The Inside Outside Method // Interview with Natasha Conland
Underlying all mystic states are corporeal techniques, biological methods of entering into communication with God. – Marcel Maus, “Les techniques du corps,” 1960
For a critic to give up his distance meant being corrupted by the art world and neglecting his professional responsibilities: This demand for disinterested art criticism in the name of the public sphere is the assertion of Kant’s third critique, the first truly important treatise of modernity. – Boris Groys, “Critical Reflections,” 1997
Throughout Dane Mitchell’s practice as an artist, he has attempted differing forms of revelation. Targeting subject, in the manner of the modern critic and pursuing answers, often by engaging the language of his subject — in disguise as museum visitor, Jo public, archaeologist-in-earnest, investigator or empirical researcher. The goal it seemed, as for the aforementioned, was the truth behind façade, an honest unmediated response, to expose for the public (as one is no longer prepared to do) the artifice.
However despite his stated methodology, even at the outset Mitchell played his hand by employing the tenacious skills of the trickster, whether via humour or errant logic. On closer inspection his tactics were deceiving. His deception was not in order to discredit, but as a diversionary strategy, he generated unease and uncertainty around both the subject under scrutiny and the role of art to communicate something of social or political clarity.
When moving his subject from museological enquiry into an examination of mystic and new age practice the trickster softens still further, and the artists status in relation to the material becomes even less decipherable. What might have been treated as insider-status humour, or a tautological search for the ‘other’, quickly feels misleading at either end. Despite the employment of strategies for the pursuit of knowledge, his critical distance becomes erroneous, instead he practices what might be described as ‘strategic discommunication’, and neither positions his strategy of or for the subject. As viewers, we wade into the material with an uncertain guide, slipping up on our old habits and unlearnt superstitions and desires.
Q. Your work has proffered an outsider’s perspective on the mysteries of the inside, often with keen wit. With the introduction of what might broadly be described as mystic content, it’s much harder for the viewer to get a measure of the humour in these works. Is that a deliberate step on your part?
A. In the past I was engaged in secular critique of secular institutions, now in part I’m complicating that through my engagement with the internal rules of spiritual practice. I’m implicated in the work’s subject matter in a way that I haven’t been previously, partly because I’m literally carrying out the spells, but it’s more complex than that. When I’m following a set of instructions to carry out a curse, written by a third party, of course I’m implicated in it, and it makes it difficult for me to be anything but respectful of that body of knowledge, and in particular, the knowledge of the unknown.
Whereas perhaps an authorial smile was more apparent in my previous work, here it’s not, and it makes it more difficult to read. While I’m involved in the casting of the spells there’s more complexity around a skeptical position in either the making or interpretation. The level at which I engage the audience’s belief varies radically, and affects their response, this is in part the nature of belief. I’m ok with the assumption that my position entails some unresolved humour, but it’s quite limiting for the work, and also misinterprets the challenges for the viewer. Somehow it’s easier for the work to appear comedic in its retelling when the viewer isn’t in front of the material. So for me there’s a responsibility attached to the retelling.
Q. …So do you mean to maintain a position of neutrality?
A. Yes, insofar as I ensure there’s little division between first and second hand experiences of the work. It’s verbal retelling is important to the work, and the subject matter is also implicated through the manner of its retelling and hearsay.
The artist’s joke should be taken at face value unless of course his face is difficult to see. The implication here is that when you see a smile, you know when you’re supposed to laugh. The concealment of humour is one of the most frustrating experiences for the recipient of a gag. You are left powerless in the face of a potentially serious comment, and fooled by a message not evident on the surface of the picture. It’s like not seeing clearly.
Q. If comedy is an entry point can it also be a form of concealment?
A. Well, things that are funny are also tragic too. The previous works (like the letter to the gallery director requesting change from the donation box) were comic but the flipside was also what they revealed through their immediate humour. There was deliberate manipulation and playfulness in my use of the format of bureaucratic communication systems and institutional engagement. The way we engage with a written letter and even it’s navigation within a bureaucracy, into the in-tray of official channels and the language of response. They reflect upon a reliance on ordered systems of communication.
