Channelling an array of found footage into his sound and video works, James Richards tests the limits of depicting visceral materiality
‘The world intends towards being seen,’ noted philosopher Kaja Silverman in her book World Spectators (2000). ‘It aspires or moves towards appearance. When we look at other creatures and things […] it is also in response to their very precise solicitation to us to do so.’1 James Richards’s video work is compelled by the act of seeing and of being seen. Footage of eyes comes up repeatedly, suggesting a mirror image of our own seeing eye, while short segments of film are repeated, inverted from positive to solarized negative, inserted into slow panning shots or close-ups of some ambiguous surface texture from which we can’t tear away our gaze. Looking is the thing. Richards’s recent, sound-only works have equivalent intentions: the sound holds us, segueing together snippets of background noise that are familiar but hard to place with gorgeous choral arias, low-volume muttering or the driving momentum of a steady bass beat. The artist’s interest in both vision and sound is tied to perception and sensation as physical functions, rather than to understanding in intellectual terms. His work is phenomenologically driven, seeking out ways to mediate the body’s relations to technology and the natural world.
When I meet Richards in his Kreuzberg apartment in Berlin (he stayed on in the city after a DAAD residency in 2013), he mentions his attraction to ‘the welling up of harmony’. The potential of sound as a medium is deeply ingrained. Growing up in Wales, during the 1980s, he sang in a choir, while his teenage years saw him experimenting with free-sound improvisation, using analogue radios or old television sets to generate material that could then be sampled and mixed in real time to create a soundscape dense with accident. During the years he spent studying on a media-oriented fine art course at Chelsea School of Art, from which he graduated in 2006, Richards was a regular at the film programmes put together by Ian White at the Whitechapel Gallery and Stuart Comer at Tate Modern. He also interned at LUX, London’s agency for artists’ film and video work, and, tasked with checking returned film reels for scratches and other damage, he would watch this random, decontextualized footage for hours on end, on an ancient Steenbeck editing suite with a dodgy sound connection. Following this, he spent a summer interning at Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI) in New York, doing filing all morning in return for free afternoons in which to pillage EAI’s vast archives of historical and current video works by artists. Cumulatively, these experiences offered him unusually broad exposure to early experimental films and moving-image work, as well as giving him a taste for vague, directionless trawling through archives, waiting for something to catch his eye – a decisive influence on his subsequent practice.
‘We all have this stream of information that we have to edit ourselves,’ Richards stated in an exhibition pamphlet for his 2011 show at London’s Chisenhale Gallery, ‘but just to isolate one thing on a hunch and to think this thing might be the right image or the right moment to stick with and get into and freeze it somehow’ – this is what he is after.2 Given the mass of stuff out there, the challenge is to make something out of it that is not arbitrary, he told me when we met, something that is charged and can become a thing in the world of itself.
One of the strategies Richards employs to counteract image saturation and its attendant anxieties is to work with the same passages of footage repeatedly, editing or manipulating them in different ways, until those excerpts – a flock of seagulls flying in the sky is a favourite – are refrains that develop their own identities, eventually becoming familiar on their own terms, like a painter’s particular brush stroke technique. Radio at Night (2015), a Walker Art Center Moving Image Commission, was devised to be viewed online for a limited duration. Of all of Richards’s works, this one seems most focused on the act of seeing and technology’s influence on perception. Repeated sequences show pairs of eyes, irises flickering left to right, cut out and framed sharply against an image of the open sky, like a screen layered on top of a screen. Others shuffle between views of woodland seen from a train window, nighttime shots of young men in elaborate carnival dress or a scrolling montage of vertical slices of imagery, from close ups of eyelashes or bullet wounds to pig carcasses strung up in a factory or scenes from an operating theatre. All of the footage has been dimmed to a muted palate, almost but not quite black and white – a draining of colour that allows for a smooth continuum between otherwise disparate motifs, which counter the seductive with the visceral. The soundtrack is similarly wide-ranging, soldering fragments of ambient sound – seagulls, sloshing water, low rumbles – with vocal arrangements composed by the artist and recorded with the British experimental voice-harmony trio Juice, accruing a hypnoptic intensity that seems to propel the images along.
Richards embraces technology, absorbing and working it through to examine how it affects ways of seeing or hearing, and explores the relation of eye to ear to body that exists even when we are plugged into headphones and staring at a screen. His works seem to use technology in order to examine the limits of the depiction of visceral materiality (how can this flat surface represent flesh, death, desire, being, even vision itself?) and to test out sensual responses to these screen-bound visions. The title Radio at Night suggests a sonic atmosphere brought into being by technology; the sense of tuning into transmissions forms a substructure of Richards’s work. He scavenges not only the internet for material but also discarded VHS cassettes – home movies, pornography, instructional videos, Hollywood films – and spoken-word records, as well as occasionally adding footage he has shot himself. All of this material is stored in folders on his computer, each piece waiting to be assigned a use. As he recycles and adapts the material from one video to the next, it moves further and further away from its original context until it detaches itself completely, shedding the specifics of reference or authorship to be synthesized into a different logic. Rather than speaking of ‘appropriation’, Richards calls it ‘channelling’, as if he were a conduit through which this material can flow.
Take, for example, Raking Light (2014), which is currently on tour as part of the British Art Show. The piece takes its name from a method of art conservation in which a bright light is shone obliquely across a painting to reveal its surface topography. Here, light is both an artistic medium and a tool for examination. In the video, much of what is visible has been transformed through post-production: colours are ratcheted-up or solarized until the things we see become defined by texture more than subject-matter. The sequences are full of natural forms and fluid phenomena that are hard to grasp – surfaces that conceal volume and energy: a swelling body of water, a tree half-submerged in a lake, a flock of birds circling through the sky in a liquid mass. The images, in a tonal scale of silver and grey, burgeon and switch, while sound gathers and recedes, like a tide lapping at a shore: a twanging oriental-sounding guitar, a slight percussive shake, a distant voice singing a country refrain that emerges out of the distortion, its vibrating, distant words barely audible.
