In the following interview Glasgow-based writer Sarah Lowndes talks to Susan Hiller ahead of her major survey exhibition at Tate Britain, which opened this week. Born in the United States in 1940, Susan Hiller trained as an anthropologist before moving to Britain in the early 1970s,where she first became known for an innovative artistic practice including group participation works such as Dream Mapping (1974); museological/archival installations such as the annotated postcard collection Dedicated to the Unknown Artists (1972/76); and Sisters of Menon (1972-79),a work derived from automatic writing . Since the 1970s Hiller has continued to draw upon diverse and often denigrated aspects of popular culture including extra-sensory perception (ESP) and UFO sightings to produce the pioneering mixed-media installations and video projections for which the artist is best known.
SARAH LOWNDES: You have described the impetus for certain works as arriving ‘by accident’ and also described others, such as the process of automatic writing that later became the work Sisters of Menon (1972-79) as a transforming experience that ‘catapulted me outside of conceptual art’.01 [Sisters of Menon began as a spontaneous experience of automatic writing which Hiller later analysed and annotated and mounted with four framed pages of her own commentary, to make a cruciform.] Your description of how certain works have developed implies there was something about these occurrences that was unpredictable, – but after this time, did you feel you could to a certain extent ‘set up fate’ by consciously becoming increasingly attuned to what some people might call ‘irrational’ possibilities?
SUSAN HILLER: Well, you see, I don’t believe there’s a difference between rational and irrational; I try not to get into these dualisms. I think that one of the luxuries of being an artist is that one is true to one’s experience. Sisters of Menon pushed me beyond the boundaries of what was then considered reasonable or suitable subject matter. My work with dreams, which predates Sisters of Menon, already expressed an interest in fifty per cent of my life, and everyone else’s life, that we ignore. And to an extent that tendency, which was ignored or thought to be outside of what was worth noticing, was reinforced by a commitment to feminism because they contained aspects of the world that were called, in a particularly denigrating way, ‘feminine’ or ‘irrational’. As a female subject those terms were applied to me doubly when I expressed those kinds of interests in my work. So that became an important commitment for me, to proceed along those lines.
SL: However - you’ve said previously that you wouldn’t describe your work as feminist?
SH: No – I’ll tell you why. Because I think that any adjective that comes before art implies that this isn’t real art. So if you have identity art, community art, feminist art – it’s saying, this isn’t the real art – the real art is someplace else. Art is art, you know? Along the same lines I would say not all painting is art either. Art is part of a conversation, it’s a very particular conversation and just because you work in formats related to art formats, it’s not necessarily art.
SL: You moved to London to live and work in 1973, and since that time your work has often responded to English places, histories and traditions, such as the Freud Museum and Postman’s Park in London, souvenir postcards of rough seas and seaside Punch and Judy shows. You have spoken previously of how the art scene of London in the 1970s was particularly stimulating, but do you also feel that the wider cultural context of England has contributed something specific and significant to your work?
SH: I think I’m a foreigner, no matter how many years I’ve lived here – and I have a British passport, have had for some time. Being a foreigner is always very fruitful. Artists need to get out of their comfort zone and go to other places. This country has always been very positive for me in an awful lot of ways – for example, the wonderful fact of not being in the United States during the Vietnam War. I left the States in 1965 and I haven’t lived there since. I moved around a lot, spending time in Paris, Morocco, India but I kept coming back to England. In the UK I’ve lived in Wales, Wiltshire, I’ve lived in Cornwall – I haven’t always lived in London. When I first came to this country, as you mentioned, it was an exciting, interesting, stimulating situation for the arts in general – music, poetry, and visual art, dance, theatre – everything was blossoming in the most wonderful way and it was just the perfect place to be for anyone interested in discovering what kind of art practice one could invent. The historical accident, if you like, of my being here at that time was absolutely key to the feelings I had about what was possible in art practice. There was also a kind of political acuteness in this country which was very rare in the United States.
SL: Can you say a bit more about that – what do you mean by political acuteness? Do you mean in the press, or do you mean in people’s conversation generally?
SH: In America I had been part of the student movement and very peripherally part of the civil rights movement and various other things, the anti-war movement, but that was among a very small group of people. The vast sense that you had in the States was that most people just didn’t give a damn. Which is what, basically, you find here now – you can quote me on that. But it was very different in the 60s and 70s here and it was fascinating to me, because you know in the United States there’s absolutely no notion of class – the British are just fundamentally more politicised because their history makes them sensitive to that kind of difference, whereas in the States everyone is the same, or trying to be the same. They don’t know anything about themselves, in those ways. I’m not saying the British situation is better, it’s just different. Here, people start off with a clearer idea of how society is structured.
