Translation & Transcription: A Conversation with Shelagh Keeley

Shelagh Keeley, "Notes on Obsolescence," 2014. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.
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The narrow central clerestory of The Power Plant in Toronto rises from the main floor up between its east and west gallery zones. It once stored fuel for the former lakeside powerhouse, a coal depot. Long since decommissioned and emptied for the use that it was designed, its void nonetheless retains the latency of gravity and compression. In its current role, it poses a challenging space for curators and artists. How to make the most of its distinctive proportions, volume, and light? Or modulate its properties as a corridor that insistently propels visitors through its length?

In September 2014, Toronto artist Shelagh Keeley unveiled the first part of a two-stage mural project addressing these structural challenges. Notes on Obsolescence, on the 25 x 40-foot east wall of the clerestory, will remain on view until May 17, 2015. On January 23, 2015, it will be joined by a companion work on the facing west wall, barely ten feet away, part of The Unfinished Conversation group exhibition (curated by Power Plant director Gaëtane Verna and guest curator Mark Sealy, and featuring work by Terry Adkins, John Akomfrah, Sven Augustijnen, Steve McQueen, and Zineb Sedira, in addition to Keeley).

Compositionally assured, fearless even, Notes on Obsolescence is Keeley’s most ambitious wall installation to date, drawing on forty years of artistic experience.

A successful work of art often supports unintended interpretation. Here’s one. Notes on Obsolescence portrays modern Jacquard looms in a shuttered German textile mill. One of the most enduring processes of the Industrial Revolution, these machines, introduced in 1801, produced textiles of such intricacy, complexity, scale, and rate as to surpass and supersede large, specialized labor forces. The loom’s threading hooks were controlled by punched cards, a system of on/off task codes that would eventually be reconfigured, with little modification, into the operating systems of computers. One of the earliest such Analytical Engines was devised in the 1820s and ’30s by Charles Babbage. Babbage failed to win the Parliamentary financing crucial to developing his invention, unable to persuade the ruling elite that it had any application. In 1842, his presentation to a scientific congress in Turin went unnoticed in England. To the rescue came Ada, Lady Lovelace, a mathematics prodigy, who as a woman was unable to fulfill her intellectual talents amongst male peers, but, as an aristocrat, enjoyed the privilege to otherwise pursue her interests. In 1843, her translation was published in Britain, to which she appended extensive “Notes by the Translator,” for the first time articulating the potential of an automatic intelligence capable of “poetical science.” Ada’s father was the Romantic poet Lord Byron, who, in one of his rare appearances in the House of Lords, championed the Luddites and their campaign against mechanized textile mills, which deprived so many workers of an earned living. The preceding narrative came to my awareness via Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators, published in October 2014. Not surprisingly, when I recounted this history to Keeley, she was hearing much of it for the first time. And she liked it a lot.

The narrative that actually inspired Keeley was elaborated from an obscure paragraph recovered from among Marshall McLuhan’s unpublished papers, “A Note on Obsolescence” (1970). Merely ten sentences long, it reads like a précis to an unwritten thesis and concludes: “Obsolescence is a very large and mysterious subject that has had very little attention in relation to its importance. The present paper may draw attention to this aspect as refuse, garbage, trash, junk, and thus help awareness of the role of obsolescence in sparking creativity and the invention of new order.” McLuhan’s “A Note on Obsolescence” is reproduced twice in Keeley’s Notes on Obsolescence. Like Lady Lovelace, Keeley expands upon a seminal but rudimentary sketch with fearless originality and vision, bolstered by deep social convictions and a rigorous dedication to her art. She investigates drawing not simply as figures and symbols on a surface, but as an overlooked, unwanted constituent of calligraphy, photography, cinematography and choreography. Keeley sets her aim at eternal horizons of obsolescence.

