At the beginning of last week, Nottingham-based artist and current West Dean College Artist-in-Residence, Blue Firth, gave a talk about her practice to the full-time Visual Arts students and a number of guests. Over the course of an hour, Blue gave a fascinating insight into how her work has developed, taking in various media (sculptural and sound installations, participatory events, publications, site-specific projects) as well as outlining a consistent focus on what is immaterial. In the context of a desire to make work that is tangible (i.e. material) to a broad audience, as well as a renewed passion for materials and the act of making, these problems were discussed as motivating factors in Blue’s practice in general as well as her three-week residency at West Dean.
Discussing her studies at both Loughborough University and the Royal Academy, Blue outlined an formative interest in different types of latent information, giving a series of examples of data being in some way inscripted within the fabric of material spaces, artefacts or events. Soon this interest led to a body of work focusing on forms of encounter than can be referenced or otherwise enacted within the context of an artwork, performance event or gallery context. Starting with a compelling combination of references to The X-Files, cult TV serial The Stone Tape and Derek Jarman’s 1971 film, Journey to Avebury, Blue described how she became fascinated by historically loaded signs and symbols, particularly in relation to the occult. She went on to develop her own designs for ‘talismans’ (often tongue-in-cheek) that would provide portals into realms/places/locations/contexts ‘other’ than this one. Part of this inquiry led into further research into archaeo-acoustics, particularly the use of various materials as recording devices in light of their capacity for resonance or the ability to retain immaterial information, whether it be residual traces of social history, a sense of place, evidence of trauma and humour, or a link between virtualities and proprioceptive actions in the physical world. Many of Blue’s pieces at this time involved vinyl cut-outs, applied onto the flat surfaces of walls, ceilings and floors, with designs that not only referenced occult symbolism but also corporate logos and test cards from (now seemingly archaic) regional television stations. References to pop culture and associated aesthetics emerged throughout the talk, with an emphasis on their use not only as theatrical or rhetorical devices, but also as a productive shorthand for various cultural markers; science fiction, B-movies, progressive rock, secret societies, and so on.
An example of this phase of work was the 2008 installation, Pentacle, commissioned for Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire, the former home of Lord Byron. A wooden pentagram was installed inside a courtyard fountain, made to look as though it had only recently been unearthed from beneath the algae-ridden water; a combination suggestive of a marriage of images associated with Aleister Crowley and Quatermass. Here the appeal to the relic, or ruin, is combined with a high quality finish of a crafted object, colliding old and new in an attempt to confound such placements or raising the possibility of suspending an object (or evocation) in time. References to occult symbolism soon tied in with an interest in architectural follies, particularly in relation to public sculpture and the expectations / questions it can often provoke in both general and specialist audiences. Concurrent to this body of work, Blue was also involved in various collaborative projects that emerging from the staging of public events, soon developing into a long-term interest in relational structures and the use of artists’ interventions as conduits for audience interaction, re-enactments and social gatherings, particularly as a means of establishing critical debate and discussion. By playing on expectations of such events, collaborating artists would engage invited audiences with various questions concerning what they were to expect from the artwork, what was ‘supposed’ to be present or absent in such an exchange, as well as the role of printed ephemera (booklets, pamphlets, handouts, broadsides, etc.) in cultural discourse.
The possibilities raised by this artistic strategy of choreographing an audience – or “making people do things” as Blue put it – also fed into numerous other works, both in the context of Master’s studies at the Royal Academy and during residencies. A remote location in Scotland informed a residency project involving the artist studying techniques of dry-stone walling, eventually segmenting an exhibition space with bespoke barriers, then providing equally bespoke stiles so that the borders could be traversed; a project that engaging with the politics of enclosure, access and compartmentalisation. Another project returned to themes of occultism and the paranormal, embracing the loaded work ‘ghost’ as part of a staged investigation into the haunting of the Royal Academy Archive. As well as providing routes back into more conventional making processes (lithographs and etchings), the project again involved the artist undertaking training (this time as a paranormal investigator), as well as the use of invented logos that served as stand-ins for the artist’s activities: a kind of alter-ego or elements of a fictional mythology that also function as a device of authority for an unknown governing body. An interest in the power of such symbolic entities underpinned another work made at this time, Vigil: Participatory Observation and Fieldwork – An Investigation into Haunted Space, Psychometry and Spectatorship. The work constituted a form of social experiment wherein an invited audience assumes the role of a communal ‘receptor’ for unexpected or extraordinary events. With many of the features of a rigorous scientific experiment, the project incorporated the gallery space/educational environment both as a space of critique and a site rich with art historical associations.
Blue’s MA show at the Royal Academy saw a return to the use of vinyl cut-outs, this time applied as expansive patterning more concerned with architecture and volumetric space. Large stud walls were built to occupy the exhibition space, with rotating sections serving as both doors and barriers, delicately undermining people’s perceptions of the environment and how it was to be navigated. In this work and others associated with it, the monochromatic palette (one that has been insistent in much of Blue’s work) recalled an influence of modernist abstraction, minimal and modular sculptural forms, and even the performance spaces constructed by Bruce Nauman.
Blue concluded the talk by discussing more recent exhibitions involving the use of GPS technology and audio installation, combining her interest in visual patterning with the potential of aesthetic “noise”. The focus has shifted to emergent forms, finding a balance between material environments or built things with other, immaterial phenomena that might only be teased out or made to resound through interventions into perception.