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Those with whom you look intently

Those with whom you look intently are very particular companions. Together, searching,
with difficulty, you dart glances at one another, snatching a glimpse, receptive to each
other’s endeavours and travailles: supportive, competitive, critical and occasionally
suspicious, even hostile. You are equals. This support often involves a judgement of
sorts, a continuous assessment as ally and combatant. Such relationships are essential,
since they stem from the unavoidable reality of working in close proximity, whether
desired or not, with people you have not chosen and who have not chosen you. I speak
not simply of contemporaries in era, but of those with whom the location and situation of
working is absolutely contemporaneous.

In this case influence is determined by circumstance and the people you are are
surrounded by. It is within this context that one finds true peers - individuals caught up in
the same stream. You literally peer at them, in combinations of curiosity, animosity, and
admiration. Over time, this scrutiny evolves into some form of trust, respect and
exchange. At a certain point your peers are simply down to potluck, but with good
fortune this becomes, at least for a time, potlatch, during which an open exchange of
ideas, tools and skills can happen.

These occasions have occurred sufficiently frequently that to attempt any exhaustive
account of my own personal peer influences, and the specific people and situations
involved would be an unworthy undertaking here. But risking very swift shorthand, I will
try to convey briefly an account of one such grouping in which a remarkable freedom of
exchange took place.

In the autumn of 1993, I began a course of study at the Jan Van Eyck Akademie in the
City of Maastricht, Holland. To the newcomer, the term city will resound as a clanging
misnomer, since this capital of Limburg Province is tiny. This is not to diminish it any
other way than size, for it comprises several districts, a wealth of history and extant
artefacts - a Roman bridge, the red tower of Sint Janskerk, as painted by Bosch, a
contemporary art museum designed by Aldo Rosi: a blue plaque on a side street reminds
doubting tourists that even Karl Marx saw fit to bed there for the night. It is also the
birthplace of the Euro, the Treaty of European Union having been signed there in 1992.
But why am I shirking my duty? Despite its sophistication, Maastricht is a model village
located somewhere between the fine lines of the franking on a picture postcard: for
urbanites it comes as a shock - a confrontation with the diminutive.

The Jan Van Eyck Academie, a white modernist spacecraft, hovers off centre from the
city square, secreted within a maze of narrow, cobbled streets. Lurking at night like a pale
giant who is slowly falling asleep in a toyshop, the architecture never appears quite
earthbound. As is the case with many institutions, it has undergone several
transformations, although the JVE’s reincarnations are perhaps a little more radical than
most.
At my time of arrival, the Academie wore a freshly manufactured skin, grafted on by the
policy-speak of its new director, Jan Van Toorn, whose vision was focused on a parity
between the three graceless gorgons of Theory, Design and Fine Art, a triumvirate
without hierarchy, somewhat harking back to the institute’s origins as a catholic arts
academy. The aim was to scrutinize accepted visual and theoretical values, questioning
their content, context and dissemination while re-figuring the three disciplines, through
research, critical debate, risk and a high degree of social awareness, all to be consolidated
in practice.

At first I felt like a wet-eared ignoramus press-ganged into a crypto-Marxist commune.


But I speak brazenly and far too flippantly, for the policy was truly visionary, radical and
challenging, if not always able to effect its goals in reality. Despite some pedantry and
arch doublespeak, the ideals were of the highest and it is a great misfortune that art
schools now, particularly those in Britain, will no longer be open to such adventurous and
open ended forms of practice and enquiry, until and unless there is an unforeseen and,
sadly, unlikely revolution in education. The vitality of the Academie arose from its
participants’ ability to puncture and expose some of the more dogmatic and ridiculous
assertions of its director, in the most provocative and startling ways.

All of this is an aside, for the hard-line ethos of the institution was not my primary
concern. It was the presence of Jon Thompson as the newly appointed Head of Fine Art
that drew me there, and his extraordinary vision of an intensely discursive community of
artists, working together in a shared enterprise, grounded in studio practice, critical
debate and transparency of communication; a coming together founded on mutual respect
and the collective will to make real discoveries through all the activities encompassing
the arts. Key here was a willingness to open out one’s self and working methods to
rigorous analysis and interpretation via penetrating group critiques and exchanges of
perceptions and insights. Theory and conjecture, however, were never permitted to take
precedence over actual practice, and materiality, process, presence, and even
unaccountability, were of equivalent value. Hasty explanations for any activity were
eschewed and viewed with circumspection. In short, to be involved in such a project was
a highly serious commitment.

