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Interview with Katrina Palmer

G.W.F. Hegel isn’t looking too good. With an afternoon of student tutorials to attend at the School of Sculpture Without Objects, the brittle corpus of this 240-year-old philosopher looks set to crumble at any moment. Katrina Palmer suggests we’d better keep a dustpan and brush to hand. There might be some residue to sweep up.

 

Since her first novel, The Dark Object, was published by Book Works as part of Stewart Home’s ‘Semina’ series in 2010, Palmer has crafted a recalcitrant form of artist’s fiction that tempers its philosophically informed investigations of sculptural materiality with a wry humour. It’s a mode of writing that transitions fluidly between print, audio and spoken performance, constantly testing the perimeters of its contextual environs along the way. As Palmer puts it in that book, even the bodies of revered philosophers may become subject to the peculiar strategies of ontological investigation that her writing proposes. Indeed, both the bumbling (but lovable?) Slovenian nose-twitcher Slavoj Žižek and the aforementioned dusty dialectician are lyrically plied and moulded into a body of raw thought-matter, in a novel that satirises the numerous micro-fascisms of aesthetic pedagogy.

 

This summer, End Matter  an ambitious Artangel project set on the Isle of Portland just south of Dorset’s Jurassic Coast – saw Palmer’s writing extend through a radio play broadcast by the BBC and a series of audio-guided walks that sought to lead visitors through the vertiginous territories of the quarried moonscape, long famed for its brilliant white stone. A colossal cavity mined to substantiate the pillars of empire, the island has provided a notorious source for the iconic building blocks used most notably while plugging the entrance to hell with the Bank of England. Visiting the work earlier in the year, I was surprised at the sense of vulnerability it managed to induce as I chartered its narrativised pathways through tumbledown crags and along the peripheries of voidal recesses. While British land art has always been defined by its quaint localities (in contrast to the heroic immensities of U.S. frontierism), it was startling to experience the deftness with which Palmer was able to destabilise and make strange the solidity of the vast geological strata through the introduction of modest fictions detailing the exploits of ‘the Loss Adjustors’, a shady bureaucratic organisation charged with the sensorial quantification of material loss.

 

We met on the concrete rooftop terraces of the National Theatre to discuss how a sculptural sensibility could find form in language, where the intersections of the analytical and the occult could be drawn, and how an engaged erotics might provide useful tools for an interrogation of materiality.

 

Q

The White Review

— Could we begin by talking about the relationship between writing and making, and whether or not there’s an important distinction to be made there for you? As I understand it, there’s an interesting backstory here that may shed some light on the role of the educational institution in your artistic development, specifically your time at the Royal College of Art. How did you come to be an artist who writes?

A

Katrina Palmer

— I was in the sculpture school at the Royal College of Art, and before that I was at Central St. Martins, but originally I did a degree in philosophy and literature. That was a long time ago. In a way, it all comes together with the current work.

 

During my time at the Royal College, I was still making objects with my hands – often things on the edge of collapse and provisional figurative constructions – but by the time I’d finished my MA and was writing my dissertation, I started to see the page as a really interesting space on which to explore the same ideas about contingent materials. So I started to think about how sculpture could be a language-based enquiry.

 

The way that objects are produced in writing is elusive, almost covert. I still really love things and I still use found objects, so it’s not an entirely dematerialised practice, but it’s more about arranging spaces and being immersed in a struggle for material presence.

 

Initially I built a structural writing space around myself in the studio using cabinets, tables and all the ad-hoc stuff I could find. By the time I’d stacked up all that furniture and shelving there was very little room, but it was the peculiar constraints of that environment that ended up determining the dynamics for The Dark Object, my first book. I developed a series of stories about the space I’d created around me, the activity of writing, and the process of discovering writing to be a form of sculpture.

 

Fiction naturally raises questions about what’s real or not, it reflects on how things are constructed and how the material presence of things can be counterbalanced by an absence. I’m particularly interested in that paradox: how it produces something that we invest belief in, that operates as part of the everyday but that simultaneously declares itself a fabrication.

 

Q

The White Review

— It sounds as though this cultivation of a private space might have been an effort to remove yourself from certain pedagogical expectations?

