Darran Anderson and Sapphire Goss

A writer and an artist on the sublime potential of video art

Sapphire Goss, still from Compound Horizons, 2023. Courtesy the artist

Grounded in a restricted and ghostly London during the pandemic, I yearned for physical escape. Unable even to return home, I spent countless hours, days even, seeking forms of astral projection to elsewhere, trawling through distant stations via Radio Garden, accounts of landmasses I would never visit in Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands (2009), the epic screenshots of the Agoraphobic Traveller’s Instagram account, and the auto­chromes of photographer Albert Kahn’s “Archives of the Planet” project. I can’t remember how I chanced upon the work of film­maker Sapphire Goss. In a sense, it found me when I needed it, and her influence has seeped into books and other projects of mine ever since.

Goss’s work shares the spirit of the Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambety, who called cinema “magic in the service of dreams.” Each video of hers is a reinvention of cinema and a reminder of the magic inherent in the medium. Often working with analogue or even expired film and using homemade lenses to feature the repet­itive textures of water, light, erosion, and other ecological materials and processes, Goss manages to create video art that is both wholly new and utterly infused with material history.

A century of Hollywood, television, and now streaming has lulled us into a false sense of normalcy regarding moving pictures. Yet the closure of movie theaters during lockdown and the sub­sequent existential crisis of the industry might serve to remind us of how bizarre and multifarious this art form has always been. You enter a hall with no windows, mimicking the night, and sit with rows of strangers staring at a portal into the past to see places you’ve never been, and you temporarily forget where you are, in a kind of collective reverie. Goss’s haunted, often improvisational experiments in filmmaking remind me, over and over, of the won­ders of the moving image.

In August, I took the train down to Folkestone, on England’s southeast coast, where Goss lives and works. We talked in her stu­dio and on the local pier. In one direction, white cliffs. In another, France dissolving in the mist. In a third, the distant, mirage-like Dungeness nuclear power stations, and somewhere in their shadow, alone on the shingle, the cottage and garden of the film­maker Derek Jarman, who also believed that cinema was magic, elemental, and fertile. “When a story ends,” as Mambety noted, “or ‘falls into the ocean,’ as we say—it creates dreams.”

Darran Anderson

darran anderson Maybe, having grown up at one of the world’s edges in Derry, in the north of Ireland—a city near the sea, on the lip of the continental shelf, part of Europe but facing America, a hinterland always escaping whatever is left of the British Empire—I felt particularly drawn to the videos you’ve created on edgelands and shorelines. A lot of my work and time has been spent in the center of huge cities, but that interest originally comes, I think, from growing up on the periphery of a periphery. As enigmatic as your work is to me, there’s a recognition there, like a place I knew long ago or maybe dreamt of or wished I could visit. I like that ambiguity.

Place seems to be crucial in your work. I’m thinking of the Finnish island of Örö in the Archipelago Sea, for example, where you created a number of projects in 2019. Many aspects of Örö, with its peculiar geology, supernatural aura, and sinister political history as a former military fortress, seem illustrative of your work in general. I read that the tsars used forced labor to build naval emplacements there in the early 1900s. Before that, it was unin­habited; the shepherds who worked on the island were too fright­ened to stay after sunset because the ghosts of Swedish soldiers were said to rise from the dead at night. You mentioned once, in the online diary you kept while on Örö, that you felt like you were at the edge of the world.

sapphire goss If I am doing a project about a specific place, I start by just walking, looking, recording. I like to really explore a space in depth by repetitively gazing at the landscape through different physical lenses and frames, forming routines and rituals to observe tiny things.

