On Solitude and Artmaking: A Conversation with Gudrun Filipska of The Arts Territory Exchange

Gudrun Filipska -'Terill Walk' Film Stills and notes. (3).JPG

Editor's Note: I met Gudrun Filipska through Instagram in the beginning of 2018.  I was living in remote, northern Iceland at the time and searching for a way to connect with other creative types who were similarly living far from a perceived center. I was delighted to connect with her and talk about the themes that had been informing both ICEVIEW and my own work: solitude, isolation, community, and the ethics of travel.

Gudrun lives in Fens, UK. She is an artist and researcher whose work  is concerned with the cultural and literary associations of walking and journeying. She has exhibited her work internationally and is also the founder of the Arts Territory Exchange, an organisation which facilitates creative collaboration between artists in remote and wilderness locations such as islands, deserts, refugee camps, and small communities.

The following Q&A was pieced together lovingly over the course of five months and reflects the rich yet complicated process of the ways in which we all create.

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Do you think that experiencing isolation and solitude is conducive to creativity and artmaking, or does it hinder these processes?  

I think it depends largely on how you are able to contextualise it for your self--for some people it is a huge boost to artistic practice and feeds creativity, while for others it can be completely paralysing. Obviously, there are also different ways of being isolated, some of these are not due to geographic remoteness but can develop in the busiest and most frenetic of places.

The Arts Territory exchange has a number of participants who are artist parents living in the middle of cities with small children, or those who are restricted to the home for reasons of illness and disability. Just trying to negotiate the complex social and capital systems of the 'art world' can also be a very isolating experience for artists unable to take usual routes towards 'success'.

Also, the two words isolation and solitude suggest romantic associations which I am very uncomfortable with. Shutting away society and its empiricism was a privileged choice for the Romanticsm--the idea that being isolated could bring you closer to some kind of true or authentic self—these are tropes that were employed in the gothic novel and early travel writing. The associated 'pioneering' journeying it involved was almost exclusivity a male practice - there are huge legacies to this in the art world - the desire to travel to the furthest reaches of the earth, constant participation in artist residencies and Biennales all over the world and the development of a ‘global’ profile have been seen as hallmarks of success for a long time and the travel that is involved often precludes those who are unable to leave home for economic reasons or reasons often dictated by their gender (played out in the physicality of pregnancy and child rearing).

I have been very interested in finding a way to connect with ideas of remoteness whilst avoiding the problematic tropes of the Kantian sublime, I think putting places and practices into dialogue are a way to do this, experiencing/sharing someone else's relationship to their own isolation rather than being desperate to visit the location yourself and experience it ‘bodily’ - I hope this is something that the Arts Territory Exchange manages to catalyse for some artists through our long distance exchange programme.

I think humans have a fascinating relationship to ideas of isolation and wilderness. For Americans in particular, the idea of Wilderness has, since the first settlers, been a kind of subconscious; the wilds of America suffered hugely due to the colonial pioneer mentality and the desire to locate oneself at the frontier or threshold of what is considered to be civilisation. This mentality is still very real – for me, America's relationship to Alaska represents this well. After it was protected through the Wilderness preservation Acts[1], it became the last 'frontier', a subconscious which represented a pioneering past and also the possibility that the future could be different and unsullied by industrial overdevelopment and settlement – the building of the ALCAN Highway made it easier for Americans to indulge their fantasies through isolation-oriented recreational experiences, ones that are played out now in all areas surrounding the Arctic circle. Even tourist /artist residency experiences with goals to preserve and observe represent their own problematics—the danger of viewing remote locations as research labs. These experiences represent their own particular type of Colonialism and often discount the narratives and real lives of indigenous populations. It is also worth bearing in mind that federal 'preservation' often restricts the lives of Indigenous populations to build, hunt and utilise resources, and I would hope that as artists we are able to examine all these contradictions whilst managing our own desires to observe and be immersed in 'isolated' spaces.

