On the occasion of her solo exhibition in Hayward Gallery’s HENI Project Space, Kate Cooper discusses computer-generated imagery, viruses and forms of resistance with Assistant Curator Sophie Oxenbridge.
Your exhibition in HENI Project Space includes a number of new and recent videos that each feature a computer-generated female character. Why have you chosen to work with the same figure for so long?
There are actually a few different characters in these works, but they all function as the generic face of technological consumer capitalism. Initially, I was interested in the way that these figures are used to sell ideas or products or test out technology. I wanted to find a way to remove them from their usual context and repurpose them as material to work with. Later, I became more concerned with the way that they might refuse, disrupt or hijack the things that they are supposed to be colluding with – refusing the labour that is involved in representation, for example. This became the starting point for the work.
Why have you chosen to focus on the female body and experience?
As well as what is at stake in the representation of the female body, I am interested in the way that female experience relates to capital and labour. Recently, we have witnessed a huge growth in the discourse about the way that female bodies are represented, circulated and disseminated – whether that’s in digital technology, advertising, pornography or through personas like Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri. For me, this also links to the work of Sadie Plant, a writer and philosopher who has attributed the invention of the computer to the traditionally feminine work of weaving.
Your characters come in a basic framework that you import into animation software in order to manipulate. Sometimes these figures maintain their ‘perfect’ exteriors. At other times, they bruise, bleed, decay or move between exaggerated stereotypes of gendered bodies. How does the idea of perfection inform your practice?
I think there is a kind of banality in perfection. It’s also related to the way that we create and exploit value within our capitalist system. As an artist, I’m interested in the way that we can co-opt or sabotage these systems of ‘perfect’, ideal or highly desirable images. I often think about my work in terms of designer ‘knock-offs’ – fake goods that are made to imitate a branded item. These knock-off goods are at once a celebration of the ‘original’ and a way of changing or debasing the intended meaning of the product.
The images in my work often function as a conceptual stand-in for forms of unrecognised labour frequently carried out by women, for example care work or housework. What does it mean to refuse to perform this kind of labour? And more importantly, what happens when your body is sick and physically unable to perform? The characters in these videos are engaged in a kind of conflict with themselves that has to do with their status as images. There’s something inherently ridiculous and surreal about making figures that are always meant to be performing become tired or ill and reject the things they have been created to do. In these works, I wanted to connect the idea of sickness with a form of refusal.
By re-modelling and manipulating your computer-generated characters, are you challenging your viewer’s ability to empathise with them?
The way that we respond to images has fundamentally shifted due to the fractured nature of technology and new distribution systems, and I think that the idea of images creating an empathetic response is problematic because of this. Empathy is particularly tricky in relation to these images because of the way that they are constantly moving back and forth between subject and object. It’s also related to authenticity, and generally I’m much more interested in engaging with and creating works from materials that are obviously inauthentic.
In my work, I attempt to take an existing system or infrastructure and shift the focus in such a way that allows us to think about what is really going on. For me, the more important questions that these works raise are ‘what are the tools of image making now, and what do we want them to do?’. We don’t often think about how images such as the ones that appear in my work are made or circulated. To me, this gap in our knowledge and understanding is also something that relates to unseen or unrecognised forms of labour.
As indicated in their titles, for instance Symptom Machine or Infection Drivers, a number of your recent works are inspired by the way a virus acts in a human body.
The relationship between disease and image making has a long history, particularly in the work of queer artists. I was thinking about the way that images themselves function like viruses, constantly spreading and multiplying. During my research, I looked at the way that some viruses and diseases behave, specifically the way that certain types of cancer can occupy hidden spaces within the body – so-called ‘sanctuary sites’ – where they can grow without being detected. This seemed to me to be the most dangerous and sophisticated form of structural behaviour, and I became increasingly interested in what this suggested as a form of resistance. I’m also fascinated by the idea that images might act autonomously.
Finally, could you talk about the way that sound and image work together in this exhibition?
I think about these videos as performances, and for this exhibition I wanted to find a way to make the experience of watching them intensely physical. Sound is an important part of this. For three of the videos (Infection Drivers, Sensory Primer and Symptom Machine) I collaborated with Soraya Lutangu (aka Bonaventure) – a producer who uses samples in her work in a similar way to the way that I use found imagery. Soraya’s soundtracks consist of bodily sounds mixed with samples, mixed with elements that she composes. For me, these soundtracks bring with them questions about the history and nature of affect in moving image, as well as forms of non-verbal communication.