Rebecca Travis catches up with Newcastle-based artist Louise Mackenzie, winner of the New Graduate Award at Synthesis, Manchester Science Festival in 2013, prior to her first solo exhibition transformation content at The Holy Biscuit.
Rebecca Travis: Let’s start with some background, as you haven’t always worked as an artist. How did you come to study art in the first place, and what did you initially train as?
Louise Mackenzie: I did always see myself being an artist but I was dissuaded away from it initially, so I ended up doing what was next closest to my heart and that was learning about people.
I studied psychology at Strathclyde University and from that I ended up working in a management consultancy firm, looking at how to help people cope with changes that organisations go through.
I’d always kept up art through that time by doing classes if I could, and I knew at some point I would come back and study it formally, so last year I graduated from a Fine Art degree at Newcastle University.
Psychology has always been important and still is, that fascination with people comes through strongly in my art practice.
RT: Your work is populated with visual markers and concepts of science as well as links to aesthetic culture; can you speak about the influence of science on your work?
LM: Yes – the thing that I was most interested in next to art was science, especially biology – that was a subject I pursued. Maybe if I hadn’t gone down the route of people and art, I’d have looked towards the natural world. I’ve always had a real interest in what makes the world work in an environmental, ecological way.
I think for me the interest in science is that fascination with how things come to be and trying to get to the bottom of why things are the way they are or why we behave in certain ways – all kinds of philosophical, unanswerable questions.
RT: In your degree show there was a huge breadth of scale – from tiny microbes to gargantuan nebulas…
LM: I think a lot of that is to do with my interest in who we are, what we’ve come from and what we might end up being in the future.
RT: So it still comes back to people?
LM: Yes, it does. I’ve always been interested in evolution and really trying to get to the heart of it all – without actually being a scientist myself. Part of that, coming back to psychology, is an interest in the human mind. As a species we’re so unique.
This is where the theological elements come in, I’m shy of saying ‘religious’ directly as I’m not overtly religious myself in any way, but we do have this capacity to think, reason and question in a way no other species does, and yet there’s so much out there that we have no way of understanding yet.
RT: Your interest in science lead to you to take part in the group show ‘Synthesis’at Manchester Science Festival, where you won a graduate award…
LM: Yes, that was a real confidence boost. Because it was run through the Science Festival there were some good people on board, artists like Luke Jerram and Gina Czarnecki who I was already interested in, so it was great to exhibit alongside them.
RT: Your upcoming exhibition ‘transformation content’ adds theology into the art / science mix. Can you speak a bit about how the project came about and what it entails?
LM: It actually came about a while ago when I was given some wood from an organ that was being taken apart in a church that was being closed.
The wood itself is beautiful, full of the holes where the organ pipes would’ve passed through it, but it was the dust within it that got me. It made me realise that this building that had been a place of worship and community for all these people for just over 100 years was closing, and all of that history was dissipating away, breaking up, fragmenting. The exhibition is about finding a contemporary way to express all this wood and dust in a new context, to give it a place in the world again.
RT: Is that where the title ‘transformation content’ came from?
LM: Actually, for a long time I considered calling the project Entropy, (it’s the title of one of the pieces). It’s a physics term used in thermodynamics describing the measure of the transformation of energy, and I’m taking that in broader context.
I’ve been thinking about ‘entropy’ in terms of contemporary art too. If you look at art historically and contemporary art today, there is this sense of dissipation, of things spreading out over so many disciplines and a lot of that, I think, is related to globalisation, the internet, the fact we have access to so may different things now.
Rudolf Clausius, the physicist who first defined the term, gave a speech where he spoke about a ‘transformation content’ of energy and the term that he coined was ‘entropy’. I felt that ‘transformation content’ from a contemporary art perspective was a better description of what I was trying to do, it has this scientific notion of things dispersing and fragmenting and how that might relate to contemporary society.
RT: That sense of fragmentation comes through in the cyanotype prints you’ve produced…
LM: Yes, I’d been working with cyanotype prior to receiving the organ wood and I loved the way it allows you to alter an image. Cyanotype first came into being around the same time as the church that the organ wood came from and I liked this connection, so I found a way to use cyanotype to capture fragments of old photographs that the former congregation had kindly loaned me, to try and allude to memories retained, but perhaps not quite whole.
RT: Has it been difficult to focus on just one object?
