WOULD YOU LOOK AT THAT: In Conversation with Elisabeth Pointon

WOULD YOU LOOK AT THAT. was an exhibition by Wellington artist Elisabeth Pointon held at play_station gallery in January 2019. The project consisted of a plane towed banner reading “SPECTACULAR.” flown over One Tree Hill, Auckland. The resulting exhibition consisted of takeaway posters, video documentation of the flight, and the banner itself on loan from aerial advertising company Airbubble.

The following is the result of an artist talk between Elisabeth and Robbie Handcock held in association with the show. 

Robbie Handcock: Elisabeth and I have known each other for a long time. For this project I was around from its conception. Having been a part of those conversations about what the work will be from start to finish has been really special and really nice.

Elisabeth, do you want to start by talking about where the project came from?

Elisabeth Pointon: This was as an idea that happened about a year ago when I was asked to create a work for a dealer gallery. I’d just been looking at the 2012 Art Basel Miami Beach fair and a work there called Plane Text. It was curated by Adam Shopkorn who works for a hotel company. He curated 15 of the world’s most significant artists to come up with a text that would be towed around by plane over four hour periods. Out of those 15 artists, three of them were female and only one of them was of colour. The implications of this project in particular were that language is dominated by and for white men, considering that arguably the most visible public space is the sky. The kind of ideas about that and the ideas behind the curating of that married with my experiences of working at a luxury car dealership as the bookings coordinator. A lot of the language in that context is dominated by and is for white men. I really wanted to hire a plane and do my own version of that work. 

The reason I didn’t do it with a dealer gallery is because a lot of the issues I had experienced at work are based around money. That was something that put me off because so much of my work is about access and accessibility. A year later, me, Robbie, Chris, Georgie and Laura were having this discussion around the dinner table about our ideal “lotto work”. 

RH: Which is what project would you make if money was no object. What would you do if you just had free rein to make the thing with no restrictions?

EP: My one was to hire a plane to tow a text. Two-fold to that, about seven or eight months ago my dad was super sick and in hospital. Just before his operation as I was leaving he said to me, “Now, kid, go out and make something truly spectacular.” So I did. That conversation around the dinner table, what resulted was that we realised we could make this project for not that much money. The whole work was fundraised by people giving time, labour and skills in order to make this project happen.

RH: You’ve also spoken to me about how this relates to your childhood and gliding.

EP: For about two or three years it was mine and my dad’s thing. My dad couldn’t do gliding and it was his dream extra-curricular activity. None of my other siblings wanted to do it so I put my hand up and said, “Look, I’ll do it.” So it used to be our thing where I’d go every weekend with my pep-pep. We’d go to the airfield and I’d do gliding for the whole day. 

RH: If he didn’t go up in the sky, what did he do while you were gliding?

EP: This sounds really strange to other people, but he would just sit on the grass and meditate. He’d do it for the whole time I was in the air. The gliding I did was the poor person’s version. There’s a tractor that acts as a winch, there’s a cord and basically the cord rolls itself up and you get flung in the air. It’s like a go-kart with no engine in the air, so you’re just peddling around catching the air currents. So that was my activity. That was my sport. I think the interesting thing about that is that my dad’s white but I was the only girl in the aero-club. I was also the only brown girl in the aero-club. I would have been about 15 when I first started, so the whole thing was kind of just bizarre. My dad started working seven days a week so my mum got roped into taking me.

RH: Did she fucking hate it?

EP: She fucking loved it. She’s the most empowered brown person I know. Everyone would go with their dads but it was me and my mum, who is super brown. She’d run around organising all the men and organising picnics and fundraisers. But she’d always turn up wearing her red lipstick and red nails with a perfect slicked bob and, for some reason, athleisure, which I’ve never seen her in since.

Elisabeth Pointon, WOULD YOU LOOK AT THAT, 2019. Photo by Kasmira Krefft

Elisabeth Pointon, WOULD YOU LOOK AT THAT, 2019. Photo by Kasmira Krefft

RH: This project itself follows the trajectory of what you do in terms of language and language in the workplace, which I think is really funny. We’ve had conversations recently about the differences in what our day jobs are and the different relationships we have with our workmates and with our offices. I work a government job and I’m comfortable. I have a good relationship with my boss and most of my colleagues. You can pull a sickie and sometimes people just understand and they know it’s not for being actually sick and you just need a day off. People know and they just don’t ask too many questions. You don’t have that relationship.

