Words Liberty Scott
Photography Charles Dennington
Documentary photography Jek Maurer courtesy Minerva
Fashion Peter Simon Phillips at Company 1
Hair and make-up Gavin Anesbury at Vivien’s Creative using SACHAJUAN
Photography assistant David Collins
Fashion assistant Ryan Cullen
Marian Tubbs and I have never physically met. We’ve never sat face-to-face, shared a table, or even so much as made eye contact. Like twenty-first century pen pals, Tubbs and I navigated the impracticality of a host of variables—her installation of upcoming shows, our differing locations and mutual manic schedules—to lead a relationship filtered through an email inbox. In fact, despite our many attempts to Skype, I’ve only heard the Sydney-based artist and academic speak via YouTube clips. My entire conception of Tubbs is constructed upon a composite of online articles, Google images and videos sourced online. In a way, perhaps it is only fitting that my relationship with the MCA’s 2015 Online Commission recipient should centre on the virtual—after all, the accolade titled her master of merging the URL and IRL.
As one of Australia’s leading contemporary artists, Tubbs is best known for her internet, video and assemblage-based installations, which meld sculptural practice with relational experiences. Her work examines the intersection of materiality with ideas of value and pleasure with reality, at the same time conflating binaries between the physical and virtual, and outdated distinctions between low and high culture. By poetically treating discarded or low-value commodities, Tubbs’ challenges the physical and symbolic boundaries of the art space, which act to ascribe value. Often when these materialities meet, new meanings are formed within the art space and Tubbs’ desire to expose traditional hierarchies is revealed through these responsive juxtapositions.
Through a digital thread of emails and file transfers, Marian Tubbs and I discuss the internet of things, and one of her most recent shows—just opened at the time of writing, and recently concluded—Contemporary Monsters.
LIBERTY SCOTT Can you tell me about your solo show Contemporary Monsters on view at Minerva gallery? What led you to that title?
MARIAN TUBBS It has been the strangest and most fulfilling show I have put together so far. My work can be pretty research heavy, but this time I just followed curiosities and let the material manifestations and the space determine the mood of the exhibition. Contemporary Monsters is an overarching and obfuscating title—I’m interested in how speculation and fact wrestle in everyday life. The two words hint at a representation of some spectres of ‘now,’ but the exhibition hopefully refuses such direct delivery. There are video games set in empty apartments, plastic photos, and guttering systems. Discarded matter—mostly plastics—drove the material enquiry.
SCOTT I’m interested in the relationship between these artworks and the space itself. For someone who might not have visited Minerva, can you give us some sense of it, physically, geographically? Which parts of it are tricky, which pleasurable?
TUBBS I have been working with Minerva for close to three years—it has been a dream space for a solo exhibitions, consisting of two adjacent galleries set a mid-war building on the cusp of Kings Cross and Potts Point [in Sydney], with freedom given to the artists as to what we’ve shown. I have lived in and walked around the area for several years. It is filled with glamour and sadness, fragments of which have found their way into my photographs and assemblages.
SCOTT Your work takes the gallery space and charges it with materials and objects that reimagine and narrate the relationship between art object and institution. It’s interesting how your works are as much about the space as the relational dynamics between each sculpture itself. It makes the viewer more aware of their position or relationship to the work. Can you speak more to the poetic process of making art in this way and metamorphosis?
TUBBS I have never made an installation that has been a total transformation of the gallery environment. Instead, I arrange objects as best as I can to create potential movement and intrigue for bodies. This means there is a certain amount of planning and a lot of installation to work in the space, [time where I] vibe on what the space wants. When I first started exhibiting, I would run in and out of the gallery—try to hang something straight or get a video running—and then literally run out of the space for fear of ‘The Gallery’. I now try to hang out and loosely feel at home during install. Floor sculpture is aimed at producing lowly vulnerabilities—it is not so different from leaving things on the bedroom floor. I guess I want to ask, what does it matter if something is hung-up? The idea that I do not have to clean myself up, or edit in some prescriptive fashion to exhibit, has something to do with grunge and disdain for bourgeois tastes (including my own). I like things that are underwhelming and kitsch—to intervene with the materials in slight or dramatic ways and call it art even when I’m not sure if it is. The beloved artist Hany Armanious said recently that my work is ‘druggy’, and Astrid Lorange, a gorgeous writer, has focused on its apparent ‘erotics’—honestly it feels cool that it’s possible to let things commingle and they together become more interesting than you are.
SCOTT Tell me about some of the images and texts used as source material.
