Interview: Bethany Howard

imageInterview by Billie Jenkins All images courtesy of Bethany Howard

Beth Howard is one of those incredible artists that has many different talents, there’s the video work, the writing, the photography, the installations, and her work with band High Tide 15:47. In our interview she spoke of hoping her art was in some way ‘beyond words’, speaking of ‘the loudness of the music and the darkness of the room’. This is not an exaggeration for someone who organised a group show  in a castle last year, scrawling her poetry across shadowy, old walls as video reels of familiar but obscured forms played to the side. Her work is wholly an experience. Working from Newcastle, where she recently graduated in Fine Art, Beth creates spaces more than anything, which coax the viewer to a certain state, be that uneasy or not.  In this interview we speak to Beth about her work, scaring people out of the room, and generally being a videoandsoundinstallationartistandwriter.

How would you describe what you do?
Always a tricky one; I make videos, I make sound and I write, then I install them all together in a way that will (hopefully) knock your socks off.

And in one word?
Videoandsoundinstallationartistandwriter. I’m joking, I guess if a stranger asked me I’d just say, I’m an ‘artist’.

Your work often denies viewers a full story, darkness, shadows, soft focus and close ups provide moments without the comfort of wider clarity. One of the shows you worked on was even titled Enigma. What do these recurring motifs capture about the themes underlying your work?
The imagery I work with and use in the videos are intended to be intimate – close ups and soft focus indicating to the viewer some kind of strange state of consciousness – almost dream-like. The use of various selective transformations of the image through editing is very important in capturing and relaying the ideas, of course the more heavily these are worked on and the further they are taken away from the original source material the more abstract the imagery becomes, and experiencing the videos is shifted towards the quality of movement rather than trying to decipher a representational form. The acceleration, reversals, slowdowns and fragmentation all conjure up suspense, the images are there but they’re unclear, it’s frustrating. Occasionally the imagery becomes clearer however, as soon as it begins to resemble something you may know it is engulfed back into the dark, shaped so that the imagery is experienced rather than familiarized with. The use of light is always present in the work, whether it is through a candle in ‘Three Dark Shadows’ or through the reflection on water in ‘Nyctophilia’. I like to interpret this as an indication of human presence and consciousness in the surrounding darkness.

imageNyctophilia, 2013

The lack of clarity may be seen to drive viewers to a state of heightened sensual awareness as they seek meaning, what makes this state significant to the reception of your work?

I want the work to operate as the bearer of something that is beyond words rather than an instrument of communication, I think that’s why the distortions and hiding the recognisability of the source is so important.

The work is always shown in the dark, with the images hovering, enhancing their ephemerality, that way time and space in the room is contained to a non-physical realm, one that makes the viewer aware of seeing, of beholding the work that exists only in that space. Experience is something I think about a lot, experience in the sense of a piece of music being emotionally powerful, or feeling something when you see somebody you love. I want my viewers to feel something, whether it be anxiety, sadness, or thinking ‘shit, I’ve gotta get out of this room’. Provoking this ‘experience’ in my viewers is central to the work being successful.

I found it interesting in a discussion of earlier drawing works you put forward the idea of recording moments, stating the process of the drawings was in a sense ‘replacing fact with a line’. Can this concept be related to the moments we see captured in your video work?
I think so. The earlier drawings were fascinated with time, the inability to capture it through drawing, the collapse of the past, the present and the future, trying to keep up with thought whilst drawing and I produced a lot of them from memory. This resulted in void spaces, very little grounding or perspective and more or less unfinished drawings. I wrote ‘The Principle of Eternity’ originally to go with a drawing I had done, I think I was trying to communicate the frustration of trying to draw the here and the now, and the fact that every line I drew was with intent and as I tried to keep up, it was always changing and it got lost in the world of my senses; sights, sounds and surroundings. I love drawing and I do it all the time, there’s something beautiful about the difference between a static drawing and a moving image – at some point the moving image has to stop, it has a kind of morality whereas you’ll always have a drawing; however I think what I was trying to do with them got very lost. This fascination with time however did lead me to using time based medium in order for me to progress, and it worked. My work has moved very far from these original ideas however I definitely wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if it wasn’t for that.

imageAt First I Think, Then I Draw My Think, 2011

Video is a significant presence, not just in your personal projects, but in exhibitions you have collaborated on and the visual identity you have created for band High Tide 15:47. What draws you to this medium?
The desire to use video as the medium to express my ideas stems from the principle that while recording something, you’re already taking it out of its context, abstracting it, rearranging it, changing the perspective, the form and the movement. I never want to completely lose the presence or meaning of something but something comes across when you record something, it has energy, visual information, and when you watch moving images they have motion and they’re seductive.

Working with the band has been an extremely valuable experience. I am incredibly influenced by music and it’s an honor that they’ve trusted me to essentially create their image, a really important aspect of their success. I’ve used my drawings for printed material, produced the music video for their single ‘Too Much Time Alone’ and I also do all the video work for the live visuals.

Making the music video influenced me massively; putting visuals to a beat changed the way I make my own video work. Sounds are a much more passive and democratic sense than sight, sounds show no respect for the relationship between subject and object and of course, the ears are always open. In other words, it is much easier to film and edit visuals to match a beat than vice versa.

imageStill from Too Much Time Alone by High Tide 15:47

Writing, in particular poetry is another recurring medium. How does the writing support your work as a visual artist?
Using poetry in my work took a lot of courage. Writing is something that is very personal and I think you have to be so careful with language and words in order to get across what you intend to. I also think poetry is one form of writing that isn’t done enough these days, and I don’t see enough of it around – I don’t know maybe it’s seen as a little old-fashioned. I always have this huge urge to write, I think it’s romantic and it’s also very relieving. Maybe it’s just in my nature but there is definitely something about writing down something that only really makes sense in your own head, and having someone read it. Then there’s the odd occasion that someone will read it, and they’ll be like “yeah, I get that too.

