Cutler-MacKenzie and Ben Caro
Published July 2022
Ben Caro and Kat Cutler-MacKenzie’s practice draws upon techniques from experimental archaeology, and pedagogic forms of communication, to examine alternate methods of knowledge formation and transmission.
TH: What is Staging a Gaze about? How did the idea originate?
KCM+BC: Staging a Gaze is a work about the politics of looking. It is a dual-channel 35mm slide projection exploring how fragmentation, intimacy and performative interaction can resist and subvert the ‘straight image’ implied within the setting of the camera and the museological display of the body. Using juxtaposition — inside the frame and through dual-channel projection — the work unsettles the limits of the bodies of two marble sculptures, Asklepios and Dionysus, who were taken from the contested archaeological site of Cyrene by Scottish colonialists. They were acquired by the National Museum of Scotland in 1956 and 1886, respectively, and are now on display in the museum, where our research began.
In 2020 we were working together on a co-authored paper for The Association for Art History’s Emerging Perspectives Conference. The paper was called ‘Locked in the Cabinet of Curiosities: Curation, Power and Identity in The National Museum of Scotland’, and brought together research undertaken by Ben into the display of their Islamic artefact collection, as well as Kat’s research into feminist approaches to their Jacobite collection. We were both disappointed by the heteropatriarchal, eurocentric narrative that the curation at the museum put forth, and felt irked by the nationalist tang that the exhibition (texts) of both curations left with us.
During Ben’s research, he came across a text by Mary Louise Pratt, written in 1992, in which the anthropologist states that the space between artefacts and publics in a museum can act as a “contact zone…the space in which peoples [and their associated object cultures] geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations...involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict”. As we both work with lens based media, this resonated with us. The lens, from camera to smartphone to google to eye, can be a conduit for “contact zones”, as it changes perspectives. In a museological setting, it can resurface important relations of coercion, inequality and conflict when the standard of display is to frame artefacts as neutral, a-political or a-temporal. Using photographic intervention to disrupt this, Staging a Gaze was made to redress the relations of power between museum, artefact and viewing public. Through close-up, shallow depth of field and playful hand gestures, we sought to graze the sculptures’ surfaces, creating an intimate viewing environment of denied gazes and almost-touches. It was a way to re-fragment these ancient bodies, to make visible their journeys and movements, the irreversible signs of time held on their skin.
Staging a Gaze, dual channel 35mm slide projection, 162 slides, dimensions variable. installed in Residents ‘22 at Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, 2022. Courtesy of the artists.
TH: Why did you choose to explore this topic?
KCM+BC: As we are both trained art historians, we faced a point in 2020 when we were in a discipline that had ground to a halt. It had hit a crisis point. Everything felt like it was going wrong, and one very prominent, and actually very interesting Renaissance art historian, Jill Burke, wondered if the discipline was even relevant going into the future.
The impact of the Black Lives Matter movement on Art History had underlined that, within our discipline, there was (and still is) a void of language with which to talk about the colonial prejudices and presumptions written into its practice and study, let alone to begin to speak about how to decolonise the most prominent site of the discipline’s public dissemination – the museum.
We didn’t walk into this project thinking that we would make a work about the colonial history of the National Museum of Scotland, but it made itself present in our research photographs. Taking a photograph of a body is a form of ownership, at least ideologically, and these weren’t bodies that we felt we could or wanted to own. We first imagined a work about support structures, those ways in which an artefact or artwork is held, tended to, cared for and propped, inspired by the work of artist and curator Céline Condorelli. Maybe we could focus on the museological structures made to hold up these bodies. It was a very ‘sculptural’ idea. But then we saw that the two sculptures that had caught our attention – due to their cracks, fissures, marks, repairs and abrasions – were from Cyrene.
We learnt that this city on the northern coast of Libya is at the heart of an entangled web of commerce, looting, demolition and conservation. At the museum you can google Cyrene on your smartphone — they have free wifi — and you learn that it is now an endangered UNESCO World Heritage site. Today, property and agricultural developers want to expand further onto its land. IS have beheaded its sculptures. In 2011, one art dealer was caught at Heathrow Airport with an illegally excavated sculpture from the site. Historically, it was a meeting point for five of the largest ancient world cultures. And it is believed that the Greek god Apollo had a love affair with the princess Kyrene in Cyrene.
And so it was that we began to build a relationship with Asklepios and Dionysus.
