Interview with John Wood and Paul Harrison: “I like the little one”

John Wood and Paul Harrison’s minimal, deadpan performances make complicated references to the art world of the past—with a dash of slapstick

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The videos of John Wood and Paul Harrison present multiple scenarios in which one or both the artists, who have been collaborating since 1993, perform simple, often ludicrous and occasionally dangerous actions with a deadpan demeanour and the minimum of props.

Taking place in a neutral white space and never lasting more than three minutes, their balancings, climbings, placements, sprayings, throwings and stampings allude to all manner of artistic precedents, while at the same time being infused with a determinedly English sense of can-do. Their work nods knowingly at Bruce Nauman, Chris Burden, Jackson Pollock, Yves Klein, Richard Serra et al., but there is also often more than a whiff of Hancock, Abbot & Costello and the sticky-back-plastic ingenuity of Blue Peter (a TV programme for children).

At the same time, there is a rigour, an economy, and a formal elegance which prevents any descent into mere slapstick.

At fa projects (until 21 June) Wood and Harrison are presenting a new work comprising six monitors showing different sequences of 36 individual videos, along with preparatory drawings and a new series of iris prints.

The Art Newspaper: Your videos criss-cross between performance, sculpture, painting and video, so a defining label is probably beside the point; nonetheless, how would you describe them?

Paul Harrison: They are things that end up on monitors. We don’t really use effects and we don’t edit. Well, we do edit, but not within the piece. So we’re not exploring the possibilities in terms of the technology. They just seem to be these things that are happening in these spaces...

TAN: Why do you show them on monitors rather than, say, as video projections ?

John Wood: Again, that comes down to us making them as documentary as possible, so that if you relate to one of the tapes or one of the actions it isn’t because it’s a cinematic experience and you’re caught up in it. It is, we hope, quite a direct relation to seeing this action: it’s not emotive, because projection can be quite emotive...

PH: We use pretty low-grade video and they’re very flat images. I guess we try to refine them down to make them quite modest. We think quite a lot about making them watchable, and I guess we do take the viewer on board quite a lot, not just in terms of what we put on the screens but also the actual experience of going into the space.

TAN: So although your work makes all kinds of artistic and art-historical references, it’s not so important if the audience doesn’t necessarily pick up on them?

JW: Really, in a lot of the pieces it’s us entertaining ourselves: it is what we think is good, what we’d like to spend our day doing.

TAN: Is it important that you appear in your films?

JW: Initially, the idea why we started being in them and why we stayed being in them was so that you didn’t look at us; you paid no attention to us, and we just became these two figures. But in a way that’s now been defeated. Two things have gone wrong on that front (but then it’s also these things that are quite nice): one is that obviously we’ve changed as we’ve got older. So if people see a collection of our work over time they start to say: “You’ve got less hair” or “you’re fatter” ; and then we also get comments like, “I like the little one,” or “the little one’s got a pathetic face”: all the personal stuff that we’ve always tried never to give away. But we can’t control what people will read, and that’s not necessarily bad...

TAN: The new series of work just has one of you, John, in all the sequences. Why was he chosen?

JW: I don’t know how I ended up in this one...For a while I had to stop because my back really seized-up. People do have the impression that I’m in most of them, but it’s not really true. Paul is in them a lot..

PH: I think that, out of the two of us, John is a better natural performer than I am; I think he’s more comfortable...in the past we’ve had different reasons.

JW: Sometimes its because I’m smaller—if we are building things there are constraints as well about how big a shot we can get. I’ve got bigger eyes and sometimes you can lose Paul’s face...

TAN: Is this single protagonist permanent?

JW: We’re just about to make our first piece with no one in it...When we started we always talked about liking the idea that one day there would be more than two people in the work, but then we were also always wanting to strip it right back again.

PH: I was wondering the other day what it might be like to direct someone doing our actions because we so know our own habits and ways of working. But then there are all those other connotations once you work with someone else....

JW: And all that stuff that we’re always trying to avoid of looking at the characters...

PH: Pretty soon after we started working together we started to imagine the 70-year-old tapes—if we last that long. We have this idea of it being a very, very, very long process. We work at things extremely slowly; for us to have no one in the work is something we’ve been thinking about for the last couple of years ...

JW: It’s taken us 10 years to get out of our work...

TAN: It seems important that there’s no trickery: it’s a direct physical reality that you’re engaging with.

PH: We try and expose as in a much as possible but we’re quite surprised how some people still ask, “Did you shoot it on its side” or, “Did you use a computer?”

