'A plea for empathy': Ed Atkins opens up to Mitch Speed

Mitch Speed

An email conversation about avatars, artistic influences, and experimental writing

Mitch Speed: The figures in your videos are 3D-rendered human beings, and typically white men. Do you see them as proxies for yourself?

Ed Atkins: I think that’s as close as it gets to a definition. I have come to loathe ‘animating’ them with fantasies of characters, motives, narratives. History. They’re hollow vessels that do whatever I want them to do. They’re a way to perform desires – of mine, I suppose, however convoluted, repressed. They (he) are all from [the 3D models online store] Turbosquid.com, the most articulate figures I can buy. They’re not made for me, but for as large a user base as possible. I customize them, dress them, puppet them, and wear them like masks, according to my whim.

There is a point in your 2016 collection of texts, A Primer for Cadavers [published by Fitzcarraldo Editions], when you use the ‘death mask’ as a motif. This book also includes a text called A Tumour (2010), which provides clues as to how writing operates in your work. It begins with one character telling another that ‘reading this text will conjure a tumor inside of you’. This reminds me of the idea ascribed to William Burroughs that language is a virus.

Burroughs is on track. And so are a lot of Euro horrors: the Marquis de Sade, the Comte de Lautréamont, Michel Leiris, Hilda Hilst [in Brazil]. A bit of magic, ‘a disease of language’ – surrealism, po-mo Sixties and Seventies American literature: Gilbert Sorrentino, Donald Barthelme, later, Curtis White – and totally, totally Beckett, of course. More. It’s all a bit predictable, isn’t it? But that’s influences for you.

Predictability isn’t necessarily a problem. To invoke or be inspired by familiar sources – even myths or clichés – is only a problem if they constrict you, if you can’t transform them.

I mean, these are the cornerstones that allowed me to do what I do, to believe it is possible. At the moment, I’m also into older stuff that I missed the first time: Pierre Reverdy, Hubert Fichte, and Henri Michaux’s horrible short pieces are good.

Ed Atkins, Safe Conduct, 2016. Courtesy the artist, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, Cabinet Gallery, London, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York, Rome, and dépendance, Brussels.
Ed Atkins, Safe Conduct, 2016. Courtesy the artist, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, Cabinet Gallery, London, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York, Rome, and dépendance, Brussels.

Weirdly, Michaux’s almost cheesy little figures resonate with some of the drawings in A Primer for Cadavers. Like his, some of your drawn figures are barely figures at all, just a few jotted lines, almost accidentally placed among the writing.

Of course, there are loads of influences that aren’t directly to do with my work. The common space is corporeal, flat, afterwards? A consequence? And then, in that afterwards, an attempt to sincerely retrieve something. The whole tumor thing is a little crass (a little?!), but it seemed pretty simple to me. Like, it’s impossible to prove that it didn’t do it: that the work didn’t conjure a tumor inside the viewer/reader.

A Tumour also seems to preface your more recent work, in particular your 2017 exhibition ‘Old Food’, at Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau, which included elliptical and vivid pieces of writing on strangely didactic panels. The form of your writing continues to reflect the content of your videos, in loaded and irresolvable ways.

A Tumour originally appeared in a book accompanying a video of the same name. I was also talking a lot about the videos as holistic, replete – as bodies. A sensuousness made digital. The videos as dead bodies. Reeking and heavy, and well dead, figuratively speaking. Affectively aligned. So the tumor felt right and perversely bodily – metastatic, as if the videos were bodies riddled with tumors.

You’ve been pursuing these themes consistently in both writing and the more high-tech animations that you’ve become known for.

I’m grimly aware I’m maybe just making the same work over and over. To be honest, it’s more an allowance I give myself. These motifs still feel like some high arcana enveloping my feelings, my imagination. They are as close a suite of images and sensations to rhyme with feelings I HAVE that are more or less intractable, irresolvable – useless? 

Ed Atkins, Ribbons, 2014. Courtesy the artist, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, Cabinet Gallery, London, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York, Rome, and dépendance, Brussels.
Ed Atkins, Ribbons, 2014. Courtesy the artist, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, Cabinet Gallery, London, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York, Rome, and dépendance, Brussels.

I was going to ask about your use of caps lock, which you’ve just given an example of (as this interview itself takes on hallmarks of your writing). Caps lock is loaded, these days, because it’s shouty. And male shoutiness is increasingly not being tolerated. But I gather you’re using it to a specific end.

The caps-lock stuff is simply how it feels. Or a tool that is very, very easy to wield inappropriately. It’s very, very shrill, too. The decision of what portions to caps lock happens afterwards, and is part of a litany of techniques to undermine, to break some coherent non-spell, to open shit up again.

This impulse to break up the language that accompanies art makes me think of the notoriously tepid character of the writing around institutionalized contemporary art – in press statements but also in academic writing. Is that what you mean?

Mostly I want people to feel something, and probably I want them to feel what I feel. Which is…It’s a plea for empathy, something for which I’m also SORRY. That one happened there while I wrote it. Caps lock is hollower and weirder than italicizing something. It doesn’t make sense, really. I’ve stopped doing it, though. Here’s an example of the sort of thing I’m writing now:

We used to laboriously spaff no small amount of charmless arm meat down okay blue tubes, at work. We could turn a lush flounce and contort tight white demon pecs, warp-face slicked with a cool gallon of balked grease. We’d pour the lot into our glorious laps to hopefully catch someone’s discerning eye. Some hazy memory of a once taut dad lap scotched with forsaken use, maybe. In all seriousness. We oversaw great tuns of steaming blue stain. The job involved a rhythmic over-squat, so that whatever cringing bit of pork filed against no lining to a grim red peel, flapped then clammed. Work meant scouring milt off Sir’s fly. A sorrel cursive, taut lap. Everything was radically pre-distressed by some nameless paysan, a menial horror-graft elsewhere. We watched as a woman’s native sweat percolated aluminium emulsion to bloom ivory, slimed ruination, the pits. Aged Global Hypercolor resumed belief, but in what?

Which, I guess, contains a lot of the same gratuity, just shifted, deregistered. It’s way more purple, but far less shrill, somehow.

The idea of purple writing is fascinating. It is often ridiculed, but poetry, or writing-as-art, can neutralize this somewhat moralistic prohibition. Your languages – visual and written – do this very effectively.

I feel like I own the clunk more, now. I’m into the ugliness of bathetic emphasis, the absurd and motile and arbitrary and bad and wrong. That feels like that’s where we live now, no?

For Art Basel’s Conversations program, Ed Atkins discussed ‘Performance Beyond the Body’ with Jay Pather, adjunct curator for performance, Zeitz MOCAA, Cape Town, and RoseLee Goldberg, founding director and chief curator of Performa, New York. The panel was moderated by Kathy Noble, Performa’s newly appointed curator and manager of curatorial affairs.

Mitch Speed is a writer and artist based in Berlin.

Watch the full conversation here.

Top image: Ed Atkins, Performance Capture, 2015-16. Courtesy the artist, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, Cabinet Gallery, London, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York, Rome, and dépendance, Brussels