INTERVIEW WITH LUCY POWELL

You’ve produced three artist books: 100 Percent, Cause & Effect and The Memory of Sheep. Let’s start by talking about the most recent, 100 Percent. The book gives an overview of our relationship to nature, information and technology expressed through statistics. Where did you collect all the percentages?

I collected them over a number of years through the course of my reading and from the Internet. Some I found, others I had to seek out. For me, it’s a picture of the world and the state of information. It’s very slippery because the statistics are not verified. That was the question, do I put in the sources or not? I decided not to because the work is also about belief. What you believe, the contradictoriness and the absurdity of the claim to having full knowledge of anything.

So we can never be sure if the statistics are real?

It’s left up to the reader to decide. Serious statistics are thrown in with trivia: 1% of terrorists caught by the FBI are real; 2% of the soil on Mars is water; 3% of the global population speaks more than 4 languages; 5% of the ocean has been seen by human eyes; 6% of the world’s population is addicted to the internet etc. etc. The big question was what would be 100 % and then I remembered that China own all the world’s pandas.

100 Percent follows on from Cause & Effect, which uses rhythmically arranged and interchangeable word pairs. How did this book start out?

I started out making a list of everything that’s wrong with the world as expressed in these word pairs. Things like, NAKED SHORTING, DATE RAPE, COMPRESSED WEEKS, OBESEGENIC ENVIRONMENTS, HELICOPTER MUMS. Then I just kept finding more and more. Some of them are so abstract but say so much about the avoidance of things. The terms come from manager speak, finance, media, the military. I am fascinated with language like this, different forms of jargon and buzzwords.

Then I started collecting words from the other side: psychology, new age stuff, green solutions, and I soon realised that it was impossible to tell which was the chicken and which was the egg, so I threw them all together in one book. There’s a great German word that relates to this, ‘verschlimmbessern’, which means making things worse by making them better.

A number of your works investigate various aspects of anthropomorphism. Where did your interest in the relationship between animals and humans come from?

That’s a very autobiographical thing. My interest in animals started as a child reading all the Gerald Durrell and James Herriott books. I always had a deep-seated conviction that people were no more important than animals. The very first piece I made with animals was also the first book I made called The Memory of Sheep (2007). It was also the first piece I did involving science. It was based on the finding that sheep can remember fifty faces of other sheep over a period of two years. So I made a portrait series of fifty different sheep. I also included blank pages to represent the sheep that are forgotten because I figured that flocks of sheep are hardly going to tally with the exact number that science came up with.

How did this work begin?

It came out of other works I was making at the time about projecting meaning onto the world. I liked the idea that people project meaning onto animals and that animals totally refute this. So I started getting more and more into this gap between human and animals. At that time in the art world it almost felt like a taboo to work with animals. One of the first exhibitions here in Berlin about animals was called Derrida’s Katze (2010). A lot of artists not involved in the exhibition seemed quite uncomfortable with the topic, as if it was somehow too populist to work with such a theme. But it was an interesting time. The field of animal studies was just gaining a foothold in Berlin.

Since then this gap between the animal and the human has increasingly been chipped away at in the sciences and the humanities. All anyone really had to do was to read Darwin who said after researching earthworms for years that the difference between humans and animals are only of degree, not of kind. But I’m also really interested at looking at the human in relation to both animals and machines.

Your piece We Are Here (2013) addresses this triangle using two animated talking cats.

It plays on the Internet obsession with cats and the virtual animal at a time when real animals are disappearing. This was my first piece that directly brought together humans, animals and technology. Cats as pets are complex hybrids between the animal and human worlds. In the piece I gave them a voice which was half-human and half-machine.

Can you talk me through how your works materialise?

I have a really diverse practice. I don’t have just one medium. Language has always interested me and I wanted to be a writer first but I’m not a writer, I work as a translator. I’m always collecting material through my reading. But it’s always good to work with things that are just lying around. One of my pieces Liminal Animal started by collecting my cat’s whiskers that I found lying around the apartment. But things only really crystallise when I create for a particular exhibition space or setup. Otherwise they just sit around in my head.

A few years ago you started Satelllite Salon, which uses the transitory nature of Berlin to facilitate conversations between visiting scientists and artists.

In 2011, I was really starting to investigate the whole art-science realm. But it was hard to make inroads. Artists and scientists tend to occupy very different worlds, both physically and mentally. At the time I found the science institutions pretty closed here. So one of my motivations for the salon was about opening doors.

I also felt very isolated making animal-related art here and was only exhibiting in Britain. Then I met Andrea Roe who teaches sculpture in Edinburgh. She was also working with animal themes. She had also made a piece using whiskers, a really nice installation along a corridor in a psychiatric ward. She was interested in keeping a connection to Berlin and I wanted a connection back with the UK. She suggested another woman, the curator Sara Barnes who had just moved to Berlin from Edinburgh. It all came together very quickly and we just dived in, hoping things would evolve organically.

From the beginning was it purely about connecting to other disciplines?

It was a research and networking opportunity for us of course, but we knew that we wanted to bring people together who would never meet because the science community is so separate from the art community. I generally only spend time with other artists, which feels totally blinkered. So we thought, it has to be social, there has to be wine and there has to be food. So we started with two talks: one from an artist and one from a scientist. Then we invited guests who were connected with the theme. The salons are often pretty ad hoc, but for me they are a way to find individuals who are open to other disciplines. It is about openness of mind. It’s also an education process – for a lot of scientists, art is just illustration.

Have you found scientists have been open to coming along?

The website has helped a lot, because it lists all the previous participants. They can look at it and see the list of other scientists who have been involved. Otherwise when they get the email, it can seem like an invitation to dinner from a few random women!

But the divide between the arts and the humanities and science is catastrophic. The complexity of the world surely demands an engagement with all aspects. It’s hard to think about interdisciplinarity in the abstract though. I think it’s all about individuals. Someone like Donna Haraway, who’s own biography combines philosophy, biology and literary criticism. She doesn’t differentiate between the disciplines, for her it’s all about metaphor as a way of conveying and understanding things. I personally want to meet more people like her and Satellite Salon offers a way to make that happen.

Interview Berlin 2015