Useless brought the work of Scottish-Barbadian artist Alberta Whittle and Uruguayan-born artist Emilio Bianchic together in Pig Rock Bothy, an art space in the grounds of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern One). The exhibition explored themes of identity, production, frustration and uselessness and both artists draw parallels between the process of making art with the systems and structures of the world around them.
To complement the exhibition, curators Diego Chocano and Ellie Dobbs pose four questions to each artist, and offer further notes in the text following.
Q.1 You both make use of everyday objects and tropes – how do you make these your own?
EB: I’m very interested in the act of doing. I’ve been using nail art regularly as a medium for my work, but I’m more interested in the performative aspect than the nails per se. Doing difficult tasks or less practical actions is how I change their everyday use to my own.
I’m attracted to clumsiness, stupidity and ‘mistakes’... What inspires you?
AW: In some ways I feel very similarly to you [Emilio] — the action of doing or making can feel almost therapeutic. Those ‘mistakes’ you refer to can feel like technology is interfering, the glitches feel like a mediation between technology and my process, eventually feeding into whatever emerges. But these interferences are valuable and welcome.
Q.2 What’s an object that you view to be useful /what’s an object that you view to be useless?
EB: Jewellery is both useful and useless but is really nice and shiny!
Useless objects could always be used as a paperweight. I think a really useful object could be a (charged) phone.
AW: Some of my earliest memories are of repurposing objects or things, often objects that would have been considered trash and definitely without use and finding new uses for them as toys or playthings. But part of this was the pleasure in making and transformation.
Returning to your question, I would describe a bed or resting place as a deeply ‘useful’ object. Clearly presenting as a zone for contemplation, pleasure and sleep, it also becomes a studio, as a place for working.
The object I would describe as ‘useless’ is definitely more weighted and several ideas come to mind, largely connected to migratory control. I have difficulty connecting to the supposed ‘usefulness’ of visas or passport control. It seems as if these structures or offices designed to prohibit the movement of people and promote exclusion is counter-productive.
Q.3 You both work in video and performance — how do your approaches differ for both media? Are there certain outcomes you wish to achieve when using one medium and not the other?
AW: This question echoes so much of my anxiety and desire in making work. The availability of myself as both prop, image, signifier or echo of histories means that I consistently place my body within both frames. But there is quite a bit of self-consciousness in being within those frames as this symbiotic relationship between the performance and film work I do is constantly shifting.
When I perform, I consider it a more decisive political act to centralise myself as I am more likely to have my personhood erased or rendered abject. Within that idea, both ways of looking and making encourage new ways for me to read and understand history as embodied memory and suggest new entry points for audiences to align themselves with these ideas.
EB: I perform in most of my films. With the exception of bigger productions I film everything by myself, I put the camera on the tripod and start painting with my feet or doing some twisted tutorial. Sometimes it’s really hard to do everything with crazy long fake nails but that’s what I like the most, how you have to change the way you do everything and how something so little has such an impact.
Videos are forever, and that’s one of the most obvious differences with performance. But I’m very attracted to the most little tiniest actions, like little magical glimpses that happens out of nowhere. You can call that performance, real life or magic, and that’s the most beautiful thing to me and really hard to capture on camera.
Q.4 What do you do when you’re bored?
AW: I am rarely bored. Waiting for things or people might incite a frustration but not necessarily boredom. In those moments, I enjoy watching people go about in the world and try to treat these moments as a gift of time for reflection.
There are marked differences between the work of the two artists — aesthetically, thematically and in terms of their geographical and societal contexts. Bianchic’s work looks at the notion of identity and their prescribed functions within a Latin American context. Whittle’s work is produced from the idiosyncratic point of departure of their Scottish-Barbadian identity. However, they share some common ground; an eclectic artistic production (both work in a variety of media including performance, video, photography) as well as a use of humour and absurdity.
Useless invited comparison between two seemingly unrelated pieces that created a dialogue between two emerging artists with increasing critical recognition. Whittle is the most recent recipient of the Margaret Tait Award and Bianchic won Uruguay’s national art prize, el Salon Nacional, in 2018.
In Impráctica II (2016), Bianchic examines identities and their prescribed functions. The video shows the artist screwing in lightbulbs with outlandishly long acrylic nails. Impractical. Once the lightbulb is installed and functional, the video abruptly cuts to the artist performing the same act, with Sisyphean determination, on a new fitting. Bianchic’s nails serve as a statement against usefulness and practicality and also as a statement relating to queer productivity.
Alberta Whittle’s video Sorry, not sorry (2018) presents a series of stark contrasts — drawing attention to the disparity between the hopes and dreams of Caribbean migrants arriving in the ‘mother country’ against the reality of ill-treatment and exploitation.
Expanding her interest in the power of music to evoke memories, she blends the melody of a jangly advertisement, ‘be what you want to be, taking things the way they come, nothing is as nice as finding paradise and sipping on Bacardi rum’, with the still, calm sounds of nature and vocal manipulations of her own voice. The idealistic tune is played alongside images of light-skinned tourists in a constructed island paradise — stark contrast to the reality of cane-cutting and hard labour in the fields. Interwoven with these powerful images, music and text finds a cumulative resonance in the speech, given by British Labour Party politician and Member of Parliament for Tottenham David Lammy, criticising the devastating impact of Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’.
Ellie Dobbs is a London-based curator and researcher from North East England. A recent history of art graduate, Ellie's work in Scotland has included Curatorial Assistant at Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art.
Diego Chocano is a Peruvian curator, researcher and editor based in the UK. He has organised exhibitions in Scotland, Argentina and England and is currently Assistant Curator for the Essex Collection of Art from Latin America.