VAN Jan/Feb 2015: ‘Better to Come’ IMMA Director Sarah Glennie Interviews Turner Prize Winner Duncan Campbell

Career Development:

Still from ‘It for Others’ 2013, 16mm film and analogue video transferred to digital video 54, courtesy of the artist and Rodeo, Istanbul / London

Duncan Campbell (born Dublin, 1972), a graduate of Glasgow School of Art (MFA) and the University of Ulster (BA) is the winner the 2014
Turner Prize – for his contribution to Scotland’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2014, the film It For Others. He was announced as the winner on December 1st. Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor presented the £25,000 prize to him at a ceremony at Tate Britain in central London.

The artist was regarded by many as a firm favourite to win. The Guardian’s Laura Cumming calling Campbell “the only obvious winner” and the Daily Telegraph’s Richard Dorment saying he was “the real thing as an artist”. The other short-listed artists were Ciara Phillips, James Richards, TrisVonna-Michell.

Both Belfast and Glasgow art scenes have strong connections with the Turner Prize. Widely remarked upon this year was the fact that Campbell, Phillips and Vonna-Michell were all Glasgow School of Art Graduates. Previous Turner nominees and winners associated with Belfast include Willie Doherty (1994); Phil Collins (nominee 2006); Cathy Wilkes (2008), Susan Phillips (2010 winner).

Still from ‘Bernadette’ 2008, 16mm film transferred to digital video 38′ 10″, courtesy of the artist and Rodeo, Istanbul / London

Curated by Sarah Glennie, Director of the Irish Musuem of Modern Art, the exhibition ‘Duncan Campbell’ runs at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin until 29 March 2015. Campbell’s solo exhibition at IMMA comprises four of his major film works: Bernadette (2008) is about unity candidate MP and socialist activist Bernadette Devlin. Make it new John (2009), takes as its subject the American automobile manufacturer John DeLorean, the iconic DMC-12 car he produced, and the West Belfast plant where it was made. Arbeit (2011) is about the German economist Hans Tietmeyer who played a key role in the European monetary union. It for Others (2013), the work which won the Turner Prize, takes Chris Marker and Alain Resnais’ 1953 film Les statues meurent aussi (Statues Also Die) as a starting point for an examination of cultural imperialism and commodity and includes a performance made in collaboration with the choreographer Michael Clark.

Sarah Glennie: Do you have a sense yet of what winning the Turner Prize means for your work?
Duncan Campbell: It’s going to take some time to figure out. There are some things that I’m hoping will happen. So far, each time I’ve made a work it’s been like re-inventing the wheel for each project. I’m hoping things will become a bit more predictable – not just in terms of money, but producers taking on board the way I work, which differs from standard film industry practices.

SG: There will be a great sense of scrutiny on what you do next. Do you feel any sense of pressure?
DC: There are two sides to it. I’m not going to argue with the way the Turner Prize brings attention to the winners and other nominated artists or to turn down the opportunity to have this sort of spotlight. But there is an arbitrariness about it. Four people get nominated each year and only one wins. I know people who’ve been through that process, and people who deserve to be nominated but haven’t been.

SG: Its been interesting for us at IMMA to see here in Ireland, where public awareness of the Turner Prize might not be as high as it is the UK, that new audiences have been really enjoying your work (1).
DC: Yes, and that’s great. On a smaller scale and a different context, winning the Statement Prize in Art Basel in 2008 was helpful for similar reasons. With all the films I make, I try to create a situation where people can sit down and watch them from beginning to end as an experience. But the chances of people stopping and giving time to a 38-minute film at a busy art fair are slim. Likewise, this prize said ‘see this’. I’m conscious that, when it comes to biennales and big art fairs, the kind of work I make is going against the grain, in terms of the time that people are inclined to give.

SG: How did you get interested in becoming an artist? I recall reading in an article a while back that you said it stemmed from actually being very interested in writing.
DC: I was talking about my first encounter with the arts in the broadest sense, including literature. But I really wanted to go to art school by the time I was 14 or 15. The first time I really got ‘inside’ a work was through reading literature. And that stayed with me. It’s probably a reason why I started making films, because I’ve always written but I’ve never really found a satisfactory way of integrating that into 2D work or presenting text in the gallery. I think the first film I made really made sense, as it provided a way for me to present that.

Still from ‘Arbeit’ 2011, 16mm film transferred to digital format, B&W, sound 39 min, courtesy of the artist and Rodeo, Istanbul / London

SG: Can you pinpoint a time when you got a real idea of the potential of contemporary art?
DC: Well, even before starting art college, I always believed in the potential for art to ‘change the world’. What that means to me has changed over the years of course. It’s to do with growing up in Ireland, where cultural production has always engaged in some with a sense of ‘becoming’ in terms of Irish national identity – politically, culturally and in folk traditions. I always took it for granted that all these things were bound up together. For example, I love the story about Brendan Behan, that for a long time he didn’t realise that Oscar Wilde wasn’t jailed for being an Irish patriot. Perhaps now this isn’t such a dominant feature of Irish cultural life, it’s probably on the wane. But these things really matter.

SG: Your work is very much of and about the world. Is that what inspired your decision to study in Belfast after you finished your core studies at NCAD?
DC: Partly that and wanting to study away. A lot of things coalesced. At NCAD I was really blown away by seeing books in the library about Willie Doherty and other artists who were engaged with the political conflict and its representations. I think I had a very mythical idea of what it was like and what art was being produced. I also liked the way the course in the University of Ulster wasn’t broken down into specialist areas.

