The psychic tensions and twisted cyphers of artist Ed Atkins.
ALYSE ARCHER-COITÉ: The titles of your pieces are, to say the least, evocative: Bastard, Even Pricks, Ribbons, No-one is More “Work” Than Me. What’s in a title for you?
ED ATKINS: Titles are important to me. My titles are not exactly hospitable. The titles don’t explain what it is you’re seeing, nor do they give any explicit information about the work. I suppose I want the title to loiter in the viewer while they watch, interpellating the video throughout its duration; or at least, to provide the beginnings of frustration. The titles might also introduce a figurative possibility. Ribbons was always about a certain conflict of style, how insufficient and apparently unrelated the title is to the video, which might actually encourage a deeper investigation.
AAC: You cite the writing of Bifo Berardi—his ideas of detachment and vicarious living as symptomatic of a life lived online—as an influence on your work. In his novel After the Future, he describes a system of virtual life and death. He argues, “Our future has come and gone; the concept has lost its usefulness.” Is this reflected in your work—a lost or never arrived future?
EA: Not solely. Berardi does a fantastic job of outlining a particular set of symptoms and effects—socially, psychically, traumatically—of vicarious, so-called “immaterial” labor situations. It’s something that parts of my work certainly perform or speak to. My work is concerned with a retrieval of immanent experience; neither speculation nor memory is particularly present. More often, those sites of optimism or regret are retarded by an embodied presence. Insofar as Berardi speaks of loss in relation to something that we never had, there is an element of that in my work. Though again, my work isn’t barometric, nor is it essayistic. It’s worth talking about form because I want my work to be holistic in regard to its structures, its concepts, and the way I con- vey meaning. I would venture that the form of my works, their constitution as wholly computer-generated things, affords something like a therapeutic surrogacy. The figures can despair; they can be trapped and immortalized through technology so that we don’t have to.
Artwork by Ed Atkins
AAC: In Ribbons (2014), your protagonist, Dave, can be described as skulking, needy, vulgar, a volatile drunk. He often lurks around bars and glory holes. His desperation is palpable. How much of his character is derived from your own experiences?
EA: Some is derived from my own experiences, but not too much. Mainly, I think Dave’s proximity to me is through the performance itself. In other words, it’s me performing, singing, and reading. It’s me making all the choices, the edits, and the music. The character is a cipher—a hollow figure—but filled with desires and frustrations.
AAC: You’ve said that Dave can only exist now, that he is the site of power, a white Western man who is shaped by the aesthetics of capitalism. When I see your films I am never quite sure how to feel about him. Should I loathe him, pity him, or just be glad I don’t know anyone quite so terrible? I was in a room with other viewers who were brought to tears by Dave and other characters you’ve created. How do you want the viewer to feel about the men you’ve introduced us to?
EA: Well, I suppose I want the viewer to feel all those things. Dave is repulsive, and most repulsive in his desperate pleas for empathy or sympathy. His emotional maneuvers echo the way in which the video is cut. It’s bipolar editing. So the push and pull, solicitation and repulsion, result in a constant movement of feeling. Importantly, he is a construct. His construction is never sufficiently hidden— never really pulled off—which means that his moves feel disingenuous and conceal a horrible sincerity and vulnerability. Yet the sincerity itself is a defense mechanism. The categories he is placed within—white, Western, man—are real, and categories that I fit into as well, but here, because of the CG, the animation, and the mutability of the piece, the categories become hysterical, hyper, and excessive.
Artwork by Ed Atkins
AAC: Dave is an avatar that can be purchased and customized, and he doesn’t come cheap. It’s important to you that he be generic, and yet despite this quality, he has a strange appeal. He’s simultaneously repulsive and attractive. He’s nude. He has a muscular build, and his perfectly straight teeth gleam behind his symmetrical lips. On the other hand, his eyes sometimes dart around uneasily and there is something unsettling behind his blue eyes. The doodled tattoos across his brow and cheeks bring to mind the white supremacists in Tony Kaye’s American History X. Why did you choose this particular avatar?
EA: The “look” is complicated. Dave’s look is informed by a lot of things: skin- heads, freaks, and the recuperation of that specific style in homosexual culture. He is hairless for the simple reason that it would be too difficult to render him with hair. Dave is also such a “man.” His avatar was, at the time, the best quality I could get on the open market. Now he’s been replaced with a later model who looks a little more reconstructed if I’m honest.
AAC: Dust on the fake lens, shadows, smoke, and the hum of chatter in the background make the setting for these scenes so familiar, so real. But just as we begin getting comfortable, the script loops or the score hiccups. How do these deliberate interruptions influence the viewer?
EA: All that is conspicuously there to further convince the viewer of the image and the location. The effects confirm the reality of what you’re seeing. Of course, it’s excessive—too much dust, lens flare, focus-pulling—which sort of pushes the verisimilitude of the image over the top to a place where it’s still able to cite an authenticating gesture, but also point to its artifice.
AAC: Approximately how many hours a day do you spend online?
EA: No idea. Lots. My phone is never offline. Does that count?
Artwork: Ed Atkins
Photography: Kate Friend