INTERVIEW: Kathryn Elkin | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Born in Belfast in the early eighties, Kathryn Elkin has forged a prolific career in performance art, writing and video that most artists would be envious of. After attending the Glasgow School of Art and Goldsmiths College, Elkin participated in the 2012-2013 LUX Associate Artists Programme, which helped to launch her career working in performance and video. Inspired by counter-culture and concepts and issues surrounding the body, her works are often odd and experimental but thoroughly engaging. Over the past two years, Elkin has exhibited her work in Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow and is now coming to the Tyneside Cinema to screen some of her works and discuss them with Louise Shelley.

Ahead of the screenings at the Tyneside, I asked Kathryn more about her work, her plans for the future and learning to try and take it easy now and then.

Tell us a bit about your work; how did you first start making films?

I made some videos while I was studying at Glasgow School of Art actually, way back in the early 2000s! They were of me doing odd things like rolling eggs around my body or messing about in my bedroom with mirrors. Sort of sexy. Probably awful. And I’ve binned all the DV tapes bar one, which I might look at for a laugh if I get to 50. I am actually a bit of a technophobe and I gave it up as it was taking me so long to learn to edit and transcode media etc. I ended up needing to document performance work I moved on to do, and started to show those video’s in crits and tutorials when I was studying at Goldsmiths 2011-12, just out of necessity. I didn’t really think of them as “proper” videos – no real edits etc. Then I started to find them interesting as something other than documentation…

I applied to the LUX Associate Artists Program in 2012 thinking I might be a bit too “performance” and probably wouldn’t get it, but I did and that totally changed my trajectory. I’ve always been very influenced by video art and I know more about that than most other types of art. I just didn’t think I could do it “properly,” but Lux, and especially Ian White, really supported me and encouraged me to be ambitious with the status of moving image within my practice.

How would you describe the overall “look” or “feel” of your films to someone who hasn’t seen one before?

Sometimes I say it’s like very boring stand-up with no proper jokes. Maybe that’s more relevant to the live work. Or I say I just like theme tunes and out-takes so it’s mainly that sort of thing… Keeping the expectations low haha! The feel I hope is intimate and nervy, and it’s usually quite melancholy. And hopefully funny.

The look… I had this realisation last year that it had never occurred to me to film anything outside what was amusing! I like studios. It doesn’t really occur to me to film things as I walk about. I film studios and people working. I show myself working and thinking. The “look”… that’s interesting to think about. The performances all look the same: me and a microphone, maybe a little something in the background, and the videos are all filmed in studios, but there are more nuances in the style of the camera work. I never really give you a very good look at what’s going on in the videos; I don’t use much synched sound, which helps disassociate the image from the performance which produced the musical theme in the videos.

I am moving towards doing less and less of the filming myself. For Michael’s Theme, I used archival footage but had new footage shot by a BBC cameraman and that was a revelation. We got the full kit out – lights and trolleys and a massive camera – and we did these classic TV-studio shots, which I then just discarded for the most part and used the bits where he was rehearsing those sweeps and pans and close-ups. My use of a camera is very basic, and I realised how much more interesting that process of someone interpreting my intentions is for me – that struggle and the surprises and the improvising – much more charged than my own footage is. I’ve worked with other film-makers to shoot in the last year: Kim O’Neill and Lucy Parker. People I respect and find very interesting. It’s fascinating to me to bring them in to the process, to get their take on it. I think the look is going to keep evolving as I push that “directing” process harder.

michael's theme 2

“The feel I hope is intimate and nervy, and it’s usually quite melancholy. And hopefully funny”

Your work often draws on 1970s culture and counter-culture. What attracts you to the culture of this specific period in time?

I guess it’s that a lot of films, art, books and music I like comes from that period but I like contemporary things too and it’s more than that. I think it’s a decade where there was still a lot of innovating going on within culture but there is also a mood of fresh pessimism, scales falling away from eyes. Hollywood was over, the 60s sexual revolution had failed, there was not going to be exponential growth in global economies and things were not going to keep getting better and better for everyone. But the pessimism is not so totalising as it got in the 80s. There is a sort of a sort of wryness there that I look for.

Maybe the evolution of cinema verite into something that is a little softer, like Cassavetes’ work. I was re-watching Symbiopsychotaxiplasm a few months ago and thinking how much that affected me, and it’s late 60s. Maybe I should be more specific and say late 60s to mid-70s or maybe I shouldn’t say anything at all haha! Other things from other decades come to the fore too at times but perhaps it’s also that the 70s are mysterious to me, being the decade before I was born… It might be as simple as that. I might get over it eventually.

Your work often references different source materials and reworks it through personal processes. Does this mean your work is postmodern? Or is that a label you try to resist?

I don’t really think about that. I used to think I understood what those words meant in art – postmodern, altermodern, modern – but I don’t think I do anymore. They’re too big to be useful, those words, in my opinion. I don’t think artists need to worry about that stuff anyway. You just make the work, make sense of your context in your own way, and let other people who like thinking about that get on with it haha! I was laughing the other day about how artists get put into categories and linked with peers and how you might not have any interest in those links or peers, that might not be how you see yourself at all or you feel you’ve moved on from all that, but you can’t do a thing about it, so it’s best not to worry too much.

