On the occasion of his participation in a collective exhibition at VITRINE, Basel (Sylvain Baumann, Justin Eagle, Raja’a Khalid, 15 October 2016 - 7 January 2017), Justin Eagle talks to Claudia Di Lecce about the work he realized for the show as a result of a recently concluded one-month residency at Atelier Mondial in Basel. As he explains, the residency was the occasion for him to react to the specific conditions of the city, exploring different processes of production and technical knowledge – a recurring feature of his practice – in connection to his most recent attempt to integrate the written word into his work.
How did the show at Vitrine come about?
I have worked with Alys [Williams, director of VITRINE] since 2010, six years. As I had just recently moved into a new studio in London, she came over for a visit and told me about the opportunity to work for a month at Atelier Mondial, as part of the residency program they run. She suggested that my stay could be the occasion to produce a work for the Fall exhibition in her recently opened gallery, so the residency also became an opportunity to respond to an idea that she had for the show. For me, it was also the chance to work outside of London, which has been my home and a place of work for years now. I stayed just over a month [in August] in a studio at Atelier Mondial in Dreispitz. I didn’t have a plan of what I wanted to make, I reacted specifically to my experience of the city and to my time in Basel.
The pieces you present at VITRINE Basel, as well as most of your past production, strike me for what I would call a “slick aesthetic”, a very specific quality of presence that is very real and somehow surreal at the same time. Do you recognize this feature? Is it something you intentionally pursue?
Yeah, I think it is the direct product of the method used to produce the work, what I call high-production, industrial processes. Rather than making the pieces myself, I would usually hire a company or a professional to produce it, coopting the mechanisms that are used and that produce that “language” in the world. It is a conscious way of producing the work.
With the appropriation, or mimicry, of these “means of production” (no Marxist reference intended) do you want to erase your position as an author or rather you wish to explore the mechanisms behind them?
I quite like that, mimicry, I think that is quite an apt way of describing it. It is a way to make myself invisible. The work looks like it has been produced and as if it is part of the world, as opposed to an artist producing a piece of work that is an impression. Instead of being an impression of the world, the work is the world.
What remains your own is the intention that you bring in producing a specific piece with a certain aesthetic and narrative. Let’s take an example, the series ‘FAQ I-IV’ from 2012. What stands out to me in terms of the production process is the clash between something that is very immediate and direct, in this case, a footprint, that you then decide to reproduce as a silkscreen, devoiding the original element of its gestural materiality.
When I start on a new project, I usually go through a certain process of making work: I begin by producing quite a lot of painterly marks – a sort of mess – then suddenly, I know that it doesn’t work, so I get rid of it all and reduce the work down to a simpler configuration. With the footprint in ‘FAQ’, I was in the studio and I was somehow frustrated. I wanted to be kind of a painter, I wanted to make a gestural mark on a canvas, and I battled with that position, and that is how the footprint came about. It was immediate, I took my shoe off, I put my foot in the bucket of paint, and then I stepped on a piece of paper obtaining this mark of my footprint. Though I felt that this wasn’t enough. I needed to take it away from its initial condition, so I shoved it through a process: scanned it and then expanded the image and printed it as a silkscreen. Somehow just by changing its scale, and its medium, it was filtered for me. It is a kind of a weird sieve, a filter that I always have to go through.
It sounds like if you were wrestling with the materiality of making, in a way you have to deny or filter it, as you say. How would you describe the result, once the first input reaches the final stage?
In the case of the footprint, as a result, the detail is emphasised, enhanced, a sort of heightened reality in a way. Or if you look at the ‘Golden Cage’  also on show in Vitrine, I had the object in my studio for a long time and then I hired a photographer and we took eight hours to photograph that coal bucket. I had to go through this process of lighting, but I did not want it to look like advertising, I just wanted to heighten its reality. From this point of view, I think the process is meant to take the object out of its current reality.
By applying very real activities, I would say very much of this world, such as the advertising processes.
