The Artist Creating a Walkway Through the Digital World

We talked to multimedia artist and award-winning poet Heather Phillipson about how her dramatic, immersive installations reflect the shifting relationship between our bodies and technology.
February 26, 2016, 5:20pm
"EAT HERE," Schirn Kunsthalle, 2015-16. Image courtesy the artist and Norbert Miguletz

Plenty of "post-Internet" art gets away with managing its allusions to life in the digital era by digging through the Photoshop toolbox and vaguely ramping up glitches. But British artist Heather Phillipson goes further—she captures how it feels to live in technology. Phillipson constructs immersive landscapes of audio, film, and installation that act like nervous systems in overdrive. Tonal shifts and visual disruptions precipitate a feeling that the boundaries are about to break, the seams about to rend in a technological realm increasingly intended to be seamless.


Blurring the lines between skin and screen, between the embodied and the digital experiences, Phillipson is constantly confronting physical restraints, skipping the line between material and immaterial like a rope, faster and faster, until it seems to disappear. The body is explored as a limit and also as an interface. Images of the body, of body parts—particularly the mouth—abound, and videos are cut with the artist's own voice and narration. Phillipson is also an award-winning poet, and her work is keyed to the interplay of image and language. The artist speaks life to a fractured narrative, in which misinterpretation and multiple meanings only make the story clearer.

"EAT HERE," Schirn Kunsthalle, 2015-16. Image courtesy the artist and Norbert Miguletz

BROADLY: Do you think our immersion in digital worlds has changed our relationships to our bodies?
Heather Phillipson: I don't want to generalize, or to speak for others, so I can only answer this question in terms of how mass digital communication has affected my relationship with my body. And the answer to that would not be about gain or loss, but about augmentation—inevitably, something changes when your body accumulates prostheses. And that's how I feel about having a computer at the end of my arm—that it's another limb, another brain, eyes, fingers. Something's been extended. And it changes how my body behaves—swiping, tapping, clicking. It reminds me that gestures go in and out of fashion, too.

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I think we're prone to talk about digital technology as being at a remove from bodies, but of course, it's fundamentally reliant on tactility. It's just that we're touching machines instead of touching each other. Which, after a while, makes me long to feel a responsive, messy body. If anything, it shoves me towards other bodies. At any rate, isn't all this communication just another way to get close to each other? As someone—I forget who—said recently, "We're not addicted to technology; we're addicted to each other."

"Final Days," A Performa Project, 2015. Photo by Paula Court, courtesy of Performa

How are you working with the physical relationship between body and screen?
I guess I could say that, like my life, all my work is a negotiation between the digital and the physical. And, similarly, it's manifest in multiple ways. There's a literal way—inasmuch as my work brings digital media (most often, screens) into physical/sculptural environments and, frequently, requires you to participate in both simultaneously (e.g., watching a video while sitting/standing/climbing/walking). But there are also less overt ways, which perhaps relate to your previous question—my work is constantly scratching at the digital surface, to try and expose it, or render it, as something physical. Often, in the videos, I'm using the camera in place of a body part, or making a direct vocal address as if to disappear the screen, and in the sculptural elements, there's a sense of them having leaked out of the videos, or into them—full bleed to edges. It occurs to me that my sculptural installations could be viewed as attempts to make the digital physical—a room becomes a search engine, a browser window, an online retailer, a screensaver.

"Final Days," A Performa Project, 2015. Photo by Paula Court, courtesy of Performa

You essentially work across all media. How do you decide which support is the best vehicle for its content? Do you ever get it wrong—try an idea as a video that you realize needs to be a sculpture?
Ha, well, I definitely get it wrong! But maybe not so much in that way. Usually it's fairly clear to me if something needs to be a standalone video, audio, or text, or whether—which is most often the case—a conglomeration. If it's a standalone text or audio, say, it has to contain, in a sense, all the images. As in, the sounds and words work in place of images. Whereas once I start adding images and noises in a video, and then add sculptural elements to that, it becomes about something else—what's left out.

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One thing that directs my medium at any given moment is what's gone immediately before—using media like palate cleansers. So if I've just finished a big installation, say, I'll think, Thank God when I get back to working on music or writing. And then I'll crave making a video. I am, basically, always running away from something.

