Nina Muehlemann met artist Jo Bannon during a networking meeting with other artists and people involved with the second round of Unlimited. She talked to Jo about her Unlimited 2014 commission, ‘Exposure’ over a glass of wine.
Jo is very excited to show ‘Exposure’ in a new setting, and explains the inspiration behind the piece:
“The central concern of exposure is to investigate how we look, how our eyes function and how we look at each other, and how possible, or maybe impossible, it is to ever really express to another human being how you see the world, or how you see.
There is something interesting about the way we connect through vision. Right now, we are talking ad looking at each other and are having this other kind of connection. But I’m also locked into my body through my eyes, because I see out of them in a particular way, and you might see out of your eyes in another, particular way. The question in the work is whether we could ever communicate how we see each other?”
There are parallels between ‘Exposure’ and some of Jo’s previous work. The senses and how they both connect and isolate us, has been a recurring theme. ‘Exposure’, like her other work, is also highly collaborative:
“I think one of the fundamental reasons why I choose to work in live performance is about interaction, being in the same space and time as another person, and what possibilities that opens up for exchange.
I’m interested in the 1-to-1 format because there’s an interesting line between directness, indirectness and intimacy. In some ways, ‘Exposure’ is very intimate, because you listen to this narrative on headphones. But the work is also distant because you don’t see me, until almost right at the end, we’re in darkness, we don’t touch. That moment of meeting is very controlled.
The work is structured around the act of revealing, slowly revealing... a question I have is whether actually not seeing each other, and me sitting in the dark, showing you fragments of things, might reveal more about who we both are than a broad conversation in the broad daylight.
The title ‘Exposure’ really fits, because I’m interested in how the eye physically functions and how the light is constantly exposing images to the back of the eye, and the work takes that quite literally and almost uses a camera flash to expose these particular images.”
The official description of the work claims it is ‘a tender and tentative look into auto-biography’, and Jo tells me that her experience as a person with albinism was the starting point for the work:
“My eyes are very photosensitive, so for me how I see is always something that’s in question, it can be hard or negotiated. So the autobiographical nature of the work is really about me trying to explore and express this particular body that sees in this particular way, and how that becomes a shared experience – you as an audience member might not have albinism, but you do have eyes that are unique, and they do operate in a particular way.
I’ve had some interesting responses from audience members, in terms of their own biography. In a way that is something we are all dealing with all of the time, how people are looking at us and whether they are really seeing us, or whether those two things are actually quite distinct.”
There is a second part to Jo’s Unlimited commission, which will consist of a series of three photographic portraits:
“I’m working with three participants who all see in a very particular way, and we’re working with performance photographer Manuel Vason. What you will see in the portraits will hopefully be a visual interpretation of how that particular person sees, but of course you’ll be also be seeing that person, they’ll be the subject of the portrait.”
I tell her that this sounds fascinating, but at the same time almost impossible to do. Jo laughs, and says that she agrees:
“I suppose it starts from an impossible viewpoint, but the process and the conversation is very rich. I worked with Neil Harbisson who has achromatopsia, which makes him see entirely on a grey scale. He developed this antenna, which has been implanted into his skull. It picks up colour frequency, and translates it into sound frequency, so he sees through sound. The way he sees the world is fascinating – he describes it almost as a new sense.
The process for the portrait is a conversation between the participant and me, trying to talk and talk until we hit upon something visual that feels like it could open up how they see. So Neil Harbisson talked to me about oranges – the colour orange is a beautiful, clear sound to him, so then we started to improvise around oranges, the fruit, and we might use them as a visual reference in the photograph!”
Jo then discusses how her work being labelled as disability arts is relatively new for her:
“I think my relationship with the term disabled artist changes almost on a daily basis, and I think it’s fair to say that my work is interested in the senses and in disability. Sometimes that definition has felt too clunky to describe what my work is and who I really am. I guess I’m more interested in who the work reaches and how the work can reach many different people, with different kinds of experience of life.
That Unlimited is very clearly about diversity and inclusivity feels really positive. I’m really excited at the prospect of putting a small, short, gentle, slightly quiet 1-to-1 work within this quite large festival at the Southbank.
It’s been fascinating thinking about how to adapt the work to allow people with different access requirements to experience the work. Unlimited are also supporting ‘Exposure’ to tour, so there are some dates firming up now – who knows where it will lead!”
Jo Bannon presents Exposure at Southbank Centre, London
Thursday 4 & Friday 5 September
3pm-5pm & 7pm-9pm (one performance every 12 minutes)
Saturday 6 & Sunday 7 September
12 noon-2pm & 4pm- 6pm (one performance every 12 minutes)
Meet at Level 2 Ticket Office at Royal Festival Hall, where you will be guided to the performance location.