can you soften your focus.
can you gaze without intent,
be unmoving or un-responding?
Alice Gale-Feeny’s recent collection of video works waver in sight of their (fractious) focus, acutely attentive of their subject, before meandering the tangential and redefining their subject en route. The camera re-plays what Alice refers to as a “certain receptivity to the situation I find myself in, taking an interest in what exists ‘as it is’ rather than something else that is outside of my encounter.” But the potential of the encounter tremors in the exchange of words – aren’t we all both there and simultaneously outside, elsewhere.
When viewed collectively, Gale-Feeny’s video works of the past year amass into a non-linear interplay between observations of group dynamics, and a parallel self-referential subjectivity. The form in which something is presented, be it a group meeting around a dinner table, a pomegranate, a chat with a neighbour, all seemingly transgress into the humorously banal, or their abstract potential, dispelling the reflexive lens again and again.
First meeting in February 2016 at Furtherfield Gallery in Finsbury Park, where Sam Mercer and Matthew de Kersaint Giradeau presented their collaborative research project Interruptions, I learnt that Alice was a studio holder and member of the artist-led space One Thoresby Street in Nottingham. In June that year, I received an invite to a screening event at Collective Temperance Hospital in central London, marking the end point of her 7 month residency with STORE; a nomadic association of artists, architects and designers. I was interested in how the politics of self-organisation would be portrayed on film, and knowing more about the experiences of ‘artist-as-observer’ - in the moment, of these situations.
Doggerland: An outcome from the residency, ‘the conditions we’ve set up for ourselves’, marks your attendance of the meetings had with STORE, through a sequence of video recordings and transcriptions made whilst present with the group. What is apparent from these recordings is your contribution and participation in the activity, the joint social labour of preparing and cooking the food that will be served, and your interaction with the group.
Were you ever subject to feel alien or encroaching upon internal matters of the group discussions, or how else could your presence be understood? I suppose the work begets the notion of group dynamics, individuals and the collective whole, and how these manifest or unfold in small communities and organisations.
Alice Gale Feeny: During the communal dinners/meetings with STORE, I filmed using one camera and a dictaphone. I did this over the course of the evening, from the point where food prep started, to the goodbye’s at the end. My priority was on being there with this group of people, and therefore I often set up a shot and then continued with what I was doing. What the footage may portray is the sense of me being an observer, of watching what is happening. The way I went about recording needed to be about me feeling comfortable in a group I didn’t know very well, and so letting things unfold in the camera’s view, and not influencing this too much.
I wanted to make a piece of work that considered how we use a building. From the beginning, I was interested in the fact that some of STORE are trained architects. I wanted to explore what this may mean in terms of their understanding of a space, vs. someone with no formal knowledge of the engineering or design process involved.
I was reflecting on the environments in which these dinners/meetings took place - generally a person’s shared flat or house. I was thinking how a kitchen could also be a meeting room for up to 10 or 15 people. By focusing on the peripheral actions and objects; wine glasses, beer bottles, furniture, hands, clothes, I thought a lot about the impact we have on a room, what we bring with us, and then how the room increases its potential having accommodated this activity. In a sense it doesn’t matter what the objects are that you are looking at in the video - they were there, populating a space for a short amount of time, like the group of people, and that’s why they are given equal focus.
One of the meetings took place in a flat in Hackney Wick where some of the members of STORE live. This 1950’s ex-textile factory was a great example where artists had repurposed the shell of the building, into a live/work environment - even now, oscillating between these two functions. During this meeting we spoke about the effects of living in Hackney Wick during the Olympics, and the knock-on activity taking place in the area. I found it interesting and troubling to reflect on this conversation and how this was a different example where potential in a space was found - still out of a desire, perhaps less need, but definitely economic growth.
Doggerland: Removing audio furthers the diversion from the meetings to the environment. There’s no disclosure as to who has said what or when, particularly as the transcripts from the various meetings are interjected between the moving images, much like the text captions employed in silent films. The film is non-linear, and fragmentary. Can you talk about your decision to remove individual agency from the meetings?
AGF: I was reading about Le Corbusier’s housing project ‘Quartiers Modernes Frugès' in Pessac, France completed in 1920’s. In a series of interviews with the inhabitants in ‘Lived-in Architecture: Le Corbusier's Pessac Revisited’ (1969), Phillippe Boudon reflects upon how the design was, in reality, ‘lived in’. In the case of the QMF, personalised, adapted even restructured, by the inhabitants. Through these interviews, I was particularly focused on the transcripts of these interviews, how Boudon analysed the wording used by each interviewee, and read between the lines of what their language suggested, allowing him to decipher how they each ‘saw’ the architecture and how it functioned for them. I have always had an interest in the way in which we say things, and to what extent we think through our ideas and values through the act of speaking out loud. It’s also about creating situations where we are put on the spot.
There is no distinction as to who said what. I realised I wasn’t interested in that. I wanted you to focus on the way something was said, and to hear the interaction through the use of language. There is a straight-forwardness in some of the conversations shown on the video, and there were lots of conversations that were much more in depth and specific, that I haven’t included. The decision to include one over the other was to keep the work from being fixed to the context of STORE, and their activities. It was also to keep the viewer questioning the point of focus and encourage a sense of analysis on everything. In each turn of phrase, there is still an exchange of experience, however subtle.
Doggerland: Screened at Collective Temperance Hospital, a creative working space in Euston used by STORE to present the work, you invited an audience to also gather around a shared meal whilst your work was shown. Everyone was silent whilst the film played, every 45 minutes or so. What were your expectations of creating a self-referential environment to show the work to both members of STORE and visitors to the event?
