Interview with Artist Jakob Rowlinson, The Catlin Guide 2014

The Catlin Guide 2014 will present the very best in Britain’s most talented new artists. The publication will be available to the public from January at the London Art Fair. Author Justin Hammond undertakes an extensive tour of UK art schools before conducting a series of artist interviews and consultations with leading gallerists, curators,course tutors and collectors, after which he reveals the coveted shortlist. This year one of the chosen individuals is Jakob Rowlinson who speaks to Aesthetica about his work, Puppeteering a Portrait, and what it means to be in the Catlin Guide.

A: Puppeteering a Portrait is quite a unique idea, where did this inspiration come from?
JK: Puppeteering a Portrait is really the coming together of several interests of mine and so it doesn’t have its origins in one single place. I’ve always had a fascination with magicians, jugglers, puppeteers and other street performers, and I think there is a little bit of the chicanery and manipulation from these fields going on in this work; the strings pulling the face are never fully explained and the slow moving faces have an hypnotic element to them. As well as these interests, I also looked closely at scientific analysis of facial movements and expressions to see how this knowledge has been employed at different periods of time. I took inspiration partly from very recent studies into behavioural analysis and lie detection and also into the medical experiments of the early 20th century conducted by neurologists such as Guillaume Duchenne and Jean-Martin Charcot. The photographs from these early investigations into expressions – often produced by shocking the patient with electricity – have a visual similarity to my work, even though they are coming from quite a different background with different ideas in tow.

A: What is the concept behind this piece?
JK: This work is part of a series of works called Facial Poetics that deal with facial expressions and scripted performances. I try to remove control of my volunteer’s actions and emotions, so that their face can be manipulated very subtly to create an sequence or choreography. I turn my performers into a kind of instrument, and as their facial expressions come from my instructions and not from their own feelings, they are devoid of their usual emotional content; instead they become movements that seem disembodied and are open to the interpretation of the viewer.

A: This is a video performance, do you work with other media too?
JK: Each performance or video work is based upon a drawing or script, and so I also deal a lot with graphic media (be it hand drawn illustrations, digital scores or written text pieces). These act as directions for a performance and indicate the duration, complexity, or feel of the piece, but also allow the performance a great deal of improvisation because of the complex and impractical nature of the notation. So although there are sometimes discrepancies between the scripted ideas and the actual performance, I consider these very much a part of the same piece of work. As well as drawing, I also make a lot of objects and apparatus to help with my performances. They are often just of bits of wood or scrap metal that I have bolted or taped together to make slightly medical looking contraptions, but they always serve a purpose within the work. In making this video piece for example, I needed to make a complex framework of pulleys and hooks to allow myself to precisely organise the strings attached to my volunteer’s faces. So, whilst I am primarily interested in the performative aspect of this work, it actually requires a broader output than just a video or a performance.

A: What does being nominated for the Catlin Guide mean to you?
JK: Being selected for a guide or prize of any kind is hugely rewarding whatever it is, but because the Catlin Guide is so well known and widely respected it will hopefully allow my work to be seen by a much broader audience than it would otherwise have been able to.

A: Which artists have influenced you?
JK: I have been highly influenced by Bas Jan Ader’s film pieces which, despite having no narrative, I find to be hugely suggestive and captivating to watch. I am also interested in the work of the experimental composer Cornelius Cardew; his elegant musical compositions allow for a huge amount of individual interpretation, which is surprising and very liberating. I have also gained a lot from looking at his graphic scores such as Treatise (1963-67) and The Great Learning (1971). These helped me to find a method to visually describe what I wanted from each part of the performance without me having to rely entirely upon diagrams or written descriptions.

A: What do you have planned for the future?
JK: I am currently continuing my work on Facial Poetics and hoping to learn how to use facial recognition software and other technical devices to help create a new performance piece. I’m also producing work based on my recent residency in Beijing for the Red Mansion Art prize, and will be having a show with the six other recipients some time in April 2014.

To find out more at about the Catlin Guide visit
The book will be available at the London Art Fair, 15-19 January, BUSINESS DESIGN CENTRE, 52 Upper Street, London, N1 0QH.

1. Jakob Rowlinson, Facial Poetics Appendix puppeteering Adrien & Virginia. 2013, Digital photograph from Video Performance, HD Video. Courtesy the Artist.