There is an incredible richness to the scenes in Raking Light, despite the fact that the footage they employ is not at all extraordinary: Richards describes the imagery as being ‘a bit empty-ish’ or ‘distant’. Projected large in a pale, carpeted room, the work offers itself up as if unauthored, with a life of its own. The experience of watching Richards’s work is totally absorbing but, afterwards, it is difficult to remember specific elements of the films. The many components from which the work derives its power are almost impossible to reproduce in your imagination. This is partly due to the seamlessness of the editing, but also to the fact that Richards cuts the material exactly before ‘a full reading is possible’, as he puts it, which allows something to ‘slip out of view, out of understanding’.3 The viewing experience is locked into a thickly plastic present, seduced by surfaces that are distantly familiar and touch some vague chord of nostalgia, but are rigorously non-specific. ‘The world discloses different aspects of itself to the camera than it does to us,’ writes Silverman in her most recent book, The Miracle of Analogy (2015), referring to Walter Benjamin’s idea of the ‘optical unconscious’.4 This substrata of imagery, revealing itself as if accidentally to the camera’s eye, is what Richards seeks to mine.
The only time that Richards allows the material he adopts to remain intact is in the film programmes he curates as an integral part of his practice, which are often shown alongside his own works. With a similar attention to rhythm and pace as in his own videos, he brings together works by artists such as Julia Heyward, Stuart Marshall, Steve Reinke and Chris Sanders. Though using this as an opportunity to showcase and acknowledge works by filmmakers or artists he has been influenced by or admires, Richards still aims to ‘set up enough tension and overlap to create a singular experience for the viewer’.5
In 2015, Richards was invited by London’s Whitechapel Gallery to make an exhibition working with the Russian V-A-C art collection. His response was to select a single work, a darkly powerful 1953 painting by Francis Bacon: Study for a Portrait. Richards installed it in its heavy gilt frame in a room set with benches and shrouded in floor-to-ceiling pink-gold curtains and added an ambient soundtrack that combined non-sounds like shufflings, coughs and rustles with spare piano melodies and the vocal harmonies of a trio of singers. Working with the idea of an inhabited almost-silence, the installation, titled To Replace a Minute’s Silence with a Minute’s Applause (2015), was charged with the solemnity of ritual.
Richards embraces technology, absorbing and working it through to examine how it affects ways of seeing and hearing.
Richards’s solo show ‘Crumb Mahogany’ – which opened in February at Bergen Kunsthall, and will travel in amended form to London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts in September and Hanover’s kestnergesellschaft in December – furthers the idea of sound countering vision that began with the Whitechapel commission. Here, in two discrete sound pieces and five separate, wall-mounted videos (each titled Crumb Mahogany, 2016), sound was detached from moving image and allowed to bleed in and around. Early on, Richards had described his idea to stage the show as a ‘walk through’, imagining a passage through the Kunsthall’s adjacent rooms that would activate more peripheral aspects of attention. The final works here, both visual and audio, were composed onsite in a process of improvisation rooted in his teenage experiments with sound, and spread throughout the four sequential rooms to engage the potential of oblique perspectives or sound leakage.
In the largest of these rooms, Richards installed a sound-only work with six speakers on spindly stands arranged around four benches. The sounds were vaguely identifiable – bass rumbles, vinyl static, street noise, a siren and honking horn, an a cappella chorus, muttering under the breath, glass shattering, a minor chord – but the work’s power lay in the cumulative effect of their combinations and over-layering, which build up, washing over the audience like an irresistible tide. The atmosphere of the rooms was choreographed with Richards’s characteristic precision, from the sparse hardware of speakers, cables, hard-drive cabinets and wall-mounted flat-screen televisions, to the heavy pale grey curtains hanging a few feet in front of the walls, creating an envelope of space within each room. Even more so than in the earlier film works, the moving images here are fleeting and enigmatic; two short-looped sequences spliced horizontally on each flat screen present the kind of visual contingency that previously unravelled over time.
Crumb Mahogany enacts an expansive detour from the compression of the digital, hand-held screen as a primary means of viewing images towards a fully physical, corporeal experience. It is aimed at the level of sensation, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty describes it: ‘Each time I experience a sensation, I feel that it concerns not my own being, the one for which I am responsible and for which I make decisions, but another self which has already sided with the world, which is already open to certain of its aspects and synchronized with them.’6 The sensations Richards’s works generate, constructed as they are of so many different threads, are fluid and affective. ‘I want to assemble things that push and pull one’s feelings, rather than sticking to single points or statements,’ he told me, talking about Crumb Mahogany. ‘Moving from high drama to the erotic, from the violent to the banal; it’s the specifics of these sensations that I’m trying to tap.’
James Richards is an artist living and working in Berlin, Germany. His exhibition ‘Crumb Mahogany’, which was on show at Bergen Kunsthall, Norway, earlier this year, travels to the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, UK, in September, and to the kestnergesellschaft, Hanover, Germany, in December. His work isalso included in the British Art Show 8, which is on display at various venues in Norwich, UK, (24 June–4 September) and Southampton, UK, (8 October–14 January 2017). In 2017, he will represent Wales at the 57th Venice Biennale.
First published in Issue 180