The apparent restrictions of Maastricht actually proved to be critical in producing a


very special approach to circumstances, creating a seedbed of activity, group interaction
and an attuned sensitivity to the actuality of making art: one had no other choice. The
majority of participants could not afford the luxury of apartments outside of the
institution walls, and had to bed down illegally in the building, thus the activity of
research and making work was intensely bound up with the activities of cooking, eating,
and hygiene. This rough approximation of hybrid domesticity, in the most unlikely
environment, meant that a high degree of social interaction was largely unavoidable. One
had to reassess ideas of private, public and social space immediately and to adjust very
quickly. Opting out was not a feasible strategy for any extended period.

Difficult though they were, these conditions created a very, lively and passionate form of
communication in which art was never put to bed for the night. Conversations would
continue into mealtimes and social events, while working routines, collaborations and
further talk would go on throughout the evening, often until dawn. As should be the case
more often, the action of making art was not separated from the day to day concerns of
living a life. Of course this was a situation that could not sustain itself endlessly, for
obvious reasons, and others more complex. It could become highly unpleasant, even
alienating, but that is a whole other tale that waits for an as yet unwritten History of the
Jan Van Eyck.
I mention my experience here because I’m considering Peer Influence, and under these
unrepeatable conditions peers were everything and never to be dismissed lightly.

The video studio, as is so often the case in institutions, was an tight environment where
one could not avoid human contact, either in the form of individuals working alongside
you; those engaged in the filming of studio pieces, making transfers of footage and
copies, plus others arriving for the next slot, or pirates trying to usurp your present
booking. Thus such interactions, desired or not, would lead to the exposure of one’s
material and being exposed to that of others, right from its very inception, either in
filming or simply in lay-off. Where headphones were not in use, one would hear the
repeating strains of words, music and source sounds of whatever your co-workers were
experimenting with.

By these circumstances alone, the relation to others’ material and methods of working
was already extraordinarily intimate. Given the often very complicated and mind-
boggling patch bay required of analogue editing, those in the video studio were always
assisting each other in re-formatting the wires and plugs. In short, these actualities always
led to a strong level of communication and interest in discussing the technical frustrations
of work and its content and aspirations. Propinquity resulted in a free exchange of
opinions, ideas and impromptu critiques of each other’s undertakings. This became, after
a time, practically a given condition of working practice.

During this time I worked beside several people. I will mention those that I’ve had an
some opportunity to see evolve through time by further exposure to their practice as it
continues today, and perhaps in so doing, explain indirectly the inestimable value of
peers.
Susanne Loehr, who had previously studied in Hamburg, surprised me in her working
methods and the committed social and political approach her research involved, most
notably in her work concerning the psychological and architectural space of the Bank.
Her interest in the transactional boundary between bank employee and bank user was
delineated literally in her making of a glass-screened kasse, which stood to the lazy eye
as a minimalist sculpture. It was in fact more of a prop, but in the most dynamic way; a
prop that informed strongly determined power relations and strict roles. On arriving at the
Academie she had brought with her the most astonishing collection of surveillance
photographs of masked Bank robbers captured by security cameras, some wearing
carnival masks, such as clown, witch or tiger, others muffled or veiled with scarves or
disguised by hats and sunglasses. These images highlighted the bank as a place where
action and behaviour are dictated, usually under the strictest control. The uncanny
masked figures disrupted this order, appearing as transgressive phantoms in the act of
breaking both the law and the prescribed terms of engagement.

Susanne took the kasse sculpture to a German prison as a staging device with which to
interview a notorious bank robber who was happy to work with her in the confines of his
cell. Together they made a video in which he re-enacts his crime, replays his motives and
thoughts, while also responding to Susanne’s questions. In addition, she interviewed the
chief police investigator who dealt with the case, and also one of the Cashiers from the
bank where the money had been stolen. Her approach was not unlike a private
investigator exploring the motives of all actors within the drama, the crime now almost
an aside.

