Between Emma Hedditch and Mike Sperlinger, introduced by Mike Sperlinger.
Emma Hedditch is an artist and writer. Amongst her many activities she has developed an ongoing collectively-edited video called A Pattern; produced and appeared in Utopia Live, a twelve hour video and sound transmission from the Copenhagen Free University (at which she is a research fellow) to the Whitechapel Gallery, London; and organised A political feeling, I hope so, a ‘social situation’ which took place over three days at Cubitt Gallery in London in 2004. Of the latter she wrote:
Emma’s commitment to a genuinely collaborative and collective form of practice, her interest in process over products, her refusal of the distinction between context and content, and her feminism all provide a link to some of the most radical, politicised conceptual practice of the late sixties and early seventies. But her work remains fiercely contemporary, unacademic and unashamedly refractory.
I initially approached Emma about writing an essay on Adrian Piper for the book Afterthought: new writing on conceptual art. Piper is one of the most extraordinary artists to have emerged from the context of New York-based conceptual practices of the 1960s: working in a variety of media, over the last thirty years her work has focused consistently on issues of sexism and racism and their causes, while Piper herself has also continued working as professional philosopher (her principal publications are in metaethics, Kant, and the history of ethics) and developing her yoga practice. Emma and I met Piper when she came to London to speak at Tate Modern in November 2004, and Emma continued to correspond with her during her research.
The text which was the first result of Emma’s work, ‘Stay Away, Don’t Stay Away’ did not appear in the book. The following interview was the end product of a process of discussion and exchange conducted between us over several months. The interview took place at Emma’s flat in South London in August 2005, the transcript has been slightly edited for publication.
Mike Sperlinger: I just wanted to start by asking about how this process started, when I first asked you about writing about Adrian Piper, how you felt about that – both in terms of writing about another artist and about it being about Adrian Piper in particular? Given that we’d never talked about her…
Emma Hedditch: I felt like it made sense that you asked me. So I felt excited about it and comfortable about it, initially. I thought it was a good situation, after knowing her work and reading about her work, to really sit and think about how I could write about it.
MS: And how did you feel about being asked to write about another artist? This is something that we talked about quite a lot, and I know that you said you felt uncomfortable about it, partly because you felt it was about slotting her and yourself into these predetermined categories – when you were maybe interested in strategies, which operated in a slightly different way.
EH: Yes, so initially I felt interest but when I sat down and really considered it then I thought how hard it would be, given not only what I knew about her own writing and her responses to other people’s writing. I remembered all these things that I had read before, even though at that point I hadn’t re-read the texts. And then in terms of my own position, thinking about the idea of someone else writing about my own work, I thought what a challenge it is for that person – how much should one give control to the person writing and how much do you want to still enforce. I think it’s potentially interesting to have people write about your work, but I also think they can only talk about it from their position and that can undermine some of the things you are trying to do quite seriously. Because their writing is often the most visible manifestation of your work - if not a lot of people see your work, if it’s not documented a lot… So it’s a very precarious situation and I wanted to address that somehow in writing about Adrian Piper, because from what I knew about her work you had to address that question.
MS: So is that partly about wanting to resist the compartmentalisation of people’s roles? I guess, to be crude about it, normally artists are supposed to make the art and the critics write about it, and structurally they’re put into a kind of opposition with each other – there’s not supposed to be complicity, because otherwise it’s like PR. Whereas because for you the idea of how your work is disseminated is so important, and for Adrian Piper too, that felt like the first thing that you had to address - how you approach the person themselves and how they were involved?
EH: It was really a matter of stripping it right down. I didn’t feel that I wanted to add something in terms of interpreting her work, or specific works that she’d made – I wanted to try to tackle that very specific idea or question about what can you do with that situation. And it’s difficult because of my own position, perhaps not having the skills to have distance from her position and not being able to let go of that. That’s what became a block. It’s not only about the position of artists you are writing about– and being resistant and oppositional to any normalising process or system that seem to create a power dynamic that seems unfair.
