Interview: Tom Dugdale
Luca Curci talks with Tom Dugdale during BODIES+CITIES SKIN, the first appointment of BORDERS ART FAIR 2021, at THE ROOM Contemporary Art Space.
Tom Dugdale is an artist who has mainly worked to date in theatrical space and situation, directing, writing, designing, composing music for, and performing in original works that have probed the membrane between performer and performance, boundaries of intimacy and sentiment, and intersections of performance with health. Since you asked, a durational six-hour work in twelve episodes, is his first piece for video. Earlier in 2021 he created and exhibited NoBody There, an interactive installation that facilitated intimate, audio-only encounters with strangers on a park bench. Tom is invested in the idea of art as a ritual of resilience and recovery, and through a number of current projects, he is examining how performance can destigmatize drug addiction. In 2012, Tom was the recipient of the prestigious Princess Grace Award. He lives and works in Columbus, Ohio, where he is Assistant Professor in the Department of Theatre, Film, and Media Arts at The Ohio State University.
Luca Curci – What are you currently working on?
Tom Dugdale – I am creating a new installation, tentatively titled, Sometimes I make the shape of a hug with my arms and imagine you inside it, that will invite visitors to arrange thirty-one original songs into their own narratives of love and loss. I might also end up titling the work, Loss in Thirty-one Parts, variously arranged, or simply, Thanks For Listening. I composed all the songs myself, in a variety of styles, from techno to rock to improvised solo piano. The installation will accommodate one viewer at a time in a private space that is scenically arranged, with props and furniture, to suggest a “listening room” – which is a kind of space music lovers build for a pure listening experience. The listening room will be separated from the rest of the gallery by curtains, offering privacy for the viewer/listener, while also creating a gallery-within-a-gallery. A final important element in the installation will be a two channel video projection, one channel featuring video of myself and the other featuring video of a dear friend of mine. Though filmed years and continents apart, these two videos will be edited to suggest they are in conversation with each other, and they will loop endlessly – an infinite conversation we are not really having, and never will have. Seated in this private, hopefully comfortable environment, with the videos playing, the viewer/listener will be presented with a controller allowing them to play any of thirty-one songs they wish, creating their own soundtrack, their own musical explanation for the video dialogue and the unusual intimacy of the music. The viewer/listener is of course free to change to a new song anytime they wish. I like the idea of releasing my control and offering it to the audience. In addition to this installation, I have been working on two other significant projects. I am finishing final edits on a new documentary film, My Whole Life Changed, that I created with a group of high school students this past year about the challenges they faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. And I am working on a photo essay, Fake Polaroids in Real Things. In the summer and fall of 2020, at what seemed – at least for me – like the darkest moments of the pandemic experience, I made a series of drawings on paper using simple phrases of longing that have been populating my work throughout the last year, like “Help Me” or “Hold Me.” I used an app on my phone to photograph these as Polaroid-style images, but when I printed the faux-Polaroids, I found them unimpressive. So now I am trying to liberate them from this falseness by “discovering” them in the midst of real materials and surroundings—immersing them in water, stashing them in the freezer – and photographing them in these new environments. It produces a layered final product: a photograph of a photograph of a drawing of an anxious phrase.
LC – What’s your background? What is the experience that has influenced your work the most?
TD – I have trained as an actor, director, composer, and opera singer (though my voice is quite out of shape now, and I don’t sing classically anymore!). I obtained a graduate degree in theatre directing and began a career directing conventional plays and theatre performances. Then in 2013 and 2014, I had the good fortune to participate in workshops led by the Belgian theatre-maker, Jan Lauwers, at the Biennale Teatro in Venice. Jan’s concept of the stage as an interdisciplinary canvas, where many arts may simultaneously socialize and play, was a huge revelation for me. Jan worked with a freedom, and produced a depth of theatrical truth, I had never experienced before in theatre. I began to experiment with ways of bringing his ideas into the conventional productions I was still doing at that time, and my work began to shift.
LC – Did your style change over the years? In which way?