TH: How did the collaboration between the two of you work for this project?
We share a studio together and live together and are together, so the collaboration is taking place pretty much 24/7…and it’s really enjoyable. The collaboration worked, in this sense, because we trust each-other, and can share ideas quickly, working through problems by referring back to a large web of shared associations and experiences. We make a lot of mind maps, or Miro boards, to plan out a project for this reason, because we both bring different things that somehow connect back together, sometimes visually, sometimes intellectually. It allows us to share an imaginary space in which we can first map the work, which Ben then transcribes into these frame by frame storyboards that we use as a loose guide during the shooting process. When we talk about it, we always say that Staging a Gaze is 100% Ben’s work and 100% Kat’s work, even if we both brought different strengths to the project – Kat’s playful, graphic language of collage and Ben’s haptic, intimate photographic eye. It also helped that we both have an Olympus OM1, so we were able to share lenses and filters. In the past we have both found that, when working in photographic or lens based media, we have been in need of more than one person – the lighting, performance (in and out of frame), developing process, lightmeter. Moving image is a field that we both love for this reason, because it builds networks and connections. It thrives.
Install of Staging a Gaze, Courtesy of the artists.
TH: Why did you choose to work with these two particular sculptures?
KCM+BC: To begin with, we were fascinated by how their marble bodies held time. We were reading a lot of books during that initial research period in October 2021, including Marble by Amelie Smith and Stigmata by Hélène Cixous. “I am attached to my engravings, to the stings in my flesh and my mental parchment” is what Cixous writes. That quotation offered us a way of engaging with these two sculptures from the surface, of understanding the wider socio-political contexts in which they had existed by understanding how this manifested itself on their skin, almost like scars, sometimes simply due to the passing of time. Dionysus, for example, has been glued back together, perhaps due to a fragmentation that he incurred when transported from Cyrene to Edinburgh, whilst his cheek is pitted, almost as if he has acne, due to the falling of acid rain. But there was one detail that caught us on our final day of shooting, when Ben saw an acquisition number metal-point etched into Asklepios’ marble costume. Ben only noticed it because he was using his phone as a lightmeter, and the phone screen had upped the contrast of the image, revealing the dust filled engraving. It was at perfect eye height. We had a conversation about trust and risk in the museum, about the role of the institution as a bearer and protector of knowledge and culture, and of the way that, historically, numerical tattoos have been used to claim ownership over ‘dissident’ bodies. As artists, we also imagined the lack of reverence or respect necessary to carve into another sculptor’s work, especially one that had acted as a spiritual icon in a temple, and decided to stage a photograph capturing this detail, phone screen in frame to draw forward the etched numbers.
TH: How did you approach working with the sculptures? Did you get to plan your shots ahead or work rather instinctively?
KCM+BC: We were very lucky to be in a position where the museum not only allowed, but encouraged, photographic engagement with its collection. This meant that we could work in a more spontaneous way, and keep up the project when other work commitments built up, catching quick fifteen minute trips together before departing for a day of work elsewhere. As we only used available light, we generally planned our shoots on days that promised to be sunny. The sculptures are struck by incredible shafts of sun when the clouds part, and it totally changes the material of their bodies – they become more translucent, ethereal, contoured. When seen in this light, it totally made sense to us that Asklepios and Dionysus were designed to reside outdoors.
Working with available natural light was one of the learning curves of the disaster test shots! We also learnt that we needed to work out how to resist the ‘straight image’ implied within the settings of the museum and the camera. It repeated so many of the values that we wanted to contest or deconstruct in our work, most notably that one can have a ‘total’ vision of an object. We even tried taking a roll of 16mm film where we ignored all of the sculptures in the display! As you can imagine, this was great fun to shoot, and I think we both broke down laughing when the film ticked off and told us that the roll was finished!
Throughout all of this we got to know Asklepios and Dionysus, and they asserted to us their boundaries and limits. It is odd to think that, when you are standing with a block of stone, you are standing with an organism that used to be alive: “marble consists of ancient corals and shellfish that have been compressed at high pressures and temperatures until they become crystalline; calcite…coral is an animal, not a plant” (Marble, 2020). In this sense, there is something very photographic about marble – it catches life and holds it still. Perhaps Roland Barthes would have had something good to say about this!
TH: Having a background in art history and archaeology, you often explore the idea of re-enactment and re-contextualisation in your practice. Why do you think this is important in the present day or to you personally? What role does history and archaeology play in your work?
