Necrotic Biography Room, 2019. Video, 33:03.
David Steans18th August - 1st September 2019
Necrotic Biography Room Explainer, 2019. 2D Animation, 01:40.
Necrotic Biography Room is an ongoing moving image project that is designed to mutate and develop over multiple iterations, and is about the production of a moving image work called ‘Necrotic Biography Room’. It does not exist in a single definitive ‘version’, but the most recent iteration, due to be screened at Pavilion Leeds, is a two channel installation consisting of a long form video and a 2d animation commissioned by a commercial animation company, my version of a so-called ‘explainer’ video.
Georgie Brinkman (Curator, The New Flesh): To begin, please could you introduce your work and give us an overview of some of the ideas or research areas that are driving the piece?
David Steans (Artist): So I guess I’m interested generally in fiction and also the blurring of fiction and reality as a method, and horror. So ‘Necrotic Biography Room’ came out of those interests, and my initial idea was that I wanted to do my own version of a video board game which were popular in the 90s. I really liked the crude interactivity of these games and the way that the crypt-keeper character would offer instructions to the viewer. So I got an old VHS camera and tried to make my own version of one of those. And during the film-making process it became more about the film-making process itself - it kind of shifted focus. I would say now it’s an artwork about the making of itself.
GB: Could you talk a little bit about the use of costume this piece? For example, were they made by you or did you collaborate with a designer? And how much did the costume help to form the content of the work?
DS: I think the costume was really important because there’s not much in the way of action or a narrative. Having someone in a really obvious kind of fancy dress style was really important to differentiate between the other people who were in the film and the ostensible star. Also one thing I liked about these video board games was how meagre the production values were. I really liked the idea that there was nothing really there, there was hardly a set and hardly a costume.
In terms of collaboration, Jill McKnight, the artist who plays the costumed character, did her make up which was amazing, but it’s all shop bought stuff. In previous projects I have made costumes and had bespoke stuff printed up, so it depends on the individual project really.
GB: Yes you did that other project before that was a horror novel with matching basketball shirts?
DS: Yeah I wrote a story about a haunted basketball court, and did a performance, and had these bespoke basketball kits made up.
GB: And in this piece did you have any reference points? I know you were looking at a particular Australian video board game. So when you making the costume for Jill did you have any reference points from that?
DS: My main inspiration was an Australian game called ‘Atmosfear’ and there was a crypt-keeper type character, and I gave Jill some images, tales from the crypt type things like that. I’m quite interested in the figure of the narrator or host, and that’s a recurring thing in horror as well - this omniscient character who talks to the audience and introduces other kind of nested narratives within something. But, I just said [to Jill] fancy dress shop ghoul or reaper, and she came up with the costume based on that.
GB: I was interested in your decision to use another artist as a central character?
DS: Well, I thought it would be quite interesting to have artists involved because the concept was around the art-making process. But it was also because I knew Jill and I was thinking about a good voice to deliver this second-person addressing, and her voice was in my head basically. She did a great job as an actor, but also all of the behind the scenes where, for example, she instigates a conversation about the role of the audience and audience perception in art-making, I couldn’t have scripted something so apt. So generally that’s why it’s quite interesting working with other artists I suppose. Also it’s pragmatic - people who are close by and to hand.
GB: The horror genre seems to be a running thread in your practice, could you speak about how costume plays a part in this?
DS: I think one of my interests in horror as an aesthetic category is that artifice seems to play a big role in how it functions. I like how horror is bordering on the ridiculous and the way that it upfront declares itself as something fantastic, but plays with the idea of the real in quite interesting ways. I guess something like found footage as a horror sub-genre does this quite well. We know it’s unreal but it’s playing with our ideas of “is it a film? Is it not a film?” Costumes is a really clear, easy way to signal the artifice of something so that tends to be how I employ costume in my practice. Not to hoax, or fake, or trick, but to signal we’re dealing with art here, we’re dealing with artifice basically.
GB: It is something quite unusual to find artists dealing with horror particularly in their work. I can’t think of many other artists that I have come across that deal with horror.
DS: It’s become more and more prevalent in my practice and it’s an ambition I’m working towards having it prevalent in the work and obvious. I think contemporary art is quite anti-genre, or I have that impression. Also horror is quite a disreputable genre so I think it can pose to interesting challenges to contemporary art. I guess in theory contemporary art includes any other kinds of art within it, you can kind of do anything, but still a straight-forward genre piece - you don’t see it that often. It’s usually there more as a reference point. I guess I’ll see where that goes really! It’s something that has always been an influence but not always so obvious in the work. I think that now it’s becoming a bit more present.
GB: Can you ever see yourself making an actual horror film? You mentioned the project you are next doing is to do with special effects. But this particular piece is definitely a film about a film-making which puts the horror into a separate kind of bracket because it situates it in a film context rather than an art context.
