• On spells, ants, islands, holes and shoes: A conversation with Adam Chodzko
  • On spells, ants, islands, holes and shoes: A conversation with Adam Chodzko
  • On spells, ants, islands, holes and shoes: A conversation with Adam Chodzko

Claude Lévi-Strauss once told his students, “Let’s go and study the primitives… before they disappear.”

Adam Chodzko, one of England’s most investigative contemporary artists, researches the past, present, future and, even, nonexistence of the notion “they disappear.”  Art is a tool to interpret the mysteries society doesn’t understand.  With Chodzko it is interpretation through a scientific and journalistic process of following the imagination.

His projects, mainly documented through video, follow communities, rumors, mythologies, court cases, and other nodes that connect everyday living to fantastical projections of what it means to be a human and a part of a community.  It begs the viewer to ask how much of life is fictional. As Chodzko explains, “What I like most in relation to reality and fiction is the really unexpected movements between one and the other.”

Born on the outskirts of London in 1965, Chodzko currently lives in the seaside town of Whistable, England. He has had recent solo exhibitions at Tate St. Ives, Malmö, Sweden, Dublin City Gallery Hugh Lane, and Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna.

Future exhibitions include Tang Contemporary Art, Beijing, ISIS, London, the 2009 Istanbul Biennial and the 2009 Athens Biennial.

He is a part of the upcoming Creative Time exhibition “Plot 09: This World and Nearer Ones” on New York City’s enigmatic Governors Island this summer, 27th of June-August 2009.

Stretcher: On a few occasions, art types in London have mentioned that you “disappeared” off to the seaside. When did you decide it was time to do this? What was the catalyst?

Chodzko: On these few occasions do these people in London also add that I was carrying a bucket and spade and a battered straw panama? You shouldn’t listen to those two, they always say stuff like that because they were brought up in Leicester, or somewhere, which is why they still get excited by the bright lights of Oxford Street and the giddy rush of a private view card popped through their letterbox.

You know, I really had to leave because of people like that.  And I probably owed them some money.

I just really wanted to go somewhere that had none of that desperate ambition and instead had marshes and mud, drizzle and caravans and…well, Whitstable isn’t really the ‘seaside’ in a ‘Baywatch’ or ‘Death in Venice’ sense but there is a shore, a nebulous state between land and sea which I do spend a lot of time goofing off at and walking along. The shore brings up many things, often dead.  It is a very good space for thinking in.

There’s another division which I’d really lost in London, the difference between night and day. The nights are really quiet in East Kent.  Everyone is in a stoned stupor, or silently awaiting the rapture, or watching pirate copies of Balinese shadow puppetry.

It is very difficult to see the wood for the trees—to see the metropolis as an entity that can be played with—unless you are in your 20’s, or a psychogeographer, a tourist etc. So, perversely, in order to become ‘urban’ you have to somehow live outside its structures in order to gain a lateral perspective on it. I wanted to see London from where the idea of the ‘city’ becomes abstractable. It is very difficult to contemplate this when you’re trying to use the ticket barriers at Tottenham Court Road station.

A lot of my work is made through the invention of ephemeral micro-communities and I had always wanted to try living in a similar kind of place, where you know your postman is also a games designer and that the baker has made his own canoe. I like the idea of a pooled knowledge and resources and you can begin creating this when everyone you know lives not more than ten minutes away. There is an expert on everything just a few streets away and after the apocalypse it will be up to just us to rebuild a slightly miscoloured and erratic version of the previous world based on a series of primary school drawings.

I work a lot with what’s around me in both a totally pragmatic and utterly hyperbolic way and I have made a lot of work since I’ve been here in the places and spaces that exist within a few miles.  I like being ‘local’ in that way but the work makes no sense here. It always needs to travel elsewhere to become analogy, to accrue a poetic meaning…

In a few years I’ll move again, out of the UK altogether.  I’m not sure where yet but probably nowhere sensible for an artist to live.

Stretcher: It seems as though, besides the atmosphere, the characters (the postman and the baker) define Whitstable. They are what they aren’t and aren’t what they are, etc. How do you fit into this?  Are you “the artist who also bakes” or are you the friendly, mysterious urbanite who walks that interstice between night and day?

