Corin Sworn on her Edinburgh Art Festival project

We meet Glasgow's Corin Sworn to discuss her exploration of the entanglement of technology and the body, Habits of Assembly, as part of the Commissions Programme at EAF

Article by Katie Dibb | 25 Jul 2019
  • Corin Sworn

The Skinny: Can you tell us about your project, Habits of Assembly? 

Corin Sworn: The work for the Edinburgh Art Festival comprises of an installation built around a collection of rooms built of cheap architectural material that you can move in and out of, and that will hold two videos and a sound piece. The videos are comprised of a collection of movements that I built with the musician Jer Reid, and dancers Stephanie McMann and Kai-Wen Chuang 

For the sound piece I collaborated with the poet Colin Herd and it goes between a humorous to do list and a referencing of different camera movements across the last century. 

One video is largely black and white, and looks at the different histories of the relationship between the camera as a reflective or monitoring device in terms of movement. So there were references to the Gilbreth’s Time and Motions Studies, where they filmed craftsmen or workers' tasks, breaking each movement up across multiple bodies or speeding it up. The bodies are lit in such a way that they look like x-rays, as if their silhouettes are semi-transparent. And by looking at x-rays, the video then travels inside the body. 

The other is shot at the Couper Institute, a public hall in Glasgow, and it has a much more explicit image in terms of its relationship to the body. You see the dancers not as silhouettes but as figures and they go through a smaller set of movements. As well as a short section referencing the kind of robot vision surveillance pattern whereby it attempts to categorise something like a car or a dog or whatever. 

As the audience enters through each of the various sections, is there an intentional manipulation to their movement and way of encountering the work? 

Yes, there are sections where you can walk through what explicitly look like doorways but then there are parts where the walls are situated apart in a way that if wanted to you could squeeze through them. I chose this spacing in the hopes that people would play with the structure and that in playing with it you would feel the parameters of your body. Whether you choose to squeeze, or take the direct route you will experience how your body can change shape in order to move it through different widths and spaces. The morphing physicality aims to make the audience become re-aware of their bodies. 

One reason for using these cheap architectural walls is that I’m interested in having this need for support. In lots of my work recently, I have been trying to explore the notion that all things are integrated. For example, with works I have made it is not clear where a work ends and the next one begins. One of the reasons to have an installation is that it's a system. 

You enter into the system. Support is necessary across various things and we try to divide them which gives us a sort of false image. This is something that I want to point towards; that we are meshed in complex systems that we can’t always draw clear lines in.

In your statement for EAF you mention the idea of domestic and outside space – there is not always a clear divide, is there? 

No, and I think nowadays people are being asked to work... you don’t necessarily go to a nine to five job. Sometimes you have multiple jobs, sometimes your job bleeds over into your domestic life, often because our technology is portable it means that we are bringing our work into our home and vice-versa. So the body gets really pulled across these different obligations and spaces. I think the technology often produces obligations to meet. So when technology can do things, we kind of produce ideas or ways of being to meet those sets of practices but of course we could never multitask as perfectly as a smartphone which can do an enormous number of things, and we then get caught in rather complicated ideals of our expectation.

Of course the other side of that is that the public spheres disappear radically. Many spaces that we move through thinking they are public until you take out your phone and find someone telling you that you are not allowed to take pictures there because it's actually a private space. 

One of the hardest aspects of AI is recreating human characteristics such as walking. 

Yes, at the moment there is more and more drive in entertainment to find ways to capture human movement because it does produce more immediate relationships between the viewer and the fictionally produced character. We sort of mirror across human movement in order to create this empathic relationship between human and machine, and vice-versa. There are lots of dancers who have been interested in some of the aesthetics that come out of machine production and so mimic them.

In the early Charlie Chaplin film Modern Times, he shows this movement that comes out of being on the production line. Some people talk about the moonwalk as directly referencing factory labour and Michael Jackson’s very tight and very repetitive movements being again similar to factory work and what is the basis of machines. 

Some people would say that this discussion is very current, but it is also a discussion that other artists, such as Maya Deren and Trisha Brown, have been having for a while. 

I think your point that these discussions are ongoing is really true. Trisha Brown was trying to find movements that emerged from the body and from her interest in the kind of interior practice of movement, instead of a traditionally trained, aesthetically codified practice like ballet. She wasn't using her body to meet a norm or an ideal, instead she was using her body to try and find movements that she thought were interesting.

She often didn’t want to use a mirror as it gave too immediate a reflection and instead used a camera so she could be inside her own experience and then later watch back what you’ve done with some distance. That’s how she built the first dance and then later she handed on that dance to somebody else who is very very intensely classically trained. No matter how closely she trained this dancer the granularity of their movements would always be different and so they danced the dance together in Set, Reset and you can see the kind of textures that come about of Brown’s body, next to and against a more stylised and rigidly justified traditional body of the classically trained dancer. 

Finally, is there anything you're especially looking forward to seeing during the festival? 

I’m so excited to just wander around and see the whole festival. There is a really interesting artist at Talbot Rice, Samson Young, and I am really looking forward to seeing Rosalind Nashashibi's piece. 

Corin Sworn, Habits of Assembly, Edinburgh College of Art, 25 Jul-25 Aug, daily 10am-5pm, free