TO: Interviews are not a neutral format. This doesn’t feel like a neutral situation. It’s not like ‘here we are, and now we can talk about what our work is about’.
JT: A fundamental interest in our work is demonstrating how forms and devices are never transparent systems. We are working on an interview with Gavin Wade [curator at Eastside Projects, Birmingham] to accompany the show. We are interested in constructing an interview, particularly given that Gavin is a writer and a curator. We wanted to begin with a few straightforward questions, then go back to work on top of the text. We were thinking about how to manipulate the interview, and demonstrate that this format isn’t a natural approach to communicating about the work…
TO: The show has just been completed and is now open at Eastside, so we’re not necessarily in the position of knowing what that show is. Joanne and I are not authorities on our practice; it’s quite likely someone else might be. So this questions what authority this interview has to talk about the work.
MC: So what kind of person does have that authority? Curators, viewers?
TO: Viewers, possibly. Or someone coming from the outside. We’ve just been involved in putting this together.
MC: What do you mean ‘involved’?
TO: The collaboration makes the work, and Joanne and I are workers in that collaboration.
MC: Do you see the collaboration as existing beyond yourselves?
TO: The collaboration has been going for a long time, and it’s as if the practice exists somewhere between the two of us. It has its own trajectory, and it can make its own decisions; we just feed in.
MC: So the thing over there,‘the practice’, is an autonomous thing that has a life of its own?
JT: There are systems that, maybe as an artist, you set up to establish a practice. So perhaps ‘collaboration’ is a methodology that we use in order to establish a set of systems. At certain points it can feel like you are in the service of something larger than yourself.
MC: So how do you know that it’s the right system? Are you trying to achieve perfection of the appropriate system?
TO: We’re interested in doing things that seem to be problems. If something that we have done has become familiar then it’s about how we use that problem for the practice or for ourselves. The practice does have a trajectory of wanting to move into the next place.
JT: Yes. The systems seem to enable certain strategies, without which we wouldn’t know how to approach a space such as Eastside. These systems are like a handbook: we can use them to tackle something that is quite difficult. Our work is relational and it deals with context, so it’s helpful to have a framework that can be used to measure against situations that are different from one project to the next.
MC: What would be the sum of those things that would make up that system, then?
JT: It’s a mixture of things that are quite practical. Making models and maquettes is very central to producing a work. Another system relates to how we make images and represent works after the event.
At Eastside, aspects of our work may remain in the space after the period of our exhibition. We have to be able to deal with that, and ensure that it doesn’t undermine our core enquiries. The tunnel that we constructed for this show will stay for the next exhibition, the interior will be used to present an exhibition within it, and the exterior will also be used as a separate gallery space…
TO: …Not authored by us but by another artist.
JT: When we began thinking about the exhibition, we were interested in how other people can use our objects in order to create a new work. This situation feels like a place where authorship can be fluid, and provides us with an opportunity to articulate the status of the physical object within the terrain of the practice.
Another thing that came up with this exhibition is how we understand the images of our work that exist after the show, and this requires a different set of negotiations. These images require a more controlled authorship. We’re interested in how the work exists as an event, both during its lifespan and after. To hand that over, and to engage with a wider collaboration feels like an ‘anything goes’ scenario. We felt there had to be some sort of management of this.
MC: A lot of your previous shows have been theatrically set up in a white cube space. There is a real consideration of the arrangement of the work,which is a very different context to what Gavin Wade is trying to do at Eastside. He states that Eastside ‘is in a constant state of performativity’. When your work arrived there were already other artists’ interventions existing within the space, remaining from previous shows. You came into the space, and tried to deal effectively with those elements. How did you negotiate the production of your work against that context?
TO: Gavin has set up a physical and conceptual structure here, so when we first walked into the space on a site visit we thought ‘Oh my god! We’re not going to be able to deal with anything so complex’.
JT: Yes, ‘We can’t negotiate it, we can’t survive it’.
MC: You didn’t think your work could do battle against the context?
JT: It was more to do with whether or not it was a battle we should be fighting. I felt we could win, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to do the things necessary in order to win.
TO: But we did.
