Brixton Conversations, 2015
Published: 01 July 2016
Tell us about your practice at the moment, how would you describe your work?
My work usually comes out of a specific context, that could be a place, a group of people or an area of investigation. I often work through research, and directly with people to gather stories, objects or other information which becomes part of artworks. Although it could be called site-specific it's often about multiple, interconnected sites rather than one site. In fact what I've been interested in for a while is people's connection to place as they move, and how identity and belonging shift, and how these affect places.
I’ve been working along several threads of practice for past few years which do connect but also have quite different modes and outcomes. One of these is a long–term series of works in Brixton which look at the way migrants have shaped the area through their personal narratives and objects, and connects this to wider global narratives of material culture, trade and migration, and to current regeneration issues in London. This has mostly taken place through a collaborative group called Anchor and Magnet which I set up with Kate Theophilus and Barby Asante, and is very much an engaged practice.
A second thread is a project I set up with my sister Rebecca in 2008 called Origination which is autobiographical in part and investigates our family history through a series of journeys to places our family lived where we have made performance, ritual, film, and other works. These are usually made in collaboration between the two of us. Both of these threads form part of a practice-based PhD I’m finishing writing up at the moment, which focuses on salt as a material poetics of migration and regeneration, linking my family history and others stories from Brixton.
I’m also doing a project working with faith communities and their craft practices to make a textile work as part of a UCL based academic project, called Making Suburban Faith.
Finally I’ve recently started an ‘artists residency in motherhood’ which is about the day to day reality of being an artist and a mother of a 1 year old and trying to keep up a more spontaneous practice alongside this. I'm blogging about this here>
Anchor and Magnet Newspaper, 2013
The concept of heritage comes up a lot in your work, as something specific to both an individual, community and location. What is it about Brixton which makes these investigating this so important?
I started looking at the context of Brixton after I’d been making work with my sister about our family’s nomadic and migrant past. I felt that Brixton encapsulated both many stories of past migrations and struggles around identity, and also a real current political issue of how these pasts are negotiated within present changes. Like lots of people I felt a personal connection through family history and politics. Whilst heritage is specific to individuals and communities in my work it is also something that is all too easily co-opted. I wanted to try and tell stories through my work which interrogate how pasts are used in the present.
It's problematic because Brixton has become a major focus of the battles over gentrification and regeneration in London and there are multiple claims of ownership. I think as an artist you can't necessarily offer answers but you can ask questions, and sometimes just putting yourself into a scenario asks a question.
So one of things I'm interested in in Brixton is to engage with the different structures of place making whether that's community groups, decision makers, commissioners and to try and really question the sort of language that's being used, and how decisions are made. Because the word ‘heritage’ is very loaded. I think recent political events have shown how easily people can be manipulated through language and the sort of latent prejudice that can be brought out. Being half South African, part Jewish, I am very aware of the complexities of heritage and identity. I feel very strongly that we need to be critical about simplifying heritage or wiping out parts of it that aren't convenient for people to remember at this point in time.
The Brixton Museum, 2016
Conversations, and the stories which come out of them, are an important part of some of your works. How do you create projects which make people want to talk?
This way of working evolved over a long time from originally working with young people and using participatory video, and the key idea there was about giving people a voice and the technological means to control how their voice is presented. So I try to create situations which invite people to talk, and make it in a space which is theirs, and in a way they feel at home in. One way of doing this is through a process of making which I'm interested in as a methodology, how making in all its senses creates a different thought process and therefore conversation.This is an idea we've used in Figure Ground, another project I'm part of which develops situations for artists working in the public realm to share practice, through making.
Its also about asking the right (or wrong!) questions, and being relevant to people. My own involvement in activism and community work has also informed my practice.
I think there's a sort of commitment you make if you ask someone to engage with a project. I would still acknowledge my authorship as an artist but I would also acknowledge their contribution and make an exchange, give them something back.
I often use contracts as a way of formalising this exchange, or give them an artwork for example the Memory Preservation Salts.
A Game of Dominoes, 2013
Often your work is produced for, and with, a community outside of art galleries and audiences. What scope does this give you? What are the challenges?
As I said I came out of working as a community worker, activist, and educator so this is the context I started in, and in fact it took me quite a long time to call what I did an art practice. I think that the scope of working outside the gallery world is that it is much more possible to connect with non-art audiences and participants and to build trust. I have worked in galleries quite a lot as an educator and I think that my sort of practice often still sits within gallery education or outreach and is making a transition but doesn’t always fit easily into expectations of the kind of work galleries want to present and audiences want to see. One of the reasons is that outcomes are unpredictable, and I like that aspect of the practice but I think it’s a difficult one to quantify and present. There has to be a huge trust placed in the artist. I have to say though its really rewarding to work with people and produce work that they then feel they are represented in, or connect with.
