Emma Hart is an artist who makes video, sculpture and performance. She participated in the Whitstable Biennale in 2010 and 2012. Jennifer Thatcher, freelance writer and lecturer based in Folkestone, interviews Emma Hart about her work for WB2012 and how it relates to her wider work.
Jennifer Thatcher: Could you describe your project for the Whitstable Biennale, M20 Death Drives (2012)?
Emma Hart: Extended wing mirrors reflect a concealed television playing a video describing a near-fatal motorway crash. A leatherette booth that looks a bit like a slashed, fat car seat conceals the screen. The mirrors poking out from the top act like puppets mouthing off. Each mirror provides a different viewpoint onto the single-screen video. Horrific details from my car accident that happened on the M20, 22 years ago, collide with the terror and events caused by driving down the same stretch of road 20 years later to make the video. Protruding catering trays become service stations, serving up products from the traumatised places the video slips down to when the re-traced journey is broken by going into M20 service stations. One turns out to be a cocktail bar, but I can’t get served. This is the most recognisable station; the others journey to weirder places, maybe inspired by a bad game of Dungeons and Dragons.
How long did you work on it, from research to production?
Something has gone wrong with my mind, and I can’t actually remember. I can look back at old calendars and tell you, but sitting here right now I can’t find the answer in my brain to this question. I think it is because you don’t make memories properly when you are stressed and, as ever, I was stressed when I made this. I was running out of time and money, but also it was really complicated. Getting the video to work in the mirrors was really hard. Before all that kicked in, though, what I do remember is my action research. I went on a self-directed gargoyle tour, UK and France cathedrals, including Canterbury of course. I realise gargoyles don’t feature in the work, but they were, and are, a big inspiration. I love gargoyles; they give me strength.
How open was the brief you had to work to?
I first made work for Whitstable in 2010, a performance that involved me reading a script from within a projection, being pushed around by arrows. I knew then that I would make work in 2012, so initially the idea was to respond, or continue on from this work. I was relieved when I found out that this wasn’t the expectation, and that Whitstable would support me to make anything I wanted (Ha! Well, within a budget). Two years is a long time and I had moved on from arrows; I was now really getting into mirrors.
How important was your relationship to the site? Did you choose the site? Does Whitstable offer particular contexts that you found interesting or unusual, and did these influence what you eventually made?
In 1992 I had a near fatal crash on the M20. I was driving down to Margate to play Dungeons and Dragons. I went every Sunday. I had gone to study at the University of Kent, and hated it. I was the only person in my halls who had gone to a state school. I was being bullied. I managed to make friends with Dave, from other halls, who had also gone to a state school. We went to his house every Sunday to play D&D with his family. I never knew their real names, only the names of their characters. The fantasy role-playing game got me through a very difficult time. I quit Kent after the first term, but I would still drive down to Dave’s on Sundays. I was Anastasia, a third-level magic user. One Sunday, I didn’t make it down there, as I had a very serious crash on the motorway. I am very lucky to be alive. I never managed to explain to Dave and his family what happened – they think I just didn’t show up.
Years later I was going to Whitstable for a meeting about the Biennale commission. For some reason (cancelled trains?) I was, unusually, driving. I found myself on the M20, a stretch of road I hadn’t been down for 22 years as I had avoided it after the crash.
This was what I made the work about. My work, therefore, was made in relation to Whitstable, or more precisely to the journey I had to take to Whitstable. I was also thinking about the seaside and entertainment, and I ended up making a kind of weird, messed-up puppet show that was close to the beach. But the actual site, a sea scouts hut, was not specific; the work and how to get there came first.
What were the main challenges?
My idea to reflect a video up into eight mirrors might have been a good one, but it was a very complicated thing to put into practice. It was a real headache. Working in three dimensions, which I was new to, also takes lots of space and money. Getting my project to fit into the allocated space and money were a challenge.
How does the piece relate to your previous work?