A

Katrina Palmer

— Well that was when I went on to do research at the RCA, which was quite a contentious space. At that point there was a sense of not being seen as a proper sculptor within the sculpture department. I had really good people at my side – Keith Wilson, Elizabeth Price – but within the research area as well, the texts I was writing weren’t particularly perceived as faithful research.

 

Q

The White Review

— The question of what constitutes ‘adequate’ research is really interesting given that your writing is engaged with varying registers of embodiment as they vacillate between subject and object positions. Institutional validation, for what it’s worth, doesn’t seem to acknowledge the way that discourses surrounding embodiment or accentuated subjectivity are finding their way into forms of, say, experimental ethnography or applied philosophies of affect. Were there academic protocols that you had to bump this work up against and say, ‘this is justified as research’?

A

Katrina Palmer

— Throughout most of my BA and my MA I really didn’t talk – I’d never speak in a crit. or anything like that, but I found that writing provided a space where I could situate the work in its critical context. There, I could suddenly embody debates and get my voice in the room. I found this way of inhabiting ideas, working with them through storytelling and then presenting them as the work. It was really quite useful for me; the first thing I did in that way was actually my abstract, which does appear in The Dark Object. I saw the parameters of the abstract – the A4 page and the questions I had to address – as a productive constraint.

 

I was very much thinking of the page as a sculptural space, and the tension of my narratives was drawn from the weird demand of having to reduce the research project to fit into this ostensibly uncompromising and contrived area. That was quite a key moment for me. The constraints of the environment forced me to produce the ideas that animated the work.

 

Q

The White Review

— There are a few instances I can think of where your books perform in a sculptural sense, either materially or allusively. Addison Cole, the protagonist in The Dark Object, is prone to receiving bureaucratic notifications from his school’s faculty. When this happens, the book seems to enact a procedural purpose, taking the form of an official dossier or ledger and shifting the reading experience into a confrontation with the physical matter of bureaucracy. Are there any histories of book-making or concrete composition that tie into the way you approach writing?

A

Katrina Palmer

— There are two different things here. There was a ten-year period where I worked in book production, for Penguin. For all of that time I was working with the physicality of the page; it was all about typesetting, printing and binding – in other words, the material components. However, I don’t have a particular interest in making my own artist’s books in a specifically handcrafted sense.

 

I originally saw The Dark Object as a physical thing, but then I moved towards perceiving that as a sculptural form. If you read the book, you’ll get a sense of this: that the physical novel is what the fictional protagonist has produced.

 

Q

The White Review

— Your books often exist as a series of fragmentary components. Last year’s The Fabricator’s Tale, for instance, seems to have lived a previous life as interconnected stories recounted in publications, performance works or readings. How do your projects unfold?

A

Katrina Palmer

— There’s very little order to it at the outset. I’ll think I’m going to write a long piece and will actually end up writing quite small stories, but the characters tend to be more or less the same. They’re my agents on the page, enquiring as to the problematics of material presence; touching things that I can’t; contending with loss or excessive corporeality. I don’t try and push all of their stories together, I just gradually imagine and formulate  the broad narrative arcs that surround them.

Q

The White Review

— I’m wondering if writing within an art context might provide a greater sense of freedom for you, as opposed to writing within a specifically literary milieu in which stylistic conventions or technical orthodoxies might become a hindrance. Do you think you’re able to find freer spaces for writing by blurring those contextual boundaries?

A

Katrina Palmer

— The everyday literary world is so constrained by boundaries that it’s not hard for an alternative to appear. Writing as an artist gives me the freedom to construct a work such as End Matter that’s really part of an installation, a walk and audio; a work that is developed through the process of being reformulated for live-readings; or a work that’s just awkward or not subject to the commercial demands of mainstream publishing. Their sense of what constitutes the literary is – not always, but generally – highly conservative. It adheres to the received notion of how language can be used and by who, or who can experiment with it and who can’t, and then everything else is regarded as belonging to ‘sub’-genres. This is dismissive and based entirely on a kind of class prejudice. I just think all good writing is literary.

 

Q

The White Review

— Your writing is frequently attentive to the atmospheric nuances of the spaces in which it’s composed. You don’t currently write in a studio, but in the public foyer spaces and terraces of the Royal Festival Hall. Could you tell me about the spaces in which you like to write, and what controls you might exert over the context of composition?

