Published  26/10/2016

James Richards: ‘I was really into making an exhibition space where there would be nothing to look at’

James Richards: ‘I was really into making an exhibition space where there would be nothing to look at’

The artist, who will be representing Wales in Venice (Cymru yn Fenis) at next year’s biennale, talks about his processes of collaging together digital fragments to create immersive audiovisual installations


Combining fragments of film, music, vocals, erotica and medical documentary, James Richards (b1983, Cardiff) creates site-specific audiovisual installations and morphing exhibitions, which immerse the visitor in a kaleidoscopic and cinematic sensorial experience. Keeping a diaristic digital scrapbook, Richards draws from this to create his collages and assemblages, inspired by Dada.

Already having won the Jarman award for film and video in 2012, and the Ars Viva Prize for young artists two years later, Richards was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2014, and will be representing Wales in Venice (Cymru yn Fenis) at next year’s biennale. He spoke to Studio International during the installation of his exhibition Requests and Antisongs, at the ICA, London.

Anna McNay: Can we start by talking about your work here at the ICA? It’s travelled here from Bergen, but you’re changing and adding to it somewhat.

James Richards: The exhibition here at the ICA is the second in a series of three shows. The first, Crumb Mahogany, was staged at the Bergen Kunsthall, Norway. Here at the ICA, the show is titled Requests and Antisongs and, in December, the final show in the series, Crossing, will be presented at the Kestnergesellschaft in Hanover. The idea was to spend 2016 working on these three shows that would be linked by certain works and overlaps of content, but also altered and changed at each stage, allowing the conventional touring exhibition to be something much more open, and allowing for process and evolution. In parallel, there is a publication to accompany the shows with text and images.

The shows are connected in terms of funding, but otherwise they’re very different. Some works appear over and over again, while others are developed on site, in reaction to the very specific conditions of the exhibition spaces themselves. With exhibitions, it’s not just about the work, it’s about responding to the building. Just simple things, like the fact that the two areas here at the ICA are separated by a cafe and stairs, and that they’re architecturally very different rooms, immediately suggests a very different arrangement of works.

For Crumb Mahogany, I tried to convene the elements in such a way that the show would function as a single work. Bergen Kunsthall is a purpose-built 1930s kunsthall, and it has this really wonderful symmetry. It’s a series of rooms that are the same proportion as one another. There’s this amazing repetition as one walks through the spaces, and I really wanted to make a show that would use this to conjure up a sense of déjà vu when walking around the galleries – either showing different versions of the same fragment of video, for example, or having sound that was musically echoing other sounds in the spaces and playing with these repetitions through the show.

For the ICA, I decided to bring one half of the Bergen show – the soundtrack – which I composed electronically from fragments of sound from film, fragments of existing music, samples of percussion, and recordings made with professional singers, all of which I processed and edited electronically. These very different kinds of material are combined and composed for this special six-channel speaker system, which is a bit like a surround-sound system, basically, but it allows you to make the sounds appear to move around the listener, so to speak, or to come closer and further away. You can create quite visual effects with such high-quality sound, and you can make very spatial effects, shattering the atmosphere of a room. Physically, it’s a very simple work. It’s a large room with an architectural curtain to deaden the echo in the space, to control the acoustics, and then this audio system, which is playing the composition for viewers to sit and listen to. I was really into the idea of making an exhibition space where there would be nothing to look at and then to flood that space with sound.

AMc: So it’s a work with no video, but it’s about the capacity for sound to conjure up images in the mind’s eye?

JR: Yes. There is a very sparse exhibition design in the downstairs galleries and then I am using the upstairs galleries to work with imagery and projection. Radio at Night (2015) is a video that has a simple song-like structure. It’s all based on a group of singers I worked with, called Vocal Juice. I recorded them singing the lines Bear down, bear down, breathe, which comes from a Judy Grahn poem that I’ve used in earlier videos as a sample text, but here I got the singers to re-perform text and sing it melodically and improvise around it. I really like the nakedness of their voices and the simplicity of it all. That then combines and moves into these much more electronically processed sections. The video is eight minutes long and moves in and out of these vocal song sections and electronic sections, combining them with imagery from medical films and this really beautiful version of a group of harlequins at night. It’s a very lyrical work, undercutting something forensic and industrial.

