The contemporary works of Amsterdam-New York based artist James Beckett (b. 1977, Zimbabwe) traverse the metaphysical thresholds of dowsing, examine biographical inquests, and recover material traces of modernist and European industrial pasts. In Beckett’s works, real and fictionalized scenarios are often presented alongside evidentiary fragments, museum artefacts and historical reconstructions, re-interpreted across a wide range of media and layering techniques. In 2003, Beckett won the Prix De Rome prize for art and public space and he has recently shown at the 56th Venice Biennale; MAAT, Lisbon; 1st Riga Biennial, Latvia; MCAD, Manila; and the 5th Thessaloniki Biennale. His works are in the public collections of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and Centre Pompidou, Paris, amongst others. In December 2020, a year into the present pandemic, we sat down with James virtually to discuss his current concerns and explore how he came to his architectural approach and art practice.
In conversation with Ariana Kalliga
AK: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you come to art practice and can you highlight some of the residencies and early shows that particularly propelled your research and artistic methods?
JB: I was part of a circle of friends which was always punk orientated, right from the get go, this was a close-knit circle from the age of 13. As a little gang we always had a band, first it was “Incurable” then “Fingerhead”, the music was industrial and was quite complex in rhythm structures, I was one of two bass guitarists in the group. This developed a base of experimentation and diy culture. As we grew up in a smaller backwater city, we were pretty inventive, as our program wasn’t handed to us on a plate. I guess one of the formative moments from this period was a show called 37 Songs. During my studies in Durban South Africa, I curated a large show of 37 artists from our technical university, in an old ship building warehouse, it followed the logic and logistics of rave parties.
Following this I moved to Berlin at the age of 23, then Amsterdam the year after in 2001, for the Rijksakademie artists residency, a fantastic spot of two years with around 60 artists from around the world, that was really a launching moment in the sense of a network and mobility. In terms of methodology, the tail end of this Rijksakademie residency was a project I realized for the Dutch Prix De Rome, on the subject of noise. In combination with a series of pieces for pubic space, I began making museum displays, a way of generating, processing then framing subject matter. It was all along the lines of Institutional Critique, but became a valuable tool in the approach and presentation of otherwise sprawling research.
How essential is collaboration to your working method?
In the early days it was important, especially with music, but after a few botched collaborations I have pretty much been working alone. A few forays in the dance and performance world left me a bit cold to the idea of collaboration, as there was so much talk, and so little actual doing. It is also pretty difficult to find a true resonance with others, as creative folk we tend to be very specific and sub-cultural, so I really prize isolated, obscure practice, as opposed to the socialization and communal aspects of creative processes. I know this is an unpopular position at the moment, but you need plurality in approaches – not every expressive mode requires collaboration, in fact, quite often the opposite is true. I do however have a couple of exceptions in the last decade, such as the works with Artun Alaska Arasli, which had a good reason for collaboration –more a kind of “chewing the fat” function, whereby works were born from a series of ridiculous jokes, basically back and forths where we collect and build on odd fascinations, such as bird poo igloos.
In your series ‘Strange Glow’ you reproduce diverse architectural sites, from a parking lot in Riga to a house first displayed in ‘The Socialist Village’ exhibition in Kyiv in the 1970s. How did you select these buildings and what changes do they undergo once they are reproduced?
This series was a kind of travelogue, whereby I collected facades of significant architecture by means of 3d scan. In general I would visit a city and look at wiki pages listing citizens of note, then go to their place of dwelling, education or work and make a capture of the accessible parts of those buildings. For the parking lot in Riga for example, this was in fact originally the public square outside a socialist theatre, a modernist masterpiece realized by Marta Staņa in 1959. The “public square” which I reproduced is now a private parking lot, shown by the yellow stripe across the terrain. This is basically a piece about the deterioration of civic space, in this case the documentation of it’s capture into the private realm.
The house you mention from “The Socialist Village” is equally as complex, and in this sense becomes another sort of proof of the fucked-up-ed-ness of the world at the moment. This house is typical of vernacular architecture of the Donbas region of Ukraine, more recently known as the ‘breakaway’ region due to the intense fighting and its proposed alignment to Russia. When looking at google images of this type of house, you generally see decimated structures resulting from the warfare which has ensued over the years. This particular house I copied was originally moved to an open air museum in Kyiv, back in the 70’s, a means for the former Soviet Union to showcase its diversity and appeals. It lay dilapidated for many years, and was discovered in this state by a group of internally displaced folk, who took it under their wing, and together with a group of youth conduct annual maintenance sessions. It’s a kind of embrace and care of a symbol under dire circumstances, a form of reclamation.
