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A Conversation with Ed Atkins

By Nicole Kaack

Apr 29, 2016

The Kitchen’s gallery has become a site of presentation and continued propagation for Ed Atkins’ Performance Capture . The audio-visual work derives from a script written by Atkins, which was subsequently performed by 130 participants in a CGI rig at the 2015 Manchester International Festival. Over the duration of its exhibition at The Kitchen, the piece will continue to expand, incorporating sound and video from gallery performances by Okkyung Lee, Ches Smith, Ben Vida, Graham Lambkin, Bob Bellerue, Marcia Bassett, Matthew Regula, C. Spencer Yeh, and Ed Atkins himself.

Curatorial intern Nicole Kaack and artist Ed Atkins discussed the original development of the project and its ongoing transformation through performance.

Nicole Kaack: Performance Capture seems so based in the writing — it begins in the writing. How do you see that come to bear on the work’s many iterations?

Ed Atkins: In a way this thing is the reciting of a long poem. I see it within a tradition of theatrical, classical form, like a soliloquy delivered by one character, but constituted by many people. If this character is made up of all these different people, then they’re probably schizophrenic in some way – or demented or they’re suffering from something. At a certain point I want the text to be embodied in some way, which is a hard thing to ask of a real body, but an easier thing to ask of CG stuff, because that’s already made up of code and digits – it’s already language. Since it’s constituted by language, the two seem to fit. It was weird having all these people reading fragments of this sprawling text which is already very hard to wrap your head around. All of these people are reciting more or less blindly; they don’t necessarily know what it means or how to embody this thing wholistically. The consistent thing is the appearance, the CG model – not its constituent identity, which is split in so many impossible ways.

NK: I think about that problem of character and delivery a lot in relation to this. The writing has so much of your voice in it and when you deliver it the effect is very different.

EA: It makes more sense?

NK: Exactly. There is such an interest in listening to these voices trying to speak in your way. Even in the writing there is this choreography of colloquialisms and upsets. Then there are the actual upsets or mistakes that happen within the way that participants try to adopt your voice through the writing.

EA: That’s true. Well that’s interesting actually, that kind of rhyming. You’re right, the text is full of drops and errors and deliberate fuck-ups. Then they, the readers, proceed to fuck it up further, to make further mistakes and interpretations. It’s weird actually, the effect of this kind of writing on a body is one of irruption. Irrupting into whatever world of fluency where language means things. Of all things, language is the thing that people expect to have meaning and that they would get. People don’t mind staring at an abstract painting, but the idea of more or less abstract writing is kind of nonsense because that would just be leaning on the keyboard or something. So this is about coherency being broken down in some way, which I suppose could be extended as an idea to incorporate the whole show. In that breaking down of coherency one might find new things. In the gap that opens up, in the break – that some feeling rushes in.

NK: That is also in the visual too, the way that this audio capture meets the CGI. I also wondered about the CGI in particular, because in your other work you choose a more full-bodied form. What was particular about cutting off the arms, for example? You’ve also spoken about the CGI in relation to cadavers and, to me, this kind of emphasizes that aspect of the animation. It feels like it is even further divorced from a real conception of something, but at the same time it’s acting as embodied even though it has been destroyed.

EA: The fact that you would never be convinced that this thing is a real body, but that it can still maybe perform or analogise some of the traumas that a real body might undergo. The skin particularly is this site of wounding and bruising, an index. But there’s also something about the face and the hands as being the points of expressivity – so they remain, even as everything else goes. But if I’m honest, the absent torso and legs and stuff is because the technology just didn’t work. We fully intended to have an entire body with legs moving around and stuff – and dancing and jumping and all that. But about two days before we were due to start the process, everything just stopped working. So we had to channel and choose which parts of the body we would keep. So it became about keeping those most expressive bits – which I’m really glad about now.

NK: A part of the work is also its continuity, that others will come in and collaborate and afterwards you want it posted or made accessible in some way.

EA: Yes. Once this has all happened, we’ll have a massive archive, all inclusive. The idea is that we will put it all on a hard disk and give it to lots of different groups of people. We were going to put it online but it would be several Terabytes. Maybe we will give it to colleges around here, something that they can both have as an archive and they can fuck around with it, use as they see fit. The idea is to return it in some way – to people, bodies, to agency. Because the video is so fundamentally violent in its constitution, it felt important to compensate somehow. So to include the nights of performances of real bodies up on that stage and those bodies performing and their actual expressions – which is to be at war with it in some way. And the final gesture of packing it back into some material thing, some reality that’s basic, tangible and fungible, and then giving it to people to do with as they want. That felt important.

NK: It does. I was thinking about it too in relation to what you were saying about failing to represent people and the gap between representation and reality. It is important that it never becomes a complete work.

EA: Exactly. I think that inability for this Performance Capture thing to finally become a work, to finish and consolidate, is really important – because if it did it would become whatever murderous implement, condemning the bodies captured within it in some way... In its incompleteness or its inability to become complete, that is its constant opening. It’s an open work. There is no interpretative violence that will concretize the thing, it will just continue to unravel and undo itself.

Image: Graham Lambkin performing on April 23, 2016 with Ed Atkins, Performance Capture, 2015-2016. Still from footage by Iki Nakagawa.

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