Örö is quite an intense place. It’s in the middle of nowhere, really geographically isolated. It’s a confined space, just several kilometers long. There’s only a certain amount of daylight. Over the course of a month, I became very conscious of how the island changed: the weather, the sky, the wind. I made quadrats—little confined plots in which to observe the changing light or growing vegetation—among other quasi-scientific observational processes. I pinned out the four corners of the island, then visited each corner every day and took samples, with petri dishes, of materials—ice, plants, dirt, and so on—to use as filters in my camera lenses. This was the start of the weirdness.

da I know that feeling. It’s funny to consider now, when we’re bom­barded with images every day, but it felt like there was a scarcity of data before computers and mobile phones. It was as if your eyes were attuned to seeing the world in a different way. Heightened or degenerated, I’m not sure. I used to stare at the moss in our back­yard and imagine it to be maps of imaginary continents. I would do stone rubbings of the walls. It was tragic, really, but I don’t think I’ve shaken off that sense of perspective from before the deluge. Years later, I’d be hiking or bouldering and there’d be moments, as close to Zen as I’ve felt, when I’d catch my breath and suddenly notice the grain of the surface in front of me; it would look like the topography of a planet no other human had ever seen. And I’d always be tempted to photograph it, which of course would make it just another image.

You manage to retain that initial wonder, partly through phys­ically incorporating it in your work. Can you explain that filtering method, in which the organic material of the place becomes part of the images you make of that place?

sg I work on film and use very old analogue cameras. I was using a lens with custom aperture plates made of old beer cans and other waste materials that I filtered the light through as I created the images. I also make custom filters out of foraged raw materials, which produce even stranger visual effects. This was the method I used for my film Rose Tinted Crushed Black (2021).

I love using antique lenses to film landscapes. It’s like seeing the world through a new eye, like the light is being filtered through time itself. Since my time in Finland, I’ve begun making liquid lenses and prisms that can be filled with different water samples from the landscape—so I’m literally seeing through the eyes of nature. In Night Walk (1967) by the sci-fi writer Bob Shaw, the protagonist builds a device that lets him see through other eyes, including those of animals.

The ocean remains a totally alien place to me. I know nothing of it, really, no matter how many maps of the ocean floor I consult.

Shaw also pioneered a concept called “slow glass” in his 1966 story “Light of Other Days,” where light passes through the mate­rial so slowly that the glass itself becomes a kind of recording device, holding memories, showing scenes from the past. I feel like these lenses do the same thing; they’re conduits to other worlds and timescales. Every time I use a new one, it recalibrates my view­point and frame, making me see familiar objects in novel ways and notice new aspects of my environment. I’m interested in how ana­logue visual technologies—such as Claude glass, the tinted hand­held mirrors favored by landscape painters in the late eighteenth century—can offer humans different kinds of vision, in an almost cyborgian sense.

Shaw suffered from vision problems in later life, which I think makes his writing all the more poignant. I also have an eye con­dition, actually; when it flares up I can’t stand to look at light. It’s horrible living in that dimness, but luckily it only tends to hap­pen once every two years or so. It’s called uveitis, part of a wider condition called ankylosing spondylitis. One of the symptoms is photophobia, ironically. The treatment dilates one eye and makes depth oddly rendered, like looking through a VR headset or ste­reoscope. I think of the experience of chronic pain and unstable vision as something that simultaneously anchors me to the phys­ical and disconnects me from reality to the extent that I feel cut-and-pasted onto myself, off-kilter, decentered. Maybe this is why I am drawn to different lenses, eyes, viewpoints. I try to construct moving image and photography work that is beyond visual: tactile, sensory, material. Light and time as solid entities. The image exists, and the surface, and something else in between.

da The uveitis is something I share, unfortunately. I wrote a man­uscript on hedonism a while back, called Night Diving, about how nocturnal my life became when my vision was first impaired. It was quite a vampiric period of time, shunning the daylit hours, until I got it under relative control. But it’s always looming, espe­cially as the autoimmune riddle behind it has never been solved. I’m grateful there are treatments, at least. I think the same con­dition pretty much blinded James Joyce, among others. I’m not sure the hedonism book will see the light of day, no pun intended. I hadn’t thought of it until now, but I wonder if that’s why my book Imaginary Cities (2015) begins with a prehistoric scene of cinema on the half-light of a cave wall. It’s an intriguing idea, how vision itself impacts perspective, thought, identity, the inner world and the outer.

I’m interested in the relationship between filmmakers and light, which is their primary source or even subject matter. I’m think­ing of Terrence Malick shooting Days of Heaven (1978) during the magic or golden hour. Or Derek Jarman’s obsession with color as his vision began to fail when he was dying right near this same shoreline. This seems a location where the weather and light are always in flux and, unlike in cities, there’s space to actually wit­ness it. Maybe there’s just a sense of potential escape on the coast. I think of that scene in The Beaches of Agnès (2009) when Agnes Varda says, “If we opened people up, we’d find landscapes. If we opened me up, we’d find beaches.”

