Joy Gerrard is an Irish artist based in London. Her recent work depicts protests in cities, expressionistic crowds spilling and surging within static architectural frames. She takes mundane and iconic images from newspapers and the internet, and turns them into ink paintings of different sizes. The act of reproducing these images draws attention to the spectator as witness and asks whether media coverage is ever neutral. Caitríona Devery spoke with her for rabble.
Where are you currently working on?
The next exhibition I have coming up is in the Drawing Room in London. It’s a show called Graphic Witness and it’s about how artists use drawing or graphic methods to produce work. The curator Kate Macfarlane is interested in artists responding to political changes, to injustices, to war. She’s particularly interested in this idea of graphic witness, of the immediacy of drawing. So even though the works I’m showing are ink on canvas and ink on paper, they are kind of half-way between drawings and paintings. She was very interested in the drawings of the protesting crowds. The artists are all responding to political happenings. And they’re witnessing things in the world.
Quite a lot of the other artists’ works are pictures of humans, in particular situations, you know portraits of refugees or asylum seekers in Holland. I haven’t seen all the works but I think a lot of them depict the person as a human figure. I think the curator was interested in using my images alongside, these overviews of the protesting crowd. We were thinking of how we witness these events through media. I’m redrawing and remaking the media coverage of these kinds of protests. Coming closer to the crowd, maybe that’s the result of drone usage, more so than media photography.
What kinds of crowds and protests are you interested in?
I’m currently interested in these smaller crowds, maybe about 200 people where they’re blocking motorways, blocking roads, stopping traffic, it’s almost like they’re stopping the world moving. They seem to be quite particularly American, often Black Lives Matter manifests in this way. They’re very interesting aerial images. I’m working on a series of those. I’m also trying to respond to some of the recent protests in Dublin around Repeal the 8th and the national maternity hospital. I think there’s still a great deal of anti-Trump protest going on, so I’m just logging and cataloguing those, and will try and pull images from that.
I seek to memorialize protest events. I’m interested in transformative moments. Times, maybe when history turns; but at the time – do we know that this is happening? I also am interested in what people remember; how short our memories are. Did people think much about the “Not in our Name”- anti-Iraq war protests when the Chilcott enquiry was published this year? Obviously, I’m fascinated by the events themselves – but also how they are photographed and presented in the media.
I don’t think I judge the particular protests in the work, but maybe I do a bit – as I have collected lots but am not inclined to make images of say Pro-fascist demonstrations in Poland. I am also interested in the formal nature of the images; collective vitality contained by modernist spaces. A sense of stress and strength. The rational lines that the authorities make with bodies and cars.
Describe the process.
The majority of my image material comes from news, media and Internet sources. These are particularly public views; they are mostly readily accessible, and have already been extensively glanced or gazed at. They have a quality of familiarity to them. My intention is to unsettle and detourn this sense of recognition.
The works begin with choosing a particular image to re-work. At that moment, I am inspired by the structure and composition of the image. I am also interested in the political circumstances surrounding the protesting crowd – why they are protesting, and what is the result or outcome of the protest. The work is very time consuming, and involves building up the image slowly, using Japanese ink with different brushes.
In the laborious making of these works, abstract forms and compositions emerge – light is submerged into pools of deep darkness, and huge crowds meld and fracture. At a certain stage, the image making takes over, and the work is transformed. I am inspired by the aesthetic decisions that need to be made, in order that the image will function.
Tell us more about the Dublin images.
The Repeal the 8th has been collecting for a couple of years, so I have sets of different images. There’s a few particular ones from O’Connell Bridge from this year, and I’m just starting to respond to the ones from the NMH, which was a very big march. I’m Irish and I’d quite like to do something about Dublin. Different cities seem to generate different types of images, depending on the height of buildings that people can photograph out of, or the kinds of media photography.
