Jesper List Thomsen: How many works operate under the title "North"?
Jason Dodge: At the moment there are two; one is batteries that where used for a radio - the positive ends of the batteries point to the north.
JLT: They are arranged lying on the floor?
JD: The only specification of the work is that they are pointing north.
JLT: And the other work?
JD: A lightning rod from a tower pointing north.
JLT: Because, the work I first came across were the arms of a public clock!
JD: Oh yes, that is true, there is the arms of a public clock that point to the north.
JLT: Does that work still exist or did the arms return to the clock?
JD: It still exists as a work.
JLT: It is kind of interesting having multiple works existing under the same title, especially when the title is "North", which is a rather arbitrary term in many respects. I mean, what is north?
JD: I find the idea of 'site specific' annoying. Every site is specific! Of course I understand what the notion is, but if you really think about it semantically, it is confusing. I like the idea, that instead of orientating the work to the space, to orient the space in relation to other things. So, "North" becomes the cardinal direction that you use to orientate yourself.
JLT: Do you install the work using a compass?
JD: A compass and depending on the situation... Like in New York City, north is essential in how you communicate directions; "three blocks north and then go west."
JLT: The streets you refer to in NY are they in fact following...?
JD: Pretty much, yes. The first time I showed "North" was in NY in a gallery oriented according to the streets so the piece was exactly in line with the wall.
And of course there is magnetic north and true north.
JLT: I was also thinking, that depending on where you show the piece; let's say for example in Buenos Aires - then Mexico, Cuba, the Sahara are potentially all north. I am intrigued by the idea that when encountering the piece in a gallery, then everywhere beyond the tip of those batteries or clock arms could potentially be thought of as north.
JD: No, because it is not the axis, but simply orienting.
There is another work I repeat which has to do with the Equinox where people expose photo paper to the sunrise on the Equinox. The questions that people sometimes ask are how long does the Equinox last? How long does the full moon last? How long is it 3 o'clock?
JLT: For a fairly short moment I suppose.
JD: Well, it is never really, that is the thing that is nice about it. We determine a moment that is 3 o'clock. We agree that there is a moment that is 3 o'clock, but in fact we came up with a way of counting, it is actually a smear, and not series of digits. Do you see what I mean? What I imagine that north is changes as well.
JLT: But surely north is also a construct, a cultural construct!
JD: And a political one. The Buckminster Fuller map, which doesn't use north, has a hierarchy which is very different. Looking at the map in a different way undermines the political hierarchy of north versus south. People have made the upside down map and how different it is to see Europe and the United States on the bottom.
JLT: Yes, and the way we encounter a map depending on where we are in the world - the focus tends to be on the location one inhabits. When in Europe then Europe gets the centre spot and that is the same for the Americas and so on.
JD: Yeah and then there is the top - like the idea of the top - north is on top. Also the notion of orientation brings up the idea that you always are somewhere, so lost is entirely an emotional construct. In fact north, like west, east and south are all out, and around, there is only a motion north, a movement north.
JLT: I think the idea of lost is very interesting! When one tries to navigate, when one has a desire to define north as opposed to somewhere else it is a sort of means to security or a means to the idea of home. And I was wondering, because I personally haven't lived in my homeland for a long time, and I believe you haven't either! - A lot of your work seems to deal with negotiating a geographical possibility; do you think that is related to the idea of living in exile? Is there a longing in that?
JD: I think that it is incredibly hard to reconcile that we all live at the same time in different places. But I think it is less about that than being about empathy and the idea of where to draw the line of empathy. What kind of earthquake or natural disaster evokes empathy and what do you just let be? And how we all need to determine some kind of threshold of what we are and are not going to care about at any given point. It is horrifying in a sense, because you do decide that as something happens outside of your realm its existence has less emotional impact. And individually we know that we will die, you are aware of your mortality, but an emotionally healthy person doesn't spend their time dwelling one their death, you are considered ill if you dwell on mortality and death obsessively. However, to act as if you are immune to it holds other problems and then culturally we do the same thing. Thousands and thousands of deaths in Haiti are likely to have less emotional impact than being abandoned by a lover. So, we are always in this conflict of language and understanding in empathy, that has to do with what we value and how we make up for distance, whatever that distance is.
JLT: That distance in many cases is geographical, when I care about my leaving lover as opposed to 200,000 people dying in Haiti, it is because I am not emotionally connected, it is the impossibility of my feelings travelling so far. Touch, physical touch or personal contact seems the foundations of our feelings.
