HANS ULRICH OBRIST I wanted to ask you about how it all started. How did you come to art, or did art come to you? Was it an epiphany or a gradual process?
ED ATKINS In retrospect, it seems a relative inevitability, in terms of having parents who were both more or less repressed but practicing artists in one way or another. One was a comprehensive school art teacher; one was a graphic designer. Both wanted to make work—and did, to a certain extent — but they were in situations where they felt they had to make a choice to have reliable incomes. Perhaps in response to this compromise, and to the presence of art in a practiced but private sense, there was a certain kind of lure of art apart from pragmatism. In terms of my own practice, there were those initial fumblings with drawing and painting, exploring compulsively—and then, almost completely aside from that, contemporary art and the moving image, which came through an exposure to structural film, particularly the American side of it.
HUO Like Stan Brakhage?
EA Yes, and perhaps Hollis Frampton more particularly. I suppose mainstream cinema was my first love—that and music, tempered with literature and computer games… Art was simply a place where I could bring these things together and that that was okay. At the event I organized with Siôn Parkinson at the ICA over Easter weekend, “A Dying Artist,” we showed Brakhage’s autopsy film as the climax of this festival of representations of illness and death and creativity. Stan Brakhage appears almost disinterested and absolutely straightforward in his shooting of an autopsy.
HUO The theme of illness and death is not new in your work.
EA Well, if I’m honest, that has come from personal experience as well as a more detached interest in the subject of materiality in the digital moving image. Everything began to circle around the cadaver. Cadavers became the best way to look at representation and, in particular, recent technologies of representation. There is the push in industrial cinema towards high definition and 3-D, and at the same time the body of cinema is falling away: there is no celluloid, no tape, no DVD. All you are left with are these reams of code, which, to a certain extent, simply haunt different media. So you have the hyper-materiality of the image itself, but in the body you have nothing— you have this apparent immaterial aspect, which to me provided an echo with the dead body, being both present and absolutely absent. Heavy, dense matter.
HUO It is almost a contradiction to make that productive.
EA For me, yes. It became an attempt to understand this apparent contradiction by making work that utilized this newly configured material-immaterial aspect within the moving image. Sound—music in particular — became a really big thing, too, as something that explicitly straddled that aspect. Those apocryphal early experiments of Throbbing Gristle, for example, that apparently tried to make people shit themselves or be sick with the use of certain frequencies and toned, trying to embody this invisible thing, sound, within the viewer. This is perhaps where a structural element came in as well: a heavy presence, with a reality to it, without the reliance upon, say, the presence of celluloid or a certain worrying about the projector—that, you would find matter elsewhere and it may be that the place you found it was manifest within the body of the viewer.
HUO That brings us back to illness and the recent project of manifesting a tumor, which is the production of reality.
EA Absolutely. A tumorous reality, which might be particularly interesting because it is certainly very hard to apprehend a tumor. You can’t really touch it or smell it or feel it—at least not without surgery. It’s this internal thing that you cannot apprehend sensorially; it can only be apprehended imaginatively.