Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Lay of the Land Interview - Victoria Lucas

Interview conducted by Selina Oakes

SO: Lay of the Land (and other such myths) delves into a world of fiction and reality. Through artificial sets and video elements, it invites the viewer to engage with cultural perceptions of the desert, women and a sense of place. How did the project begin?
VL: My work has always responded to place and it has always started with a site and kind of developed the support of that as a response. So for the past 10 years I've responded to site through either commissions or invitations to come and work in a building or area that I'm interested in, or an event – like when Castle Market was due to be pulled down and I was able to get in there for the last six weeks of it's use before it essentially died in front of my camera. That was always a key part of the practice. Then I was invited to go and exhibit in Joshua Tree in California. The only connection that I had to the desert [prior to this] was through film, where the female was always secondary and subordinate to the male lead: she was too unstable to be on her own. My actual experience out there differed from these depictions, which were force-fed through various films from different eras, right up until the present day. I then proposed a sabbatical month in California just traveling through the desert and getting to grips with these cinematic frames. I stayed in a 1930s homestead for a whole week on my own, in the middle of nowhere. You're led to believe that it would be unsafe for a women alone in the desert, but it completely wasn't. I was really struck by the duality of living within a cinematic framework, as well as the revealing of the self inside a cultural frame. I could experience being myself in that place for the first time without a cultural veil.

SO: It sounds very much as though your practice has developed from a curiosity in place. Did this interest in the representation of the female stem from your contact with the desert?
VL: My interest in women's rights and the representation of women has always been there but it's been more of an activist strand. I've never been able put the two things together in a meaningful way. I feel that this project has allowed be to explore that area and it's connections. I travelled around and came across the Alabama Hills which is where Lay of the Land started – it's a kind of film set as well as a geographical phenomena. It's incredible. You're present in the space, but you're also very familiar with that scene because you've seen it so many times in Westerns and Science Fiction films from the 1940s onwards.

SO: Much of your work exists between physical and digital realms. Is it important for you to maintain this duality of the real and digitally virtual?
VL: This links to the idea of reality and fiction. What is our reality, and what do we accept as our reality – whether it's the way that cinema makes us behave or the way that we perform gender. I play with that line as well as the blurring of that line. It really reflects where we are in a broader context: what is real and what is not. The Lay of the Land project is a place in itself that within it has lots of different works that come together. They can be reconfigured and form a subversive place – the gallery becomes an island, a virtual space, that the viewer can enter. It's an otherworldly environment in which to start thinking about cultural structures. We're a society that has come from a patriarchal view of how a system should be; the echoes of that are still in existence and we're having to shift our understanding and push for some overarching form of equality across all realms. 

The project opens up a door of potential for those things to happen,. The virtual is really important because it's not something tangible; it's something that is imaginary but is also there to propose a shift in a person's thinking. That's where I lose control of the project and it's down to the viewer and their experience of that place. Lay of the Land is very much linked to theatre and how you construct a scene to be moved through. All of the world is a stage-set; that's why I've left structural elements like the partitions exposed in the show.

SO: Lay of the Land draws on two key sources – Stoke-on-Trent's brownfields and JG Ballard's Concrete Island. Both link to themes of isolation, identity and constructed place. How do these crossover with the notion of gender representation?
VL: I often use the analogy of land reclamation: the creation of land that can then be reclaimed by women. What struck me about Concrete Island was its depiction of land within the intersection and this, alongside Stoke's brownfield sites, made me think about those bits of space that we don't populate and that are left to become overgrown. People walk past them and they don't know that they really exist. When I started exploring these sites in Stoke, those two things seemed to hang together as an illustration of this reclamation of land: claiming something back that isn't influenced by the broader cultural or political society that governs and that we all, whether we like it or not, conform to at some level. It's about something otherworldly, new, exciting and separate. The viewer can have that space and spend time thinking about what they want, rather than what is expected of them.

SO: You collaborated with an all-female choir for Lay of the Land. Can you talk about the experience of collaborating with performers in Stoke-on-Trent?
VL: It was amazing. They were brought together from different choirs, and they were all very interested in the feminist framework but also in responding to place. We talked about Concrete Island; subverting femininity; the power of the collective voice; andchanging perceptions of space. They were really engaged, very playful and open; we tried reciting different parts of Concrete Island with song, which was incredible. They got really involved and even began banging on the table. It was really good fun. I really wanted the piece to begin in harmony, conforming to the regulation of what a song should be and how the female voice should sound. Then, pushing the harmony'sboundaries, it breaks out into discordant chaos and spirals over five minutes. The sound becomes rich, and quite moving, In the recording studio at Staffordshire University, my hairs were standing on end with the physical power of the sound; it is really haunting.

SO: Is this haunting effect intentional? Do you want to disturb the viewer in the space; to make them consider the potential of the female voice and gender representation in the space?
VL: The presence of the female in the installation is sparse. The show's visual imagesof women are broken down; they're fragments of bodies. I find it problematic to separate the female body from sexualised and feminised representations, and so there are parts of bodies: lips, scanned eyes, bits of my face. They're all crumpled and moving. Yes, it's very otherworldly and posthuman. Similarly, the voice is also fragmented, particularly in a sound piece – a recording of my voice – at the front of the gallery. It's a sigh of relief as the viewer enters the space – saying ‘oh finally a space where I can just be.’ It's a really playful thing. Elsewhere, the viewer is invited to lie down on benches, which are measured to the average height of women in the UK, and listen to a soundpiece in the landscape that's presented in the gallery; the image behind it is Stoke and a reference to another landscape. In the end, the Californian desert isn't relevant, and it's more to do with creating an otherworldy landscape.

