Second First Committee Hearings

Cerith Wyn Evans Testimony Transcript

Cerith Wyn Evans

Tom McCarthy: You said in a recent interview with Frieze Magazine, and I quote: 'I'm stimulated by a notion of encryption, of actually making someone aware that the invisible is also perceivable.' What did you mean by that?

Cerith Wyn Evans: Well it was a very long interview. It was a very long evening with them. So this actually came as a quite severely edited part of a much longer thing I was getting at I suppose. But... thank you [to Laura Hopkins for serving water]... this...

TMcC: Thanks [to LH also]...

CWE: ...idea of encryption has been fascinating to me for a long time now. And I suppose the original idea of encryption comes from coming across the readings of the French researchers Abraham and Torok, specifically their notions of introjection. And the crossover being between their kinds of, really a kind of political-social line that comes from Hegel's Einerinnerung through Lacan, Derrida and the notion of the encrypted signature, through to the notions of the crypt itself and what the crypt is as a kind of socio-linguistic-psychical model.

TMcC: It's only just occurred to me: is there actually an etymological link between the crypt and... I mean, you just said 'the crypt'. I've never heard that term used before, 'the crypt', linked to encryption. Is that, is that a coincidence, or is there...?

CWE: No: the crypt is a formation made by various people who had looked at Freud's Melancholia and Mourning, generations that came after that that were analysing this text and specifically looking at the concept of the crypt, which is very different from a concept of the ghost. Now I appreciate that we're talking on sort of parallel areas here. Lots of parallels will be evoked today and parallels is something I'd quite like to go on to talk about actually. But then the crypt is perceived as a model whereby the subject is unable to... as they say or as Freud would say... mourn properly. Consequently a sort of symptom is formed that produces anxiety, all sorts of psychical and physical symptoms and disturbances within the person's physical being and psyche. So this notion of the crypt, then: the crypt is perceived as being a kind of enclosed chamber which is... and I think quite fittingly and rather kind of disgustingly as far as I'm concerned - is called a, is perceived as being a kind of cyst based or growing in the ego somehow. The ego becomes this kind of fleshy, formless envelope that protects this kind of notion of the crypt, this kind of tomb. We don't have access to what's inside the tomb when it's in this situation. Possibly there's a certain kind of seepage that happens where there's a kind of rupture to the walls of the crypt, then some kind of very telling radioactive goo can kind of emerge and enlighten us in some way.

TMcC: It seems that a subtext here might be Derrida's notion of the 'A' in 'différance'. He talks about the crypt in Antigone and... I mean, is that on the, on the radar?

CWE: Yes, that's spot on. That's exactly where that's all coming from, in terms of this kind of reading anyway. So my first idea of this notion of the crypt came about in this form. And it actually, since I'm actually here... the speakers who have been in this seat before me have spoken so articulately about their own particular research into these fields that really I have to say that my expertise is far less as it were but much more perhaps experiential in terms of me talking about my work as an artist. So I made a decision not really to bring slides along this afternoon, because I think what you'd be seeing there would be sort of what the work looks like which is very different from what the work is... or a sort of edited version of what the appearance of the work looks like. The work is actually very often performative and actually relies very much on the kind of participation of the viewer, or the viewer's imagination is evoked at least, this kind of notion of kind of evocation and invocation also very important to me.

TMcC: Well, if we take the example of your firework works: in those you used various Situationist and Marxist slogans from Guy Debord, for example you used the 'Take your desires for reality' one. The choice to have these spelt out (if you like), or transmitted, through fireworks seems to me very interesting, because it's a sort of a message that self-destructs. Once it's activated it will burn out. There seems to be a sort of auto-silencing going on there in the very act of... I mean it ties in with what you were just saying about the crypt, I mean it sort of kills itself in the act of communicating. Was that something that informed your decision to use that medium?

CWE: Yes, partly. I mean, originally... I mean... What I'm most comfortable doing, I suppose, is in referring to various works talking about then the anecdotes of their production. How they came about, perhaps through seeing a film or perhaps through reading a book, or perhaps, you know, reading... it's very interesting for me to read Cocteau through Adorno for instance, you know, this very kind of strange enmeshing of things that seem as if they're coming from very different radio stations, you know. There's this notion that there could be a kind of polyphony or a kind of collage or a kind of stacking up of things on top of each other, whereupon on somehow feeling that there was an interesting alignment that was happening between two texts or two examples in some sense, then that there was a possibility to read through, and by reading through take a very different, lateral kind of analysis or research into actually what might be, might be being said there.

Zinovy Zinik: It's not clear, simply. Do you mean that encryption might occur by enmeshing two texts or sounds or something?