Even tourist /artist residency experiences with goals to preserve and observe represent their own problematics—the danger of viewing remote locations as research labs.

So returning to your question, I think that the ideas thrown up by the words isolation and solitude can be extremely useful to art practice, really interesting things can happen at the thresholds of isolated places and  from the realisation that these thresholds are as much psychic as they are physical, when we travel to remote places we are often looking for wilder/better/different versions of ourselves – but the ability to produce good work about 'place' depends on the ability to contextualise both location and desire within that space. This includes taking on board the pitfalls of Romantic travel and legacies of colonialism. There is also of course the type of isolationist thought which is unable to contextualise itself, and I think it is essential to be able to find a way to dip in and out of isolation as there are huge dangers in parochial and closed ways of thinking as we have seen leading to Brexit and the election of Trump.

 Documentation from the Exchange from  Caroline Kelley  and  Kristin Scheving , showing an image from Kelley's Arctic Circle Project.

Documentation from the Exchange from Caroline Kelley and Kristin Scheving, showing an image from Kelley's Arctic Circle Project.

Do you feel that many artists crave isolated spaces? If so, would you say that the challenge of loneliness and/or solitude is a mechanism that drives their work?

I wouldn't want to generalise, but I think artists demand both isolated and highly social spaces. Those that manage to balance their lives with a combination of city living and remotely located artist residencies are incredibly privileged. It seems very fashionable at the moment to experience remote and isolated places and there are a plethora of fascinating artist residencies (Signal Fire, Oro Island, Skatfell, Fogo Island), each offering artists a niche 'remote' experience.

The desire for periodic immersion in solitude is an interesting one, and is often based on a myth or fantasy of place as I mentioned already; many places offer up their isolated location as a hallmark of tourist branding but of course almost everywhere in the world is pretty much over-prescribed and pre-determined - I think going to a place ready to critique the problematics of the tourist industry and its marketing of ‘isolated’ experiences is a way to develop a critical experience or relationship with ‘place. For me, the taking on board of the socio-economic and environmental issues which stem from the situating of your body within a place and its variant contexts would be an essential consideration for artists who crave isolation as a travel experience and may aid in circumnavigating the problematic that artist travel might become an extension of colonial pioneering practices. I don't think it is possible to remove a place from its economic or historical context and there is no such thing as a passive observer.

For those who live permanently in isolated spaces, the mechanisms in place can be very different; isolation is not a commodified experience for them but a daily lived one. [The Arts Territory Exchange] has artists who have a deep love and connection with the remote landscapes in which they live and are at the same time acutely aware of their context in terms of climate change, disenfranchised communities and legacies of the often barbaric colonialism which led to the habitation of their location, (artists such as Katie Ione Craney  and Alana Hunt for example) -  also most of the artists that I work with who live in isolated communities are very connected via social media and are interested in looking out from their position and sharing their experiences with others.

It’s interesting what you say about the 'mechanism' of loneliness and isolation as a 'challenge' -- as if the experience can somehow be transformative – this makes me think of early Christian uses of the words wilderness and solitude and cultures of long distance pilgrimage and self-exile. I think the Pillar Saints are particularly interesting; one saint in Syria was said to have remained at the top of his pillar for 37 years, waiting for the mortification of his body. I am intrigued by the idea of this, a symbolic but not complete removal from organised society,[2] Also, the example of the European Wanderjahr, which involved young men  leaving home and traveling alone for a year, plying their trade unaided. These ideas offering isolation as a formative experience may parallel contemporary artists who travel to far off residencies in their early careers. I also think that obviously, isolation and loneliness are very different things, and living in an isolated location of course doesn't mean you are lonely and vice versa; life in a city can be so frenetic and over-stimulating, and isolation can be the key to creative and clear thinking for some people.

 

Do you think that there is a “pressure to collaborate” in today’s world?

