Edinburgh Art Festival: Introducing Platform 2018

Platform 2018 brings together a group of four distinctive artists whose very different works are softly drawn together by medium-experimentation and a sense of excited experimentation with materials and genres

Feature by Adam Benmakhlouf | 27 Jul 2018

Each year, Edinburgh Art Festival's Platform exhibition assembles four early-career artists and puts them centre stage in the Festival programme that extends across Edinburgh galleries during August. This year’s artists are Renèe Helèna Browne, Annie Crabtree, Isobel Lutz-Smith and Rae-Yen Song. While each of their presentations are completely distinct, it’s not difficult to see lines of reference that extend across their respective practices, though they each work across very different media and subject matter.

Rae-Yen Song jokes that she’s the most traditional of the four on show, as none of her work needs a plug socket. A large handmade costume of a lion makes a visual parallel between the lion rampant (on the Scottish coat of arms) “and also the lion costume used for lion dancing in Chinese culture”. Combining these different symbols that are intended to illustrate the same animal, Song considers mixed cultural identity, “being Scottish and Chinese, and [this] position in society.”

Elaborating further, she describes “[offering] alternative realities and perspectives,” and the “surreal quality” that pervades her work. One informing perspective that characterises Song’s idea of the cross-cultural lived experience is “not fitting into either of those cultural identities.” It’s for this reason and from this standpoint that Song considers the “cultural Other” as a figure, “exposing that role in society”.

Bringing these symbols of identity and celebration together, Song describes “picking away” at them to create a distinctive set of meanings and significance: “Language that I can occupy positively, rather than have this emptiness between the two cultures, where I don’t fit in.” Part of this intention, Song says, is the creation of a “new realm, that people find absurd and very foreign” but also which contains “familiarities.”

The large costume is free-standing on a low plinth. It’s seen again on a lenticular print, being worn and with other costumed figures around the lion. They all stand in what looks like the countryside but is an open green spot in Edinburgh. “This work is called Song Dynasty II," she says, "and is expanded from the [first iteration] that was done for Glasgow Open House 2017.” As in the previous work, Song Dynasty, Song has collaborated with members of her immediate family and so it was that the artist went with her mother, father and little sister with costumes and props for a “summer outing in Edinburgh.”

Rae-Yen Song, It's a Small World, 2017

In a gold frame, the lenticular print is hung beside the window in the large space of the Edinburgh’s City Art Centre. For Song, the choice of the print technique, display materials and strategies is important as it can draw out the idea “of something foreign being presented and we’re here to form opinions around it, and so on first sight people will hopefully try to work out what the [costume] is and what its purpose is, the only information about that being in the print” but nevertheless “why and what it is remains ambiguous.” As for the choice of lenticular print, Song “relates these to postcards or bookmarks... souvenirs you collect from another country.”

The costume is made with an attention to detail, and Song speaks about the love of making that motivates her practice, alongside the concepts and ideas that inform the work she makes. “It was such a joy to get into the intricacies and details of the costume.” Song remembers the drawing that she made which forms the basis of Song Dynasty II. “I consider [drawing] very important, but I’ve never shown it. I consider it more like thinking and writing, and more of a private process more than something I show. This [Platform presentation] was originally proposed as drawing and it turned into a lenticular print, so I’m yet to show a drawing.” Some of Song’s beautiful concept drawings can be found online on her website.

While Song’s work seeks to form a language that can enunciate what it is to live and form one’s sense of self across multiple cultures, Renèe Helèna Browne’s sound work mines into the physical embodiment of language and speech. In considering the work presented at Platform, Browne describes it as a pivotal moment as she centres sound as a medium. For Browne, there’s something very distinctive about the challenge of sound, which moves the audience from a passive to a more active role: “When you ask someone to sit down and use their ears, it’s somewhat more demanding.”

For Platform, Browne will set five sound works on different and significant chairs. “Each [one] relates to the different contact zones it has with your body, and that is then developed in the sound work and creates the atmosphere for the sound.” For example, “there’s a portable massage chair in the space and for that there’s a slow ASMR elocution lesson with meditation music layered into it.” This intended to create an “embodied and relaxing effect.”

