A conversation between Gretchen Andrew and Curating the Contemporary’s editor, Elisa Giorgi.
In conversation with…Gretchen Andrew
By Elisa Giorgi
Gretchen Andrew is a Californian born, London based artist who works in online and offline mediums. She started painting in San Francisco after becoming convinced that the internet can teach you anything. Taking a knowingly disjointed approach, both her exhibition and accompanying events explore the internet as a resource of ingredients from which we each cook up a formulaic, yet individualistic recipe for perfection, whatever that may be. Each body part is perfected in isolation, with the absurd suggestion that once assembled, a perfect person is complete. Elisa Giorgi interviewed the artist on the occasion of her current project HOW TO HOW TO HOW TO at arebyte gallery, London.
Elisa Giorgi: Tell me more about the HOW TO HOW TO HOW TO project.
Gretchen Andrew: HOW TO HOW TO HOW TO is an ongoing project that investigates what you can and cannot learn, and by way of learning and become, through time + persistence + YouTube “How to” searches. The result is both performative and visual, embodied and object based, digital and physical. The YouTube-learned actions are recorded and made into .gifs, which, with their repetitive loops, are used as the primary medium to suggest and question the notion of “practice makes perfect.” This winter it is divided into three parts:
HOW TO HOW TO HOW TO BE PERFECT
The main gallery portion opens in Hackney Wick on Friday Nov 18th and investigates YouTube videos for each body part: How to get perfect…teeth, arms, abs, lungs, ears, lips, skin etc.
HOW TO HOW TO HOW TO write a novel
I applied the YouTube > GIF process to a work of fiction. I show you only earnest face, recorded using my laptop’s webcam. The process becomes the outcome as the act of creation obscures the result. There is a book launch on December 6th at Burley Fischer Books.
HOW TO HOW TO HOW TO eat like
EAT LIKE explores the link between food and identity as expressed through YouTube “how to eat…” searches. Over three courses culturally and professionally defined food & instruction I will present dinner guests alternative modes, motivation and styles eating.
EG: What links your two ways of creating works of art (totally digital and traditional oil)? Do you consider them equals?
GA: Well, we know that separate is inherently unequal & right now these two practices are separated by medium, form, interest, aesthetics, theme, audience and an actual wall dividing my studio into two parts. My digital & painting practices aren’t slices of the same Gretchen pie but connected like nodes in a network; information flows between them but they don’t depend on each other.
My painting practice is the original HOW TO HOW TO HOW TO. The story goes that I quit my job to be an artist without any skills because I was sure that the internet could teach me. The strange thing about learning to become something is that you might actually. In learning “how to become an artist” I sort of became one. From this changed perspective of the present I don’t have clarity on what I was actually thinking. Did I know that I wanted to be artist but needed the creative excuse of the How To projection to protect my vanity & pride? Or could I have chosen to become a world-class bowler or banjo player instead of a painter? How independent is the strategy from the aim? HOW TO HOW TO HOW TO asks these questions but is far from answering them.
EG: What is the main aim of your research?
GA: The .gif files produced during my research, simultaneously moving-image digital works well as documented echoes of embodied performance ask, to what extent, can technology, specifically YouTube “how to” videos, aid us in change? What limits us besides access to information? Does doing lead to becoming?
The complexities of the relationship between the performative body and the endlessly repeating .gif file further emphasise the gaps between a physically present, current self and a perceived technology-enabled future one, a self with the skills, knowledge, and abs we desire all only YouTube views away. The .gif files and their associated initial performances continue a personal search into the potential of the body pressed against the wall of supposed possibility.
While each .gif file addresses a specific “how to” question, the themes and collection as a whole speak to larger notions of technology-enabled change. The resulting .gif files are intended to challenge the simplicity of discrete actions in inciting larger changes. They are, however, also crucial in terms of exposing the extent to which it is possible to “fake it until you make it.”
EG: Leaving aside the form or the shape of your work, how would you describe the inner meaning of it? What are the concepts that you want to express?