‘Pressure’ makes it sound like a negative thing but actually I think it is more necessary than ever to connect/collaborate and develop networks which reach out beyond our own territories and this is a hugely positive thing. I have felt this urgently since Trump's election and Britain's vote to leave the EU. Now is not the time for artists/writers/creatives to be silent and insular, it is so important to be creating networks which reach beyond states/territories/enclaves and engage in dialogue. By this I don't mean that creative work should be constantly engaged with overtly political themes, but that just having conversations with people in other locations may help to circumvent the repressive forces which are asking us to put up physical and emotional walls – the political climate was one of the strongest catalysts for setting up the Arts Territory Exchange.

When I use the word 'network', I am not talking about a global art-world which often pertains to economic forces of sale and exchange (which not only create exclusionary hierarchy between artists but also hierarchies of place) but about other alternative networks which can start to generate productivities beyond monetary exchange and where success can be measured by means other than gallery representation, biennale shows and work sales and rather by creating something interesting for its own sake, researching for its own sake, and stimulating alternative economies of joy and pleasure that come from communicating with other interesting human beings who are like you and then altogether unlike you. Why wouldn't you want to collaborate?

 Documentation of ATE Exchange.Handwritten letter, artist postcards from Kristin Scheving to Caroline Kelley.

Documentation of ATE Exchange.Handwritten letter, artist postcards from Kristin Scheving to Caroline Kelley.

How do you think artists can navigate the often complicated terrain between personal space and collaboration?

I don't know, this is highly subjective so I can't speak for other artists, but I think there is something liberating about working with someone who lives a great distance away – the space between you becomes really fertile ground to be theorised and played with. The collaboration I have been undertaking -- which was one of the first ATE pairings, with the artist Carly Butler in Canada, has been driven by the tensions between our personal/domestic spaces and our traversal of them and the more expansive spaces which exist on the trajectory between our respective homes and the fantasy of place/places which lie in between. We have developed a project where our daily steps tracked by pedometers, often consisting of mundane, domestic tasks (grocery shopping, school run etc) are translated to a digital map where our 'avatars' walk carefully designed routes between UK and Canada. We have mapped a number of different trajectories to find a variety of halfway points between our respective homes using combinations of celestial, nautical and gnomonic mapping techniques, embracing alternative cartographical practices and Google maps alternatives. These maps and charts form part of the project archive along with a catalogue of objects, artefacts and letters sent between us, this archive has become the 'terrain' which lies between us, a kind of sublimation of desire to be elsewhere, whilst at the same time remaining very grounded in our own space and 'home' territories.

The ideas of proximity and distance are obviously key here, and the project would have a very different terrain (emotional and otherwise) if we were closer together geographically – we don't have any personal space issues! [3]

 

How can collaboration shift one’s perception of a place? Similarly, how does isolation develop or deconstruct one’s perception of a place?

Communicating with an artist in another country and representing yourself and your personal terrain to them gives you the chance to re-evaluate your own environment and see it anew; this is what I wanted to create with the ATE partnerships, a way for artists to reach out into the world and experience someone else's 'place' whilst re-investing in their own. In a more political sense, ideally (and ambitiously!) this would mean the local and the global being are in constant dialogue, and there is a realisation of the radical potentials available in both to generate thought.

I was recently reading Chris Krauss's writing on radical localism which I think is really valuable and an interesting anecdote to the problematics of constantly wanting to leave your own territory and stake out new space/new idea bases. Matt Taibbi writes in the introduction to Kraus’s book Kelly Lake Store & Other Stories (2012): 'The next conflict is much more unnerving. That conflict will be between people who live somewhere, and people who live nowhere'.[4] There are many different types of 'no-where' in terms of the hierarchy created by systems of capital; post-industrial, post-cold war, or places which have no discernible population -- often locations considered to be ecologically as well as culturally barren. 'No where' as an intellectual construct is one from which artists and writers and have historically fled to the intellectual somewhere of the city where 'cultural' things happen. Whole terrains have their indigenous cultural history ignored, as it is seen as being produced 'no-where', or indigenous thought and creative work is contextualised by urban elites with 'professional' qualifications in historicism and curation (and therefore validated for urban populations). What happens in remote places is less known, has less commentary but is no less interesting. Dialogues between cities and perceived remote locations are essential and I hope the ATE collaborations feed into this in a small way.