JT: Returning to how our work has existed theatrically, this is one particular approach we have employed in specific situations. Perhaps those situations are often the predominant context in which one gets asked to exhibit—in an art gallery, for instance. Certain strategies are cynical but necessary for theatre, and sometimes the lack of friction in gallery spaces requires the artist to go in and create the whole story. You turn up like a travelling troupe of performers and you do it: there’s the event, the moment. But there’s another side of our practice that is harder to catch, which is about negotiating more awkward contexts. There’s an awkwardness that you can smell, although it’s not necessarily evident retrospectively or in the images we create. These images sometimes force the work to revert back to a simpler sense of theatre, and don’t necessarily represent the context of the show. I’m thinking about this now as we document the show.
TO: The more theatrical work has readily lent itself to the image after the event perhaps more than other work, and consequently that image has a different type of circulation. Not every show necessarily lends itself to that idea, so it’s important to think of other ways in which the work can be circulated.
MC: Could you talk about the different elements within the show and the relationship between them?
JT: With this exhibition we deliberately moved away from previous ‘composite work’ exhibitions, where those works have defined the vocabulary of our practice. For example, different motifs might be repeated in an exhibition, where something referred to as a sculpture can also be referred to as a drawing or a photograph—the motifs correlate, and there is a visible system. We’ve taken a different turn. We haven’t presented the viewer with strong, evident connections between motifs—most of them don’t make that species jump. For instance, the pattern on the tunnel doesn’t get picked up in a photograph. Instead, we tried to make systems evident through repetition or refrains, and I think this repetition is important. There are two identical billboards of the standing stones on the wall, the five ‘Ecstasy Kills’ posters that are exactly the same, and there are also the repeated images in the video projection, the refrain of the words and the sounds. So intentionality is demonstrated through the use of repetition in a basic way. It’s like making a noise and pointing at an object and doing it again until the person you’re with gets the idea that you’re talking about something—it’s a basic grunting form of communication. And it felt exciting to create obvious connections between the works. The ‘Ecstasy Kills’ posters come from a DJ night six years ago, the photograph of the stones has no particular connection, the tunnel is a particular type of form that you experience, and the pictures of the people in Glasgow—all of these are things that don’t immediately say how they connect. But then there are a number of paths, more narrative or thematic paths, which people might be able to make.
TO: We felt that there was enough there for viewers not to go ‘Huh?’ You might connect ‘Ecstasy Kills’ and stone circles together and think there’s a bit of a rave theme here. Themes such as this are not exactly red herrings. They allow the work to be compelling, although you can’t read the works just by following them as narratives…
JT: I’ve always had a problem with some of the evident or surface content in our work. Things like standing stones seem to be getting into dangerous territory, for example. But what we’ve been interested in, and what also links a number of elements in this show, is that these motifs indicate spaces that offer meaningful engagement. We’re interested in thinking about art’s potential to provide meaningful experiences or possibilities. That’s why we go back to using certain things, like pyramids or patterns.
MC: So you are trying to make a correlation between the meaningfulness of, and the meaning, of the social. Is there a connection between the two?
TO: I think there is. We have been working together for 15 years, and we’re in the studio most days, so there’s an intuitive and emotional process that these things come from. The work’s relationship to communality is, for us, a deeply held belief. It determines the work, not just intellectually but also emotionally. It’s why we are drawn to certain motifs and why we stick with them. I can talk about the work in rational or conceptual terms, but there is this emotional aspect.
MC: You merge your subjectivity with art history, with formalism. Art language and subjectivity is combined together.
TO: I don’t know how we did it, but a vernacular has appeared, which is drawn from thinking about things, from an interest in art history and from our own experiences.
JT: One of the reasons we started working together is that we saw a problem with the relationship between subjectivity and the making of art. We wanted to draw attention to the problematic or fundamental set of ideas that exist around that.
At the age of 21 or 22, when we first met, I wasn’t particularly interested in what I might be enabled to do with the subjectivity given to me by the world. I didn’t want to be a 22-year-old woman making art because I felt there were few meanings available to me. Whatever I did, I felt I couldn’t say certain things. So it was amazing what I was able to do when I started working with Tom. In all sorts of other ways as well [laughs].
MC: Returning to your ‘Ecstasy Kills’ posters here, they seem to return to earlier work that used the words ‘Heroin Kills’ [HK]. The current work can appear to relate to the context of club culture advertising. There is some slippage in meaning between ‘Ecstasy Kills’ as a club title and as a piece of health information. Are you concerned with that slippage?