The spell work in Basel Haunting (Anna Göldi), 2008, does this as well. It utilises and exploits a set of instructions and rules. For example, for the spell to be executed I follow a set of instructions outlined by the administering witch or practitioner, then in the space of the exhibition I employ known museum language and schema, cordoning off an area and designating it “off-limits” to exhibition viewers.
Q. Throughout these early works and your recent enquiry into mystic practice there is an interest in penetrating beyond a surface, whether that is into walls, the structures of the museum or the operations of the unseen. Do you think that’s a fair comparison?
A. There is certainly a consistent enquiry in the mood of these early projects. It came from working over the tone of each letter and coming across something seemingly facile, silly or redundant, which might otherwise be overlooked. My hope was that the response would play into this, but at the same time I never knew what would come back. The spell works have the same affect for both myself and those who view them by moving our expectations into the unknown. For example at a very literal level, by flying on a plane to Basel to carry out a spell, then getting on the plane to come home again I’m subjected to the basics of superstition, almost without design. Although it’s cordoned-off, the question is always how much does it spill over and how abiding are the laws of witches to those of the museum.
This is where science comes into play. Their’s is an outsider’s point of view, and from a determined position of objectivity, it’s an attempt to measure the probabilities of the trick and the truth.
Q. In 2006 Mitchell made one of his most ambitious projects to date, using a combination of methodological processes and diagrammatic rendering loosely based on archaeological observation and applied them to local museums. He used these pseudo-analytic tools to investigate site, staffing structures, support networks and operational outcomes, with the guise of illustrating in-depth informational analysis, instead he mis-applies his methodology to points of surface orientation. So for example, a soil-stratification drawing is applied to a museum logo, and a plaster cast of an archaeological dig reveals desk-top detritus.
Q. And were the archaeological drawings in your 2005 project Present Surface of Tell an attempt to use or misuse the language of science?
A. The drawings are the application of real archaeological processes overlaid with processes for diagramming systematic relationships, and through their combination they become inventive. They are diagrammatic explanations of complex human or business relationships, which explain the world in a logical way. In combination, these diagrams of business relationships alongside other organic systems, like the stratification of soil, have the potential to open things up. Through their combination, they may open up the nature of one or the other, or close them down. When I began using these models I was thinking of the Situationists who used a map of one city to navigate another city in an attempt to open up variant possibilities and interpretations of a site. The idea was that you might hit on something new but also find an alternative way to describe it.
Q. And what about the immeasurable qualities, the accidents of any taxonomic system?
A. The work deals with this too, because the end result doesn’t rely on the rationality of either system. Through their combination the ‘results’ or answers becomes less clear. The plaster cast reliefs of museum rubble don’t draw from specifics either, they’re also accidental histories. The material captured in the plaster through mock-archaeological process reveals that which is deemed redundant or worthless rather than useful to the purposes of explanation or interpretation.
Q. So how did the first work involving a spell and a cursed gallery space emerge from your analysis of museum taxonomies?
A. It was through an invitation to participate in a group show dealing with the notion o invisibility. I enjoy responding to a specific premise and this time I wanted to take the opportunity to do a work which responded to the particulars of the site. I was thinking about the interior of the gallery, which has this slightly odd space under the stairs, a space which had largely been ignored in previous exhibitions. I wanted to draw attention to this difficult space by utilising it. Making this invisible space active. I liked the idea of ‘charging’ its invisibility, and therefore making it completely unusable thereafter. I eventually managed to get in touch with Paula (the practitioner) through various means and we agreed that she would and could help. I assumed it would be a matter of finding a witch who was interested in taking part in the project. It was a process of elimination, following leads, links on websites, phone numbers, recommendations and conversations.