Another quote I really liked recently: “Intelligence is a venture inconceivably daring and wonderfully successful; it is an attempt, and a victorious attempt to be in two places at once[5] I like to think that collaborative spaces such as the Arts Territory Exchange give artists an opportunity to be in two spaces at once. There is something very exciting about the interpolations between one’s physical enjoyment and use of space and the fantasy of travel and imaginings of other places which are purely mental – saying that, having your knowledge mediated by another's experience is a unique way of experiencing space, it lies somewhere between fantasy and reality in the same way that we can take a dive into a place via Street View and Google maps -- we can see, but we are also going in blind in a sense of accepting digital distortions, misrepresentations and the subjectivity of the photographer’s view. Similarly, in the ATE our experience of our collaborators’ territory is mediated through a series of letters, objects and digital snippets. I like the idea that in a collaborative relationship, communication crosses over a series of thresholds, psychological and physical and I am interested in the idea of a re-focusing away from the subjects (in this case the exchange participants) toward some kind of 'other' space. Bracha Etinger’s idea of the Matrixial borderspace[6] is useful here, pointing to some kind of transformation which happens beyond subjectivity. This space could be the 'work' / ideas, thoughts/desires.

I also think ideas of proximity and the 'face-to-face' that we see in the writings of Levinas are still very relevant and I like the idea of an ethics of care which extends to the environment as well as for other humans. This care which begins by observing and engaging with things outside of yourself and is quite different to the type of 'reaching out' we see on Facebook for example where algorithms whittle down your own likes and dislikes to a narrow selection of opinion affirming news-pieces. In this sense, digital technologies can be real enforcers of isolated behaviour. I am interested in 'Remoteness' as a way of generating thought, but there is of course also the type of remoteness which is stale and immobile.

 

You use vignettes in much of your work. The resulting visual effect is one that conjures the sense of closing in, of narrowing, ultimately rendering a more focused and intensified image. Do you see this visual tendency as related to the act of isolating or the nature of isolation?

Although travel in the art world is full of contradictions, the artist has a long-standing role as 'witness' to provide unbiased testament to difficult issues.

The Vignetting in my film work is an incidental by-product of combining digital cameras with old photographic lenses, the vignetting is caused by the digital camera filming the inside of the lens which is attached by a brace. I am very interested in combining old and new technologies and the mistakes and errors which occur throughout the process—barrelling, focusing on lens scratches, etc. In my film Terill Walk, I found the vignetting interesting as it served to intensify an image which was already very partial—the details of the pathway in front of me as I climbed up an abandoned slag heap in Liege. Much of my research is concerned with the industrial heritage industry, its tourist and pleasure cultures, and this film was a study of the pathways, first worn by miners as routes to and from work and now walked by tourists following the Route der Industriekultur. I was wanting to question the damaging role that nostalgia plays when considering post-industrial sites through the prism of the industrial heritage industry, and the vignetting evoked something which fed into that commentary. Isolating things is of course necessary if you want to research or study anything. Regarding my post-industrial research, a closing in and narrowing was necessary as I was wanting to question the presentation offered by proponents of the Industrial sublime[7] (large scale landscapes and portrait style images of buildings and factories).

I have always been drawn to ideas of the microscopic and telescopic though, and have often heard Proust's writing referred to in that way, and looking closely at something can also lead to a view that becomes much more expansive. In Proust's case, restricted to his room, close observation of furniture, wallpaper, and other objects led to the evocation of far and distant places and people, so the microscopic makes a transformation towards the  telescopic – I suppose this speaks to the nature of isolation in a broader sense in some way.

