How are you at the moment?
I’m ok, I think, I mean considering. Normally I’m kind of optimistic but the last year or so has made that pretty hard!
I feel lucky, I have a decent place to live, people in my life I love, and despite everything we managed to launch my new book last month. But I also feel so much anger, anxiety and sadness too and it seems like most people I speak with are feeling the same way. Things feel pretty broken and our government and media are so clearly incapable of dealing with the challenges we face.
It’s a strange moment to be launching new work but something I couldn’t have anticipated is the way this year would make the themes of the book feel more present than ever—touch and action at a distance; the permeability of the boundaries between things and the fragility of what holds them together; relationships between the virtual and the physical, between what we know and what we experience—so hopefully it will connect with people and be helpful in some way as we try to navigate this traumatic time.
What is your morning ritual? How does your day begin?
For a long time it was: get up with an alarm (I’m not naturally an early riser!); cycle to the pool (London Fields Lido—a really special place); swim till I’ve woken up; coffee and breakfast while reading or catching up with a friend, then into the studio.
This year has changed that quite a bit. But it’s still basically exercise, breakfast, start work.
What, right now, can you see?
In front of me, predictably, is a screen. To my right, the dirty and slightly leaky studio windows. I’m on the 3rd floor and through the window I can see the top floors of some newly built loft-style apartments. In the summer there’s often a man in his sixties, naked and sunning his belly, on one of the balconies, but not today. Today it’s cold. The sky is white, but bright, feels like the sun will break through later. To my left, on a large table, there’s a pile of prints interleaved with tissue paper. There are more prints held by magnets on the viewing wall that the table sits against. These are waiting to be packed for shipping to Berlin for a show opening next month (lockdown permitting) at the Robert Morat Gallerie.
What artist, project, book would you recommend we see/follow?
I’d recommend Sarker Protick’s film O Great Life. I just watched it online, we were in a group show together this year in Finland and I’d hoped to see it there but obviously that didn’t happen! The film brings the organic and synthetic into connection with each other in a way I really like.
And if you haven’t see them already check out the Small Axe films by Steve McQueen. They tell the stories of black resilience in London’s West Indian community. They are set in the ’70s and ’80s but unfortunately speak to much that’s rotten about our current system. Lovers Rock is incredible. It all takes place over one night at a party. Much of the film is long shots of people dancing. The way they touch and move in relation to each other and the world outside conveys things so effectively and with such nuance.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about Arthur Jaffa’s work recently, especially Love is the Message and the Message is Death.
And I keep returning to Allan Sekula’s Fish Story. I love the way he combines text and image to address political and art theory and at the same time access something deeply specific and visceral.
Tell us about your process when starting a new project
Projects tend to start in a pretty incoherent way. Usually with a few ideas and feelings that I keep returning to and an impulse to go and look at certain things closer.
From the beginning the process is iterative, one of repeatedly photographing and then editing. If a project is leading somewhere I start finding relationships, correspondences, and questions that feed into the next time I’m taking pictures and those pictures feed into the next edit and so on until I have something.
When talking about a finished work it’s easy to sound like there was always a sense of what it was going to be. But the process is much more driven by chance, it’s really about bringing images into relation with each other without knowing exactly what is being suggested. Obviously, as a work is developing, I form ideas about what it means and how I am shaping this meaning, but I think if it’s successful it also retains an unknown quality, it can’t be fully resolved or rationalised.
What has been your favourite collaboration?
I’ve really enjoyed working with Skinnerboox and the super talented designer Nicolas Polli on my new book Known and Strange Things Pass. Nicolas really helped refine the work and turn my maquette into a book, an object, that I am so happy with. And over this strange spring and summer I really appreciated the regular Skype conversations we had—especially his openness and dry humour!
I love the cover design that Nicolas came up with. How it introduces some of the tensions that play out inside the book. For example, the entwined structure and the sense of things exceeding the patterns and categories we fit them into. On the cover we see a grid—the grid that was used and deviated from when laying out the book—with these black pictures, not quite sitting on the lines, pressed into the cover. And as you hold the book the glossy surface of these black pictures pick up your fingerprints—echoing the signs of touch and contact that are another theme of the work.
