A Talk With Kate Cooper
London-based Kate Cooper's art touches on questions about women and labour in the digital age. Her practice has primarily been collaborative; such as the artist-run exhibition space Auto Italia. The Schering Stiftung Art Award gave her the opportunity to produce the large-scale installation RIGGED, presented at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin in 2014. The acclaimed solo exhibition marked the start of her solo career. This year, during Berlin Art Week at ABC Berlin, she presented her new work Experiments in Absorption. The presentation took place at the young gallery Neumeister Bar-Am, with which she recently started to work. I met Kate Cooper in the lobby of her hotel in Stockholm to talk to her about RIGGED and the status of images in a digital world.
N.H: I first came across your work when attending your show at KW. The billboard-sized screens in RIGGED displayed an ideal woman rendered in CGI techniques. It made me think of the idealized bodies that surround us everyday in contemporary consumer culture. Describe “the perfect woman” in RIGGED?
K.C: I was really thinking at the time about these highly modified images of computer generated women. The representation of bodies within these images really fascinated me, there was a link to female bodies found in commercials and pornography and I wanted to understand what was at stake with these new CG rendered images? Also watching how women were operating online and how they positioned themselves in relation to their bodies – bodies manipulated to accrue a new kind of capital. I wanted to explore my gut reaction, the problematic combination of violence and desired these CG images produced. What was the inherent politics in these images -I simply couldn’t unpack them? I wanted to make work that circulated and existed within the same terrain, uncover their potential function. I wanted to produce, render and create images that operated in the same way to get my hands dirty so to speak within the material.
N.H.: Her movement and her smooth, caring, yet numb, voice feels both personal and pre-programmed, creating a chilling ambiguity. I felt the work raised questions about the feminine character working for us, connoting to Apple’s Siri. For me, the virtual woman in your work embodied a new digitalized caretaker.
K.C.: At the moment I feel really interested in how the Internet is connected to our feelings and how people use the Internet to manipulate and track people's emotions. How this is connected to ideas surrounding care work and affective labour. Those jobs, traditionally undertaken by women and what that might mean in terms of new infrastructure’s being created around immaterial and cognitive labour.
N.H.: I feel this connects to questions frequently discussed within feminism. How do you relate your practice to feminist ideas?
K.C.: I'm from a working class background with a strong matriarchal community however these women who would never talk about feminism in the way that my friends and I do, yet they totally enact those ideas throughout there daily lives. My grandmother for example lives in a close nit community with other women sharing labour, caring for each other’s children and families and even sharing working shifts in factories to work around childcare.
I’m always questioning my politics in relation to how I operate as an artists. You know, it's the familiar narrative; that most of the artists I know are men and the majority of curators I work with are women - the caring continues. I think that this awareness is apparent in my work automatically. Recently I've been thinking about creativity, and how you allow yourself to have a practice is in itself a feminist position. Not being apologetic and just giving yourself that time to do that work you want to do.
N.H.: With your background of mostly working collaboratively considered, how does your method change when you work on your solo projects?
K.C.: As Rigged was my first institutional solo commission it was a way for me to work out how to have a studio practice on this scale. I had to ask myself: who is involved in the work? The project at KW was really a collaboration and that's how I like to work in most of my projects. I'm working a lot with Theo Cook, my partner who is a photographer and filmmaker. I wouldn't say that we are a duo, but that we maybe work with each other like a director and a cinematographer. Also for the script for the video for Rigged I collaborated with artists Marianne Forrest and Marleen Boschen. I often refer to my process of working in terms of ‘we’ and other artists are often involved in all of my work. This comes from an awareness of the history of women's work and how women been working in collaboration. For me, it’s important [for an artist] to emphasize that you do work with other people and not alone.
N.H.: Could you tell me a little bit more about your other collaborative work, such as Auto Italia?
K.C.: Auto Italia is a project I've been working with for 8 years now. I founded it with some friends after we graduated from art school in London and it really started off as a very grass roots initiative. The space has moved around in London at the moment we’re moving into a new long term building in East London. The project is really directed by what we are interested in and it kind of expands or contracts depending on what us as artists and other people we are working with. The thing I really like about it is its flexibility. What’s most advantageous is being able to make our own rules and the stuff that we like. Last year, our discussion revolved a lot around immaterial labour, gender and different forms of representation. Recently, we’ve been working on a project called On coping. The ideas came from discussions about gentrification and we think of the results as an anti-real estate campaign or a mini think-thank for artists to reflect on their own conditions.
N.H.: On that note, what's it like being an artist living in such an expensive city as London?
K.C.: London is pretty much impossible. At the moment, in England, it’s class warfare. The Conservative government just want to push out anyone who is poor and doesn’t fit within a neoliberal agenda. I feel in the UK there are serious fundamental questions why need to ask right now about who has access to make and participat in art or any form of creative or cultural practice. I personally feel this is very pertinent question. A lot of our friends and even more established spaces have shut down. That's also one reason I continue to be involved in Auto Italia, since it is one of the projects where a lot of younger artists are involved. Auto Italia can define its own terms and the artists are really involved in the conversation about what those terms are. I find it very interesting that it works almost like an institution perhaps in order to challenge other institutions. For example ,we make sure every artist gets paid, which is a huge achievement in London. It’s a project and a group of people that I’m really proud to have been a part of.
N.H.: Finally, would you label your work Post-Internet?
K.C: That's kind of a hard question – how do you link work together? The term belongs to a very specific moment in Berlin, at a very specific time and comes from a very specific group of people. I couldn’t say that it was my group of friends or a movement I was involved in. However a lot of brilliant artists who I really like the work of have been put into this category. My investigations come from a slightly different perspective but there’s definitely an affinity. Maybe it's just about a set of qualities or a certain set of questions, that make work appear or having taken the similar approach. Or maybe it just the same set of ideas that are dispersed within the same generation of artists. Perhaps that's the thing with Post-Internet art, everybody just got influenced by the same things in the world and so they responded with what was available to them, that was always going to mean a break from the earlier generation.
For me an older generation who critically addresses the politics of images in contemporary culture have been interesting to follow. I feel like they work with those questions in a slightly different way, almost more removed, like Hito Steyerl, Harun Farocki or Mark Leckey. Steyerl who often connects to the issues of Internet has certain remoteness which I find useful. She deals with the internet in a more reflective way. Sometimes a bit of distance can be useful to fully investigate a subject, something that perhaps younger artists don’t have the ability to do. But in the same way that's maybe what makes this younger generation of artists’ work so interesting- it’s without any limits.