CWE: I think that's one of the ways it might be possible to generate encryption. I'm not so interested in generating encryption as I am somehow then perhaps in various different ways allowing people to unveil or witness the fact that it is there as encrypted, you know. So it's not really so much to do with my wish to decode and unpack and make sense. I think to a certain extent the...

ZZ: Create instances.

CWE: Yes, exactly, or create situations even. So to go back to these fireworks things: in a way it's a sort of very dumb medium. I mean you may as well write on a piece of paper and show it to someone, or speak to someone. Somehow this idea then of wanting to work with fireworks came through the fireworks company sending me a brochure saying: 'We can also do this. We can also do, you know, 'Happy Birthday Dad!'' or whatever it was. And they said: 'Okay, it's nine pounds per letter etcetera, you can have these colours.' And I suppose I was interested in this very very low-tech form of carrying text in a sense, you know, this ridiculously banal form with kind of cheap bits of wood and bits of, sticks of kind of cigarette-sized sticks of kind of dynamite all hooked up in this kind of way. So somehow the idea of them... it became hugely symbolic and a bit banal maybe, or not very banal maybe, the idea that we could somehow hijack the medium of text in fireworks to say something which somehow... I made one several years ago which in fact, in a kind of strangely mediamatic way, bounced back on itself because I'd misread a quote from Gertrude Stein. There was the opening of the gallery which I show work with in London, called White Cube Gallery, big opening of their new and very grand, prestigious space in Hoxton Square, and the idea was then with a show entitled, bizarrely enough, Out There, that all the artists represented in the gallery would come and, you know, offer one piece of work up and there would be a group exhibition that would be the inauguration of this brand new phase in the gallery, this expansion, this sort of level of upping the stakes, this level of power then. So it occurred to me that one of the things it would be important to do would be perhaps to mark the inauguration with perhaps a kind of note of melancholia, in order to somehow kind of balance the situation somewhat. So this quote that I remembered from Gertrude Stein was 'Before the flowers of friendship faded friendship faded'... which I thought would be a kind of slightly mawkish modernist touch to put on the wall in fireworks within the building. So it sort of came about in this way. However, when I tried to find out exactly where the Gertrude Stein quote is from... and you try finding a Gertrude Stein quote, I tell you it's very difficult to do when you've kind of half-remembered something... I eventually found it to realise that I'd made the kind of, made some kind of symptomatic error then, and in fact Gertrude Stein's original quote is 'Before the flowers of friendship faded faded faded.' And I'd kind of included 'friendship' again somehow as a kind of... So that's really where some of the fireworks... I mean, there are other things I've always looked for... sort of... sort of somehow then vehicles or carriers for language, ways in which we could kind of contaminate language with the visual, so that we're not just looking at something conventional.

ZZ: Who is theoretically responsible for this, just to refer to the previous artists? For example, the notion of code and the notion of encryption: is there anyone beyond or in the other world that sort of encrypts it? Or is it you who creates...? Or is it just traces, these instances of crypt?

CWE: I suppose it comes... I suppose I would have to go into terminology that would invoke something like 'screen' at that level. So I think there's a different kind of... I think there are screens involved.

ZZ: Screens.

CWE: The articulation of screens in something as wonderful as Cocteau's Orphée, or The Testament of Orphée especially for me, is sort of very telling of these, the grounds with which then there's this articulate play between the screen of the cinema, the internal screens that he refers to, the screens that come from then the projection of a contemporary reading of Orpheus and Eurydice, of Cégeste and the various characters, the other screens which are our knowledge of, which Cocteau takes further into his relationship with Jean Marais, the screen which is the screen of the production of the experience of the cinema itself... these things and this kind of movement through these various screens which he articulates so gracefully I think is...

ZZ: So it's basically Platonics' cave?

Cerith Wyn Evans
Photo: Eugenie Dolberg/INS

CWE: There's a shadow of the cave. There's a reflection. It's the shadow of the cave I would say.

TMcC: Can I press you on what you said earlier about Adorno? Using Adorno to read Cocteau...

CWE: Ohh...

Anthony Auerbach: Can I ask something different then? There seems to be in the fireworks piece, and also in the piece you did with Blake and the mirror ball, a kind of celebration of language and its transformations, that there is a kind of extravagance about both those things, where the message goes up in smoke, or is distributed kind of through this kind of multitude of flashes from a Morse signal. And is there simply a thrill in being able to be the medium in that respect? That you kind of take a message that has a certain form of encoding, you re-code it and broadcast it in a particular way?