AMc: This piece is playing in one of the galleries upstairs?

JR: Yes.

AMc: How does it interact with the work in the second upstairs gallery?

JR: The title of this second work is Rushes Minotaur (2016), and it works with still images scrolling through a sequence of different manipulations. I’ve been working in different ways in the past two years to push and expand my work and the forms that it can take. In this work, I wanted to try making something that was silent and I worked much more graphically then. The work was made with a flatbed scanner and Photoshop, with some very primitive video editing. The installation consists of three projections, where images of hair and meat are shown stretching and shifting in a clinical and cyclical way. The sound from the adjoining work is still very present in the space and these videos are soundtracked by this echo.

AMc: It sounds almost as if you are collaging the two works together. What role does collaging play in your work as a whole? Do you see yourself as following in, or being particularly influenced by, a specific tradition, genre or movement? I’m thinking perhaps of Dadaism, because of the way you layer elements together and pull them apart.

JR: Yes, for me, a certain strand of sculpture has been very important: the assemblage of work starting in Dada and running through the work of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and then into contemporary work by Isa Genzken and Rachel Harrison. I love this sense of bringing together very disparate materials – images, objects and more conventional artists’ mediums, such as paint, plaster and wood – and making work that plays with the associations and forms, but also somehow allows the parts to stay very much their own, to be separate and just themselves. I like to mix fragments of quite recognisable film footage from cinema and television with much more obscure material from science and documentary, and then I fold in scraps of video that I shoot myself, where I’ve been using the camera in a diaristic way.

I think I see my work as very much collage in its origin, rather than cinema or theatre: gathering things that interest you or stimulate you in some way and keeping a record of what’s around you. It’s very much a daily thing, so not really researching or hiring camera crews, much more just about acquiring what’s accessible and taking fragments of it and keeping it all on file.

AMc: Like a digital scrapbook?

JR: In a sense, yes. But even though it’s digital, as a way of working, it’s much more like having a desk and a folder of newspaper clippings. It’s very much about playing with fragments. The work uses images and the play of associations that become possible when they are repurposed, but it’s also about more abstract things such as image quality, texture and colour, and the way that those properties can be composed. You can often see the edges of the clips. You can feel them as being from very different places from one another. It isn’t seamless. They’re somewhat slick, but it’s very much about rupture and cutting between things.

The publication works with collage and found photography. It was conceived as an extension of the show itself and it works with the same kind of logic. I edited it in collaboration with Mason Leaver-Yap, a writer and editor I work closely with.

It’s also called Requests and Antisongs. I’ve been working on gathering a lot of photography and paper and documentation of existing work and then cutting up and processing and rescanning it all and drawing directly on to it. I worked with this material by hand and then also on Photoshop, and then edited the whole thing into a visual sequence. I can’t really call it a story, but it’s like a sequence that has a sense of build-up and release and tension and certain themes appearing and coming away and reappearing, which is very much the way I work with video and sound, but I tried to do this with print and with a book format.

AMc: Is it a limited edition?

JR: No, it will be widely available. It’s published and distributed by Sternberg Press.

AMc: You are curating a programme of films, performances and talks alongside the exhibition, too. Why is this important for you? How does it feed into your practice?

JR: I guess it’s a nice way of relating to things that you find really inspiring and, obviously, when you see something amazing, you want to share that experience. Working with video, I’ve been really active in organising film screenings since I was a student. I work very closely with LUX Film and Video in London. I’ve also been organising group exhibitions at different spaces regularly for the past few years.

I’ve always loved the multidisciplinary nature of the ICA and so, as I was working on this show, various things came to mind that I felt would be good to present in the cinema and theatre.

