Sam Grant / Water
October 2018 Interviewed by Christiane Monarchi
How often do you encounter an artwork which makes the hair on the back of your next stand up? The first time, and every time since first seeing Sam Grant’s moving image work ‘Water’, even in glimpsing a video of the work installed, there is an effect on this viewer that is incredibly hard to understand, yet palpably real. As this series of interviews with artists on Photomonitor to date has not yielded such visceral reaction to lens-based work before, I have decided to bypass a more traditional mode of introduction to share this personal reaction with Grant’s piece, as it has certainly piqued my curiosity as to what lies behind this truly original moving image work, first shown in the Coventry University degree show last spring where Grant received his BA. In sharing Grant’s thoughts with readers, below, I hope more of us can share in this unique artistic vision and look forward to his future projects.
Christiane Monarchi: Sam, how did you decide you wanted to study photography? Was moving image / video something you have learned while on the course at Coventry?
Sam Grant: Funnily enough my entry point into both filmmaking and photography was largely accidental. To make a long (and not to mention complicated and painful) story short, the school I went to catered to children with moderate to severe learning difficulties and thus did not provide enough GCSE’s to do an A-level. I needed to spend a year of my stay at college making up for this but unfortunately I was struggling to find a college which would accept me.
I have autism and a physical disability, which was a severe problem. In essence I was told that if I only had one, things would be simpler but since I had both, my inclusion would be troublesome. Eventually the only placement I could pursue which provided ample support and was willing to take me was the performing arts college in Stratford-Upon-Avon, to whom I owe my career and success.
Funnily enough I did not see myself as much of an artist at the time. I planned to focus on a Biology GCSE the college provided, but I could not just do one subject and I was informed I would have to fill another three slots. They provided a sort of bundled course of Film Studies, Media and Photography GCSEs which funnily enough I resisted at first. I still imagine how different my life would be if I didn’t do them. In an amusing twist I hated Biology and was enraptured by my creative subjects almost instantly.
My entire life I felt this frustration at how I had been held back by things about myself I couldn’t control. This got worse when I went to Stratford and was learning alongside neurotypical kids for the first time. I became more acutely aware than ever before how difficult my life was. These arts which I had just discovered gave me my first outlet for these feelings. I have always been bad at articulating how I feel, somehow I was even worse at it as a teenager, but whenever I turned in a project about my anger or sadness or loneliness or frustration there was always a moment of mutual understanding between myself and my peers when they saw my work. This is the feeling I became fixated on recreating with my photos, films and writing. So I suppose in answer to your question I fell into it by mistake although now I see it less as an accident and more as serendipity.
CM: I’m a big fan of serendipity, and I like the ideas behind your choice of creative subjects. How did you enjoy the various projects on your degree course? There are many elements to photographic practice, which ones have you responded to the most?
SG: My feeling on the work I created during my university career have evolved significantly over time but before I can explain why I need to give a little context. We have key moments that define our creative identities. To clarify, I don’t mean an aesthetic or style as much as an ethos with which we approach creation itself. For me it was the first time I showed a photograph to someone and they said that despite it being great they would be scared to hang it on their wall. This has explicitly and implicitly influenced how I approach my practice ever since. At first I took pride in it. People still laugh when I tell them about my interview at Coventry in which I was asked who my audience was and I replied “myself”. I was staunchly anti commercial, in the way that all comically pretentious teenagers are, which surprisingly at least one of my lecturers responded quite well to during my first year. However, as I undertook more projects at university and pushed myself more to socialise I realised how conflicted I was about this mentality.
During one of my projects I created a tent lined with photographs in which I forced myself to receive physical expressions of affection from family members (kisses, hugs etc). I closed the front of the tent when the viewers crawled in to see the photos; I then threw a blackout sheet over the top so they needed to use a flashlight to see inside. To complete the piece I played audio of family members discussing what it was like to be unable to physically display their love to me as a child. I wanted this exhibit to be uncomfortable and harmful to those experiencing it, so they could feel a fraction of the fear and guilt I felt due to my inability to accept love. I spent some time slightly horrified with myself for desiring that effect. During my final project ‘Water’ I even wrote a long piece about how I feared I was “otherising” myself by making projects inspired by my experiences with autism so alienating. In retrospect I am incredibly proud of these pieces. Now I do not believe they are alienating whatsoever.
