Chrome & Flesh: An Interview with Mark Leckey

Screenshot courtsey of Garrett Lockhart

In July of this year, the video artist Mark Leckey gave an informal lecture at Chelsea College of Art and Design, London on an ephemeral concept he titled 'Touchy-Feely' — a sort of sensory nerve at the tip-end of his cumulative project on distribution and demand, The Long Tail (2009), (which he previously spoke to Rhizome about.) During the talk, he presented an excerpt from Pearl Vision (2012), a short film and 'self-portrait', that premiered at 'Ghosts in the Machine' at the New Museum and was broadcast on BBC4 last month. The sensuous object of the snare drum (physically absent yet present in high definition audio and video) in this latest work addresses contemporary effects of desire and displacement, caused in part by the everyday technological prostheses at the body's disposal. Recently I spoke with Leckey over email. His perspectives on the intricacy of feeling, ever-changing aesthetic hierarchies, the space beyond the screen and the power of rhythm follow:

Do you think the shift from pointing toward the camera, perceiving it as a means of broadcast to using the camera to point – as a prosthesis for our own hands – is a recent phenomenon? It seems that for young artists especially, the cinematic image has suffered; instead of the establishing shot, the long take and other aspects of framing 'the image', video attempts to enter a world, or a flow, of imagery that is bigger than what can possibly fit into a single frame. The tension between on-screen and off-screen feels more fluid today, a sort of David Cronenburg-circa-Videodrome (1983) effect...

It seems to me that Vito Acconci’s Centers (1971), for example, embodies the concerns of single-channel video at that time: one person broadcasting out from the television and attempting to address the masses on the other side. Whereas now it’s a single person, or their hands, in isolation and trying to address the mass that’s on the other side of the screen, that is, inside it. I’ve collected lots of images and examples of hands manipulating objects and stuff sort of ‘inside’ the image. They’ve got their hands in there the same way you’ve described those glove boxes scientists use to carry out radioactive experiments.

We touch things in order to know them, to see them properly. Like when we say: ‘can I look at that?’ but actually we mean: can I hold it, can I manipulate it. And I make pictures or images of things in the same way, so that I can know them better, grasp them, fully apprehend them, ‘grok’ them. Grok is a good word – it was coined by a science fiction writer, and it means to understand profoundly through intuition or empathy. So it’s all about grokking; trying to know something intimately. 

And once you’ve got this image of an evocative object on the screen, and it’s in your hands, then you can start to squeeze it, squish it; it’s totally plasmatic. And once you’re done with that you can point to these manipulations; to emphasize the object’s thingness, its objecthood.

Like the numinous TV screen in Videodrome – it takes us back to older ideas when animals, trees and rocks contained a spirit and we were all connected through the ‘Great Spirit’. It’s the animistic world-view.

I just watched The Haunted Toaster (1984) on YouTube. Now all of our appliances are haunted; they all speak to us in some way. We wouldn’t find anything extraordinary, or anything supernatural, about a talking toaster. I think modern society went through this at the end of the 19th century with the gramophone – the ‘Talking Machine’ – the telegram and the radio. Suddenly there were all these ghostly voices being produced in the ether. You have a similar effect now with the paradoxical presence of disembodied things at your fingertips. Its spooky stuff.

Are we becoming more alienated from touching something directly? With a smart device at my fingertips I can enter directly into the digital realm: whether zooming in to pixel-level detail with a swift stroke of my e-tip index finger or instantly publishing a snapshot of my surroundings to instagram. Yet this also implies a distancing; a need to mediate ‘reality’ in order to properly perceive it.

You are sitting at your desktop or laptop and you have an array of tools at hand: hardware and software, camera, scanner, printer, final cut, logic, fruityloops as well as access to a huge archive of material through Google, Getty images etc. And all these tools, like other tools, externalize your human organs and limbs and senses. Like the hammer extends the length and power of the arm and the telescope one-ups the eyeball. They augment the body, extend it outwards: my voluptuous body (sitting at the desk) with all its carnal need for sensual knowledge. And it’s sitting there making and watching this stuff, producing and consuming it: prosuming.

Say I’ve filmed or made an object and then I’ve put it smack in the middle of the screen. Its really compelling, this object, its got real allure – real presence. Because the object compels me; it’s not me (as a maker), it’s the agency of the object drawing me to it. It causes a physical sensation in my body; this image, this picture, this mere representation, seems to be directly stimulating the material elements in me: all my nerves and fibre. Like I’m responding to a physical encounter. At this point I’m not just contemplating an image, I’ve embraced it and absorbed it into my body. There’s a great British phrase to describe this: ‘clapped eyes on it’ – your eyes are like hands that smack an object.