JT: Absolutely. Words give the promise of being solid, and yet ‘Ecstasy Kills’ and the repetition of HK show that meaning has in fact slipped.
TO: There was something great about finding the ‘Ecstasy Kills’ poster. HK in Tramway  was monumental, iconic, and then we found the ‘Ecstasy Kills’ poster two years later. It was a poster for a club night, which we’ve had in the studio for 6 years. There was something interesting in the slippage between art and a wider culture—the poster seemed to embody that slip. Whether an art student had seen HK and then made the poster, or whether they hadn’t, I don’t know. But there is a relationship between language in art, and an irony in relation to how club culture deals with slogans.
JT: The problem was that initially we didn’t know how to use it. Making a large photocopy to shift its scale seemed to work—it needed a little transformation to make it back into art. It was interesting to find something like ‘Ecstasy kills’ because it was amazing how quickly HK assumed a narrative that it was a found slogan, which became a very dominant piece of information—something that we still correct. It’s an interesting misunderstanding but it isn’t the case that it was ever a slogan, not in the way that people create a false memory of it.
MC: Art & Language collated objects that they had for their Home from Homes series , where previous paintings, collages and sculptures were re-presented in different installation formats. It seemed to challenge the Institution’s chronological historicisation of production, and so ideas of the past became relevant to their present context. You use repetition within your work; motifs such as a stick man on all fours with a top hat, the reuse of HK in various formats, and for this show you’ve used the black and pink check pattern. Are you trying sidestep historicisation of your work through this reuse?
TO: We might be quite similar to Art & Language in that way. We are trying to break from questions like ‘what are you going to do next?’ and ‘what’s the new thing you are doing?’ It’s a way of moving out of an endless trajectory of moving forward.
JT: There seems to be a problematic motivation to have to keep making new… I don’t want to use the word ‘product’ because I don’t mean a critique of selling… but it does narrow the idea of what a practice is. By returning to things you can try to take control or authorship over a practice. Repetition is a strategy to slow things down and reframe expectations of what a practice should be.
TO: Or even where the meaning is. We are interested in using our practice, using what we already have, and repositioning it.
JT: It’s trying to force the fact that the objects are not the work. We can reuse them again because it would be uneconomic not to, not just in a financial sense, but in an intellectual one. To make an object again in a slightly different way just to have it do same thing…why do that?
MC: I was going to ask you about the importance of motifs, and why you reuse them, but this seems to be the reason: it’s in what they do.
TO: And the ones that no longer do the job die off…JT …Or they don’t do the job very often. They perhaps only work in situations that occur infrequently. There might be certain works that only come round every 10 years – it’s like their orbit! The large geometric shapes with faces can perform very well in many situations; there is a dumb challenge that they can offer, which I think is quite effective. You can also introduce formal adaptations that make them work in different situations.
MC: The same but different. There is a knowing appropriation of the modernist project within your work. The sincerity of its aims are seemingly undermined by a cynicism suggested in the titling of your work, like ‘We are seemingly leaning towards meaning’, as well as the title of this current show. Are they cynical, or a defiant comment on the sincerity of a certain type of art production?
TO: It depends what you mean by modernism. I think there is still something very progressive and idealistic about what we are doing, but I certainly don’t see it as cynical. It might be absurd, it might be annoying, but it is like that for certain reasons. It sets up confrontations that might allow for thinking around those things. They are frustrating—this [points to exhibition invitation card] was made to provoke.
MC: ‘Does your contemplation of the situation fuck with the flow of circulation’?
TO: Yes, the whole object is provocative. There is a concern that someone could take it incredibly literally and think ‘Tom and Joanne are just interested in fucking the system’. But we are hoping it is about that, as well as being that.
JT: There is also the modernist tradition in literature. If you think about modes of producing texts then the titles don’t seem so odd; they fit comfortably within a wider modernist project. We try hard not to be cynical; there may be ambivalence between object and title, but not in the way of a shrug of a shoulder—it’s more a confusion.
TO: There may be something about the work which is defensive. It does have armaments… all those shapes bristling around. It is trying to survive in different contexts and with different pressures put on it. It is an armament but we are encouraging people to come behind it with us. That is the ethical position of it.
Mona Casey is a writer and curator based in Birmingham
Joanne Tatham & Tom O’Sullivan: Does your contemplation of the situation fuck with the flow of circulation, Eastside Projects,Birmingham, 4 July–6 September