KCM+BC: Ben once wrote that archaeology always involves a process of speculation and misidentification of objects, that it is an active and ongoing process of questioning what objects can tell us about past and future events, cultures and peoples. As playful, performative people, we often interact with objects in inquisitive and speculative ways, slipping eggs under our glasses as if the eyes of an alien (the nucleus of our collaborative project O.o.o.h!), or pretending that our hands have grown into iPhones (the starting point of our newest project The Body is a Techno-verse). But we also found that we bonded, in the realm of ideas, images and objects, over the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s approach to archaeology, which “does not imply the search for a beginning; it does not relate analysis to geological excavation. It designates the general scheme of description that questions the already-said at the level of its existence…” (Archaeology of Knowledge, 1969). For Kat, this has informed her approach to feminist thought, a post-structuralist questioning of the languages, symbols and signs that so often order women out of history by giving them a language in which their bodies are unheard. For Ben it has a very intergenerational focus, a way of engaging with and honouring the lives of those from whom our ideas have grown, and with whom we are connected when brought together by object touch interfaces. That is why archaeology is so important to us – it maintains that we are critical, open to challenge, revision and debate, but also that we are listeners to the past, in order to avoid falling into the pitfalls of the always-new, of ‘progress’...
We brought both forms of archaeology to the museum, seeking to challenge how Asklepios and Dionysus were presented to us, how we were allowed to know them. It was incredibly exciting – by simply questioning the site of ‘the past’ in which these sculptures were inscribed, we discovered that Cyrene is still a highly contested site. We began to think about how they are still inscribed in Cyrene through their negative space, through their absence, through their geological make-up. Archaeology is, at its heart, all about context, about being able to come into contact with multiple different contexts at the same time. One of the reasons that we chose to fragment the bodies in our work was to resist re-presenting the totalising gaze of the museum setting; re-staging a gaze is a form of archaeology too, because it shows that there are already multiple ways to understand what you think you know. To summarise this idea, a small anecdote comes to mind: a few years ago, we were working at a historic house where a marble bust by a prominent artist was being used as a doorstop. We laughed, because we found it funny that one day an archaeologist might find it and say: ‘wow, isn’t it amazing how decorative the doorstops of historic houses were in the 21st century’!
TH: What was the research process like for 'Staging a Gaze'? Would you consider the work a direct reflection of your research or perhaps a documentation of the research itself?
Adjacent to the project, Kat began working on a diagram called ‘Ways of Looking’ (pictured above), where she collected poems, images and ideas exploring the relationship between the museum, the male body and the gaze, focussing on those scopophilic, simultaneously sexualised and de-sexualised ways that the classical male body has been staged in British national collections. The intimate and queer gaze of C.P Cavafy’s poetry – included in the diagram – was especially influential to the project, but it was only when we finally installed the slide projection that this became visible to us.
Due to the schedule outline required for our funding application, we had always planned to visit the ‘Traditions in Sculpture’ display at the National Museum of Scotland to take a set of colour research slides before launching into the project full-steam. We hoped that this intuitive photographic process would help to draw out which sculptures fascinated us, why, and whether we wanted to work in colour again so soon after the completion of our work O.o.o.h! (single-channel slide projection, 2021). To be honest, we were very unhappy with these slides when they came back from the photo-shop! Kat was even offended by one photograph that she had taken and cut it up! They were dowdy yellow due to the tungsten indoor lighting, super dark, and oftentimes repeated the scopophilic gaze implied by the museum display. But we did notice that we had each taken a large number of photographs of Asklepios and Dionysus, both of whom appeared intermeshed and fragmented in our photographs, sharing a sculptural language and material. This seemed like an interesting starting point, especially when we discovered that they came from the same archaeological site, and linked to our prior works investigating the fragmented body (Ben’s photographic print Armature, 2020 and Kat’s collage Two-Step, 2020).
In this sense, the research and the ‘final piece’ are not so easily defined, as we work in a long and synthetic way, but we are also both aware that the ‘final’, in-projector editing process greatly streamlined the web of ideas out of which Staging a Gaze grew. We spoke with the curator of Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop about this projection after its first exhibition in Residents ‘22, and came to the conclusion that it will probably evolve, morph and change with us as we grow and reflect. Indeed, the photographs that we took told us a lot about the sculptures that we had not seen before, so it is fair to say that, so long as we are making images, we are in a constant process of research: learning, synthesising and meeting old ideas again as new.
