EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Ash Tower, academic and artist

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Ash Tower, plinthing handmade toys by Tiffany Rysdale. Photo credit: Mei Sheong Wong

Artist and academic, Ash Tower’s work reveals and explores the hidden social and physical structures of the worlds we inhabit. His creative output runs in parallel with the research, producing a prolific run of artefacts that have been exhibited both in place, and as the subject of a solo exhibition. Below is a conversation with Ash that explores the commonalities and divergences of his hybrid practice.

Q: Could you articulate the differences between your artistic practice and your formal academic research?

A: My arts practice has a lot to do with working with systems and standardised modes of knowledge that exist in the world: specific ways of knowing, such as science, or library categorisation, or even street signs and infrastructure and other kinds of standardised known things. Isolating points where they’re at their weakest, where there is a disjuncture, or poetic narratives that can be found in their over-complication. It’s at these breaks in the system that I intervene and make work about that because it forces you to reassess that system, and you realise that a system that was unknown to you because it ran so smoothly, without incident; when the whole architecture is revealed and forces you to reassess it. I think that’s where the work I make sits.

The formal research I do came out of my honours project at art school and deals with how qualities of laboratory space influence artistic production. I’m interested in how artists move into lab spaces and engage with the laboratory – not just in the four white walls sense, but in the social and technical elements of the laboratory; how they engage with scientists and get invited to conferences and integrate their work into the research, and get co-authorships on papers as an expansion of laboratory practice.

Q: So this wasn’t an artists’ studio as a lab, but artists working in science?

A: It began as that until I took my first period of ethnography at SymbioticA, a “centre for excellence in biological arts” at The University of Western Australia. It was there that I understood how easily problematic and how refutable the notion of collaboration is between the arts and the sciences. They fundamentally imply two different value systems and yet many arts and science collaborations work towards one singular outcome. There are problems that are associated with that: something beneficial to an artistic career that may be useless to a scientific career, and something that may be scientifically interesting and conducive to research output may be artistically disinteresting.

I had done all of my early doctoral proposal work on this notion of art-science collaboration and how this was witnessed in the laboratory and had to very quickly backpedal, and instead look at how the laboratory influences artistic production, which is a very carefully curated statement. It now rests simply at the points at which art and science meet in a laboratory setting, even when they’re not working towards some kind of collaboration or innovation as all the current trends are currently pointing.

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Renata Lucas, Matemática Rápida (Quick mathematics), 2006, concrete pathway, lampposts, plant beds, young trees. Installation views at Rua Brigadeiro Galvão, Barra Funda nighbourhood, for 2006 Bienal de São Paulo, Brazil. 150m length along the pathway.

Q: What (or who) inspires your work?

A: I really enjoy the work of Renata Lucas, she’s an amazing Brazilian artist who makes very subtle interventions in public spaces that deal with urban and domestic systems. She made a work for Bienal de São Paulo called Quick Mathematics, where she dug up a sidewalk in one of the suburbs, reorientated it a few degrees and planted it back down. That included not only the sidewalk, but the fire hydrants, trees and all the other things associated with the sidewalk lifted, reorientated and planted back down. The photography of it was such that you would never have even noticed it; an invisible work which was quite lovely, because it was complicit with the systems of movement and urbanisation but quite a sophisticated duplication of that.

Another artist I really enjoy is Germaine Koh, a Canadian artist. She’s made a few works I enjoy and a few that I have not. Her Fair-Weather Forces works deal a lot with drawing connections between disparate phenomena. They’re a series of works that manipulate stanchions in public space; turnstiles, velvet ropes and red carpets, that sort of stuff. There was one where a set of stanchions were motorised, and would rise and fall in accordance with tidal information from a nearby wharf. The velvet rope between the stanchions created a waveform that mapped the local tidal activity. It was a lovely flow-through reference to notions of passing, barring, transitions and obstruction as a result of both the object and the tidal flow.

Screen Shot 2016-04-22 at 12.06.47 pmGermaine Koh, Fair-weather forces (Water Level), 2008, posts 40″ high, stainless steel posts and ropes moving up and down in relation to tide level streamed over Internet. Installation at Haus fuer Kunst Uri.

Q: In principle it reminds me of your work, Atlas of Days.