We’re presenting Leslie Thornton, who is an artist working in New York. We met for the first time when we were screening together at the Serpentine Gallery two or three years ago. So we’re organising a new screening of her videos, looking at a very particular strand of her work, and I think it bears a nice relationship to my own work. Also, there’s a fantastic work called Field Notes by Andrew Kerton, who is an artist I’ve known for some years. It’s a really amazing, fantastic piece, which blew me away when I saw it last winter.

The third event is a screening of an artwork by Dani Leventhal, [who] of all the people [is] a very new person to me. I’ve just become a fan of her work in the past year. It’s this very raw, diaristic camcorder video, which I really love, and it’s really nice to reach out to her and find out a bit more about her work and to help organise a solo screening with my friend and collaborator Mason Leaver-Yap, who will be in conversation with Dani at that event.

AMc: Last year, you selected Francis Bacon’s Study for a Portrait (1953) from the V-A-C collection in Moscow to show accompanied by a specially composed sound work at the Whitechapel Gallery. How did it come about that you got this opportunity to curate something there and what made you select that work?

JR: That was a project instigated by the curator Omar Kholeif, who was at the Whitechapel at the time. Omar and I have worked together a few times over the years. He was organising a season of artist-curated exhibitions with the V-A-C Foundation’s collection and so he invited me to participate. It was an interesting challenge to have a situation where a lot of the work is done for you. Normally the hard work is all about getting access to things or researching, thinking about relationships to artists, and getting to know their practices. Here, on the other hand, I was given a pdf with a list of every available work. So I decided to turn the whole process on its head and show one single thing and really work with the whole apparatus of exhibiting and really push the display.

I’ve always worked with sound and music, and this scenario seemed like a great opportunity to set up a sonic situation to go in the same space as the painting. The Bacon provided loads of reference points musically, from the chattering of teacups in china, to images of restaurants and dinner parties, through to Brenda Lee singing [the song I’m Sorry]: “I didn’t know/love could be so cruel.” There are lots of biographical or associative feelings somehow related to the Bacon. I drew on these associations when making the composition. It provided a really great backbone for the composition.

AMc: Do you have musical training?

JR: No. I mean, I did some drumming as a teenager, and I played bits of guitar and piano, but nothing in any long-term way. When I was 16, I bought a sampler and started making electronic music, so I am largely self-taught.

AMc: You studied fine art at Chelsea College of Art and Design. Were you making video and sound art there? Did you also study drawing and painting and more traditional art forms?

JR: At Chelsea, at the time, there was a degree course in new media that I studied. I was making videos there. I was also spending a lot of time at Lux Film and Video, watching work, interning and attending screenings.

AMc: You were nominated for the Turner Prize in 2014 and won the Ars Viva Prize for young artists that same year. In 2012, you won the Jarman award for film and video. How have such competitions and prizes affected your career?

JR: In good ways. They consolidate your work to date. People become more aware of what you do in different places. Winning the Ars Viva Prize was very good. It’s a German prize for young artists, but I hadn’t shown much there at the time. I think it really helped in terms of people becoming aware of my work in mainland Europe.

AMc: You’re currently living in Berlin. What took you out there?

JR: There’s a residency scholarship programme called the DAAD, which has been around since the 60s, and I was invited to go and spend a year in Berlin with them. At the end of the year, I was really enjoying the process of immersion that was starting to happen, and I thought, well, I’ll just stay another year and see, and now it’s been three, coming up for four years. I still work a lot in London. I come backwards and forwards. I still feel I’m much more of a London artist than I am a Berlin artist.

AMc: And you will be representing Wales in Venice (Cymru yn Fenis) at next year’s biennale.

JR: Oh, yes, so I’m also a Welsh artist.

AMc: The exhibition will be curated by Chapter Arts Centre. Have you already begun work on it? Can you spill any beans as yet?

JR:  I’m really excited about it. It’s a chance to be very ambitious and to commission a new body of work in a great situation. But I can’t say much more than that right now.

• Requests and Antisongs is at the ICA, London, until 13 November 2016.

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