Chodzko: Well, my identity as an artist counts for nothing here.  For one thing no one, apart from me, is interested in what anyone else does for a living. "So…what do you do?" is uttered infrequently and is a sign only of being an out-of-towner, or the hope that you’ll do some rewiring at a discount. Secondly, 80% of the town claims to be ‘artists’ so this term doesn’t carry that frisson of suspicious, isolated, bohemian connotations it would have in most small towns that have one artist, one village idiot, one neo-nazi…those places get allocated ONE outsider of each category. This place has loads.  And the local definition of being a ‘good artist’ is that you only show locally to an audience of the other local artists.  And I show ‘elsewhere’ which for them probably means what I do is ‘not really art’.  Sorry, not ‘probably’...I’ve been told that, definitely. So here being an artist is mostly a case of performing a persona in the local pubs rather than about making art.  So thirdly, being a ‘real’ artist I am a lot less ‘like an artist’ than most here and strangely it is the latter state which counts, and whose to say that’s necessarily ermmm ...wrong.

Stretcher: Do you remember the circumstances under which you began to make art?

Chodzko: I think the nice thing about making art is recognising where and when the creativity takes place, and the nice thing about making art for a while is that that recognition becomes more refined and yet that recognition is also often still totally surprised at where inspiration comes from. Sorry, this is sounding like the Rumsfeld “known unknowns” speech…anyway, the totally captivating and fascinating part of making art (because, god there are many dreary tiresome bits!) I can see my sons discovering as they play and experiment with their world. And so I remember that as a child the feeling of this discovery through play is the same feeling I’m looking for now. I’ve just got a bit better at manufacturing the conditions for it to appear so it’s probably a little less spontaneous. So, yes the answer to your question is that I do remember that we do this as children, but it takes quite a long time to reach that recognition. So you’ll have to decide whether the ‘making art’ or the ‘recognition of making art’ is the beginning, because they are looping together giddily in my head with increasing acceleration as I think about it…

Stretcher: In several of your projects, the installations are dependent on the charity of a local community.  For example, M-Path was made by the Bologna citizens who donated their shoes "to contemporary art.” Do you think the various levels of this community experience—donating shoes, seeing them in the museum space, walking in someone else’s shoes—allowed for these people to "recognize art being made" or that "they were making art"?

Chodzko:I think the former is more interesting but I’m dubious about artworks whose sole purpose is to ‘teach’ those alienated by the art world that they could be having a go too and it’s not so scary.  It seems complacent, reinforcing a notion that art is a rigid category that you can ‘join’ if you give up your old ways and lighten up a little.  Instead, works like M-Path create a series of often contradictory questions that try to undermine the stability of the category of art. M-Path proposes that a heightened perception of art requires the remote influence of those who appear to be outside it.  It suggests that those of us who might feel at home in the art world perhaps have not been looking properly. Perhaps we need to make a change (or at least ritually, symbolically acknowledge the acceptance of a personal change so that art is able to do ‘its work’ -or so that we can enter into a dialogue with it).  So M-Path echoes the shoe removal at entrances to mosques or temples. An act of humility, but a leveling, shared act. I’m wondering, through M-path, as viewers of art what are we expecting will happen when we look at art? What level of engagement is required? How are we involved as spectators—is our looking making the work? And what are the politics of that engagement?

The other part of your question; to offer people the perception “that they were making art” is more interesting to me…but the question with M-Path is also; where is the art object? Is it the shoes? Or is the act of loaning them or wearing them the artwork? Or is none of this art at all because the construct of M-Path suggests that there is art only beyond art’s borders.

Stretcher: Did you manage to gauge the distance the audience felt to the artwork?  Were they in it?  Or did they even feel more estranged by it?

Chodzko:  I’m not sure of the response. I’m never sure of the response to my work. Some people seemed to find M-Path funny, some disorienting, some disturbing…

The focus of M-Path is on this wearing of another’s shoes; something that generally has quite abject connotations. The wearers through a self-consciousness and awkwardness of movement suddenly become active participants in the gallery space – a sculptural presence and yet still partly maintaining an identity as viewer.

