Shama Khanna: How would you describe the immaterial quality of High Definition video you used to make Death Mask 2 and 3 and all of your subsequent moving image works?
Ed Atkins: Like any idea of immateriality, it’s an illusion: simply a more or less successful dissimulation of matter. Thinking about HD, its precondition of being digital is part of its appearance of immateriality insofar as digital’s sort of the site of a contemporary, secular thought of immateriality. HD is of particular interest, I think, because, as well as being demonstrably digital and therefore proudly seeming dematerialised, its purpose is one of fidelity to reality – reality’s material appearance specifically. The ‘look’ of HD – long since become prosaic, really – is/was ‘too real’: too real to be real. Skin looks too porous or too oily; starlets look mortal, and banally so. Artifice seems horribly explicit, making the very image ‘corpse’ – that theatrical term for forgetting lines, cracking up, falling out of character – and remind us that we were watching real people, more or less as hefty as us, acting and unconvincingly so. Or maybe too convincingly. Matter, through HD – and particularly the matter of our bodies – was returned through the air or down fibres into… whatever. Part of the magic trick of digital dematerialisation is our ignorance of that it is. Again, this feels like an important seeming paradox: the undesirability of the image presented by HD is to do with its explicitness of artifice.
SK: In Death Mask 3, as soon as the camera rests on something sublime – an expanse of sea, or monumental rock – any sense of contemplation is disturbed by a jump cut, or the unexpected sound of typing, or a change of filter obscuring the subject of the image, emptying it of any romantic connotation. Can you talk about the production process you use here?
EA: Most of Death Mask 3 was shot as if stock, with all the incumbent thoughts of what ‘stock’ is. At the time, I think I thought that stock was fascinating because of its sufficiency as both empty and replete. So that a stock image could be almost completely owned by whatever context it finds itself in, that to caption a stock photo is to collapse its potential and take it off the stock shelf, as it were. Death Mask 3 is made up of imagery that has no specificity. Mountains are mountains, with all the attendant ‘mountainnesses’; the sea is THE SEA; nature is nature, etc. I wanted the images to be images more than images of something. The ‘of’ in the work is everything that’s done to these images, is the owning of them. Most of the time, that owning of these kinds of images is an interruptive process – cutting off the image’s potential, its openness. I suppose I thought that by focussing on these things as images of images rather than images of things that I could speak better of images – that the work could situate somewhere where a variety of contemplations and reflections might be possible. To keep an image as just that, too, is to deny it part of its desire to disappear and become illusion. So much of the structure of the work is in abeyance to this idea: the making opaque of things that desire transparency; the interrupting of things that desire to transcend. Most of the time I would like a return, which of course requires moving away in order to be felt, with a bump or a crash…
SK: In your more recent works – Us Dead Talk Love (2012), Warm Warm Warm Spring Mouths (2013) and Even Pricks (2013), would you say the animations are as much your own as the footage you filmed in these earlier videos?
EA: More so, I think. I control them much more now, even if it’s just a deeper collage of variously ‘found’ stuff. ‘Found’ meaning that, even if I generate it from start to
finish, the process lies in gestures that allow me to ‘find’ the footage once it’s made. I get to do this with the works entire, to a certain extent: I get to read them, with reading being a kind of finding, I suppose.