SL: Mike Leigh said something similar in a recent interview, when he was asked this question about how class seemed to be back on the political agenda and what he thought of the way in which it was portrayed on screen in Britain today. He said, ‘I don’t know the answer to that – you absolutely cannot make a film about England or Britain that’s not rooted in class, in the way that you can’t tell stories about anybody, anywhere because in the end class is an endemic part of the social human condition. But despite everything, I’ve never consciously gone about thinking about class.’02
SH: But in the United States you don’t even mention it – it’s not a word that’s used. In the early 80s I was invited to the States to give lectures in various places – at that time I had just finished the work Monument (1980-81), which was based on the memorial plaques in London’s Postman’s Park. I was, of course, talking about that work and I was pointing out how the brilliant little one-sentence summaries of people’s lives that appear on those memorial plaques told us a lot about those people. For example, their class. And there was always a blank look from the students, so I would ask them, what class do you think you belong to? And everyone said, middle class. All these very varied kids from all different kinds of backgrounds, some of them first-generation immigrants, some very rich, others very poor, and they were all saying they were middle class. It’s a mental blank spot. You’re clearer about this in Britain. On the other hand, the gender issue here is much more problematic because, I think, of the idealisation of the pioneer woman in the United States. Women there have always been more forthright, one way or another. Feminism was more advanced in the United States than in any place in Europe. These differences are intriguing and as a foreigner, I notice them.
SL: You said at your talk at Frieze Art Fair (October 2010) that you thought feminism was more resolved in America than it is in Britain – do you think that’s because of the reasons you’ve just given?
SH: From the narrow perspective of the art world, I know that to come out as a feminist was the worst thing that you could do in this country. Thirty or forty years ago there were virtually no prominent women artists. In the art world, no women wanted to be involved in feminism unless they felt they had nothing to lose. The British Council never sent any women artists abroad; there were no women, or possibly just one token one, in the big exhibitions at major museums – it was just unbelievable. Of course, when we started to organise, people in the art establishment just…Well, I was told that I had completely screwed up my career. I think there’s a lot of ambivalence about the subject in the art world here, even now. Young women artists don’t want to be identified as feminists. Here it’s considered too controversial, not polite, or even, not a problem anymore.
SL: Yes – as part of the opening events for the exhibition ‘WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution’ (MOCA, LA, 2007), which your work was included in, there was a debate, the title of which was ‘Is Feminism Still Relevant?’
SH: In the States, it is a tired subject. Being sexist is as bad as being racist. All the new English-speaking countries – Canada, Australia and the USA – have much more progressive attitudes towards women than the UK, there’s just no doubt about it. It goes back to the fact that women had to take such a strong role in the early days of those countries. American suffragettes were not slow to make their demands, and if you look back on the history of suffrage – all the major American political thinkers, academics and politicians of any standard, all came out for the women. In Britain there was a completely different situation.
SL: You have made several works in which objects are presented as events, or traces of events, such as the recordings of ‘dead’ languages in The Last Silent Movie (2007) or the 41 photographs of memorials that form part of Monument (1980-81). These recordings, relics and inscriptions, speak, as you have said, from beyond the grave – they are both sculptural (existing in space) and performative (existing in time, as an event, and thereafter as a memory). Are you interested in a more cyclical, rather than linear, conception of time?
SH: I am interested in Walter Benjamin’s idea that history – the past – only exists in the present moment, as it speaks to us now. The ideas in the memorial plaques, for example, the ones I used in Monument – of heroism, civilian heroism – those ideas aren’t just particular to that period. They are relevant to us now for many reasons or I wouldn’t have been interested in them.
My interest in disappearing languages is similar, since our society is also in the process of becoming the past. The Last Silent Movie is on one level a critique of the way that our society fetishes language loss, but not the people who lost the language. In other words, we put the language in an archive but the people die – they die through disease, poverty, they hit the bottom of some social scale in some country or other. Nobody does anything about that – anthropologists don’t do anything to actively intervene in anything. But then they collect languages, as though languages were a token of concern or something of the sort. Then they put them in an archive which no one else is allowed to use – I had to find devious ways to get those samples in my piece. Because if you’re locked out, then everyone is locked out of those archives – it’s peculiar, isn’t it?
SL: I’m interested in the emphasis in many of your interviews and writings on material, and on the artist being in a position to show others and themselves – ‘what we don’t know we know’. You have described vision as ‘touching with the eyes’ and a soundtrack as being experienced physically, as an ear being touched by sound from another body. There seems to be an interesting paradox here, in that although you are working with material things, the underlying agenda (if I can call it that) seems to be concerned with things that are immaterial, such as projection, memory and loss?
SH: The only way I can make those things manifest is to provide a genuine experience for the viewer- it becomes a transfer from one to the other and that’s why I don’t deal with abstractions. Specifically, I’m trying to get at how one body can communicate with another body. One of the problems now with a lot of art is to do with the way it is being taught. In an attempt to get art students to think more about what they are doing, they are being led the wrong way, to take the text as primary and then to make illustrations, and that doesn’t work. And then we get a press release which tells us what we’re going to experience – or a wall text. I was at a museum the other day, reading wall texts and they all tell you what the work is about – and what you are supposed to feel about the work. Why would I need a text if the work worked?
SL: I was at Manifesta 8 in Spain recently, and so much of it was text on walls, pamphlets and leaflets – there was a real surfeit of written material. The effect of it is that you go away with all this printed matter, thinking, I’ll read and try to understand this later, so the whole experience is deferred or postponed to some other place.
