Post-Studio Visit Podcast (Episode 5): Deborah Edmeades.
Interview with Jonah Gray
JG: This is post-studio visit, a podcast from the Or Gallery, Vancouver, and I’m Jonah Gray. In each episode, I interview an artist, writer, curator, or critic in the place where they work. Today I meet up with Vancouver based artist, Deborah Edmeades. I first encountered Edmeades’ work in the recent group exhibition, curated by Marina Roy at Artspeak in Vancouver. Her two contributions to this show were hard to miss and included an installation of home-made teleprompters suspended on spindly wooden legs, each being gazed into by a pair of wooden eyeballs. It was entitled “Blinking and Other Involuntary Portals”. And two colourful annotated illustrations featuring various symbols charts and diagrams. The long title of this latter piece is “Divination, Chance and Character: tools for the fantastical extension of sensibility”. But Deborah refers to it in our conversation, simply as the index. Edmeades has exhibited widely in Canada, the US and the UK and she completed an MFA at Simon Fraser University in 2014. She was kind enough to host me in her Mount Pleasant studio, where I asked her what she’d been working on lately.
DE: The work that’s at Artspeak comes from a video I made that had an artist and a spiritual teacher in it. The premise was that the artist evokes this internet spiritual teacher, but I also think of her as re-incarnated from the transcendentalists or something like that. Over the course of the video [the teacher] appears on these shifting monitors. Simultaneously the artist runs aesthetic tests alongside the teacher who is delivering her schtick. For me that piece was an interface with art and spirituality, which reflected a bit of a path that I had taken.
JG: and was it a video installation or…
DE: Yeah, it was. It was a two-channel video. But I still want to go back into it and re-cut it and maybe play it over several more screens. Do something a bit different with it. But in that video, the artist made a lot of props and things that were part of her aesthetic testing. These objects were made to be presented [for the camera] through this system of reflective surfaces. Does that make sense?
JG: I can start to picture it.
DE: So some of them had text, and the text was mirror writing. And the reflective surfaces were flexible, so there was a lot of animation that was happening by [my] moving the surfaces. There were all these objects that I made using paint and [different materials] and [there were] puppet type things. Everybody said to me: why aren’t you showing all these props? I just showed the video, and a drawing that was meant to guide you through the video. I didn’t want to show [the props] because they were… they were kind of crap. Most of them were [all but] destroyed by the end of the shoot and they were the wrong size and made to operate in the very limited…[situation] of the shoot. I felt like I wanted to show them, but I wanted to develop them for this whole different way that you would view them [in space], but [still retaining] some of the logic of the video—how they were mediated in the video— as being [a dimension] of their three dimensional sculptural selves. So then what happened was I wrote a grant. I was like, ok, that’s a good idea. I’ll say that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to develop all these props. And then I got the grant!
DE: And it was funny, because, right at the last minute before I slipped the form in the envelope, I saw that I’d missed the title. It’s supposed to have a title—and of course I’m on deadline—so I wrote in five minutes: “Divination, Chance and Character: tools for the fantastical extension of sensibility”.
JG: Wow, good improvisation!
DE: I know, it was better than any of my other titles, so when I got back the acceptance [letter], I was like: “what?”
DE: So then I just started working. The first thing I did was make these… I wanted to index everything, because in a way the video felt like it was this intense creative moment where things were being generated and I kind of didn’t know what was going on. I was just doing stuff and piling it all in and it was expanding and expanding. And there was a lot of research involved, so it does feel like a rich place to go back too. I wanted to index all the possible things that I could develop as objects or scenarios or further projects. The tools. And I still feel like I’m working with that idea of the index as a way to keep going back to the things that were sparked. There were so many different threads and interesting ideas.
JG: You’re kind of excavating that now.
DE: Yeah. I think this is just the way I work, I think It could go on forever… part of me is like “what if I get totally bored of it [and want to stop]”. But that’s ok. it can still be an index [of the possibilities].
JG: so is that where the work is going right now is actually just developing that index? or is the index going to be a means to an end?