I created the tent because I wanted to push myself to accept and express the affection I withheld when I was younger and in making the viewer experience the discomfort I felt we have created a moment of empathy and mutual understanding. I believe it would be disingenuous for me to depict autism as rainbows and daffodils but that does not mean I want pity instead. There is an artist I admire called Bennett Foddy who once said of his work “I made this for a certain kind of person… to hurt them”. Foddy was not making abrasive work out of malice though, he goes on to describe a “similar taste… a desire for defeat” in reference to how we can create these experiences of perturbation to actually reach out to each other and reassure.
I recommend the writings of Stacy Simplican on communities of vulnerability in her book The Capacity Contract if you want an explanation on exposing weakness to create strength if you’re interested in a more political and philosophical approach to similar ideas. To give a bottom line answer to the question on how I approach photographic practice I suppose I would put myself with artists like Jo Spence and Sally Mann. I’m going to show you something frightening and perhaps hurtful in some ways, not because I hate you or myself but because I love us both more than you probably know.
CM: I wish I could have been there to crawl inside this tent of your first year exhibition and have the experiences you describe, the strong portraits are really engaging and of course the physical element I can only imagine now. Communicating physical sensations with lens-based media is really something quite extraordinary and not something I come across very often at all. Thinking now about your final degree show project, I would like to ask you how approached this complicated and highly sensory piece. Physically, it consists of three monitors running video, on a sort of loop that I can’t quite work out, but seems to surprise me every time one switches on with these shapes and flashing lights. How did you decide on using three monitors, their vertical positioning and the sequencing and loops of imagery?
SG: I discussed in my last answer the value of making people experience discomfort or perturbation for the sake of a larger aesthetic goal. In addition to this I am someone who likes to creatively utilise the space and medium at my disposal to enhance an experience. Maybe it’s my age showing but there are times in which I have gone into art galleries and been disappointed by how static a lot of exhibitions are. Not everything benefits from having an element of participation from the viewer obviously, but in a post-digital landscape where if people want to see an image they can look it up for free without leaving their home the appeal of seeing art is the gallery environment and physical medium as much as it is the experience of consuming the work. This is something discussed in greater detail in John Berger’s essay compilation Ways of Seeing which was a major inspiration in how I approach my work (and many others given how ubiquitous his writings are).
To bring it back to my work, after I had finished the video for ‘Water’ I racked my brain trying to work out how I could further make use of the space and medium to more effectively convey the discomfort and perturbation the piece explores. I knew that just sticking a television on the wall and letting it play wasn’t enough, it was missing something. My least favourite feeling, even more frustrating than the inability to come up with anything, is having a good project on my hands and knowing it lacks that certain je ne sais quoi that pushes it over the edge into something special. Funnily enough the final decision was made a week before my deadline. Somebody caught wind of the fact that I was making a video project and let me know that two of the screens a student had booked were now free if I wanted them. Initially I refused, but shortly after I had a sort of eureka moment when I realised what would complete the project. Having the piece switch screens at random intervals creates a vague sense of discomfort. There is no way of the viewer predicting the next time they will have to switch focus and thus they can never truly settle in to watch the film. They feel as I did when I was using water to prevent a sensory overload, which is to say, constantly on edge and unsure how to direct their concentration. It’s perfect because the feeling it evokes isn’t explicitly one of fear, it’s much closer to anxiety and frustration and I’m more interested in subtle difficult emotions than I am loud and obvious and ones. After a few panicked emails where I desperately asked them not to give the spare TVs to someone else, the project was complete. I still find it funny how different things would have turned out had that other student not cancelled the TV booking. Then again, as I said earlier, I have always benefited from making room for a bit of serendipity.
To briefly address the vertical positioning of the screens, I chose it because due to the specifics of my disability I find it harder to manoeuvre my body and crane my neck up and down than left to right, much like how I built a tent low to the floor so it would be most difficult for me to enter it. I always feel like it’s a more authentic exploration of my difficulties to make the piece hard for me to consume. As a disclaimer I realise that a side effect of this would potentially be excluding people with issues similar to mine from consuming my work but I would be forever willing to make adjustments to my exhibitions to make them more accessible to other disabled people, although funnily enough I tend not to extend the same courtesy to myself. As melodramatic as it sounds I’m a bit of a creative masochist. Some people might think that an artist creating something which is physically or emotionally difficult for them to create or consume is self destructive, but honestly I find incredible catharsis in it.