TH: What techniques did you use to create Staging a Gaze and why?
KCM+BC: For Staging a Gaze we used Adox Scala 50 35mm film, a black and white slide film which produces ‘positive’ instead of ‘negative’ images when developed. This film was designed in the 1980s with slide projection in mind and is still produced, though rarely used today due to its specific developing process. We decided to test using this film in response to the challenging lighting conditions in the gallery and were subsequently attracted to its crispness and tonality as well as the ways a new, monochrome, lens to image/imagine the sculptures. One which offered an immediate disjunct to how the eye sees.
As photographers we were thinking about viewership and the amount of manipulation of light and space, of staging, that goes into taking a ‘straight photograph’. We brought elements of this staging, which are not usually visible, into our photographs, including lenses from inside our slide projectors. In this way the work focused on how images and perceptions are formed. To take the photographs we also used our phones as light-metres and research tools, when we included them within the frame we started to consider our technique as an analogue digital hybrid. Paul Kuimet, Margaret Salmon and Wolfgang Tilmans are also inviting a cross-pollination between analogue and digital viewing devices. With new smartphones such as the Google Pixel 6 it is particularly apparent that the parameters of its camera are directly shifting the ideology of our gaze. Google itself acts in a similar way and was an important research tool for us in this project. It was visualised in the work through a series of colour slides – taken from our computer and phone screen – interspersed amongst those that are black and white.
TH: How did you approach exhibiting and installing the final piece?
KCM+BC: We exhibited Staging a Gaze around its technology. During the summer of 2021 we found two synced 35mm slide projectors being sold on ebay for £100. It was very spontaneous of us both, but we decided to split the cost and have them delivered to our first studio at Rhubaba, which was sadly taken over by developers just a few months after we moved in. However, before we left we got to play with our new projectors and realised that we could bring our respective skills, Kat’s in collage, and Ben’s in photography, together to make a new shared work. This sparked off the project in a material sense, as it began to set the parameters for the final installation and exhibition of the work.
Then we read the instruction manual. It was full of phrases like “On trade fairs e.g. the Quick Change System will allow continuous projection of the slides without supervision””. These functions really excited us, and in the end we were grateful for the adjustable projection duration, which allowed us to slow things down a bit, to allow for more close looking. It also allowed us to take a step back from the work, to let it move on its own, to be an automated sculpture.
TH: How does creating in a residency or a workshop space shape your work?
KCM+BC: In our case, working in both a residency and a workshop space makes everything better, more enjoyable and more challenging. You take more risks, you meet more people, and you don’t actually make what you thought you could with your own hands and brain. For us, the residency process is a great way of streamlining ideas and focusing on a project or idea, giving it time to develop and to find a material or image language in which to exist. We both felt that a little more funding would have been helpful during the ECA/ESW Graduate Residency, as we were also working part-time to pay for our materials and life, which meant that we were pretty tired by the time we exhibited! But when we are not making images, we work in what might be considered a more traditional sculptural sense, casting, building objects in woodwork…and we are both very happy for the image-based works and the object-based works to intermesh, and to inform each-other. Ben has been working with expanded cinematic installations for some years now, thinking about moving image through spatial relations and object interactions.
With regards to the workshop, we both agree, hands-down, that it is one of the most valuable parts of our ‘artfristructure’. We are based at Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, which has an exceptionally good team of technicians who seem to be able to help make anything possible. You are always learning through making, and you are encouraged to do it yourself, with your own hands. And just by way of being in the workshop, you are sharing skills, ideas, approaches, knowledges, as well as working together in collaborative fabrication processes, like the recent metal pour in which Ben took part.
TH: Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming projects?
KCM+BC: At the moment, Kat is working on a project called ‘You are my Joan of Arc’, a casting project inspired by a photograph of her mum performing in an ‘electro-mediaeval’ dress, hair cut like Joan of Arc, whilst Ben is developing a new dual-channel 16mm projection informed by a remarkably visual, time-travelling novel titled Palimpsest (1926) by Hilda Doolittle, H.D. Collaboratively, we don’t want to commit to anything just yet, as we have quite a lot on! But a broad overview might sound something like this: the next work might be a 16mm film projection, and it might be called The Body is a Techno-verse.
Ways of Looking, Kat Cutler-MacKenzie, 2022.