MS: The other thing I got a sense of was that you maybe thought it would be artificial, in a way, to respond to the work in a way that was detached and journalistic, and that you wanted your response to be a kind of action rather than a reflection. You wanted the process of thinking and talking and writing about her work to be something that directly reflected on the work, in the process of you doing it, rather than simply making assertions about individual works or about her as an artist in general…
EH: I remember once we spoke on the phone about the book and actually about conceptual art in general, and the instructional mode and setting tasks and having to fulfil them. For me, even though I hadn’t set a specific rhythm or a set of rules, there were things that I didn’t want to do. And by that process of elimination, the text that I ended up with was what I could do within the boundaries that I set myself – in response to what I felt myself that one could do to change the dynamic, to stop the meaning of the work being imposed by a writer or journalist. I tried to think what the kind of things you would normally do were and tried to avoid doing those things, and tried to avoid not talking about my position. So the things that I talked about, quite pedestrian things became quite foregrounded, because those were the things that were left that I felt I could say – things that were about my experience and not my interpretation of what her experience or meaning was. But of course, if you’re asked to write about somebody’s work then the person who’s reading is looking for something about that person, not about the person that’s writing it! So it became complicated. At that point I referred back to some of her texts and did start to feel that there was some relation between that mode of behaving in a text or an artwork and what I was doing. So then I felt some support, and that was a kind of action, because then I could continue from that relation a bit further and refer to those parts of her work. But then, I think that all of her work is an example of that in some ways.
MS: One obvious example of the dilemma that I think you felt very acutely is the piece of writing that Adrian Piper did in response to Donald Kuspit, and implicitly the claim that she felt that she had to contest other people’s interpretations of her work and to contest them publicly.
EH: When I read about the Donald Kuspit incident again, I felt more self-conscious and nervous about what I was doing. But I felt like I learnt things from what she was saying about the kinds of things that he’d written about her work. And I think it made me more aware of how, when people write about someone’s work, that the power situation is really complicated. What I also thought about her response was that she was turning that into another piece of work– it wasn’t just something that she wanted to respond to –she was setting out a new position for what she was capable of in that situation. And I do think that she’s exceptional in being able to do that – not many writers can.
MS: Obviously a big part of this process was that you did contact her, we went to see her speak and see her show, and you had a kind of exchange with her and also showed her what you’d written. I’m interested in what you feel you got from that, whether that process worked out the way you expected?
EH: I was surprised that I was able to meet her in the first place, that we could actually get to speak to her. I had imagined having an exchange that was the idea at the beginning. And then it was obvious when I met her that that was going to be more complicated – and also up to that point having a mediated dialogue via another person (Adrian’s assistant)- and all of her workload, which is phenomenal. But I also think I held back, I didn’t push the exchange as much as I could have – I think I felt I didn’t want to jeopardise the small element of contact that I’d had with her by being pushy or demanding. So I was quite reserved about going for that exchange. I had the desire to enter into that exchange, but I remember feeling that even though I had set this idea of wanting to have a more balanced approach, I ended up doing it kind of alone. But then I tried to deal with that situation.
MS: Could you talk briefly about the relationship that you did have to Piper’s work independently, and to that period of early conceptualism? I remember you said that you spent one Christmas reading her collected writings. I’m also interested generally if people from that period, like Martha Rosler for example, were important for you – if you have sense of a continuity between your practice and a practice that’s rooted in that work of the seventies?
EH: I definitely feel like I have a relation, but I’ve always felt that I needed to understand more. Because of the way that Adrian Piper’s work manifests itself is not something I particularly connect to – some of it I do, but perhaps with some of the installation works for example, I feel that I don’t ‘get’ it from just seeing it. So in that way I’ve always been more connected to what she’s written, a sense of what somebody’s position is and political ideas are, rather than how it’s been invested in their work in a formal way. With Adrian Piper, and someone like Mary Kelly too, I definitely feel a connection with how they’ve continued to work, continued to problematise institutions and their own personal experiences and how they’ve written about those experiences, and how artists of my generation have taken up that cause but in a completely different political time sphere. In terms of Adrian Piper’s work, it’s more a sense of a continuous resistance and the idea that somebody doesn’t let up their critiqu of how and where and why their work is exhibited. And of course, we all enter into situations that perhaps are not what we had thought they would be in terms of exhibiting – because I make some questions or comments about the Tate, for example. And that’s what’s interesting now, how artists of that generation are being reincorporated into larger institutions, public institutions, which perhaps wouldn’t have done in the seventies. They were dismissed and left out of a lot of art history and are now being re-recognised – people like Martha Rosler or Adrian Piper.