A: In a way that work was a point of disjuncture from my research; I began to view the library as a scientific field, where one could conduct field work and gather research that was subject to the qualities of that environment. I started with the first book in the Barr Smith Library and progressively moved through scanning the contents page of every book. It began as a exploration of how we condense and organise knowledge in book form.

 Screen Shot 2016-04-22 at 12.06.38 pmAsh Tower, M C V – Atlas of Days, 2014, compiled volumes, shelving. 244 x 93.5 x 22cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

I was gathering together volumes of contents pages; each new volume was a day’s worth of scanning; 9 to 4 and marked with the Dewey decimal span I had made. It eventually became an endurance project because I would push myself to go as long as I could for those days. Certain factors of the library began to influence how long I could last in that environment; things like wearing the wrong shoes, forgetting my headphones, standing up for 7 hours, the ambient temperature of the library, whether or not I was disturbing people. The world shrunk in those moments and I was engaging with the library in a very minute, quantum way. The endurance of it blew out all of those qualities. The library became volatile, akin to going out and gathering something in the field.

Q: Do you find that the work that you do, and the work that you’re inspired by, falls into a particular genre?

A: That cut could probably be made; I think you be able to find some division that would describe me and the work that I’m interested in, but I don’t really think in those terms. The closest I would draw that line is that my work is a process of research, just as much as my formal academic work. They’re kind of inextricably connected though I have taken steps to separate them at this point of my artistic and research career(s). I make works as a way of exploring phenomena in the same way that you would research them in the traditional sense.

Screen Shot 2016-04-22 at 2.47.28 pmAsh Tower, Shipwreck Isles II, 2015, 192 digital prints, 496 x 163.5 cm (overall). Image courtesy of the artist.

Q: Do you have a preferred medium?

A: I don’t have a specific medium, but I was trained in quite a few; painting and the traditional styles. But I don’t tend to have a use for those particular techniques anymore. I opt for the material that makes the most sense for the projects which tends to result in me jackknifing very quickly between mediums and different technologies and having to learn new skills on the fly. Going between using scanning, binding or having to learn resin embedding; whatever’s required for the work.

Q: Has your style changed over time?

A: I think it’s oddly circular. I started at an early stage doing my studio work in art school, and began by looking at the motif of the ‘mad scientist’ and its depictions and trying to make work about that. Like a lot of early studio work, it was problematic and the theme didn’t last very long! I ended up finding, through that process, the discourse of systems theory and falling into that world where i began to see and breakdown the world in a systemic way. From that leap I was initially operating with pure systems, such as infrastructure, and began to move back into sciences as a system of organisation and knowledge.

And so I kind of started from a very filmic, mise-en-scène attitude towards science and how this character (of the scientist) was mapped onto the romantic ideal of the artist; a figure to which I’m vehemently resistant. I went deeper, and eventually full circle back into scientific research again. In my PhD research I’m constantly confronted with this idea of the Faustian scientist and the romantic artist, and how people allow these common conceptions to colour their day-to-day lives and what we do as people.

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Ash Tower, Postcards from the Bibliopolis, 2013, found paper, resin. Dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist.

Q: If you could recommend one art show what would it be?

A: Nothing comes to mind immediately, but not for lack of – I’m remembering a lot of little shows. The Adelaide Central School of Art had a show in 2011 or 2012 that was called Still Life Still and that was amazing. I think that was Akira Akira, Nicholas Folland and Wendy Fairclough.

There was also an exhibition when I was in Western Australia that SymbioticA hosted called ‘deMonstrable’. That was an interesting show because it engaged with the image of the ‘ear mouse’ – the laboratory mouse that had the ear grafted onto it’s back. The directors worked with the Vacanti Lab where that was produced and had a very close engagement with the development of it, the subsequent dissemination of the image and how that influenced public discourse around science and biomechanical engineering. Let’s say it had a few spectacular misses and a few spectacular hits! It was interesting because it acknowledged how public perceptions of science are influenced by its most provocative or monstrous images, which is a greater influence that people would care to believe. It may have influenced the anti-GMO sentiment WA is known for, or through public opinion funding decisions – these things flow on and so I was interested in seeing how far that reached.

Q: Have you found it difficult to break into the art scene in Adelaide?