A

Katrina Palmer

— I like the Royal Festival Hall because it’s a less private space, and I sometimes feel that the isolation is too much if I’m at home all the time. It was slightly different on Portland while I was working on the Artangel project because I was writing inside the work as it were, but I did have to come away from it to get the final version down on the page.

 

Most of the work that I did there was thinking, planning, drafting.

Q

The White Review

— Could we talk more about your residence on Portland? How did you choose to engage with the site?

A

Katrina Palmer

— To develop the story, one of the questions I asked was what sort of imagined world could sustain the loss of the ground underfoot to extensive quarrying, and which sorts of characters. I did a lot of research and lots of walking, discovering paths, and those walks enabled me to invest in that imagined world. I wanted the people who would visit to invest in it too.

 

It seemed important to get people directly into the landscape but also to encourage an engagement with fantastical possibilities over and above the immediate context. I was anticipating what they would see, realising that I wouldn’t be able to take them to every significant site in the book. You can’t really expect people to walk for more than about three quarters of an hour, so that constrained me, and part of the book uses that idea: the notion that key elements of the story might persist beyond the writer.

 

In the end, I focused on finding a circular route. It had to incorporate a quarry and crucial elements of the narrative, but more specifically I wanted to create an experience of locations and encounters where the everyday and the fictional intersect.

 

Q

The White Review

— That worked well: you managed to tie in some of the island’s most iconic and unusual locations, like Bowers Quarry and St. George’s Church. Some of these sites even provided precipitous circumstances for encountering your texts, whether or not they were relayed through book or broadcast.

 

Given the usually sanitised circumstances of art-tourism, it’s interesting that End Matter was able to create a real sense of vulnerability for the reader. It leads us to wonder why some contexts may be more appropriate than others for encountering your work. How do these situations vary for you?

A

Katrina Palmer

— It shifts. Ultimately I think about the peculiar space in which readers produce objects. I’m addressing readers’ and listeners’ minds and imaginations; an ideal space but one that’s not totally shut off because it’s obvious that people are embodied within a social context.

 

I’m also working with the context of publication, whether that’s other people’s or my own. Until recently I’ve always been on the periphery of institutional programming – doing a reading in the evening or something like that. It’s only in the last year or so that I’ve had the opportunity to produce shows where I’m taking up space and works that endure over time in a gallery.

 

Q

The White Review

— I’d like to talk about the investments you make in language. On the one hand there’s a philosophical rigour to your work, an interrogative or analytical quality. On the other, there’s an occult understanding of language’s capacities for conjuration, an almost cabalistic preoccupation with the invocation of forms. I wondered if there is a tension there that you’re keen to explore, opposing a critical scepticism to a resolute faith?

A

Katrina Palmer

— I’ve always liked things that produce tension. I employ writing as a form of making, where thinking can be as free as possible. It’s really the space of the imagination in that it enables a confrontation of our limits and excesses while also allowing for very quiet and intimate articulations.

 

I was talking about entering the space of reading, and the way objects are produced in the mind, the way that they’re not quite presences; this feels very intriguing. For me, storytelling is a way of manoeuvring through this peculiar zone where we sustain objects. It’s a way of exploring those devices that encourages us to believe that things exist even though we don’t always see them. I think there’s something unknown and quite eerie about that process of fabricating objects in the mind – the way we draw on our memories and associations in order to build them up and understand them. We develop our own perceptions that are creations well out of reach of the writer.

 

Q

The White Review

— I’m interested in the ways that you choose to enunciate a text during readings. At times you’ll read with quite a retiring, affectless and un-emotive manner. But with the readings for the Artangel project, there’s a different kind of quality to your voice, a different substantiation through foley sound and field recording. I wonder how the voice featured in your conceptualisation of the work, whether you’re prone to testing a text against the voice?

A

Katrina Palmer

— There are variables. Largely it’s about my relationship to my own voice because, like I said, I’m quite a quiet person and I can get very nervous when I’m talking, which can be frustrating. So I do rehearse a lot in order to do live performances, and I work hard to use that platform as an opportunity to speak clearly.

 

Equally I’m aware that my voice can convey emotion, and not always having control over that voice has been quite an interesting experience. It can give the live work a bit of an unstable edge. Having done so many readings since 2010, recently I think I’ve been more in control, so now I use other ways to bring productive aspects of instability and emotion into the work: using music, melodramatic sound effects and the dynamics of interaction with other voices.