You don’t get an awful lot of aerial photography in Dublin but recently there has been more. The last couple of years. Actually, the images now relate quite closely back to images from the 1916 rising, you don’t get these very kind of distanced views. They’re quite close in. They’re more figured. Figures, the individual figures become more important as opposed to seeing the mass from the distance.
Does the specific terrain of individual cities and their built environments affect the protest and the image?
Yes, absolutely unique and different – different kind of urban configurations lend themselves more to very large assemblies. When you think about it, there’s many different ways that people protest. Often it starts as a march, it’ll move to a space, there will be an assembly where people will speak, and of course, there are those much longer protests, like Occupy.
Occupy New York and Occupy London were hugely different. The Wall Street square and space, where most of it happened, is very big and very open. There would have been a central camp set up. Different types of occupation often have camps set up, meetings spaces and communications/media spaces, communicating through Facebook and Twitter, WhatsApp, etc. In London, the Occupy movement occupied St. Paul’s square which is a much, much smaller square. So the images that came out of Occupy London were much more human level compared to the images that came out of Occupy New York.
For instance the Arab Spring in Cairo, in Tahrir square, it’s an enormous space, it’s well over a mile square. The other thing about it is that it has 18 egresses, it’s actually quite hard for a police force and army to block all of those at the same time. There’s also access from the river on to the square as well. That’s why you saw such a huge collection of people, I think there was a million people in the square. One of the reasons those images were so compelling. That went on for a long time, and there were tents set up, as a kind of meeting space. There were huge amounts of debate going on, intellectual spaces within the square.
I live in London, but I haven’t made that many London images. I’ve been on quite a lot of anti-Brexit protests lately and you do get these big crowds, and they go down Pall Mall and they collect in Trafalgar Square, which is quite small and then has this – outside parliament – has this very particular architectural building. It’s quite a small square so people are kind of crushed into the square.
People do collect there for protest, but it’s actually designed in a way that you can’t have really very big protest happenings there. One of the biggest protest we had in London was the anti Iraq war marchers, and that collected in Hyde Park, that’s a huge space, so that was the space that was used – normally it’s more like a square not a park. Different architectural spaces enable different kinds of gatherings, different things to happen.
Your images are generally birds-eye view shots of crowds in protest, are the images available to you changing as technology changes?
The overview is a conscious response to media images. I have archived aerial views of protesting crowds – often in city centre sites for a decade. Of course, new digital technologies in photography have changed the images arriving on our screens; for example powerful zoom lenses give us closer views – as has the advent of the media drone. The biggest change is possibly “citizen enabled” images; shared on Twitter, YouTube etc.
Do you think social media has impacted on how protesting crowds assemble?
Hardt and Negri talk about the digital multitude. Their point was that a physical crowd has been drawn together via the internet and social media. They talk about mirages. This mirage appearing on the street for the Iraq war marches. Digital media had caused a physical crowd. People were just starting to use digital media, Facebook, to galvanise people and to gather people. Now, everything’s done – organised through Facebook, discussed on twitter.
Your work highlights the loss of the individual figure within an abstracted crowd image. Political theorists and philosophers have written about the individual vs the crowd for a long time, and it is very relevant when we think of individuality merging with the online hive mind. Are you interested in theory and philosophy around this?
I’m really interested in political theory, writers like Furedi who wrote Politics of Fear, and Hardt and Negri who wrote about the multitude. Artists deal with theory in different ways, some artists make very in-depth knowledgeable analyses of texts and use it in their works. I’ve done that a bit, I did research on it. I was thinking about the multitude as individuals coming together as one, as one body. That relates back to somebody like Hobbes who had a terrible view of the crowd and of the public and saw them all as savages that needed to be controlled in some way.
If you think about the crowd you always have this tension between the protesting crowd as a kind of noble, aspirational nothing and the presumption it’s a good crowd. The flip side is that there’s a great deal of philosophers – like Hobbes- who would have a negative view of the crowd and wouldn’t see them as being able to form a self-determining group. Self-governing group. They would always need a sovereign. It’s a fascistic kind of idea.