Before making this work I had been getting frustrated as the video artist is always in control, always knows what the viewer is going to look at and in what order and for how long, so I had been exploiting ways to work with video where the viewer has to edit their own experience. I wanted video, a pre-recorded medium, to have the impact of a live encounter. In 2011 I had a show at Matt’s Gallery. I made bird sculptures (I love birds) with cameras, producing a demented avian chorus. The Whitstable work led straight on from this. I wanted to create a single-screen video that could not be seen or encountered as a complete thing; rather, different bits are seen by different people. In the work preceding Matt’s Gallery – Lost (2009-11) – I had worked with a single-screen video but installed it back-projected very close to the viewer. This means the viewer can’t see the whole thing, they can’t take a wide on it, so they can only see bits of it – what is in front of their nose – so no-one sees the same video. This video was of me looking for lost things with a camera – a camera can see much better down the back of a radiator than we can. The video records myself and my sister and boyfriend using the camera as a tool to try and find all this lost crap (watches, iPods, earrings). When it was on show I realised that it actually is much more a document of how I lived (in horrible, badly maintained flats) and my relationships. I could hear my voice and how jarring it sounded in the gallery, shrieking out; you could hear where I come from and that I am working class. You might make judgements about me, or might not. Anyway, the use of my own voice and experience was something I wanted to explore in my next work, to try and broach social hierarchies whilst unpicking the authority or hierarchies of the camera image.
Did the experience of participating in the Biennale influence the way you have worked subsequently?
My show at Matt’s Gallery was my debut in three dimensions, my first show of sculptures. Whitstable was my second. I was trying out lots of techniques. I had been on a woodcarving course and featured my new skills in the work (I carved the cocktails with my very own hands).
It is an ugly work, however – a nonsensical structure, which we don’t recognise. The experience of the work is very different to the documentation of the work. It was not to be looked at, but felt. The trays were offering up worlds to the audience, but this doesn’t come across in the images, and it was very loud and chaotic. So this discrepancy and how the work actually physically reaches an audience gave me food for thought in following projects.
Did the idea that your work would be seen by a diverse, ‘non-art’ audience influence your approach to the project?
I never think in those terms. I plan for what the audience will do and the experience that the work will hopefully trigger but I never think about how many other artworks the audience has seen before. I aim to work on an intimate, emotional level with an audience about things that anyone and everyone has access to: trauma, anxiety and just plain grubby, leaky embarrassment.
What are your thoughts about the term ‘public art’?
Well, it is a confusing term. I can understand it at its most simplest – artwork outside, artwork that you don’t have to have made a decision to cross a threshold to see, artwork that you will chance upon (but probably won’t pay attention to). Work for the Biennale, and recently for Folkestone [Triennial], was still in the ‘frame’ of a building, you had to go in and see it, but the location of the work was not a gallery, it was for Whitstable a scout hut. I need a frame for my work (plus a plug socket) and I want my work to be seen close up, so I need walls to shove you towards my work. I don’t want you to contemplate it from far away. I’m not sure, therefore, if I would put this work under my initial definition of ‘public art’. My exhibition at Camden Arts Centre was in the public realm; the gallery is open to the public and the show was paid for from the public purse so I would want to call this public art too. Although it can’t be chanced upon. The challenge is to get more public or users into the frame (vocabulary pinched from Stephen Wright) and this is what the Whitstable Biennale does: open up the frame.
What advice would you give an artist commissioned to make a work in the public realm?
Most of my work has taken place in the public realm, been commissioned by public art organisations and sat in spaces that are being paid for out of the public purse (a purse which is seriously under threat – don’t vote Tory, although I live in Harriet Harman’s constituency so I am looking forward to her knocking on my door so I can see if I will vote Labour). I’ve not got anything to compare this against; I’ve not made a show solely for a commercial space, or for a pre-destined commercial result. There’s a lot said about this being restrictive, and the public realm is where artists really do what they want. I’m not sure I believe this. I think most artists do what they want or what they think they need to do – and what is wrong with an artist trying to make some money anyway? But back to the question, erm advice… Do what you want. It is just so hard to know what that is.
Do you think that the ‘festival’ atmosphere of biennials enhances or compromises artists’ freedom to make challenging work?
Do you have a top tip for visitors to Whitstable?
Go when the Biennale is on; go on a Shepherd Neame pub-crawl. I’ve also always had an oyster or six when I’m there (with Tabasco).
Emma Hart will be featured in a Focus piece in the March 2015 issue of frieze.