Lisa Creagh / Holding Time
Interviewed by Eva Clifford, from the British Journal of Photography
With your background in art, how did you first get into photography?
Photography was always at the heart of my practice, even when I was painting. I would take pictures and collect them in my fridge. Then send a bunch of them off to a postal service for printing. I’d get these prints back in the post with two mini-prints attached.
I loved the results I got from these Fuji labs: such rich greens and reds. I would wait until I had maybe ten packs and then sit on my floor amongst a jumble of pictures and start putting them together randomly. I was very impressed by the Surrealist idea of chance collisions: putting two seemingly unrelated images together to create something like a Gestalt meaning: unplanned and unpredictable. I continued to work with this analogue collage technique for many years and recently I added some of these to my calling them Cut and Paste and Juxtapositions. They are really just sketchbook images but as this technique is being revived with the loss of film processes, many young students are getting interested in this intuitive way of working.
I also worked with photocopies – manipulating images from art books on the photocopier and collaging them together. These were transformed into installations using glass. This was the beginning of really thinking about the relationship of photography and time. I was interested in combining slow, ponderous processes with instantaneous, immediate processes. So I put these manipulated collages, printed on transparent film, under a sheet of safety glass and then broke the glass with a sledgehammer. Again, I was trying to reintroduce the element of chance. This work was called Beatification.
Then I began creating photorealistic paintings form collages and photographs. After years of taking shots of anything, I started to really consider what I photographed and how it might work when it has been through the process of collage and painting. Although I was only using a cheap Ricoh manual camera, I started setting up shoots using available light. At Goldsmiths there wasn’t really any formal training in any medium so I was always improvising and making do. I wanted to see myself through the camera without looking at myself. Again, introducing the idea of chance but this time very much setting up an ‘experiment’ with the camera. Some of these images were made into paintings and others into a slideshow projected onto dust on glass. This work was called Recovery and was probably an end point in this way of working.
But this is sort of how I still work. The process of collaging, manipulating and painting photographic images made me very conscious of how a photograph is constructed: how each constituent part is essential to the whole – surface, colour, depth, texture, background. Essentially this was my training ground for the computer, which I started to work with back in 1997. I moved to New York and worked as a software trainer for a while and that really honed my skills.
I had, by then, taught myself colour printing in the shared darkrooms they have in New York. The gallery where I showed my work was on 20th Street, next to a huge lab called Duggal. I became friends with the owner and he showed me his new Lightjet and what it could do. It was a breakthrough moment for me. I decided it was time to focus on photographic printing rather than canvas and paint. Also the memory capacity of computers had increased by then, so large format printing was within reach.
What was the main inspiration behind this project? What's the meaning behind the title 'Holding Time' - and what is the significance of time?
Holding time is sort of a play on words. Is it possible to slow down time? To experience time differently? Much has been written about the relationship between still and moving images. We forget that moving image is an animation of stills because this is so normal to us, yet in the beginning, at the dawn of moving image, many experiments were conducted into how to capture movement using cameras. Muybridge’s running horses is the best known and perhaps most important example. Yet alongside the horses, he produced another experiment using multiple cameras, triggered instantaneously around a mother slapping a child. He wanted to catch that instantaneous moment from multiple angles. This remained in the archives for more than a hundred years until Tim McMillan revived the experiment for his piece, ‘Dead horse’. By capturing the moment the horse is executed he created a paradigm shift in how we perceive time. In stitching the images together he made ‘Time Slice’ or what is now known as ‘Bullet Time’. This was the extension of a moment into a three dimensional space.
With this work, I have gone back to that seminal experiment but rather than slapping the child, catching an instantaneous moment, I have tried to show an extended duration, capturing a shot every 2-4 seconds and then animating these so that they are in ‘realtime’ yet feel slow. This is because I’m unpicking the illusion that 24 frames a second gives us. Rather than trying to show time as we normally see it – fast moving from beginning to end, I want to show time as I perceived it whilst breastfeeding: slower, deeper, fuller. It’s a sleepy kind of ‘deeptime’ that I’m trying to convey.
Can you explain a bit more about the glass geometric shapes and what they are meant to represent?