DE: I started with the index to lay out everything and then I developed one of [the entries]. I feel that every time I go back into the project, [I would need] to reassess.
JG: Can you describe what we’re looking at? They are glossy printouts…are they gouache or water-colour?
DE: Its a mixture of gouache, not water-colour, but gouache and houseplant and there’s a lot of collage, so there’s mylar and the coloured gels that you put over lights, and [painted, cut out] water-colour paper.
JG: And so they’re organized into…they look like…they’re not icons, but little scenes. Little still life scenes, or little images that are connected, that have a caption beside them, that are indexing all those different elements from that work.
DE: When I was doing this. I was also trying to find language, so the captions were…I worked quite a bit on those to figure out what each thing would be, what it was going to be talking about, what [it meant]. [points] This is the one that’s in the Artspeak show.
JG: Right, ok
DE: It’s called “Blinking and other Involuntary Portals”
JG: Just to give our listeners a sense of it, it’s a little illustration of a scene with a tripod, and I know it from the Artspeak show, it’s a teleprompter that you built, a makeshift teleprompter with these…
DE: …there’s a pair of teleprompter devices…
JG: And a set of eyeballs on either side… eyeballs with giant eyelashes.
DE: Yes, glittery eyelashes.
JG: And so are you going down this list? Is this your…you’re sort of using this as a recipe book for making artworks from now on?
DE: In a way, but what I like about it is that I feel like I can change it. The index as it is now might [have] some inaccuracies in it. But yeah that’s the idea… when I go back into the project, I’ll start with a reassessment of everything.
JG: Is it the same pictures that you had in the gallery as well, along with the installation, the sculptural work you had.
DE: This is exactly what I had in the gallery [a photo of it]. But I’d like to work through the ideas in a much larger more sculptural way.
JG: Using the same index?
DE: Using the same kind of scenarios, the same points of departure in a way to coral them all together.
JG: Ok, so to give another example here, cos that one seems like, pretty, you know you could almost use it as instructions for making an installation, but some of them are a lot more suggestive and speculative, like what are these symbols? is that omega?
DE: It’s psi=phi
JG: psi=phi, shows you how much I know about the greek alphabet.
DE: …and it’s a materialist proposition…
JG: …is the caption?
DE: …a mystical call. That was interesting. One of things I was working with was looking into neuroscience and as it turns out, a lot of these philosophers that are interested in neuroscience, when they’re talking about it… subjectivity is kind of like this mystery. They can’t prove that it actually exists hahahaha! What that means is that, how we feel and how we experience things, doesn’t actually exist. It can’t be proven at all. Color is something that they use as an example because we manufacture color with our nervous systems. It doesn’t exist in that form in “reality”, so scientists came up with that equation psi=phi that means: “We assume that that sensation that you feel equals that nerve being stimulated that we can [observe], we’re not sure, but it’s just a matter of time and we’re going to [be able] to prove it. So the psi=phi is this equation that stands in for that mystery that can’t be proven. It’s a little exciting for me how this hard materialism flips into mysticism at some point. That was my interest in that.
JG: So, could that one also turn into a work or become a component of one of these installations that you’re working on?
DE: Maybe, that one’s not as clear as some of the others are as to how it could be developed, but I wanted to put that in to remind myself of that idea, particularly labelling it in that way: A materialist proposition, a mystical call.
JG: It seems really nice to have something to work towards and i’ve done that before, when you get a grant, it’s like, “what did I say I was going to do?” and there’s like, “well yeah, on the other hand, now that I’ve said that…I should just read what I wrote down as instructions to go about doing this project”. But there’s something that’s nice about this index that you’ve made, it’s not like color by numbers or anything. It’s something to work towards.
DE: …and the one at Artspeak really kicked my arse. It took so long to do…yeah, so I really don’t know what’s out there. I have no idea how I would end up having to do it.