Q. Your next project was made whilst artist-in-residence at the Rita Angus cottage, using a spirit guide (or medium) you called up the spirit of the artist. How did you approach the often-sacrosanct history of an honoured but voiceless artist?
A. It depends on how the project is framed, how you talk about it and why. I approached the subject through the site and identity of the house, it wasn’t my intention to interrogate the history of the artist, but the active memories instated in the cottage. I wanted to approach the house in the same way that the psychic approaches the house, no prior relationship to the person and with no prior reading. This lack of prejudgement allows for a greater risk of returns. You could say that I don’t want to make a project with prior knowledge of its outcomes – it’s also more interesting for me to suspend my belief.
Q. For Basel, Mitchell has focused the tools of his spiritual enquiry on the memory of the last person executed for witchcraft in Europe. Executed during the age of the enlightenment, Anna Göldi is now the subject of a new museum in Mollis, Switzerland. Using a combination of corporeal matter supplied by the museum, and the procedure written for him by a witch in New Zealand, Mitchell will call up Göldi’s spirit presence. Enacting the process in person, Mitchell uses a combination of science and witchcraft to draw out a visible and/or experiential manifestation of Göldi. In its reception, the project will likely elicit the inadequate polarities of anxiety and skeptical disdain. In this climate, Mitchell himself is said to evade the critical responsibilities of the artist to communicate a social position, and give voice or shape to something other than the polarity within which it is seen. It’s up to us to concur whether this strategy of designed malfunction has a core or essential relationship to the subject of either belief or museological disclosure.
Q. Because you are handling belief largely undone since the enlightenment — and perhaps because of the broader cultural sensitivity to belief at present — is there a greater degree of risk-management required by the institutions that host these projects?
A. Well again, for these reasons the question of belief is not interesting if I’m laughing at the subject. I’d rather work in the space between skepticism and earnest enquiry. Interestingly enough, at Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces, Melbourne, the gallery staff asked for a spell to protect them from the possible leakage of spirit during the exhibition. They do and don’t believe in it, but the not knowing allows people to experience the grey area between belief and disbelief – even if it’s an irrational space.
Q. Another line of enquiry in your work is the self-help guides, in Aid to Sight, 2008, which is made for Basel, you’ve applied a helpful mantra to engage the viewer’s ‘insight’ into the work, is this it’s primary function?
A. Aid to Sight, 2008, is instructing the viewer to see beyond what is there, beyond the formal properties and materials and their connotations. It has to do with pacing as well, the voice within the work asks you to slow down. The work was made with the context of the fair in mind, instructing you to give more in the context of this frenzy of looking. It connects to the notion of invisibility, to seeing the unseen, but in this case, tells you how to do the looking.
Q. OK, so are you implying that there are a set of ingredients or codes to any work, spell, system, and that getting them would require something akin to decoding?
A. Possibly it’s the first work you see in the space, so it could be interpreted as a guide in this way.
Q. The object that the sound emerges from is reminiscent of an object used in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, what attracted you to it?
A. The work was made with the context of the fair in mind, I wanted the landscape in the frame to seem unnatural to the fair and the work itself to be at odds with the landscape. In the film the object is a monolith, but here it’s behaving as an ‘asport’. An asport being the transference of an object to an unknown location via unknown means. It’s connection to mystic thinking is the invocation of a liminal object – a moment or point of connection between the spirit world and the physical world. In the film the monolith appears at moments of key change, and these changes represent evolutionary or technological shifts which enable humanity to move forward in some way. It’s also a self-reflexive object, which has been described literally to represent the proportionate scale of film itself.
Q. So ultimately does the project facilitate knowledge, or is that presumption itself erroneous?
A. I use the phrase ‘other ways of knowing’ to identify forms and practices that manipulate, counter or utilize knowledge systems. Measurable mystery is another form of knowledge. Like ‘unknowing’, it foregrounds absence and the validity of that position. In part my interest in this territory is directed at the persuasive power of the new, and the predicament of being all knowing through artistic practice.