The challenges are that this kind of work is still struggling with its value and I mean that in a number of ways; I think situated and participatory and relational and socially engaged practices have been much debated but it is still very hard for critics to say what makes this kind of work successful, and whether it can be judged on aesthetic terms and whether its social value actually makes it more problematic.
It also doesn’t recognise that a lot of artists cross over between modes of practice and like me also have a studio practice and make work that isn’t participatory. So its easy to get labeled as one thing. And often challenging to make a living solely through project work, especially if you self-initiate. I’ve been doing a project with artists group Figure Ground documenting conversations with artists who work in the public realm, and it was fascinating as many artists exist on a kind of edge of this practice, unsure whether to name themselves for what they might lose, or because ‘public art’ as a title is so contested and means different things to different people.
There are lots of challenges of working in communities outside galleries but I’d say some major ones as an artist are to do with retaining your sense of authority and self-worth in your practice when so much of the art press and art world doesn’t review, present or represent this practice.
You often work on projects with you sister, tell us a bit more about the process projects go through with you both working on them.
Well we’ve always had this thing where we speak on the phone and find out we’ve both been thinking about the same thing or reading similar stuff so we often share ideas and I guess that’s why we started working together. The first exhibition we did together we made separate work but I think soon after that we started working on Origination and Rebecca made her MA show work whilst I made some work for a group exhibition at Ovada in Oxford and we helped each other to develop that work, and started writing a back-and-forth letter in a book that continued over a long period.
Its very different working together on a residency when we are intensively together and maybe trying to develop work or make a piece, or go out and source materials. Most recently we worked on a joint commission for Biddulph Grange Garden in Staffordshire and we developed the ideas together, went off and did research and then finalized the designs by sending drawings back and forth. Then I did some of the physical making but by the end I was 8 ½ months pregnant so I had to stop and Rebecca took over and finished it in Nottingham – and then did the install. It is quite complicated because we are geographically quite far apart so we tend to be most productive when we meet up and spend time together.
We recorded our conversations during a residency in 2012 and its interesting reflecting on how our training and background has influenced the way we practice and collaborate, because I trained as an architect. Which is your next question.
Imagined Geographies with Rebecca Beinart, 2015
You have trained as an architect, and are also completing a PhD in Architectural Design, what aspects of your architectural practice really inform your artworks? Or do you see the two stands as parts of the same body of work?
I’ve always drawn as part of my practice but interestingly the way I was taught architecture was very open to different media and I did black and white darkroom work and made analogue film as part of my degree so this has come into my art practice. I also learnt model-making so I use this as part of my process of making work, and I’m interested in constructing objects and forms. I think what has informed my work is therefore how I will develop a piece particularly for a commission or larger piece or thinking through an exhibition or installation, I often use drawing and model-making to develop an idea.
My PhD is practice-based but not really focused on architectural design in the traditional sense of making buildings, it rather looks at an expanded practice of art and architecture which my supervisor Jane Rendell has written about as Critical Spatial Practice or Situated Practices which means thinking critically about how work interacts with its context, the site, the people and the audience. Architectural training, education and practice has expanded to become much broader since when I studied so its possible to work inside the field and do a much more varied practice which really borders on art practice, for example groups like Assemble and Public Works. When I started in (architectural) practice I couldn’t find these opportunities so I went into a different field to work in the way I wanted to. So yes they are part of the same body of work.
I also teach architectural design and I try to expand this into socially engaged practice and making interventions in public and think this might help students to understand the real conditions of site and place.
Salinas Traces, 2014
Which artists working at the moment do you admire?
That's a hard question because there are a lot!
John Newling taught my sister and I've followed his work for a long time, and read a lot of what he's written. His work on the spiritual,on values and exchange is really interesting, and his plant pieces are beautiful.
I like Adrian Pipers investigations into and challenges to identity.
I find Susan Hillers work really interesting, as I'm interested in collecting and thinking through the artist/anthropologist role and what that means. I've also been looking at Michael McMillans work which is about family, culture and identity.
I love South African artist Willem Boshoffs text works which play with language and translation which is another thing I'm working with at the moment.
I recently came across Anna Talens beautiful work.
And I saw a piece by Jesse Jones called The Selfish Act of Community which was great.
What have you got coming up in the future?
I'm planning to show the Brixton Museum in September as part of the Lambeth Heritage festival. We’re currently finishing the Figure Ground book and that will be launched this year as well. Next year there will be an exhibition of the outcomes of the Making Suburban Faith textiles project which is at a venue TBC. I'll also be having an exhibition as an outcome of my PhD which will be in Brixton and at UCL.
And I'll be continuing with my residency in motherhood so I'll see where that leads me…at the moment I'm drawing the remains of the day.