Katherine - interview edit

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Katherine MacBride (b.1982) talks about making and experiencing her sculptures Listening and Speaking Devices and the process of exhibiting them in the exhibition Past Caring.

Can you describe the work in the exhibition?

Listening and Speaking Devices, 2014, are a pair of papier maché parabolic reflectors. They’re 2m in diameter and hang parallel in the space so that they reflect sounds between each other.

This is the second time I’ve made these sculptures. They’re becoming a repeated form that I think it’s useful to return to and work with in different spaces. Each time they’re made they have an effect on the sound quality in the space that they’re made and then presented in.

They have a different effect?

They have an effect and the effect will be different because each space is different.

Ok. You said they were made out of papier maché, what were the materials exactly?

I made them mainly out of newsprint, water based glue and coloured tissue paper. There’s some background to the choice of the materials in that I was interested in making large scale sculptures but I was conscious of the impact of the materials that would be used. I decided to make sculptures that would cease to exist at the end of the exhibition. That’s partially pragmatic, partially political but it’s also to do with the environmental impact.

You made something biodegradable.

Yes. They’re made from papier machéd newsprint overlaid with coloured tissue paper. That was important because I didn’t want to make these large objects and then paint them and have to deal with them being a possible commentary on painting because that’s something that I know nothing about. I wanted them to be very colourful and to have this presence. Because tissue paper’s translucent it allows you to see what’s underneath it - it doesn’t hide how the sculpture’s been made - but it gives a colour that’s very present. In this group exhibition the colours I used reflected the colours in one of the films. That wasn’t a preplanned thing but I think it was important. I guess that because they’re very big sculptures I want to be sensitive to how they affect other things in the space around them. Although they’re big I don’t think they’re intimidating objects. I’ve watched people interacting with them and they invite touch. Because they’re made out of such simple materials people do feel comfortable to go up to them and touch them.

Yes, they look quite textured and soft. Can you describe something about the experience when you stand in between the two?

If you stand in the room with them then you’re aware that the sound quality of the space is a bit different. When you stand in between them that difference becomes a lot clearer. It’s difficult to describe but you have a sense that the sound coming into your ears feels a little bit clearer, like it’s on a slightly different channel. I had a similar experience recently standing in Robert Morris’s Observatory - it’s got that clear difference but it’s difficult to say exactly what it’s like. If you stand facing the Listening and Speaking Devices and you speak into them you hear your voice back in a slightly different way. It’s being bounced back to you so you hear your voice the normal way - coming out your mouth, going into your ears, travelling through your facial bones - but you also hear it coming back at you. It’s a bit like when you hear a recording of yourself but it’s not as weird as that - it’s much more subtle. The sculptures amplify sound - it’s possible to speak into them really quietly and have that sound transferred across the space. People can have conversations using them where the experience of talking and listening is heightened in a discreet way.

Can you describe the process of working with the curators to make this work for Past Caring?

The exhibition looks at the idea of caring work and raises questions around what care is and who cares for which other people. I was asked to remake Listening and Speaking Devices specifically for this context. The first time I made them was for a solo exhibition that was dealing with ideas around public speech and embodied voices being shared in pubic. It was an interesting process to remake the work in a different curatorial context. The curators of Past Caring were very sensitive about framing my work so they were very clear about saying, ‘this is what we’re interested in, we think your work fits within this but we want to be sure that you’re comfortable with that.’ It was a very dialogical process and it felt appropriate too because a lot of what I’d learned from researching public speech was that I was really interested in listening. It felt appropriate to think about listening within caring. There’s also a development that hasn’t been realised yet - there’ll be a performance that’s based around ideas of care that will take place in the space with the sculptures in the new year.

Would you see the objects having any kind of therapeutic quality?

That’s definitely something that I became interested in when I was making the first ones. You get some alternative therapies based on the belief that different frequencies have therapeutic properties. I don’t know how much I believe in the healing properties of specific frequencies but from my lived experience I’m aware that the quality of sound around me has an impact on my mood, stress levels, concentration or feelings of relaxation…so I am interested in those properties of sound. I’m also interested in working with sound in a way that doesn’t involve producing more sound. They’re quiet sculptures and I like that - the possibility of thinking about sound with an object that doesn’t make any sound. The colour is really important too. Listening and Speaking Devices are orange and pink for this show - really vibrant colours. It just would have felt really inappropriate if they were grey for example because it’s about the possibility of…

Being a little uplifting?

Yes I think so. The colours are very, well…uncool and the surface is…when I showed them the first time someone came in and walked straight up to them and smelled them and said they made him think of being at primary school. So there’s something about that time that the materials definitely connect to, that most of us have used tissue paper and glue in primary school.

Yes they seem bodily. They’re so huge. If you got them laser cut out of some plastic material they’d be scary, or you’d be apprehensive about them in some way, but the fact that they look so handmade…they just feel soft or something.

Yes and while I was making the ones for this show, I saw this photograph of an anti Iraq war protest on campus in Berkley, California. They had these round banners shaped like targets that said, ‘tits not targets.’ I know it’s a bit stupid but the sculptures kind of have the shape of boobs. I mean that’s just the shape that they have to have in order to function, but there’s definitely something about using pink and thinking of skin.

There’re soft and not completely sturdy, they do resemble body parts. A parabolic reflector would usually be smooth and rigid and it’s function would be really apparent. It does what it’s designed to do really efficiently . During the process of making your parabolic reflectors, did you think about how the surface wouldn’t be completely smooth, that the shape of them would be a little bit off?

That’s a tension that I really like. The first time I made them I had no idea if they would actually function because of the materials I used. Paper is absorbent of sound anyway and then through adding glue the warp of the paper gets wet and dried out and altered. There’s all these processes of change and transformation during the making of them. I was really pleasantly surprised that they worked so well even though they're not smooth and they’re lumpy and imperfect and I couldn’t control everything. Making them a second time was interesting because there is a degree to which I can control the process now but there’s also a degree to which it’s totally out of my hands. I like that. It can be a bit stressful when they start sagging though.

Sagging is a nice word.

I think I was really happy about that not having control. I was having a conversation with someone who makes sound work - really lovely minimal techie installations - and he was talking about how different it was aesthetically to have this work dealing with sound that’s imperfect and not high-tech. I used all these really precise formulas to measure the cuts I made but then I put water on it - I like that tension between being really controlled and allowing chaos to have a place in the process.