joanne lee


artificial intelligence

This text was produced to accompany Debra Swann’s exhibition in The Wasp Room at Tether, Nottingham, February 26th - March 15th, 2009.

In the seventeenth century, when collectors were busy inventing the Kunst- und Wunderkammer - something that later would come to be called a museum - they were preoccupied with the division between categories of naturalia and artificialia: in the former category were objects they believed demonstrated the creative abilities of God, whilst the latter was made up of things manufactured by humans. It seems simple enough, but in actuality, the distinction was not always so clear: a stuffed animal was demonstrative of the taxidermist’s craft and thus was considered an artifact rather than a representative of the natural realm, whilst there was a particular fascination for curious natural objects that resembled items extravagantly worked by humans, as in ‘pictorial stones’, which were entirely natural, and yet appeared to depict trees, animals, panoramic views or even, in one famous example, an image of Christ on the Cross.

It’s unsurprising that artists have long been fascinated by ‘cabinets of curiosity’ given the strange status of the objects they contained, which seem to resonate with imaginative and interpretative possibilities, as well as offering a certain reflection upon the act and idea of creation itself. There is, after all, something innately ambiguous about the role of the artist: some artists try to represent the world ‘as it is’ (their view of it, at least), whilst others strive to make an entirely new version, an imaginative realm that previously did not exist. At times it seems that art objects arise out of the world, and at others it is as if they are in some way beyond it. Debra Swann’s work relishes this tension between natural and artificial, the found and the manufactured, the witnessed and the imagined. She crafts plants, animals and situations from a host of implausible materials: pampas grass stands in convincingly for tufts of fur, broken eggshells are painstakingly built up from a succession of self-adhesive stickers, and a bird’s apparently cataract-covered eyes are fashioned from what turn out to be scuffed seashells. The crazy scientists familiar to us from countless horror movies would be proud of Swann’s evil genius: animals have been created out of vegetable matter, one species is co-opted as material for another! Everything here is categorically messy… Playing the role of a wild eyed inventor, someone predisposed to breathing life into monstrous creatures, isn’t too challenging for the likes of Swann, given that she has previously enacted the part of a dubious colonial collector, someone with a propensity for scooping a rich bounty of dead and decapitated specimens for her (imaginary) trophy room back home, and once even found herself scrambling up a snowy mountain whilst in the guise of a human fly…

Swann explores a territory that has also been mined by popular cultural genres like science fiction and horror: such a preoccupation with nightmarish, imagined futures says a great deal about our current anxieties. We worry that ‘progress’ has been taken ‘too far’ as experimental medical treatments push existing ethical boundaries, or else suspect that humanity has reached a peak from which we are already slipping, and that we are doomed to encounter new barbarisms now global resources are exhausted and populations soar. We fear unfamiliar diseases emerging for which the existing arsenal of drug remedies can have no effect, or express our concern that junk food furs the arteries of even the very young. We don’t know how life might need to evolve in order to cope with climate change, and which species may come to usurp our accustomed human dominance. We are concerned about cloning, hybridization and modification, recognizing that boundaries and categories elastically stretch such that many of us no longer know quite what or where we are. We wonder what is human and what ‘merely’ animal, and where the plant realm might elide into the animal, when genes from one phylum may be implanted into another.

Perhaps Swann’s work allows us to explore these fears of/for the future, enabling a sort of rehearsal of our encounter with impending chaos and doom, much as children play at wreaking catastrophes in their sandpits or on computer games, unleashing destructive torrents amongst landscapes they had carefully and imaginatively constructed?  In such instances they are simultaneously instigator and victim, relishing the power of creation/destruction, and yet also inhabit the characters of those whose world they have destroyed: just listen for the pretend screams let out by the kids as they play the role of their victims whilst the tempest they have let loose sweeps through the fictional neighbourhood they themselves also created. It always seems to me that play is a very serious business indeed – something of which Swann is clearly well aware.

When big budget films imagine the future, it usually emerges as a souped-up version of the present - a manifestation which very quickly ends up looking like the past: watching a re-run of Total Recall the other night, it was impossible not to notice just how eighties the whole thing appears, with all that poodled-up hair, tight-fitting lycra and silver/matt black electronics… For me, Swann’s imagery and technique hark back to another era, but one where special effects were of a more homemade variety: I see reflections of an early seventies childhood, one informed by what one might call the Oliver Postgate aesthetic, in which space creatures like the Clangers were fashioned from a simple bit of knitting and an ethic of mending and making do still pervaded Bagpuss’ efforts to reanimate a host of wonky, broken things. Her installation Trouble in Paradise takes to a logical extreme that period’s Blue Peter-like ability to make something out of anything - though here shiny brown parcel tape stands in for the ubiquitous sticky-backed plastic as a key component of Swann’s enormous sculpted antlers. However, there’s nothing cute about the creatures she fashions: in Swann’s work, there is very often a sense that things have gone very wrong. This is a difficult vision in which I see echoes of the seventies’ fascination with disaster movies and dystopia.

But maybe I am going way too far, swept along in the imaginative rush that Swann provokes, because this work is also incredibly funny: it is laugh out loud absurd. Who could fail to be amused at the sight of a ridiculously upscale pair of antlers, which seem to have burst through a very ordinary wall and to have prodded big holes in the institutional ceiling tiles? This marvelous act of pantomime draws upon the dramatic tradition in which disbelief is willingly suspended: in this case, however, the only performance takes place in the viewer’s imagination, as we invent something of the cartoon-like violence that seems to have erupted into ordinary life. It’s not a question of ‘smoke and mirrors’, there is no attempt to camouflage the artifice: I know that these horns are completely fictional and that the birds are hybridized out of a host of odd materials, but all the same Swann has me convinced… Plant and animal kingdoms have collided; the fantasy worlds of SF have smashed up against real biology; lo-fi experimentation uses images from the cutting-edge of scientific research to scissor open the psychology of anxiety. There is, as she asserts, Trouble in Paradise, and I can’t work out whether to laugh uproariously or leg it out of here in theatrically affected terror.