13 Oct

Art Feast interviews Robyn Woolston

Robyn Woolston is a visual artist based in Liverpool. She is Passionate about people, relationships and the way the world works, her practice reveals structures and raises questions concerning social, economic and ecological perspectives.

Robyn ‘activates’ spaces by re-appropriating waste, confronting dogmas and encouraging creativity at an organisational and individual level. Her processes involve Installation, photography, moving image, print and on-line projects.

Art Feast caught up with Robyn to discuss current projects, inspirations and motivations.

Congratulations on your film Et in Arcadia Ego (There is Death even in Utopia) (2010) being chosen for the official programme selection for the Aesthetica Short Film Festival. It is a particularly moving piece. Will you continue to develop the themes explored?

The film was originally shown in conjunction with the photographic series Death Becomes Her (2009), and jointly the work embodies my personal experience of a rite-of-passage concerning mortality. As a self-reflexive avenue of investigation the journey was borne from the experience of my Mothers death in 2009.

Et in Arcadia Ego: There is Death Even in Utopia 2010

My latest work in this area includes a body of photographs taken within a natural burial ground of memorial bird boxes entitled: Breathing Still (2011) and a temporary light installation within a Jewish cemetery in Kensington, Liverpool called ‘Shadow / Light’ (2011)

In terms of the presentation of my published research I’m also in conversation with TEDx Merseyside who will be exploring the New Futurism theme at Novas on 4th February 2012.

During 2011/2012 you have said you will be continuing the work  co-founded with ‘POST‘ by developing Research, Residency and Exchange ‘models’ within Istanbul and beyond. How is this going?

POST has secured a relationship with an actively political collective who re-appropriate text, the printed image and ‘space’ utilising stickers, videos and photo-novels.

We are also working with an international practitioner who’s been in Istanbul since 1969.

At this stage my answers may seem a little ‘opaque’ but I’m reluctant to say too much more as we are yet to announce ‘collectively’ our plans for these relationships during 2012.

What are your thoughts on the Liverpool art scene (as a place to work, discuss and exhibit)?

Shadow Light 2011

As a place to ‘live, work and exhibit’ it is the same as any other city with a complex knit of hierarchies, opportunities and possibilities. In many ways I try not to get too side-tracked by the politics as I find it counter-productive to work.

Do you feel that there are enough art opportunities within Liverpool and the Northwest?

I try to broker relationships based upon ‘growth’ for all concerned  whether that’s with an organisation like Deane Road Jewish Cemetery, and its committee, or the concentration camp in Austria. Some opportunities are right under your nose and others need wider, more expansive, investigation. In that respect I try not to limit my work by being lazy or parochial. I want to understand and expand the context and articulation of my output. To do this it’s important that I challenge myself in terms of commission, location and material.

Do you feel there is more that the city could do to encourage and support the arts?

I would like the major institutions to represent and nurture the talent that’s growing underneath its nose in a less tokenistic way. It seems that cliques exist wherever humanity manifests yet the biblical notion that ‘a Prophet is never a Prophet within his own Kingdom’ still resides (By the way I’m not saying I’m a Prophet but I am commenting upon the ‘blind-spots’ within a particular plain of vision.)

Naturally power dynamics within a city are multifaceted, yet distinctions still seem to manifest in the following ways:

LOCAL ARTIST                                    INTERNATIONAL ARTIST

WORKS FOR FREE                             IS PAID


Of course this breakdown is simplistic and some may say it portrays more about the journey from amateur to professional. But innately its hierarchical construct is created to keep people ‘out’. In response I would contend that ‘Exclusivity’ is not a benchmark of quality, or Curation, and transversely ‘Inclusivity’ does not equal poorly executed, ‘weak’ work.

There are examples that challenge this bias. Institutionally, the Bluecoat’s 2010 show ‘Global Studio’, curated by Sara-Jayne Parsons, intentionally revealed a dense set of international ‘nodes’ and connectors emerging from the work of over 30 Liverpool artists reaching as far and wide as Pakistan, South America and Linz, Austria with POST’S inaugural exchange programme ‘Riposte

‘Breathing Still’ 2011

METAL too challenges pre-conceived notions related to hierarchies having created:an artistic laboratory to champion the need for continual investment in artistic investigation and the development of innovative ideas that could shift the thinking in the UK cultural sector.’

Sadly though, I still see institutional examples that are ‘combative’ in nature in terms of ‘accessibility’ and progression. Within such an ideological framework I feel it’s more productive to broker national and international relationships personally (or from within a studio-group framework) than entertain impenetrable oligarchs.

You have recently completed your Masters in Practice Based Research at Manchester Metropolitan University, what drew you to this course?