Not easily seduced by her heavily loaded material, she worked with it closely, slowly
drawing forth meaning and refusing the easy route of theatricality, or overt voyeuristic
spectacle. Despite the highly charged documentary visuals she had amassed, these were
never considered as an easy route for justifying her research, or indeed of being works in
themselves. In fact, all of the footage I have described became merely an investigative
research tool. The final piece, if ever there was one, became a very careful collaged audio
interview, combining all of her subjects voices overlaid upon the shot of the interior of an
empty bank at night, where minimal action is occurring. The occasional car passes by
while the voice of the cashier talks over it. The space remains unperturbed, the site of
many dramas and container for varied associations and possibilities.

This stark economy startled me, as it did many others. It acted as a reminder to hold back
from obvious, literal depictions that appear to give meaning too readily but, in fact, elide
their subject entirely. Watching Susanne work through the material in the edit suite,
stripping it back and refusing easy resolutions, became excellent instruction on the
powers of restraint. Exacting a severe deconstruction of her own work, she was an
extremely hard critic, and brought her background in feminism, philosophy and political
activism to bear on her critiques. She assisted me greatly in the making of many works
during that period through insistent questioning of my process and. with her wide
knowledge of theoretical writings and experimental texts, expanded my reading. Whilst
working on a piece, which I shall mention later, she offered up the stanza:

“ When you fall like a stone, one must not think. If one thinks then one must not fall”
Despite her rigour, Susanne was no stranger to intuitive practices, play, humour and
unexpected strategies. In a piece called Sisters, a scene emerged of two women talking in
German, standing in the kitchen of a high-rise apartment. The camera slowly pans across
the room as an English voice-over reads a short passage from DH Lawrence’s Women In
Love. “Gudrun and Ursula are sitting in the kitchen …” As the voice over continues, the
camera reaches the window, revealing the outside view and the block opposite.

The scene repeats itself

Gudrun und Ursula are sitting in the kitchen. They are sisters. Gudrun is 25 and Ursula
is 26. They are mostly silent, only occasionally talking, as their thoughts stray through
their minds, and leaving long pauses. Ursula looks at her sister now: she thinks her so
charming. She admires her with all her soul.

"Why did you come back ?" she opens another conversation.
(Warum bist Du zurückgekommen?)

Gudrun knows she is being admired. "Why?" (Warum?) She repeats. "I have asked
myself a thousand times." (Das habe ich mich selbst Tausendfach gefragt?)
"And?" (und?) Ursula insists gently. Gudrun: " Its like stepping back, in order to have a
better leap." ( Als träte man zurück um anlauf zu nehmen)
Ursula: "Where can one jump to?" (Wohin kann man denn springen ?)
Gudrun: "That does not matter ,“ Gudrun replies. "One is bound to land somewhere if
one just jumps over the edge."
(Darauf kommt s nicht an. Man muss doch irgendwo landen, wenn man über die Kante
springt)

Ursula: “It’s all nothing but words.” (Das sind doch alles nur Worte)

As the lens reaches the view one more, the skyscraper opposite suddenly explodes and
falls to the ground. This was not achieved by any digital effect, but by absolutely perfect
timing during an explosives demolition operation in the neighbourhood. The cataclysm is
inexplicable - a concatenation of the psychological tension between the women, the voice
over, and the explosion – and confounds the viewer in its play with drama and
documentary, fiction and reality.

It comes as no surprise that later Susanne went on to work with the documentary in most
vivid ways as a journalist and arts correspondent for the German division of the Franco
German cultural broadcaster ARTE. I had the pleasure of assisting her as cameraman
whilst working on a piece about the Dutch painter Marlene Dumas, in 1999. In other
projects in the following the years, Susanne has explored the art-scenes and working
conditions for artists in Middle East, such as Iran, Lebanon, Turkey, Israel and Palestine
and investigated interactions between art and philosophy, most notably in an acclaimed
documentary about the philosopher, Jean Baudrillard.
I had known Knut Harald Asdam from Goldsmiths, but not at all well. Yet during a very
brief conversation there, it was he who planted the first seed for the beginnings of my
journey to Maastricht, by mentioning its potential scope. Knut’s work had always
displayed a core interest in the power of architecture, especially that of the institution, to
control, inform and displace subjectivities, however whilst in Maastricht this pre-
occupation became a far more refined exploration of liminal spaces and thresholds in
relation to the body. His practice took many forms, and whilst continuing to work with
sculptural interventions, he began to explore the possibilities of video to expand his
concerns. It was through talking and listening to his ideas that I became aware of Deleuze
and Guattari’s writing, most particularly A Thousand Plateaux,, and the concept of
becoming, a queering process which is always ongoing, always in transit, never
completed and absolutely not determined by the directive notion of outcome;
as in the assertion of Woolf’s, Mrs. Dalloway, 'I am no longer this. I am no longer that.'

