Siobhán Tattan is currently undertaking a period of residency at de Ateliers in Amsterdam. This e-mail exchange began upon her return to Amsterdam following the opening of her solo exhibition, Brilliant failures, at Triskel Arts Centre, Cork.
CF: When I first encountered your texts they reminded me of the haunting, elliptical prose of the short stories of Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Luís Borges. You seem to share in common both a deep sense of the places from which the stories spring – the Latin tales hot and pungent, yours muted and slightly musty with the odours of some of your historical subjects – and a hovering sense of mystery. Neither García Márquez nor Borges allows us to quite shrug off ghosts of the past, nor do you. Perhaps you would like to tell me a little more about the sources that inform your writing?
ST: Writing for me began as an interest in the way one recounts a tale, be it fact or fiction. I then began to look at the role of the historiographer and questioned the discords of historiography and the disruptive temporal transitions that occur between the original account and its rendition. When writing the scripts, I place priority on creating quasi-fictional anecdotes, as my interest now lies with the failed role of the historiographer, who laces historical accounts with personal fragment.
The devices deployed by Argentinean writers such as Jorge Luís Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares and the Basque writer, Miguel de Unamuno, in their act of relaying tales of complete and complex environments, are certainly influences that permeate my practice. With their writing, you seem to be aware of existing in a dense insular environment while dually residing in its outer strata. You do not belong there and then you gradually realise other parallel environments exist. It is this relationship of you as a reader to these multi-faceted conditions set up by these writers that concerns me in my approach to writing and filming.
The tone and style to my writing is definite and unconditional in many ways, it is archaic to a point of almost being awkward. However, its conditions for functioning are left open for the spectator to navigate. With the stories I create, I perceive them to function as pockets of nebulous matter that operate to create a climate of various narratives, in which they invariably shift around and penetrate each other.
With recent work, such as Mr Rummel’s impromtu performance (2007) and The Steep place of strangers (An Garua gCeo) (2008), there is a sense of the lost romantic to them – the romantic, not as the pursuer of sexual conquest but more as the pursuer of those lost fleeting moments, of feelings of mystery, excitement and remoteness from everyday life. For me that is where the Latin writers succeed.
CF: But your work also embraces the rich culture of Irish literature and is laced with references to episodes in Irish history that resound with a literary ring. For example, Mr Rummel’s impromptu performance (2007) is informed by records surrounding the staging, in 1926, of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the stars and a quaint Brehon bee law. The performance void you discuss in The Absent raconteur (2004) has precedent in questions on action and inaction explored in the plays of Samuel Beckett.
You recently moved from London, where you were based for six years, to Amsterdam, where you are currently in residence on the International Artists’ Programme at De Ateliers. Have these moves altered how you reflect upon your Irish identity and how do you consider being identified as an Irish artist?
ST: I was never referred to as an Irish artist in London, probably to do with the fact that London is saturated with artists, so nationality wasn’t prioritised. You were just another artist and I really enjoyed the anonymity that brings. Here in Amsterdam it is different, people are very categorical and you are introduced to curators, critics and other artists by your nationality and your medium. So suddenly I am regarded as an Irish artist who makes films; for me this introduction is problematic on both accounts. I don’t set out to work with Irishness or cultural identity in a thematic manner. Yet in my installations, Irish historical acts serve as a backdrop to fragmented lost stories and fictional excerpts, so there is that visual contradiction. Recent work has been stimulated by a particular period in Irish history and literature due to a research project that I am completing. I enquire into W B Yeats’ early dance plays and how they kindled the concerns for performance artists that followed. Yeats’ approach to these dance plays was that they didn’t belong to the theatre, asserting that a “stage is any bare space in a room against a wall” – an affirmation which pre-empts the performance movement, underpinning the energy of Allan Kaprow’s desire for happenings or Jirí Kovanda’s display for ‘non-theatrical’ actions. Throughout this research project I amassed an archive of stories, which were deployed in recent works. Future work I think will retain less of a direct Irish historical reference. I have learnt a lot from the literature of the Latin and Irish writers and these influences will continue to reside in my practice. So the Irish references will persist to pervade, but existing now more as nuances.
CF: The art and act of storytelling (by no means an exclusively Irish inheritance, but a tradition toward which artists of all kinds are indebted) plays an important role in your practice and often the viewer meets your text in the form of a voice-over to a film. In fact you refer to your writing as ‘scripts’ rather than short stories, the expectation being, therefore, that they will be performed in some way: by a narrator or characters in the drama. How do you cast your ‘voices’ and how do your scripts relate to the visual components of your practice?
ST: I actually began writing formal scripts, as in theatre plays, where I would take out the actors’ part so you are left only with the director’s instructions, as in The Absent raconteur. Here I performed the role of the director in a London gallery with its accompanying stage stage set in 2004. The time lapses between each of the director’s notations varied between 10 seconds and 2.3 minutes, as it corresponded to the original narration of the absent actors. The result was an absurd event where I continued to direct the scene until ‘curtain closes’. At this point I was experimenting with elements of performance and text to create a theatrical staging of a failed event. This developed into more complex ‘staged’ installations as in The Play: a meeting of the storytellers (2004), where the performers failed to show and what remains are the evidence of the scene: the props, the flashing images from the slide projector, and the director’s instructions as a voice-over. In the staging of a failed event, the director’s role alters from correlating between the actors, projecting images and set props, to an almost intimate one, with the spectator.
