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Issue 162

In Focus: Cara Tolmie

Tension, translation and improvisation

BY Chris Fite-Wassilak in Interviews | 21 MAR 14

Chris Fite-Wassilak     ‘Read Thou Art and Read Thou Shalt Remain’, your 2011 exhibition at Dundee Contemporary Arts, included a video ( Observed Landscape, 2011 ) that you had translated into two diagrams (Description 1 and Description 2, 2011 ), which were used as the basis for another video ( Chronicle, 2011 ). Is this translational approach a common thread in your work?

Cara Tolmie     I’ve always used video, performance, installation and writing in my work, and the content has often been situ­ated in that translation, or tension, between forms. 

Otiumfold, 2013, performance documentation, Chisenhale Gallery. Courtesy: Chisenhale Gallery, London; photographs: Manuela Barczewski

For ‘Read Thou Art ...’, I was thinking about how written descriptions – of, say, an object, film or person – are never neutral, because they are always shaped by the perimeters of the language you’re using. I’m not always necessarily interested in the actual form at the centre of something so much as the processes that hover around it. For ‘Read Thou Art …’, I started by writing a description of a 42-second video of a landscape with three planes: background, middle and foreground. From that, I made a graph that charted a hierarchy evolving between the planes, and then wrote a script for three characters, so that each section influenced the behaviour of each character. The initial footage is essentially a holiday video filmed out of a car window. From this a raw piece of information a chain of far more interesting things is extrapolated – from visual maps to the final video, Chronicle, a play staged within an empty wooden set in which the action is relayed using only subtitles and music.

CFW     Once you’ve abstracted something, do you think of it as a text that can be used in any way?

CT     Theoretically, yes, although that abstraction is particular both to myself and to the situation I’m making the work for; it’s not a generic translation. For whatever reason, at the time when I was working on ‘Read Thou Art ...’, I decided to devise a script – rather than a musical score – out of the graph. A translation or an interpretation is always circumstantial.

CFW     In your 2010 performance and text The End is a Tumultuous Noise, you sing: ‘The story we endure knows nothing of us.’ There’s a sense of narrative as a presiding entity coming through in your use of song and fragments of text. Does narrative have a breaking point?

CT     Trying to find that breaking point excites me. Narrative pervades everything; consequently, we’re good at understanding it in complex and messy ways. When things are brought together in a manner that upsets a conventional rhythm or expectation, the potential emerges to shine an objective light on the resulting scenario. The way that music affects us emotively, for example, or how narrative impacts on us symbolically, or the way in which physical space can provoke a certain physical reaction. As an artist creating this kind of absurd, poetic work, I also look to investigate those very mechanisms of interpretation that I am playing with and that play on us. I’m interested in thinking about how you can be at once critical and moved.

CFW     In your earlier pieces, you mostly performed alone. However, more recent works – such as the video and installation Pley or the performance Otiumfold (both 2013) – developed out of a series of collaborations with groups of performers and volunteers.

CT     My previous work was more introspective, but Pley and Otiumfold were explorations of how you can have a number of people performing autonomously alongside one another. In both projects, I deliberately set up scenarios without a linear script. Instead, I wanted to develop situa­tions in which people could then perform themselves in some way. For example, the interviews with the three other participants in Pley are people speak­ing honestly about the impro­visations and interactions we’d just been through; even though I’m asking them the questions and editing the inter­views, those performances preserve their own agency. Maybe a play – between my control, the potential chaos and the interpersonal relationships – forms as a result of the situation.

Pley, 2013, installation view at Spike Island, Bristol. Courtesy: Spike Island, Bristol; photograph: Stuart Whipps

CFW     What sort of questions were you asking in making these works?

CT     How do we constitute per­formance? What is a ‘natural’ performance? How far is this dependent on context and what language do we use to mediate it? In Pley, we see this unfold in a number of ways: in an intimate set of interviews; in a surreal interior, filled with piles of sand and gravel, occupied by a lone woman; and in a gallery installation comprising geometric furniture and theatrical staging.

Otiumfold was the result of a year-long collaboration with Chisenhale Gallery and Victoria Park, London. I held a number of physical workshops; two ‘Wrangling Exercises’, which were quick-rotating discussion panels designed to open up some of the ideas and research around the residency; and I also made a new performance in the park with a group of eight people that had developed out of the workshops. Much of the process was about inhabiting the same space, each of us performing our own particular explorations within utter absurdity and abstraction.

CFW     What are your future plans?

CT     It’s been really good to get to the point where I can reflect on both of those projects. I’m working on a new performance with the musician Paul Abbott, as well as a new piece for Tramway in Glasgow this June. I’m also making plans for new moving-image work, with the aim of figuring out a methodology to consolidate everything I’ve learnt over the past year. 

Cara Tolmie is a Scottish artist based in London, UK. Recent shows include ‘Pley’ (2013) at Spike Island, Bristol, UK. In 2012–13, she was Chisenhale Gallery Neighbourhood Resident. Future projects include performances for the Counterflows music festival, and GENERATIONS, at Tramway, both in Glasgow, UK.

Chris Fite-Wassilak is a writer and critic who lives in London, UK.