My granddad was a trawlerman in the North Atlantic and had to know the shoreline intimately for the sake of his livelihood and his lifespan, but though I’ve sailed and fished and swum there, the ocean remains a totally alien place to me. I know nothing of it, really, no matter how many maps of the ocean floor I consult. And I never knew that that phrase “the offing” refers to the shifting boundary where sea and sky meet. I wonder if the offing might itself represent a sort of cinema for you.

sg I’m actually quite bored of being here, after six years. I moved here in 2017 for very practical reasons. My partner, the painter Matt James Healy, had moved here, and it was significantly cheaper than living in London. And a chunk of the town is owned by an entrepreneur, Roger de Haan, who has set up subsidized artist studios. But following the inevitable pattern of these tides of gen­trification, he is now building luxury apartments on the seafront. I was here through lockdown and made so much work. It’s been great, almost like an extended residency in a sense. But I think I’ve explored this part of the world through so many formats, perspec­tives, lenses, and viewpoints that I’m ready for something new. And remember, in these border towns, there’s often an undercurrent of defensiveness related to what we might call Brexiteer culture.

It’s also a very physically unstable, very active place. One of the world’s living landslides. You can see the sea literally rising and falling here. Depending on the behavior of the ocean, you can see France—or not. You can see Dungeness and the Alabaster Coast—or not. The edge of the land might be misty, or obscured, or really sharp. I’m reading Italo Calvino’s Mr. Palomar (1983) at the moment, and I love that story where the title character is looking solely at one section of the sea and observing its patterns. I identify deeply with that impulse.

Even on larger timescales, you can witness the land here contin­ually shifting. I swim in the sea, and there are some great sunken-concrete World War II places I love. I believe there was a whole railway and pleasure resort nearby that fell into the ocean in the 1900s. Time just sweeps things away here.

da Your work always seems to venture beyond an anthropocentric view of existence and human timescales. You’re posing questions like, What is a moss’s history of the world? What is the memory of shingle? The consciousness of tree roots? I’m resistant to ask such questions, as the somewhat deprogrammed son of benevolent hip­pies, but that resistance tells me something. Why should we not have such thought experiments? We might begin to understand human consciousness more by determining what we’re not. There’s a value there, and entire other ways of looking at existence, and looking back at ourselves—take the sentient planet in Solaris (1972), for instance, or the implications regarding animal life in Under the Skin (2013). We’re likely to eventually learn the hard way with AI and our treatment of the environment—not just lessons about hubris but about the shallowness of the mantras we trot out contin­ually about empathy, autonomy, and so on, without examining the meaning, parameters and certainties of these things. The solipsism. Those tiny worlds your videos reveal remind me that there are com­pletely different universes all around us, just as having dogs and cats remind me every day that different forms of consciousness exist.

sg Even the essay documentaries I make don’t feature many peo­ple but rather drift through defamiliarized, depopulated spaces. I think a lot about the world before and after humans, about extinc­tion, deep time, “long dyings,” etc. I’m interested in how different materials and ways of seeing shape culture, history, and memory, how imagery and narrative literally determine our understanding of the world.

I love those layers of time in Calvino’s Cosmicomics (1965), for example, where everything concertinas out from a fixed point and back again over and over, spooling from the beginning of the uni­verse to the mundane contemporary, the cosmos to the daily com­mute. The mollusk secreting its shell somehow connects with the whole litany of creative acts through history. I also think a lot about a short story from 1858 called “The Diamond Lens” by Fitz James O’Brien, in which a man steals a diamond and makes the most powerful microscope in the world with it, one that allows him to see a whole universe in a droplet of water.

When making videos, I also leave much of the process up to chance, which decenters the human vision even further. I’ve started using expired film, for example, mostly because it’s a lot cheaper; you can buy these old rolls and you can develop them in coffee and household materials. I use reels of film that are even older than me, that have just been sitting on people’s shelves. When you use expired film, you don’t know what is going to work, and you get thrillingly unexpected results. Right now, I’m trying to open a film canister that’s literally rusted shut.

