Published  08/10/2015

Shona Illingworth: ‘Art practice is deeply important in a changing world’

Shona Illingworth: ‘Art practice is deeply important in a changing world’

The Danish-born artist Shona Illingworth, whose video and sound installations explore the mystery of memory, talks about her latest exhibition at FACT in Liverpool, UK, and her collaboration with psychologists in her artistic practice.


Artist Shona Illingworth, who was born in Denmark in 1966 and brought up in the Highlands of Scotland, works across sound, film, video, photography and drawing. She is known for her evocative practice, in which she collaborates with scientists to explore the mysteries of memory. Her work has been exhibited internationally, with shows at the Museum of Modern Art in Bologna and the Wellcome Collection in London. Now she is holding an exhibition, Lesions in the Landscape, at FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) in Liverpool, UK. In this multiscreen installation, the artist explores the profound impact of amnesia on one woman, Claire, in close collaboration with cognitive neuropsychologists Martin A Conway and Catherine Loveday.

On the Scottish archipelago of St Kilda, Illingworth filmed Claire, who, following a brain trauma, can no longer remember most of her past, create new memories, or recognise people – even herself. Yet a sensory-operated camera worn by Claire can help to reactivate access to her “forgotten” memories, in rare bursts of recollection. The exhibition presents three video projections and an array of loud speakers, to create an immersive sound environment. In the layered composition, the calls of gannets are underscored by EEG signals, drawing connections between the landscape and Claire’s amnesia.

The abrupt end to Claire’s access to her memories has striking parallels with the sudden evacuation of St Kilda in the North Atlantic on 29 August 1930 when the 36 people remaining there decided to leave as life there had become too difficult, ending more than 4,000 years of habitation. Both have experienced a lesion in the landscape. Now both are subject to scientific inquiry. Claire is central to a major neuropsychological research study. Meanwhile, St Kilda is an outdoor laboratory for scientific investigation, a heritage site and a radar tracking station for complex military weapons testing.

Here, Illingworth talks about the evolution of her career. She explains why St Kilda is significant to her practice, and how its historical narrative connects with Claire’s amnesia. Illingworth also looks at how the wild and remote place in which she grew up in the northwest corner of Scotland has influenced her artistic practice. And she talks about the importance of her family, and particularly her Danish background, in expanding her field of vision.

Nicola Homer: You trained as an artist at Goldsmiths College, University of London, before pursuing a career in multimedia, research-led practice. How did your career evolve from being at art school to the present day?

Shona Illingworth: I first pursued painting intensely. When I left college and thought about the bigger world outside, I started experimenting with film and photography. I moved away from making abstract paintings preoccupied with a form of excavation of the surface. They involved working on that surface to create a language of atmosphere, a sensation and a feeling through the materiality of paint.

When I look back, I can see that the way I work with film, video and sound is more akin to this process of painting, rather than constructing a linear narrative using conventional languages of film. I am interested in discovering whether it is possible to articulate on a number of different levels simultaneously. For instance, when I use voice, often I will go through a process of excavating recordings of people, searching not just for what people are saying, but also for the tenor of their voice, or the emotive content. I have tried to understand subjectivity and the relationships between people and the world around.

NH: What have been the key moments of your career?

SI: Important early works for me were the films I made of a series of young women. I was interested in how one articulates without speaking, and whether, in doing so, one could perform an act of resistance to the cinematic space. So I made a series of works where I asked women to look into a Super 8 camera. I set the camera running and left the room. That was a shift from the abstraction of the painted surface to working directly with the women’s relationships to being filmed. Then there was a work that I made of my mother laughing hysterically, but with no sound to camera. Yet that was consciously a sound work.

I did a lot of work in prisons. I made a work entitled Walking on Letters (1999) with a man called John, who had spent extended periods of time in prison – often in solitary confinement. He describes putting all his letters, from his solicitor and his lover, on the floor every night, and walking on them, trying to train himself to sense who the letters were from just by feeling them with his bare feet. That was an important piece because it dealt with different forms of memory; it involved a long-term commitment to working with someone; and it looked at some of my key interests, in how our interior world is experienced, how we navigate the relationship between our interior selves and the outside world, and where we begin and end.