Quite simply I needed a space to explore the rite-of-passage I’d experienced personally, theoretically and culturally. My Mothers death was unexpected and we were very close, so as a practitioner I knew there was nowhere to ‘hide’ or run away in terms of its enormity. MIRIAD offered a clearly defined pathway as well as being the highest rated research centre for art and design in the North West (RAE 2008 – The latest Research Assessment Exercise)

The framework of a Research Masters is also fundamentally different to one that is taught. Your research question provides the over-arching spine of your entire years study as opposed to three or more modular elements culminating in your qualification.

I also gained access to cross-disciplinary excellence from anthropological and sociological perspectives so as to understand how a Western cultural perspective manifests. Which in turn forced me to think rigorously and critically about the exposition of an autobiographical event that is innately personal yet collectively experienced.

How different did you find the Manchester Art scene?

‘Friend or Foe’ 2011

I made a conscious decision to focus on developing my research skills during my time at Manchester as opposed to immersing myself in the ‘scene’. So my concentration became the community within MIRIAD and my film location (being the concentration camp at Mauthausen and its sister camp Gusen in Austria.)

How did you find the MIRIAD community – did working with other researchers help your practice?

The rigour applied to my practice, throughout my time at MIRIAD has altered the way in which I work. The process encouraged, in fact, required me to be able to substantiate emotional responses. To understand them and to work hard to bridge the gaps in terms of what my response really meant for the receiver.

What advice would you give to recent Arts graduates based in Liverpool?

Work consistently at the coal-face of your narrative, your approach, your point-of-view. Read widely; drink in the opportunities that life throws your way. Build bridges, start fires, nurture connections, stretch out to people that inspire you because of their way of working, their approach to life, their vision. Be bold. Try not to allow the exhibition of your work to be confined to the rooms of your mind – your work needs the oxygen of an audience, it’s in their minds that the work becomes activated.

You have worked with education in various galleries across the region. What do you think of Liverpool’s art education programmes?

From Aiming High for Disabled Children across the Wirral region to my relationship with the Williamson Art Gallery in Birkenhead my Art in Education work has frequently operated outside of the Liverpool region. Yet currently I am working closer to town on a really exciting project with Sefton CVS and a group of Autistic children and young adults. Basically I am designing a learning ‘resource’ that the group can use (once my workshops have finished) that promotes interaction, response, reflexive thinking and collaboration. It’s ‘Legacy’ training effectively which ultimately provides the most empowering outcome for any Art in Education programme (for everyone concerned.)

‘Are You Sitting Comfortably’ 2011

You work in many different mediums do you have any that you prefer?

I take an interdisciplinary approach to my output because I provide ‘bespoke’ responses to social phenomena. To expand, I wouldn’t place a large-scale installation that re-appropriates corporate waste into an environment where a documentary is needed. Similarly an edition of hand-made books delivers a radically different perspective of time and space to a wall-mounted photographic print.

Are there any female artists that have particularly influenced your work and are there any exhibitions that you have seen that stand out for you?

I am combining these questions by beginning with two specific examples:

Tracey Emin – Love Is What You Want / Hayward

‘How It Feels’ (1996),

Whilst the early part of the film feels ‘awkward’ in terms of the mechanics of its construction, the latter section covers the subject of a botched abortion in a disarmingly honest way. In trademark style Emin purges her soul, she is literally stripped bare and her narrative is harrowing, her eye contact fleeting. With compelling clarity she fuses documentary and art. We are at the crux of the possibility of birth and the inevitability of death within the unravelling of a choice, a confused, complex, painful decision. She is the mother and the whore, the artist and the manipulator of the ‘gaze’.

And in an extract from my MA by Research regarding Black Kites (1997):

‘The Mexican artist Orozco grapples with objectification via deconstruction as a way of gaining access to an ‘opaque’ truth. Through the dismantling of symbolism and allegory he re-appropriates the surface of the skull. His approach takes ownership of the structure of what remains after death, the cartilage of ‘sentience’. At once visually arresting yet deceptively transparent, within this dichotomy there is a manifestation of his desire to objectify the subject matter of Death. He imposes a framework, a structure, literally onto its surface. Metaphorically imprinting the configuration of a chess board as if to super-impose the game we play when we navigate our journey through life; a journey innately transposed by ‘filters’ and ‘layers’ and non-negotiable chapters.’

….and more widely:

The influences on my work are varied and trans-disciplinary in nature. I’m influenced by macro and micro manifestations. By that I mean broad brush strokes that include compelling emotional details from authors to filmmakers. So for the last few days and years I’ve been stimulated by:

‘Shadow Light’ 2011

Brazil / Terry Gilliam

Kinatay / Brillante Mendoza

BIUTIFUL / Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Moments / Ian Gamester

Wild: An Elemental Journey / Jay Griffith

Primo Levi / If This is a Man

Anselm Kiefer / Lilith

Elmgreen & Dragset / Prada Marfa

Mark Bain / Sound Artist

Thanks for talking to Art Feast!

All images are provided courtesy of Robyn Woolston. Further information about her work can be found on her website.


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