CWE: Yes, I'd say so. That probably... This whole work which... I mean, I think of the fireworks pieces as having something in common with the Morse Code pieces. Formally they're made up of dots; they even have this kind of dotty printed matrix thing about them. You know, fireworks, the ease with which language is made up of these points then. The Morse pieces, of which I've made now four, come from quite a different source. They come from a... maybe it would be interesting to say just a little bit about that, because that really was a very important moment for me. I had cut out from the newspaper some... which I don't do very often... something to say... I forget what it was exactly now, several years ago, maybe four, five years ago, that some international body that were previously some form of the military perhaps, the Navy, had stopped using telegraphic Morse code because it had been superseded with technologies that were far more efficient etcetera. So on being asked... again it's sort of context specific and led by the opportunity to be able to realise a piece of work... so similarly with this example that I gave earlier of making a work for this new White Cube Gallery. You will remember that several years ago the Tate Gallery split in two and became Tate Modern and what is now Tate Britain. Tate Britain, that was opening before Tate Modern, wished to rebrand themselves then as the new gallery, launching their new logo, their new approach, and they asked a number of artists, a small group of artists, to come up with a work of art that would in some sense appear on the façade of the building to mark this occasion. And so I started thinking about what I could do. And initially they laughed at the idea, because what I wanted to do initially was, to sort of to destabilise the façade of this building, was to take away one of the columns, the four neo-classical columns that are on the front of the building, which I suppose... They wouldn't let me do at the time, even though we figured out it was feasible in terms of engineering...

TMcC: Wasn't another plan they rejected bouncing it off the MI6 building?

CWE: Well exactly. This is how it started, you see. So this kind of... So I was thinking: 'Well, what's this all this about?' And I was thinking: 'Well, why would I go back to the Tate Gallery when a lot of my favourite things would have been taken to the new building?' And I thought, well, I'll... yes, of course there'd be some nineteenth century paintings, there'd be some wonderful things. And then I thought: 'Well, the only real reason I'd go back would be go back to see the Blake manuscripts there.' So I went to this meeting, and my idea was... I'd been to Japan the year before, I'd read this Morse Code thing, and the other experience I'd had in Japan was arriving in Japan, first time I'd ever been there, being taken to Tokyo, being put into this hotel on something like the forty-second floor of the hotel, sort of jetlagged and absolutely very excited, in a state of absolute kind of bafflement and reception somehow, being in quite a kind of, I imagine, quite a kind of an open state to everything that was going on, very tired at the same time, so probably lots of, was it, theta-rhythms playing, playing around. And being taken into this room, being escorted into the room having no sense what the size of the room would be like. It was an absolutely tiny room, which is basically a bed and a window from the floor to the ceiling, a huge curved window. So a tiny room that was all surface and all glass. Whereupon I was looking down at Tokyo Tower in the centre of Tokyo at night. So it was this kind of extraordinary sense of kind of being taken back by the spectacular beauty of this, and then within moments realising that I had this kind of really, I suppose really kind of clichéd sense that people have when they kind of, when the monster's finally revealed in science fiction films. You kind of go: 'Oh my god!' you know, and you just think: 'But it's alive!' or something like that. I really had a sense that this city was really a synaptic matrix of different dots and bleeps and dashes, none of which I could understand, but I was absolutely somehow overwhelmingly convinced were communication systems. Of course they are: they're lights going on and off for aircrafts on top of buildings, lights where people can cross the road or not, seven-eleven signs, things for entertainment... but somehow this kind of conglomeration, this massive interaction then of these flashing lights and signs evoked this notion of Morse. And of course one of the things which is rather anxious-making for a person who doesn't, anxiety-producing for someone who doesn't speak Japanese is quite often you can be staring at something and you just don't know whether it, what on earth it, you just know it's there and saying something. Someone once described my work as saying: it was a bit like the experience of a deaf man staring at a radio, they said. I've always, I've always sort of cherished that as an idea ever since. So again this experience then of... The Morse then went on... Sorry: I finally get to the meeting at the Tate Gallery and I said: 'Well, I was thinking that perhaps we could project the poems of William Blake onto MI6, or MI5 perhaps it is, and, you know, because Blake was born in Lambeth and so much of the poetry was actually from there. So let's send it back onto, let's send it back in this old, defunct language, this dead language now across the river which moves again.' You know, the tides go up and down this way, but we would cross this somehow, make a kind of bridge of... This would work through the day and through the night, and people would drive their cars or be along the river and be sort of vaguely aware then that in the aether the words and letters of William Blake were being somehow kind of spoken. Strangely enough then at that point they said, kind of as if there were some horrible conspiracy, and they said: 'RRR-rrrr-rrrr! What do you know about our Blake retrospective?' You know, which hadn't been announced at the time. So I eventually said: 'Absolutely nothing!' And they said: 'Well, maybe we'll give the job to Martin Creed and you can do a piece while the William Blake show is on.' So that's how it came about that it became tied more intrinsically with Blake. And inside we then projected onto a, onto a mirror ball, which does something very different, so there's a different kind of reception-transmission figure that goes on between the two.