TUBBS The images in the first gallery and what makes up the video game terrains are trash compositions behind screens of plastic bags. I started taking pictures casually when I saw compositions emerge from my apartment: food, hair, flowers and other decaying things. I like the bin as it is the matter of life-stuff, and the body’s traces are everywhere. In some ways, it’s also very revealing, as when the photos started I was living alone in a tiny place with no fridge or bins so everything landed in these bags and would stew together.
At the same time, I was learning some ways of making video games. I found online tutorials were overwhelmingly masculine and the language out there could be sexist and homophobic. For example, you would have to listen to a guy telling you that making a 3D flower is ‘gay’ as a pejorative to learn how to do it. [Injecting] feminine abject aesthetics into the virtual worlds I was creating was an intuitive next step.
“I like the bin as it is the matter of life-stuff, and the body’s traces are everywhere.”
SCOTT Your practice has been said to merge the digital and the ‘real’ through online, video and assemblage-based installations. How would you describe your use of materiality?
TUBBS The internet and the street are the same: they are both bursting with predictable and unpredictable encounters with materials, information, witnessing and surveillance. I’m just trying to deal with it.
SCOTT Everyone looks at art online now. Our experiences of sculptural works we cannot see in the flesh and walk around are limited to a mediated reproduction, a superficial idea of how the work appears, one that has been reframed, that can leave things out. I wonder how you feel about this, both as someone who inevitably looks at work in this way, and whose work (which often doesn’t resolve into one view) is being looked at in this way. Do we, as audiences, get anything from images of artworks divorced from real space? It becomes more complex with your work perhaps, because it employs screengrabs and pixels, bitcoins, dogecoins, cursors (thinking of Vulgar Latin particularly here).
TUBBS Maybe anything can be superficially experienced or meaningful … You can be in a totally superficial conversation and really be ‘present’ (filled with anxiety about how superficial it is—smiling through), or in opposition, you could start crying at the line of a terrible romcom, or online message because of some sign, some cultural mechanism, some personal vulnerability that brings about an engagement. The author David Foster Wallace was scared of movements toward ‘high definition’ and everything that would follow. He had a TV addiction and knew the comfort of transmission that allowed him to be with the world and alone simultaneously. He had a premonition for virtual reality porn and this comfort with technology as the future for humans. As Lil Wayne [says], it’s all complicatedly meshed now, “It feels so real, like it’s virtual.”
I’m pretty social and haven’t really watched TV since the last share-house I lived in (when Redfern was affordable lol). I am interested in simulations and speculations—both present and potential, and I think what keeps many of us from understanding how bad things are now is a lazy deferment to old narratives. Neo lib-BRO-alism kept the GFC under wraps for years in the 2000s, yet recent charismatic cinema like The Big Short (2015) has white guys both play the heroes and sufferers. I think it’s time that ‘art’ be the porous locus for voices to provoke and engage audiences who are listening and politicised.
Vulgar Latin (2014) was made almost purely from cutups and animations of images and sounds that I found on the internet. The point was surface—the video was about the value of the rip and assemblage making, with one glossy surface or animation giving away to another over the duration of the video. There are many scenes that build and dissolve luxe and cheap surfaces. The precious thing you cannot touch, hold or own … this is why the scenes of crypto-currencies seemed to fit.
Vulgar Latin is the name for an unscholarly, unwritten, but more widespread form of Latin that proved influential as it developed into the romance languages. Another name for it was ‘common romance,’ which is nice. I figured there was a parallel with the common web vernacular that is not ‘valued’, but actually used for meaningful communication (shouldn’t that be the same thing?). Generally, when the commodity aspect of a thing is harder to pin down, when a form is still resistant, it can be more generous, though it won’t last this way forever. As Wittgenstein said, the gaze commodifies.
SCOTT I wonder, do critics ever write about your work purely from reproductions? I suppose that allows materials to be more easily misidentified, or for them to enter the work from a prescribed way—something limited to the photographic documentation.
TUBBS There is a clarity of photographic language required to transmit the obscure to an audience. This implies some paradox or hypocrisy—the new form as an excellent image of a poor material; the sharp photograph of a poor image in a clean gallery. This is not new but cultural amnesia is a long term an epidemic—I wish Australia was better. No need to hash-out photo theory here, but my favourite ideas on this come from Judith Butler speaking about her friend Avital Ronell:
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, 1999, Routledge.
