Grant Stevens

Vivian Ziherl: Your recent exhibition ‘No Bad Days’ seemed a little like a ‘collection’ in the way that a fashion house might deliver a collection including singles, separates, accessories etcetera. Like—’Grant Stevens, Autumn/Winter 2008’. Were the works taken from a particular time-period or thought-progression of productivity for you? How were the works in the show decided upon?

Grant Stevens: The three works in the show were made specifically for ‘No Bad Days’. I’ve made a few ‘video shows’ in the past, and often that can mean just showing one work—where a large projection fills the entire gallery, for example. So having two spaces at the Institute of Modern Art (IMA) was a really great chance to make a few works that could revolve around similar ideas, but without necessarily approaching them in the same way—which is maybe where you get that idea of it being like a ‘collection’. I like that analogy—I think a lot about how a good album functions—moving you through a range of narratives and ideas that are linked but without telling you just one thing, or offering just one kind of feeling.

My initial idea for the show was to have one dark space for a projection and one lit space for an object or maybe some 2D work. It was a pretty basic starting point, but it was about trying to create some dynamic between internal and external spaces. After my 2007 show at Gallery Barry Keldoulis in Sydney, I’d been thinking about how particular lifestyle choices sometimes now stand in for personal belief systems or formulations of identity. And how these choices are not limited to the fashion or musical tastes that seem so crucial when you’re a teenager—but also involve ‘adult’ decisions about your leisure activities, your home-décor and even diet and exercise regimes. In some ways, I think these kinds of choices are reshaping how and what we ‘believe’ in, and perhaps in the process effacing the traditional (maybe Christian) relation between ‘surface’ and ‘depth’.

VH: The exhibition came at a very particular time for you; between the completion of a Doctorate and the embarkation on a career in Los Angeles. It was also a particularly extensive show of work for a younger local artist to have at the Institute of Modern Art. Do you have an awareness of being export-grade Brisbane Art?

GS: I feel very indebted to Brisbane! And it still feels like a home for me. I’ve always been aware of the pattern for Brisbane to produce interesting artists who leave (and in some ways this is what you’d want), but I think more recently it’s also begun to draw people to the city. The IMA and QAG/GoMA (Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art) are both very important in this regard. I’m happy going back and forth between Los Angeles and Australia. They obviously provide quite different kinds of stimulus and support, but I think both places are equally important for me in developing an ongoing practice. And as you said, I’m just learning what that means. There are certainly different freedoms and pressures with making work outside of an educational context.

VH: What are the differences in stimulus and support between Brisbane and Los Angeles for you?

GS: The IMA and GoMA are getting more and more contemporary and international work to Brisbane, but I think it’s fair to say that there’s a greater scale and scope of work being shown in Los Angeles. There are just more galleries, museums, private collections, etcetera. I’m a big believer in knowing what work and what arguments are being made in contemporary practice, and continually being exposed to that work first hand helps you think about the possibilities for your own practice. But of course more isn’t always better. There’s a lot to be said for a smaller environment like Brisbane where you can engage in depth with other artists, and where you can actively influence the debates through your participation. There’s actually a lot of opportunities and support for emerging artists to do this in Brisbane (and Australia generally)—it’s built into funding policies, gallery programming, prizes, etcetera. The flipside of this is again scale. From what I can tell, private patronage is growing in Australia but it’s in another league in the States—and this kind of support seems pretty important to sustaining practices over a long period.

VH: Another younger Australian artist Darren Sylvester comes to mind in comparison to your work in that both of your practices seem to be based in the development of a particular sensibility coupled with the ability to distill that sensibility into a gesture. Do you view your practice in this way at all?

GS: I definitely want to communicate some sensibility, or some attitude or relationship to the references or source material I use… I’ve never really wanted to make information or issue-based work. I’d rather try to make work that does something (however small)—that provokes some kind of feeling or sensation when you engage with it. I think it’s important that the physiological, semantic and conceptual operations of the work are considered together.

VH: Whereas Sylvester’s work is often underwritten with sentimentality, your work often exudes ambivalence towards human existence. Even this ambivalence itself appears to oscillate between whimsical and cuttingly cynical in its uncertainty towards the simultaneous ‘nice’ and ‘gross’ in society. With this as such a strong backbone to your practice, how do you avoid treading water and repeatedly ruminating over the same themes?

GS: That ambivalence is really important to me, but I wouldn’t want it to be mistaken for disinterestedness. In some ways that whimsy/cynicism is a product of my own uncertainties with the source material. The things that reappear in the work—both formally and thematically, like language, Muzak, romance, travel etcetera—are things that I’m both compelled towards and suspicious of. In some sense, I’d like the work to recreate the kind of push-pull that I have with these things—like loving bad TV while being conscious of its shortcomings. I think it’s important because whether it’s ‘Bold and the Beautiful’ or global warming, our relation to what’s around us is never clear-cut. And I don’t think it’s possible to apply a distinct hierarchy of importance to those things. Unpacking and testing out those ambiguities and ambivalences are what drive me to make art—to try to make works that draw you in while making you feel uncomfortable or unsure about what you’re looking at.