Born in Oakville, Ontario in 1954, Keeley studied at York University in the mid-1970s, when drawing was all but dismissed as a relevant sphere of artistic practice. Also a student of linguistics and ethnography, she took several formative trips to Africa, beginning with Nigeria in 1973, just following the Biafran War. In 1983, she made an epic 23,000-km journey by truck through Northwest, Central, and East Africa, regions that would be consumed in civil wars shortly thereafter, rendering them unrecognizable afterwards. Keeley moved from Toronto to New York in 1984, where she was based until returning to Toronto twenty-four years later. Throughout, she continued to travel and work abroad with her art, in Europe (particularly France, Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands), Japan, and recently India and China, where the world’s oldest and largest civilizations are undergoing massive societal redefinition. Keeley’s upcoming wall “drawing” at The Power Plant will be comprised of photographs taken in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in 1983, during the cultish-ly repressive autocracy of Mobutu Sese Seko.

In February, a group show including Keeley, In Order To Join / the Political in a Historical Moment, curated by  Swapnaa Tamhane and Susanne Titz, director of the Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach, Germany (where it was first presented December 8, 2013–March 16, 2014), opens at the Goethe-Insitut / Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai, India.

She also opens a solo exhibition, Barcelona Pavilion, a Circuit Gallery exhibition opening at Prefix ICA, Toronto (January 8-31, 2015), and in April will complete a performance project (with Montreal choreographer Lin Snelling) at the Museum of Modern Art, under the aegis of the museum’s Library & Archives, which has built an important holding of Keeley’s artist books.

I met with Shelagh Keeley at The Power Plant on December 2, 2014.

Shelagh Keeley: It’s amazing to be sitting here at the base of the mural again. When Lin came to do her dance performances in October, she began by having the audiences lie on the floor with their feet pressed to the wall, looking up.

Ben Portis: Two weeks ago you gave a talk on your practice of wall drawings and installations. Afterward, it occurred to me that Notes on Obsolescence is more disembodied than any prior work of yours of which I’m aware.

Keeley: Maybe that has to do with scale. Almost all the drawing on the wall was executed with a Skyjack. It became like a dialogue with me and the machine, a hydraulic extension of my arms and hands. It really came out of the work that I did at Museum Abteiberg. I created a section of wall installation in the staircase. I walked down the stairs with my right arm following on the banister, holding a piece of graphite and came back up doing the same with my left, leaving the trace of my body descending, ascending, descending, ascending, over and over again. The gesture here is different. There are always smaller gestures in my Mylar drawings but I had to generate grand gestures related to the immensity of the photographs and the wall.

Portis: Did you have a clear scheme in mind when you began?

Keeley: I had a year to prepare. Gaëtane Verna first approached me in August 2013. Then I did the project in Mönchengladbach last year, at this time. By then I already had an idea about a textile factory and the photographs I had taken there as a basis for Notes on Obsolescence. I knew that I wanted the large vinyl photos at the top to nudge the scale of the wall down a bit. I conceptualize and plan, sort of, but when I actually make a piece, I respond to physical presence and that moment. This time it was a little scary; because of the overwhelming scale I felt that the drawing could crash down on me. I had only seen text pieces in here before – Micah Lexier’s and Kenneth Goldsmith’s – or white wall, so it was hard to know how drawn imagery would relate to a viewer’s body. I’m glad that I was able to moderate the scale, even though it is twenty-four feet high. Down here there is a sense of intimacy. You can weave in and out, imagining. Even an adult begins to feel a bit like a child. You have to bend your neck way back to look up but nevertheless it becomes very integrated, like entering a giant collage.

Portis: How does that presence of the artwork correspond with your encounter with the looms in Germany?

Keeley: Susanne Titz took me there with the other artists. I was overcome by the melancholy of the factory space. It was huge, and so still. Everything remained in place. Like things just shut down in the middle of an ordinary work day. That’s what drew me to the short Marshall McLuhan text, “A Note on Obsolescence,” which I kept in one of my notebooks. I’m sixty years old now, and it reminded me of how much has already gone by during my lifetime, such as the passage of mechanical reproduction, for instance books. Has it always been like this? Or are we just so speeded up that things are inevitably pushed aside and trashed? There are also the matters of globalization, of such cheap labor and production elsewhere in the world.