Sometimes landscapes also emerge purely from chemical chance. I’m finding that—like Palomar, perhaps—I’m filming the same handful of things over and over again: a horizon line, the sun and moon, clouds, light through dense foliage that looks like stars, trees that look like grabbing hands, endless footage of light on water in infinite patterns. I love that sense of pareidolia, which is the brain’s ability to see patterns, faces, and other familiar images where they don’t exist. The edges of the film reels form natural horizons; holes look like suns or moons; static and film grain bleeds into light on water; chemical stains form into clouds.

I also let myself just walk around and feel transported. Different light on rain droplets. A branch in the wind. A particular quality of light. Those moments of transport demand to be documented. Do you walk around doing that too?

da Constantly. It’s a kind of translation. In fact, I have to turn off being a writer, whatever that is, in my head when I go on walks. You have to turn the pseudo-intellectual part off and instead just leave the shutter open. The best thoughts steal upon you. To paraphrase Leonard Cohen, if I knew where the good stuff came from, I’d go there more often. Remaining receptive seems to be the key. There are tricks you learn, shortcuts, a craft of some description, but ultimately, I think of it like being a lighthouse keeper on a remote island with a vague awareness that some immense catastrophe has happened, and you leave the silent radio on in the hope of finding a transmission on the right frequency. It’s something you do, but more than that, it’s something that happens to you. Walking feels to me like a way of sifting through those radio waves, increasing your chances of hearing something. Plus, if I knew where these transmissions came from or understood any of the subjects I write about, I wouldn’t need to write.

I keep wondering why people like us are so attracted to ruins—to the edges of the earth, these sites of ecological drama and decay. I went to Germany a few weeks ago for a wedding and ended up poking around inside a Nazi flak tower. Then I started to wonder: What’s wrong with me? I used to think the attraction to ruins was a morbid fascination with the darkness of the past, but now I’m starting to think perhaps it’s the opposite. Perhaps it’s actually a comfort, something that helps me orient myself in this vast ocean of time. Or maybe I feel some kind of misanthropic reassurance in thinking that all this too will one day be ruins—that the world will finally have its revenge on us.

sg There’s something quite romantic about change, decay, return. My attraction to these themes is related to my affinity for analogue formats and materials that aren’t pristine. It’s not nostalgia. Rather, it’s about having another dimension, a way to physicalize the expe­rience of time passing.

Lately, I’ve been working with hand-wound clockwork cameras, which have made me realize that cameras and clocks are in many ways the same thing. Cameras are timekeepers; they operate on frame rates and exposure times. There are cogs inside, things that tick and need repair.

Sapphire Goss, stills from Compound Horizons, 2023. Courtesy the artist

I suppose my work is always about making ephemeral things tactile and tangible: time, rays of light, a fleeting feeling. Light especially changes as you move through it; it can feel almost solid, slicing or dappling or liquid. I like what H. G. Wells calls “trans­lucent unreality” in Door in the Wall (1911), this idea of different places and times all superimposing, moments of contact with another world. I like playing with the membranes between the real and the fantastic.

da Yet, however ethereal it might be, there is always a materiality to your work. You work in analogue formats; you’re surrounded here with rusted cans of celluloid and lens, relics in themselves. I won­der if this has to do with the fact that so much of the contemporary world is intangible; Instagram filters have become so prevalent, for example, that I’ve begun to sense an uncanny valley between the way people appear in digital formats and how they actually look in real life. Analogue film doesn’t simplify or beautify its subjects in that way. The grain suggests a kind of necessary friction, an aging, because there is still a physical object produced.

I have a friend who built himself a little darkroom in a wooden box, where he develops tintypes. Something about having images on metal—especially portraits—makes them seem almost hyperreal. Every blemish is pronounced and satisfying, however unflattering. Whereas digital filters can result in portraits that are fundamentally inhuman, I think. It’s not even a still life; it’s inert.

sg In some ways, my practice might be closer to using paint or sculpting than to digital filmmaking. And as an analogue photog­rapher, you are a painter, in a very real way; when he makes his tintypes, your friend literally has to paint chemicals onto plates. Subjects of early photographic portraits would have to stay really still while their picture was being taken, because the exposure time was so long—a ritual similar to that of sitting for a painting.

