Interview with Ed Atkins, Performance Capture, Manchester International Festival

As part of this year’s Manchester International Festival (MIF),  artist Ed Atkins will be drawing back the digital curtain with Performance Capture. Taking place at Manchester Art Gallery from 4 July, the project will be presented as an exhibition, a studio and a singular document of MIF15. In this, the artist’s most recent endeavour, audiences will be offered a unique and reflexive insights into the production of a computer-generated moving image work. Curated by Atkins along with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Alex Poots, the exhibition will be staged across three rooms, featuring performances by MIF artists such as Bjork and Charlotte Rampling captured onto computer, digitally modelled and subsequently screened. We speak to Atkins about this ambitious live project that pushes artistic engagement into the forefront of today’s digital evolutions.

A: Performance Capture is a live collaboration taking place at Manchester International Festival this year. Can you talk a little about the project?
It’s a project that is trying to reveal the materials and bodies, the labours, that go into the making of a computer generated moving image work – from performance capture, through a render farm to the ever-accumulating rushes in a cinema screening room. It’s a piece that will reflect upon ideas of the reveal as figured around apparent truth beneath, about the location of knowledge, of feeling, of intimacy; about how we are mediated and remediated as bodies and identities, by all manner of apparatuses, both literal and figural; how technologies predicated on their representational accuracy might be used or abused in order to model certain kinds of usually solely fantastical or figurative processes; what it might be to make something or someone visible – what it might mean to make someone or something disappear. Who gets to be visible and why.
It will also act as a very particular and very esoteric document of the festival: the performers in the work will consist of participants from across this year’s festival – dancers, artists, directors, janitors, invigilators – the whole gamut will be rigged, don a motion capture suit, and perform as the same solitary protagonist. The work will, in the end, be a kind of soliloquy, a monologue for one, performed by hundreds.

A: As an artist who rejects ‘traditional art’ forms such as painting and sculpture, how would you enlighten an audience who discards digital art as a medium?
EA: I really don’t reject ‘traditional art’ at all. I’m also really not sure what digital art is as a category, if it is one at all. There is the necessity for some pedantry here, to avoid the jargon that slanders or categorises lazily, for the sake of some journalese nothing. Every painter I know uses google, for example. Yet the insane image persists of a group of artists working with so-called traditional media who eschew everything digital; and another, of which I would be one example, who live like augmented cyborgs, only ever at computers, pouring scorn on anyone who uses clay. Similarly, the idea of someone discarding digital art – or any art based solely on its medium – is ludicrous.

A: Revealing the usually exclusive view of art making to an audience is incredibly exciting. Is it fair to say you believe the process overrules the final product?
EA: No. They are both part of it. It’s also important that this idea of the reveal is contingent, is caveated by a reality that asks, how much is revealed? The revelation can be just as much artifice, just as much a performance, as that which it is apparently the truth behind. There’s some moral imperative lurking here – something about truth, which I think is fascinating. Knowledge, particularly of computers, digital apparatus, etc. – is always already provisional. I’m more interested in observing the vanishing point, acknowledging a point of ignorance, the pathos, the mortal – and plumbing a weirder space. We’ve all seen Andy Serkis or whoever, skulking about in the making of a Peter Jackson film, wearing nothing but a onesie and an array of dots. How strange and pathetic the truth of that turn is – but also how unrevealing, how we know nothing more than we had before – we just have another kind of spectacle. The render farm in the project – hundreds of racked PCs, churning through data, rendering (like glue, like entrails, like bones) every grotesque detail of the protagonist… that place is a place of deep, deep mystification; of godliness. The final film will contain its own truths and fallacies – truths about performance as a precondition of being in the world; about how performance, however, might be coopted and curtailed and rendered down to some other, insidiously consensual, a-political situation.

A: Due to its collaborative nature Performance Capture will no doubt have a great combination of input and identities. Is there a clear, distinctive direction you want the work to take, or will the performer’s persona also be influential to this?
EA: The performers will certainly effect the outcome – their movements, their voices, their presence – but just as much, the performers will be homogenised, rendered as the same figure, each occupying and animating the same hyperreal skin for short spans, so that the final character will come across as a much more schizoid figure than anything I can really imagine at the moment.

A: What is it that attracts you to collaborating with other artists such as Bjork and Charlotte Rampling?
EA: I’m not really interested in collaborating. I admire other people – those two, for example – hugely. They’re brilliant in their fields. For myself, however, I’ve never really been one for collaboration beyond conversation. This is the first time of working with a big team of people, and it’s incredible – but it’s been important to retain things that only I know about, that only I know what the fuck I’m gibbering about. There’s an intimacy, an idiosyncrasy, a weirdness that I want to preserve. I find that stuff hard to convey to anyone outside of the work, so collaborating, which would certainly require equanimity of input, is not something I’m interested in when it comes to making work. Outside of that, in the real world, in relationships, I love collaboration.

A: Your upcoming exhibition will be your largest to date. How do you see your work developing in the future?
EA: In terms of the direction of the work, I’d like to write and sing more. Spend more time researching.

Performance Capture, 4 – 19 July, Manchester Art Gallery, part of Manchester International Festival.

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1. Ed Atkins Even Pricks 2013 16:10 HD video with 5.1 surround sound. Courtesy of MIF.