MS: I think one of the things that made me make an instinctive association between Adrian Piper’s work and yours is what you called “context and conditions” being so foregrounded in the work. In her work this is quite theorised as what she would call “meta art” and I think that’s something that’s extraordinarily important in your work. But I think while there’s a certain affinity, there’s also some fundamental differences between Piper’s meta-art and what I guess you could call meta-art in your practice. I think that in Piper’s work it is tied to processes that are about rationalisation and transparency, and the transparency is to do with stating things and quite a lot to do with language. In yours, I think it’s something different – there’s a kind a play in your work between a certain set of small refusals and a moment when the refusal to become transparent also becomes important.
EH: I think there are some connections, but I definitely think that she is working out how to articulate those things in a very precise and compact way. And for me, it’s the opposite – for me, those acts of refusal mean I also try to resist compacting the response. I try to keep opening it out, opening out the results, or if I’m getting near to something that I feel is conclusive then I try to go in a different direction and avoid believing that it’s possible to make some kind of rational answer. For me it just feels forced to bring everything into focus and move from one spot to another without any interference, or any longing from the to keep reopening it and keep it alive. In some way, that’s why I tried to reimpose that on her work by not really focusing on the object-based works, but looking at the texts and the strategies and ideas, and the different relations to things that she’s involved in – almost to move away from that conclusive act and to try to mess it up, to foreground some of the ideas of the work she does with yoga. For me it’s important for those things to be present in a discussion of the work. That was me messing it up, in the way that I probably mess up my own situation, because I felt it would be interesting to see whether it was possible to level out the tones a bit more. Some of her works are very well-known, but I wanted to hint at all of these other aspects that have been going on all the time in her work which are not so conclusive and more about this continual process of working towards ideas.
MS: Another parallel that I would see is the emphasis on everything being mediated by corporeal experience, by your body and by the vicissitudes of your body, and by complaints which people might ignore because they’re quite habitual or even as everyday as being hungry –the fact that these things are the root of a lot of experiences that you would think of as being very abstract, that they’re very connected these somatic experiences and these intellectual ones.
EH: I remembered reading texts by her before that touched on that, but more recently I read texts on her website about yoga and there’s this one part which is really amazing where she talks about all the body movements that she does in a week – lifting books, sitting down, walking to the university, standing and giving a lecture. She maps out all the demands that are made on her body over a period of time. It’s something that I really have in my mind, because I’m so conscious of what my body is doing in certain situations that I just think it’s polite to assume that everyone else is having some experience of their body! Or that there could be reasons why somebody, for example, can’t concentrate or can’t get involved in doing something, which would just be that their body is doing things which doesn’t allow them to do that, and that it’s not possible to spend too long having a discussion because your blood sugar gets low and you get distracted, or if you’re tired or pre-menstrual. The next level of that would be all the other demands that you have on your life…
MS: There’s no embarrassment in discussing those things, in making clear that they’re pertinent.
EH: Yes, and it would be ridiculous for me not to talk about those things.
MS: You decided fairly recently to become a full-time artist and I know that’s something that you’re ambivalent about…
EH: I think it’s more the focus on one way of earning money that is the problem. If you have other ways of earning money, you’re less fraught in terms of dealing with institutions... It is different being an artist and having art as your only income – the whole dynamic is changed if you have a job and you are doing your artwork alongside that. And it’s a problem that artists have to address. If you do things for free, then other artists are expected to do things for free.