LM: Not in terms of limitation. If anything the challenge was that there were so many components I could have worked with in so many different ways.
The key is to make the history of the organ come through somehow and the most powerful thing for me was the dust within the wood itself. One of the central pieces to the show is a dust print of the wooden planks onto a fabric sheet that has been translated quite systematically into music. For me this piece ‘Lament’ is almost like a swansong, the last chance for all the history to speak out.
RT: You’ve collaborated with musicians on this part of the project too, has collaboration always featured in your practice?
LM: I find working with other people enriches the development process and I prefer that to working in isolation. I like to learn and try lots of different things – it all goes back to the dissemination and crossing over of ideas.
The translation of the wooden planks into song was initially my own work. I devised this colour-coded system where depending on the size and position of the hole it determined the length and pitch of the note. I made a translation of this ‘code’ onto a musical stave and then took it to the music department at Newcastle University and enlisted the help of two 4th year music students who could more readily see how it would work as a piece of organ music. They’ve translated the rest of the planks using various techniques and software but it’s very much been a collaborative process that has led to conversations and considerations for further work with sound, including recording memories of the past congregation and working with a piece of software called ‘Photosounder’ to translate images into digital sound.
RT: And how will the sound work feature within the exhibition?
LM: The piece will be played daily into the gallery via local digital station Basic.fm. That (along with the dust sheet print) is in a sense the main work. It’s very much a digital piece, it’s the music, translated and then transmitted into the spaces. We will also be doing a live performance of the work in another church local to the one that’s closed, that way we can let the former congregation and any others who are interested hear the piece in a more physical way, hopefully it will be the live recording of the performance that is transmitted into the gallery as well.
RT: Is language important too? The word ‘organ’ obviously has religious and scientific connotations…
LM: Not overtly, but maybe subconsciously. I do think a lot about how we use language and how we translate. One thing I’m really interested in through my research is DNA and that I very much see as a language or code, so I’m interested in the notion of that as a means to tell ‘stories’ encoded within it.
The other influences are Baudrillard and Derrida, the latter in terms of his view of language, changing it and looking at the spaces in-between words, a ‘language’ that you can’t tangibly pin down. I do like the sense of playing with words and transforming meaning, using the ambiguity of language and not trying to define something in one fixed way.
RT: ‘transformation content’ also hinges around concepts of community, that stem from the organ object, how do you feel community has changed in the time since the organ was initially used and how will this be presented within the exhibition?
LM: I think the influences in what we see as community have changed but that the basic behaviours are actually quite similar. It was very much about considering the people that would have crafted the organ, the congregation who would have sung with it and the sense of a community gathering around it. It became an interesting concept to take the same wood in all its fragments and ask what that means about community today. By representing the same wood in The Holy Biscuit (another church now turned gallery) and then broadcasting music made ‘by’ the organ over a digital radio station it brings in an art community and a listening community as well.
RT: Can you talk about the workshops that run alongside the show?
LM: The workshops will be talking about potential changes in community. I’ve built a social media website which is a project in itself but will also be exhibited in the gallery. I imported some of the old photos donated to me by members of congregation onto my computer and it tried and failed to recognise the faces in the image. I was struck by this digital technology failing to distinguish a human aspect of who we are. I’ve given the ‘unnamed’ an online profile so they are part of this social media website, the idea is then to allow members of the former congregation to join and ‘communicate’ with the unnamed and I will also be doing workshops with school children about their experience of community, which will feature on the website too.
RT: The interesting thing about online activity is that it never really disappears…
LM: Yes, by putting these people on the website it sort of prolongs their identity, I like to think that they’re not being lost, there’s a place for them somewhere
RT: Maybe you can finish by talking about the programmed panel discussion, was it important to you to physically bring together people from the fields of art, science and religion?
LM: The discussion idea actually came from the gallery and I was keen because I felt that it might help to address certain things I’d been thinking about through the work. We have speakers from a variation of different academic backgrounds. I wanted to try and invoke a balanced discussion, not weighted towards theology, art or science and get those different perspectives together to discuss community change in relation to the exhibition.
For details of the broadcasts, events and panel discussion visit: http://theholybiscuit.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/louise-mackenzie-transformation-content.html
Rebecca Travis is an artist, curator and writer based in Newcastle.
Image: Louise Mackenzie, Entropy – Ball Pool Colour Code Score, C-Type Print, 2014