TMcC: Just to be clear: you had a... You sort of abnegated responsibility for selecting the passages to a computer. It was randomly selecting passages of Blake, translating them into Morse Code, sending them out as light-pulses onto a mirror ball. That's a correct summary of the piece?

CWE: Yes.

TMcC: So it sort of raises the question... I guess you've already answered this. But it would be fair, I think, then, to say that your work isn't about... No one's intended to decode it, I mean, unless somebody happened to speak Morse, but even then it's been diffracted off a mirror ball. I mean, it's pretty much impossible to decode, like Tokyo for you. I mean, it's not about communicating something in code. It's about...

CWE: Well, I've chosen to do things differently. At the... I've done now three different texts in different places. I've also made something called Transmission Petroleo, which is this last unfinished book by Pasolini in Yokohama, Japan, where the characters finally travel to, in a kind of psychic trance at some point, they travel back to Edo and they enter into a scene called the 'Superimposition Scene', which is a very big, thick scene in the book which is set in seventeenth century Japan. So and there's a kind of context that kind of aligns there also. In both the instances... I've now just written a text for the Palais de Beaux Arts in Brussels which is currently on at the moment, which is a chandelier that's doing the talking. Previously we've done, you know, lamps with shutters, that were quite close to the way in which these signals were sent by the Navy. So to that extent, yes, there have been, on most occasions the little computer screen will show you what it's reading, so...

AA: So there's subtitles.

CWE: There are subtitles.

AA: There's something... maybe this is what Tom was alluding to: your sense of code and encoding, encryption, becomes a kind of burial.

CWE: Yes.

AA: And how important is that for you as an artist, that somehow this process of encryption is a keeping safe, as a kind of... where... There are traditions of burial where the body has to be preserved and interred intact, to wait for the resurrection. Is that something that is important for you as, in your artistic trajectory?

CWE: The first piece that I made, the first time I used the word 'crypt'... the two words that are related to these pieces that are then, that have remained constant... it's only now that I'm even thinking about this, because normally I don't, I'm not, you know... sometimes I feel as though I'm being interrogated by very nice people, but sometimes not so nice... But anyway it's only now that I'm actually kind of putting these kind of things together in my head. 'Crypt' and 'cleave' have been the two words that have been to a certain extent...

TMcC: Cleave 00 was the title of the Blake mirror ball.

CWE: Yes. And 'cleave' referring to, sort of paradoxically, that there being two meaning that are almost in the same kind of usage of cleaving to meaning to absolutely adhere to and cleave meaning to kind of break apart. So somehow the kind of, the paradoxical properties of having somehow kind of these separate things also relate to the crypt to a certain extent. So it's, in a sense they kind of, they're mapped on top of each other as kind of contradictory impulses to a certain extent. So I think it's bound up with that. The first piece called 'crypt' was in fact an audiotape, two-inch audiotape that was found in a skip that had been thrown out of a recording studio in Berwick Street in Soho. This is going back now fifteen years or so. And I just liked the look of this box with these tapes in, and so I thought... It was really as a kind of crypt. It was really as collecting something and thinking: 'Well, what on earth could be inside this?' you know. There's no way in which you could kind of hold up videotape... Other early pieces were about shining incredibly powerful light through videotape. There's no way in which you're going to see what's on the tape by... you're really, you're going in the wrong direction looking for the information; you're somewhere else; you're missing it; the portal through, the passageway between the two cannot be found because you're in different territory if you like. So this first thing, Crypt, I took with me, I was asked to be in a show in New York, and I took these audiotapes with me, they made a very beautiful plinth for them, and the two things sat on the box, looking a bit like... Remember the design of these spools used to have three apertures in which looked a bit like kind of, you know, Simpson's cartoon for radioactive materials: they had this kind of strangely kind of old-fashioned, they were kind of antiques already in some strange kind of way, but they'd just been thrown out by some recording engineer. We didn't know what was on them. so this story somehow - and I'm aware that I'm going on a bit longer than I should, so if you'll allow me just a couple of sentences... what eventually happened was people would say: 'But what's on the thing?' And I said: 'Well I've got no idea!' And they'd say: 'Well you're absolutely kidding! How can you not have, how can you be not curious enough to...' Anyway, it turns out that someone's sister works in a recording studio, and they've got one of these machines, and eventually they, on the Monday that the gallery is closed they take the tape out just to find out what's on the tape and play it, and much to our amusement and kind of slightly spine-tingling astonishment, it was the remixes of this dreadful early 1980s single by Rod Stewart called Downtown Train, right? So I'd taken this from Berwick Street to downtown Manhattan and then someone had found out what it was. So in a sense then there was this window that opened and we found out that there was a kind of sort of slippage and correspondence that happened there.

TMcC: That's a fantastic 'out'. Thank you very much for coming in.

CWE: Okay, pleasure. Thank you.