Conversation with Ray Harris

Ray Harris, Untitled, 2015, video still, dimensions variable. Video projection used in enactment of What Would Tracey Do? for do it (adelaide) at Samstag Museum of Art, University of South Australia.
Ray Harris, Untitled, 2015, video still. Enactment of What Would Tracey Do? for do it (adelaide).

As the longest serving co-director of FELTspace artist-run initiative and a champion of experimental performance video, Ray Harris is an identity in Adelaide’s art scene. Harris makes work about personal fantasies, and her videos and interactive installations are often bizarre, wonderful and unforgettable. Harris is currently exhibiting a response to famous UK artist Tracey Emin’s instructions as part of do it (adelaide). This major international art project which supports collaboration and flexible interpretations was first conceived in 1993 by curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. It is now managed by Independent Curators International(ICI), with over fifty incarnations globally. Polly Dance spoke to Harris about her experience creating work for this major exhibition that is both her own and not her own.

What are you doing as part of do it (adelaide)I have the Tracey Emin instruction, which is very simple: “Take 27 bottles of different shapes and colours, place them on a table and wrap them in red cotton – like some kind of spider web.” I had to think about that for quite a while because it’s quite prescriptive. I wasn’t really sure what to do but I had been thinking about doing projections in bottles for some time. I used this opportunity as a testing ground. Here, I’ve projected video sequences into bottles, including water and cloud videos and a few performances I’ve done for the bottles specifically. One of them involves wrapping myself up in red string.

In making this work have you felt a sense of connectedness or responsibility to Tracey Emin? It was tricky because the title is What would Tracey do?. In the beginning, I felt like I had to do what Tracey Emin would do, like maybe I should fill the bottles with used cigarette butts. Adelaide Curator Gillian Brown said “No forget that!”. I suppose if I did exactly what the instructions said to do and didn’t take it anywhere new, they could have gotten a monkey to do that! I’ve just taken Emin’s instructions as a starting point and made it my own.

Tracey Emin, What Would Tracey Do?, 2007, enacted by Ray Harris, 2015 for do it [adelaide]. Photo: Sam Noonan. Courtesy: Samstag Museum of Art, University of South Australia.
Tracey Emin, What Would Tracey Do?, 2007, enacted by Ray Harris, 2015 for do it [adelaide]. Photo: Sam Noonan. Courtesy: Samstag Museum of Art, University of South Australia.
How do you think your response to the do it (adelaide) project compares to others in previous versions of the exhibition, as well as other Adelaide-based artists in this incarnation? I couldn’t find any examples of other artists doing Emin’s work. For all I know someone else has done the same thing somewhere else! In terms of the other Adelaide-based artists and the works I’ve seen, some have made something similar to the instructions, adding their own ‘twist’ but it’s quite subtle. Others have taken it further away from the original instructions. I’m probably in the middle.

In your work you often begin with a question or fantasy that you enact in a performative video, with the action dictating the outcome… Yes, exactly. Also I don’t usually speak in my videos and that seems to work really well because it makes it easier for the viewers to imagine themselves in the situation. There’s nothing really throwing them off… I’m just a person doing something they wish they could do. Do colour and costume play a significant role in your work? I work with colours that reflect a particular mood (i.e. blue for sad). My costumes are neutral; I try to be a blank canvas so that I can be relatable to anyone. Like in the video of me jumping off a bridge, I’m in a pink dress because that colour seemed bridesmaid-ish. I was looking at love and romantic suicide, so it worked.

How do you think the red string influenced this performance? When I started to think about the bottles and what was in them I started thinking about memories and emotions and the things we store away inside. Red is a powerful colour; it’s like blood, or a strong emotion – binding you.

Tracey Emin, What Would Tracey Do?, 2007, enacted by Ray Harris, 2015 for do it [adelaide]. Photo: Sam Noonan. Courtesy: Samstag Museum of Art, University of South Australia.
Tracey Emin, What Would Tracey Do?, 2007, enacted by Ray Harris, 2015 for do it [adelaide]. Photo: Sam Noonan. Courtesy: Samstag Museum of Art, University of South Australia.
Red is often associated with anger. Did you take on an angry persona in your video? No, I don’t think so. I was pretty neutral although I might look angry at the end because my whole face is wrapped up and that’s not a particularly comfortable experience. I didn’t think of that connection until afterwards. Anger is something that can bind and restrict you so there is that connection too. The way I make my work is I’ll have the idea and do it. Sometimes I have to do it a number of times because I might realise mid-performance that I want to take it a certain way and other times I only realise afterwards. Maybe it is angry, but also powerful.

Is being part of the do it (adelaide) project a pivotal point in your career? It’s pretty good! Even though it’s a weird concept. It’s not really someone picking me for my work. It’s not like I’m having a show at Samstag but it also is because they obviously chose artists who they think will do something good and whose practices are responsive and collaborative. There are more established artists that didn’t get asked so I feel lucky to have been given the opportunity.

What do you think are the up and down sides of being an Adelaide-based artist? There are definitely a lot of great artists here and good things happening. It’s more affordable and there’s a thriving arts community. Because there’s not as much competition as in other states, South Australians get lazy. There aren’t enough opportunities because there aren’t enough galleries for artists to show at, but then artists don’t always support the galleries that are here.

What else are you involved in this year? I’m in a performance show at the Australian Experimental Art Foundation in April. I’m in The Shock of the New New presented by Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia in venues around Adelaide during SALA Festival [in August 2015]. I have a couple of ideas for that, one is to make a giant interactive womb that people enter into and slide out of. I’ve also got work currently in the Adelaide Festival as part of the Blinc projection series.

INTERVIEW: Ray Harris on Tracey Emin was a commissioned interview do it (adelaide) at Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art, 55 North Terrace from 13 February-25 April 2015 written for and first published by RAVEN.