EP: Oh, god no. It’s a profit-driven enterprise. The minute the company looks like its slipping financially, fingers get pointed, and a lot of the time I get the blame. I’m in charge of the workshop, which is weird because I don’t really know that much about cars. Basically, I get people in and there are allocated hours. I’m a time merchant, so I sell hours. If the hours aren’t filled then that falls on me. I’m not responsible — and this is the conversation that I’ve had with them for the past three years — for the inherent structural problems of this big business but often I’m the one who’s targeted. So I can’t realistically take time off. If I do, I have to book well in advance. I can’t just be sick because there’s no one to replace me.

RH: When you are sick, there’s that expectation that that’s time you need to make up, that suddenly you’re in arrears and you owe time as debt.

EP: Which is curious, because the boss that I have now is the one who gave me the official title of “unpaid artist in residence”. When I finished my masters he said “you can work four days a week so you can have a studio day”, but that studio day is often held against me if I’m not there during the week for some reason. It’s that strain of money that changes our whole relationship. The minute it’s all good and the workshop is fine, I can take as much time off as I need. The minute it looks like they’re not going to make profit that day, I’m expected to either stay on or make up those hours. It’s a fare-based enterprise, and that’s how they get you.

RH: In terms of your previous works, this is perhaps the furthest departure from that really close relationship between your workplace and your art — subverting generic email affirmations, like “Well done to all.”, “Good job.”, and “You are special.” We’ve talked about it before that you have this fear of quitting your job. You joke about it, but I think there’s something real in there when you say “What will I make art about then?” What would happen if you had complimentary employment to your practice or your practice became financially feasible to not have to work a day job?

EP: Is there such a thing?

RH: What kind of impact do you think that would have on your work and your practise?

EP: The reason I don’t leave — and I know I make jokes about not leaving because I don’t know what I’d make art about — is because I don’t feel like I’m finished there. I think it’s all good to make art about working there, but there is a responsibility I have to my colleagues. Reimagining the world around us through the great, big, romantic gesture of art, how do I complete that? I’ve given them this thing, and then what happens when I leave? I would argue that WOULD YOU LOOK AT THAT. is probably the one work that my colleagues have bought into most. For the men I work with, I think it’s the most masculine work I’ve ever made and they can understand it. They all saw the video before the exhibition.

RH: Well, planes are just cars of the sky.

EP: And also because it relates to a sale they had. It was this new spectacular sale and they’ve got these new add-ons that people can buy. So they can see themselves in this work and can relate to it as well. Leaving my job, what would I make art about? I don’t know. I guess I always make work about working. A lot of the reason for staying is that I’m just trying to see this through in the most honest way I can because I’ve started it. There’s a responsibility there.

RH: It’s interesting thinking about Mierle Laderman Ukeles and her work with the Sanitation Department of New York, and that kind of social responsibility.

EP: It was at a time when there was a lot of conflict in New York and the people that were bearing the brunt of it were the maintenance workers. She’s been the artist in residence with the Department of Sanitation for the past 40 years. She’s still going. In 1976, Ukeles recruited 300 office maintenance workers as collaborators from the Lower Manhattan Branch of the now closed Whitney Museum of American Art as part of her social project. Over the course of five months, she took individual photos of them as they carried out their tasks and then asked them to label their labour as ‘art’ or ‘work’. It’s entirely possible that by having the workers themselves discern between the two, they would view their lives and jobs differently. Ukeles as an artist is an example of the power of actively working within institutions. She’s someone who reinvigorates collectivity and connectivity between the workers and the institution itself. In doing so, Ukeles was exposing the process of what is carried out and who is doing so to uphold these institutions. She allowed them to become collaborators within an institution that would otherwise exclude them based on class.

