Jasmine Johnson’s work takes cues from methods in anthropology, identifying individuals, activities and objects and their capacity to articulate human anxieties and proximity to global dilemmas. The social connections that arise as part of production become material to work with and through.
Ahead of her upcoming Level G residency, coming out of her participation in alt.barbican, a partnership project with The Trampery, we spoke to artist Jasmine Johnson about her creative process, being part of the alt.barbican programme and what we can expect from her new work.
You were recently part of the alt.barbican programme, how did this help shape your work?
The alt.barbican programme tapped into a less chartered territory that combines art, theatre, technology and entrepreneurship, this meant that my work could irreverently break out of its usual form in a way that would not have been possible otherwise. The alt.barbican artists were introduced to so many people and made privy to some of the partnerships and collaborations that exist between institutions and organisations, this gave an invaluable insight into the different places artists can occupy in grander schemes and infrastructures. Early on we were told we would be required to introduce ourselves and our work very frequently and that turned out to be true, whether casually around a dinner or in a talk or a meeting, there was this constant requirement to represent ourselves well. This went far beyond the kind of speaking I am usually required to do because alt.barbican made us think more carefully about audience attention, context and storytelling to communicate effectively and efficiently. These pitching techniques and the practical application of both strengthening through repetition and making yourself comprehensible to those outside of your bubble are channelled directly into the project I began developing.
Watch a short film about the alt.barbican programme:
Can you describe the work you’ll be presenting at the Barbican?
More than two is an episodic performance based on accounts from a constellation of individuals who mediate ‘alternative relationships’ via screens. Since June 2017, I have been (consensually) capturing sound recordings from discussions, interviews, anecdotes, dates with peers who identify as queer and/ or polyamorous. Discussions include subjects such as coming out, sex apps and reproduction and are handled with some humour and some anxiety. An editing process is ongoing, to identify the ‘kernels’, the parts that articulate the meaning, in order to use the working archive of sound recordings as building blocks to form a structure and the basis for an evolving audio script. Then, using earpieces, the cast reproduce the words, utterances, intonation and pacing alongside musical accompaniment.
So far, the episodes have taken the form of a 16-minute performance in the Barbican’s Fountain Room in November 2017, a live radio broadcast on Eddie Peake’s Hymn Show and an exhibition at Almanac Project Space (both 2018). Each episode builds sequentially on the last towards a concept album for the commission for Level G, to be workshopped in residence and then performed live.
Where did the idea come from?
This is the first time I have worked with performance and also the first time I have worked using such personal material. The process for making More than two began following a crisis, things felt as though they were unravelling. As I buzzed the door of a psychoanalyst’s office in Warren Street, I found myself pressing record on my iPhone voice memos. I have a habit of wanting to record conversations I suspect might be uncomfortable. Up until this point, I had made artworks, usually in video form, in which I would try to make connections with individuals in other parts of the world. I ask them about the choices they make and about how closely their daily, and minute actions correlate to their particular philosophies. I had never turned the lens on myself because I wanted people who were self-assured and deliberate to be my subject.
Whilst desperately trying to work out whether the relationships I was forming via apps were legitimate – I met others who allowed me to record them. They imparted their accounts of having to invent ways of living when existing models aren’t sufficient – and the immense anxiety that comes with going off-piste. Interviewees have become embedded in the project and collaborated with me to devise the musical elements. Those individuals also perform and include Lalah-Simone Springer (vocals), Patrick O’Reilly (guitar) and Naoko Nomoto (guitar and keyboard) the cast of actors include Yasmine Holness-Dove, Molly Ward and Lauren Chandler who has also become involved in devising music and sharing her own stories.
I was also attending a verbatim workshop led by Alecky Blythe which was for actors but she kindly permitted me to participate. I had been completely stunned by the production of London Road at the National Theatre in 2011, and incredibly she was in the audience for the first episode More than two at the alt.barbican showcase at the Barbican in November last year.
Why do you feel it’s important for audiences to be able to experience the workshopping aspect of the work and the final output?
The working production More than two will take place in a residency format in the Level G Studio, a glass-fronted space on Level G. The culminating performance will take place on a stage in the foyer in a presentation more akin to a concert or play. The different modes of audience engagement create different opportunities for reconceiving and adapting the project in a very live and responsive way. During the residency the public will be able to listen to a live feed of the workshopping process from the Studio via a speaker-sculpture placed somewhere in the main foyer. The workshopping process transforms the percussive and melodic qualities of speech patterns into musical interludes and songs. The glass adds a layer of removal between the public and the performers, I like this spatial analogy with the disconnect that is often experienced when communicating via screens. Finally, the performance will be opened up and presented to a live audience. The reactions of whom will completely alter the atmosphere of the performance as different elements of the script resonate with different members of the audience in particular and unpredictable ways.
Recorded delivery verbatim makes speech become very technical and is about breaking down and reforming the architecture of spoken language.
What do you hope audiences take away from your work?
More than two fixates on the question of what constitutes a healthy relationship: to oneself, to another or to a group. The conversations that are being restaged are quite candid. Those speaking sometimes refer to relationship or sex practices which might be deemed alternative but I think that the stories resonate pretty universally. There is an overarching sense that the people who are represented in the performance are attempting to ‘get it right’. They are often really soul-searching as to how they should go about this, regardless of whether the conversations are trivial, sentimental, hilarious or even agonisingly exposing. Recorded delivery verbatim makes speech become very technical and is about breaking down and reforming the architecture of spoken language. The politics at play in the work are very much bound up in the linguistic slips and hesitations. Listening to spoken ideas is at the core of the work which puts words into the mouths of the actors via earpieces. The performance probes this question of what has primacy out of language or thought, and the impact on speech (and thought) via apps, social media and a rapidly changing social landscape.
How does this work respond to our annual theme, The Art of Change?
Many of the anecdotes arising in the performance are about individuals attempting to sensitively tread social and political scenarios but inevitably crashing into some faux pas or another. The work is concerned with coupling in traditional and non-traditional forms, with individuals discussing what marriage could constitute for them, like in the upcoming Gallery exhibition, Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde. Anecdotes and conversations relate to general life including work, sex and social situations and are spoken from predominantly non-male perspectives (see: The Wooster Group’s The Town Hall Affair). The project touches on the representation of queer life and the problems around co-option of queer life into mainstream and commodifiable arenas, as explored in Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins & Transpose. More than two is absolutely full of uncertainty about the role that can be had in responding to and effecting change, I think the project is a very hopeful one, its motivation broadly being about commonality.
About Jasmine Johnson
Johnson’s artistic vocabulary incorporates video, drawing, installation and most recently, performance to produce increasingly ambitious portraits of globally dispersed individuals.
In 2017 she was a participant of the inaugural alt.barbican programme. Solo presentations include Almanac Project Space, London; Eddie Peake’s Hymn Programme (London); DeVos Museum, Michigan, with Rachel Pimm; Jerwood Project Space; ANDOR Gallery, London, with MoreUtopia!; ASI & CCI Fabrika, Moscow. Group exhibitions include the Barbican; Place des Arts, Montreal; Daata Editions; Government Art Collection, London; Bloomberg New Contemporaries. Her work has been screened at Chisenhale Gallery, ICA and Jerwood Presents – Genesis Cinema.
See what else is happening on Level G: barbican.org.uk/levelg