GA: To me, art has always been about the “otherness” of the world. Art is enriching to our lives because through great art we gain a way of seeing the world that is not our own, that which by definition we could not have understood through our own direct experience. Art is the gift of experiences that we ourselves could not have had directly. Through “Starry Night” we get to know the world as Van Gogh knew it, and in that experience we are extended beyond the constraints of our own way of looking. So if you look at these GIFs or my book with no text or any of my paintings and think only, “this is weird,” that’s close enough for me.
EG: Tell me something more about the .gifs? Is it all about empirical reflections or could you say that it has a kind of social aim?
GA: There is surely some social commentary in HOW TO HOW TO HOW TO BE PERFECT, which investigates YouTube videos aimed at perfecting body parts. This dive into beauty standards takes a knowingly disjointed approach, a formulaic suggestion that perfection is a set of actions and ingredients that, if repeated on loop, results in perfection. It’s absurd what some of these videos suggest we, mostly women but some videos are directed at men, do! Metal wires stuck up our noses for reshaping, pills taken for tighter vaginas, face-slimmer braces worn! But i’m not only critical of it. It’s more about the conversation, what is perfect and who gets to define it? Many of these videos pair perfect with healthy, natural and cheap ways to modify the body. I’m not a fan of factors that drive insecurity but it isn’t for me to criticize someone wanting to be physically different. In my experience knowing that you can change something as surface as your “lip plushness” also reminds us how much more may be within our control.
EG: What role does the artist have in today’s society?
GA: I don’t believe in a distinct nobility of artists. Some artists are outward facing but I am not. What I do is extremely selfish and I am immensely happy as a result. While this is a conflation of self-discovery with self-absorption, it is also what allows my work to be honest. It allows me to create work that is liberally shared but not for anyone else. This extremely narrow self can become a pinhole that holds one of the world’s most important idea: others exists, others are different from me, others see & know & experience the world in a way that is not how I do. I’ve found this idea worthy of my life, but I see it as a by-product of the work and not as a role. I believe in the importance of art and by putting as much personal skin as I can bare behind that belief maybe others will agree. That’s all I can hope for.
EG: It seems that you enjoy what you do and I think people can feel it. Do you have fun when you make the .gifs?
GA: Fun for me is when I’m in a zone where I’ve lost track of time, when I’ve forgotten to eat or blink as much as required, when I haven’t thought about people, places, or things that are not immediately in front of me. Which I guess is sort of like saying my heaven is a work-induced heroin-like high of nonexistence. Let’s not dive too deep into that? To some extent this happens while making the .gifs, when recording them surely. Less so when I’m in front of a computer editing them. But not at all compared to painting. Painting is just a better sort of drug.
EG: You’ve exhibited in some great museums and galleries and your work is favoured by collectors and curators alike… Is there any artistic goal that you think you haven’t reached yet?
GA: Hhahaa. Yes. As soon as I stop feeling like a fraud I’ll let you know and we can make a list. While the deep self-mythology around having become an artist via YouTube makes me feel like an imposter, it also gifts me days when I get to my studio, an amazing space full of paintings and green screens, and recording equipment and I am giddy with a feeling of, “Who let the hungry kid be unsupervised in the candy store?”
EG: Which contemporary artist would you like to work with? And which artist from the past would you have liked to have met?
GA: I’d love to work with Ragnar Kjartansson! His work asks us to consider a different form of meaning making, one liberated from western culture’s obsession with change and progress. Instead, events are isolated in time and not related to causality, often using theatrical and musical elements to accomplish the looping qualities inherent within the .gif. This is why Ragnar’s work is so refreshing; it is a reminder that meaning is not dependant on narrative. Something can be meaningful because of its inherent qualities, not just because of its place within a story.
EG: Artists from the past are famous for a small selection of their works with the others ignored or admired by only a small number of dedicated historians and scholars. Which of your works would you like to be known for?
GA: Whatever the last thing I made was.