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Smith/Stewart: What Have We Done?

Collaborative duo Smith/Stewart have been up to no good. The Skinny tries to find out what's making them feel so guilty
Feature by Jac Mantle.
Published 11 March 2011

“You’re putting us in the situation we put other people,” says Eddie Stewart as I reach for my notebook and Dictaphone. “The tables have turned,” Stephanie Smith agrees. We’re meeting to discuss their forthcoming show at The Changing Room in Stirling, a video installation that marks a new direction for the artists.

Where in earlier performance-to-camera works they used their relationship as a couple to explore extremes of intimacy and trust, here the power transferrals have been opened up to implicate multiple people. And what's more, where they once worked within the closed system of their relationship, they have here devised situations beyond their control, inviting groups to participate in filmed scenarios.

“The set-up was to put people in a situation and just see how they responded, whether they followed the instructions or not,” says Smith. What exactly they asked people to do the artists refuse to disclose. They want the viewer to encounter the work ‘cold’. Suffice it to say, it’s doubtlessly something uncomfortable and awkward – something people might refuse to do. “They were just put on the spot, and that was what was so excruciating for them.”

The work is similar to a project they undertook in Dundee for the Kill Your Timid Notion festival. That film, however, was never shown, as the participants refused to give their permission. Thanks to Changing Room’s willingness to take a risk, the new work has a similarly unforeseeable outcome. “In a way, it could’ve completely failed,” explains Stewart. “We could’ve asked people to come, and they might’ve refused to do what we said. We never knew what was going to happen. It’s continually been a work in progress, and quite exciting because of that.”

With the decision to bring groups of outsiders into the equation, perhaps we can expect a shift in focus in Smith/Stewart’s work. From the dynamics of power in intimate relationships, we see a move to emotions with much wider social implications – not leaving their earlier themes behind, but rather, extending them.

Smith explains how they have always been conscious of moving towards live art: “From using ourselves in performance-to-camera works we then stepped back and the work became gradually more installation-based and sculptural. But the viewer became the participant in it, rather than us. And now, I suppose these invited groups are the participants. But when we show the work, the viewer becomes somehow implicated as well.”

Though the artists claim they don’t know how the piece will turn out, it seems we can expect something disconcerting with “no beginning or end to it”, and a measure of psychological discomfort. So secretive are they about the work, I hesitate to ask them if there’s a title yet. “It was really intense, watching them [the participants]. We could hardly look. It was Eddie who said it – right at the end – ‘What have we done?’ But that, again, is open to interpretation. Who is the ‘we’? And could it be the viewer?”