JW: That’s where the mistakes are good, because you wouldn’t get that on a computer. (One of our rules when we are filming is that whatever happens, keep going, because it might be good. In the new work a couple of times I thought I’d completely ruined the take and so I spoke—I broke that rule—and Paul was outside looking at the monitor and wishing I’d kept quiet because it actually looked fine.)

It’s funny, because when we started working together in 1993 we got criticised sometimes for the fact that we didn’t use computers and we had no effects, so therefore it wasn’t seen as “video”, it was just documentary recording.

TAN: The new work takes place across six monitors placed in a row, rather than individually. Does this mean that it should be viewed as a sum rather a series of parts?

JW: What’s important is the cumulative effect of all six. It’s not so much about you watching this one linear thing and I think what will happen is when you’re watching one, you’ll hear a noise and instantly be distracted by that, so you’ll just keep flicking so it is about the six...

TAN: The sequences I’ve watched have many references to painting

PH: We both studied painting and drawing and the relationship between that and video has always been important.

JW: I think we thought by having a whole room that it would be much more architectural, and then when we were making it we realised it was much, much more painterly than we had imagined. We broke the sequences down into six categories: lighting; surface; one that we called static where nothing happens; measurement; furniture, and leaving a trace.

By having six monitors we felt it gave us the freedom to put in tapes like the ones where nothing happens which, in a way, is going further away from a punchline with us wanting to see how far we could push the notion of performance and what constitutes performance: does standing with a beam on your head? Is it watchable? Because we always want it to be watchable...

TAN: In these and past works you seem to be cocking a bit of a snook at some of art’s sacred cows: the grid, the painterly gesture, the tilted plane, the horizon and so on...

PH: It’s nice to be able to play around, and allude to the work of other people. It’s about respect too...

TAN: Does what you do emerge out of action as well as image? As well as making preparatory drawings do you also act out your scenarios?

PH: Some of them. A very few, have come from having a camera in the studio and playing around in front of it, but the vast majority come out of drawings. [This is] partly because of circumstance; we live quite far apart, so we often work independently on ideas and then bring them together, often we swap drawings in the post. The drawings have always been really, really important. Sometimes there’ll be one drawing and other times there’ll be different kinds of drawings, not exactly technical drawings but drawings containing technical information. Some of the ideas for this work have been around as drawings for five to six years, they were just waiting for a time to fit with something else.

JW: We forget the laws of physics as well, every time...

PH: Some drawings we’ve got are just hilarious. We have a habit of drawing these things that will just never work.

TAN: How did you start working together?

PH: We knew each other very vaguely at college but we didn’t meet up until about two years after I graduated. I was doing a residency and John came up to stay and we were just both working and using some of the facilities and then we just decided to try something out and it seemed to go quite well..

JW: We never really sat down and consciously said let’s solely work together.

TAN: From all that you’ve said the work is about what you’re doing, rather than who you are?

JW: I think that was definitely one of our concerns when we started, but gradually, over the years, things that did worry us or that we felt strongly about just became natural. We wanted it to be democratic and so on, but now, although it’s still apparent in the work it’s not something that’s an agenda.

TAN: Do you argue?

PH: Three times in ten years...

Biography

Paul Harrison, born 1966 Wolverhampton

John Wood, born 1969 Hong Kong

Currently showing: fa projects, London, (until 21 June)

Solo shows include: 2003 “A century of artists' film”, Tate Britain, London. 2002 Twenty Six (drawing and falling things), Chisenhale Gallery, London touring to NGCA, Sunderland; “Sudden Glory”, CCAC Institute, CA, USA; Gwangju Biennale, Korea; “Still life”, British Council Touring Exhibition, Chile/Mexico; 2001 “Monitor: volume one”, Gagosian Gallery, New York; “Lets go to work 2”, Susquahana Art Museum, USA; “Body worlds”, Gallerie Markus Richter, Berlin; 2000 “British Art Show 5”, touring to Edinburgh, Southampton, Cardiff, Birmingham City Art Gallery; “Lets go to work”, Marcel Sitcoske, San Francisco; 1999 “This other world of ours”, TV Gallery, Moscow; “Physical evidence”, Kettles Yard, Cambridge; “Obstacle course and other works”, First Site, Colchester (touring); “New video from Great Britain”, Sala Mendosa, Venezuela; “New video from Great Britain”, Museo Carillo Gil, Mexico; touring to Contemporary Art Museum, Hawaii

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