The collision of things: Andrew Duggan in interview with Karlyn De Jongh

Karlyn De Jongh

Karlyn De Jongh is an independent curator and author from the Netherlands.

Andrew Duggan: <em>from the conjugation of the verb</em> ~ to america, 2006; courtesy the artist
Andrew Duggan: from the conjugation of the verb~ to america, 2006; courtesy the artist

Andrew Duggan’s work addresses what he calls “the space between tradition and contemporary space and time.” For him, language and location are key elements; whether in New York or the Gaeltacht, Duggan discusses the tradition he is in, walking the fine line between definitions.
His daily questioning has resulted in a series of video installations addressing various aspects of tradition. In his works, Duggan collaborates with dancers, musicians and cultural institutions. The encounter with the other seems important for Duggan, trying to see, question and define ordinary things – or things that were once ordinary and became something different. Duggan brings this to a direct encounter, when confronting the viewer and presenting his projects in the public domain1
I met with Andrew Duggan at The Clarence in Dublin on 10 January 2009, and this interview is based on our talk then and subsequent interactions.
KDJ In the titles of your work you often use a Gaelic phrase followed by a slash and then a phrase in the English language. In the names of cities in Ireland a similar system seems to be used. Although in this instance the Gaelic and English often differ in meaning, the names do indicate the same place. How important is knowledge of the Gaelic language for you and for understanding your work? Do the English and the Gaelic part of the title denote the same? What is the function of the slash?
AD Imbued in the work there are slight differences in meaning between two languages. Most of the time the two titles mean more or less the same. The best way to discuss this is through a project I am just completing, called Iarsma. In English it translates as ‘remnant’: what’s left behind. ‘Iarsma’ seems to be more intangible, ephemeral or emotional than ‘remnant’, which to me always seems tangible. I always find it easier to express emotions through Gaelic and something more Germanic through English. English words I find more descriptive; Irish is more emotional. The English is a bit more calculated. The Irish ‘iarsma’ contains more images than the word ‘remnant’. It’s just like when you are travelling and visit a lot of places and see a sign: the Irish version of the sign can be more poetic. I am even interested in it being written in italics. In italics the reading of the place seems more poetic, as the vertical is more “this is where it is.”
KDJ You have described your work as an investigation of “the space between tradition and contemporary space and time.” How do you understand this inbetween space? To what degree is the distance between tradition and contemporary space and time indeed a spatial and not a temporal distance?
AD I think there is no specific distance between a tradition or a past and a particular present. That distance changes, with whoever is looking or has the power or knowledge to transcribe the past, to be the historian or gatekeeper of tradition. As an artist you walk a fine line between worlds anyway. If you look at people who are involved in traditional music or writing, they are very much in ownership of it. I would never feel an ownership of it. I feel part of tradition, but would never say I own it.
KDJ Why do you feel that is? Is that because you are from Dublin or because of your position as artist?
AD I think it is a bit of both. As an artist I don’t think you are in the need to own, apart from anything else. As soon as you define something, you question it. It fluctuates; there is nothing solid. It’s like what Francis Bacon said in an interview in which he was quoted from another interview: “I said that? I lied.” There is a kind of truth in that lie. It’s not that artists don’t stick to their principles of being an artist; their tense of questioning fluctuates. I think, that’s the pure joy of being an artist: daily questioning. Tradition is very solid and very defined. Yet a lot of Irish tradition isn’t. In fact, I feel more at home with the avantgarde of the Gaeltacht than I do with the constructed avant-garde of the city. I did a project there called Milk and honey. It was in a disused creamery, a really interesting space. I was playing with the idea of the distance between where we are and where we want to go: the distance between now and then changes our perception of the destination. I thought of this destination as the land of milk and honey. I started to get an interest in the notion of the Irish Republic at that time as well, in particular the moment which was named the ‘Free State’, after the treaty. I feel it is a time of optimism and idealism. Identities were forged at that time. I made two video pieces that went inside the old creamery building. To do that I had to approach the local co-op and dairy company to be able to use the space. There I was, this Dublin guy, trying to convince this Kerry man about what it is that I wanted to do to the creamery. He was interested in the film and started to tell me about the workers that used to work in the building. Many of these ex-workers eventually came to the exhibition. The work became a sort of catalyst for them to talk about their experiences. That moment I felt there was very much an acceptance of the poetry of the avantgarde in the Gaeltacht.
KDJ Does that mean that the inbetween space between tradition and contemporary space and time is more a relation than an actual gap that makes them two separate things?