“The demand for lucidity forgets the ruses that motor the ostensibly clear view. Avital Ronell recalls the moment in which Nixon looked into the eyes of a nation and said, ‘Let me make one thing perfectly clear,’ and then proceeded to lie: What travels under the sign of clarity, and what would be the price the failing to deploy a certain critical suspicion when the arrival of lucidity is announced? Who devised the protocols of clarity and whose interests do they serve? What is foreclosed by the insistence on parochial standards of transparency as requisite for all communication? What does transparency keep obscure?”
Documentation does limit; there is a controlled, decidedly commodifying frame and a lack of bodily experience. I like misidentification (as you mention) and mishearing. The title of a work in Contemporary Monsters changed because Stella McDonald, who I was working with, misheard me and we liked what she heard better. The search for meaning in art is given too much weight—it would be great to do away with this and forget the word ‘truth!’ Many students take up these themes, probably because art is beguiling and they want answers, but you’re probably not going to have one by age 25 or even 50. I am more interested in the impression a thing gives to the subjective viewer, or the thing someone thought I said—that’s a more complex conversation, nuanced with personal histories.
SCOTT Do you see the bits of text used in your work, whether found or invented, as objects?
TUBBS Yes sure, let’s say that, because I morph words toward abstraction, change contexts, and use texts to create new rhythms and durations in video. So words can be objects for sure, part of the assemblage—as weak or as strong as anything else.
SCOTT What is ‘poor material’? Is there any foothold in Arte Povera?
TUBBS The term ‘poor material’ took a while to arrive and stick with both my work and research but after a while it seemed right. It is so many things—the shitty hand-me-down bike you might be lucky enough to get, or the found set of plates on the street you could use in your house when you don’t have any. The poor material keeps giving in my work; it’s about flipping the ‘minor thing’ into something else. This is temporal but a worthwhile investigation … I am deeply interested in Art Povera, but I do not necessarily connect to it, probably because of time and geography. I connect more to contemporary peers: internet friends, and the strong lineages of Asia-Pacific and Australian artists engaged in utilising these materials.
SCOTT Your assemblage-based installations and digital works critique cultural ascriptions of value and explore the way materiality intersects with concepts of pleasure and reality. Can you elaborate on this?
TUBBS Why do we like nice things? Why do we go on holiday? Is it about selection, aspiration or a temporal mood? Pleasure & Reality, you could say is about the realities of class and the imaginary. Maybe you go to a country where the luxury hotel is cheaper because everything is cheaper there, for instance (I haven’t taken this holiday yet, but it looks pleasurable). In a geo-political sense, economics and individual ideas of survival and pleasure are inseparable from Australian conservative politics post-Howard.
I hope for my work not to be any cynical critique. I like optimistic visions, and even if I am dealing with discarded materials, this is not a rejection of other objects, but rather an engagement with the underdogs. The discarded defines a lot about our world and future worlds. In some ways, I’m a boring traditionalist still pursuing form of what things look and feel like. I love and hate that Duchamp broke art—it has obviously never made sense after he put a toilet into the canon.
“I remember going to the NGA and being blown away—a child’s mind embracing a crazy playground that looked so good and difficult, but also being an outsider, not quite in on the joke. So yeah, I’ve been trying to make new jokes since, in and out of these spaces.”
SCOTT Your work is heavily informed by the internet and the abundance of imagery that is accessible on an everyday basis. How do you collect and file these fragments of images, texts, objects or ideas that you use in your work?
TUBBS I collect hungrily, forgetting things and re-finding lists or folders. It’s a continuous diary and definite mess, and I do not want to be in total control. Working through material—and making decisions on what to do with it—happens while I’m running, sitting at bars alone (mostly overseas), on train rides and basically whenever I’m in movement. I happily juggle a few jobs, and this definitely affects the way I make. I can work in total engagement or serious distraction—the latter is like, editing a video while reading, 20 tabs open, uploading files, and sending research ideas to students. I do make folders with funny names that I remember, but my ‘workflow’ really needs help. I want and need to learn how to mess with the planned obsolescence of my equipment.
SCOTT Within some of your works, you utilise street debris and personal artefacts. Where is the symbolic divide between art and an assemblage of objects presented? Can one be as powerful as the other?
TUBBS Art can be anything you decide it to be, and art that doesn’t look like art is the best. Usually it’s all found-or-super-cheap objects that make their way into my work, things I pick up from walks or moments of engagement online. I’m no hoarder, I don’t have a studio or storage space. There are probably only two times that I can think of personal artifacts arriving in works. A boyfriend who didn’t think what I did was very interesting gave me bottle of bath liquid filled with fake flowers and pearls because he and his housemates were throwing a bunch of stuff out. I actually loved it, despite receiving an object from someone who didn’t really respect my work, but I liked him and the strange gesture nonetheless. The other was a bent coat hanger with some pink foam that a friend left when she moved out of our apartment … It was something that should have been thrown out, but I kept looking at it and couldn’t leave it. Both became parts of assemblages. They were things on their way to trash but held traces of experiences I wanted to distill.