JD: In Denmark for example, often when people are making a good solid argument against immigrants, the argument that they make is anecdotal. "You know, I had this experience... these people treated me this way... therefore these people are like this". And, it is interesting because political arguments are often made on that idea and it is the worst possible way to argue a point. The assumption that an individual experience can illustrate universal experience leads to all kinds of bigotry.
JLT: Yes, and it also ignores the point that movement is a necessity.
JD: Right. And then at the same time, when you have a tiny population that has a homogeneous and specialised history - to undermine that history through a globalised approach to immigration maybe doesn't make sense. These questions I think are super complex. But, to come back to the idea of being personally connected to somebody versus an abstract connection to humanity somewhere else - no matter what, there is a dance between those two things, because we are interested in what is happening in the world.
JLT: And opposed to twenty years ago, we are also being told immediately what happens all around the world. In that regard our sensibility has broadened.
JLT: Through imagery mainly!
JD: Now, we can see Avatar and a cell phone video of a decapitation all within the same block of a few hours - we know how to determine if something is believable and it is extraordinary. When an event happens in the world and you turn on CNN or BBC you are most likely going to be looking at an incredibly low-resolution cell phone video for a while until you get...
JLT: Until you get the proper crews in.
JD: Yeah, Exactly.
JLT: The high definition crews.
JD: But super fascinating, because that is how you feel that this is happening in this moment, that this is actual!
JLT: But it is also because we have this idea that the aesthetics of a low-resolution image is a product of a real experience.
JD: Yes, but it depends on the context.
JLT: It can also be used as a methodology.
JLT: To either manipulate or create an illusion of the real.
JD: Have you seen this video of "Karen Mother of August" looking for the father on YouTube?
JLT: Sponsored by the Danish Tourism Board?
JD: Yes, because that was a really genius moment where Danish film history and advertising and all that comes together. It really has those sort of grim qualities, for me it has all that is Danish. You can't imagine what the fuck is making this happen.
JLT: But that really created quite a stir that film, people didn't think that was a good idea.
JD: Most things you remember a lot of people didn't think were a great idea.
JLT: But it seems to... I mean it was possibly a clever use of YouTube and it was surely designed for just that.
JD: Yeah, and that was why it became viral - what you can't make happen.
I guess the idea also is that north is not at all the point of the work. It is just that idea of orientation. Of how you orient and that you orient in relation to a lot of different ideas.
JLT: I think I mentioned this to you in an email. But, I was on a flight last year going to NY. I was flying with Kuwait Airways, an older Boeing, so it still had those big shared projection screens where you get a fairly minimal map of the world; one that doesn't really make sense unless you have seen another better map at an earlier point in your life. And then, it had latitude, altitude, whatever, temperature, but it also had quite a significantly sized arrow in the corner pointing pretty much in the same direction for the duration of the journey.
JD: For praying.
JLT: Yes for praying. That immediately reminded me of your work "North" and the notion of an ideological home. Even when suspended over the Atlantic, if you are a Muslim believer, you must know where Mecca is.
JLT: And that is kind of fascinating, that we still have the desire to know direction to such an extent.
JD: Do you think that direction could become obsolete?
JLT: It appears to become more and more obsolete, as certain travel becomes non-physical. If you travel the world on Google Maps directions seems of less importance.
JLT: The top is still going to be north, but if it is a culturally and politically defined place then maybe it will be called something else one day!
JD: Yeah, yeah.
JLT: Maybe it is going to be called? I Don't Know...?
JD: The top!
JLT: But that kind of intrigued me, you know, this notion of how do you find your way home both in a literal sense and as a more abstract idea.
What state do you prefer to be in? Do you prefer to be lost or on track?
JD: I definitely prefer to be on track, being lost I find really unproductive, but I like to be outside. I like to live in a culture that I don't really understand, because there is always a degree of distance that I enjoy. I feel like the world is very much divided between what is truly intimate to me and then what is outside.
JLT: And the outside in terms of making work? To be an outsider is a driving force of sorts?
JD: I just like it personally; I don't know what it does for me creatively. I just like it.
JLT: Not to belong?
JD: Not to really belong, but to belong enough.
JLT: To not be lost?
JD: Yes, just to be a little bit outside, I think that felt like I understood more. I guess that is true for anytime you are naïve about something. But, when I first left America to live in Europe, after a year it felt very easy and the longer I lived away from home the more I realised that I will never...The cultural differences are too much for me to ever truly be able to understand, and to be able to relate to, the culture where I live now.
