In and Out of Sight: Fortuitous Accidents

In their closing discussion, the artists represented in the In and Out of Sight exhibition shared their thoughts with Lizzie Lloyd, whose essay is printed in the exhibition catalogue. During the discussion, the group considered the importance of performance in their work, and how the title of the exhibition reflects the theme of making the invisible visible. One theme that emerged as they spoke was that of serendipity. All four artists had encountered accidents while producing their work, and embraced those accidents as an integral part of their process.

Jo Coupe’s Pure Brilliant (I and II) are the result of her accidental discovery that the electromagnets that she was using for another work were interfering with photographs that she took in the same room. Neither Coupe nor the designer of the electromagnet had planned this interference, but the resulting “colour-field effect” became the key feature of Coupe’s photographs of white gallery walls.

For Jen Douglas, the “accidental mark is a feature of interest”. “There is always room for something to go wrong”, she says, “you just embrace that”. She views the “failings” as evidence that she is “pushing the materials”, exploring their limits as part of a “constant conversation and dialogue with material”.

Lloyd adds that “the accidental” is often a consequence of using “difficult” materials. In Catherine Bertola’s work, accidents are an inevitable consequence of her use of materials that are not intended for use by artists. The flame that she uses to set alight photographs of old living rooms is an uncontrollable tool. “There is an element of chance” in her use of fire. It can travel anywhere in the photograph, and make unexpected shapes and discolourations. When she paints in ash, drips “ become part of the work”. She feels no need to erase these accidental distortions of her stenciled shapes, as they demonstrate the nature of her chosen material.

Catherine Bertola, Filling Absence, 2017

Cath Campbell’s video, along with its displaced soundtrack, are also shaped by interesting mistakes. The subtitles that narrative her found footage, and the song that she subsequently recorded, are mistranslations of the footage’s original soundtrack, generated by Google Translate. “It started as an accident”, she says, describing how she first encountered Google’s flawed translations. Some of her earlier videos included footage in Portuguese, for which she sought a translation. Turning to Google, she attempted to generate an English translation of the film’s soundtrack, only to find that the result was inaccurate and even nonsensical. After further experimentation, Campbell discovered that Google also made mistakes when attempting to translate American English, leading her to process all of her found footage in the same way. She felt driven to embrace these “beautiful mistaken translations”, and their poetic qualities.

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Indeed, the mistranslations were so poetic that Campbell has previously invited speakers to perform her subtitles as spoken-verse. For My Mum was A Beatnik/Canary Yellow with Royal Blue (2016), Campbell invited speakers for whom English was their second language to recite her subtitles. Interested in how the unnatural structure of the generated text makes it difficult to recite, she was curious to see how it would be interpreted by ESL speakers.

Since the production of her work, Campbell has learned that Google Translate has been improved, and no longer makes the errors that made her subtitles so beautiful. This, she feels, means that she cannot reproduce the method for any future works. “I could manufacture [mistaken translations] myself… but it’s purely through accident that it works”, she says. Her own, “manufactured” mistranslations would not have the charm of those that have been generated by Google’s algorithms.

Although aspects of all of these artist’s work were initially unintentional, it would be inaccurate to suggest that accident was a short-cut in the creation of their works. It takes the mind of an artist to identify the value of an accident, and to take ownership of it. Carl R. Hausman (2009, p. 12) writes, “If there is serendipity, it is not sheer accident. The creator must not only exercise critical judgment in deciding what to accept and reject… but must also form, refine, and integrate these… And most important, he must assume responsiblity for what he brings to life”. These four artists have found their work enriched by unexpected events, and had the courage to preserve those accidents in their outcomes.

Husman, C. R. (2009), “Criteria of Creativity” in Krausz, M. (ed), The Idea of Creativity, Leiden: Brill, pp.3-16.

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