NH: I read that you have worked on other projects with scientists and architects from Europe, Canada and the United States. This project is the culmination of a research project that was run in collaboration with the cognitive neuropsychologists Martin A Conway and Catherine Loveday. Could you tell me about your artistic interaction with science?

SI: Yes. I have had a working dialogue for more than 12 years with Martin A Conway, who is a leading memory researcher in his field. Walking on Letters was the first piece of mine that he saw. He engaged immediately with that work. It was very interesting for me, because a lot of the things that I had been doing intuitively around memory corresponded with contemporary scientific thinking.

In my practice, I have developed a context for making work that involves a range of different forms that aren’t necessarily confined to the art world. So there are conversations that span a number of years with different people, which are creative dialogues, articulated in a number of different ways, which make up a rich working environment. I think there is a framing of artists who engage with scientists that falls back on an older, more conservative art-science model, which assumes that there is a hybrid developed between the two, or that the artwork serves to illustrate the science. That is not how I work. It is more to do with engaging with each other in a stimulating, challenging and productive way, casting aspects of the work into relief, in this case engaging with the dynamic complexity of human memory and the way that intersects with wider questions about the politics of memory, amnesia and cultural erasure. For me, it is all about working with individuals.

NH: You have created two moving studies of memory, dating from between 2006 and 2009, The Watch Man and Balnakiel. In your latest film, Lesions on the Landscape (2015), you reflect on the effects of amnesia. Could you say a bit more about your work with memory?

SI: The video and sound installation The Watch Man looks at the impact of a traumatic event on an individual across their lifespan, and how an individual carries the painful experience of a major historical event in private. The subject was my father who, as a 19-year-old, was one of the first people to enter Bergen-Belsen when it was liberated by the British Army towards the end of the second world war. He went completely unprepared. He was told to go to this particular place and see what he could do to help, and that experience was deeply shocking and traumatic. What made it more difficult was the inability to talk about it on his return, and what he would describe as the guilt of being a survivor.

When I was working with Martin, he said something that made me think about how time and history work, that as people get older, their capacity to suppress or contain traumatic memory can become less. The Watch Man looks at the stark disjuncture between the fragmentary, intrusive nature of trauma memory and the need of individuals and society to construct cohesive narratives for historical events. My father was a watchmaker, who was very meticulous. At the same time, he was living with the hidden pressure of intensely disruptive and fragmentary trauma memories. In that film, it was important to find a way of talking about that, which didn’t resort to the more conventional model of the flashback, and so I used sound as a driving force to articulate that constant pressure.

Balnakiel was a film that looked at underlying complexities in the interaction between individual and collective memory across three very different groups of inhabitants in the place where I grew up, on the edge of a major bombing range in the northwest corner of Scotland. I grew up in an abandoned Early Warning Station that had been occupied in the late 1960s by craft-makers looking for an alternative way of life. It was a very isolated place and you had this sudden influx of people living in an area with local people whose families went back generations. So there was a lot of tension. Underlying this were very different relationships to a sense of place and location. The work explored the role memory plays in how physical and psychological landscapes are constructed and in particular, how the military use of landscape affects the civilian population. For instance, for the military, that place is a site of proxy; that landscape has been used as a stand-in for training for successive global conflicts, in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Falklands. This was a landscape where the presence of the military was intense, where, at any moment, the scene of our living could be interrupted by the military helicopters landing in the village or low-flying air force jets bombing an island just off the shore. The piece explores both the spatial and temporal dimensions of memory and how this works across different scales of territory, from the intensely personal to the geopolitical.

In Lesions in the Landscape, a key focus of the work is the impact amnesia has on how we locate ourselves in space and time. Memory is critical to our capacity to have a “now” and to have a sense that we are moving in what one may describe as a “window of consciousness”, to use Martin’s term, with the past fading and the future manifesting in the arc of now. Memory and imagination are inextricably linked here and if you don’t have the capacity to access memory, then that significantly inhibits your capacity to imagine the future. That is true for an individual. It is also true for society. I am very interested in how different forms of amnesia, the loss of access to memory, or the lack of diversity in memory at a cultural and social level, impacts on society’s capacity to imagine the future. Amnesia is enfolded into the present and takes many forms, for instance dominant cultural and historical narratives have the effect of suppressing other social and cultural positions. That in itself has direct and significant consequences for our capacity to imagine the future.