VH: Like Freud’s Das Unheimliche (the uncanny), an instance where a subject perceives something as familiar and foreign at the same time? Are your works machines for the uncanny and for the cognitive dissonance it creates? Is this too instrumental a view?

GS: That familiar/foreign dynamic is there, but ‘the uncanny’ brings up a range of psychoanalytic concepts that I’m not totally sure about. I guess I’m trying to manipulate recognisable symbolic systems, whereas ‘the uncanny’ in art makes me think about a particular tension around ‘resemblance’. I think the ambivalence I’m interested in is slightly different to (at least my idea of) ‘the uncanny’—maybe it’s more about openly playing with our experiences of stereotypes and conventions than tapping unconscious desires.

VH: For many viewers at the Institute of Modern Art, the whimsical/cynical elements in ‘No Bad Days’ were experienced with mirth. I’m inclined to think of this humour as characteristically Australian, or at least borne of some kind of under-dog identification. Interestingly, at the artist talk accompanying the exhibition you mentioned a past experience in which this facet of your work became somewhat lost in translation.

GS: I think that story was about the show I did in Utah in 2007. It was at a museum in a university town where the vast majority of students, staff and residents are Mormon. There were quite a few works in the show that used romantic plot lines and symbolic devices, and the students especially, often took those works at face value. It seemed that they sincerely believed in the conventional notions of ‘love’, ‘eternal unions’, etcetera, presented by the clichés in the works. It’s hard to say whether this was something to do with not knowing the source material (because of social and religious censorship), or aspects of their Mormon faith (like their attitudes toward family and sexuality), or a broader American sensibility that doesn’t deal well with ambiguity and irony. For me it wasn’t an indication of those works failing, but a reason to keep working with clichés and common symbolic tropes—it was a sign that those clichés actually work, that they really do affect people’s understandings of their experiences and the stuff around them.

There was another misreading that came out over time with the IMA show. A lot of people (including close friends of mine who maybe should know better) thought that I had written the text in the video (In the Beyond). The text was actually borrowed from lots of different MySpace pages—talking pretty mundanely about likes and dislikes, personal beliefs, loving friends and family, holidaying in Europe and so on. I was actually quite happy about that misplacement of authorship because (hopefully) it meant that the form of the work (a rotating mandala) was functioning as shorthand for ‘self-expression’. What was interesting for me was seeing how far assumptions about form and content could go. Again, this is what I’m trying to do in a lot of my work—to play with the relevance and efficacy of well-known symbolic devices by taking them slightly out of context or mishandling them in some way.

VH: Yes, close friends definitely should have been able to perceive the use of text culled from the Internet; it’s a common trope in your work. Again it acts as a paradox, the way that you use the technological phenomenon of the Internet as a filter for lowest human common denominators.

The process of seeking and compiling Internet text is interesting in itself. Email interviews (such as this one) are often immediately apparent for the highly edited and refined nature of the writing. Yet the texts you seem attracted to on the Internet often seem selected for the way that the authors have or haven’t edited themselves. I guess I’m trying to provoke you to speak to some of the treatment of ‘editing’ that you undertook in your dissertation.

GS: Part of what attracts me to online texts is their awkward rendering of ‘voice’ and ‘expression’. It’s such a text-heavy environment, and very different to film, for example, where voices are almost always associated with actual bodies. As you’re saying, writing online can go two ways—over-editing because you’re able to rewrite and refine your words ad infinitum; and a lack of editing where, maybe, released from the inhibitions of your physical body/identity you can type away—‘putting it out there’ without accountability. Either way I think this relationship to the written word is very different to our old understandings of authenticity, speech and self-expression.

My thesis dealt with this a little bit—particularly in terms of the traditional primacy of speech over writing. But it was also about a broader notion of editing—taking models of film editing and theories of writing to talk about all kinds of ‘cutting’ and ‘pasting’ that occur in art making. 

VH: I am also interested to ask about time in you work; not in the sense of the work as video or time based art, but more in the way that it might date due to being based on fragments of the popular culture of the time. Is this something you ponder?

GS: The idea of working with fragments is pretty important for me. I’ve been asked about nostalgia before because some works deal with clichés and narratives that seem rooted in the 1960s and ’70s. I wasn’t around in the ’60s, but these are still things that inform my experience—whether through vintage clothing, art, film, music or whatever. I’ve also referenced things from the ’80s and ’90s (when I was alive), and more ‘up to date’ texts from the Internet as we’ve just mentioned. I guess I try to deal with contemporary experience and, at least for me, this experience runs across any number of different times—all lived as simultaneously ‘natural’ and fractionally out of context.

Grant Stevens works between Los Angeles and Brisbane. Vivian Hogg is a Brisbane-based artist and writer.