For Browne, the work is about “the construction of language from the body as speech.” The works that will be shown at Platform come from Browne’s research into the knowledge that governs speech within society, both inside and outside the body. Browne says: “Outside the body, I was looking at language and the expectation of proper pronunciation. Received pronunciation or The King’s English (as it’s colonially known) is spoken by 2% of the British population, but when you read the dictionary in phonetics, you’re reading it in received pronunciation.” Browne adds as an aside that this is “kind of dark when you think about it.” There’s a “prestige that comes with this perfect, pure, clean elocution” and Browne has found that as an Irish person living in Britain there are negative connotations that attach to her accent.

“I’ve also been thinking about how pronunciation is played with and the malleability of sound, in terms of tongue twisters and vocal warm-ups, and all these things that public speakers do to generate this air coming up through the body.” Browne describes how, if a person focuses on a certain point, it’s possible to speak in a way that the voice vibrates through the speaker’s forehead or legs.

As well as thinking about what happens when sounds come out of the mouth, Browne also thinks about “the interior, looking at the mouth as the cavity for speech and the site of it, then the lips as the way that it comes out of the body and the visceral-physical activity of speaking and how that implicates the body and how the organs of speech, what they think about it and giving them some agency within it.” Browne thinks of another of the five sound works included in the Platform show: an “exercise ball and on that one there’s a very raw, residual, underneath language noises from the mouth, there’s no construction [of specific words].” It’s noise, but it “is in no way governed, and is in some ways a respite from the rest of them”. There’s also a chaise longue that deals with the “lips”, and there are two characters that describe what they do in speech.

More generally, the seats are intended not to be “didactic” and more of an “invitation.” The audience thus makes the decision on whether or not to sit down, then whether to put on the headphones – “you can make your own connections with what is happening.”

Browne also discusses some of the connections between the work on show by the other exhibitors and thinks in particular of the embodiment that’s important to Annie Crabtree’s film work. For this work, Crabtree considers moving image from a perspective informed both by her own fine art background and also the time she spent studying a Masters in Research in Human Geography. These distinctive backgrounds have informed her specific relationship with film as a medium, and this is one reason that Crabtree especially challenges the distinctions between documentary and experimental film, or where types of film should or can be shown.

For the film she is showing at Platform, Crabtree addresses “the loss of bodily autonomy and agency through illness and the ignoring or dismissal of women’s pain and the stereotypical trope of women as hysterical.” This is paired “with swimming as a means of regaining power both over yourself and as a metaphor for becoming well again. Water is repeatedly an image for healing throughout history, if you think of Victorian England and the spa towns.” As well as operating in some ways like an essay on the subject, the film also operates on a personal level. “I was very sick two years ago," says Crabtree, "and I felt like I lost all control over how I was understood, and I regained a lot of myself through swimming.” Originally, Crabtree had been thinking of two pieces of work, one on sickness and one on swimming before it became clear that they were, in fact, two elements of a single work on female pain and the embodiment of politics.

Annie Crabtree, Body of Water, 2018

Once the film ideas cohered into one project, Crabtree describes the joy that she took in making the work. At one point, she recalls with particular fondness when she was filming underwater, realising with great satisfaction that she had successfully brought together her love of making moving image work and swimming. It was particularly meaningful for Crabtree to be able to transform the original traumatic experience of serious illness and the resulting distress of being subject to institutionalised medical misogyny, and for this to form the basis of a complex artwork that she took great pleasure in making.

“There’s a lot going on in the piece," Crabtree says. "There’s footage of me when I was first out of hospital, two years ago. It’s footage I didn’t think I would end up using in a piece of artwork. It does have a video diary look to it and I recorded it more as a document for myself of what my body looked like at that point in time. I’d just had abdominal surgery for a tubo-ovarian abscess which is a complication of pelvic inflammatory disease.” Crabtree describes some of the genderings of this illness, and its relationship with sex: “It could be looked upon quite shamefully. I didn’t feel that way, but would definitely experience that in how I was treated in hospital. It’s an experience that so many women have, of having their bodies overlooked, their voices ignored, and the silencing that goes with that.” Crabtree describes a consistent “gaslighting” that came with the attitude that she was just having a bad period, and being sent home with paracetamol to treat significant pain.