JG: Can you describe that one too a little bit? I mean we kind of referred to it but, how would you actually… because there’s sort of a circuit that’s made between the two teleprompters…what is the actual…
DE: Yeah, so there are two little blinky guys and they are both looking into these little boxes which are actually teleprompter devices. They are seeing each other…. i don’t know if I’m explaining it…
JG: Its sort of like a tin can phone, but a super high-tech version of that and these wooden sets of eyeballs. They’re blinking aren’t they?
DE: Yeah, they’re blinking and they’re being powered by an electro magnetic circuit, because of course in the video, I would just do that by hand. I made this device that would blink and I just swung it backwards and forwards
JG: It’s like a pendulum.
DE: Yeah, it’s an electro magnetic pendulum device. When I was making it, I was like “I want them to move by themselves”. Of course I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
JG: But how it’s both a tautological loop kind of thing in that it’s two sets of eyeballs looking at one another, but it’s also a perpetual motion machine too. I like it that it’s almost the artwork that views itself. You can just leave it on and it like saves you the trouble!
DE: Yeah, they’re totally turned in on each other. There are two of them, so they’re not completely solipsistic! [laughs]
JG: Oh that’s true, they’re connecting to one another.
DE: But they are very similar. It’s sort of like a mobius strip.
JG: Maybe that’s a better way of thinking about it. And that then came out of this mediating piece, the index. But can you go back and talk a little bit about that work. Is that part of a longer trajectory in your work, the thing about questions of that type of viewership and technology.
DE: Yeah, so I suppose the way I would answer that is that I feel like this work is rooted in my… because I was working with performance for quite a while. I started doing performance in the nineties and I was interested in identity and the video became very quickly part of that performance process. At some point, I was so interested in identity and I was doing acting classes. How do actors create characters? I was interested in acting techniques, how you create reality, how you create yourself and then I slipped from there into therapeutic groups [and then started] going to spiritual retreats and stuff like that. I stopped making [art]work, but it felt like I was still doing research in a way. It always seemed like my performance practice was a form of research. So, I slipped out of art making and slipped out of the art world. I was doing all these other exciting things and I was like: “well, I think I’m still an artist”. It was pretty confusing. At a certain point, the impulse to make art came back. So all that work that I did, that adventure that I went on became grist for the mill, to then now reconcile that with “well what is art then?” So performance was research as to who am I? what is this? and then what is art?
DE: And the eyeballs, that piece in particular at Artspeak was this very particular experience that I had on a spiritual retreat actually…
JG: Oh really? what is it based on, do tell.
DE: Yeah, its pretty exciting. What happened, is I was on one of these retreats and the retreat leader was like “pair up” “now you’re just going to gaze at each other” This was this place called omega institute in NY state and I was paired up with this woman that i’d never met before. We were sitting and looking at each other and after a while it was really… and I think this is a classic exercise, this eye gazing…
JG: …you’re not talking…
DD: No, you’re not talking. And after a while it was so strange because these boundaries fell away. I was looking at this complete stranger and it was like: “I’m looking at myself” and it was like such a strong felt experience of looking at myself. Like there was no question. And then after that, the thought came “That is god”
DE: [Laughs], yeah, cos I had this whole religious background, I went to sunday school and everything… and then I was like “Fuck! Nobody told me, this is what god is!”, you know? “I went through this whole thing and nobody ever said a word about this!” And I think she was having a similar experience, we were just completely falling in love sort of thing. And then following this, I was just looking at her and taking in every single detail of her, her eyes and mouth and noticing the aliveness of the material thing in front of me. The wetness that’s part of those orifices, you know, and I was like “God is wet”
JG: It’s totally a good t-shirt
DE: I know, I know - well it’s in my drawing you see. The fountain. And it was in the video. Yeah, god is wet. I should make t-shirts that’s a brilliant idea. And there were some other things that happened around that. But then much later on, after I’d gotten back into the art thing and went on one of these spiritual retreats again (and I was like: “but, but, but, but, but, I’m an artist”) so I went to this spiritual retreat and I made these teleprompter devices, two of them, and I sat with all the retreat participants. I invited them into my cabin. This is actually in Canada now, this place that’s often used as a Christian camp near Kelowna. it’s a children’s [camp usually]… but anyway, there was a teacher and we hired it out and there were all these participants and I’m inviting them all into my room and gazing with them but through these teleprompter devices, similar, but cruder than what I made for the [Artspeak] show. I sat with all these people. And I did this 2 years in a row, gazing with these retreat participants. Of course recording it all—tons of footage that I’ll never look at again! That’s the genesis of that particular piece and in a way it also describes the whole project, including the video. You know, it’s what I’m trying to make sense of. Or how I’m trying to reconcile that with a so-called creative practice, a material practice.
