Extract from a conversation with Marcelo Spinelli in 1995 for the British Art Show 4
Erik/Getting To Know You
Marcelo Spinelli: Could you talk about the piece you made called Erik?
Georgina Starr: Again it's with sound. It's about when you hear a story, and you take that story in, and then you tell someone else and they tell somebody else, like this Chinese whisper-style thing.
MS: You found a note, wasn't it, or a series of notes...?
GS: Yes. I found just one box, a cigar box, and somebody had written a letter to Erik. But it was in Dutch. I wasn't actually interested in the letter so much at the time; it was the object that was interesting and I just had it on my wall because it was a lovely little cardboard box. I had just moved to Amsterdam. So I just had this on my wall. But when people came in who were Dutch, they wanted to tell me what it said. It was just quite a nice message, like, "Dear Erik, I've not seen you for a long time. The wise words you spoke I have always remembered." It was quite a loving message from a person called Perr, which is P E R R, and I didn't know if it was a man or a woman, or if it was a child, or [adult], or whatever. People translated it, and at the same time I was saying, well, it would be quite good to find him wouldn't it? Because it would be awful if I'd taken this message and Erik had never got the message... I found it next to a toilet, an outdoor toilet on a bridge; one of those toilets on the street. I thought, what if it's a place that people put messages and I've taken it away?
MS: A meeting ground that you have destroyed...
GS: Hopefully not.. Anyway, people were saying, Oh, I know an Erik actually. And the first guy that came in, an American artist from New York, just said, "Oh God, I'll never forget this guy Erik that I knew, he was a real philanderer". He moved into the same block of flats as him and his girlfriend, and he came up, and he was like a friend of a friend. And so they got introduced and he said, "the whole night he flirted with my girlfriend, and he had these huge eyes and he was really trying to seduce her, and it was just terrible. And when he left I was really jealous". And when she spoke about him it caused a bit of a rift in their relationship, and all this. So I thought, Oh, this is a great story. I wrote it down afterwards, and slowly, over two months, other people started telling me stories about different people called Erik. And then I started to look out for things as well. Like in the newspapers I read the personals and there would be a message - because Erik in Holland is like John or something...
MS: Yes, I had a boyfriend called Erik..
GS: What, from Holland?
MS: Yes, from Utrecht.
GS: Really? Oh great. Maybe I should try him. Maybe he is one of them. So I was always on the look out for Erik things, but again I didn't know what I was going to do with that. I was just quite interested in these stories. And I liked the fact that I never recorded any of them. Before, I was always an obsessive recorder of conversations, of everything. And this time I was quite happy not to record them and just to keep them in my head and then write them again, so it would be my version of their story. It would go on one step, rather than me just using the first hand version. I'd written them all down, and I think there were probably about twenty or twenty-five in the end, and in a way they all seemed quite connected, and I was searching for things that connected them. Four of them said that he had really big blue eyes, so I had made a note of this. And in a few of them there was a Spanish connection: one said he had a Spanish boyfriend; or one said that he met him in Spain; or one said that he dealt in Spanish antiques. I made a list of all these connections. A lot of people said that he was a really depressive person. So I made this chart with all the stories on it and then these headings : depression and love, and blue eyes, Spain, you know. This huge chart was a way of making him into one person and showing all these cross-references. Then I thought it would be interesting to keep the stories going by allowing other people hear them, but because I had not recorded them I had to get people, mainly friends, to read the stories and then I recorded them.
I got different people, men and women, to [take a] story and they had to whisper it. And I'd record it; I had about twenty stories on one CD. I made three different CDs. When I showed the piece I had three CDs playing at the same time, but at different times in the CD. So in the space, you'd hear all these speakers, you'd hear psss-wss-pss-wsss, all this whispering. From the middle of the space you couldn't make out any of the stories, it was just all this babble of words, voices and talking; and then you could go to individual speakers and listen, but you had to really press your ear to it as if you were really listening to it, like the mouth was at your ear. You could listen to each story in the space, very intimately, and there was this big chart on the wall with all the connections. I also showed the little box.
So it was quite interesting to take it further by re-recording it and then allowing people to listen to it again. I also made a subscription/edition out of it, because I was quite interested in people getting it episode by episode too, in the same way that I'd received it, in a way, because people didn't tell me the stories all at once. I only heard certain stories every few weeks. So I made a tape of one of the stories and I sent it to about a hundred people saying, if you would like to hear more about Erik just write to me (at the gallery) and you can subscribe to this edition. It said you had to listen to it on headphones because it was quite important; it was one little whispered audio tape. And maybe about twenty people wrote back and said yes, I would like to hear more about him. So every month they got sent another piece of information about him.
MS: Every month?
GS: Yeah, every month for the last year and a half. I've only just finished it. For the last year and a half they'd either get an audio tape; or they'd get a video of me talking about him; or they'd get a postcard with a written description. So every month they'd get something else. It was a bit like a soap opera unraveling; slowly they would piece together this story and build his character.
MS: But isn't it also more or less the way we get to know people? We get to know little bits about them at a time.
GS: Yes, it was much more realistic, I realised that afterwards. But in the installation, you also had to listen to bits and pieces, to piece it together from listening...
MS: Make the most of it….