So these are already quite loaded and complex examples I am using. To further complicate them, I am practicing a kind of layering, an adding of an additional, unrelated source. I like to think of this as a method borrowed from Essay Film, or cut-up technique. You ask what changes these subjects undergo when being reproduced? They become extracts for one, and in their rendering they are more like auras, due to the means of production of CNC and overprinting – there’s an obvious fakeness about them, which is why it is called ‘Strange Glow’. There’s a range of qualities and histories of such means of reproduction, into which this series alludes.
I am interested in how you come to visually represent and display all your different strands of research. I am not sure if you consider it a process of ‘translating’. Can you describe this process to me?
Translation is exactly key, as I often deal with historical information there is a risk of simply building museums around given subjects. So I try and question what value or transformation is enriching and expanding on a research direction. Lately, I have been busy with air-conditioning as a subject. Key to this visual translation in light of the museum, has been to borrow languages of the trade fair, and the display of items in a promotional mode as opposed to the supposed neutrality of a museum. It’s pretty subliminal, but this is an example of the framing of subject, or ‘display structures’ as essentially a tool for flavoring or contextualization. Under such an umbrella or unifying aesthetic, you can then throw in all kinds of random crap, and it seems to make sense. That’s a big part of the method, legitimization through formalism.
‘Clandestine Building’ represented Belgium at the 56th Venice Biennale. Here again you employ reproduction – this time by creating portraits of modernist buildings in Africa. Can you tell me more about the motivations behind this work in the context of the Belgian pavilion?
Clandestine building is an illegal construction process, when one uses residual space for living. So it’s the bricking in of balconies, outback extensions, things like this. It’s a common practice around the world, but predominantly in 3rd world countries where there is less regulation, and more urgent need for space due to various socio-economic parameters. So this piece consists of an automated storage and retrieval machine (such as those used in warehouses and pharmacies), reconfigured to arrange wooden building blocks to create portraits of specific Modernist buildings across Africa. This architecture is quite specific, like airports, universities – quite ‘display’ architecture, between 1945 and 1967. This is significant in that it was a time of colonial powers trying to keep hold of their terrains, and the embodiment of this ‘order’ was manifest in the structures of the urban fabric – the purist forms of modernism.
These small wooden building blocks used by the machine reference not the actual buildings, but rather their negative spaces, alluding to the buildings’ potential for illegal expansion of living or workspaces. This is quite impractical of course, as the piece is proposing to fill balconies and entrance halls of municipal buildings with living spaces, but is in essence a call for the desecration of these buildings’ original intent. It’s a kind of futuristic urban planning device that looks at real cases of African modernist architecture, in order to correct the ills of colonialism, essentially a redistribution of property to the most needy.
In terms of the Belgian Pavilion, it was part a context largely authored by Katerina Gregos, titled Personne et les Autres. She has been curating an extended series of exhibitions with a focus on the above mentioned concerns; political crisis, financial instability, drives for equality in both historical and contemporary instances. We have worked together through the years – also for a show in Thessaloniki by the way, for which she was curator/author. The piece in Venice was really developed in conversation with her, so when you mention collaboration, I guess this is the person and form I feel most at home with.
You’re based in Amsterdam/ New York, but you are originally from Zimbabwe/ South Africa and have travelled all over the world. Do you research the built environment of the places you visit and live – in other words, how important is location to your practice?
Absolutely. I am currently stranded on the Canary Islands and have been flying a drone around to make scans of various ruins and terrains. In terms of architecture this has very much expanded my horizons in terms of thinking of forms. Living in the Netherlands, I am so used to flat landscapes, so being here is all about topography. It’s a strand of geological information which feeds the brain. Growing up in Africa was also really about landscape and rocks – these surroundings really feed ones soul. I feel alive here, fed. That’s also why I love Greece so much. At the moment I live in New York, and have been studying stalled construction sites, basically building projects which have gone bust. I have been fantasizing on continuing building on these properties, to elaborate on the unfinished forms, along with all the symbolism and meaning which that implies.
Can you tell me about an upcoming project ahead of 2021?
I am looking into launching an architectural office, with research at its core. I have quite some material from my existing projects which never sees the light, so such an initiative could be a forum for this raw research to finds its place. This would of course be a means to find new opportunities of interesting research subjects, coming perhaps from folk with their own odd instance they hope to unpack. On top of that I would actually be building, intervening, what ever you would call it, architecture in the classic sense. My gallerist in Rotterdam has a large barn in the German mountains, for which I am currently developing a series of scenarios – the development of a kind of multi-purpose museum.