Last week in Chelsea, NY Art Amalgamated, a fairly new gallery space located on 317 Tenth Avenue, opened a first time public collaboration between artists David Birkin and Jeremy Hutchison; Some Fifty Miles of Concrete Pavement. The two, who have been friends over the years, isolated themselves geographically from one another while working on the project simultaneously.
One day in April, they each walked 25 miles apiece – Birkin across the Mojave Desert and Hutchison from the direction of his east London-based studio – in a pscyhogeographic attempt to meet somewhere in the middle. With this failed attempt and prolonged separation between the two, the exhibition resulted in an intimate look at a creative process that is often hidden to most audiences.
Artlyst: I think that any project done in collaboration, to any degree of success, at this point in history is highly respectable exactly because it has become very possible not to relate to one another. So thank you both for trying! Of all the ways that you could stay away from each other, how did you go about developing and finally deciding on the ideas and act of this piece, your particular way of missing one another?
David: It was an accident. We’re two friends with similar political concerns, living in different countries, and we set out to collaborate as best we could. The slippage arose out of trying and failing. The work is about the impossibility that two human beings can ever truly bridge their differences or see each other’s thoughts. This became the starting point for our performance. Jeremy would walk twenty-five miles southwest from his studio in east London, and I would walk twenty-five miles northeast across the Mojave Desert. And we would fail to meet in the middle — geographically or ideologically. Twenty-five miles is quite a distance to cover on foot, particularly in the heat and congestion of our respective landscapes. But it barely registered in terms of the five thousand miles of prairie and ocean between us. It was an absurd and heroic gesture (like most of the great Land Art projects!) and it was doomed from the start. But for us, that’s where the value lies.
Jeremy: Having Skyped for months, we had a lot of material. So once we had figured out that the solution lay in the problem, it became about using these shared points of reference to physicalize our different relationships to them. For example, a work by Walter de Maria became central to our project. The Broken Kilometer (1979) comprises 500 highly polished brass rods, each two meters in length. In response, we split one of these rods: each manufacturing a one-meter replica. We loaded these onto the luggage belts of our respective airports and flew them to New York. They arrived scuffed, scratched and scarred by their passage. And so the two objects meet in the gallery space, physical testaments to the space between us.
Artlyst: The DeMarian concept of a heroic and “meaningless” work of art is indeed interesting, what place does “meaning” have or how important is it or isn’t it to art experience?
David: I think the tension that exists in De Maria’s work between meaning and meaninglessness is what made him such an important reference point for us both. Out of all the land artists, with their seismic masculine egos, he’s the one who seems to take himself least seriously. His concept of “meaningless work” is really quite profound in its understanding of monotonous joy. But it also casts a longer and darker shadow when read in the context of labor exploitation and free trade economics. The political is inescapable, especially to today’s audience. A brass rod may symbolize sublime form or perfect systems of measurement. But it’s also composed of minerals that come from somewhere and have been mined and molded by unseen hands. Distance is not its only scale.
Artlyst: Do you think in such a task-driven result-seeking culture as in U.S. work such as yours could be considered a gesture of protest art?
Jeremy: I feel that making art is the protest. Exactly what you make is not so important. The moment you choose to become an artist, you exit a system of work and reward. You indulge in a kind of counter-capitalist madness, “I don’t know why I’m doing this but I’m doing it anyway.” Personally, I feel the best art is honest about this. I look for work that is invested with uncertainty. Work that lets you into the idiotic logic of its maker, and offers an alternative kind of common sense.
Artlyst: Why don’t you think more artists directly collaborate on works?
David: There are plenty of artists who work in pairs — the Chapman Brothers, Jane & Louise Wilson, Gilbert & George, Broomberg & Chanarin — but their work is based on shared authorship. As a solo artist, collaborating with another solo artist means relinquishing your sense of autonomy: something we work hard to maintain and don’t discard lightly. But it’s precisely that shedding of ego that makes the process so rewarding, if you really give into it. Jeremy and I couldn’t agree on how we wanted to approach the Eisenhower quote we’d started with. But we could agree on what was fascinating about the process of disagreeing. When it came to making a show about war, we were following totally different orbits. But when it came to making a show about friendship, we were on the same page.
Artlyst: Your work casts a light and thusly a shadow directly onto friendship, the human relational endeavor itself, technology’s role in that, and the communicative entropy that can ensue. Is technology’s hegemony on the interaction ritual mostly a good or bad thing?
Jeremy: As contemporary beings, we seem to be haunted by these questions of social alienation. There’s panic in the air. Maybe we all feel like guinea pigs in a psycho-technological experiment that’s spinning out of control. But the world isn’t getting larger or smaller: our experience of its materiality is simply changing. So it seems important to investigate this experience. At every point in history, human beings have re-wired new relationships around shifting material conditions. We have an incredible capacity to evolve. But one thing is certain: human relationships depend on materials. On eardrums, retinas, keyboards, cables, etc. Somebody stole my iPhone the night 50 Miles opened, which seemed strangely appropriate.
Artlyst: How do you think Some Fifty Miles relates to or has influenced both of your individual practices?
David: Walter De Maria has this idea that “the invisible is real,” which is very important to me with regard to photography and conflict. I’m interested in what cannot, or will not, be shown — and the reasons why. Censorship is one example that ties in directly with the military industrial complex that Eisenhower describes, “nobody sees the men and women in middle America making warheads from 9 to 5.” Nobody sees the drone operators flying missions over countries we aren’t even officially at war with, targeting individuals on a list not even Congress has access to. No one sees “their” casualties — and for years journalists weren’t allowed to publish pictures of “ours” either. Everything gets redacted, yet it is no less real. So for me, De Maria’s concept resonates on multiple levels.
Jeremy: This project has reminded me the importance of setting off without a plan. My work is about disrupting common sense, undoing the tyranny of logic, breaking open contemporary culture. I feel like good things happen when we have no idea what we’re doing: Columbus was looking for India. Penicillin was discovered by accident. But the trouble is, you can’t orchestrate failure. You can’t choose to mess up. You just have to be patient and stay alert: keep wandering, looking, failing.
Artlyst: Do you have plans for any more pieces about missing one another (in space that is)? Have you thought about some other ways the same ideas could be examined?
Jeremy: Not yet, but perhaps we’ll come to it. We’re both keenly aware of the psychological estrangement that hovers around virtual spaces. Our subjectivities are forming around these digital platforms — and our anatomies too. I recently read about a plastic surgeon who’s making a fortune by enhancing people’s jawlines so that they appear more attractive on Skype. This is a tiny signal of human physicality becoming enslaved to digital representation. So maybe the next chapter takes place online. And maybe we get plastic surgery.
Artlyst: What is next for you both individually?
David: In May, Jeremy has a series of shows at Grand Union (Birmingham), Liste 18 (Basel) and Z33 (Hasselt). And in June he’s showing work at the ICA — material he created during a Delfina Foundation residency in the West Bank. I recently finished an Arts Council-funded film with a soldier and an actor, and will be starting the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program later this year.
Interview: Lizanne Merrill © Artlyst 2013
Jeremy Hutchison is included in the Points of Departure exhibition at the ICA London 26 June – 21 July ICA London