GS: Yes. And that's in a way what led to making the piece after that, the Getting to Know You piece. I became really interested in the character, building a character from lots of different peoples' descriptions and opinions of somebody.
MS: That piece about a Dutch author?
GS: Yes. It was, in a way, similar to Erik - but he was a ‘real’ person. He wasn't, like Erik was, a fictional person, an amalgamation of twenty or more different people. Somebody had said would I like to do a collaboration with another artist, and I said I didn't really want to do a collaboration. But they said it was this special project in Amsterdam, and I said the only sort of collaboration I'd like was if I didn't have to meet the other person, if we could make our work together without actually meeting. And in a way it would be about that. Somebody gave me a list of names of different writers, artists, film makers…. I just chose one guy because he had the same initials as me, G.S. I wrote him a letter, saying over the next few months I am going to be sending you instructions and making a work, and I hope that you will be interested...
MS: He didn't know about it?
GS: No. He didn't know at the time. I just wrote him a letter, describing how I was an artist, and I wanted to make this piece and I'd got his name from somewhere but I didn't know anything about him. And he wrote back and said, yeah I'll do it. Whenever you want. First I just wanted his date of birth and I got someone to take his numbers and do a numerology. In the next [letter] I sent I gave him three sheets of paper and said for the next three mornings keep the paper by your bed, and when you wake up write down, in your own hand writing, your dreams.
So he wrote them (in Dutch which I had to get translated), but then I wanted it in his handwriting. I took his handwriting to the graphologist who studied it and gave me like a personality analysis of what she thought he was like. And I took the dreams and got them analysed, like a dream analysis: what state of mind he was in, what sort of person she thought he was. I was travelling quite a lot of the time, so I sent him things. I was in Japan and I sent him some Japanese tea and one of those throw away cameras. And all the time I always gave a lot of instructions. He always had to read the instructions. He said he was really fascinated, he loved doing it because every day or every week he got something to do.
MS: It's always peripheral things isn't it? But at the same time it is quite intimate.
GS: Yes, definitely. The things that these people say to you really get into the core of what someone is like.
MS: It's funny that he should be Dutch. I mean we have this expression, 'it's Dutch to me'; something that is unknown..
GS: Oh yeah. Double Dutch, or something. That's funny.
GS: Then I sent the tea and the camera. And I gave him instructions on how to make the tea and he had to drink the tea, and then turn the tea cup over and spin it round three times. Then he had to take photos of the tea leaves. But the photos were really quite blurry because he took them too close. He wrote down what he saw in his teacup, and I had this really funny book on tea-leaf reading, so certain shapes that he saw I could analyse, like about his future or his past or whatever.
I really got into reading this book. He said he had seen all these funny things in his teacup and, again, I could analyse that. Then I sent him some ink and a roller and a piece of Perspex and he had to make a hand print on a piece of paper. I took his hand-print to a palm reader and she gave the complete palm reading. It was quite funny, just sat there with a piece of paper. But every time I went to these people I didn't just do him, I always got myself done as well. When I went to the palm reader I had my hand read. And when I went to the graphologist I got a friend to take my handwriting to the same graphologist.
MS: Yes, I saw a thing - was it in the Face Magazine?
GS: Yes, with me getting my face read. My idea was that I'd always make it so it was both of us were ‘investigated’, so I felt like it was getting to know him but getting to know myself in the same way, in a way, just revealing things. It's strange when you do all that sort of stuff though, because you hear so many versions of what people think you are like. It's completely confusing and a little scary. I exhibited it in the end on this very large video installation. There were 2 projections and 4 videos on monitors at tables, the videos were me getting my palm read, and then on the other side there was me getting his palm (print) read; and there was his dreams, my dreams; his tea-leaves, my tea-leaves. There was always both of us. Also I showed the whole archive, the letters, drawings and cards, all our correspondence. So in this one space you got two personalities revealed: the artist and this new person that nobody knew about.
MS: There's also this idea that you get to know about you through other people.
GS: Yes. It's strange, people who have seen that exhibition thought that they were getting to know me. But then was it me? - because it was these other peoples' ‘psychic’ version of me. I mean, some of the things were very true, but then who knows which were and which weren't? Only I can know that…or can I? It is really about what you believe about what people say about other people. It's like when somebody tells you about somebody, you don't really want to believe them until you actually find out for yourself. It is again to do with this accumulation of gossip and information.
MS: It's also funny for me at least, being from Brazil, that there is this interest on your part - being from a Western culture, that has this belief in science and rationality - that you, and many artists of your generation, are doing a lot of work that questions all these things.
GS: I think that it is interesting too, because certain things are so logical and worked-out that you sometimes think that it just can't be like that. There must be other things, it must be more complex. I think that things like psychic phenomena and hypnosis and palm reading opens it up, for me anyway. And it becomes far more interesting to go down that road than to go and read a book about how to get to know somebody, or sometimes even get to know them in a conventional way. It's really much more interesting to open it up. And then, with all the pieces that come out of it, you can make something completely new…
MS: And also finding that these things can be quite structured as well. You know they seem quite abstract or superstitious, but there is a structure to them.
GS: I think I always tend to do that because it does become so chaotic. What always happens is I make a plan, or I make a diagram or a drawing or a text that goes with it, and I always need some reason to back it up with a structure even though the actual thing seems completely structureless. But then I always force or find a structure within it…..