Interview – Nav Haq


by Nav Haq & Gabriel lester

Nav Haq: I know that you are interested in the relationship of your work to the viewer, whatever form the work takes whether it is installation or moving image. Can you tell me about this relationship and how you feel it may have developed through your career?

Gabriel Lester: My early artistic expression was almost always using theatre plays, which is something that is directly related to audience. If you are performing live you are so close to your audience you can smell them. But you can also feel their reactions. When you do theatre or music or any other stage-related form of art you can feel the dynamic of the audience you are working with. I started to think about cinema, literature and visual art, which are basically the artforms I started to work with in my early adolescence. I was into music and theatre from age nine, and around 16 I started working with text. I started to look for similar possibility looking for a time-based or performance-like relation to an audience. Some works are more subtle that others. Installations function to be an experience. It’s something that has a sense of time or has a sense of occurrence. You wander through and it transforms itself as you look. You become aware of something as you engage with it. This is still very much connected with the idea of performance. 

NH: Your works investigate both narrativity and also the ‘experiential’, looking at the links between these elements. Visitors can fee like they are an actor in an unrehearsed situation, and a potentiality for narrative engagement comes through the viewer. Would you agree with this?

GL: Yes I do. What I’m working with is methods for making an audience identify with a kind of structure. My works are very much based on narrative, though this is not explicit. One can say that narrative structure for example is three acts and an epilogue. You get to introduce the actors and the characters, then you introduce the conflict, then you resolve the conflict, then there is the epilogue that provides the message or moral of the story. You set certain things up for your audience to become acquainted with. Then you start addressing something that they have identified which relates to their own knowledge or experience, making it personal. By basically coding, or conditioning, seduction, or establishing a dilemma, you create an energy that you can work with. This is part of what I’m trying to express with these installations.

NH: Much of your installation work could be described as architectural intervention, such as Cross Section that you presented at Pavilijoens in Almere, and I saw an installation you made at the Van Loon Museum in Amsterdam. How did your practice develop in this direction and is there a particular psychology that you wish to investigate?

GL: If you see how my installations developed I detach myself from cinema in the traditional sense ‚working with actors, filming it, and projecting it. Every installation is a step away from these literal cinematographic situations and into the world so to speak. I always have to consider the space it’s being shown it. Every installation has to consider the space; inn my case the space affects the way you read, the way you enter. It is all part of it. There is an interest in the ‘psychology of space’ if you like. How we enter ‚the whole experience ‚all has to fit together  for my work to start to communicate. My work has never had the intention of having one statement. It’s always a carefully woven net of things intertwining, and in this sense that’s why there is this level of interaction. To specifically talk about Cross Section, it clearly has a link to Gordon Matta-Clark, and on the idea of a certain type of architecture you find in the city where it was shown. It’s a city where everything is made to the average, everything has a size that is not decided by each person. It has a relation to Matta-Clark, contemporary architecture, and public housing. At the same time is a mobilised situation, where at any spot in the installation you are visually connected to every part. It’s like a Panopticon. The traditional panorama surrounds space, but this cuts through it. My approach was from the opposite direction to Matta-Clark. I thought about the cut before I started to think about the building around it. I am thinking again about creating an abstract narrative where I am fusing spaces together, creating windows and cut-outs that allow the spectator to be in a system where everyone is everywhere all the time. 

NH: You initially worked with film when you were at the beginning of your career and when you were at the Rijksakademie, and then subsequently the form of your work moved in the additional direction of installation. Can you tell me about your recent revised concentration on the medium of film?

GL: My work comes from determining things and then improvising, as much as a jazz musician determines rhythm and melody. This is important for me. I am capable of explaining my work but a lot of it comes from what feels right or doing it without having a reason necessarily. When I attended the Rijksakademie ‚Äì a post-graduate residency that allows you to research your own work ‚Äì I had been studying cinema, and I had only worked on commercials. It was strange to come into contemporary art. Given the amount of film and video art at the time, very few artists looked towards cinema. My approach was very much into cinema ‚Äì the language, the coding, the semiotics of cinema so to speak. It was about applying semiotic tools. My recent fascination to work with film again has to do with two particular reasons. One is that I made a couple of films in the past years and I enjoyed the fact that they have a longer life. Installations ultimately get torn down, but films have an endless life. They can be in festivals and biennials, and can be picked up by TV channels. At the same time it’s not always good to go in a straight line to know where to end up. I’m not going to quit installations, I have no intention of this. But I’ve always known that I would go back to cinema.

NH: For the Contour Biennial in Mechelen you are making a new film that looks at the settings for film overtures as a pre-conditioning mechanism for telling us about the different scenarios and emotional charges that we are meant to be experiencing when watching a film. You have even yourself composed an overture for the work. Can you tell me more about this work, and your own understanding of overture as a rhetorical mechanism?

GL: Here is another example of something that I’ve always known about. I like overture and music. I think you know that I did a project at the New York Library looking at silent movie soundtracks. This was a logical next step that would connect to that project in 2005. Those were written for a duel or love scene. I specifically researched these as they are written for specific scenes such as for a fight. With the overture I was interested in how it was used as a narrative tool. When I was researching the idea of the overture, which was popular in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, I simply felt pleasure in diving into this and think about writing a story to music. I have enough imagination and knowledge of music to write a narrative. In general I think of music as a narrative. I’m not talking about lyrics, but compositions. These atmospheres are like in my work Urban Surface. You are always expecting something to happen but it is satisfying due to the aesthetic. I thought about this a lot and about recording music, and I will make something very close to Urban Surface. 

NH: I’m, interested in your practice in relation to actual exhibitions. You exhibit quite a lot, and produce a lot of ambitious installations. Is it always about a response to an invitation, or do you have what you might describe as an ongoing daily practice?

GL: Both in a way. Sometimes the problem with contemporary art is that you might be invited to show on a Wednesday in June for show in November, but by the time it is August you get another invitation for November. Opportunities get in each others’ way. Most of the time every installation comes from a reservoir of ideas that are in my mind. When I walk into a space, if any of them seem suited for a work that exists, I may have an idea that would work there. That’s an interesting difference. The work you saw in the Van Loon Museum was a reaction to the space. It came from something that makes sense in my practice, but when I arrived it was not part of my ideas ‚really a reaction to the space. However what you saw in London at my recent solo show at Bloomberg ‚none of the works were designed for the space. The ‘scenography’ works were something that had been made from research as far back as 2001. There is an ongoing practice, but sometimes the situation requires me to adapt a method of working or an idea for each project.

NH: You have lived in Brussels for seven years but I understand you don’t necessarily feel part of the mainstream scene in Belgium. From your CV I can see that you have exhibited very little outside of Brussels within Belgium. How do you feel about your relationship with the Belgian art scene?

GL: I’ve been living on an off in Brussels for 13 years. For the last seven years I’ve lived permanently in Brussels but spent half a year in Stockholm and a year in New York. To be honest I have no intention to be part of the Belgian art scene. I was just part of the Belgian Young Painters Prize at the BOZAR. I thought I would apply and see if they take it. I was selected but I also feel some regret. It’s been about living in a city and not necessarily being part of the art scene. I felt more connected in Amsterdam or in Stockholm as these places I’ve lived in for reasons of doing a show. I’ve never really like being surrounded by only art people. I’m not the kid that went to art school and knows every gallery around the world. I’m just interested in making my work. With all due respect to the Belgian art scene I’m not in Belgium to join the art world. Somehow 2007 is the year that I’m doing this prize and doing the Contour Biennial in Mechelen, but I’m not looking to do more here really.