You’re right that, even when the subject of one of my films is something more abstract or ethereal, I’m always very connected to the physicality of the process. I feel a responsibility to maintain a link to the tangible world, even when I use digital footage or AI. And I’m very aware that film development involves chemical reac­tions on a molecular scale; silver atoms respond in specific ways to specific emulsions. It’s physical. It’s chemistry. At the same time, it’s also alchemy: there’s magic involved.

I’m interested in creating art that flickers between the material and nonmaterial planes, in other words. I do have a romantic feel­ing about the sublime in my work. Have you heard of Thai memo­rial cinema? In Thailand, mourners sometimes practice “ritualistic projection” where they play films to no one but the spirits. I like that idea: films playing to no one in the dark.

da That ghostly quality of cinema and photography has been there from the start, hasn’t it? The ability to make an image that will outlive the person—to visit a place that has since been completely transformed—must have been terribly unsettling to people who had never seen photographs before.

I definitely see echoes, in your work, of those mysterious early years of photography. Before photographs were used for things like reportage, there was the aesthetic movement of pictorialism: where photographers really did feel themselves to be closer to painters, using film to transmit a highly aestheticized, emotionally resonant image, full of veils and mists and gothic figures. “The camera cannot compete with brush and palette,” Edvard Munch claimed, “as long as it cannot be used in heaven and hell.” And some pictorialist photographers seemed to reply, “OK then, we’ll give you heaven and hell.” Which was impossible, of course, but something about the form itself made it uncanny, otherworldly.

sg The advent of photography marked a fundamental shift in human culture. Suddenly, you’ve found a way to capture time itself. It must have been like flying for the first time, like suddenly see­ing the world from above. Which can’t help but revolutionize the Renaissance idea of art where everything converges back to the viewer along a horizontal plane.

There’s a passage I love in Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida (1980) about the quasi-metaphysical nature of photography, which begins, “From a real body, which was there, proceed radia­tions which ultimately touch me, who am here; the duration of the transmission is insignificant; the photograph of the missing being, as Sontag says, will touch me like the delayed rays of the star.”

da The invention of photography also meant that people really were seeing worlds they didn’t previously know existed. It doesn’t seem so inconceivable that, after discovering the light spectrum, they thought we might also be able to use film to discern the after­life. The invisible was becoming visible; people didn’t yet know the parameters of that. Maybe we still don’t. Even today, seeing the world captured in a single frame has an unreality to it. A static image might still reveal things hidden to us by the continual cas­cade of time. Or at least, we want it to. Growing up, I had a single photograph of my long-dead paternal grandfather in his youth. I used to focus on it, trying to get it telekinetically to move, to get his features to animate in even the slightest way. Writing about him in my book Inventory (2020) was just an extension of that. An attempt to briefly bring back the dead. To prove that the wall between this world and the next is permeable, which would be a way of defeat­ing death and determinism and rewriting the rules of the universe, which children are prone to do as they are learning them.

Do you know about Stooky Bill? He was a ventriloquist’s dummy and the subject of the first successful experiments in tele­vised images. Quite a sinister sight. Given how bombarded and manipulated we are by images these days, I wonder if Stooky Bill’s terrifying face was an early warning sign about the medium. Some cultures, Aboriginal Australians for instance, have taboos about the reproduction of images of the dead, and even their naming. When you consider issues of manipulation, intrusion, personal sover­eignty, they may be onto something.

sg Even now, if you look at a fixed reproduction or frozen image of someone, you’re not really remembering the person how they were in life. Conversely, the Victorians would literally take pictures of dead people, in the hopes of conjuring up specters. They’d also use film to detect people’s auras. Then there were optograms, which were based on the belief that the eye of a dead person could record, like a camera, the last image it perceived. Detectives would photo­graph the eyes of murder victims and then try to use the images to identify their murderers. Given that these things were happening around the same time that x-ray technology was being invented, it must not have seemed all that unrealistic.