MS: In ‘Cheap Art Utopia’, Piper asks: “If art were as accessible to everyone as comic books? As cheap and as available? What social and economic conditions would this state of things presuppose?” I think in her work of the late sixties and early seventies it was an important part of Piper’s practice to state how the ways in which she would have liked to work were not possible, highlighting both a utopia and the things that were blocking it. To some extent, I think you would take a more literal approach to that notion – to some extent, you have tried as far as possible, while wanting to subsist at the same time, to make your work as cheap and accessible as comic books. I think your work at the Cinenova archive of women’s film also bears that out, in making work available and affordable and accessible rather, for example, than editioning or selling work. So rather than foregrounding these issues in a formal way, I see you as trying to find ways of circumventing these obstacles…
EH: I think it’s really difficult to recapture what Adrian Piper was doing at a particular moment in her career. Just thinking about what the possible ways are to distribute the work and why you choose to do those things – for me, it is a very definite choice to keep making work in a way that doesn’t have an excess of materials, that doesn’t rely on technology or things that are far beyond what I can afford. In a way, I feel like I’m getting more and more reductive in what I’m prepared to do to express an idea. So I suppose for me, her early works are the most interesting – but you can still feel the essence of that experience and the knowledge that she’s gained from making work in that way in her more recent work. There are things that I find confusing about the distribution of her video works, but then I can also look at it from her position. I think it’s up to the individual to decide what to do in these situations and no one else should really be able to criticise them. But I think it’s more about what you come into contact with, in terms of what you know you can do. So I know that there’s a system I know I can use, a distribution system that works, and I’ve experienced that.
MS: You mean like the collective model, the shared resources at Cinenova?
EH: In the seventies Piper was involved in artists’ groups, I think it’s more a question of how over time and as one gets older, and perhaps the other people from the collective drop off and do other things, that becomes harder to sustain. Her work involves teaching philosophy and being involved in a very rigorous academic field, which I don’t have. Her discipline is very different from mine and she has a very different energy. I think it’s good to share experience with more people and to think of learning as collectively working towards a shared experience.
MS: I guess there’s a fear of developing too coherent or sophisticated an interpretive framework, because that might block you from doing certain things but also from behaving in certain ways with other people. One other obvious connection between your work and Piper’s is that politics is extremely foregrounded in the work – it’s not bolted on, or just developed thematically or as content, but it’s actually integral to the practice and modifies it at every step. When we went to see Piper talk at the Tate and Noel Carroll was talking, there was quite an extraordinary exchange where he was talking about this portrait that he had had painted of himself and he was trying to object to Piper’s argument about the role that art was forced to play under free market capitalism by saying that he had a one-to-one relationship with the artist. I think both you and she would share a resistance to that, though you would articulate it in extremely different ways. I mean, she would say, “What makes you so special? You’re still operating in this framework, within the market.” But from your point of view, there are questions about the basis on which any kind of relationship like that is constituted as an interpersonal one – so who decides when the picture is finished, for example? Those quite basic questions being incredibly political – and it not necessarily being about the money, how much money and so on, but rather about a certain parity in the relationship.
EH: I have a different objective, because I feel that in that discussion that they had there was a definite sense of power – his struggle to bring an example of that idea… It doesn’t feel like the kind of art that I do, it’s such a different relationship that he’s talking about. And I do think that what she said was great. But I still have a more utopic idea of what is possible, so whilst it’s really hard to stomach hearing people say ‘we’re all in the same shit’ – I mean, it’s true and there are very few places to escape, there are no places to escape from free market capitalism. For me, it already felt uncomfortable in that situation because it was so formal, but also the kind of examples that they were using – and there wasn’t the sense of some of the discussions that we’ve had, that people that we’ve worked with are having, the politics of representation. That didn’t seem to come into it – it felt quite dated, almost, the things that they were referring to. But I think that’s because the political situation we’re in is so much more complicated and difficult to manoeuvre in than it was in the sixties and seventies, because at every turn you find a new thing that’s trying to incorporate you back – it’s impossible to get out of it, which is what she’s saying. It feels constantly like you’re acting crazy, because you can’t get out of that relationship. But I also think things that she was saying about reading Marx and changing all her habits, thinking about what she was wearing, and now she doesn’t do that – I think those things are important to hold on to, and I know people that have done throughout their lives and have stuck by those ideas. Politically I feel… more naďve. I hang on to these utopic ideas… I think people like the Artists’ Union were trying to do that – to look in a broader sense, it wasn’t just about their relationship to a specific institution.
Emma Hedditch and Mike Sperlinger, London 2005
1 Emma Hedditch, ‘Gender is all over the place’, from the publication A political feeling, I hope so, Cubitt, London, 2004, p.23.