AD Yes, I would not see them as two separate things. And I think certain traditional forms – or the vocabulary – do two things to me: They become motive objects; they make me do something. Also they became a language that I can play around with and re-appropriate and readjust to specifics. In February they burn the gorse and the heather; all hills are in flame. I am working on a piece that comes directly from seeing them light the hills to clear away something. The reason for burning the heather is to get away with it, to make the land fertile again. The same could be said about making a piece of work: by erasing or subtracting something, you allow for new definitions or interpretations of that very same object. That subtraction and inbetween has always been intrinsic to the work that I do. Language as well as the act of taking something away from it. The space in-between isn’t historic and isn’t time. It is more the relationship or collision between the two.
KDJ Besides the Gaelic/ English titles of your work, you seem to stress the importance of language. Why is language so important to you? How do you see language in relation to tradition, which to some extent seems to depend on the celebration or repetition of that same tradition?
AD I was a language teacher for three years and became completely absorbed in language structure. I like how we position ourselves within the tense system: that we talk in the present, but also talk in the future. I recently did a piece called Future perfect, which is a tense system: you will have done something by the end of the day or you will have done something in twenty years time. I like that mental throwing back and forth and how we do that; we don’t necessarily draw a line, but are sort of bouncing back and forth within our language. Many things are trying to give this linear life. When looking at the Gaeltacht, for example, they don’t live linearly there; they live more zig-zaggy between what all the cultural references are. That often happens in the art world as well: to repeat something historic; to keep it alive. That idea of language and how we think linguistically, I feel very close to that.
KDJ You have spoken about taking over words from other languages: ‘folk’, for example, comes from the German or Dutch ‘volk’. Also you created work around the conjugation of ‘to folk’ and ‘to america’. Why do you want to activate these nouns into verbs?
AD I like activating, yes, but mainly the perception of language. The word ‘america’ is such a huge, huge word, especially when it is capitalised. If you de-capitalise it and make it into a small word, and make it into a verb that doesn’t exist, you’re leaving open for interpretation of what it is to do that. That is where the debate is interesting. I am not trying to achieve a definition of it, but to debate what the possible definition of that word is. I’ve only done this with the nouns ‘folk’ and ‘america’ but the debate around it is completely different. In relation to the word ‘america’, I had been working with missing-person posters and found something really sad about it. These people are missing: a hole has been left for this person; he or she exists but also doesn’t exist. The two things jar, but it makes the image even sadder. The photographs are usually snapshots; you know that other people were in that photograph. To question how it is that this happens, seemed to lace well with the word ‘america’. It became a booklet with photographs and the conjugation of ‘to america’. By activating the word, you question it.
KDJ Do you think you change the meaning as well?
AD I think you are inventing something else with a meaning that hasn’t been defined yet. Meaning becomes personal: after seeing the booklet many people came with a negative connotation to what ‘to america’ means. That was in 2005/ 2006 when America was in the heat of a combat. These people came up with definitions of ‘to america’ saying that it’s imperial. I wonder if that will change with the new president. With the word ‘to america’ I am taking something, but at the same time I am creating something new with it. That can be open for definition, but essentially it’s something that is newly created and can refer to either language – definitions and meanings – or to what it comes from – America. There is a duality there, but essentially it’s that fine line in which you created something new.
KDJ Your work is about culture. How do you find touching upon a culture that isn’t your own?
AD I think it is quite easy to integrate as an artist and as an Irish national into New York. It’s a city you are immediately part of. Growing up in Ireland in the ‘80s, going to London was always a nightmare: you’re always afraid that something would happen. Every young Irish person was seen as a possible terrorist. Irish culture is about duality, about different communities within one island. I like that duality. That’s also going back to the Irish/ English language theme. I like the counter argument in a way. I think the Irish language and history does that. Also between the countries there is always something other to be defined.
KDJ Where do you position yourself as an artist? Do you consider yourself to be somewhere in between?
AD I think you walk that fine line between definitions. Your role as an artist is to create work that is a social moment. I do think that the creation of art is a social moment, that does something. Being one side or another isn’t the role of an artist, at least not for me personally. I am trying to be on the fine line, trying to tip the balance.
It’s important to me not to just reenact, to be the observer and to document. Artists have a bigger responsibility. I like the definition of an image. I like the creation of something new from something already existing: firstly, it does something when you see it, but it also has other elements and layers to it. I like the collision of things, such as in the Milk and honey film where there is a collision between the milk and the patriot image of the man. Of something possibly that’s lost, that’s not tangible any more.