AGF: For me, the act of filming and editing is a very subjective thing, it’s giving people an insight into your preferences; it suggests when you’ve had enough of one thing, and want to move onto another. I wanted that odd experience of having points of focus suggested for you by an individual, but then to realise that you are in fact the point of focus, as a group, sitting there in the room.
Doggerland: Being a member of the artist-run project space One Thorseby Street in Nottingham, how did the meetings with STORE compare to your own group-based experiences and way of conducting business?
AGF: An underlying thing I have observed is the resourcefulness of this group of people, how a lot of what they know comes from the act of ‘doing’ and relaying this experience to one another. They informally teach one another through these modes of sharing; both verbally, and by passing things round - the dinners facilitate that.
At One Thoresby Street, because we are working as individual artists within the building, it feels necessary to find situations that are unpressurised to come together and be a group. I think we all feel there is a great value in doing this, however it’s often hard to do when there are 20+ points of focus going on at one time.
STORE reminded me of the importance of sharing methods and ideas and the extent to which things that can be done when you are working with or in dialogue with others. I also noticed how they treated their activity with a certain playfulness - something that is sometimes hard to achieve when working alone.
Do you ever witness something before you as if it was pre-recorded, and every moment until you quit such a game becomes instantly familiar and cloying?
Early March 2017, and the scenes depicted are drenched in darkness, masking any cue to people’s actions or expressions. Alice’s show at Nottingham Castle is due to close on the weekend, having been open for nearly 5 months. Alongside ‘the conditions we’ve setup for ourselves’, the exhibition, titled ‘Getting to Know’, includes ‘If you watch the pomegranate really closely’ and ‘From where I’m sitting’ (both 2016), as a triad installation over a 45 minute loop. The films interweave one another on separate screens, entangling lines of thought and focus.
I think about absorption. To be absorbed, do we have to relinquish the present- self momentarily? I suppose it’s a question of agency, and whether you are freely immersing into something – work, a relationship, a conversation – or if you are being absorbed by something – a job, a person, an institution? Metaphysically or metaphorically, the body or the mind, to let wonder or give into. The two new video works beside ‘the conditions…’ encourage a state of absorption as a primary mode of reception, a channeling of a critical awareness. ‘If you watch the pomegranate really closely’, as the title suggests, bores its way toward the molecular, as a round-table of participants are shown tableau vivant-like, analysing their viewpoints and the latent object-form potential of the fruit and bowl before them. Here, absorption not only precipitates the state of the participants’ playful probing, but also the viewer’s perspective, framing the focal point closely onto the subject, cropping the heads.
According to Michael Fried, ‘…absorption…strikes us not only as an ordinary, everyday condition but as that condition which, more than any other, characterizes ordinary, everyday experience’ (Fried, 1980)1. Alice awakens this condition across the other participants, invites them to sit and question the interior fabrication of a room, or props before them. What the quotidian, or everyday encounter proffers, through this invitation, is the ability to pass beyond the object and concentrate on the linguistics of expression, relayed to the viewer through Alice’s own epistemology. If we let ourselves be swallowed up, the potential to inhabit or embody other forms emerges, whether as the fruit in ‘If you watch the pomegranate…’, or in the interior architecture of a shared kitchen in ‘From where I’m sitting’. In the former, we hear the group conversing, diagnosing the arrangement and possible reconfiguration before them, but told here through Alice’s voice, becoming the group, soaking up individual agency and re-laying the discourse cleaned, edited and estranged.
Five months is a really long time to show a solo exhibition, particularly of a young emerging artist. Seeing ‘the conditions…’ again, I think back to group dynamics. How many times are you a guest before you are absorbed? Is it how well we assimilate, rather than how we’re received? How do friendships develop beyond a residency time period, or solo exhibition say? It’s both exposing, and exhausting – the public appearance over such a duration, whether body present or not. ‘Getting to Know’ quietly looped through the duration of it’s screening, with many visitors to the Castle and galleries wandering in and out whilst I was there, pausing to gaze momentarily, determining whether to allow their focus to adjust to the darkness and periods of silences, or continue their visit elsewhere. I wonder about absorption by the museum, and what the expectancies of the artist are, in return for unequivocally higher audience numbers than an artist-run space or smaller gallery.
Talking at One Thoresby Street shortly after, Alice recounts the different stages of editing and presentation gone into ‘the conditions…’. The process of filmmaking could be said to induce a primary state of absorption, requiring an inhabiting of the frame in the present, and also in post-production, cutting and re-playing previous scenes, inevitably bringing forward thoughts and feelings from those initial moments. The reflexive tendency of an artist’s practice, where those thoughts are re-questioned or redrawn in retrospect - remnants of previous encounters or artworks tumbling upon one another, falling into other artworks and out of step, out of sync, gesturing back and forth - it’s a powerful motive for research and experimentation. Alice’s latest work when at the studio is a recording of an intimate performance; a rhythmically reflexive account of her editing process, like a transcript of a toolkit or personal manual. Useable, but boring. Shot follows on from what previous shot tried to be. Static, no bodies, just candles. The frame is cropped close-in again, and we see the familiar attention of the spot lit hand, this time performing a personal metronomic tapping. We discuss the potential of applying this analysis to something other than her work, like a book or documentary on architecture.
Perhaps the absorptive potential of filmmaking is in the act of purposefully dwelling, lodging in a moment far longer than anyone else, becoming something more than what was there at the moment. But through recounting or occupying elsewhere, a pastwhere, maybe a broader register of experience can emerge, through language, sound and a distilling of time.
Alice Gale-Feeny is a visual artist, currently working and living in Nottingham
1 On Jean-Baptiste-Sime’on Chardin, French mid-18th century painter. Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and the Beholder in the Age of Diderot (p 61) 1976. University of Chicago Press.