May 2008, Interview with Simon Faithfull

 Simon Faithfull, Escape Vehicle no.6, 2004, 25min video


Becky Hunter Interview with Simon Faithfull. 13 February 2008

Simon Faithfull lives in Berlin, teaches at the Slade School of Art in London and works with drawing, video and writing. The first visual artist to be awarded an Arts Council fellowship to Antarctica, he travelled with scientists and technicians on the research vessel RSS Earnest Shackleton in 2004/2005. 'Like Darwin's dispatches from the Beagle' is how the New Yorker described Faithfull's electronic drawings, emailed to subscribers during the two-month voyage. Ice Blink, the subsequent exhibition, toured to New York, London and Edinburgh. Recently he took part in the Whitstable Biennale with LOST, an inventory of missing things.

In the LOST project you distributed your book by literally losing copies of the book in one area, then you provided a web interface to register found copies. In some ways your engagement with an audience seems indirect or distanced, but in another way quite personal...

A lot of my work is about distance and the collapse of distance and that includes personal distances as well. Sending drawings by email [as in the Antarctica residency] in some ways seems like a very impersonal, mediated, distanced way to put drawings out into the world. But in another way they are received in people's personal in-boxes every morning when they're having their coffee, just after they've staggered into their office. The LOST book is the stories of every object that I've lost in my life. So sometimes it focuses on a mundane, humdrum and therefore personal world. Other times, like when I sent a chair, an 'Escape Vehicle', from the surface of the earth up to the edge of space, it's a personal object being sent on this very grand mission... I am really intrigued by that double nature of things... There's a whole series of 'Escape Vehicles' and in a sense they are trying to escape gravity, but also trying to escape myself, trying to get away from the mundane to this other realm. They are essentially all futile because you can't escape the trivial, the mundane and personal.

You've described the 'Escape Vehicles' as being 'tinged with the melancholy of failure'. Is that something deliberate?

The 'melancholy of failure' is almost like a substance that I sculpt with. Even when something is shockingly successful, like the chair genuinely getting to the edge of space... I was quite prepared for that to be an attempt that would fail, it was unlikely that it would get that high but it actually did. But even in that case, I'm inviting the audience to imagine sitting in that chair. If you did you would be going where it is minus 60 degrees, there's no oxygen, it would be impossible to live there. So there is this kind of forlornness, impossibility implied within it, you can't actually escape this realm. And I think art, however optimistic it is, in some ways it's always going to fail. I think that's a strength. A painting of a flower is never going to be more than the actual flower that it represents, but it's the actual trying to do this gesture which is inevitably going to fail. That's the beauty...

 Simon Faithfull, '44', 2005, 44min video

One of the drawn proposals on your web site, 'Balloonatic', looked like it was aspiring towards freedom. When you look at 'Escape Vehicle 3', the sculpture it became, even though it's floating it's a lot heavier, it's too heavy to get off the ground. What do you see in the gap between the proposal and the actual thing that you make?

I guess that was balanced towards it not succeeding. It would have been possible to put another balloon on top of the boiler suit and have it take off, but for me, it just became a much more interesting object with fifty silver helium balloons attached to it just at the point of taking off but not quite. It moved around the space like a ghost, just dragging, not its feet but the tips of its trouser legs. When you walked past it, it responded to every little current or eddy it would turn and follow you. Much more interesting than a boiler suit hanging around at the top of the space.

Is it important for the proposals to be realised, or are they enough as documents on your web-site?

My drawing practice came out of using a mouse and computer as a simple, quick way of making proposals to galleries. It was a straightforward, unfussy way of making a drawing without worrying about art materials. That then got me back into drawing. Obviously some proposals get made, some of the projects don't happen and I ended up with, like all artists do, this pile of unrealised proposals. I one day said I might as well put them on my web-site as a kind of graveyard of ideas. But as soon as I had them up there, they were the thing that people responded most to. They responded to them not as documentation or half-realised projects but as manifested works. Then a couple of things happened. As soon as a proposal was an end in itself it didn't have to be plausible, it could be utterly absurd - to put my car into geostationary orbit for instance. Through a very simple drawing and a little bit of text, that's transferred from my head to the head of the receiver, this work then kind of exists. It has also resurrected some of the dead ideas that have now become zombies and walk the earth again. The 'Shy Fountain', that was a proposal for something, it sat on my web-site for years and now it's going to happen as a public art project in Bristol, so it's become resurrected from the graveyard of ideas.

You were saying about being surprised at the response people had to the proposals. Are you thinking of the audience when you make a piece of work or is it more of a personal project?