Portis: How long had the factory been idle when you visited it?

Keeley: Not very long, perhaps a year or two. Some of the machines were very current, design-wise. I was told they had been brought in quite recently. But the issue is not technology, rather, how can this factory compete with China, Cambodia, Vietnam? It can’t. Nor is the quality of work the issue either. We live in an era of cheap products, a throwaway culture. This mill had been famous for its men’s linen shirts, of a Brooks-Brothers standard, say. And there were many, many similar factories in this region, supporting a labor force that had only done this sort of work for generations. First Germany saw its steel industry go, then coal and silk, too, from this area.

Portis: While the actual machines were state-of-the-art, the principle of these looms is very old, dating to the outset of the Industrial Revolution.

Keeley: Absolutely. It goes back even earlier. My background is in anthropology and African studies. I wrote a paper that was published by UCLA on East African beadwork as a form of nonverbal communication. These ideas really interest me. Nonverbal communication, of course, is really the beginning of language. While you allude to the Jacquard cards, the prototype of computerization, I was interested in the most basic language of weaving. Warp and weft: What does that really mean? Then my computer printer did a crazy call-and-response in the way that it output my photographs.

Portis: You mean the color aberrations and the striations.

Keeley: It’s never done that before or since.

Portis: The actual drawing that you’ve done directly on the wall specifically extends the warp threads in the looms.

Keeley: The looms immediately brought to mind the sculptural works of Eva Hesse or Jackie Winsor, forms and motifs that appeared in Minimal and Conceptual Art of the 1960s and ’70s, particularly pertaining to textiles. I was struck by the beauty of the looms and also the set up of the Jacquard, with all those threads cascading down through the cards at the top. I’d seen images but never actually understood or appreciated that until I visited the factory.

Portis: While many of the most prominent photographs in Notes on Obsolescence record that visit, it seems that there is a lot of annotation also, research that had prepared you for this encounter or which followed.

Keeley: Mainly following up. All the photographs were taken by me, digitally. Those on the rag paper came from my crazy printer, weaving the pictures in and out of sync. There are also several copies of pages from my notebooks that I collaged onto the wall. I go through these books sometimes, pulling from my archive of images. While there is research, much of it is intuitive. In the photographs I wanted to capture the sadness of the factory and with the drawing to trace a body, my body, moving. The wall installation becomes a giant book that you enter.

I didn’t want the image to be completely flat. The Mylar sheets are translucent, showing the hand-drawn threads beneath. Other pieces on rag paper flutter, like pages from a book. When you walk by them, the photographs move and seem to breathe. I like that fragile, material engagement with space and time. But that’s the nature of paper. So the piece is also about paper. I love paper and have worked with it my whole life – drawing, advancing discourses of different surfaces.

In 1984 when I started to work photography in my installations, I was very concerned that people thought photography was real and drawing was not. I wanted to shift that assumption in my installations. So here, there is a dialogue between my drawings and the photographs. Because I used the rag paper for the Inkjet prints, they now read almost as drawings. The same way my film work is drawing with cinematography.

Portis: The numerous gestural drawings you’ve made for Notes on Obsolescence have structural, assembled allusions.

Keeley: Those I worked on over the past year. The overall work is idea-based, conceptual, and researched, but when I actually draw I favor intuition. Those images on Mylar I would call failed structures, a certain type of technology that assumes that things fall apart.

But there is the mark of the hand. They’re all acrylic. You’ve got that soft green, that terra verde dark, that’s just strictly my hand smearing paint on the wall, something I’ve done for years as a way of defining my body in the space.

Portis: The green picks up on the color of the looms and the sombre light within the factory.

Keeley: I’ve always loved terra verde. In Italy you see it a lot on buildings and plaster walls. It has that factory tone. The equipment has a slightly different shade. And then there is the earth-based pigment.

Portis: So it’s not even a true black, but a soil color?