JLT: Are you patriotic?
JD: I am very patriotic. But I am patriotic for an ideal that doesn't exist. I guess in a sense I believe that America is founded on ideologies that don't exist and it is an incredibly beautiful ideal because it was an allegiance to a process that is unachievable.
JLT: Maybe a little bit like 3 o'clock?
JD: Yes exactly, there is no possible scenario where the ideals of America work. But that is not the point. The point is that you are not going to find a solution to racism, but you are going to be able to exist within an ever-changing structure that somehow becomes able to understand racism depending on the moment. If you look at it as an idea like that, for me what is really exciting about America is the idea that there is always a process of trying to understand, to grow, to change, to be set back horribly, and to become dramatically imperialist and separatist... or to become something that is better. Not that other places don't have that ideology, but I don't understand it because it is not part of my culture.
JLT: I am interested in the human desire to explore and the notion that it has gone from a horizontal to a vertical desire. Prior to architecture and certain modes of travel we were exploring horizontally, we might have had a desire to make our way north or perhaps south. Now, that desire seems to manifest itself in architecture and the possibility of travelling beyond the stratosphere, so there is this kind of vertical versus horizontal desire. In terms of your work "North", both the one that makes use of the clock arms and the lightning rod, they seem to occupy a vertical position in their original function.
JD: But they are passive conductors of time, passive conductors of electricity, passive conductors of radio waves.
JLT: Yes, but the act of taking them out of their context, lying them flat on the floor pointing in a certain direction to me reverses a vertical proposition back to a horizontal.
JD: I am interested in this moment and I would describe it as the '60s. The '60s were a moment where the fractioning of society, through what was happening politically, meant there needed to be something that brought people back together. In a way the whole '68 movement did that. The idea of us going to the moon in '69 really brought people together! And the hope of that from Kennedy in the early '60s, who announced it would happen, had the function of bringing a de-centred society together for this common purpose of looking up. The building of the World Trade Centre in the beginning of the '70s and this skyscraper-movement of that time had to do with a verticality - which is exiting and interesting and pathetic, because in the end you know that it doesn't do what it hoped to do! That it was the hope that brought people together and not the actual thing.
It is a similar problem to the one that Obama is having now. The cover of The New Yorker a couple of weeks ago was four pictures of Obama, he is walking on water in three of them and then the fourth one he has fallen in. It seems that the American people didn't want to elect a president, they wanted to elect Zeus, so you end up with a problem; here is this absolutely incredible man doing everything he can to govern a country that is ungovernable.
JLT: Do you think that language can hold an aesthetic possibility? When I look at your work the objects as such do not seem to...often they do hold an aesthetic quality, but it is not a manipulated one, it is not a visionary change of aesthetics that you are imposing on an object. But the language you attach to your objects, the titles and instructions to me seem to hold an aesthetic possibility and I was wondering what your thoughts are on that crossover between aesthetics in language versus objects/imagery?
JD: What interests me about language or poetry doesn't necessarily have anything to do with aesthetics. But I think that there is certain poetry that uses language in a way that I find is connected to sculpture and the language of things. If somebody describes my work as being poetic, I don't understand exactly what they mean.
JLT: Isn't the poetic that which isn't linear? A non-poetic language isn't it that which holds a rational argument?
JD: I don't know, but I don't prescribe meaning to my work. I determine a specific thing about it, which is very actual and very linear, it is just impossible without projection, so I think the burden, like in reading is on the reader. So if a projection is poetic then that belongs to the person who gave it poetry, it doesn't belong to me.
JD: The poets who mean the most to me are the ones using language as a thing, where the word itself becomes something. There is a movement of poets called The Objectivists who wanted to be as literal as possible - the first group of poets to try to use the language of speaking as opposed to the language of poetry.
JLT: Did they make straight recordings?
JD: No, the easiest way to explain might be William Carlos Williams' famous poem, which is called "A Note" - The plums you were keeping in the refrigerator for your breakfast I ate them they were cold and delicious.
JLT: There seems no desire to complicate the moment.
JD: The moment is already complicated.
Jason Dodge is an American artist based in Berlin, Germany.
Jesper List Thomsen is an artist based in London, UK.
'North' (2007) (The hands from a public clock point to the north)
Image © Jason Dodge
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