Interview with Tanya Axford

Currently based in Newcastle upon Tyne, visual artist Tanya Axford has developed work throughout the UK exhibiting in group and solo shows. She has produced a number of large-scale temporary commissions, for high profile organisations nationally and has work in both The Government Art Collection and UBS Collection. Her practice encompasses site-specific installation, video and performance works as well as cross-art form collaborations. She participated in Whitstable Biennale 2012 with the performance installation The Path Made by a Boat in Sound (3 down). Performance curator Emma Leach interviews Axford about her work and her relationship to performance.

Emma Leach:     When we first talked about your new commission, you said you were excited about showing work in the Biennale because it’s known for showing performance. Did you already think of your work as performative?

Tanya Axford:     Working on this piece really shifted my thinking about the role of performance in my practice. Even though I'd made installations that were quite performative in the past – involving something that transforms over time – I'd never thought of those pieces as performance works.

EL:     I first saw your piece View Halloo at Turner Contemporary. I'd considered that a very performative piece...

TA:     That's what I mean! I hadn't considered View Halloo in that way. If I'd been asked to talk about its qualities, I'd probably have used the language you'd use to describe a performance, but I hadn't thought about in those terms. It was really exciting because performance had only been a small part of my practice before; it wasn't how I framed my work or how I perceived myself. So when you approached me from that perspective it was really interesting, and it has continued to influence my practice since.

Another big shift for me was thinking about video as performance. Previously I'd only used video as a documentary form, but for this work I used video as a performative material.

EL:     Could you describe the different elements that made up The Path Made by a Boat in Sound (3 down)? What did visitors see when they walked in the room?

TA:     In the middle of the room was a pair of swinging pendulums. Each one had a miniature projector fixed to its base, projecting a film of dancers onto a circular piece of vinyl flooring. It was important that the pendulums weren't swinging regularly, so the two of them were on different timers; sometimes they came together, at other times they separated. The footage of the dancers was shot from above. So visitors were looking down at the projection on the floor, and also looking down on the dancers from above. On either side of the circular vinyl flooring, there was a musician: a pianist on one side and a cellist on the other.

EL:     What were the musicians playing?

TA:     They were improvising within a structure, responding to what was happening in the room. The initial premise was that they would respond to the visitors' movements in the space; the visitors would dictate the sounds the musicians made. But as the musicians watched the work running, they began to respond to how the pendulums interacted with each other. The pendulums would suddenly swing in time with each other and it felt like an important shift in the work. The musicians started changing what they were playing when that happened. That wasn't something that was pre-planned, it was just something they responded to when they were there.

EL:     What was so striking about these moments when the pendulums swung together?

TA:     It didn't happen very often, but when it did happen it felt unexpected. We're used to watching anything mechanical move like clockwork. When you walked in the room, you expected the pendulums to move in this way, but actually they didn't behave in the way you'd expect. In fact, a lot of things weren't behaving in the way you'd expect! There were continual surprises and constant change as the piece unfolded.

EL:     Visitors sat or stood in the room for a long time. I wonder if this was because there were all these different elements to the work and they were trying to figure them out. The irregular movement of the projectors was a bit jarring, it wasn't possible to read their movements without spending some time in the space.

TA:     You expect these things to be predictable: a mechanism, a projection, musicians playing. But performance is unpredictable – it has that element of surprise.

The piece was open for 45min slots, partly because of the battery life of the projectors and partly so the musicians could have breaks. But I'd never expected people to stay for the whole 45mins! Visitors sat down and stayed till the end. The really nice thing about that was that it forced the musicians to respond to much more subtle movements.

EL:     Like someone adjusting their bag, for example...

TA:     Yes. And it became much more of a game for the musicians: a game played between them and the visitors.

EL:     Everything in the work was on the move - the projectors, the dancers in the video, the musicians. Even when the visitors were staying ’still’ in the room, the musicians were responding to their tiniest movements. Was perpetual motion an important idea in the work?

TA:     Perpetual motion was definitely important in the piece. I spent time in Whitstable when I was developing the work and became acutely aware of the sea, which is constantly moving, and of Whitstable’s relationship to it. It was definitely on my mind while I was developing the work.

EL:     When we were looking for a site for the work, you didn’t want it to be shown in a music space, like a concert hall. Was this so that it didn’t set the visitors’ expectations?

TA:     If we'd used a music venue I thought people would come in with baggage – expectations, experience, assumptions – and not necessarily take on what was happening in a fresh and unaffected way. I didn't want there to be a stage. I wanted it to be an immersive environment, so people would walk in and feel like they were in the work, not standing on the edge of it.

Also the musicians were as important as the projection, as important as the pendulums, as important as the dancers, as important as the visitors.

EL:     You wanted to flatten the hierarchy of all these elements.

TA:     Yes, all the elements were as significant as each other, and in the same way.

EL:     How did you work with Leo Chadburn, who composed the music?

TA:     We went through a number of different stages with the piece. When we originally spoke, Leo was going to develop a complex score with structured elements that would be activated by how people moved through the space and what they were doing. There were also going to be a lot more musicians. We did a test run with local musicians, who were fantastic. It was a breakthrough moment. This was the point when Leo and I really started to push the piece forward together. When we listened to the musicians and thought about how the piece would work, we took the decision to simplify it. We both realised that we'd give the musicians a better opportunity to bring the piece to life if there were fewer elements and a more fluid, improvised score.

EL:     You had a few surprises while you were making the work!

TA:     Yes! The essence of the work remained the same, but for lots of different reasons there were changes along the way. The whole project was in perpetual motion. At times it was stressful, there were technical challenges. What I was trying to do with that piece was challenge the material of video, and I think it’s OK, important even, to encounter difficulties, when you're trying to push the boundaries of a material.