What is your greatest achievement?
Not sure I’m the best person to answer this. I think maybe just having found ways of making work that I believe in while also supporting myself in a system that is really not built to facilitate that.
What is your greatest regret?
Of course there are things I’d do differently now, looking back from here, because I’m a different person now to the one in the story I’m looking at. But fortunately there is nothing that haunts me.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Get active politically!
Live with as much sincerity as you can. Let in as much irony as you can.
Try to avoid cynicism. It’s toxic, cuts you off from life, makes you miserable and is stupid. It’s an easy trap to fall into because it makes you feel like you’re clever and like you have distance and control in a world that is confusing and scary. It isn’t really possible to get distance from anything, you’re enmeshed within this messy, symbiotic, weirdness. Be suspicious of anyone who claims otherwise.
Be kind, pay attention and enjoy it!
What is your latest project about?
It’s about embodiment and disembodiment and what technology does to these feelings, about how very large objects like the sea or the internet affect us, about the relationship between the sensual and the conceptual, about Kant’s ideas of the sublime, and Deleuze & Guattari’s rhizome, and Morton’s Hyperobjects, about how we hold ourselves in relation to the world around us, about touch and trace and entanglement and vulnerability and power and the indeterminate…
The photographs are taken on either side of the Atlantic in places where the Internet is concentrated. Where the fibres of the network come together, and almost everything we do online passes down a few impossibly narrow tubes, stretching along the seabed, connecting one continent to another. But, as the critic Eugenie Shinkle writes, “these cables are only one thread in a web of analogy that explores what it means to be in the world at the present moment.”
The work is structured through the push and pull of intermeshing sequences. Things, in different spatial and temporal phases, intertwine and coexist. As we look closer, worlds we think of as separate dissolve into each other – the near and the distant, the ocean and the internet, the physical and the virtual, what we think of as natural with the cultural and technological.
What are you researching at the moment?
To be honest, at the moment, I find I’m spending a lot of time thinking about politics and activism. I believe in the work I’m making, and the importance of people making work like this, but am thinking as well about ways I can use the skills I have in a more direct way.
I’m also working on something that might be about the relationship between weather and climate. And, as with previous work, looking at how the sensual, conceptual and technological intertwine. I’m really interested in developing further the structure, the entangling of sequences of pictures, that I have been exploring in Known and Strange Things Pass.
I’m thinking a lot about the ways in which this moment is significant and of conveying the strange sensation of moving through a place and noticing what is there.
What can you not work without?
Time to follow paths that might lead nowhere.
What challenges have you faced working in your industry?
Finding the right balance between commercial work and work made on my own terms.
What are you hoping for in 2021?
It’s not so hard to imagine a world, in 2021, where things are better than this one—roll out a Green New Deal, have a dialogue and policy of respect rather than vilification around immigration, put colonial history on the school curriculum, fairer taxes on the wealthy, abolish tuition fees, properly fund the health service and schools system, begin asking questions about what prison and the police are for… It would be a start. But obviously with the people currently running the show none of this will happen.
The election, the pandemic, the stream of sickening videos of police violence against black and brown people, catastrophic wild fires and floods, these point with increasing clarity towards a system that is designed to keep wealth and power concentrated where it is at all costs. I hope 2021 is a time when the stories that stop many people from seeing how this system works and who it really benefits most could be disrupted. But I’m also scared the opposite could happen.
At least the vaccines look promising… Hopefully at some point in 2021 we will be dancing in packed rooms and hugging our friends!
Share a song with us, what are you listening to at the moment?
Being It – Arthur Russell
Known and Strange Things Pass is published by Skinnerboox and is available here and from art book shops.
Andy Sewell has an upcoming solo show at Robert Morat Gallerie, Berlin, from January – March, 2021.
In the summer of 2021, an 18 piece installation acquired for permanent collection will be on display at the V&A, London.