Keeley: It’s really hard to find. I get it in Germany. It is coal-based.

Portis: What was so evocative for you about the Marshall McLuhan passage?

Keeley: After twenty-four years in New York, I’ve been back in Toronto over the last eight. I’ve thought a lot about drawing. Why do I draw? I’ve been doing it for about forty years. There is a slowness of drawing and teaching it, too, trying to get students to slow down. Moving back to Toronto, I felt a reconnection with its heroes: Glenn Gould, Mike Snow, Marshall McLuhan. They made me think about my life, my age, my generation.

While working on this piece, I found the text in one of my notebooks. It really caught me. “A Note on Obsolescence” is a single-page, type-written memorandum from 1970 found among McLuhan’s papers after his death in 1980. His son, Eric, calls it “unfinished business.” What does obsolescence mean? McLuhan asks of finding something positive or a means to go forward. Call it recycling, environmental, green, whatever, it is something of concern for our generation. Look at these steel mills and textiles mills in Germany. Vast spaces just getting wiped out.

Portis: Many layers of obsolescence are brought into play here. One, these industrial looms themselves made many craftspeople and laborers obsolete at the end of the eighteenth century. There is the matter of a great machine like this, something of an automaton, becomes obsolete for economic reasons. And then certain social systems and ideologies lose their footing in the course of all this change too.

Keeley: The broader philosophical space is really about that. I’m bringing one space and time into another. But that’s really what the rules are. I’m researching something I don’t understand. I’m opening the book, to engage people and make them think about the issues you just listed, as well as the politics behind that. What is this obsession with speed? Fast food, fast clothing – it drives globalization, which comes right back to McLuhan.

In Canada, we have certain notions of freedom. In 2013, I worked with refugee children in the neighborhood where they lived in Mönchengladbach. We got together a few times a week, drawing, playing, having fun. The kids came to the museum and saw what I did. I was working on a site-specific installation for a show called In Order to Join. They got me into making a book together with them, which the museum published, called Desire to Join. The kids ended up meeting the mayor before the exhibition opening and presented him with a copy of it. The mayor then adjusted his public remarks to acknowledge these children, not yet legal residents. At least Germany is allowing them in, unlike Canada. Perhaps it all seems separate, but it reminded me how political drawing can be. I learned a lot from the kids; they became involved with the museum, which has stayed connected to them.

Portis: Notes on Obsolescence stands out from your long involvement with wall drawings by the entirety of its impact. Many of your previous installations presuppose a movement through space, taking a journey. Likewise, your artist’s books involve the turning of pages, the cumulative interpretation and perception always conditioned by memory. There is a fullness and evident stasis here that really emphasizes the shuttering of the big factory.

Keeley: Maybe the supposed ending is not actually an ending. It becomes an opening up of ideas. Even with the politics of the piece, I don’t want to hit you over the head. These walls can be intimidating, particularly with text. Hopefully there’s another physical response possible, a kind of a humanness to it, which sounds crazy, given the height. But having made walls since I was twenty-seven, I’ve learned: Don’t fight architecture. At night I’d wake up sometimes terrified because it’s so huge. You put a big photograph on it and it looks like a postage stamp. To get it all to engage, it also had to work from the vantages of the second-floor balcony and either end. Plus, you cannot get any real distance back from it. It’s only ten feet to the other wall. Someday I would love to see this in another context where you can back away.

Portis: In January at The Power Plant we’ll be able to see Notes on Obsolescence in a different context because you’re doing an equally vast mural work on the facing wall.

Keeley: That will be really intense. It involves dealing with the forty-foot length. It will be made up of still photographs combined with a cinematic sensibility in two or three rows, a lot of images, maybe twenty-seven, fused to the wall. You’ll move through that in a much more linear way.

Portis: That’s really interesting. In the course of our conversation you consistently referred to this wall in terms of its height and the first quality that you’re wrangling with in terms of the facing wall is its scope.

Keeley: Exactly! And how the body will be caught between those opposing impulses!

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