ATOPIA: How do you describe your practice now; you have moved away from being a publisher of other poets and artists work to making your own work (though often in the form of participatory projects, which generate art through a)? Before were you an artist who published or has your artist-hood only emerged latterly?
Alec Finlay: It’s true that I have concerned myself more with making my own work – though as your question suggests, I am doubtful that the “own” part is in any need of being privileged - and one reason for that making is the fact of having a designated studio space to work in, alone, for the first time. That is an interesting aspect of the social value accorded the residencies at BALTIC, that you are aware you are the only person who is given a room of their own.
But while I have made a lot of text based pieces here, rubber stamps, Renga linked verse, woven and sewn pieces, and so on, it is also true that the social aspect of the participation projects has also strengthened in the past two years. So, I think in truth it is simply that the different aspects of the practice have moved into focus.
There is a line of Neruda’s I am always drawn to: “separating the syllables of fear and tenderness”, and in this time I would say it has been more a case of a slow distinct separation of the personal lyrical voice from the ambition and extension of those participations. Intuitively, as these become distinct I also find it much easier to identify the personal aspect within the public. An example would be the bynames project, which invites people to compose invented names for real people - so, Hermit Futon, Iron Humility Finally, and so on - as while it began as all of the participations do, as a form that I could define, later I gradually uncovered a motivation of eluding my own name, so, a le c f I n l a y e l e c t f I n e l y a l I c e v a n I t y a l c a I c f I n a l e.
The artist identity has no defining value in terms of an autographed activity, as such - I mean, it cannot be given one thick skin like that. There are boundaries that can be marked, but also sparks that leap between consciousnesses. The work is not within one consciousness. That is a fact. Yet it is still always filtered through mine, and this is an endlessly subtle and complex and delightful experience. It is evident in the different ways in which I could refer to collaboration and participation, their contradictory aspects of election, inflection, infection - one could consider my work as a overarching encirclement of other peoples work, where what they make appears under my name; as an animation of others, as I spark their creativity; and as a sharing of consciousness, through identifiable poetic or artistic forms (wind blown clouds, names, haiku and so on). I do not find the information that the activity is producing is really suggesting that we try to pin down authorship, and for me it has become increasingly clear that the material was shared consciousness, which is after all what all art is in some way about.
ATOPIA: Can you talk further about how you see these constructed communities you instigate function in terms on meaning giving. At times they are more notional, people around the world taking photos of clouds. But then there are the more tangible, Renga groups sitting in a single location composing haiku etc. When you talk of the absence of the work being in a single consciousness does this inter-subjectivity allow for such notions of success, intent and meaning in a wider sense in the work?
AF: I can’t present rules or results; even if the projects are a form of research, the conclusions are not computed; rather they reside in the work produced. One ends up with stories, illustrations; and you know ‘community’ is not quite the right term. In some ways the process of connection between people is more like a panopticon, with myself at the centre looking out towards each individual contributor. The book - or other form of publication - certainly establishes a ‘persona’ of communal identity, by presenting and celebrating a shared endeavour, and that is one reason that recently I have taken to listing every contributor to a project in the index, whether or not their work appears in the edited book.
The points of arrival and collection (archive) and, even more so, of publication and dissemination do however remain the real focus of the work. The projects that have been run to date are not chat-rooms. I think the analogy is important to consider. Somehow the ambition of the participations seems to me to suggest a critical enquiry into the apparently limitless forms of communication we now have, and yet the projects retain an editorial agency, one that relates, I suppose, to the limits of books, pages and paper. So much of our recent cultural concern with community relates to the web, and to the fact that we now all feel more instantly in touch, and there is obviously a very profligate sense of availability, and yet our contacts also seem diminished. I’m aware of the work resting on that fulcrum between new and old technologies, and I’m sure that you would agree concepts of ‘meaning giving’ have to be considered within this context.
So, what of meaning giving: the art traces consciousness, but my field of study remains within the now classic formulation of artist concept – an invitation that I write - and realisation - what I receive.