To this day, I can say that I have never fully gotten to grips with the real underpinnings of
A Thousand Plateaux, but nonetheless reading it has opened up a great fluidity, not only
in my thinking and working methods, but also in my way of living, inhabiting and
understanding the many apparitions of selfhood. I am indebted to Knut for not only
introducing Deleuzian concepts to me, but for making them accessible and negotiable via
discussion and through the making of works. We worked together several times, either
assisting with the making of each other’s work or directly participating within it.

His approach to video making was no less exacting than in his 3-Dimensional work,
retaining an acute awareness of space and setting, shots were prepared and lit with
extreme precision. At this point he was chiefly preoccupied in creating spaces of
disarming neutrality or others, which implied a flatness or irreality in which to place the
body, by this time his own, often prone or in positions denoting a state of vulnerability.
I assisted Knut as camera operator in the shooting of a piece, titled Come To Your Own.
Having considerable prior experience of video, I found it rather galling to suddenly be
learning further skills concerning lighting and set preparation, from someone only just
beginning to explore the medium’s possibilities. The space, while notionally acting as
analyst’s room, film set and painted backdrop, was in fact almost a dead zone, a form of
cancellation, a non-space. I watched as he placed himself within it and began like a
hypnotherapist, inviting the viewer to become aware of their presence and go to an inner
space and then gradually return: “Come to your own …in your own time …come to your
own.” Looking through the viewfinder and listening to his slow, soft and steady direct
address to camera, I felt an alarming collapse between the recording image and the scene-
taking place before it, an indefinable folding inward of space and temporality. This
invitation / invocation / incantation, was to the viewer but there was no space to come to.
Watching I witnessed the strangest act of becoming. Remember, at this point the work
was not made, it was in the process of being made, with no conceived parameters or
certainties, yet already it was forming itself in the passing of every second and the
gradual repetitions of each phrase. The hypnotist’s insistent suggestion of an inner
private, interior place to return to, conducted in this setting and under these conditions,
implied every possible space imaginable yet also a voidness of any space whatsoever.
Gradually, head falling backwards, he himself appeared to be falling into a trance, while
intoning the instructions for this return.
During this time I had become interested in ideas of a libidinal economy, the performing
body and the excitation and exhaustion inherent to autoerotic rituals, in which the action
and actor would become gradually worn out by repetitions. Implied in the behaviours or
scenarios was some possibility of transcendence, always denuded and weighted down by
narcissistic propensities and the draining of physical and psychic force. At a point during
this process the body appears as a site for competing drives and anxieties..

As an experiment, I began skipping to exhaustion, but was uncertain where to proceed


with this act in terms of performance or the moving image. Through discussion and an
exchange of ideas with Knut, I began to think more about where this activity might be
located. In sharing an interest in the toil of the body exerting itself, while more or less
jumping on the same spot, we decided to collaborate together. Thus began an arduous and
circular labour together that proved after many struggles to be very fruitful.

It was Susanne Loehr who introduced the possibility of language:

“ When you fall like a stone, one must not think.


If one thinks then one must not fall”

This drew the figure into realm of subjective awareness but caught by the phrasing of a
self-reflexive and tautological riddle, which describes yet undermines the action.
In considering different types of activity, both gainful labour and useless toil, we decided
it might be interesting to stage the action of skipping within the space of the Bonnefanten
Museum on the outskirts of the city. It was currently under construction and populated by
builders and carpenters. The idea of a huge space coming into being, and the collective
work enabling that seemed a potent setting in which to perform on the spot skipping.
Despite the scale of the space and its post-modern austerity, such dimension did not
translate well into the medium of video. Again we chose a different space, counter to our
first choice, a derelict theatre in the centre of Maastricht, this time corpus as ruin. We had
to run the camera off Knut’s car battery. Once again the setting proved insufficient.

As is so often the case with investigating the true nature of a piece, it took these laborious
and demanding try-outs to realise that the architectural component of the work was a
decision to be considered after shooting, by positioning the completed video on a monitor
in a variety of architectural settings. This decided, we filmed the one-hour ordeal at the
top of a staircase with a very tight cropping. Dimension and depth were conveyed
acoustically, while once again the figure appeared groundless, in another non-space.