The first time the poetry got out of my notebook it appeared as text on the wall, written in chalk by the side of three video projections. I felt the words encouraged a sort of encounter with the work; it gave you something to cling on to in the half-darkness, something which the imagery wasn’t doing by itself. I wanted the viewer to feel as if they were stumbling in the dark, without any kind of navigational cues – but with the addition of this piece of writing inviting contemplation, looking, thinking, and looking again.

I think there’s something very interesting about the use of something so primitive, romantic and nostalgic alongside something so technical. The idea of remaking technology into an instrument of poetic enquiry and the tension between the two definitely increases the intensity of the experience, the perception and the reception of the work.

After that I knew I wanted to introduce the poetry in the form of voice, I did so and I played around with sound and music. I started to create full blown sound pieces, with as many as 30 channels, plenty of effects, plenty of reverb and plenty of electronic noise. This added to the fascination between technology and poetics, when I added the spoken word to the track, it was sometimes unintelligible, forcing the viewer again into this discordant world where movement, aspects of reality, reverie and fiction coexist.

The writing feels intimately linked with the visual motifs in your work and their themes. ‘Left darkness, Right darkness, Back darkness, Front darkness’ reads almost like instruction for stage lighting. Do you feel your work in different media points towards the same set ideas or themes?
Definitely. The sound pieces come across very dark, haunting and almost hypnotic, communicating with the audience almost as breathy commands. Sounds are as close as you can get to thoughts and I want the sounds to move through the body and feel amorphous like thoughts. I think this brings in then an interesting connection with control and manipulation of the viewer with technology.

‘The beginning of something is never merely a beginning’ A resistance to linear narrative runs throughout your work, what lies behind such a strong rejection?
To be able to experience something doesn’t always mean it has to have representations or a story in a sense that there’s a start, middle and an end. It’s like when you listen to a song for the first time and you don’t know the words, and you might not even be able to follow the words properly but you feel sad or you feel happy just from the sound of the song, For me, it is very interesting to take things out of context and shift it elsewhere. Often people ask me, “What is it?”, “Where is that?” “What does it mean?” Its human nature to desire more information, I like to keep the work open enough to be neither objective nor fictional and perhaps this symbolises some kind of uncertain relation between the two. I have recently become very interested in the idea of ‘expanded cinema’, conjoining cinematic and audience spaces so that the work can be experienced both visually and bodily is important. Putting people in a situation where they’re sensitive to themselves and creating a heightened awareness means they can’t be, in a sense, distracted by following a linear narrative (like when you look up the lyrics to the song, and you realise they’re not sad, they’re happy – and you no longer feel sad when you listen to the song). The works in response to this are usually vast in scale, projections sometimes going as big as four or five meters wide. This way, viewers will sense a kind of palpable dread, possibly even entrapment – causing them to experience immersion.

All of my works have been multi-screen, coordinated with the surrounding space; I do think this has a helping hand in the work being resistant to the linear narrative – something which I can only associate with the cinema.

imageEnigma, 2013

What influences feed into your work?
The writings of the sublime have always been something that I have read intently and I think that has been a huge influence in the way in which I write, and the way in which I perceive things. In the past I have taken influences from old surrealist’s films, the abstract black and white ones with spinning shapes and forms, which are poetic in their own right, they definitely have something to do with the way in which I record imagery and edit. Surrealist writings too, they talk about Freud and his interpretation of dreams, non-art and the avant-garde, they all individually have informed the way in which I’ll do things.

How does your work evolve from the first traces of an idea into the final piece?
The process of creating a final piece for me has developed strangely into something that is quite structural. I’ll make the sound, this takes a while; the endless channels and mixing of surround sound is time consuming. This is usually influenced by something I’ve heard, a soundtrack or a song and I’ll just go from there. I’ll then collect my footage. I have a whole archive of stuff on my computer, but I like to go out wandering in the dark to see what I can find, I look for things that are moving, spinning, lights that are flashing – stuff that captures my eye. I’ll then edit it all together to make seveal videos that work together with the sound. Recently this has developed into being quite reliant on precise syncronisation between the various videos and sound. So the imagery will shift from screen to screen with sound following. By now, I’ll have gathered some words together, I’ll sit and watch the video and I’ll write something. This develops into the spoken word and the piece is finished.

Where does the motivation to produce your work come from?
I think because writing is something that I have done for a long time, it has become something very precious and personal. The way in which I have developed this thing which is so small, usually something that starts off as a few words on paper, into a final result of something so multidisciplinary and vast in scale is exciting and it definitely keeps me going.

Why is any of it important?
People are always interpreting and misinterpreting things that artists do and that’s how art lives. My artist’s statement is not my work, and this is not my work, but it is a way in which how my art will live. In my work, I just want to make an impact. The power of a painting that references war or death, is very different in importance than my work, I hope that it still holds power, and if it does, then I hope that it is one that is beyond words. It’s non-verbal and it has to do with experience, it has to do with energy and the way in which the image is projected or the way in which it moves, the loudness of the music and the darkness of the room.

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