian is staring out the moon with me and talking about being a mum
Neela’s tights are twitching again
Don’t worry, it took me ages before I could speak in the meeting too, it doesn’t matter
Close up snackings
and open endings

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Still from Fluence, 2016

Which artists working at the moment do you admire?

I’ve never been very good at answering questions like this, but some of the people who I’m interested in or like the work of in different ways at the moment include;
Martin O Brien & Sheree Rose, the first work by either of them which I saw live was Sanctuary Ring and it left a lasting impression on me. Nina Wakeford, particularly the Maximum Overdrive takeover event which happened at Focal Point Gallery in September. The EU passport work of David Blackmore. I like some of the events and projects run by Duckie – I was at their tea party in Hull recently – I grew up in Humberside and it would have been great to experience an event like that as a child. Other people I like the work of are Travis Alabanza, Louise Ashcroft, Lois Weaver, Meg Jenkins, Claire Potter...there are many more, and they shift constantly depending on the time of day and which way I’m looking.

What projects have you got coming up?

I’m also organising a series of events as part of my Pete Lloyd Lewis Studio Residency at Chisenhale Artplace. Broadcasts with the Geraniums - inhaling the archive, is a series of conversations, performances and broadcasts with people using material from my friend Angela Croome’s extensive science papers, images and texts. I’m also having a show with David Blackmore, joint recipient of the award, in late spring/early summer 2018.
I’ve been invited to do a show at Blenheim Walk Gallery, Leeds Arts University in spring 2018. Curated by Catriona Mcara it’ll be an ‘in conversation’ between myself and the painter of industrial landscapes, Edna Lumb (1931-1992). They’ll be 3 or 4 of her paintings alongside my sculpture, performance and events. It’s still early days, but I’m interested in the show constantly changing across the 2 months it’s on.
I’m currently working on a publication, with artist Emma Cousin. Backside, reveals behind the practice, and aims to put page to the hind of the creative process, exposing the bits which might otherwise remain unseen or get discarded. We’re including exciting submissions from over 30 invited artists, and the launch will take place at Tintype Gallery in early 2018.

In January I’m running an project with Rebecca Glover at Pumphouse Gallery, which involves an interactive sound sculpture/installation in the project space which can be played/performed, and weekend sound workshops. It’s part of the education programme there.

This December I’m taking part in an event with AltMFA at Arebyte Gallery, Canning Town, in the Concertina exhibition.

Published 03 November 2017

See more of Fritha's work here>