The process was far more draining than it sounds, and in this case it was the condition of
collaboration, which saw it to its end. Commitment and trust between collaborators is
always imperilled by doubt or looming exhaustion. Each collaborator has a differing
energy, stamina and way of coping with stress. The strength of our collaboration was in
being able to support one another on a dip, and to challenge each other’s misplaced
enthusiasms: in a series of reciprocal responses the work came into being.

Such intense collaboration exacts a lot, and I have to confess to being quite ungracious
for a time afterwards, something I still remember now with a degree of shame.
Nonetheless Knut kindly helped in the realisation of other work and thought, and was
unafraid to put himself in the frame, both discursively and performatively, in very
difficult situations. Right from the very outset, he was able to embrace the queering of
subjectivities, sexualities and spaces. I greatly admired this ability to make one’s self
fragile, inert and at times almost disappear, in a form of self-erasure. This occurred
probably most notably in his piece Play Dead, in which his prone body lay upon a slate
grey floor, lit with such shadowless brilliance, and shot at a vertiginous angle so that the
body seemed to sink into the ground. However, this work like many others to follow was
not without a subtle, but detectable humour. On another monitor appeared a repeating
clip of two puppets rushing across the screen in never-ending pursuit of one another.

It is very reassuring to encounter Knut’s present work. His methods, articulations and
investigation of the dynamics of subjectivity and space have persisted, refined and
evolved, through increasingly complex uses of the media of photography, sound, video
and film. In an exploration of highly volatile, mutable, threshold spaces, in which his
models are temporarily sited, often just passing through, he captures the flux,
displacement and becoming of a highly unpredictable world. These settings are neither
coded as benign or malign, they are merely temporary and unstable zones of occupation,
in which something and nothing can happen.
Johan Grimomprez arrived at the Academie fresh from the editing and completion of his
video work Kobarweng or Where Is Your Helicopter? This video approached the
problems of anthropological representation, the conventions of documentary filmmaking
and the legacy of colonialism via multiple strands and visual material. Johan had studied
at the Whitney Program in New York and prior to this spent research time in Irian Jaya,
Papua New Guinea. The enquiry Where is your helicoper? was derived from the first
arrival of anthropologists in the region thirty years before, descending into the villages by
parachuting from helicopters. Sensitive to his own alien presence and to the voices of the
people around him, he began collecting oral accounts of this historic and baffling
moment, when men fell from the sky. The piece subtly delineated the collision between
the two cultures via the combination of these voices with the original footage of the
landing, shot by anthropologists.

Johan brought with him a strain of enquiry and political awareness that enlivened,
enriched and expanded the discursive climate within the Academie. His eagerness to
share and expound his theories and working methods challenged any latent propensity to
forget that there was indeed an outside world beyond this cloistered institution. His work
acted as a reminder that every image presents a complex history from the moment of its
making, reception and dissemination, offering multiple interpretative possibilities and
identificatory readings as it moves from context to context.
As well as a varied background in anthropology, dance theatre, the Belgian art scene and
the theoretical syllabus of the Whitney, Johan possessed a wide range of knowledge and
contacts that he was very willing to share with others where it might be advantageous in
the development and propagation of their work. It was via his agency that several
remarkable visitors attended the Academie as guests, including the American filmmaker
Tom Kalin, who directed the notorious Swoon, Belgian video curator Dirk De Witt, and
artist Lesley Thornton, who gave one of the most generous and honest introductions to
her work I have ever encountered.

Johan began reconfiguring his work on Kobarweng into a more complex new work,
It Will Be All Right If You Come Again, Only Next Time Don't Bring Any Gear Except A
Tea Kettle whilst also developing a publication, expanding some of the themes in terms
of research and interviews. This was an awakening for me in terms of realising that the
scope and breadth of material in the making of a project is often so rich that it requires
more attention and expansion than can be possible within the frame of one work alone.

Watching him set about the task was both fascinating and revealing, as he exhibited a
willingness to consider his own experience as a maker and participant within the former
work and to question this in the making of the present one. He was extending the terms of
reference in order to expose anthropological presumptions, and to explore the perceived
others’ view of those who scrutinize their culture. The anthropologists had bizarrely
screened The Sound of Music to the villagers after their arrival. This event proved a rich
source for Johan’s research, and to question the film document in terms of fiction, reality
and viewer identification. Interestingly here, he experimented with the installation form,
utilizing several monitors to present material of different but complimentary registers.
We talked a great deal about this and shared our views on the effectiveness of such a
spatialising method. Later I assisted Johan in the first manifestation of the piece at the
Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels.