For me, my texts don’t operate as stories; it has to do with the narrative. I am not interested in the traditional linear sequence that is associated with narratives and stories. I call them ‘scripts’ as I write them to be read, as if they would be performed. I write the scripts with a voice in mind. That person’s gender, age, accent, tone and timbre are essential to the script. It shapes the writing, creating a specific dialect. So when it comes to sourcing the voice-over artist, it is easy, as I know exactly what I’m looking for.
My practice comprises separate elements created in isolation. The script, slide film, 16 mm film, and props, either found or assembled, are developed without prior concern for their accompanists and later are brought together to realise what could be considered a whole, the art work. This process of working is one that continues to hold great appeal for me. It concerns the development of a work without an almost- contamination from its parts.
Film-maker Patrick Keiller deployed this method in his approach to his early film work. He shot London (1994), a feature length film, without the purpose or restraint of a script. London consists of a series of static stills of nonhuman interaction accompanied by a voice-over. Once the film was shot and edited, he laid it out in a linear form on a paper scroll, as a stimulant to narrative creation. Keiller’s objective was that the voice-over neither rationalised nor illustrated the images, but rather qualified their meaning. Hence the elements or parts were devised without being compromised by the whole. His inclination for scenes void of people was often deployed to leave more room for the narrator’s deliberation, an act which attributes power to the orator or, in this scenario, the two flâneurs. In fact, this is one of my favourite films.
CF: Let’s steal a moment to talk about performance – a subject we both enjoy! Yeats’ expanded definition of ‘the stage’ that you referred to in a previous response brought to mind a quote from the seminal theatre text The Empty space by the celebrated director, Peter Brook. The quote reads: “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all I need for an act of theatre to be engaged.” This particular definition of theatre has always excited me – for me it provided a framework for contemplating and interpreting experimental performance exercises and the practices of artists such as Allan Kaprow, John Cage and Fluxus. Something that intrigues me about your practice, however, is the way in which you conjure a sense of theatre, evoking Brook’s ‘man’ in the interplay between the objects, filmic visuals and voice-overs, without the actual presence of a human being in your work. You describe the environments you create as ‘staged installations’ – a description that strongly connotes performance – can you explain a little what this phrase means to you?
ST: It extends from an interest of mine which is concerned with methods of ‘staging’ my practice for the spectator. I use the term ‘staging’ or ‘staged installations’, as with my work it is not only the material outcome of the practice, but also my role in its installation that forms the art work. This derives from a discourse that I have established with my practice, where I refer to the sculptural elements as ‘props’, my writing as ‘scripts’ and their implementation in a gallery space as ‘staged installations’. It also stems from an interest in analysing the elements that maintain a performance in light of its failure or nonoccurrence. What is now the artist’s role in staging this spectacle? How do these elements or gestures put forward by the artist operate to suggest a performance or the performative?
My understanding of the term ‘performative’ adheres to J L Austin’s usage of this expression, which he first employed in 1956 during a radio interview. In his interpretation of ‘performative speech’ formalised in his 1976 book, How to do things with words, it is through the utterance of a statement of means that the speaker performs a particular act, as in ‘I apologise’. To utter one of these sentences is not just to ‘say’ something, but rather to perform a certain kind of action. With this act no physical action occurs, the act is alluded to, through the terms of speech of the imparter of the statement. It is this specific delineation of the term ‘performative’ that is of concern in my practice, as an act that occurs in the absence of the action, motion or even an actor.
CF: The technologies you frequently employ in the creation of your artworks echo of the past. We have already referred to several of your installations that are stroked by the clunk and purr of the mechanical slide projector and by the warm flicker of 16 mm film. Despite the increasing difficulties in sourcing and processing such marginal materials, you continue to use them in your practice. What attracts you to these media, do you feel that there is a digital equivalent, and is this something you are interested in exploring?
ST: My scripts are concerned with the conflict between the formal and parochial aspects of language, especially with words and phrases no longer in use. When writing my scripts, I form a collection of words and phrases, chosen for their rhythmic, tactile or palpable attributes. This methodology was informed from working with slide and 16 mm projectors for the past six years. It is their material aesthetics that compels me to use these projectors; there is a physicality to them that I can associate with.
I am not concerned with finding equivalents for the media that I work with. I believe, for me, it would be a futile pursuit. For the moment I will continue to work in this fashion, as that is what the work requires, but I am open to interventions. I have just embarked on a two-year residency at De Ateliers, Amsterdam and I can almost feel a slight shift in the air for the development of future work, but right now the nature of that change is indefinable.
Siobhán Tattan is an artist in residence at De Ateliers, Amsterdam, and is completing a PhD in Fine Art at Middlesex University, London.
Ciara Finnegan is an artist living in Amsterdam.