JG: I’m glad I asked! And so the piece that you described before I think you said that there were 2 characters: the artist and the spiritual teacher. They’re characters right, or are they actually…is there a documentary component to it or is it a constructed narrative?
DE: It’s completely fictional. I suppose it’s sort of like…because they both me…because I play them both. It was nice in a way to not be the artist either, to objectify the artist and have the artist as a character. Yeah, They’re both characters. But the spiritual teacher is more of a character because the artist is more…she’s the one that’s making everything happen. she never really talks or does anything, but she’s creating all the effects and stuff like that. But the teacher is much more of a character. Where I am becoming this character.
JG: So that project or process is ongoing. Is it a project or process, your working with this index?
DE: Oh, the index. yeah, ongoing.
JG: Is it towards…because is it a project grant?
DE: Oh, that’s long gone!
JG: That really is a problem with grants isn’t it?
DE: They really do fizzle out very fast! Yeah that’s long gone, but one thing I have a mind to do right now is get back to the East Coast and research. I’m really interested in that period on the east coast where all those things converged. The Theosophical society was founded in NYC and the Transcendentalists who were influenced by the Romantics, the European Romantics, and then in between there was Spiritualism and Mesmerism that was imported from Europe. And there’s this figure called Mary Baker Eddy that founded the Christian Science Church. I found out that originally she was dabbling in Spiritualism and Mesmerism. Her teacher was a Mesmerist. I grew up as a Christian Scientist. She’s this true 19th century lady right? In her textbook there’s a whole chapter on denouncing Spiritualism and Animal Magnetism - as a child I was floored by that. This whole text book is this Victorian tome. I am really curious about that whole period.
JG: It sounds like it had the reverse effect, instead of causing you to to set it aside it made you..
DE: …I think there was a long period in between, where I was like “why am I so fucked?”
JG: You need to get some of that mesmerism back into your life
JG: Did you grow up on the east coast?
D: No I didn’t, but that is where the Christian Science Church…
JG: This is the originary center?
DE: I think [Mary Baker Eddy] lived close to Walden Pond, totally the same area as Emerson was. I grew up first in England and then I spent a lot of time in Johannesburg, South Africa. My parents were from there. They had moved to England, lived there 20 years, had children and then went back.
JG: What brought you to North america?
DE: I went to New York, it was a destination, because I wanted to be an artist. I had visited there once and it was very exciting. I went back in the nineties. I was clueless. I had no idea about immigration or green cards or anything like that. I was like “I’m going to go and live there” and I did, for 17 years.
DE: And then I moved to Vancouver in 2007. It took a while to feel at home here. Basically I had to go to grad school. But I was also in that weird transitory phase that I told you about where I had wondered out of art and into therapeutic situations and spiritual stuff. But then going to grad school gave me currency, otherwise everybody is like “who are you?” but it was also just meeting people and…
JG: Yeah of course, it’s a network. It’s a great way of finding about other people’s practices and getting into a dialogue with other artists.
DE: It was amazing. I loved it.
JG: Of the studios I have visited which is not many because a lot of people seem to not have studios, but you’ve got a great set-up here…with tree-stumps…you’re taking advantage of your space. What are they for? Are they part of something in particular or are they inspirational tree stumps?
DE: I hauled a bunch of tree stumps in. I actually got rid of a lot of them, but in that thing that’s at Artspeak, the blinking characters are embedded in tree slices and inside there is all…
JG: You were hollowing them out?