 Envelope of fenland soil sent from Gudrun Filipska to Carly Butler (image credit Carly Butler)

Envelope of fenland soil sent from Gudrun Filipska to Carly Butler (image credit Carly Butler)

 For ATE, how do you pair artists according to the preoccupations in their work’s examination of spatial territory? What intersections are you on the lookout for? 

It is so exciting being able to pair up artists across the world, and I see the Arts Territory Exchange as a curatorial project on a large scale. The first thing I look for is a practice which is engaged and interesting, a pre-occupation with place is also helpful, although an interest in forming a collaboration in order to move a body of work in a new direction is sometimes enough for someone to be accepted onto the programme. I like to see that the artist is able to contextualise themselves and their location and talk about these things whether their work is about 'place' and 'territory' or not. One of the most important factors is how they are able to talk about their remoteness and how they connect with 'remoteness' as a concept.

We have artists in the programme who live in remote locations such as islands, deserts, protected 'wilderness', and also artists who live in the middle of London, New York and other cities who consider themselves to be 'remote'. In terms of intersections that I look out for; I consider what would work in terms of their practice and at the same time what would work for them personally; I try to make sure that there is a point in common in both areas, so a conceptual link – they may be grappling with similar ideas or theories – and a personal link, they may have children of similar age, they may be isolated in a ways which I feel would resonate.

One thing I am not concerned with matching is the materiality of the practices, as I find it much more interesting to put different types of practices into dialogue with each other although most of the participants seem to have an interdisciplinary bent by default anyway. Sometimes I feel that artists are linked by something quite intangible and I put them together through a kind of instinct more than anything else. Most of the time, I get it right, but there has been the odd occasion when the partnerships haven't worked out, sometimes people just don't click or they are not excited enough in eachother’s practices or locations, and I then re-think the pairings.

 

Can you talk a little bit about the ways in which geographic remoteness resembles or is differentiated from remoteness caused by displacement due to immigration or exile?

That’s a huge question. Firstly, it is widely assumed that geographic remoteness in itself is a form of disenfranchisement and many urban populations perhaps equate geographic remoteness with the intellectually bereft, especially since the recent political terrain points to such a divide between rural and economic centres, but there are of course a huge number of artists and intellectuals who choose to live remotely. There is no question though that the opportunities available to artists in rural areas are diminished in comparison to those available in cities, and artists and writers who live remotely are also constantly faced with the challenge of trying to justify what they do to rural populations who are confused by their practice if it doesn't fall into a neat definition of what is considered to be 'art'.

These gaps are often bridged by regional and outpost arts organisations who's funding structures dictate a mediation between artists’ work and regional understandings. Many of the artists taking part in the Arts Territory Exchange make exploring these tensions an explicit part of their work, and play around with ideas of craft vs. (or alongside) the conceptual and the interpolations between regional 'heritage' and conceptual contextual frameworks.

Most people’s experiences are to a certain degree related to the fragmented histories of migration and displacement, but our subjective relationship to place is mediated through levels of violence. The experience of migrants will obviously be hugely different to those who are displaced or exiled from homelands through war and persecution. Displaced peoples can be remote in ways that are far beyond the geographic, every aspect of a terrain can be unstable, dislocation from home and emotional trauma is enforced by the borders of state-made enclaves such as the Calais 'Jungle'. Refugee camps are often criticised for their failure in provision regarding digital communication; lack of mobile phone signal and internet access can be devastating for someone who is trying to locate missing family members and access vital news information. Asylum seekers may not 'exist' at first in their host country in terms of the bureaucratic structures which provide care and may have to wait for long periods until their claim for refuge can be processed. 'Statelessness' is also a problem. So the ways in which the exile is 'remote' is multiple, and of course writers argue that exile is a condition which never leaves you. Joseph Brodsky calls it a 'metaphysical condition', one that involves the constant struggle to restore one’s 'significance' post-traumatic departure or expulsion[8]. This brings up wider discussion of 'motherlands' and 'home'.

 Gudrun Filipska -'Terill Walk' Film Stills and notes.