The timepiece in the centre counts time using shape rather than numbers. We are all so familiar with the digits on a clock and this form of abstraction gives us a similar experience of moving image: that of time ‘passing’ (the number) or being ‘spent’. This seems to me analogous to the idea of ‘Time is money’ as defined by Marx as the foundation of modern capitalism. I wanted to break with this idea and come up with my own timecode: something that would count in amore ancient, cyclical fashion. I used Cosmateque designs taken from the floor of the Sistine Chapel and fashioned a timecode that counts in shape. This is more inkeeping with an ancient, even pre-Agrian way of perceiving time, as something that, in its endlessness was often symbolised as a spiral, moving from an unknown beginning to an unknowable end. The spiral could be imagined as a very ancient visualisation of perspective – past is smaller, further away, present is nearer, larger.
I collaborated with Mike Barrett, a Brighton based glass artist on creating three 3D geometrical forms. The original Cosmatesque designs are tiles but I wanted to reimagine them as elemental, mathematical solids in space. The triangle, which is used only in this current phase of the work, counts from one second to 644 seconds throughout the piece, using only scale. The timepiece is actually designed to count for a year, in seconds, perfectly. So essentially I have invented a new clock, to count time in shapes that build rather than being ‘lost or ‘passed’ or ‘spent’.
The other part of the work, which I have kept fairly quiet, is a collaboration with the supremely talented composer, Helen Anahita Wilson. I gave Helen the mathematical sequence of the Timepiece once it was finished and she created a piece of music for the installation in three parts that gives incredible shape and clarity to the geometrical structure. Music is another abstract language that expands and grows our senses, rather than constricting and limiting them.
The music adds to the sense of time as cyclical and endless. It helps to give the viewer the opportunity to experience time represented in a different way. Motherhood is a very unique kind of work, that sits outside of the normal systems of economic activity that have determined our methods of measuring and representing time. I think motherhood requires a new way of thinking about time, if we are thinking about motherhood as having validity and status in a modern society.
Who is this work primarily aimed at? And what do you hope viewers will take away from the project?
A large aspect to this work has been the social enterprise founded by myself and sociologist, Lucila Newell. We are both mothers and both of us shared a similar experience of feeling bewildered by motherhood in general and breastfeeding in particular. Although there is a great deal of medical information about breastfeeding, there is very little in the way of cultural materials available to new mothers; almost nothing to be found on the radio, on TV, in art (unless you look at the PreRenaissance!) or music. Yet this is typically where we look for ideas to frame our experience.
So alongside the Holding Time project, we set up The Parlour (www.the-parlour.org) a social enterprise dedicated to developing conversations about breastfeeding amongst mothers and looking into the cultural barriers to breastfeeding. This website has been promoted using postcards in doctor’s surgeries in each city where the work is shown, and national to all the birthing centres in the country. I discovered, almost accidentally, that doctor’s surgeries are one of the most accessible spaces in society – almost everyone uses them. So I have deliberately targeted hard-to-reach areas of society by aiming my project in this direction. Not many people realise what a gaping economic divide there is, in terms of gaining the long-term health advantages of breastfeeding, between rich and poor. Working with Lucila has really opened my eyes to the broad-ranging issues facing women and what is needed for meaningful change.
In Brighton I will be showing the work at ONCA Gallery and, at the same time, running workshops and talks about the broader issues, advertised on the Parlour website. The ONCA show includes a ‘Breastfeeding hub’ where mothers are encouraged to come along to the space, sit down and feed their children whilst relaxing and networking. The gallery is quite central and it seemed a great idea to test out this idea of having a shared space for mothers to gather and feed in the centre of town. I’d like to see more of these appear in the years to come, as the support of other women is crucial to getting the tragically low statistics on breastfeeding in the UK up to where they could be, if women were better supported post-natally.
I hope that viewers will take away an expanded idea of what it means to breastfeed and indeed what it is to be a mother. Breastfeeding is not a passive activity, it is, as one mother described to me, an act of defiance, a type of activism. So the work is aimed at everyone but I hope that it will be part of a movement of mother-activists who are trying to break down the formidable cultural barriers to breastfeeding and to not only inspire a new generation to consider breastfeeding but also to influence policy makers and those in charge to take into account the specific needs of mothers across the spectrum of public life.