Phil Anderson (PA) interviewed Dave Dyment (DD) about his coming up show Is It What It Is and Other Questions, opening June 29th at the Power Plant.
PA: This project seems to be a rare opportunity to go into the archives of the Power Plant and explore ideas to work with. Was there anything that surprised you when you started your research?
DD: I was given complete access, which I guess surprised me a little. There were no limitations on what I could see or present. Not that I was looking to stir shit up, but it’s always nice to know you have the option.
PA: What draws you to your research based art projects? Do you have an idea of where the fascination of the search comes from?
DD: Well, my work is often described as “research based” (or, my favourite: “weird rigour”, which is how Jan Peacock recently characterized it) but I personally see it as more akin to collecting. This likely stems from being a collector of books and records, which is something I’ve done for most of my life. Gathering information is probably an offshoot of this. And this was certainly the method taken for the Power Plant: rifle through dozens of boxes until an approach presented itself, and then fine-tune the hunt.
PA: How do you take the results of your research and turn into your own project? How do you process the research materials?
DD: Well, it varies each time. It might involve straight reportage or direct engagement, or an intervention. For this I imposed some limitations early on, including the fact that I wasn’t going to add anything, despite that approach often yielding great results (like Sophie Calle’s brilliant bucket in the museum display of chamber pots). I wanted the content to arise from the sifting and reshuffling.
PA: When do you know to stop researching and use the material you have gathered?
DD: Sometimes there’s a built-in end point, other times an arbitrary cut-off is useful.
PA: There must a huge amount of material to go through. Is there any particular information that attracts you?
DD: Yeah, there are towers of banker’s boxes in the long and narrow room where the Power Plant store their archives, and they’re pretty thorough. If you ever need an owner’s manual to a late-eighties laser disk player, they’ve got several.
I like to work with vernacular photography, which I often find more compelling than deliberately composed shots. I like lists, alternate narratives, found poetry, origin stories, corrupted information (broken telephone), unofficial filters, etc. etc.
PA: What can the public expect to see as a result of your research?
DD: There are two elements in the show, and both are collections: a series of Polaroids and a litany of questions. The Polaroids are images taken by the crew, of artworks as they are being unpacked. They are fast snapshots for the purpose of condition reports and insurance claims, or to help re-crate the works after the exhibition is over. They were never intended to be seen again.
One of the presentations of these photographs is a boxed bookwork called Höfer Crate, which includes reproductions of about 80 Polaroids of Candida Höfer’s work arriving to the gallery, with many of her framed photographs badly damaged. For example, there is documentation of a shoeprint on a crate, crates stored flat in a truck bed, despite arrows indicating they should stand on their side, etc. etc. Höfer’s work tends to be about sociology of the museum environment, so it seemed fitting to use her shipment as a case study.
Is it What It Is and Other Questions is a list of the first thousand questions I found in correspondence, contracts, interviews, guestbook comments, questionnaires, inter-office communiqués, etc. etc. These range from the banal to the potentially profound.
It’s a variation on a bookwork and video that I made years ago, called Pop Quiz, which consists of every question from every song in my record collection. But the impetus here was different: I was thinking about the 1969 James Lee Byars project The World Question Center, where the artist hoped to bring together the world’s leading thinkers so that they could ask each other the questions that they had been asking themselves. It never happened, as apparently when he reached them by phone, the majority just hung up on him. But it’s a fascinating premise and here I think it’s a worthy pursuit to ask ourselves the same questions we might ask students (“What do you think the colour red means?”) or to ask questions of curators that they may ask of artists and vice-versa.
Isolated from their context, the queries become an almost Dadaesque questionnaire, alternately ridiculous and inadvertently illuminating. “Is the artworld ageist”, for example, is a worthwhile question to ponder, but it is only ever asked of the very young or the very old, with the answer all but predetermined.
Byars believed that the perfect thought is a question. I now find that I habitually scan the punctuation of a piece of writing for question marks.
PA: Have any other art institutions offered their archives to you?
DD: Ha ha … No, not yet, but I’d certainly be open to it. In the last few years my work has become increasingly about the ways in which culture is formed and shaped, so it’s a logical extension.
PA: What do you hope that the art going public will come away with from your work?
DD: I suppose my concerns were twofold – to provide an outsider’s perspective to the material, and to try to reactivate the existing archive exhibition, which is now in it’s second iteration.
[Curator] Melanie O’Brian’s group show on the ground floor, Tools for Conviviality is ostensibly about reconsidering social behaviour but many of the individual works in the show also address concerns around institutional critique, or institutional memory (a great piece by Swintak and Don Millar, for example), so there are some nice connections there, too, with the Polaroids.
And hopefully the questions exist as a series of worthwhile dilemmas.