KDJ Why do you feel you have a responsibility?
AD I feel responsible to myself as an artist and also to being an artist. I think there are a few artists out there at the moment who create emotional spaces to exist in. There is a sort of fear of making pieces of work that are emotional in Ireland: it’s associated with an amateur way of making work; somehow your work must have a wry slant on a particular subject.
KDJ To touch upon tradition: that seems also quite personal or emotional.
AD But you should not be afraid of it, just because a work has an emotional reason for making it. If you make work from an emotional point, it does carry through.
KDJ Do you feel your work is about you? About your life, your culture, and your language?
AD I think it has to be, but I don’t think you can separate that. I wouldn’t go around making work specifically about myself: I wouldn’t find that interesting to do.
KDJ You do seem to touch upon things that are present in your direct surroundings. I mean: since you moved to Dingle on the west coast of Ireland several years ago, the town seems to have become interwoven in your art practice. Many of your projects took place in Dingle and address aspects of that site. Would you consider your work to be site-specific?
AD No, not necessarily site-specific, it’s more about being definition-specific or meaning-specific: what the place is about. I know that that can lead into site-specific, but that you’re somehow adding a layer to it as opposed to doing something that can only be understood in this location. For the piece I did in the Sculpture Centre, in Leitrim, I took handwritten notes from kids who hung around a disused ball alley. It was about the future-perfect ideas: what they want to do in the future. The notes were pinned to the wall of the handball alley. That could be seen as site-specific, but it’s not in the way that I could take these pieces of paper and put them in any handball alley or any place that is imbued with a similar meaning. I am not sure whether there is a category for that. Looking back at Milk and honey: it’s in a creamery, that’s a social crossroads; I could have had that image at any similar space that was a space for social interaction.
 They came into my Andrew Duggan: Milk and honey, 2002, video still, double video projection; courtesy the artist
They came into my Andrew Duggan: Milk and honey, 2002, video still, double video projection; courtesy the artist

KDJ What do you think happens to your work when you take it out of the location and tradition it is originally situated in and present it within another culture and in an urban context? Is the moment you place it outside its original culture the moment it is seen as ‘folk’? How important is the ‘outsider’ in determining what ‘folk’ is?
AD It’s interesting to see how people run with certain pieces you made. They seem to have a local relevance. That relevance can be taken, what the work is about can be brought elsewhere. People have said I am kind of precious about the work I made. I kind of am: it’s important to me not just to show the work out there and see who’ll pick it up. I haven’t shown the Milk and honey piece anywhere else, for example. If I would put it somewhere, that place should be equally as important as the place I originally put it in. With regard to Milk and honey: I have never seen a space that has done the same thing to me as the creamery has done. Although it’s specific for a creamery, I would love to present it in one of these abandoned, ideological spaces. It has to be a space that does more than give a vehicle for presenting two video pieces.
KDJ During your residency at Location One you took up the role of interviewer and raised questions about the concepts ‘relocation’ and ‘dislocation’ in relation to a change of location by an artist. What do you yourself think about these terms? When you yourself change location, do you dis-locate? What about your works? The word ‘dislocate’ seems to have quite a negative connotation. Do you see it as a negative change?
AD The idea of dislocating came to me with this idea of digging a hole. People talk about it in terms of relocating oneself or putting oneself within a particular context: as if you’re plucked from one context into the next. Artists in residence often do that: relocating oneself and relocating the practice, without responding to the new environment. I find that strange, but also kind of interesting. Obviously you still continue your practice when you are going somewhere else, but part of my practice is always that I can’t help feeling responsible for the space I am set in. In particular architecture: architecture, such as in the creamery or the handball alleys, has always been a strong point in my work. I find these disused or unoccupied spaces fascinating. They are in-between spaces that nobody owns. Architecture and construction of spaces have always made me want to make work, employing some of the things that that space means.
KDJ Do you feel the space has to give something back to you?
AD The space has to mean something to me.
KDJ What is this meaning? Is it something emotional or – to speak like Dorothy Cross – does it spark off something?
AD I think the building must mean something in relation to… I don’t know. In a way it is indefinable what an architectural structure does to you. But there must be a motive; it must make you want to do something. I think it’s a bit of both: something emotional and it also sparks something off. I don’t have any particular definitions on a site. I don’t go to a site to see if it adheres to certain criteria. It’s something I come across as opposed to to look for: I wasn’t looking for the creamery nor for the handball courts. They came into my visual landscape. It’s like how you exist in this world and how an artist travels through it: some things become interesting and some things don’t. When you stay in one place, you can go crazy. Or else that place must change constantly for you. That you can find new meaning and definition in that place. But you shouldn’t move from one place to the other without making any connection to that place; for me it wouldn’t be nomadic.
1 This interview was conducted as part of the project Quiccheberg. Andrew Duggan: Milk and honey, 2002, video still, double video projection; courtesy the artist