Many of the setups and installations of your videos require the viewer to physically participate. How does this process work for you? How do you find a sculptural form for your videos?
Often it has to do with perspective—how I want the viewer to be implicated in, invited inside, the video, which usually becomes clear in the making. For example, if the video has key moments shot from the floor, the viewer might end up on the floor. If the video is shot looking down from a height, I might build something up steps. Or the other way around—why not. And this has to do with POV shots—with putting the viewer's eye in place of the machine's eye. It's a kind of bastardized literary device—asking a viewer to become the first person. Though this doesn't usually last long—my work constantly, and overtly, puts perspectives in flux. And it's the same in the physical elements, too, which is where it gets complex—the precarious sculptural chunks that block, or trip, or distract. I think of all this in terms of rhythm, so as with editing, the process is one of adding in, cutting out, making gaps, crescendos, speeding things up, slowing things down.

"UN/FIT FOR FEELING," 14th Istanbul Biennial, 2015. Image courtesy the artist and Sahir Ugur Eren

Regarding the environments you create for your videos—does altering the context of a video affect its content?
For me, yes, because my work is really the opposite of the black box (cinema) format, in which you're asked to forget everything outside the screen; instead, everything outside the screen is constantly up against you. As it is when you're sitting at your computer, in your dressing gown, the sun impeding the screen, hungry, hungover, your lover downstairs. Or whatever. Context is crucial. Things read differently. And in the case of my videos, the context is made by the environments, or at least, it creates a context in addition to the context created by the video. (This addition is important, because I believe that videos (texts, audio, sculpture) also create their own contexts/worlds.) And this enables me to point to things, particular moments, words, images, because they're the things that get drawn out, duplicated, or undermined through the physical context. And, in fact, this often changes with different installations. I might install the same video several times in different ways, for precisely this reason—because, this time, I've changed my mind. I want to point to something else.

"sub-fusc love-feast," Dundee Contemporary Arts, 2014. Image courtesy the artist and Ruth Clark

You work with representation at the level of language and also visually. How does your understanding of one mode affect the way you work with the other? Do you feel the visual has a "grammar" the way language does?
It's inseparable for me, really—image, music, language—which is partly why I often end up talking through, and in terms of, metaphor. The possibility of comprehending—or, again, augmenting—one thing by way of another. Producing phantoms in between. And, at the same time, collapsing the metaphorical into the literal (as we do all the time in language, and in technology), and vice versa, so that everything is metaphorical, everything is literal. Every element is there to be exactly what it is (a tire, a hot water bottle, a rubber glove) and multiple something else's. "Grammar" might not be quite accurate, too much of a translation, but I think it's possible to detect certain systems (modes of address, comprehension, cultural charge) and, in turn, to intervene in these systems. Again, context is crucial—how things are read in different places, at different times, up against different things. My works are intended to be hermetic—they're always attempting to construct their own contexts—contexts that exist parallel to the familiar. They're bursting with the familiar. But once you enter them, a different kind of logic applies. Something more like anti-logic, but which turns out to be no more ludicrous than just walking to the shops and back.

"sub-fusc love-feast," Dundee Contemporary Arts, 2014. Image courtesy the artist and Ruth Clark

Your videos mash up a lot of different qualities and sources: HD, SD, recorded or manufactured sound, found or manufactured images. I think a lot of people have the idea of video as an immaterial medium. What is your relationship to video as a material?
If I think of it like poetry—which is, for me—about torturing language, making it cough up its guts. The gestures of editing video (and the language applied to it) are really still wedged in the physical, in a desire to likewise brutalize the digital image (or sound), through the cut, the wipe, the contrast, the matte, the pitch shift.

Your work gives a lot of information at once, contradicting itself and working to disestablish hierarchy. How do you work with chaos without the work actually becoming chaos? Do you strive for a kind of coherence?
The bits are transmitting something, but I don't think it's information—I think it's more like feeling. And this is important because, if there is coherence, this is where it might emerge—in a sensibility or tone (multiple tones, giving rise to multiple emotions), and its repercussions. I'm constantly trying to marshal elements to speak to each other, usually without any idea of what they might say when they do. So that's the process of finding out, excavating the feelings that rise up beneath the surfaces, listening, slicing, re-gluing, re-feeling: I've ripped all these bits apart, what happens when I ram them back together?