It is this kind of experience that I continue to value, for assisting another in the
presentation of an artwork allows one to take the necessary distance in relation to the
process of presentation, often impossible to achieve in one’s own working patterns. One
learns from sharing thoughts, and I learned a great deal about my own thinking and
spatial concerns in doing this. Johan returned the gesture a thousand-fold in his support of
my own particular dilemmas.

The final work was shown on three monitors, showing the footage of New Guinea
alongside scenes from The Sound of Music, and shots of Johan’s tea-kettle boiling over
in his New York apartment. The combinatory effect was to create overlaps of
signification and association between cinematic fantasies of Austrian landscape, the
terrain of the villagers, and the video-maker’s interior space of private reflection.
At the Academie, Johan gave a series of seminars concerning artists and filmmakers
working with the language of documentary to create Pseudomentaries, works in which
the use of appropriated footage, re-enactments, retellings, competing interpretations and
audio disruptions created a blend of fact and fiction; a blurring of the authentic and the
parodic that exposed any claim to truth posited by the concept of documentary. This
ranged widely, from established practitioners in the field, such as Chris Marker, towards
more obscure, delightfully surreal works, uncovered by keen research.

This research evolved into the Video Library – Prend Garde! A Jouer au Fantome
that offered viewers a very specific viewing situation in which to select from an extensive
archive of video works, and to view them in conjunction with available texts and
manifestos by their makers and critics. With its focus on the current obsession with alien
abduction and conspiracy theories, the project perfectly captured the manner in which
cinema, popular culture and real events inform one another. This expansive undertaking
was certainly a starting point for Johan’s seminal and terrifyingly prophetic
work D-I-A-L HISTORY, dealing with media articulations on terrorism and sky-jacking.
In my final year in Maastricht, I watched Johan undertake his research, a gruelling task
that I did not envy. Each day he would watch endless news footage from CNN and other
stations, which he also had to record and log. In addition, he went through the laborious
task of trying to seek rights to use the archive footage of airlines and TV networks.
The workload alone was enormous, but also the psychological impact was incredibly
stressful. Being exposed continually to such highly distressing news reportage and
visceral images of fatalities on a daily basis was a grinding ordeal! Yet Johan sat there
each day facing the material. It was this stamina and unflinching eye, which allowed the
work to come into being.

What I recall about Johan, other than his generosity in sharing ideas, was that he was
quite a formidable, at times fearsome opponent in a disagreement concerning the
issues at the centre of a work and how they should take form in their presentation and
installation. At the time, I did not always enjoy these confrontations, partly due to the fact
that he usually proved to be right. I now value them greatly in hindsight.
Imogen Stidworthy was also in Maastricht during my first year at the Academie.
At that time she was primarily working in the field of installation and photography, using
sculptural interventions in charged spaces, the work often sited outside of the building.
In one case she made use of the abandoned Starkebaum Theatre to create an installation,
boarding up a long window in the building and in doing so implying a restraint of speech,
a form of gagging. The underpinning of her research was a strong preoccupation with the
body in relationship to language, and how this body is articulated and defined by it, often
in the stutters of pain or inhibition. Soon her objects began to address this more
succinctly in the casting and making of curious forms that suggested at once the human
throat, medical insertion instruments, mouthpieces and even microphones. Her practice
was extremely experimental and cross-disciplinary, accessing many presentational
strategies to evolve a hybrid form of abject sculpture that appeared to function as a tool
waiting for the viewer to discover its use.

It was only a matter of time before she would begin to work directly with both video and
sound. I assisted Imogen in the making of one of her first videos, the beginning of a very
long and rewarding working relationships and later collaboration. In this particular
instance she used a transparent gum shield to stop up her mouth. The shot was very tight
and carefully lit so that the strange Perspex shield glistened with salvia, giving the closely
framed mouth the appearance of monstrous, grimacing jaws. Strongly reminiscent of an
unworded adaptation of Beckett’s Not I, the mouth appeared to struggle to expel the
restraining gum shield. Sound was as important as image here – as the mouth emitted a
soft series of slurping, sucking and glottal noises, until finally the impediment was spat
out. What had been latent in the previous sculptural objects was suddenly actualised in
the most extraordinary manner. It is always revelatory to witness someone make a
breakthrough in their process, and to share that excitement. The final work was titled
Glory Hole, alluding to the mouth as oracular orifice while referencing homosexual slang
for the aperture bored into the wall a toilet cubicle to facilitate cocksucking.