St Kilda is an extraordinary place in the way that it encapsulates how historical narratives constructed almost entirely by visitors to the islands perpetuate a powerful set of myths. This is so pronounced that in most accounts of St Kilda, the presence of the military, a generator creating a constant drone and the radars on the hill that are part of a high-end modern weapons testing range, are edited out. The dominant narratives are that St Kilda is an abandoned island on the “edge of the world” with the loss of a perfectly preserved community. In many ways, St Kilda is locked into the fixed moment of its final evacuation in August 1930. The islanders, who were the subject of fascination for increasing numbers of summer tourists from the late-19th century, who viewed them as exotic and annexed from the modern world, have been separated from their place within a broader cultural context. This type of essentialism is resonant of the narrative constructions that support defence and the maintenance of borders.

St Kilda was on the southern part of a major sea route. That is why at the beginning of the film, you hear a voice say: “If you turned the map the other way round, you would be south.” The film is concerned with interconnected questions of agency, voice and location. There are many references to maps and measuring that coexist across extreme differences in scale. You hear details of functional magnetic resonance imaging of a brain lesion that causes extensive amnesia. At another scale, you hear American and Russian operatives working together to guide a supply ship docking on to the International Space Station, while, on the ground, the global positioning system is mapping the archaeology of St Kilda down to the nearest four centimetres. At the same time, the radar station, which also uses telemetry, is part of a weapons testing range, ensuring defence priorities are maintained in what is essentially a continuing situation of international conflict.

The work engages different constructions of landscape across space and time: for example, you have a description of “sanitised airspace” of “unlimited altitude”, where there are no aeroplane trails. The term sanitised is used because it is a clear, uninterrupted airspace that can be used for weapons testing. That generates a totally different narrative sense to the clear, open skies of a remote “oceanic sublime”. And yet those kinds of languages co-exist in the most peculiar way. These different threads are woven through the work – as are explorations of dynamic neural activity in the brain, and how you might understand the existential consequences of not being able to access your memory. For me, memory is a social, cultural and political question. And the consequences of amnesia cannot be separated from memory.

NH: That is interesting. We were discussing how your work suggests implications of memory loss, identity and space, and the capacity to imagine the future. That appears to hold relevance for a society where Alzheimer’s disease is prevalent. How do you think our individual and collective memories influence our understanding of society?

SI: One of the important things in this work is its articulation of the fact that while we may have thousands upon thousands of memories, which influence how we make decisions and locate ourselves in the world, only a small subset come into consciousness. This is part of an incredibly complex, dynamic network or system where, while you can’t access the majority of memory, it continues to have an effect. Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are major concerns and cause us to become more acutely aware of the possibility of losing ourselves to forgetting. This shift is profound. In the work, Martin states that memory is lost only when structural damage occurs – as in Alzheimer’s, for example. You can extend this to society, where there are many forms of forgetting. If we just orientate ourselves to the “memories” or dominant narratives that are given authority, we seriously run the risk of narrowing the way in which we connect, value and place things. There are also questions, such as the debates around the “right to forget”.

NH: Yes, there has been a discussion of the “right to be forgotten” in the digital world.

SI: Absolutely. That also raises important questions about what we are talking about when we use the term memory. There is a difference between the dynamic processes of memory in the brain that are constantly active and updating as they move through time and a digital “archive” of events. Someone like Claire may have 10,000 photographs, but is unable to access any of her own memories through looking at them. Actually, she uses a sensory-operated camera (SenseCam) to record events in her life. Occasionally, when she reviews these images, they cue intense recollection of these events, giving her access not just to her own memory, but to the feeling of having lived, and to her own perspective on the past. This is the subject of an important new study, taking place at the moment. Martin and Catherine are undertaking what is the first in-depth EEG study of what happens when SenseCam cues memory in a person with amnesia. In this exhibition’s Amnesia Museum, there is an EEG sonification of Claire reviewing her SenseCam images of her journey to St Kilda, searching for a memory of that place. It is a sound installation that has 32 speakers and each speaker is playing the data from one EEG electrode that would have registered activity in Claire’s brain while looking at those images. So effectively, you have a sonic space of the complex neural activity of Claire searching for memory by looking at these images.