A critic of the work suggested that maybe Maintenance Art, which comprised of all the routine jobs and chores people detested, might find some wider civic application with the Department of Sanitation, so she approached the department. She did this work Touch Sanitation where she shook hands with 8500 employees over the course of eleven months. She acknowledged each of them with “Thank you for keeping New York City alive”, which is something they never got from the people above.

RH: You do have this sense of responsibility in taking care of the people who are involved in your projects, but then you speak about care to your colleagues and your workplace where that’s a different power play. What’s the difference between Ukeles’ kind of care and social responsibility and then this kind of care and social responsibility to a group of people who have power over you?

EP: I wonder if it’s just expected emotional labour on a woman — and also a brown woman — in the workplace. I’m happy to do it as well because as much as I complain about my job, the thing that excites me most is just people. I love a good chinwag. I love that social interaction. I often have regular performance reviews where colleagues will come in and ask me, “How’s it going Elisabeth?” By that they mean “How is the job going?” I always ask them “Do you mean ‘how was work’ or ‘how am I emotionally?'” The conversation changes because suddenly they see me as a person. I recently had a conversation with the new big boss and he was supposed to be sitting in and monitoring my productivity. He asked me “How’s it going?” I said “Do you mean work-wise or emotionally?” Suddenly we had a half-hour chat where he was telling me how he had just completed his masters and it turns out a relative of his is the curator at an Auckland gallery. So we talked about art and I showed him the photos from this shoot. Suddenly we were people. That’s a leveller.

I think I forgot the question.

RH: The question was about how is it different when the power dynamic is different, the giving back, the care. You’re caring for these people who don’t always treat you in the best way.

EP: I think it’s just a leveller. It just completely evens out the hierarchy and the hierarchy dominates the place. 

RH: Do you think that’s disarming?

EP: Oh, fuck yeah. I don’t even know if they realise they’re being disarmed, because suddenly everybody’s talking about things outside of their workplace relations.

RH: And such a butch, masc workplace — luxury cars!

EP: People are talking about their emotions and how they’re feeling, what they’re excited for in the weekend, or their family milestones. The receptionist always talks about her daughter and how she’s just gone to uni. Suddenly people are seeing each other. I probably spend more time at work than I do with my own family or even my flatmates and you can change those relationships if you use the right language. It is taxing though.

I talk a lot about this idea of double agency. I occupy both these institutions — the academic art institution and then also the institution of big business. I don’t necessarily align myself with either institution and I wonder if that’s because there is this duality that also operates in the same way as being a half-caste. I don’t know where I sit but it’s often just in the middle ground with feet in both worlds.

RH: Then what’s the separation there for you? I think we all have tactics for dealing with the stress of work, and yours gets channelled into this really focused, specific way. Does that resolve your work stress?

EP: Yeah. Making work about it was what changed everything for me. At first it started as the cliché of “artist therapy” but then I realised, “Hold on a second. I have this privilege of being able to enter into this academic art institution.” In a culture of decreased arts funding and contingent employment, I have a job that supports my arts practise but I still have the luxury of studying what I’d like to study. The project could have tended towards an egocentric inclination had it just been about making myself feel better.

RH: It’s also one of the first times you’ve put your body in the work. 

EP: That was a deliberate thing. I have some responsibility as well as a brown person who is invited into these spaces to then offer some sort of representation, because that’s what I struggled with during study was often not finding people who looked like me, who made art like me, or talked about the things that I talked about. So there is a level of responsibility there too. I talk a lot about this idea of double agency. I occupy both these institutions — the academic art institution and then also the institution of big business. What I found is that I always operate in the same way and the language is really similar. I don’t necessarily align myself with either institution and I wonder if that’s because there is this duality that also operates in the same way as being a half-caste. I don’t know where I sit but it’s often just in the middle ground with feet in both worlds. It’s navigating that and because I’ve done that most of my life I can do that with both institutions as well.

RH: Just being a brown person, not even being necessarily half, you get very well versed in practising code-switching. It just becomes second nature. You’re adjusting your speech and your behaviour constantly and you’re able to do it quite minute ways in order to fit in to a range of situations. Even being queer and then code-switching when you’re dealing with cars or masc environments. If I’m at the mechanic, the way I talk is really different to if I’m at the pub with my mates or if I’m talking about art to someone who knows about art. 