At the same time, I keep telling this story of when I last tried to sculpt a figure out of clay. I made one half of the head and then it was as if my body, the instinctual part of it, couldn’t grasp why I couldn’t just copy, paste and flip the other half. It’s as if I’ve un-learned how to behave in the physical world, or that this engagement with the immaterial realm has superseded the need to. That’s a scary thought but also an exciting one.

So what happens to human interaction when we lose touch with our bodies, with expression and the world-out-there?

GreenScreenRefrigerator (still) 2010, Digital video TRT: 17:10

I was thinking of Green Screen Refrigerator (2010), and how these terribly smart objects are seducing us into their own brand universes. How do we resist objectification as consumers, or see the world in ways that it doesn't necessarily want to be seen? The audio track to Green Screen maybe speaks to this too:
'we exist'
'address, they ask each one an answer'
'i liken myself to other things'
'my goal is to keep whole’
Are we to imagine these sung statements as the thoughts of the refrigerator?

Today we are surrounded by brands. They are our environment, part of our ecology, so we absorb them and we also act them out. So I don’t see them as something to be resisted in themselves; they are as natural as icebergs or pollen. As the Borg say: Resistance is Futile.

What the title Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore (1999) still means to me is that to invest all your energies into something as ultimately banal and fleeting as a jeans label – Fiorucci was big in the 1970s and 1980s – creates this intensity that is transcendent, that is beyond the brand and beyond the mundane everyday. It takes you somewhere else, and that’s still where I want to go.

The fridge sings like a frog, a rock, or a tree might in a folk tale. It’s a bit like the haunted toaster. A lot of what it says at the beginning is chopped up from the ancient Popul Vuh creation myth, as I felt there was something analogous in the way these devices are coming to populate the world. The second bit, when the fridge enters into its own interior, is a chopped-up version of Calvin Tomkins’s A Guided Tour through the Strange World of ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even’ (1966). And the final part is the fridge talking about its brand family, of which it’s a totem. It is in constant communication with all its kin, including the image sensors that take the pictures of Saturn and all its moons.

The UK home secretary recently blocked the extradition of Scottish computer hacker Gary McKinnon to the United States (for allegedly hacking the Pentagon and NASA computer systems ten years ago), in large part because of his diagnosed Asperger's Syndrome. It's commonly accepted that a lot of programmers are afflicted with various forms of autism – characterized by limited empathy, physical clumsiness, difficulties in social interaction and a penchant for seeking out repetitive patterns. Does this have an implication for our own relationship to images, technological objects, and mediated communication in general?

I am a bit obsessed with Gary McKinnon so its brilliant you brought him up. I’m fascinated by his face. I collect all the images I can of him. He has this very old fashioned sense about him, a kind of very familiar British schoolboy innocence, a kind of man-boy, and yet at the same time he is like this alien being from the future who communicates via highly complex code. He also writes music and makes videos; he is the 21st-century man David Bowie promised us.
And I think that his Asperger’s is what gives him that, he’s already cybernetic.

Autistics are the midwives of technology. Asperger’s is known as the ‘Engineer’s Disorder’.

There seem to be possibilities for union between different kinds of realities online – a way to incorporate all aspects of how we experience the world.

How do you think the changing experience of images, especially in internet space, will affect contemporary art at large? What purchase does the artist have (or should she have) on representation or manipulation that an average 'user’ might not?

I was thinking about this in relation to teaching at art school. We teach students to become more professional, to professionalize their practice, but they are actually entering into a world where amateurs make and show work that is as good as anything they might produce. The levelling effect of technology means that anyone can make and distribute an image. That brings up all sorts of problems for me; artists taking images found on tumblr and merely transposing them to a gallery wall or borrowing online aesthetics (datamosh, seapunk, etc.). The methods and vocabularies of art-making that students are being taught just aren’t robust enough for the coming dissolution of the professional art world. The zombie figure of ‘appropriation’ still walks the corridors of Goldsmiths, where I teach, for example. But I don’t know what application that term has anymore.

George Bernard Shaw said that ‘all professions are conspiracies against the laity’, and I think we will end up with the really big-name artists up in the ‘head’, the 1%, becoming more ever more exclusive and self-reflective; and all other artists, at whatever level, spread out along the Long Tail. It’s not an ‘end of art’ situation, but I think art will go through a revolution as great as the one at the turn of the 20th Century.

Can you describe some of the phenomena that fit the touchy-feely paradigm?

I saw this video by Amanda Baggs called In My Language and the fact that it was on YouTube seemed perfect; the internet has given people with autism the ability to communicate effectively. Someone even called the internet ‘braille for Autists’. Autistic language is visual and tactile and video, I think, satisfies both of those senses. Amanda is doing this kind of keening and humming, singing along with what is around her and repeating the same movement over and over again. This is called ‘stimming’, or self-stimulating, which can be twiddling your fingers, or spinning an object round and round, or repeating a phrase you have heard, like an echo.