SO: The non-presence of the female body in its entirety is important. In your opinion, why is it difficult to successfully negotiate and navigate the histories of the female body today?
VL: I think it's much harder now than it was in the 1970s due to the way that pornography has spread across society – all the way through to advertising in children's toys – there's reference to the Playboy Bunny for example – it's crazy. Getting away from all that is very difficult – it's important to push the body's boundaries and go beyond the physical.

SO: It's interesting to note that you use lots of different materials – you're a multi-disciplinary artist who uses photography, video, sculpture and sound. How did your practice begin, and why is it vital for you to work with so many layers?
VL: I think it's to do with my education. I did a sculpture degree at undergraduate level and worked three-dimensionally. But alongside that I was hijacking the photographic darkrooms. I've always been interested in sculpture and photography and the relationship between the two, in terms of space – the depth of an image, the depth of a space with sculpture in it. For example, one of the images in the gallery has a road in it, running from the fore to its background, and the sculptures guide you there: they create that depth. It's a transitional space. Then, I got into making video when I was doing my masters and moving around lots – I lived in Leeds, went to Berlin, and then moved to Sheffield. Video has always been an easy medium; it's free – and trying to move all that sculpture is a challenge. Video became my medium of choice for a variety of practical reasons as well as the fact that you can manipulate and play with time. It's such a fluid, dynamic medium. And now that I have the space to make sculpture again, it all seems to come together. Then, sound also generates and creates space.

SO: Sound is another sculptural element that combines so well with the astroid sculptures and sci-fi sets. The prints contain such colourful layers; it's quite psychedelic and close to the virtual. Where does this vibrancy come from?
VL: All of the colours are inspired by the screen. When you push on the screen, you get all of those colours coming from the gel inside it – it's kind of a boundary. I like the idea that you can step in through this threshold and be behind the screen rather than sat in front of it. All of the work plays with that and the colours of the desert. For example, the gold boulders mimic the boulders that I saw in the desert – they were gold in the sunlight. Everything just seemed to come together really nicely. 

SO: You draw a lot of ideas from your personal experience of the desert, as well as from your understanding of how women are represented in society today. You've even used your own voice. It is very much your interpretation, but the way in which the project is delivered invites others to partake in your experience of it and make it their own.
VL: Yes very much so, and I don't want to say that this is how it should be. It's part of a journey really, and so the project and it's presentation is very open and playful'; it verges on the political, but not in a direct way. It's a pause in the craziness of modern civilisation – like stepping sideways into the gallery and not just experiencing time, but experiencing being.

SO: You refer to the Feminist Framework in your research. It talks about constructed place and representations of gender. How do you think that feminine representation has been altered by technology? And how does this feed into the show and your practice?
VL: I think that some images have replaced the physical. I think that there is a push towards becoming unnatural and very ‘selfie-ready’ – whether it's spray-tan, contouring or surgery. A huge percentage of people have Botox for example, even a family member. It's all becoming normalised, and people are also experiencing other people's lives through the digital – it's a very manufactured staged version of a person. How far do we go away from normality or reality – to this fictitious version of self? We drift between the person sat at home reading a book to that same individual in the image with their orange face and pout. What does it say about society? And again, it's not a wholly negative thing, and there are some things that are particularly positive about that shift. My PhD explores this bizarre part of society that is becoming normality.

Also, we all learn and experience differently today. Everyone has a phone; they walk into a gallery and take a picture instead of actually being with the work. It's a really good analogy for the broader experience of being in a place or a landscape or on holiday. You don't stop and experience – it's all fast-paced. My work teases these things out.

SO: What's next, alongside your continued research into female representation for the PhD?
VL: The PhD is the main focus for me over the next few years, and that's what I need to spend the rest of 2017 doing. In the short-term, I have two exhibitions coming up: the first is a group show in Copenhagen where I'll be showing As It Transpired – a piece made in Manchester for an exhibition at Untitled Gallery. I invited a budgiehandler to bring his budgies into the gallery and I just filmed what happened. I had no control over how the birds or he moved around the space – it was about pushing against control and curating, and just letting it happen. The second exhibition is at Millennium Gallery in Sheffield, where I'll be showing the Remedy series from 2012, comprised of images of empty billboards in Greece between the airport and Athens. It documents a time when the economic crisis was apparent, and before the graffiti artists got their hands on them. The majority of the boards were completely empty and they became these monolithic symbols of austerity and the turmoil that the whole country was and still is in.

SO: This isn't your first time at AirSpace Gallery. How has your practice changed since your first exhibition in Stoke-on-Trent, and how has your experience working with Mark Devereux Projects challenged your practice?
VL: In Conjunction 10 I displayed a series of bronze insects. I was interested in presenting these insects as memorials for failure. From there, the things that have developed my practice the most have been my job at UCLAN. It's opened up so many doors in terms of funding and academic support. Then other opportunities have come from connections that I made in Berlin – that's where the Joshua Tree exhibition began. The experience I gained just before that project is still kind of giving. It's incredible. And then through UCLAN I did the sabbatical, which again completely changed the project, and at the end of that Mark invited me to become part of MDP. From there, we've worked on different projects which has increased the potential to do bigger things – there's more people involved and more time can be invested in the project. MDP set up the HOME exhibition and this one at AirSpace through the gallery's curatorial open-call. Lots of hard work, shows and networking have got me to this point.

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