Barbara Loisch interviews Turner Prize nominee Ciara Phillips. Ciara was born in Canada but now lives in Glasgow. Her work ranges from screenprints and textiles to photos and wall paintings.
The different articles I read on your work mostly mention the importance of political and social activism, collaborations and the participatory element of it, but could I ask you please to describe your work - its techniques and purpose - in your own words?
A lot of the recent writing about my work has come out of looking at the Turner Prize. People have chosen one element of what I do to characterise and sum up my practice. Collaboration has been part of my practice for a long time - since I was on my undergraduate degree in Canada - but there is also a strand of my work that is very much about what I do on my own, in the privacy of my studio, following personal interests.
In the last five years I have worked mostly with screen-printing, a process that I enjoy and that allows me to develop ideas whilst I am working. I am not an artist that sits in my studio, conceptualises a show and then executes it. I am somebody who starts with a feeling or a loose idea about something and then works to develop it as I go along. I throw myself in and then start making decisions.
A lot of my work responds to the tradition of fine art printmaking and tries to challenge the parameters in which it is used. There is also an element of it that refers to how the medium has been used by other artists in the past, and to more radical, political positions. Another part of my practice is thinking about how the medium is present in the world beyond the context of Fine Art. I am interested in the ways in which print exists in our lives, where it is closer to us and less precious.
So one aspect that seems to be very important are site-specific installations. How important is the notion of physical space or place to you? Do you produce work and then try to fit it into a gallery or does it only work the other way around? How important is ‘what is going to happen’ in the gallery for you?
Space and context are important for what I do. My work is not site-specific in the sense of being an investigation into the social, economic and/or political conditions of a given site, but I do think about a viewer's physical relationship with things in a space or the way in which I might want to direct them through the passage of the work. In most cases I prefer not to reveal everything at once but to have the exhibition unfold as you move through it.
The Turner Prize exhibition for instance is initially visually bombastic [laughs]! Everything is printed, everything is colourful. And then it is interrupted by quieter moments that provide a kind of a stop in the repetitive visual material that surrounds it. Those quieter moments are a pause, a chance to look, think, listen and read.
So yes, space is an important factor, but it depends on the show. The installation develops alongside the pieces being produced and the meaning of the works is fully articulated when everything comes together as an installation.
Maybe a strange question, but is there ‘an afterwards’? Did you already look at people in the gallery walking through your exhibitions?
I’ve made several exhibitions where I’ve actually remained in the gallery, as in the case of Workshop (2010 – ongoing) at The Showroom last year where I set up a temporary print studio in the space. I think it can be a complicated confrontation for people - they don’t expect the artist to be there; they expect to have the freedom to look at the art without interference of the person who made it standing in the same space. And it's a complicated position for me too because I'm not often in contact with the people viewing my shows. There's something quite uncomfortable about the whole situation – it makes everyone a little vulnerable, a little exposed - and that's partly why I think it's interesting and can be productive.
A lot of your work is connected with the principles of serial work and you often use repetitive patterns. Could you explain why and what is the ‘power of repetition’ for you?
Repetition is a possibility offered by the medium that can be useful to emphasise: things happen in the process of working something over and over and over again, like fluctuations and deterioration in an image for example.
Seriality is at the heart of the tradition of printmaking, and editioning, i.e. making a number of prints that are identical, is a big part of it. I have to say that I think there is something quite perverse (and I don't necessarily mean that in a bad way) about editioning, because a print is handmade - I embrace that, I love that. As a student I found it quite frustrating to work my ass off to make 20 identical prints and have people still say, ‘Oh, but it’s just a print. It's secondary, it doesn’t really matter, it is not the real thing.’ It is the real thing.
I like the democratic potential of editioning - the fact that you can share a piece of art with more people. At a certain point though it just didn’t make sense for me to make big editions anymore because I have hundreds of prints in my studio and I don’t know what to do with them. But there is still something about the feeling I get when I start making a print that makes me want to make another, and another, and then want to change or add something else to it, and then come back to it later and work into it again in another way.
Do you still teach editioning at Glasgow School of Art?
Yes, the students do learn how to edition; it is part of the history of the medium and it can be a valuable skill. But we also offer workshops that are studio-based, quite improvised and are less focused on acquiring technical skills. We want students to think as widely as possible about print, and to know that they can still do things even if they don't have access to a fully equipped printing facility.
Gabrielle Schaad writes in her article in Frieze magazine,
"Phillips advocates exercising and honing manual skills and thus counters the current resurgence of deskilling. (…)The message here was not ‘think to create’ but ‘create to think’."
Did she get you right there? Would you say that contemporary art is promoting this so-called ‘deskilling’? Is the concept more important than the skill in contemporary art?
I have to say that I don't think deskilling in art is a contemporary issue – it has been on the agenda throughout the last century and lots of artists have successfully overturned the idea that manual virtuosity is a requirement of 'good' art. That said, I do think that a lot can be gained from honing manual skills and from developing a sensitivity to the materials/processes you work with as an artist. In my own case, working through things manually helps me to think, and in that sense Gabrielle is quite right in identifying that my work is a product of 'creating to think'.
Finally, could you tell us a bit about your thoughts regarding the nomination for the Turner Prize?
Someone said to me, “A good way to look at it is that you are one of four people to be nominated for doing a great show last year.” That's a much nicer way to think of it than as a competition, which is how it's presented publicly. The competition element is for other people – for the media, for the public, for the bookies – it's not for us, the artists.
I'm really happy that the nomination is for the exhibition I made at The Showroom last year. Workshop (2010-ongoing) was kind of a messy and logistically demanding project involving lots of other people, but it was really well supported by The Showroom. They are a small organisation with limited resources, but they mean what they say about supporting artists to produce new, critically engaged and risky work and I really admire them for that. It's great that the Turner Prize can also shine a light on the work they do.
And I have to say that it's amazing to see how much this nomination has meant to other people in my life. Its reach is much wider than anything I've done before and it's absolutely great to be able to share that.
If you want to see Ciara's work in person, along with the other 3 Turner Prize nominees, click here to find out more!
To find out more about Ciara Phillips visit: www.ciaraphillips.com
Interview by Barbara Loisch