DE: That was for the circuit for the blinking character. I ended up with way more stuff that I would actually use. It’s very in flux in here right now. Its a huge mess because I’m trying to reset…
JG: No, no, it’s really clean.
DE: It is? [laughs] It’s funny, I feel like I’m getting more and more obsessive about organization and cleaning. I spend so much time cleaning and organizing in here cos its so small. Before you know it you cant find anything and you have to start again and clean everything. It feel like part of making work in a way…sorting everything into little bags…
JG: How does research play a role in your practice? Because it seems like with so much of this there is a backstory or it’s informed by history or…
DE: That was a very exciting thing about grad school, because I hadn’t done that before, I hadn’t had any formal—after high school—education. I did go to this strange art school in Johannesburg where there was no written component at all and all we studied were the impressionists through to the second generation abstract expressionists.
JG: A very tight window.
DE: Very tight window. And it didn’t include Pop Art or anything. The only pop artist that was approved of was Rauschenberg. I had this totally Greenbergian education. That was my arts education. I laboured my way through years of making abstract paintings. When I got to NYC it was: “Yay! content!” New York in the 90’s was all about content! and I got into performance. But I feel like I’ve strayed away from what your question was…
JG: Oh, just about research.
DE: Yes, so I went to grad school and it was: “oh my god - research!” because I arrived [in grad school] and it was awkward. I was interested in mysticism, which is a very awkward subject in relation to the academy. I had to get a lot of help. It was interesting how to approach that subject in a way that was - I don’t know if the right word is academic…in a way that was…
DE: Objective or clean. Of course there are all sorts of things you can read. Henri Bergson, or Benjamin’s a bit of a mystic…but in the end it was history… So the history of Western Esotericism became, I discovered after I left grad school an interesting topic because it’s kind of like the precursor to the New Age in a way and the New Age is sort of a horrifying entity right? Especially in an academic progressive thinking context, it’s just sort of yikes! But in a way in contains so much stuff. It’s a garbage can for everything western that we do now in terms of spirituality. Because we’re at this point where we’re just like er…I’m not sure what I’m saying anymore, but there’s this amazing essay by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. it’s called “The “Pedagogy of Buddhism”, because she got into buddhism when she got a fatal diagnosis…
DE: …and then she started writing about it as a cultural theorist. It’s an amazing essay, so she’s writing about Buddhism, but she’s also talking about…she says that if you are a Westerner and you study Buddhism, even if you study it really seriously in a Monastery, you are New Age. By default, that’s what you are. That really helped me to see the New Age as useful, it’s there for a reason. it’s valuable. So my research of western esotericism is a way of contextualizing the New Age, historically. And the study of esotericism is relatively new in terms of our [modern] Western academy.
JG: …as a subject…
DE: …as a subject that is valid. Because there have been writers before, like Frances Yates and a lot of people have pointed out…how how it’s almost bordering on religion…I think it’s a really really interesting area because there’s all those questions about belief and objectivity and actually the video…now I’m just like…
JG: uh huh…
JG: I’m following.
DE: Ok, good, good. That video that I shot, at the end of the video, [I came] across a definition of trompe l’oeile—psycho-analytic trompe l’oeile. I realized that was what my methodology was for the making of the video. I was watching through the viewfinder, everything I was doing, and that was informing what I was going to do next, but I was in a constant state of disbelief. I was looking [and saying to myself] “I can’t believe what I [am] seeing”. That was what was driving—that and this crazy sense of play—what I was doing [for the camera]. Because the whole purpose of trompe l’oeile is to trick you precisely to reveal to you that you’ve been had—you’ve been tricked! In a way it creates this epiphany, so I guess it’s that type of epiphany that i’m interested in, even with the experiential research that I did through therapy and the spiritual stuff. There is a certain type of epiphany, I guess that we’re all familiar with, where you suddenly see something that you didn’t see before. But the psychoanalytic way of describing trompe l’oeile, is where there’s this gap created between belief and knowledge and you suddenly find yourself in this gap and it’s, “oh!” suddenly everything is really fresh and the world shifts!