CM: Could I ask, what did you enjoy most about making ‘Water’ and why?
SG: There was a time in my life when I used to say my favourite part of any project was the catharsis I received from making it. However, as I explored my feelings more deeply I realised this wasn’t true. Emotional catharsis could be achieved more cheaply and easily through other methods but for some reason I was always drawn to creating art which was physically and emotionally painful for me in many ways. One of the biggest breakthroughs of my career was discovering that my real drive was communication. Art is often the medium for feelings and ideas which are too intimate or difficult to articulate in regular conversation. When you have autism or aspergers most of your feelings (or at least far more feelings than a neurotypical person) are hard to convey other people. One of the most damaging myths about the spectrum I’ve encountered is that people on it are emotionally withdrawn or detached but actually we feel very potently, but also frustratingly often lack effective tools for expression. I’ve unintentionally upset people by seeming cold and uncaring and the thing that hurt the most was I’m very invested in other people’s feelings but often fail in getting people to recognise that. I think I’ve alluded to this in a previous question but when I make things like ‘Water’ there is this connection between us. We can feel each other.
This may be projection but I often find that this is why people on the spectrum generally make for good artists. One of my favourite creators is a neurodiverse musician and writer called Eric Taxxon. He makes these powerful and intimate albums and video essays which possess stunning emotional articulation around the subjects of sexuality, creativity and self image. He’s alluded to some personal difficulties regarding aspergers in the past and perhaps I’m still projecting but when I consume his work he feels like someone with a lot of love inside of him who has finally created a vessel for it. It’s something I notice in basically every neuro-atypical artist I’ve worked with.
I had the privilege in 2017 of working in a group called Autography which used visual art as a medium to represent the experiences of a group of autistic people. There is honestly nothing like working with people like this, they’re so expressive in a way that is totally unparalleled. I got to help out at Autography’s neurodiversity event at the Tate Modern, run by one of my closest friends Anna Farley, and it still is my proudest moment.
CM: What kind of projects are you looking forward to doing next? It was serendipitous to run into you at the Autography group at Photofusion earlier in the summer, are you involved with this group in future?
SG: I would like to be involved in Photofusion and Autography for as long am I’m a practicing artist. If Anna has a job for me I’ll do it no question. The thing I’m most excited about is that we’re planning to write a book about art and autism together. I am also part of a multi media project in Birmingham called G37. It is my first collaboration with a large group of neurotypical artists and I am out of my depth in the most exciting way imaginable. I’ve received an unconditional offer for an MA in contemporary arts practice and I am hyped to start writing something substantial again. My dissertation was a good foundation but it needed more significant research and now I feel like I’m good enough to do it better. But mostly I really want to get into new mediums, ESPECIALLY MUSIC. I can’t play physical instruments because of some annoying medical reasons but I can probably make it on a computer with a digital audio workstation. I have this idea for a project called SkiNoise which further explores sensory overload. It would be a piece in which I am exposed to physical contact while a harsh noise musical piece plays and grows more intense as the contact becomes more intimate. If you are unfamiliar with harsh noise look up ‘Hybrid Noisebloom’ by Merzbow it is a good introduction to the best of the genre, although I warn you for a lot of people it’s an acquired taste. I have no idea how to make music and am uncomfortable asking someone else to do it but give it a year and hopefully it will be great.
My ultimate goal is to have contributed a significant work to every artistic medium before I die. It might be an overambitious (and slightly egotistical) mission but if there is anything I have learned from my career it’s that I’ll most likely end up flip flopping around the entire creative spectrum. After all, where would I be without serendipity?
About the artist:
Sam Grant is an artist based in Solihull who primarily uses the mediums of photography and video to explore themes related to his own experiences with autistic spectrum disorder. His work includes abstract depictions of sensory issues, social isolation and emotional processing in the attempt to convey the feelings experienced by an individual on the spectrum to a neurotypical audience. Through his artwork and writing Sam hopes to elevate the conversation surrounding autism to something which is more substantial that what currently stands, whilst also engaging in local activism with groups that improve the living conditions of those struggling with physical or mental health needs. Grant was awarded the Photomonitor commendation at Coventry University 2018. www.samgrantmedia.co.uk
For further viewing:
At right, still images from’Water’ © Sam Grant 2018.
Below, a single screen YouTube presentation of ‘Water’ © Sam Grant 2018.