SG: At what point did you start to get a real sense of your practice?
DC: As much I am still figuring that out, I think probably in the year or two after I left the MFA. That’s when I made my first film and a lot of things clicked for me in terms of the visual material I was using, juxtaposing that with writing and sound.

SG: Was that a difficult time?
DC: In some senses. I remember doing lots of joinery work and gallery install jobs. I didn’t have a studio; I was working from home. But it was fun in a way and the jobs were quite regular, so it left time in between to make work. For example, myself, Alex Frost and Mark Barnham ran a radio station in Glasgow, broadcasting on Tuesday evenings. It straddled the two things Glasgow is renowned for, music and art. It was a great way to meet and talk to people.

SG: Do you think that the close knit artist-led and collaborative nature of the art scene in Glasgow – something people associate with Belfast as well – offers a support system that makes the transition from college to professional practice easier?
DC: I wouldn’t want to over romanticise it, but in general it’s quite a non- hierarchical place. People don’t wait around to be asked to do things. There is a very strong artist-led ethos. It’s a far cheaper place to live than London, for example. I did look into moving back to Dublin, but the whole Celtic Tiger thing was taking off. Glasgow really works for me. There is enough going on to keep you interested, but at the same time it’s not super distracting. I find it a very easy place to just get on with what I am doing.

SG: In Ireland, the Arts Council provides strong direct support for artists. What’s the situation like in Scotland?
DC: It doesn’t seem as generous a situation as in the Republic. However, it’s far better than the situation in England and especially London. I received a bursary earlier this year, but they are not planning to continue the scheme. There have been various attempts to instrumentalise arts funding, along with proposals to fund galleries on a project-by-project basis, which would have been untenable. Thankfully there’s been something of a backing down from such extreme measures.

SG: You mentioned earlier that your work has been funded and supported in quite an ad hoc manner. Has this been mainly through institutional commissions and other schemes?
DC: Make it New John has been my only the totally funded project so far (by the Film and Video umbrella, with three other partners: Chisenhale, London; The Model, Sligo and and Tramway, Glasgow). The work for Venice It for Others was partly commissioned, but I had to raise a good part of the budget myself. Bernadette was kind of disaster, because I didn’t really have any idea about the economics of archive material. I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t won the prize in Basel, as I was able to clear the costs of the archival footage with that. It was also supported by a production grant from the Scottish Arts Council, as it was called then.

Still from ‘It for Others’ 2013, 16mm film and analogue video transferred to digital video 54′, courtesy of the artist and Rodeo, Istanbul / London

SG: Because your work evolves from long periods of research, rather than a predetermined process, is financing difficult, as funders often require quite detailed proposals?
DC: Yes, this is the big difficulty I’ve always had. It’s a process much more acceptable for art funders, whereas film boards want scripts. The industry model is that the production is extrapolated from the script and then other people get involved. It’s really difficult to ask someone to contemplate breaking that system down and doing something different. But it cuts both ways – both models have pros and cons.

SG: Your work has been part of film distribution networks, having been shown in film festivals, but I was wondering whether the funding models, programming and the way art institutions operate is what makes the art world a more natural base for your work?
DC: Yes it does. And of course this just doesn’t apply to me. For the sort of work that I, and others, produce, including people from filmmaking or documentary backgrounds, galleries and the art world are really the only distribution base. Even art house cinemas are quite restricted in terms of what they can show. Short film generally gets slots of half an hour and feature films 90 – 120 minutes. The films I make are between those durations.

SG: Some of the first questions you were asked after winning the Turner Prize were about whether you’d go into the film industry, as if it were the next ‘grown up’ step …
DC: I wouldn’t rule it out, but all the same, it is a slightly patronising assumption. I’m already in film. Certainly It for Others was a far more collaborative film than I’ve made before. I really enjoyed that process. There were creative aspects that I had to give over to other people, which I found to be liberating and beneficial. I’m not a complete megalomaniac. But it remains important for me to maintain enough of my aesthetic and how I like to structure things.

SG: There’s a huge amount of organisation behind what you do, in terms of getting access to archives, clearances and funding applications. Do you have any help with this?
DC: Not really, generally I produce it all myself. Make it New John was the film that I had the most help with production-wise, particularly with the re-enactment parts.

SG: So what’s the balance in your studio between thinking / making space and office work?
DC: I don’t have the Internet in the studio complex where I am based. This preserves the studio for me as not so much as a thinking space but a making space, where I can spread things out a bit. Another reason I have a studio is that I need space to store stuff. I tend to do the admin side of things from home as its warmer and the coffee’s nicer.

SG: Do you ever find the logistical side of being an artist overwhelming or do you regard it as part of the process?
DC: The times when it can melt my head are when I’ve been addressing organisational issues and trying to be creative as well. I work much better when I can get a clear run at something and stay with it mentally. I need time to be able to both step away and go back to things, especially when editing. But overall I see the logistics as being all part of the process.

SG: Final question: in light of the Turner Prize, do you feel like a ‘success’?
DC: The Turner Prize it is a big accolade, but I always think that there is better to come. If I didn’t feel that, I think I would find it difficult to keep on doing what I do.

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