Stretcher: Also, when I picture you in relation to the work—it is like you are behind a curtain but omnipresent. Are you in your own shoes the whole time?

Chodzko: With M-Path I did wear the shoes each time, usually choosing the trickiest, some stilettos or a too-small pair of shower shoes.  I feel very uncomfortable in galleries anyway so I welcomed this costume change. However, I don‚Äôt like hanging around my own work so I had very ambivalent feelings about being part of it in the exhibition space. The work each time should be a substitute for my own presence, which I’m generally always a bit confused about.

Stretcher: In text-based examples of your work, dialogue sequences often drive the direction of the narrative.  This direction travels in and comes from many directions—zooming in on a perfect plant or stepping back to regard the architecture of stories.  In your journalistic style court case-based novella experiment, Romanov, an abstract character in a real court case infers that "a certain state of mind is necessary to slip from one state to another.”  I actually think this is good advice with regards to experiencing your work and I am wondering how many times you apply this to situations (whether they concern your work or art in general). What are some of these mind-states?

Chodzko: Yes, like Marker’s “sans soleil”, and Apichatpong Weeresethakul’s “mysterious object at noon” (I had to re-watch both last week so those are the immediate examples I could think of)‚Äîthere is an odd mixing between a realist, journalistic research and a surrealist ‘answer’ to the former’s quest that creates a shift into a kind of fiction.
I’m actually a bit preoccupied with sleep because I’ve rarely found it easy to get (the ‘right’ kind), I tend to put it off with relentless goofing off about one thing or another. So, often the works take the form of the fluid melding of thought when the recollection of ‘real’ events occurs at the point of sleep. There is a rapid dissolution of the edges of one event or idea into another, and between spaces and times.  There is little demarking of the boundaries between fact or fiction in this semi-sleep, half dream state, just as in early childhood they are pretty free flowing. We tend to invent the delineations because they are reassuring.

In Romanov the voice is partly taken from the actual trial transcripts and is partly my attempt to empathise with “Romanov” during her trial. So, the narration is from a thought process, somehow simultaneously both inside and outside the event. The narrative evolved by me through looking at all the evidence - what exists in reality in the present as the trace of this event - and then discovering the best possible reason to explain it; which turns out to be a surreal explanation because the reality of the event is so odd. My conclusion is that Romanov somehow, through a shifting (consciously or unconsciously) state of mind on her journey, is able to behave in such a way (basically spinning a web of contradictory behaviour and associations) that she dematerialises any ‘capture’ by authority, even by her environment. She/the event cannot be understood.  Instead of seeming to be a victim of a dominant order (or simply mad) she, perhaps, is able to play with these states and enter a space beyond them.

It appears from the press cutting that initiated my research that she somehow dissolved when captured—but looking deeper I think it was something she contrived and that she created a circumstance where everyone else dissolved in her presence.  It was a kind of hypnotism.

I’ve used a similar structure and this fluid state ‘voice’ in a lot of my work— Hole, Pyramid, Around, Yet, Plan for a Spell, Limbo Land etc.

Stretcher: One thing that first attracted me to your work was my immediate reaction to ask questions, and now I’m asking some of those.  How often do people ask you about your work in a casual, curious way?

Chodzko:Not often at all! I think I must do something with my body language (maybe my arms and eyebrows) which puts them off initiating this conversation.  I used to talk about it a lot but now no one really asks and I don’t really tell.

I now have a good relationship with my work (it feels like a fantastic but volatile friendship) so I don’t miss having the work as the subject of casual dialogue. However, it’s nice to hear you say that you have that response because the work is structured around the creation of questions that I am asking myself, and the work is intended to provoke these questions in a viewer. But maybe the lack of actually asking questions is not indicative of a lack of curiosity but more is evidence of an acknowledgement of the lack of something being answerable.