A: I’m not really sure if I ever broke into it! If there’s an audience for my work, that’s wonderful. But I do know a lot of people in that community, which comes about by going to art school and having a lot of my peers and colleagues going on to have successful careers and knowing them that way. I also did a lot of volunteering early on in my degree, where I gave a lot of my time to galleries and organisations, be it gallery sitting or assistance with workshops or helping install shows; on the ground, grassroots level interaction which is inextricably connected to how one engages with the art scene in a more professional way. That stuff can’t not influence your capacity to get shows and exposure for your work.

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Ash Tower, Shipwreck Isles, 2013, 64 digital prints, 163.5 x 163.5 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

Q: What’s your favourite gallery?

A: I really enjoy attempts to break out of traditional gallery models. Henry Jock Walker and Jessie Lumb had a project – I’m not sure if it’s still running but it went for a year and was called Tarp Space, where they toured a big blue tarp around the country and you had people orient the tarp as a performance or art exhibition platform. Like any gallery, it had works that I thought took that idea further than others but I really admired that attempt to properly push the idea of a gallery. I think that even with our restructure in Adelaide, we’re conservative with the way that we show our work, so i like it when people attempt to break out of that.

Q: What do you rate as your greatest artistic achievement to date?

A: Still very modest, but it was a solo show at The Project Space at the Contemporary Arts Centre of South Australia. It was very much a culmination of the work I had undertaken at arts school, and was a really nice pulling together of all those themes.

I think there’s a lot to be said in terms of artistic achievement in just asserting yourself as an artist and knowing what you want out of your own career; and I’d like to think that I’ve made progress on that since art school! I still maintain that art school is an excellent opportunity, but it teaches in a particular way. Eventually we gain enough authority and self-assuredness to ask “Do I need to show this work in galleries?”, “How do I present myself?”, “Do I want to sell work?”. Asking yourself questions about that is a really important step for an artist.

Screen Shot 2016-04-22 at 3.26.31 pmAsh Tower, type III error, 2013, custom graph pads, each 29.7 x 21 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

Q: Where do you see your art practice taking you in the next five years?

A: I would really like to get back into my studio practice and have another major exhibition! My life is very much absorbed by research at the moment. I still find time to make work, but not nearly at the pace that I would otherwise.

Probably just show interstate and have a few residencies, maybe. I think the most important thing for me is to maintain that my work is a process of research, and figuring out how closely that can be integrated into the rest of my academic career. If I show do I show around conferences? Do I publish my artistic work as part of my academic findings, or do I want to operate in a more traditional manner? It’s something I should be asking myself.

Q: Have you been given any useful advice on how to succeed in the arts, and could you share it with us?

A: You invest time. Like I mentioned earlier, volunteering a lot in the early parts of my degree when I could was very important and it helped me make a lot of friends and connections. Sometimes it’s hard, obviously; everyone has to find the time to work and study and all of that. But I feel there are certain opportunities where you invest time – and the time that you put in will eventually come back to you, I think. That’s not to say that you should be seeking out opportunities as investments in a very mercenary sense. I think if you have the time, be giving with it and other people will reciprocate.

Screen Shot 2016-04-22 at 3.25.59 pmAsh Tower, Outside In(cursion), 2013, moss. Dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist.

Q: Is there any advice you wish you’d been given when you started out?

A: No, I feel like the rude and abrupt realisations I’ve had over the course of my career (which everyone has) were important for me to make myself, because I made them in my own spectacular fashion! Maybe a bit of advice around grants. But, no, I feel like I’ve discovered everything in my own time and I’ll probably keep discovering in rude and abrupt moments.

Q: Where can we see more of your work?

A: I have a website, and that’s where I put most of my content at the moment. I haven’t uploaded anything for a while, largely because I’m figuring out whether or not my website is actually the sole presentation of it; whether it’s shown in a gallery or whether the website is its primary existence. If that’s the case ,then I need to consider properly how it’s presented there.

Q: Do you have any exhibitions coming up?

No, not quite: The show at CACSA last year very much exhausted the body of work I have, so I’m kind of just working on that again. I don’t like the pressure of having to make work for a show I’ve booked already! I enjoy making the work first then finding a place for it.

– Tin Do



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