 

Q

The White Review

— Your writing handles sensuality as a kind of ontological tool, testing the material parameters of reality through a kind of engaged erotics. The Loss Adjustors that we encounter in End Matter are a perfect example of this, a shady bureaucratic body which resorts to sexual confrontation as a mode of material interrogation. What uses does the writing of sex have for you in this sense?

A

Katrina Palmer

— Trying to evoke material things and sensual engagements out of a material as evasive as the written word is quite desperate in a way that makes the writing an intense activity. I have to work very hard at describing physical particularities if I’m to have a hope of extracting and developing material experiences. Every one of these experiences is then counterbalanced with a sense of the absence of physicality – which is again something that produces tension.

 

It’s obvious that sculpture is physical, but less obvious is how it works in relation to absence. Historically that reference to what’s not there occurs in the form of memorial, but it also takes the form of literal holes – you might think of Barbara Hepworth or Gordon Matta-Clark for example. The scene you refer to is sexual in a way that is rooted in these conventions. It’s a moment in the story when the characters have their most intimate encounter with each other and with the stone, and in the case of Portland this means an interaction with the excessive absences of the quarries. The Loss Adjusters want to see if it’s possible to have a confrontation that’s so bodily and tangible that it might compensate for the loss of the physical immediacy of the environment. So the concern here is a feeling of being alive and in touch with skin and stone, and the drama or thrill of existing in proximity to holes. Equally it tries to evoke an almost violent penetrating to the nub of the matter.

 

I wanted it to be a group sex scene that incorporates the idea of everyone being pressed together in a line to create a relief. Reliefs are a recurring one for me: I used to make relief scenes from Plasticine and plaster, and more recently I wrote about an ancient Assyrian relief for the RA Modern British Sculpture catalogue (a version of that narrative ended up in The Fabricator’s Tale). But this one in End Matter is self-consciously contrived with formal contortions that make it as much about the awkwardness of writing about the mechanics of sex as it is about turning to stone – or hardening up – quite literally writing about transforming into a solid state.

 

Q

The White Review

— I was surprised that End Matter seemed to side-step a confrontation with the peculiar vocabularies of geological strata and the various forms of knowledge those terms could afford. Instead, you managed to find a way of encouraging an intimacy with the stone in a spatio-temporal sense, through a series of tentative utterances relayed through audio pieces that restrained or slowed the walker/listener’s experience.

A

Katrina Palmer

— I think one of the dynamics I work with, or one of the consequences of using writing, is that it’s a slowing-down of physical encounters. As opposed to the transience of many contemporary experiences, it can mine into and extend a moment. But the question of performance is also interesting here. Value is often placed on the temporariness of the live, so I’m curious about the disjuncture between that and slow, descriptive live readings, or how they also gain a sort of semi-permanent form in print. Certainly, the pace of activity on Portland combines both the rapid intervention of quarrying with the revelation of cavity walls that are spectacularly sedate layers of compressed geological time. I wanted to work with that to some extent through the interleaving of fleeting contemporary fictions and enduring histories that are exposed and brought back to the surface.

 

Q

The White Review

— Do you find that during the writing or making process, you still have recourse to fabricate things that might not appear in the final rendition of the work? That you’re making things as catalysts for thinking or writing?
A

Katrina Palmer

— If you’re asking whether I still make work with my hands then it’s only in terms of finding and arranging things. It’s quite interesting, because I remember a tutor saying to me that they had trouble with the idea of research in fine art because it led people to move away from making things, but they weren’t worried about me as I was always in the studio. I always had my hand in a bowl of clay or plaster, and they thought there was no chance of me losing the object. Okay, on the one hand it might look like I’m not a maker, but on the other I’m entirely engaged with visceral encounters, heightened descriptions and the sensuality of things.
 

Katrina Palmer: The Necropolitan Line is at the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, from 10 December 2015 to 21 February 2016. The Necropolitan Line uses as source material the London Necropolis Railway that linked London to the UK’s largest cemetery. Filling three galleries with sound and narrative, in this new work Palmer unsettles the very definition of sculptural form by seeking to locate the body through its absence.



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Jamie Sutcliffe is a London-based writer, artist and publisher with Strange Attractor Press. He is co-editor of Ian Breakwell’s Diary, forthcoming with Occasional Papers, and comprises one half of the Pond Scum Light Show.