Sunday, 9 September 2012

Art: Interview with Paul Rooney,

Paul Rooney is a video artist whose work is both melancholic and poignant. Paul chats to Art Fist about his work, music and winning the Northern Art Prize in 2009.

Jon Cronshaw: Can you tell us a little bit about your work and especially about your work on display at Leeds Art Gallery?

Paul Rooney:Regarding my work generally, I try to allow each piece I make to filter different ideas through the voice or ‘persona’ that is the focus of the work. A short story I published recently explored a comedian’s ambition for his writing, and his willingness to literally erase himself to fulfill the potential he felt that his writing had. A recent sound work extended the Brecht/Weill song Pirate Jenny into a hotel maid’s meditation on the presence of history within the everyday; and a new 16mm film, based on a packaging company manager’s trip to Paris in May 1968, engages with the subjective experience of contemporary events as often one of distance rather than engagement. This piece, called ‘La Décision Doypack’, was the main piece on show at Leeds Art Gallery. The 16mm film is inspired by a real web memoir by retired Australian food-packaging company manager Mackenzie J Gregory, who remembers walking the night-time streets of Paris during the events of May 1968. This work approaches the subject of historical memory, exploring the way in which history only properly exists if it is actively recalled in the present, but also how flawed that recollection can be. It is partly because of this connection with real life and real events, events that involve revolutionary turmoil, that the imaginative confabulation and formal artifice of the film is thrown into relief, underlining the comedy and melancholy of our attempts to do justice to the past. The other work I exhibited in Leeds, in the smaller space of the gallery, was called ‘Lost High Street’, and takes the form of a VHS tourist video, circa 1987. The viewer sees the trip from the tourist's perspective on an open-top bus. The tourist, voiced by myself, is unsure of his own past life, mixing what he thinks are his own memories with misheard fragments of the tour guide's spiel. The narrative eventually takes a bleak turn as it is revealed that the tourist could be stuck forever on a tour that never stops, an endless series of circuits around a city that may be the capital of a disturbing foreign empire in the grip of cold-war paranoia. The tourist fears he may be dead, killed by the empire’s security forces because of an act of espionage he has unwittingly committed. This means, he thinks (though he is never sure of any of this), that he is now condemned to repeat his final act, the filming of a bus-top tourist video, in a blossom filled, sun-drenched city. Forever.

JC: How does it feel to have won the Northern Art Prize? What are your plans for future work?

PR: I have gotten over the shock now as I was genuinely surprised to have won it. Now I feel a sense of relief that I am going to be financially secure for at least the next year. I initially want to work on two commissions I have lined up, one for a short story with the theme of vampires in Turkish holiday resorts, which is a collaboration with artist and photographer John Holden, and the other a video work based on a Malcolm Lowry story about inmates in a psychiatric institution. Because of the award I now have the space to work on new ideas for work I would like to do in the future, so I will have some thinking to do too.

JC: What makes you tick creatively?

PR: Porridge.

JC: Why do you think that you won the Northern Art Prize?

PR: I really am the last person to ask about that, it was also very close apparently so Im sure even the judges would find it hard to say why they chose one artist above another. For press purposes they talked about my work being energetic!

JC: Would you say that your work is theoretically driven? How does spontaneity figure (if at all) in your creative process?

PR: I read books but can also be spontaneous, I hope, the two things don’t exclude each other.

JC: Do you have a philosophy?

To answer this I guess I could talk about the general ideas behind my work. They may qualify as a philosophy! I currently make text, sound and video works that focus on the ‘voices’ of semi-fictional personas which are presented as written, sung or spoken monologues. The works have as their basis the nature of individual subjectivity and identity in relation to place and history, and they focus in particular on the difficulty of attempting to render historical memory in language or art. All of the works use or reference narrative forms such as short stories, songs, audio guides and letters.

The narratives voiced by the personas ¬¬– a tourist on a tour bus, a packaging company middle manager, an airborne sprite – sometimes start from a real interview with a real person or group of people, but are as likely to arise from a scene from a novel, a TV documentary or an overheard local urban myth. Each voice is not presented as a unified identity but as a collection of many different voices or cultural and historical references, and all of the separate sources that are referenced in the monologues, including the interviews, are not treated as authentic or inviolable, but are often extended into fiction or used mischievously.
There are moments in the works when we suddenly glimpse into a world of unsettling absurdity or ambiguity, and these moments, triggered by comically odd twists in the narrative or by the visual or musical context, are crucial to the understanding of the work as a whole. These moments can create a shift in perspective, revealing how our mundane and routine world also resonates with constellations of historical presences, unfulfilled potentials and the messiness of our subjective experience. I am also interested, however, in the fact that we can only get anywhere near presenting these complexities in art if we acknowledge the limitations and the formal nature of that art. So that’s my philosophy of art making anyway.

JC: There were a number of points in the films in the Northern Art Prize show which draw attention to creative process itself (i.e. when the narrator in one film (purposefully?) messes his lines and carries on; or when drawing attention to the drum machine used to make the soundtrack). Is this part of your message? Is it to do with breaking the illusion of TV?

PR: The Australian businessman in ‘La Décision Doypack’, for instance, is also an amateur poet and amateur dramatics enthusiast. Interspersed with his dreamlike description of the events on the streets of Paris in 1968 is an account of an acting class that he attends a few weeks before his trip. This is based on a moment in the book, ‘An Actor Prepares’ by Constantin Stanislavsky. The tutor of the class makes his new students sit alone on a chair in front of a film camera to see how they would ‘act’ in that context. The students understandably feel self-conscious, and the tutor claims they all display bad acting technique, and are not ‘natural’. The footage of the Loughborough University acting students sitting in front of the camera plays with cinematic conventions in the manner of Jean-Luc Godard films from the period: music is used in an overtly eclectic and random way (the soundtrack music consists of grimy, 1968-era Velvet Underground or Krautrock style rock music fragmentedly interposed with classical music, singing, and chanting crowds), the actors respond to questions asked by the soundtrack voice, and the actor’s ‘outtakes’ on the soundtrack are left in. The film’s visuals comprises shots of student actors sitting on a chair, and with props in various theatrical tableaus illustrating the soundtrack voice-over narrative. All of the shots take place in one room (a studio theatre), even though they are often meant to visualize descriptions of the clamour of city streets during an uprising. These simple, posed shots of the actors ‘acting’ these events are deliberately inadequate to represent to the story as it is told, and are at once awkward, invasive, pathetic, and comical. The Loughborough student actors are also interviewed on film as themselves at one point, answering questions about artifice and self-consciousness. The focus here is on the difference between a kind of dishonest ‘naturalism’ in acting, and in art, and a more honest awkwardness or artificiality. But the distancing effects in my film become so unrelenting that I think they become pleasurable in themselves, almost like a celebration of the possibilities of the cinematic form, so eventually there is a balance between the viewer’s frustration and sadness at the distance from ‘the natural’ and their pleasure at the unnatural. After all, where art is concerned, artifice is all there is.

JC: Do you have favourite artists/musicians?

PR: At the moment I really like works that I’ve seen by Irish artist James Coleman, who was recommended to me by someone who saw my ‘La Décision Doypack’ film and thought he had a similar approach to me. Musicians wise, I just like records really, rather than artists: I still haven’t heard a better record than John Cale’s ‘Music for a new society’ (1983), and I cant change the fact that hearing Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ on a children’s TV programme in May 1980 changed my life.

JC: Is there any advice you can give to other artists?

PR: Keep at it! It’s the best way to find out if you want to do it or not! The longer you keep doing it the more you will realize how you have no choice but to be an artist. Or not, as the case may be.

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