Melanie Gilligan

Canadian Art | 2013

Canadian Art, Fall 2013

Conversation between Melanie Gilligan and Aileen Burns and Johan Lundh.

As the world’s financial system was grinding to a halt in 2008, Canadian artist Melanie Gilligan’s practice was gaining momentum; her artistic research into capitalism and its effects became urgent as the world plunged into its worst financial crisis (some say) since the Great Depression. Originally from Toronto, Gilligan divides her time between London and New York—two of the world’s financial and art centres. She has been shortlisted for this year’s Max Mara Art Prize for Women and is also part of “Carbon 14: Climate is Culture,” just opened at the Royal Ontario Museum. (Some of her major works are also fully viewable online.)

Aileen Burns & Johan Lundh: We’d like to start by congratulating you on your recent nomination for the Max Mara Art Prize for Women. We are currently working with the most recent recipient, Laure Prouvost, who had a good experience working with the prize organizers. As you know, a production residency in Italy forms a significant part of the award. Are residencies a significant part of your practice?

Melanie Gilligan: Thanks for the congratulations! On certain occasions, I’ve been in a location for some time in order to produce in that place.

For instance, I’m currently working on a new video piece called The Common Sense, which I began filming this year at the University of Toronto in collaboration with the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, and I’ll be continuing to shoot the work in the Netherlands. I have spent a good amount of time in both places during the development of the work. I haven’t participated in many residency programs, but the time to work and think with some distance from other responsibilities is always helpful.

AB & JL: Your practice has dealt with the intersection between technology, labour and affect. This comes across in your five-part drama Popular Unrest (2010) and the triptych video Self-Capital (2009). Does the specific context in which you are working significantly impact how you tell these stories exposing immaterial labour, market forces and biopolitics?

MG: It’s interesting. One might assume that works of mine such as Popular Unrest or Self-Capital could be made anywhere because their subject matter, for the most part, is systemic global economic and political phenomena and conditions. However, the way I work is actually highly responsive to the particular conditions that I’m in; when making a video I tend to let elements, such as the locations that I have access to for filming or the actors that I meet, inform a lot of my decisions.

I made a video series in 2008, Crisis in the Credit System, where I interviewed many people in London’s financial world—investment bankers, hedge-fund managers, financial journalists, economists—to develop the piece. It aided my understanding of the brewing economic crisis, but the knowledge I gained also included types of personalities, ways of speaking and attitudes that gave me a lot to work with.

Self-Capital was a work formed around its location at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. The spaces where each scene took place had a double meaning: as both the art institution and the backdrop for Self-Capital’s story of systemic and individual economic crisis.

AB & JL: Technology and connectivity is not only a theme in your work but also a medium. Can you tell us a bit about why you choose to share your videos free online?

MG: I put my videos online because I want to share my work with many types of audiences and many different kinds of people—not just people who are part of the art world. The distribution of video works can be as wide or as narrow as the artist desires.

My specific choice was to use the broad distribution potential of video as a model of working, especially in my pieces Crisis in the Credit System, Self-Capital and Popular Unrest.

AB & JL: In the current financial and political climate, the keyword in the UK and throughout Europe is still austerity. How important has private funding, like the Max Mara Art Prize for Women, become for art?

MG: In the UK and Europe, there’s a significant transition taking place right now where public funding is being swiftly curtailed. Private arts funding sources are certainly becoming more important, and in parallel, commercial galleries are becoming much more central.

Funding bodies such as Arts Council England have been encouraging this process of weaning the arts off of public funding by encouraging private endeavours.

However, now we see that the recent economic crisis is having a much greater impact in this respect. A notable shift has taken place and the global commercial market is a more powerful force in the support and display of visual art. Such tendencies were developing throughout the boom years that ended in the 2000s, but now they are more pronounced as the economic crisis has increased challenges for public institutions of all kinds.

AB & JL: The Max Mara Award is distinctive in that it focuses on women artists. Do you have a sense that there is an imbalance in the art world? In terms of opportunities for women artists or otherwise?

MG: I think that patriarchy forms subjectivities in such manifold ways that it’s kind of hard to meaningfully single out the question of access for women in the art world.

By this, I mean that women, and all people, are affected by current attitudes around gender on so many levels that the ability to show work is very much entangled and hard to see separately.

There are various ways that possibilities and modes of being are shut down for women as artists—or simply as women. Some of these ways are reflected in how they’re treated and viewed as artists, or how their paths are made to lead away from making art because of their social and economic situations. So, yes, I do really appreciate that the Max Mara Award is specifically for women.

AB & JL: Do you have a project in the works now that you could tell us a bit about? What can we look forward to seeing from you in the coming year?

MG: There are a few things that I’m working on.

The project that I mentioned, The Common Sense, that I’ve been developing with Justina M. Barnicke Gallery and two institutions in the Netherlands, de Appel and Casco, is a long-form video project. It’s a piece that lays out an imagined future where a new technology gives people the capacity to overlap other people’s subjectivities and lived experiences onto their own through feeling another’s physical sensations and emotions.

The story focuses on how this new technology changes forms of subjectivity, and ultimately the entire social landscape.

As you both picked up, I’m interested in technology insofar as it is part of the structures of our political and social world. Technologies inevitably change us—our attitudes, our social relationships and the ways we use our capacities. Social inequality is rife in this world, and technology is useful for resistant collective organization in various ways. But technologies can’t be seen in isolation, and clearly a technology like the one imagined in The Common Sense would also be useful in new divisions of labour and intensifications of exploitation, and it could accentuate social control.

The Common Sense is an attempt to think about what social and political forms of collectivity could be today and how subjects are formed by on the one hand, collective experience, and on the other, singular individual experience. How are our subjectivities both individual and collective, and what does this mean?

In addition, there are two shorter works that I’ve just made. The first is called 4 x exchange/abstraction, which will be shown in a group exhibition entitled “and Materials and Money and Crisis” at mumok/Museum of Modern Art Vienna curated by Richard Birkett. It consists of four two-to-three-minute-long videos placed around the exhibition.

The first three in this series have very distinct styles: a 3-D digital animation, a video using structuralist “flicker” film technique, and an abstracted digital assemblage. Each of these has its particular way of approaching the abstraction of concrete particulars in the commodified, quantified, financialized social landscape in which we relate.

The fourth video assembles these in an overview or compilation much like similarly styled sequences frequently used today to sum up the final scenes in a season of a TV series or a particular TV episode. The form of those sequences fascinates me, and brings up the question, for me, of why this form of telling is popular now.

Also, Tom Ackers and I have made a work together, Deep Time, which is commissioned by the Cape Farewell Foundation and is part of an exhibition that they are presenting at the Royal Ontario Museum entitled “Carbon 14: Climate is Culture.”

Deep Time is a two-screen video work in which we look at the problem of climate change through a dual focus: the earth’s exploitation and human exploitation. We look at how capitalism developed out of the appropriation of both natural wealth and human potential, and how it degrades and undermines both of those material bases in which our capitalist cultures subsist. We have also tried to make palpable the immense discrepancies in timescale and complexity that confront one another in the dialectic of nature and these cultures.