EP: There’s a safety in code-switching as well. We’ve talked about it quite extensively as humour is our way of dealing with it as well. Humour is an access point and it’s also a safety net.

RH: If a situation ever become dangerous, humour is a good thing to have in your arsenal to say “No, it was a joke.” If someone is suddenly reacting aggressively or violently or just being oppositional, then being able to dismiss it as having been a joke is a safety thing as well.

So much of what you do is about accessibility and responding to alienation. If you’re making work about accessibility, then inherently you’re responding to alienation, isolation and inaccessibility. Language in relation to the workplace and to art institutions, it’s the same. Art language is super alienating as well. You need to be “clued in”. 

EP: That article that you sent Lisa and I, can you describe it?

RH: I spent ages searching for this article. You know when you lose something online you ask yourself “Was it a dream?” It was called Don’t Quote Deleuze: How to Write an Artist Statement and it has these really great 10 points of basic writing tips that you just don’t get at university. I just think it’s not the kind of thing you get at art school. “Here’s a list of words that are really overused. Don’t say it’s controversial, unless it has, in fact, at some point sparked controversy. Don’t use words like ‘juxtapose’, ‘liminal’, or ‘uncanny’, unless it is actually uncanny. Grab a dictionary and look it up.” It’s really base-level, good writing tips that’s also quite humorous.

EP: It’s like the generic affirmations and the generic use of language.

RH: It’s coded! Famously: “As per my previous email.” We all know what that fucking means.

EP: Or signing things off with “Best”. 

RH I learned that off Sophie Thorn. She told me she had been playing around with her email sign offs and said she was using “Best” because what the fuck does that mean? It looks like it should be there, but if you think about it that makes zero sense.

EP: This is where my previous text works came from, these emails that were sent round. They’re always sent around with the full stop. So “Well done to all.”, “You are all very special.”, “Good job.” With Twitter, the limited character count means when you use punctuation it has to mean something. So when you read a “Good job.” or “Well done to all.”, there’s this level of insincerity and inauthenticity around it. There’s all this space for reinterpretation. For me, these generic affirmations or generic use of words in my workplace had this toxic masculinity associated with it. How hard would it be to put an exclamation mark, because then I could imagine you saying it with some sort of meaning or enthusiasm.

RH: I think you and I have a similar approach to size when it comes to art making. Scaling up and occupying space is something really masc and butch to do. When you scale up with something not masc and butch, or really queer, femme or brown, immediately it’s subversive.

EP: Our time in public space is so fleeting. With art institutions, you never know when you’re going to get a show, so take up as much space as possible.

RH: I know you also wanted to talk about the full stop.

The politics of care and the politics of hope go hand in hand. If you’re making work about people and our relationships with one another, they need to have a say in it.

EP: So I’d get these emails, these generic affirmations with a full stop. I’d meditate on them for ages. The thing that came to me was when you use a full stop in a sentence, it is a signifier to pause or take a breath. A lot of that relates back to my upbringing, which is something I don’t really talk about. Sanskrit is a huge part of my upbringing. My mother was raised Hindu and my father was raised Catholic, but spirituality was their meeting ground. Sanskrit was a language we learnt growing up and everything comes back to a pause. When you take a pause it’s a realigning or coming back to the moment and also reconnecting with the people around you. It’s a leveller. So my series of blimps was just making about making works that were just big, giant full stops. They were a visual pause that people stood around and played with or punched. A kid ran up and tried to pop one. It was a bringing together, which operated kind of the same way in Hinduism. The idea of creation is that everything can be relayed back to one moment, like a point on paper. The whole universe is contained in a point on paper. It’s the idea that a piece of paper is made with the trees, the earth and the sun. Then you’ve got a full stop that brings it back and that’s related to breath and meditation as well. So there’s that going on which I don’t often talk about. The full stop punctuates these works in a way that makes them visual pauses when they go live.

Lisa (audience): In the past you’ve talked about ethics and I’ve found it quite interesting listening to you talk about the expectation of your work from your bosses. You’ve also spoken to me about ethics meetings. I just find those conversations that you have to be really interesting. I haven’t heard as much about the expectations as I have now, but the ethics meetings have been interesting. Is that part of your practice or is that part of what you do as your actual job? 

