Looking at the living

Currently working on a live portrait of two retired residents local to the BAC, Pete and Joan Brookes, to be shown next week at the Burst Festival. The piece is essentially what Greg, Gemma and I (in our experiments as The Other People) called a ‘sitting’ – mostly static, and a chance to simply look at other human beings up close and without a time limit, something which is fascinatingly rare. They’ll be sat behind their front window, at home. They have a little wall outside which the audience can sit on, listening to a recording i’ll be uploading tomorrow here. Spending time with them has been hugely enjoyable, but things got really interesting the other day when I let them hear the edit I’d made of the recordings so far. With that, I’d focussed a lot on their accounts of dressing up for fancy dress parties and the background to that – family histories, important moments, and the reasons why they love it so much. I had a double headphone adapter and they were both clutching the earpieces, grinning, when I had an idea – I asked them to repeat what they were hearing, and I hit record again while they did. Later on I mixed together the original with parts of the repeated version. Here’s an excerpt – best on headphones.

Since we came up with the idea for a live ‘sitting’ it has always had a powerful effect on me. There’s something looping back, like a statue which is alive, but pretending to be inert. Received notions of how to view an artpiece, and the reason for making one at all, turned inside out – especially the portrait, with its traditional promise of immortality through art. When I’m stood in front of a living person in this context, the main thing I feel is a generosity from the subject which demands a reciprocity my eyes hardly know how to give, an openness to being ‘viewed’ amplifying the very fact of them being alive, mortal, vulnerable.

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It’s hard to write about this, but an event last year put it all in perspective. My friend Nick Daniel drowned off the coast of Marbella. The reasons for him having ended up living there at all are complicated, but back in late 2006 he helped us with our first project as The Other People, on the Costa del Sol of all places, and became our first subject for a ‘sitting’. The frame we chose for him seemed so perfect at the time. There he was sat cross legged, comfortably facing the town where he lived and worked, at peace at last with new friends and the occasional adventure.

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It’s hard to think of Nick without laughing – he was so generous and trusting, throwing himself into five Rotozaza projects over as many years, and then this. And so yes of course it’s easy to imagine him still there, knowing that he went down below the horizon which in this photo goes in one ear and out the other. To think of that 20 minutes or so we spent in magic stasis, slowly advancing along the jetty towards what seemed like a man planted from above, by fate, a breathing man. Of how we negotiated the right distance, testing the view from the side, from behind, what we might term too close… not unlike the apes at the beginning of 2001 – really taking nothing for granted, amazed we’d never done it before, and at how different an experience it was from even looking at someone asleep. Nick was awake and alive behind those shades. More here.

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