Well, there's always a chain of both of those things. 'Orbital', my film about three circular journeys inside London – the M25, North Circular and the Circle Line. It occurred to me that this model of a city is concentric, onion ring. But the thing that really seemed perfect and elegant was that because the speeds increase it takes roughly the same amount of time to go round each of those rings. It really fascinated and excited me, this model of the universe, kind of like an atom or a solar system being reflected within this city. It's also like Dante's Inferno... But quite what to do with this idea then does start to involve the audience. I knew I wanted to film it. I filmed the journey out of the front of the vehicle on each of those circles - tube train on the Circle Line obviously, motorbike on the North and South Circular and a fast car on the M25. But actually the three hour and something footage that I got was really dead and nothing, it had nothing of my excitement and observation and so I had to find some form that would give the same excitement to the audience. I had that for ages before a friend, Sally O'Reilly, suggested literally putting one inside the other and then finally it clicked again and it does work, finding the right form.

Is giving lectures another example of finding the right form, this time for presenting your Antarctica findings? I read something about the 'Ice Blink' lectures as being a performance.

I've given talks about my work for ages but these are very different from the 'Ice Blink' lecture. The 'Ice Blink' lecture was intended as a sort of parody of those explorers coming back and doing their lecture tours. But maybe parody is the wrong word; it starts from the same impulse I suppose. I came back with all this information that I had discovered and I needed a different mode to be able to put this all across. It is a sort of performance but I'm a bit shy of using that term.

I suppose you're not really acting?

I do sort of take on a third person character. It's not exactly me that gives the lecture, I don't talk about my work as art. I just use the drawings and the video as illustrations of the presentation that I'm giving. So I don't actually acknowledge that I'm an artist, I'm sort of a character giving this talk. The next one that starts fairly soon is called 'Gravity Sucks'. I've gone back to all the 'Escape Vehicle' work. In the same way that the lecture fleshes out all of the Antarctica work, there was all this other stuff around gravity that has fascinated me for ages, so 'Gravity Sucks' goes back and recontextualises and pulls together all these other strands.

 Simon Faithfull, Orbital, 2003, 80min video

Simon Faithfull, Drawing no.31: Haley Research Station, Antarctica
 Latitude: s76º Longitude: w026º

 (from 'Antarctica Dispatches' series)
 2004/5, digital drawing

During your residency on the RSS Earnest Shackleton, as well as making drawings you also kept a diary. I read some of the online entries and wondered how you felt about writing as being part of the work?

Over the years I've written but it's never been part of the work. There were a number of things that happened with the Antarctic work that pushed my practice into places or ways of operating that it hadn't before, one being the lectures and another being writing. It started just sending accounts to friends and they encouraged me to make them public. I've always resisted putting anything with the drawings because I didn't want the drawings to be illustrations of anything else. My practice was split about half and half between video and drawing, now it seems to have another third strand of writing. Even though I've now done works that are purely written, like the LOST book, I know I'm not a writer - for instance I can't do narrative...

But you have really good images...

Exactly, for me quite an easy equivalent is that I can paint a picture with words, to sound really crass... They're purely descriptions of one moment or scene. So the 'Lost' book offered me this perfect structure where all I do is start with the most recent and going back in time, I recount the story of how each object gets lost. That worked really well as a project. I was really pleased with the writing itself and the perfectness of how these books themselves got lost. We had five hundred printed and I lost the first thirty and then paid for someone to lose another thirty a day around the town of Whitstable. From that five hundred, one-hundred-and-two have been registered. I just had the last one a couple of weeks ago.

I thought it was quite strange some of the places they've ended up and wondered if someone had set it up or something?

I mostly have no way of telling except the person must really have the book because each book has an individual number and code. There is one that I do have evidence of, even though it sounds completely implausible. I was on the Radio 4 'Midweek' programme describing the project and I told Libby Purves the story of where I had left some of them. One of them was in the cheese section of Somerfield. A couple of days later a book gets registered, the system sends me an email so I immediately know. And this person tells the story of how he heard me on Radio 4 and then rang Somerfield and told the manager that he had lost a book in the cheese counter and she said, 'Oh yes, we did find a book in the cheese counter.' He'd got her to send it to him in Shrewsbury Ness on the other side of the Estuary, quite a way away and then he duly registered the book and lost it somewhere else. And I thought, no that can't be true. But actually when I checked my records it was the same number, and no-one would know it was that book unless they really had it.

To communicate with someone through the radio adds another dimension to it, again distanced yet personal... I heard about something, a project where people can leave books?

Book crossing? That has existed for quite a while - the form of losing books and other people finding them. But my addition is that the book itself is a book of stories of lost things. Within my project there's been many totally unexpected twists, where people have got into the spirit of it and developed it further. There's this really nerdy thing called 'geocaching' which I'd never heard of before, which is where GPS boffins or enthusiasts take some object, bury it, and then post on a web-site the GPS co-ordinates of this spot. So in the very north of Scotland, someone has geocached one of the books. I presume at some point someone else will dig it up.

See Simon Faithfull's website for more information. The live drawing project,'Antarctica Dispatches', can be viewed here.

Becky Hunter

Becky Hunter is a writer based in London and Durham, UK. She is Assistant Editor for Whitehot Magazine.

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