Yeah, they are real processes, they exist, it isn’t a subjective decision. The process is made up of a set of rules, procedures that are used by people in the everyday. I also work a lot with professionals, for instance, a screen printer that knows the process very well or a photographer. It enables me to have a relationship with that person, and this also allows me to gradually achieve the result I have in mind. We discuss certain parameters, and then it’s just a kind of moment of saying yeah, that is the correct scale, tone or texture. It doesn’t seem like a rational or subjective decision anymore, the process can do that for you.
But the moment when you recognize that that’s what you want is when there is a decision involved.
Yeah, there is a decision involved, because then I decide that that’s the scale and that’s the tone. And maybe there is a contradiction, maybe I am just trying to trick myself constantly.
I would not put it in terms of you trying to run away from this decision, but rather I would describe the combination of relational and complex processes as the practice you develop, which allows you to attain the result you have in mind.
Yeah, I always look for the involvement of another person, I need it in a way. In Basel, I met a woman working downstairs, she is a printer, I talked to her about my idea of producing a sentence that I thought would fit in the context of the show. We spoke about how to realise the work and she suggested a certain process. I could use vinyl text glued to the canvas, and then apply a layer of paint before removing the vinyl letters, so the text would be as stencilled. This is a constant element in the development of my work, the procedure always relates to someone else’s expertise or profession. It is a kind of warm experience. I don’t just go and work in the studio on my own and then produce something; it always involves someone.
Tell me more about the result of this “warm interaction” in the case of this piece you did for VITRINE, ‘Eigentlich bini in de Ferie. Isch’s ok wenni rauch?’.
I did not want to create an image that should just be looked at, rather I wanted to create a work that would function as an open-ended question, displayed on the canvas. And the question is both a question you ask to yourself but at the same time, a question posed to others. I like the ambiguity that is created, this moment of saying “who are you asking to?”, “who are you trying to gain information from?”. It’s like a psychoanalytic question: when you are talking to a therapist, who are you talking to, to the therapist or to yourself? At the same time, it is also an abstract work because it is in a language that I cannot read, so in a way it can also work as an abstract painting.
What are the roles of writing and the written word in your work? It seems like a new element in your practice.
I always feel quite insecure as an artist, I tell myself that an artist should be drawing, you know, they draw and they kind of make an image of something. I have never done that. Since I was a child I always had notebooks, to write and describe things. I would go for a walk and I would always name, write down what I saw, “a black bird, or a rabbit or something”. I listed things, I have always done it. I went to Royal College and I studied sculpture, I thought that when I was in this course I would have had to make sculptures. But then the tutor told me, you don’t make objects, you don’t make sculpture, you write. And you know this was fifteen years ago, and I have only recently come to the realisation of how I can bring that written language into my practice. In other words, I am trying to turn this instinctive practice into a way of generating work. The piece in Basel is the first time I have turned text into an art object, I suppose. In a recent performance, ‘The Stick’, I have written and then read a piece of writing in front of an audience. Also, I recently bought a processor, a machine that you can use with a microphone to speak into and slightly change your voice. It acts as a filter. As I was reading my text in the studio, I felt that I did not want to hear my voice, I wanted to add a filter to it. Make it slower or echo, I was kind of using that as a tool.
As a mediating tool, processing it.
I always move the way of making work around a lot, I don’t want it to become fixed, it needs to change.
My last question, when did you decide you wanted to be an artist, how did you “fall into art”?
My family was not artistic, I come from quite a working-class background, art was not an area I was familiar with. When I was around twelve, my dad bought me a camera and so I got interested in documenting what I saw around me, I took photographs and built a dark room in my parent’s loft where I developed my pictures. At the time, I did not know you could go to an art college, it wasn’t introduced to me at school. I was going to become an electrician, but I am color-blind so that did not work out. Anyway, I just took photos and did not know what they were, I just liked them. Then eventually when I left high school, I discovered there was such a place as art school, and from then on I suppose I became an artist.
‘Sylvain Baumann, Justin Eagle, Raja’a Khalid’ continues until 7 January 2017 at VITRINE, Basel. For more information, go to http://www.vitrinegallery.com.
Find out more about Justin Eagle’s work at http://justin-eagle.com.