Don't call me baby, baby

Darren Tofts, Martine Corompt interview

Martine Corompt

Martine Corompt

Ever pondered the psychopathology of hair waxing? Or wondered why Mickey Mouse has never aged? What motivates the protestant sentiment of Madison Avenue’s Don’t call me baby? Martine Corompt has been exploring these and other questions for over 10 years as a practicing media artist. But her work doesn’t offer pat resolutions or satisfied conclusions. In the work of Corompt we constantly struggle with a tantalising ambivalence, an uneasy incertitude about whether things are coming or going, developing or breaking down. Exploiting her expertise in traditional forms of animation, design and digital media, Corompt utilises the full potential of intermedia arts practice to give expression to complex, yet subtle processes of becoming. The inscriptions of these processes mark out physiognomies of indeterminate trajectory, transverse hybrids that could be progressing towards higher states of being, or declining into abjection. These ambiguous processes are spatial as much as temporal concerns. In her most recent installation Wild Boy (Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne, November 24-December 16, 2000) Corompt locates this becoming as an interstitial space or interzone in and of itself, for itself, rather than an intermediary condition on the way to or from something else. Is the Wild Boy evolving towards the social or devolving to the wilderness? We can’t be sure. However it is this incertitude, this disconsolate phylum, that underlies Corompt’s fascination with ephemerality and hybridity, those processes of becoming that underlie phenomena such as cuteness, that have and continue to preoccupy her as an artist.

How do you see Wild Boy in the context of your overall practice as a media artist?

Wild Boy was another way of incorporating influences of animation and carnival/theme parks into my work. I have always been interested in how animation in particular is used to appeal to our sense of sympathy and why we (as audiences) actually invite this to happen. I know that there are people out there reading this thinking “that’s crap, there’s no way I am ever emotionally moved by a cartoon.” Well, thankfully, those stone-hearted individuals are a minority and most of us actually at one time or another (in our adult life) find the spectacle of character animation irresistibly involving.

The tragic, mournful figure of the Wild Boy was also a way to try out something that wasn’t necessarily about “humour or playfulness” as my work is so often described, and instead to figure out a means of arousing pity from the audience, in the same way you would if you were at an animal shelter choosing which one to save from the gas. Having the character “sing” out to the audience seemed like the most direct and alluring way of doing it.

The work is very stylised, even minimalist in its design and installation. Given the tactility and very literal qualities of some of your earlier work (I’m thinking of Activity Station in particular), is this a direction you are interested in pursuing further?

The minimalism was necessary for Wild Boy as a way of emphasising this fictional sense of “loss” that is depicted in the song (ie the loss of his “earthy” unsophisticated past) and where the Modernist white cube gallery of the “present” could be compared to an observation lab or infirmary. Also, unlike Activity Station, where the purpose of the cartoony vinyl coverings was to disguise the technological aspect of the work (the computer and TV monitor), in Wild Boy it was necessary for the viewer to be aware and to contemplate the TV monitor as technological device, an apparatus that connects us with the character like some kind of life-support system. I’m not sure if this is a “direction” or if it just seemed appropriate for that particular piece. Petshop (1998) also utilised this reflexive and very literal use of the monitor as a form of confinement.

Your work of the mid-1990s is well known as an exploration of cultural representations of the evolutionary process of neoteny. You have explored this theme in a number of installations: Sorry! (1995), Activity Station (1997) and Cute Machine CD (1997). What is it about this phenomenon that interests you?

Neoteny is our infatuation with the young and our evolutionary progression towards becoming more infantile. It interests me because it explains a lot about human behaviour, character representation and even product design. It explains why couples call each other “baby”, why we are scared of hair, why cars, computers and white goods are becoming rounder, why Kylie Minogue is described as “coy and demure”, and keeps trying to be so, and why Drew Barrymore still lisps.

Since Cute Machine your work has not been so obviously concerned with the physiognomy of neoteny. How do you see collaborative works such as Trick or Treat (1997) in the context of Cute Machine or Two Face (1995)?

Trick or Treat was a “tricky” one because it was collaboration, and true collaborations are very difficult. Often they can just end up being one person’s vision, which is delegated to the other person to be realised in their particular medium. This is the usual model with film and theatre. In Trick or Treat, however, we tried to work together on the “vision” right from the start, which meant developing a theme that brought together Philip Samartzis’, Ian Haig’s and my own work.

So my contribution to Trick or Treat (the sculptural component) was about the anthropomorphic aspect of technology which is connected with neoteny, because through the process of personifying inanimate objects, we give them characteristics. In the case of personifying technology it’s usually about it being friendly or rather “user friendly” as a way of compensating for the menacing alter ego that we also think it has. The name of the show Trick or Treat itself implied this polaric Jeckyll and Hyde theme—is technology good or bad? Is it friendly or threatening? Is it meaningful or just spectacle?

Your 1999 collaboration with Phil Samartzis, Dodg’em, was, at first glance, something of a departure from your previous work. On closer inspection, though, it very much continues your interest in the manufacturing of neotenic iconography in everyday life.

Again, Dodg’em was a collaboration from the start, so in some ways it had to depart a little from my solo work. However, it was important that the cars themselves (the only tangible aspect of the installation) looked like big oversized toys, as I wanted people to feel a little awkward in them. But that was only a small part, it was also about making people feel out of place, like they had to re-learn or re-discover the world all over again and had no visual reference in which to do it.

You have given expression in your work to a number of ideas to do with interface and interactivity in the context of audience involvement. How important do you see this aspect of your practice relative to your interest in cuteness and neoteny?

Implicating the audience has always been important for me, as I guess it is for most artists. But whether this means being physically implicated (interactive) or just psychologically so, it doesn’t really matter, it depends on the particular needs of the work. Neoteny and “cuteness” are interesting ideas because they are purposefully about “winning over” their audience, about securing their affection. So while it is interesting to understand how this works, it is also interesting to know how to sabotage it, so that the experience isn’t what you always expect it to be.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am working on the possibility of using live animals in another collaborative installation, housing them in custom-built luxury pet “penthouses.” I suspect that this will be troublesome for some people, but it will be no less ethical, physically distressing or humiliating (for the animals) than being in a commercial petshop. I would also like to make a film with an all-animal cast, maybe have them singing and dancing, but this will not be for a while.

RealTime issue #42 April-May 2001 pg. 20

© Darren Tofts; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2001