For Crabtree, there’s a pattern that she’s observed – every time she shares the work, there will then be further discussion and conversation with others that have had similar experiences. “It might not be the same disease, but it’s the same story over and over again. So I was really interested in that idea of storytelling and how we tell these stories in order to heal or move on, or find commonality with other people. There are really interesting theories around narrative medicine. Rather than seeing medicine as separate from you as a person, the medical practitioners and the patient use storytelling together to find out what’s wrong. We tell stories to be understood and to understand ourselves.”

“It’s me telling my story,” Crabtree says. “But also through the use of other people’s words.” Within the film, there are extracts from Crabtree’s diaries and she describes the “shock” that came with looking back at them. Since being ill, she had moments of forgetting or doubting the severity of what she had experienced, but the written account serves as a vivid reminder to Crabtree of just how bad that time was. “There are also new bits of writing [by Crabtree], and quotations from authoritative sources like the NHS website, or Wikipedia.” These clinical sources can be upsetting, as Crabtree recalls the fear of looking up her diagnosis and the treatment she received and reading further into it online.

This necessity of questioning received wisdom or conventional understandings can be one line of intentionality that crosscuts Song’s ambition to create a “new realm” for cross-cultural lives and knowledge, or Browne’s deconstruction of dominant linguistics and accents. This trajectory of the exhibitors continues to Isobel Lutz-Smith’s video work that deals experimentally with ideas of objecthood, language and the material basis of film itself. When it comes to approaching film and making art, Lutz-Smith emphasises very careful filming, then playing with image and creative editing. Sitting with some examples of the visual from the film that will be in the Platform exhibition, she speaks about the work in terms of connection and relationships. “It’s like a collage, where things make sense because they’re with other things, not because they’re alone. You can build on it and continue to add layers, even though it’s digital. That’s what I enjoy, I think to see video as beyond a narrative or a window into something else, it becomes something completely different.”

Lutz-Smith takes inspiration from Sidewalk, an Edinburgh-based radical 1960s literary publication, edited by publisher Alex Neish, a law student in Edinburgh University at the time. Neish managed to source writers like William Burroughs, and this was essentially the first time international radical literature scene made its way to Edinburgh. In the chapter that Burroughs published, he discussed the cut-up method, and Burroughs admitted that he “took this technique from Brion Gysin, a famous sound artist and painter. He basically rediscovered the Dadaists’ cut-up method but he used it in a different way. Instead of pulling words out of a hat and reading them, he actually composed them. And what Burroughs found interesting was taking something that could be used in painting, then applying it to writing as a technique, and I really wanted to do that in film.” While filmmaking might be understood as a linear process, Lutz-Smith describes her process of going through editing, reordering and changing sequence in a more responsive way.

Going into further detail, Lutz-Smith describes that the work will be “a video installation with four screens”. Lutz-Smith describes the work as developing on from a previous video installation, in which the screens were set up and they related to each other like actors in a play. Going on, Lutz-Smith says: “This time, I’m not so interested in video as a narrative medium but as an experience. In the last video work I did, it was almost like a play in the way it was set up and its relationship to the audience. Now I wanted to make something where you could almost go inside the film, like you were inside the screen and looking outside. There’s some custom-made seating inside that relates to the video itself.” Describing the video further, Lutz-Smith says: “It’s a meal, it’s meat and two veg, so the main ingredients are: meat, potatoes, peas. So the food becomes almost like Photoshop textures, or 3D animation programmes when you see the surfaces flattened down. That’s what the food becomes [in the video]” and this image is then reproduced on the surface of the seating.

Like Crabtree, Lutz-Smith describes the work presented at Platform as coming from two years of development. This sense of the exhibition coming at a turning point of long periods of research and artistic development is another recurring theme across our separate interviews, so there’s a lot packed into one floor of the City Art Centre. “I think you might be a bit tired after seeing the show,” Browne jokes, “we’re all expecting you to give us your all, which is quite nice, rather than this passive art experience. The show is asking you to think in ways you haven’t before.”

Renèe Helèna Browne, Research still, 2018

Platform 2018, until 26 Aug, at City Art Centre, part of Edinburgh Art Festival 2018 http://edinburghartfestival.com