Thinking about killing

Nic Beames interviews visiting UK multimedia artist Graham Harwood

British artist Graham Harwood was in Perth in October as part of a national visit co-ordinated by the Australian Network for Art and Technology (ANAT). It was standing room only at his presentation, Virogenesis: Letting Loose the Multimedia Rogue Codes, a testimony to the huge interest in new media art. His work holds up a mirror to Britain’s social status quo: class, consumerism, the art world, the failure of left-right politics, the revival of nationalism, racism and homophobia.

Harwood’s presentation opened with examples of his early photocopy works, among which were included copies of money that were seized and subsequently became the subject of a House of Commons select committee on counterfeit and forgery.

This led him to a course in computers “for unemployed people, that cost a fiver a year for two days a week”. Thinking, “this is a good idea, I might have to never draw again…great, just feed the images in and it happens”, he produced a Gulf War satire—Britain’s “first computer generated comic”. The style—Saddam Hussein morphed out of Commando comic book childhood memories.

One of the restrictions of publishing in Britain is that if you have no money (and can’t be sued) the printer must assume liability, leading to an effective censorship by printer rather than publisher. Such restrictions led to the production of Underground, a free newspaper pasted up all around London, financed from the proceeds of two rave parties. One issue featured a computer enhanced John Major, with a dick where his nose should have been, right when his own PR people were announcing a recent nose operation. Harwood got interested in “giving famous people diseases”. Images of businessmen and politicians were distorted and “computer enhanced” so as to appear monstrous yet recognisable.

More recently, Harwood replaced brand labels on grocery items with rather more satirical and subversive labels: “The fun thing about technology is that Saatchi and Saatchi have the same computer as you can get hold of. They invest millions of pounds to make people believe you need to put bleach down your toilet, and you can usurp it in a very swift way.”

Rehearsal of Memory, the primary focus of his Australian presentation, is a forthcoming CD-ROM made in collaboration with residents of Ashworth Maximum Security Mental Hospital. Ashworth is home to some 650 people, 70 per cent of whose crimes include murder, manslaughter, rape, arson and criminal damage. The CD was commissioned for Video Positive, an international art festival in Liverpool.

Harwood’s interest was partly personal, in how domestic violence might ‘rehearse’ through generations. He also stipulated that the work be exhibited within the international showing, not pushed off to the fringe.

In the hospital, Harwood’s options for involving the patients were heavily restricted. He was not allowed to take photographs of patients, so he scanned their skin, tattoos, hair, genitals directly into digital form. These personal fragments were combined with the patients’ own texts, recitals, interviews and songs. When we see a palm pressed against the screen it is the hand of a someone who killed a complete family. The same hand strums a sweet guitar melody, and hearing that music is unsettling.

NB What I liked a lot about Rehearsal of Memory was the texture of the skin of the whole thing—like a terrain, like a game. A lot of multimedia we see is hooked into that screen-mania, button-mania thing where you’ve got everything in little boxes. Push this, prod that.

GH Yeah, the idea was to sort of make the technology transparent so that as soon as you know how to use it—which is very quick—then you can forget about it. You know, when you watch a film, for maybe five minutes you ‘know’ it’s a film, then you suspend your disbelief and you’re away.

The whole piece is designed like the nakedness and vulnerability of the figure. You get closer to this figure than you would a lover, or at least as close, and the machine is acting like an interface between you and them at the closest possible level.

NB You don’t know how much of the terrain there is, like the human body as a landscape. I also liked the way you used heavy monochrome throughout. But anything slightly coloured appears like a rich gem out of the greyness.

GH You know why I used all the monochrome—because you do multimedia…

NB Just to make it run faster?

GH That’s right!

NB I thought it was interesting that whereas Linda Dement has turned images of ordinary sane people into ‘monsters’, you’ve taken what society would call monsters and created a piece of work which brings out the human side.

GH Francesca di Rimini said she thought it was interesting that blokes using bodies keep them whole but women using bodies in their work cut them up. Your common sense would assume the other way round.

One of the weird things about the piece is, ‘cause I scanned myself too, some of the bits of flesh are my flesh. It’s only pixels on a screen but when you start merging your own flesh with people that have killed or self-mutilated, it’s like somehow you’re becoming part of them.

NB There’s a text from a patient who’s there for self-mutilation, that was very close to the bone.

GH I was really scared that I’d meet someone that didn’t value human life. When I got there I didn’t find that at all. I was talking to people to find out what happened—I mean we all think about killing people, we just don’t do it.

In the discussions, the single thing that patients talk about is that moment when no-one loved them at all—it completely does you in. That’s why with his text I couldn’t even edit it. I found another editor who had 25 or 30 years of editing experience. It was really hard for him too.

NB Were the patients able to see the finished work?

GH The success of the thing was measured in that they brought their own chocolate biscuits along, which I was told is like a real sign of acceptance. They’ve sort of become my friends, but you’ve got to remain suspicious—like you don’t say “Give us a ring”. One of the things people usually say to me is, “Aren’t you exploiting these people?” and I say “Yeah, but because they’re exploiting me!”

At the moment they can’t actually talk outside the institution itself. The deal is, if it’s art and the internet can be art, then this could give these people access to the World Wide Web and enable them to talk about their own condition and the conditions of the staff in a very direct way. So the deal is: I exploit them and they exploit me—we’ve come to an understanding.

Rehearsal of Memory is to be published on CD by BookWorks in early 1996.

RealTime issue #10 Dec-Jan 1995 pg. 20

© Nic Bearnes; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 1995