During this fertile period, Imogen began recording sound - primarily voice and
conversation. In an arresting piece, using sound recorded whilst talking over the phone,
she cut out all the legible conversation, leaving only the nervous utterances and non-
verbal exclamations revealing a vulnerable and pre-linguistic sounding between words.
The work, mounted on a wall with headphones was aptly named But.

What I found exciting in watching Imogen was her ability to make things relational,
not only in her thinking, but in her capacity to bring seemingly disparate things together,
to create a resonance close to a dialogue or a form of conversation, via association or
proximity of placement. Very daring in her leaps of imagination, she was capable of
making extraordinary links between different reference points in order to bring ideas and
materials together. I recall her showing me three postcards; one, the carved stone façade
of a cathedral, another, a bleating lamb, and finally a man cutting into a tree, letting its
white sap run down the bark. She managed to interlace her interpretations of each image
into a remarkable consideration of the flow of language and stoppage of speech. Later she
constructed a large ball made from molasses and filmed it slowly melting and running
onto the floor. Afterwards she placed the footage on a monitor at the front of the
Academie and close by a sound recording of a voice. Titled Lump, the conjunction of the
two processes provoked a succession of shifting propositions about voice, until the
recording had hushed and the ball had completely melted away, leaving a blank screen.

Imogen’s way of thinking was extremely instrumental in terms of my own development


as an artist, as were her exhortations for me to take risks, but it was her thorough and
insistent questioning of the operations of my footage itself, which were most helpful.
She would often confront me at the outset of a work to consider over-stepping the
obvious and to seek out what was really at stake. In long, and detailed discussions
throughout the making of each other’s work, a great understanding and appreciation of
what the other was trying to do evolved and from this arose the most acute ability to
advise and assist in this capacity, through very free and improvisational response.
Of note is one particular evening during which we both surprised one another in
facilitating the realisation of two works that seemed to more or less ready to make
themselves within the space of an hour, under the right conditions of receptivity.

We cycled together over the Belgium border, which was only half an hour - maybe less -
away from Maastricht. I had some notion to film myself ducking into a bowl of water.
Previously I had experimented with holding my breath under water within the confines of
the Academie but hadn’t given the act any real weight or consideration. Always willing
to help, Imogen had agreed to be my camera operator.

And so we set up by the side of a canal and prepared to shoot. Once ready Imogen gave
me some information about the framing of the piece and continued to readjust the camera
accordingly by describing what she could see to me. Nervous and cold, I deferred to her
judgement and we started filming in earnest. I began putting my head into the basin and
under the water, remaining there until my lungs were airless. This continued for quite
some time until I became aware of distant but violent shouts which were gradually
growing louder and more violent. A gang of boys on bicycles were approaching on the
other bank. I could hear them screaming and whooping as they came nearer and then as
their breaks squeaked to a halt they began a volley of abuse and catcalling. At this point a
very soft voiced intoned, “Just keep going Michael.” Thus I persisted in my underwater
bows as the boys screamed, until after a time they became bored and moved on.
Meanwhile I continued ducking my head into the basin.

Afterwards Imogen and I retired to a small bar in a local village for a beer and hopefully
unwind a little. We sat in silence a while a little tired and vaguely traumatised by our
adventure. The patroness of the bar put some money in the jukebox and the most
sentimental, emotionally overblown chanson began to play. At this point Imogen was
rubbing her left eye in the strangest way. I snatched up the camera and began filming this
eye manipulation, which in tandem to the awful music evolved into an impromptu
performance. Quite unperturbed by the remaining customers in the bar, Imogen continued
to poke and rub at her eyeball in the most intrusive and painful way until the song had
ended. This unfolded as a kind of erotics of the eye, and was based on an incident Imogen
had witnessed in a club in Rotterdam. In enacting this memory she conjured a feeling
rather than a seeing eye.