Gudrun Filipska -'Terill Walk' Film Stills and notes.

I want to focus for a second on the implications of travel in the art world—you touch on this theme in your interview with Veronica Sekules, and I’m interested in how you see the compulsion to experience and communicate—which is so often a part of artmaking—as connected and/or problematic to the act of traveling in an increasingly divided and strained world. Are they at all connected? 

Communication has so often been synonymous with travel and this is more so than ever the case in the art world. I think the idea of 'presence' is a real problem for artists, as more often than not the work is not enough—the artist is expected to attend private viewings, hang around their exhibitions, participate in Q&A sessions and promotional activities. If an artist refuses to participate in the demands made on them, they are seen as unprofessional or ungrateful even. 

I recently read an interesting article about 'junk time', economies of presence in the art world[9] and the demands on artists’ time over and above artistic production – to be present of course also involves travel, money and time. Many artists are unable to travel or may just choose to communicate with their audiences in ways which don't necessitate physical presence. I am finding the idea of proxies increasingly interesting as a way to circumvent the demands on the very small amount of time that I have personally as an artist-parent, and have been exploring this with my collaboration with Carly Butler. With the Arts Territory Exchange, my ambition is to give artists the opportunity to connect to places very different from their own without having to travel, so artists who are disabled or restricted, economically or otherwise are able to take part. It is easy to forget that for some people travel is an impossibility; we have two very interesting artists on the programme, Didi Hock in Germany and Kim Goldsmith in Australia; Didi is restricted due to illness and her territory consists mostly of her home and various doctors and hospital waiting rooms, whereas Kim lives in a very expansive territory on the edge of what is often referred to as 'outback'. They have made some fascinating sonic-works integrating the very different sounds from their respective territories. What they have created says a lot about the microscopic and telescopic in relation to travel as I mentioned earlier - making a journey can be as simple and mundane as reaching out your hand, walking across a room; the body can be a whole landscape in itself – terrains of pain and sensation but then there are also other journeys into the landscapes that people share with you that you may never see.

It is easy to forget that for some people travel is an impossibility.

I am fascinated by the idea of an ethics of travelling without leaving home, as there is so much to be discovered in our own immediate environment — many fascinating histories and microcosms of political injustices. I don't have to travel from where I live to see evidence of political violence and displacement, I just have to look out of my window at a hedge – which was planted during the Inclosure Acts or the fields which represent the destruction of eco-systems for industrial farming. I think that having an interest in your own environment makes one much more able to engage with social and environmental issues further afield.

Of course there is also the issue of climate change, which is huge and problematic in the context of global travel as pointed out by Veronica Sekules of Groundwork in my recent discussions with her – although travel in the art world is full of contradictions, the artist has a long standing role as 'witness' to provide unbiased testament to difficult issues. Without artists and photographers travelling to sites in the arctic, the public awareness of the crisis we are in may not be so high – and of course there is some intelligent and fascinating work being made - it seems a very difficult balance to strike.[10]

 

Notes:

[1]Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act 1980. Jimmy Carter.

[2] … situated on top of a pillar but still able to converse with those below as well as sometimes with other pillar saints who were within shouting distance!

[3]The 'S' project

[4]Kelly Lake Store and other stories.

[5]Page 43, The Philosophy of Travel – George Santayana Altogether Elsewhere, Writers on Exhile, Ed Marc Robinson, Harvest Books 1994.

[6]The Matrixial Border Space. Bracha Ettinger. Ed Brian Massumi. University of Minnesotta Press 2006.

[7]Edward Burtynsky et al.

[8]Page 5, The Condition we Call Exile – Joseph Brodsky, Altogether Elsewhere. Writers on Exile, Ed Marc Robinson, Harvest Books 1994.

[9]http://dismagazine.com/discussion/78352/the-terror-of-total-dasein-hito-steyerl/

[10]http://www.sustainablepractice.org/2018/01/18/in-conversation-gudrun-filipska-and-veronica-sekules/

 

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