Pre-Retroscope: Conrad Shawcross Charts the Gowanus Canal
Last month, I met with British artist Conrad Shawcross just before the opening of "Control," his first U.S. solo exhibition at Location One, in Soho. As the center's first International Fellow, Shawcross has spent the past months sequestered in a tiny studio beneath its Greene Street gallery, preparing a new body of work that will remain on view there through July 31st. Driven by a keen sense of epistemological curiosity, Shawcross investigates how -- and moreover, why -- the natural world functions as it does. As the acquisition of knowledge is a cumulative process, so is Shawcross's practice; several of his newest works revisit and rebuild upon previous pieces.
One such project is Pre-Retroscope VI: Gowanus Journey, a second solo exhibition which opens tomorrow evening at Cabinet magazine's Brooklyn gallery space. Pre-Retroscope VI is a formidable boat, hand-built by Shawcross for last summer's voyage down the River Lea in London. The craft is so meticulously constructed that he managed to ship and re-assemble it at Location One, where it dominated his cramped basement studio on the day that I visited him there. Such was no small feat: While the vessel itself is modest in size and design, it is outfitted with a camera mounted on a circular track that captures panoramic images of its aquatic surroundings. In New York, Shawcross traversed the Gowanus Canal in his one-man rowboat, exploring one of the region's least-loved bodies of water in a performative journey that culminates at the Cabinet space where, retrofitted with a projector in place of its camera, Pre-Retroscope VI projects footage of the journey onto an adjacent screen.
During our conversation, Shawcross claimed an interest in privileging ideas over aesthetics, a conviction tinged with irony given that his proclivity for material precision rivals his conceptual rigor. Here, the artist talks about Pre-Retroscope VI in terms of those concerns and his larger practice.
CONRAD SHAWCROSS: This is sort of a performance piece, in a way -- it's very much like rowing down a river. The camera rotates slowly around and when you play it back, you place the camera with the projector, and the projector travels at the same speed that the camera went down [the river]. It's like a lighthouse. There are simpler ways to make a panoramic film, but it was very important I was starting from scratch. It is about creating an object. There is a real joy in that. It is very much about the body. [The boat] is a 6-foot track and a 3-foot track. It's almost like a Leonardo drawing. It sort of represents an earlier aesthetic, when I was more aesthetically driven.
SARAH HROMACK: So the aesthetic is inherent to the machine and its surroundings?
CS: The machines were all made of oak and it was totally because I was building things myself. I've made everything in a systematic way; there are hundreds of templates, and when I was doing everything on my own, it was very labor intensive, and I needed to create a system and have it not be like furniture design. So I created this system that was liberating at first, but then it became kind of a trap because I was thinking in terms of how I was going to make something, and it became a kind of monkey on my back. Just before I finished this Leonardo-esque nostalgia maker, I have really made an attempt in the last few years to make my pieces more neutral in material. I still will make things with wood, but I needed to show it was ideas-driven rather than aesthetically driven.
SH: You want to make it clear that your work is driven by ideas, rather than objects, but I still think there is a strong aesthetic quality to these pieces. We've talked before about the concept of faith as it pertains to science and art. Do the images taken in the boat function as some sort of scientific "proof"? This seems very important to you.
CS: Yes, the series is called Pre-Retroscope. It's about the idea that when you're on holiday, or a journey you have to somehow record it for posterity so when you get home you can show your family that sunset. It's the most boring thing in the world when you play it back -- it's the most boring film you could ever see. Everyone wants to live their life through a lens, but in doing that, you change the experience.
SH: So we're talking about crafting human experiences with the future in mind, not the present.
CS: Yes it's such follying human behavior, so Shackleton-esque as he tries to but fails to capture the moment. Last year when I was doing this in the river, we were near schools and playgrounds. All the balls from the kids got kicked in the water, and they couldn't get them back, they would just float they wouldn't sink. There were hundreds of different sized balls and tennis balls and we sort of collected them and then I created this map on the wall. They became these celestial bodies and I didn't know what I would do with them but they became these incredible objects in their own right.
SH: Did you really keep track where you found them on the water?
CS: No, I faked it.
SH: How could you not?
CS: I'm not actually a scientist so it doesn't matter.
SH: It doesn't matter because it still speaks to that same question, which is one of perception: How do we map space? How do we experience it? There is no single, accurate answer -- they're all relativistic approximations. We might as well make it up.
CS: When they got the length of the meter wrong, that's what they started doing. [The scientists] just started made it up. One of them started doing it incredibly rigorously -- they just started making up this data. So I think that's pretty much all of the show.
["Pre-Retroscope VI" opens at Cabinet space (300 Nevins Street, in Brooklyn) on Saturday, June 20th from 6-8 pm. the artist will give a talk from 5-6 pm. Images courtesy the artist and Cabinet. Photo credit: Poppy de Villeneuve.]