EP: In my actual job, there is no real consideration of ethics. I mean there is an employee handbook and code of behaviour, but it doesn’t mean much when it is enforced or followed. When I was doing my masters, I had to have a considerable amount of meetings with supervisors and the head of school regarding whether or not this work was safe for me to make. They knew that I was very unhappy in my job for the beginning part of it and they weren’t happy with me making work about something that made me feel pretty unsafe.

In terms of in my workplace, the way I handle it is through an ethics of care. I have this manifesto that runs underneath all these works, which is the idea of freedom from and freedom to. It’s the thing I measure all my work against. People at my workplace, no matter which department they’re from, all get to have a look at the works, get some say in what is produced, and they also have a look over any writing that is written about them. That is to make sure they don’t become or feel like they’re caricatures or make them feel like they’re part of some social experiment. The work is really genuine on my part. I am so invested in seeing whether I can change our relations with one another. For the most part I feel like I can, it’s just very taxing. The politics of care and the politics of hope go hand in hand. If you’re making work about people and our relationships with one another, they need to have a say in it. 

RH: That’s something we’re both interested in our work is this reconfiguration of intimacy and relationships in an ultimately hopeful way. That’s one of the things I love about your work and is one of its strengths. I know, because we live together and we are friends, what your experience at work is like. I know the kind of day-to-day stresses. Then you come out of that with these really genuine works with genuine intentions which are bratty in a lot of ways, but they offer something back. I’ve called them a love letter to the workplace, even though the workplace isn’t the best place for you. The return is a really generous thing which I know I wouldn’t have the capability of giving back to a workplace. I don’t think I have that generosity in me that you do.

EP: They’re aspirational. Yes, I’m making these things, but there is a level of anxiety that sits behind these works that I can’t quite comprehend. They’re almost like a guideline to me as well in how to operate. Sometimes they feel like a massive fraud. Yes, I’m making these really positive, uplifting things that are fun, but often I don’t feel like that when I’m making them. A lot of that comes back down to being brown.

RH: You’re interested in creating these micro-utopic worlds within the workplace, or interested in these water cooler moments — these little situations where people interact over a few fleeting minutes. It’s these brief interactions and you reimagine them as something that’s productive, lovely and fun. That’s the whole point of utopian thinking, is that something needs to be fixed. You can’t make this hopeful work if everything was perfect, because there’d be no need for hope. It’s a critique of the present by its very nature.

EP: That also comes back to the ethics question. There are some pretty big issues with me as someone coming in and reimagining the world according to what I think it should look like, or how I think and feel it should operate. That’s really difficult territory to navigate.

RH: Well, you’re a Libra and you love attention.

EP: I’m a Leo.

Elisabeth Pointon’s practise is informed by her experience in working at a luxury car dealership, interested in the communal isolation of shared spaces. Her larger works often act as a kind of big romantic gesture to the workplace while also interrupting dominant corporate language and the power attributed to it. Pointon’s work offers alternatives to profit-driven cultural environments by activating public spaces and reshaping them into micro-utopic communities. Recent projects include: Special offer., Te Tuhi, 2018; The Mood Machine, as part of Satellites, 2018; Human Resources with Dr Gwyn Easterbrook-Smith, MEANWHILE, 2018; and Don’t miss out., The Dowse Art Museum, 2018.

Robbie Handcock is a Wellington based painter concerned with queer subjectivity and aesthetics, with a particular interest in contemporary and historic representations of gay sexuality. He is also a facilitator at Wellington gallery play_station. Previous exhibitions include: Love you to the wrist and back, play_station, Wellington, 2018; Indecent Literature, Enjoy Public Art Gallery, Wellington, 2017; No One Is Sovereign In Love; MEANWHILE, 2017; as well as projects curated by Sydney based Ella Sutherland and Aotearoa based Emma Ng and Hera Lindsay Bird. Robbie’s practice in recent times has expanded into art writing, with catalogue essay contributions for Wellington artists Christopher Ulutupu and Elisabeth Pointon.

This writing was made possible with the support of