This repetitive behavior is properly called preserverating; but you can see it kind of getting her in a state where she can communicate with all the things around her. She is picking up on the constant droning of things, the vibrations from objects in the world. All things are alive to her, all dumb things are universally addressable.

One of the supposed defining characteristics of an autistic is that they lack a ‘theory of mind’, meaning they cannot put themselves in another’s shoes. But what I think you see in the video is an ability to empathize with everything, with all the non-human things in the world. To see everything as being ‘minded’ in some way.

I feel like my own perception has been physiologically altered. I can only understand objects once I have them as an image on screen, but that image has to have depth and presence. I don’t want a flat image. To me, digital objects are as good and true a sensation as if there was a real object there. Only the object happens not to be there – that’s the difference.

We experience things on screen through the ‘eyes of our skin’ or by means of Walter Benjamin ‘s 'optical unconscious'; that is, when the camera reveals hidden aspects of the world that normally register below-conscious awareness. Eadward Muybridge’s 19th century locomotion studies, for example. But its also seems to me like the way sub-bass expresses a tangible ‘mood’ – fear, terror – that is felt rather then heard.

Pearl Vision (still) 2012 Video, headphones, desk and drum shield, TRT: 3 minutes 10

There's definitely an absorption into the image in your latest work, Pearl Vision (2012), which one could speak about in comparison to the desired effects of Modernist painting; a self-conscious awareness of the 'immateriality' (and indeed, flatness) of the projected image yet a desire to give it depth and sensation all the same. The seamless graphics that give shape to the subject of the work – the snare drum – also confuses the viewer's relation to it. Its surface reminds me of the 17th-century pronk still-life, with an upturned silver chalice reflecting the surrounding objects and the space of the room according to the optical effects of varying light sources represented within the space of the painting. Yet there's hardly a sense of architectural space to the work at all. I'm also thinking about – let's call it the image of the artist – mirrored in the drum, which seems to say something about performing. (I'm not quite sure whether for the viewer or for the object.) The act of drumming can also be read as radical, an injunction to dance...

I chose a chrome snare because I knew how well chrome works in CGI. I wanted it to be very illusionistic, I wanted to make a picture with great verisimilitude. I also had John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) somewhere in the back of my mind. He talks of ‘the gibbous mirrored eye of an insect’ and ‘the cold, syrupy flow’ I wanted these effects.

And also it is a self-portrait: I’m sitting at the drum as if it’s a computer. But the drum is using me for its own purposes – by gratifying my desires it gets to be used; played. And I wanted the drum to become confused with myself. I possess it, it possesses me in a type of mutual absorption. It’s an approach to some kind of mysticism – an apprehension of knowledge that is inaccessible to the intellect, attained through contemplation and self-surrender.

In terms of a lack of architectural space, I recently left my flat that I lived and worked in for years and years and which appeared in a lot of the things I’ve made. It often ended up being my surrogate because I didn’t want to appear directly. So I opted for a void with Pearl Vision because I don’t have a place now that I particularly want to see reflected back, like in Made in ‘Eaven when I had Jeff Koon’s rabbit in the flat. (Although I think of the drum video as me getting to actually play the rabbit.)

Drumming is an old language and it speaks directly to your body, and to the communal body. A strong rhythm or a powerful beat can take you out of your mind. I think once you’re in that state, there is potential for something radical to happen.

Cybernetics is ultimately reductive. It seeks to ‘sequence’ life, but somehow in music the most mechanical and reductive sounds create something funky and resolutely human. It creates a rhythm, and that same rhythm is what you use to edit video.

I try to emulate the production values in R&B and black electronic dance music (I don’t really know what to call it now, a continuum that reaches from early Acid House to Chicago Juke). This marriage of very cold mechanical sounds and techniques aimed at your body, at sex and dancing. This is truly cybernetic in its synthesis of organic and artificial parts. And at the moment it seems to be getting very druggy again, very Purple Drank, whatever that is…

I like that separation of sounds and space you get; the top ends all very high and crisp and synthetic, then the mid range is very woozy and contains all the memories and desires and then you have the bass which is very physical and visceral. That’s how I wanted the drum film to feel, you have this very lucid image that then goes all soft and mushy and the sound hopefully enhances that sensation.

Was it a conscious decision to formulate the touchy-feely concept in a lecture? There is something about the linguistic address of objects, too, which can be best articulated outside the digital realm, enacted through live performance (a talking cure), let’s say. 

I don’t know if the lecture format is semi-confessional – anyway it feels like a way to bundle up all the stuff that’s accumulated on my desktop. All the jpegs, mpegs, YouTube rips, Wikipedia quotes, and bits from blogs etc that keep gathering together over time until in the end you realize it’s a theme, or a pattern and you’ve been almost unconsciously saving this stuff, because its you.

You’ve been assembling yourself out of all this waste – the spoils that are out there on the net.

Accompanying images from the browsing collection of Mark Leckey.