Stretcher: The layering of images and sounds is a very compelling characteristic in your work. Like in “Design for a Carnival,” the track by A Certain Ratio fades in and out of the scenes but gets louder when the image of the actual record spinning comes into view.  The interaction of sound and image is even more noticeable in “Plan for a Spell” where there is a layering of disparate sound onto, and at odds with, the image.

Chodzko: Yes, this layering is really fundamental to the work and I really enjoy building it up in this way. The song is “Winter Hill” by A Certain Ratio.  I think a lot of what I’m interested in with sound and image is evident in Limbo Land. However, hybrid sounds that are made up from a number of different, disparate concrete sources, really interest me. I like collecting the sounds myself and then work with a sound designer to build the layers and juxtapositions.  It feels to me that more than a layering of the visual, a layering of sound provides a depth‚Äîbut a depth which alludes to an acknowledgement and acceptance of difference.  Contrary to our experience of place in time and space being fixed, pure and stable, this disparity of sound with image and layering of sounds suggests that there is interference; relationships and influences that network one space and time with many others.

Stretcher: Your project “Pyramid” (which was commissioned for the Folkestone Triennial) was created when you spotted an “odd void” in the English town of Folkestone.  It was an architecturally created void connected to a giant concert hall, Leas Cliff Hall, where bands such as Metallica have performed in the past…

Chodzko: I think I was confusing Metallica with Megadeth so…it is that end of the music spectrum. Megadeth and a lot of tribute bands and black-polo-necked hypnotists from Hartlepool.

Stretcher: It also made you wonder what the town “collectively dreamed at night” and inspired you to build a structure “without materials and in a half-sleep state.‚Äù The town got involved with this project, correct?  They participated in your projection of the future visiting the past (or the dreaming mind addressing the present)?

Chodzko: Well, they participated to the extent that a number of people from the local community were involved in the build-up of this myth, aware of its artifice but conscious too of its potential reality…and the idea was to sow the seeds of a wider participation by creating a rumour that would begin growing from this art work to the point where the rumour would sever its dependancy on the artwork and exist instead on its own.

Stretcher: Now this building is connected to your identity as an artist. Do you think this works the other way as well?  Has your project changed the actual identity of this place for the people in Folkestone?

Chodzko: I would have thought it must do.  In front of the undercroft —the site of the ‘pyramids’ and therefore the ‘curse’ —I made an ‘interpretation panel’ of the kind currently spreading like an epidemic across the UK. This sign is permanent and it describes (in a convincing manner) a kind of epilogue to the making and breaking of the pyramids; the damage to the landscape that this event caused, and its trace in a series of subtle blemishes and fractures. However, this sign must as well as being an epilogue, also be a prologue because they indicate the scars of something that has happened, yet according to the video this event doesn’t happen for years.  So whether people just wonder at the truth or fiction of the event or got caught up in its temporal loops it will at least create a strange atmosphere for this site.

Stretcher: I’m curious about other examples of this—the way your myth-spinning has affected real places….

Chodzko:Well, similarly with Hole or Pyramid...I think a lot of my work is operating in this way. But I think it would take a long time before you could figure out this affect. And I think wondering about whether it creates affect or not is enough of a response.

Stretcher: According to Anthony Giddens, this makes a place a non-place (“Place is relational, historical, and concerned with identity; non-place contains such places but without integrating them; rather they are assigned a specific position, as ‘lieux de memoire’ sites of a memory which is disconnected from the present and of a history which has since then been transformed in actuality and spectacle’).

I remember the non-place/place/space/non-space discussion was very popular when I lived in London (not so much in the States).  And your work has been referenced during such discussions.  Do you have a palette for these theorizations or do you think they sterilize the process of wondering?

Chodzko:: So sorry…I just can’t respond to that last ‘non-place’ question. I just don’t feel any reaction anywhere. It’s like you’ve asked “what do you think of the new manager of Newcastle United?” For many - men particularly - any football question is a brilliant question but I instantly feel this terrible vacuum engulfing me; it’s a barren grey dusky desert featuring drizzle and a few buzzards circling. The non-place discourse should interest me and I can see where it fits with my work. But I feel ‘non-place’ is a nice label for bandying about by the privileged - a touristic gaze, it’s hierarchical - “look at that really interesting hospital waiting room!”  For people who work in these places these really are Places. If I spend more than an hour anywhere I consider it “home.” I’m pathetically adaptable like that.