da I also often think of music when I watch your films, which flow like music over the viewer, always changing, operating beyond the limitations of language. Your practice is clearly informed by literature and material history, and also by the biological and chemical sciences. I’m fascinated by the boundaries between artis­tic mediums and the translations that can occur between them. As much as I have a list of books that influenced Inventory—Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces (1974), Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark (1996), Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory (1951)—it was the double meaning of the Joy Division album Closer (1980) that gave me the idea of writing a memoir set in a mirror-world rather than the real one, and Terence Davies’s film The Long Day Closes (1993) that showed me the possibility of creating something gritty and true to life through the prism of memory, which turns everything into a kind of magic realism. What Werner Herzog calls “ecstatic truth” as opposed to “accountants’ truth.” I don’t find these wells to come back to drink from as easily in literature.

sg My interest in video art actually began through music. I grew up mostly in a village bang in the middle of Northampton, Bedford, and Milton Keynes: the triangle of banality. It was an unremark­able place, the usual crushing small-town atmosphere. By my name you can probably ascertain that my parents were alternative. They were a bit too young to be hippies, but they were punks with esoteric lifestyles. As a child, I couldn’t fit in even when I wanted to.

I always did that thing growing up of making up films in my head while looking out of windows, listening to music. I think everyone must do that, right? I vaguely wanted to make music videos from watching things like MTV, and I had seen video art installations by Steve McQueen, for example. But, aside from art teachers, no one I knew had creative jobs.

I’d go see rock and indie acts like Godspeed You!, Black Emperor, Aphex Twin, the Fall—bands I’d learned about through NME, the British music magazine. Their shows would often involve these really amazing projections, sometimes with 16mm film. Music cul­ture had an influence on me because it felt somehow achievable—if not immediately doable, then at least not so far away. I ended up getting a theory-based degree in film, which involved very little actual filmmaking. Still, this robust knowledge of how moving images and cinema fundamentally work has inevitably perme­ated what I do. My dissertation was on experimental film—Stan Brakhage, Nam June Paik, Tarkovsky, and so on.

da And after that?

sg I got a technical job. Through a pub I worked at, I managed to get a contact at a TV post-production house in Soho, was a runner for a bit, and then became a technician and editor’s assistant, work­ing on all kinds of programs from The X Factor to Adam Curtis documentaries. Later, I was able to do this on a freelance basis, usually on night shifts, which I kept up for the next ten years or so. After that, I got a grant to do a masters in visual anthropology, where I studied to make documentaries in the style of Adam Curtis or Jonathan Meades or Patrick Keiller. It’s funny—my final grad school film couldn’t be more different from what I do now. It was a straight-up observational documentary set in Bernard Manning’s Embassy Club.

Alongside all this, I was also making videos and visuals for musicians by compositing archive, shooting through weird filters, and filming different textures and patterns around London. It felt like quite a natural way of working: interpreting the music and making visuals for it. I like doing that live as well, creating images in real time that are responsive to music and ambient sound. The video becomes a sort of instrument.

Lately I’ve begun doing it the other way around, getting musi­cians to write soundtracks for me. But a lot of films have this problem now where they’re just sort of flooded with music in an attempt to make the images more palatable or easily interpretable, rather than leaving silence and gaps. I’d like to avoid that in my own work.

da I’m writing about nuclear tests in the Pacific as we speak, and I went to see Oppenheimer (2023) for some levity. Without getting into what I thought of the film, I’ll say that I think the music was doing an awful lot of heavy lifting. Flooded is definitely the word. Some works of art can’t help themselves but instruct us what to feel and when. One of the reasons I was drawn to your work more and more during lockdown was that it offered me a kind of escape—not an escape from “here” to “there” but rather to some third space. Your films were somewhere I could see but never visit. Like mirages or—

sg Fata Morgana?

da Exactly. This reminds me of the early conception of cinema that film doesn’t replicate the real world but shows us another place entirely. I was obsessed with the surrealists as a young man, as people tend to be, because of those dreamlike juxtapositions and the implication that comes with them, that the waking world is a pretense: that there’s a zone beyond it.

sg That reminds me again of the opening lines of your book Imaginary Cities: “Before there were films, there was cinema; the flickering shadow play of fire and motion on limestone cave walls.” Film is a storytelling otherworld, moving on the wall. It’s kind of an escape, but it shows you something real at the same time.