Thus were born All My Little Ducks and Intimate in the passage of time before dusk.
The manner in which these works came about was completely predicated on a level of
trust and an understanding of each other’s principle concerns. This allowed us to act
quickly and spontaneously from moment to moment whilst exercising a surprising degree
of formal rigour and a very precise sense of timing. Together we had become attuned to
the moment and knew that we must give ourselves over to it, while maintaining minimal
but significant control of the situation.

Imogen’s work continued to develop at an extraordinary rate and her technical ability to
use sound advanced accordingly. One of my favourite pieces from this time was the use
of a recording of her father reading the self-immersive Beckett text The Unnamable.
The monologue is of a man immobilized, waiting for support, trapped in a doorway.
Imogen found two very small speakers and adapting them with movement sensors placed
them in two pollarded trees. When approached by curious passers-by the sound would
shift to the other speaker fixed to the opposite tree, setting up a failed encounter in which
the voice cried out for acknowledgment, while those attempting to listen would dart
backwards and forwards between the trees.
My contact with Imogen has endured, leading us to work together several times In her
later installation works, such as To and the haunting Dummy, (in which she employed the
services of a female ventriloquist), speech and spoken narratives are revealed to unravel
subjectivity even as the speakers’ use their routines to constitute themselves. Her current
work remains totally committed to an exploration of language in increasingly complex
and relevant ways. In many works she details acts of cognition and listening, deftly
revealing the underpinnings of inter-subjective relationships and the self within the
speech act. Perhaps most poignantly she explores the use of language, its formation,
learning and usage, in her research on Aphasia and through thoughtful collaborations
with the remarkable people living with this condition, that choose to work with her.

From Epiphany to Epilogue

I by no means have a honey-eyed vision of my sojourn in Maastricht, nor of the Jan Van
Eyck Academie. At times it was a highly disturbing, even alienating environment to be
stranded in. Living and working together in such close confines was often analogous to
being an inmate in a sanatorium, or even a lunatic asylum for errant egomaniacs. A
strong sense of collective awareness could morph swiftly into collective hysteria, akin to
that of the convent of Loudon. My own taste for drama aside, you will find that I am not
the only person to speak of it in such seemingly exaggerated terms. There is always the
danger in such pressure cooker climates of unexpected overspills. However, there was
somehow an inner regulating system that accounted for outbursts or failings, and
equilibrium was eventually restored. Whatever the difficulties, the experience was a
seminal encounter that induced real critical engagement and responsibility. The
institution’s aspiration and philosophy offered an opportunity that I now realise was
incredibly rare, increasingly so now, as bureaucrats and administrators take the upper
hand in centres of Art Education. Artist Susan Hiller, speaking very plainly in 1993,
anticipated this erosion well in advance of its widespread occurrence:

“Already a great many people involved in art education in schools and colleges in this
country (Britain) as administrators and as teachers, have no actual experience in art
practice. From my point of view this seems as peculiar as it would be to teach French
without being able to speak a word of it.”

The moral and ethical concerns of Jon Thompson’s Fine Art Program in Maastricht were
based on the absolute necessity of open-ended relationships between participants,
founded on respect and care between peers and a decisive commitment to the overall
project of experimental learning, as a mutual, collective endeavour. The remarkable staff,
comprising of Willem Oorebeek, Yehuda Saffran, Avis Newman, Mona Hatoum and the
sadly missed Andrea Fisher, and of course Jon, did not patronise their tutees, but spoke to
them in earnest as equals, and openly presented and discussed their own working
practices with total frankness. The current system of Art Education in Britain today, in
neglecting and marginalising teaching by artists, encourages students to become divisive,
solitary and self-obsessed to the detriment of their development. This is nothing short of
an appalling and systemic betrayal.

Alexander Tzonis remarks further on institutional bias towards something masquerading


under the term - Research Culture; “Pressure to generate high personal research profiles,
together with rapid change and economic recession, may well reinforce the tendency
towards professional narcissism.”

In concluding this brief account of interaction with so-called peers, I hope that I have
been able to at least convey how intensely vital this kind of communication is in the
making of art. Without it there is no questioning, no enquiry and no life. It is in the fluid
interchange between others that ideas, forms and expansive thinking emerge and move
forward. In the right conditions the giving is completely unconditional, because the
commitment and respect is far beyond any mere concern for the individual; instead it
exists and is fuelled by an enthusiasm for the ongoing process of illumination. I will say
nothing further now but ask that you read closely between the lines for hints regarding
the value of peer influence and the ways in which it exerts itself in acts of support,
exchange and indeed the act of love.