Stretcher: Can we approach the topic of the upcoming Governor’s Island project? It is a strange place in NYC that people are fighting over.  Creative Time recently forwarded me a link where I can vote to keep Governors Island alive (as a dead town)...

Chodzko: I didn’t know that.  It is certainly odd in its proximity to NY but its relative obscurity. But then so is Roosevelt Island.  Very few people on Manhattan seem to have been there.  I think there’s been conflict for ages about Governors island. The military wanted one thing, the city of NY another.  It’s part of Brooklyn yet Brooklyn people have to come to Manhattan to get to it. I think it all goes back to the original ‘deal’ done by Van Twiller with the Native Americans; he reckoned he’d bought the island for two axe-heads, some beads and a handful of nails.

The Native Americans considered this a kind of appetiser; a symbol of an ongoing exchange. Somehow Van Twiller, conveniently had it his way. Maybe the island was jinxed as a result.  It’s a good place.  And despite its history it feels as though it’s in the wrong place, a small village caught in an eddy from the glinting crystalline edifice of Manhattan.

Stretcher: What will you be doing there?

Chodzko: Contingency and chance are usually integral to the processes by which I make a work, but for various reasons, (not just the economic downturn) my project for Governors Island has come up against more stumbling blocks and shifting boundaries than usual.  So, I’m still not certain what the work will end up being. I have a kind of fake script which I can tell you, but I just use this as an irritating framework to deviate from.  What’s certain right now is it’s commissioned by Creative Time and is part of a group show on the island called ‘Plot 09; This World & Nearer Ones’ which opens in late June and runs until September.  And I’m certain that I’m making a video for it.

I guess I began by wondering about the allure of islands, and particularly wondering about how to think about one island in relation to another.  Islands in their limited and tangible size and isolation become convenient receptacles for the projection of our fantasies. I wanted to simultaneously undermine and enhance this situation through folding two islands together; two islands merge and exchange their events and meanings with one another, as though in a dream, producing an impossible space but also elaborating a truth about their separate and combined identities.

My video structures this diverse material through the reminiscences of someone (a fictional character) connected with Governors Island in the mid ‘60’s. And it does this from the future, after Governors Island has been transformed into a park. These (fictional!) recollections focus on a group of the military ‘brats’ (the children of military personnel who grew up on the island), and a ritualistic and anti-materialistic game, which developed into a craze across the island, involving competitive attempts to be the apparent loser in a deal.

This echoes the initial trade by a Dutch settler with the Native Americans – the island being bought for ‘two axe heads, a string of beads, and a handful of nails.’ And another echo can be found in President Clinton’s deal made in 2001 (and followed through by Bush) where the island would be transferred to the people ‘for a dollar’.

So, amongst the island’s youth a car would be swapped for a joke, a prized record collection for a leaf, a house swapped for a view etc…In each case a philosophy had evolved on the island by the community whereby the deal enabled both parties to be happy with it. But the greater happiness would always go to the one who seemed to be losing material possessions.

The old ballroom on Governors Island became the site of these exchanges and during dances by their parents in the upper ballrooms the ‘brats’ would use the basement for these displays of triumphant material loss.

Telling it here makes it sound very lugubrious and linear and site specific and in reality it should (and will) be the opposite. It also might suggest a slickness, which is wrong. It will be made in a very crude and improvised way.

Ultimately this work, like Hole, Around and Pyramid, hopes to invent fragments of a myth which, hopefully, continues to circulate as rumour long after the work has been disappeared.

See this project as part of the upcoming Creative Time exhibition “Plot 09: This World and Nearer Ones” on Governors Island this summer, 27th of June-August 2009.

Read and see more about Adam Chodzko.


— Veronica Kavass gathers stories for Storycorps and gets involved in curatorial projects in New York City. She selects art for literary journals such as Fawlt and The Wild.