SCOTT You are a writer as well as an artist. Can you comment on how you negotiate both roles and transmutable relationships between the visual and linguistic within your work?
TUBBS I was insecure about being called a writer before I was really exhibiting, some self-consciousness about being academic. Now as more of a practicing artist I find the agency with getting the words ‘right’ to be wonderful; it is, however, somewhat more alien to me. Maybe it’s better [to say] that I am comfortable with asserted visual forms. Words give away so much and that’s not a bad thing, it’s just harder and the editing is less intuitive. Writing my PhD was an athletic project; I would get up early every day (in the closing months at least) and walk 30 minutes to a library near the beach and write until I really needed food, then go back to the library until sunset, then swim laps to get rid of the word-stress. Now, if I write at all, I can work on a short essay for months. To write and deliver a lecture is easier as it allows me to be more lucid and on the spot, because there’s likely a temporal disappearance. I like being in an adjusting memory more than print. Titling work is really my favourite writing—there is something [I love] in connecting a moment or anecdote to an object because of nothing but impulse. All this said, the peer practitioners I most admire are writers like Dana Kopel, Holly Childs, Hannah Black and Astrid Lorange—I love how they can do things with words.
SCOTT You currently teach photography and Situated Media at UTS, and theory and studio at the National Art School and UNSW Art & Design. Do you find your job to be an extension of your working practice?
TUBBS I’ve always wanted to be a teacher and an artist, but they never existed without each other in my mind. When I was in primary school, I wanted to be a primary school teacher, when I was in high school I wanted to teach there, and when I was in university, I worshipped my lecturers. I am always learning as a teacher; it is a total collaboration.
My simple pedagogy philosophy is to be as sharing and supportive with information as I can, and to disturb expectations of power relations. This could also relate to my connection to the gallery space—it’s all about working within the institutions and attempting to create new forms. Often teaching feels like making a fool of yourself in front of youthful and better dressed people, and it’s most worth it when the questions become undirected toward getting high marks. If you want to question the thresholds of art, to find new institutional critiques, I think the best way is with the future artists, to discover new cohorts, and understand who is politicised and who is not, and then to figure out why. While I sometimes want more time to make ‘art’ (some vanities to make bigger and more ambitious work), I have to work around the teaching contracts I get as a sessional lecturer.
SCOTT I recall reading somewhere that you were inspired to create when you would venture on day trips to the National Gallery of Australia as a child. I wonder if you remember what exactly struck a cord with you—if there are any specific moments you’ve committed to memory.
TUBBS These trips were not regular, which was a good thing because as a family unit we’re not collectively bookish or cultured—clever no doubt, but we did not grow up with a certain respect of the ‘museum’, which I appreciate. I grew up in Canberra because my Mum pressured my Dad to get out of the army, which he had served for 27 years. He then got a job restoring relics at the War Memorial, so there was a relationship to strange, culturally significant objects that I was aware of as a child. This ambivalence is key to my relationship to museums and art spaces—if you respect them too much you’re just going to repeat the status quo. I remember going to the NGA and being blown away—a child’s mind embracing a crazy playground that looked so good and difficult, but also being an outsider, not quite in on the joke. So yeah, I’ve been trying to make new jokes since, in and out of these spaces. The first institution that collected my work was the NGA, and to know the piece has an image of my best friend’s tattoo saying ‘pink silk’ on her skin, printed on silk, is just one nice little joke that’s gone from private to public.
SCOTT I would like to know what comes next: projects and exhibitions. I hear you have some travel overseas lined up—where will you be going and how does this affect the way you make?
TUBBS I have local and international things coming up. I have work in a group exhibition curated by Tom Smith at 55 Sydenham—at the moment I’m thinking there will be a gridded wall and gamer stands without any moving images, but a connectivity provided by organic materials that might grow together or fall apart over the duration of the exhibition. This past week I went to Melbourne to make new work for an exhibition titled ‘Floating Ground’ at a new space, the Honeymoon Suite in Brunswick. In November, I have a grant to travel to India where I will research pelagic plastics in the Indian Ocean trash vortex and the microorganisms that live on these plastics. I will try set up a studio there and afterwards in Los Angeles, Vienna, Mexico City, followed by something uncertain in New York.