They are not anthropological surveys, and, paradoxically, in some cases the contact with an absent figure, such as a contributor to the cloud archive, can take on a resonance deeper than that established with someone who takes part in a day’s Renga, sitting next to you. Some of the most beautiful cloud slides were sent in by an 8 year old kid from Uruguay, Amparo - someone that I have never met, and I am not even sure how he found out about the project. When I came to write a commentary for the book I found myself writing him a letter - something about the simplicity of the project, and a certain innocence of my own voice writing to Amparo, rhymed with the utopianism of the clouds. A few weeks later he replied, telling me about a new project he was starting, which was to collect photographs of eyes, the eyes of people and animals ... this from an 8 year old, in a letter translated by his father! A really wonderful project, and an example of someone responding to me in kind, with their own concept. That was meaning giving of the highest , but it’s a story, a given, not a strategy one can repeat.
ATOPIA: So is it in these moments in which you allow a reflection of your personal romantic character to enter into the work?
AF: Of course the participation projects themselves do claim a benevolent and encouraging or inclusive aspect, which would easy to indulge, but when a dialogue like the one with Amparo develops, the surprise and delight is very real. I mean, Amparo's project is better than most artist archival projects that I have seen in the past ten years. But a project can twist another way too, as when I went to Derry, and proposed to them that we offer the city the possibility of removing all its sectarian flags for a year, and flying wind blown cloud flags. There you already have real communities and they are highly attuned, or lets even say, over-attuned, to reading one another. There the artistic display of symbols marks a political territory in a very detailed way, so one can make a direct political translation in terms of giving meaning, and you can be fairly sure you will be given meaning back.
I was considering the clouds archive recently, and one of the interesting things about it is that individually I have no idea who the contributors are, but it is possible to begin to speculate - my sense is that typically they are people interested in photography, but not necessarily ‘artists’. I get very few submissions from ‘professional’ artists, as the project is not a commission, and most artists already have an established subject matter.
The sky is an archetypal photographic subjects, so my guess is that a number of the people are in that category of ‘enthusiast’, and the project combines my interest in this meteorological and poetic form, the wind blown cloud, and, in Virginia Woolf’s sense of ‘the common reader’, the common photographers’ interest in the sky and aerial effects. So, one does work ones way back to communities, of a sort.
The connection at a Renga is usually different, as the experience is closest to a practice like ta-chi or yoga. There is a subtle proprioception aspect to what I call ‘shared writing’, sitting, reading, writing together in public. Within the terms of the event one gets very close to people, strangers, and one knows them only though their appearance, posture, their speech as they read their verse, and their poetry. It is an encounter that is characterised by, in succession, nervousness, listening, laughter, attraction or dislike, and shared consciousness. This is not the same as the community of affections that develops over a slow period of friendship between people, its more a short term intense heightening of ones sense of how people relate. Relational gymnastics.
We recently composed a 24 hour hyakuin 100 verse Renga at BALTIC: twelve poets sharing one space, writing, resting, eating and sleeping together, and that was an amazing experience. In the end though, that small brief community leaves again, in cars and on trains, and, although we take the memory with us - and some people asked could we all share an email list which suggests a lasting shadow of friendship cast by the day we shared – it is the poem that the world will encounter. In terms of giving meaning the utopianism and politics of the project clearly will not be contained within the poem. The ‘failure’ to ‘capture’ an experience is written into the project.
The relational is key to the Renga, which is in its way a very political piece, an examination of processes of dialogue and power elaborated in a collaborative literary form. Here the relationship between the master and the rest of the poets has a complexity that does allow genuine reflection on these issues. But ultimately the relational has to be about taking part in an activity, for consciousness to move and be moved. There is of course something ridiculous about working in a form that is 1,000 years old. I should say though, that the Renga is one project that can and does genuinely exist without my agency: it isn’t a Beuysian romantic cultural structure, and is more akin to Miyujima's support for the Kaki Tree project. It is a genuinely benevolent and therefore highly critical activity. I hope that soon it will root and branch off as widely as possible from me. A Renga platform for every school.