NH:That sounds fascinating. I see your work explores the parallels between Claire’s memory loss, following a brain trauma, and the evacuation of St Kilda in 1930, which I understand the inhabitants agreed on. That suggests the title of the Lesions in the Landscape. Why did you decide to draw these parallels?

SI: That is one of the things about being an artist. You have preoccupations, which coexist in the space you are working in, sometimes over a long period, which then resurface. From the age of 12, I went through an important period of self-discovery and growing political awareness. At that time, I read about St Kilda, and its description as a communal society that adhered to use value where things were distributed according to need. St Kilda has a place within the cultural imagination of the Scottish Highlands. It is in the west, where the weather comes in. It is on the seaboard, on the Atlantic Ocean. I then more recently considered the evacuation of the islands as a rupture in the cultural memory and its “story” as predominantly constructed by others. The striking thing was, when I met Claire and talked to her about St Kilda and my ideas for working with her on the project, she had an immediate connection with that narrative. Since then, many things have accumulated as the project has progressed. Working with Claire has been central to this.

For example, connections between deep geological time and neural activity in the brain have entered the frame through the idea of petrification, how one might think of the volcanic formation of St Kilda, a rupture and the process of a lesion. When I talked to Claire about this, she described the process of petrification of a brain lesion. When I talked to Martin, he referred to a period in Alzheimer’s that has been described as the “petrified self”, when the self is no longer dynamic and developing, but becomes petrified because memory is lost through structural damage. That idea could be applied to St Kilda, where since its status as a Unesco World Heritage Site, its material remains have been meticulously conserved, frozen in a sense. In the Amnesia Museum, there is a life-sized cast of a print, a 3D-form of Claire’s lesion. It looks like an island. So those interactions generated a rich exchange.

NH: I understand that your mother Lotte Glob is a Danish ceramic artist. Could you talk a bit about the childhood influences on your career.

SI: As I mentioned earlier, I grew up in a former Early Warning Station, where, in the late 60s and early 70s, young craft workers set up their living spaces and workshops in the empty shells of Nissen huts. They were part of the first generation after the second world war who determined to shape their own futures. They were idealistic and driven by their practice to this remote place on the northwest coast of Scotland. I grew up in an environment where material things were very scarce, but where there was a huge emphasis on creative practice and making. When I left school, there were two directions I could take: literature and art. Both were very strong directions for me.

My grandfather was a well-known archaeologist. He led the investigations of the Bog People in Denmark, such as the Tollund Man. He was also director of the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, and he led large-scale expeditions, digs in Greenland and the Middle East. When we were children, we used to stay in his house, where there was an extraordinary collection of things. He supported Asger Jorn, who founded the avant-garde art movement Cobra. He had a fantastic library and as a child, I used to sit and look through his books about anthropology, archaeology, science and photography. I think that the freedom to explore these material objects, visual images and books from different disciplines was very important for me.  

NH: Are there any particular artists who have influenced you?

SI: I very much like the films of Michael Haneke. The books of Jean Genet and James Baldwin were important to me early on, and then the period when I first came to London was very important, when I discovered the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, the books and films of Marguerite Duras, who is a very interesting and also problematic writer, in terms of how one configures the psychological space of the individual, and particularly in the latter period of colonialism in India, and being able to see exhibitions such as Bruce Nauman at the Whitechapel Gallery, and performances of works by composer John Cage and choreographer Michael Clark, particularly his work Mmm.

NH: I wonder if you have any words to say to young people, who aspire to be artists, in a climate where it is becoming difficult to do that?

SI: Art practice is deeply important in a society that could become dominated by very narrow, very exclusive and very one-dimensional priorities, and in a rapidly changing world that has multiple and complex challenges. It is extremely important that there are a diversity of artists and art practices in the broadest sense. You don’t have to be isolated in what you imagine the art world to be and you don’t have to conform to establish yourself and a practice that is of value. There are long histories of people working together and supporting each other, to create and to break and to form the space in which their practice needs to take place.

• Lesions in the Landscape premieres at FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) in Liverpool, 18 September – 22 November 2015. The exhibition will then tour to the UNSW Galleries, Sydney, Australia, Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Arts Centre, Outer Hebrides, and to CGP, Dilston Grove Gallery in London, where there will be an international symposium in October 2016. The exhibition is produced by FACT and is supported by an Arts Award from the Wellcome Trust with additional support from University of Kent.

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