A lot of your films are also very interested in portraying different crises of the human body; what interests you specifically about this theme?

I’m still working that out. I am in crisis with my own bodily performances constantly haha! I’m interested in things collapsing and becoming confused, to undo some of the binaries of the performing/non-performing body. I’m very charmed by people who can give you this great performance-of-self – in real life or in art – but simultaneously intimate that they know it’s all rubbish and we’re making most of it up.

Robert Ashley is fantastic at that, showing the pleasure and necessity of persona but also revealing that it contains all these crises of relation none the less. I really thought of the body and mind as a dichotomy when I was younger – that is how I experienced myself – but I’m much closer to the surface of my skin as an adult. Even saying “I’m much closer to the surface” points to the problem. I’m still locating “I” as being interior to my physical self. And it should be “we,” perhaps…

Moving on! I am interested in that moment within performance where you are asked to “relax” or “just act natural” while you are still on stage, while you are being observed. Something quite humiliating happens that I think of as radical and useful to witness as well as experience.

You’ve produced a mixture of short films and longer works in your time; do you enjoy creating films of different lengths? Does it give you added creative freedom?

I had an epiphany last year when I was showed at a film festival for the first time and realised that I have been making videos with the anticipation that they will get shown in a gallery in a group show and people won’t sit down to watch them or watch them all the way through… That’s quite a difficult set of conditions but you get used to it as an early career artist.

What is more interesting is that I realised that I anticipated those circumstances as I edited and decided lengths. Having people sat in a cinema, who bought tickets, in a situation where you watch things all the way through as a normal matter of course – well, I thought, this is much better. I really like the idea of showing more work in screening scenarios because it would shift the form and duration of the films. With Michael’s Theme, well, it’s very short considering I had the whole BBC archive to work with, but I thought I should be as economical as possible in the circumstances. Also, another way I decide lengths is to work with an unedited “take” in terms of the sound. The time it takes to play the theme-tune, the second take of the improvisation, those are my logics for the most part, but I think I might try something either much longer or much shorter to push that relationship to a more committed audience.

doublescreen

“I am in crisis with my own bodily performances constantly”

The films being shown at the Tyneside Cinema event were all produced either this year or last year. How do you produce films on such a regular basis? It’s very impressive!

I guess I just got busy haha! I want to slow that down for sure. I was really surprised that the video stuff took off so fast in terms of opportunities. I think it was a bit too many in such a short space of time. It was quite stressful. But I really like doing the live work regularly! I think I need to. I learn so much from it and that work only exists in that live circumstance. It feeds my video work, it feeds my ideas. It’s research as much as anything.

Going back to the videos, I like the shooting and the prep, but editing I find a bit miserable for the most part. I like it when I find the “shape” but I don’t film to a script or storyboard, so I’m very overwhelmed with all the potentials at the start and I’m totally improvising. I’m getting to enjoy it a bit more than I used to though.

Is it ever a challenge to produce works on such a regular basis?

Yes and it gets harder and harder to manage sadly. I don’t sell work. I make the wrong sort of things for that, so I’m reliant on getting funding or commissions or fees and that doesn’t give me enough to live on, so I work outside of my practice too. It’s been hard to keep all the plates spinning and I’d like to have more time and some expendable income in the near future! Hiiiii curators! Haha! I’m in Cove Park just now recovering a bit; they’re looking after me!

An excerpt from Untitled, on which you collaborated with Richard Bevan, is being screened at the event. What was it like to work with Richard?

Rich is a real genius and I love that work. For me, it’s a true collaboration. We spent a year meeting up for a walk or a coffee every few months in anticipation of the film, not really talking directly about it though. It was a very sensitive, special sort of process. We shot it in a studio in an afternoon. I’d just gotten off a plane and was a bit grubby! We just grabbed at things, got this idea about how to structure it using the control of the room and its contents and the four rolls of film we could afford.

It is a work about how we understand each other and collaboration. I was thinking about that process being analogous to the fable of the blind monks and the elephant. I must stop with the elephant analogies! So… they can’t see and they are each touching a different part of a huge elephant – some the tusks, some the ears – and they are each describing what the elephant looks like. Although that is their perspective and they are trying to be truthful, it’s very limited and they all have very different impressions. If we start to combine what they understand though, then we get closer to “seeing” the “elephant” as a whole. For me, that’s what is happening in the video. It’s quite enigmatic though; people might see something quite different!

Excerpts from one of your most recent works, Elephants in the Room, is being screened at the event. What can we expect from it?

Elephants in the Room features the amazing Okkyung Lee on cello, which a real treat for the ears. I’m showing a version of the video called Mud which involves a performance, so expect some of my classic bad-stand-up and some “singing.”

What have you got planned for the rest of the year? Can we expect more works?

I’ve got a duo show with Seamus Harahan at the CCA in Derry in October. I’m really looking forward to showing in my mother country actually! Then I’ve got a solo exhibition at CCA Glasgow in about a years’ time. I’m trying to use that as a chance to consolidate all the activity over the last few years and pull things together to show the scope of things and their points of relations. Lots of bits and pieces in between but I’m trying to slow down a bit too!

The screening of Kathryn Elkin’s work followed by a Q&A between Elkin and Louie Shelley takes place at the Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle on Tuesday 16th June.

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