TD – I have moved from directing conventional pre-scripted plays in the theatre; to directing multidisciplinary performances that deconstructed the script and performance space itself, often through site-specificity; to now making works that are abandoning the theatre in favor of installation, video, and solo performance approaches. Often I am physically including myself in these works – something the conventional theatre director would never do! With this progression in my work, I have also abandoned the stylistic unity the theatre director pursues (to create illusion), adopting instead an eclectic vocabulary that may suddenly shift without warning or explanation. As a theatre-maker, I was constantly worried about being clear, being understood. Now I find myself doing the opposite, deliberately working towards distortion, even confusion, in order to leave the spectator a mystery that she or he must solve, sometimes even through their direct participation, as in the new installation described above. Finally, the theatre is quite a collaborative space, and collaboration is a wonderful human capacity. I do believe it is good for our world. But sometimes as an artist, in aggressively collective spaces, your own truth, pain, love, despair get diluted, even washed away. For better or for worse, I feel emotions very deeply. I can’t help it, and now at least, in my most recent works, I am allowing myself to design my own containers to hold these feelings, rather than trying to place them within a group box.
LC – What is your creative process like?
TD – My time in theatre has taught me to deeply respect and value the spectator. I always want to create an engagement that is meaningful. So I begin by asking questions connected to that desire: how do I want the spectator to feel with this work? How can I care for the spectator, like a good host, but also challenge, even disorient them, at the same time? I feel the most meaningful encounters contain both these dynamics. Then, the second part of my process is a hectic purging, a rapid creation of material without filtering or self-censorship. If I stop to ask questions about the material at this stage, I will kill the flow. So I try to ignore questions or form or structure and just try to generate as much as I can, switching techniques (from writing to musical composition, for instance) the moment I feel myself starting to over-analyze. I deliberately try to overwhelm myself. Then, the third part of my process, is a massive slowing down. I edit and bring the work into conceptual focus. It’s torturous and painstaking, but I love it. I love going back and sifting through the mess. And the final step for me, weirdly, is messing things up again, spilling some coffee on the work. Fundamentally I am distrustful of shine, polish, lovely exteriors. I am usually seeking a low-fi texture that reveals, rather than hides, the process of making the work. Overall in process, I would say my first language is musical, my second is textual, and my third is visual. I need rigor at every stage, and I need to exercise a lot. I walk and ride my bike several hours a day when in the most intense creative processes.
LC – What is the most challenging part about creating your artworks?
TD – These days, I am exploring very direct expressions of intimacy and emotion. When these expressions first emerge, they are very powerful, very pure. The challenge for me is preserving the power and potency of these ideas through the whole creative process.
LC – We were attracted by your last artistic production, has the artwork presented been created for the festival or as a part of preexisting works?
TD – In Bodies+Skin, I am showing an excerpt from Take Me a video performance with original music. Take Me is actually part of a longer series of works, Since you asked. I made Since you asked in late 2020 and early 2021, before learning of the festival.
LC – In which way the artwork presented in our exhibition is connected with the festival’s theme?
TD – In Take me, we see a figure immersed in the natural world. There are even trees growing out of his body. At the same time, this landscape is broken up by distortions in the video, static, even the self-conscious entrance of the camera itself into composition. So there is this constant tension in the piece between the natural world and the breakdown of that world, and it seems that the figure may be laying down right at the midpoint, right on the line, between these two opposing forces. With the gestures to the sky, the black suit, the repeated phrase “take me,” and the funereal drone of the electronic music, the work could be read as a dream of death, or at least of passing on to some new world, perhaps one free of the pain and suffering the figure seems to be experiencing. Maybe the figure is a refugee, a person experiencing a mental health crisis, a cancer patient near death, a victim of COVID-19…or maybe he is simply an overdramatic artist. Take Me, and the entire Since you asked series, is both therapeutic and, at times, absurd. It is situated on the border between necessity and indulgence.
LC – What do you think about ITSLIQUID Platform?
TD – I have been so delighted to discover the ITSLIQUID Platform! Through it, I am learning of other provocative and thoughtful artists. I deeply appreciate the platform’s openness to a variety of contemporary aesthetics and approaches.
LC – Do you think ITSLIQUID GROUP can represent an opportunity for artists?
TD – Absolutely. You all are providing me my first major chance to exhibit my work internationally, and I am so grateful for your support and for this unique opportunity. I believe this is an outstanding opportunity for artists anywhere.
LC – Did you enjoy cooperating with us?
TD – Yes, 100%. I have found your whole team to be detailed and responsive in all communications. I sincerely hope we can continue working together.