SH: Well, it is an anxiety – an anxiety about the multivalent possibility of art – that people can make their own interpretation and they might not think of the work in the same way that the artist thinks of it. In many ways it’s an attempt to close down the gap between intention and interpretation. It’s a big mistake, because it’s a tremendous oversimplification of the potential that art has to communicate, and to communicate all kinds of special and unthought thoughts to people. If you don’t allow that, as a way that artists can work, then you’re just censoring art, really.
SL: Some of your work, such as the installation An Entertainment (1990) [which uses four cross-edited video projections to generate an enormous inside-out Punch and Judy theatre] highlight and confront traumatic and frightening aspects of human society, whereas others have a more recuperative tone, such as the annotated collection of 300 hand-tinted postcards of rough seas at British seaside resorts, Dedicated to the Unknown Artists (1972-76). Would it be accurate to talk of your work as being partly motivated by social conscience?
SH: I would say that I am interested in change. I think that one of the things that artists do is to allow possibilities of change by looking at stuff that people don’t pay much attention to, what you might call the invisible element.
SL: What I found interesting about these works, although on first glance they are quite different, is that both seem to be kinds of apparitions – in that you are framing the action of something appearing, either something previously unrecognised (the real brutality of Punch and Judy), or a ghost or ghostlike image of a person (who is the vision of the unknown artist).
SH: I’m really interested in the way you put that – I thought that was really intriguing because of course this kind of ghost haunts us – well, they haunt me, I suppose. Let’s say in the postcard piece, it’s the unacknowledged creativity of the people who make those images, images which we all find very captivating, which have been immensely popular for a hundred and fifty years. That’s a ghost, I guess. The function of the Punch and Judy is a kind of initiation in accepting a certain element of violence within the family, yes – that’s a ghost too. I’m looking at things which aren’t normally seen as important, so then we have to ask, why are they not seen as important?
SL: Your work seems connected to the idea of contagion, how ideas spread – through society, through shared ideas, and particularly occurrences and beliefs that are ‘normal and commonplace, but suppressed because they are embarrassing’ such as the hallucinatory images seen by people in the screens of their switched off televisions reflected upon in Belshazzar’s Feast / The Writing on Your Wall (1983-84) and the recordings of personal experiences of extraterrestrial encounters that formed part of the installation Witness (2000). What do you consider to be the ‘particular kind of secrets’ that are most symptomatic in society and culture today?
SH: I suppose people tune into different kinds of secrets. The kind of secrets that apparently fascinate me are the secrets about human imagination, perception and doubts about descriptions of how our minds work.
SL: You mentioned that you thought that society had changed in Britain now, that people were more apathetic when it comes to politics, for example. Is there anything in particular going on at the moment that has captured your attention?
SH: The recent things I’ve been working on concern excavating the ghosts of modernism and the occult – esoteric philosophies that were utilised by artists of that period – for example, Beuys and Klein. I’m working on a Gertrude Stein piece at the moment [on show at Timothy Taylor Gallery in London this February as part of Hiller’s exhibition of new work, ‘An Ongoing Investigation’]. This relates to your question because there’s been a revival of interest in those ideas due to the influence of New Age beliefs, but in fact the dualism between rational and irrational has been strengthened. Because sometimes these beliefs are taken extremely literally rather than leading people to think more about how our definition of ourselves is constructed. And now there is also a trend to debunk god as a myth, while on the other hand many people are very credulous about religion or other beliefs, for instance, about the human aura or feng shui- in a way that mirrors the debunkers… people have a capacity for imagination, for visualisation, for empathy – and that empathy is more than just a feeling of sympathy for other people. I think there is a reason why ideas all occur at the same time to many people – and that art is one way of manifesting the different kinds of perceptions that are possible or that we can imagine could be possible. That’s why I do art.
SL: You are preparing for a major survey exhibition at Tate Britain. Given that much of your body of work has been concerned with the effects of absence and memory, what insights or surprises have arisen during the process of collecting, cataloguing and restaging your own work for the exhibition and the accompanying catalogue?
SH: I could say that the most important insight for me has been that one shouldn’t dwell too much on the past [laughs]. It’s important to go on making work, but unless you have a repetitive production formula – which I don’t – it’s difficult to do that when you’re being asked to reconsider your earlier work and scrutinise it. I don’t mean the past is another country, but I mean that I can see problems in all the works that I’ve made, and yet what I know now is that the very fact that each work had a problem was what enabled me to make the next work. So to see this nowas a fixed point, that I’ve done the work and it’s over – that’s a terrible tendency and I hope it doesn’t trap me in non-productivity. It’s been more difficult than pleasurable, actually, being so retrospective.
SL: That was why George Brecht wanted to call his 2006 retrospective at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne a ‘hetereospective’, because he hated the whole idea of the retrospective.
SH: A complete retrospective would include everything from the beginning to the end. As I’m not dead, that can’t happen to me, and my Tate exhibition is really just a large survey of some selected works.