There’s a prevalent, patronizing assumption that ordinary people will only “get it” if the artwork has an explicit mes­sage, but really most of us want the sublime.

Have you heard of the Russian painter Pavel Filonov? He hasn’t been shown much outside of Russia, and his paintings don’t really translate well to print or digital reproduction, so he’s not widely known. But I was lucky enough to see an exhibition of his in St. Petersburg around 2006 that has haunted me intermittently ever since. The room was in darkness with the paintings lit up. They were literally moving like fractals or optical illusions, so detailed and shimmering but somehow held together. Filonov talked about this idea of “universal flowering,” which has to do with the visible connection between the cellular and macroscopic levels of creation. I’m aiming for a similar process in my work: depicting places in art that also grow like a plant from the form of the place itself—its elements, chemicals, light particles. A speculative space where both things that are too small to see (molecular) and things that are too big to see (cosmic) can be made visible.

da Do you think you’re resistant to the idea of the singular?

sg In English culture, there’s a lot of very safe-feeling text-based work that says, “This is the meaning!” I try and resist the safety of one interpretation. I want each place I present to be represented polyphonically, rather than via a singular viewpoint—to be shifting and multifaceted instead of fixed within an auteur’s-or god’s-eye view. This prismatic, mosaic perspective is influenced by films like Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927), Man with a Movie Camera (1929), and Koyaanisqatsi (1982).

It’s a political choice, but I also try to resist explicit messaging because the art can lose something. Art is trying to fulfill needs, to fill gaps in society. It has had to become a form of social change because of the failure of the actual government, the cutting of public funds and social resources. Art also gets co-opted a lot by commerce; it can feed into place-making, gentrification, and gen­eral stratification. There’s a prevalent, patronizing assumption that ordinary people will only “get it” if the artwork has an explicit mes­sage, but really most of us want the sublime. I like the idea of not explicitly telling people what to think. I want the opposite of that.

At the same time, not knowing—not understanding—is difficult. People can feel stupid. One of my grandmothers had lots of art and photography equipment but had to help raise generations of chil­dren and so never had a chance to be creative beyond hobbies. The other could barely seem to express herself beyond stock phrases that became these family jokes. The men, on the other hand, were shut in, passive-aggressive, and silent, barricaded into their own inexpressive worlds. Unremarkable, quiet, heavy sadness.

So I like the idea of my work being mysterious and having mul­tiple interpretations—the idea that it can reach people in ways that are beyond words. I also want to make the work for people who aren’t just myself: those other generations with fewer choices and less freedom. Maybe this is a reach, but I hope that by using these haunted, expired materials and obsolete technologies, I’m also sharing the collective memories that have permeated them some­how. Reaching out across time. Connecting to the past.

da You explore memory a great deal in your work, which means there is always the possibility of melancholy about what has been lost and can’t be retrieved. At the same time, your curiosity about what surrounds you and how you might put it to practical use—even when it would seem to someone else to be junk—feels expan­sive and alive. Creativity seems to require some tension, I think, and in your work perhaps that tension exists between melancholy and wonder. The sadness of things and times lost combined with continual discovery, or rediscovery, or resurrection. As Tarkovsky put it, you’re sculpting in time.

Originally published:
December 11, 2023


Louise Glück’s Late Style

The fabular turn in the poet’s last three books
Teju Cole

The Critic as Friend

The challenge of reading generously
Merve Emre

Rachel Cusk

The novelist on the “feminine non-state of non-being”
Merve Emre

You Might Also Like

The Night Watch

I first sought sanctuary during the Troubles. I'm still looking for it.
Darran Anderson


Longer Than the Longest Rope

A conversation mediated by art
Canisia Lubrin
Dionne Brand

Ucky Art

Judith Scott, Eva Hesse, and the visceral power of "texxture"
Lauren Elkin


New perspectives, enduring writing. Join a conversation 200 years in the making. Subscribe to our print journal and receive four beautiful issues per year.