City Gallery

Grant Stevens: What We Had Was Real: Documents

‘Grant Stevens: Q and A’, blog.

Brisbane artist Grant Stevens is known for his video works, which explore language and communication in the digital era.

Robert Leonard: Supermassive is an immersive installation. It’s like we are on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, exploring sublime vistas of outer space, but everything we discover is familiar. What are you saying?

Grant Stevens: I wanted to create a work that felt epic and immersive, but which used forms of language we engage with every day. All the text is sourced online, from Wikipedia fact lists to restaurant-complaint forums to self-help advice—the kinds of things I access most days. I wanted to place these diverse sources onto a common field or landscape. Supermassive represents the Internet as both an external world and an internal psychological space.

Are you a romantic?

I’ve made a number of works that deal with romance. I never thought I would be romantic either as an artist or even in my personal life. But romantic relationships are such a fundamental part of experience that it seems important to address them. So many pop songs, films, and novels are about love. We crave representations of relationships because they help us to understand our own experiences. I make art because I want to help people have full, informed, and complex lives (cringe), so it’s important to work with romantic material.

You work a lot with generic source material, but does personal experience also inform your work?

Most of my works mix material I’ve sourced from pop culture with things that have happened in my life. I often think about my works as self portraits. I don’t work in this way because I think my life is more interesting than anyone else’s. But I am interested in how our personal experiences can be common or generic but, at the same time, also deeply individual and profound.

Your work explores the ways human psychology and language are informed in the digital era. How do you think screen media and digital media change the way we think? Is that good or bad?

New technologies have to be changing the way we think and relate to each other but I wouldn’t want to say that it’s good or bad. I’m more curious about the ambiguities and contradictions. For example, it seems common now to go to a café in order to work alone in the presence of others. Also, we can send emails and texts in an instant, but, when the reply doesn’t come back as instantly as we’d like, we get anxious. My works often try to test the thresholds between internal monologues and external modes of communication.

Jacques Lacan said there is no sexual relation. Your live-action film, If Things Were Different, features a couple on a couch, talking past one another. Do you believe in the possibility of communication?

Communication does happen. I can say, ‘I’ll have a piccolo, please’, and it will arrive at my table soon after. But when we talk about more complicated matters, like love, things get mixed up. I’m interested in relationships because they expose how communication works or doesn’t. I might say something intending to share how I feel, but, unconsciously, I might just be convincing myself that I have those feelings while actually staking out my territory. That’s why, in If Things Were Different, I wanted text and image to go out of sync. I think we are always a little bit out of sync when we communicate.

Why do you work so much with video and when do you choose not to? What’s the relationship between your video works and your other works?

Using different approaches helps to keep me more agile and adaptable. I like routine, so I have to trick myself to change the ways I work. It’s also important because there are some ideas that don’t work as videos. I often make photographs to get out an idea quickly. The abstract lenticular works are a way to play with the formal properties of colour, abstraction and perception. And I make the sculptures and objects to engage with commodity fetishism and the visual rhetoric of design. I make exhibitions like concept albums, with each work contributing to a larger, more complex representation.

Is it a problem to be typecast as the text-video guy?

That’s for others to determine. I try to work with a variety of mediums and approaches, but I still go back to video and to working with language. They seem fundamental to the way I work and to the ideas that compel me. Sometimes, I wonder whether the constant quest for newness gets in the way of a deeper, continued engagement. There’s obviously a long history of artists with very focused studio practices, but contemporary art is also full of artists who shift the way they work from project to project. I try to be flexible and responsive, but I always return to central questions about how the verbal and non-verbal languages we use interface with changing forms of communication and subjectivity.

In your videos Crushing and The Wandering, why does the text speed up?

I want people to watch my videos for longer than ten seconds, so I am always thinking about how to use formal tricks to pull people in. Part of what interests me about animating text on screen is the way it can engage cognition through both ‘reading’ and ‘looking’. Works like Crushing and The Wandering test out how much information can be processed and assimilated at a time. I like to push works to a point that it’s impossible to grasp it all at once, because that’s where meaning starts to fall apart and become ambiguous and contradictory—more like what goes on in my head.

What do you want people to take away from your work?

If people think about the ways they use language and popular culture to understand and articulate their personal experience, that’s a pretty satisfying achievement for me.

What is the most surprising response you have had to your work?

Marriage proposals. Oh, and crying.