DS: I would really like to! I think that whatever I make there’s always going to be (with the way I write stuff and think) lots of loops, recursions, and meta quality. I think that will be there regardless but I would also like to make something that does function as horror. Whatever effect you get from horror, you might get that from this work. This thing I’m working on at the moment is quite different because it’s quite gory, which is not something I necessarily set out to do, but the idea suggested it. So it’s my first foray into something that in theory you could see on TV and it functions as a horror. A weird horror hopefully!
GB: Do you consider yourself as the 'director' of the work, or are you the ‘artist’? Or do you feel as though you were both?
DS: I suppose in ‘Necrotic Biography Room’ as a small production, I’d say the difference is negligible - for me anyway. I the case of that work performing the role of director is like acting as the director character. In a bigger production I guess that could shift, and I like the director role (as I understand it from no experience!) as very collaborative. But in a tiny art project you necessarily have to be in control of everything, although obviously people collaborate and input. That’s a roundabout way of saying that I think the roles are the same in that project but in others I think they could be different.
GB: I think for some artists it must be a very strange transition, to go from something where you feel like you are the artist to a larger scale project where you are described as a director. For me that seems quite scary, it seems like a very loaded term for an artist.
DS: Yeah definitely! I guess it could be a challenge as well because there are expectations that are specific to the film industry that you might not know. I can imagine being on a set with lots of really technically skilled people all looking to you for direction and maybe you don’t know all of the answers to these questions.
GB: Do you intend for the costumes to invoke a sense of artifice in the same way that you include artificial rats in your installational presentation of the work? The main character's costume in the film is overtly a 'costume' in a fancy dress kind of sense, and I wonder if you use this to draw attention to the fact that it is a film about filmmaking?
DS: Yeah definitely, it adds another layer to it I suppose. I’m quite interested in how much our expectations of say fiction, or drama, or art in general can be played with. And back to special effects, there’s a good example there that you can have the crudest, most obviously unreal special effect but it can still be really effective because it triggers you imagination to go through those steps and picture it happening. And I think that costumes works in a similar way. So it is obviously artificial, but it still is doing something. Just the associations that we have, I don’t know, if someone’s dressed like a vampire it still….does that make sense?!
GB: Yes! I think that sometimes when you have more “fancy dress” costumes it makes it easier for the viewer to relate to because you could dress yourself like that. You might have dressed like that when you have tried to be a horror character yourself, or as a kid a halloween. For some reason it seems like horror costumes and things you might often dress as. So I guess it’s easier for the viewer to place themselves in the film.
DS: Yeah I think you’re right, there is definitely a connection there. And I think the think with costume is that it signals an intentionality on the part of whoever’s worn it. So if you see someone walking down the street dressed as a vampire, or whatever, you don’t necessarily think they’re a vampire, but you think “why is that person decided to dress like that?” I think that works with horror quite a lot as well. There are examples of films where the characters costume is an overly obvious costume even in the context of the film. It’s more about why’s that person decided to disguise themselves or project something by the use of costume.
GB: In your PhD you write that the artistic method behind 'Necrotic Biography Room' is one of refraction, where 'layers of meaning are compounded and complicated'. Could you talk more about making a film which ostensibly doesn't make sense?
DS: Going back to the differences between contemporary art and horror, or contemporary art and genre, often I find that I’m trying to evoke an atmosphere or produce a certain effect rather than convey a specific conceptual meaning. There are concepts there, but it’s that slight difference. So with ‘Necrotic Biography Room’ the idea of retrospective scripting, and looping stuff, and repeating stuff to me creates a kind of effect or an atmosphere and it’s a very different process than saying “I have this really good idea for a film, and this is going to happen, and this is going to happen”. It’s more like creating a kind of psychedelic effect through the scripting where you’re not really quite sure what’s real and what’s not real. So, it doesn’t really make sense, but it’s been thought through in terms of what I wanted to achieve from it.
GB: Is important to you how much your viewer understands about this piece? This might be a good time to talk about the “explainer” video that exists alongside the work too.
DS: For me, if someone watched it and go nothing from it whatsoever, and was just completely confused that to me would be a failure in the work. As for someone deriving a very specific point, that’s fine because it’s about effect, it’s about atmosphere. So when I showed it at Pavilion [Leeds] the two films, in the space where it was filmed, watching it loop over, you got this slightly psychedelic effect from it. And the explainer video, I suppose I thought it was quite funny this idea of having a commercial company produce an explainer for something. But more importantly I wanted to delegate part of the work to someone else and have it interpreted. It’s maybe more of an unusual work for me in that I would see it as an ongoing thing that I could return to and build upon. So I gave the [explainer video company] basically nothing to go on, just the script, and I thought it would be interesting to see how visually they rendered it.
And also, one of the things I liked least about it was the fact that I’m in it. And again partly was a pragmatic thing, I am actually the filmmaker so I think I can perform that role quite naturally. But as it goes on I don’t think I need to be in there in that way. So to hand over the aesthetic rendering of it was really exciting, and I’m going to do another film with them soon as well.
GB: With this in mind could you speak about the title of the work?
DS: Initially the work was commissioned as part of a group show that was looking into a library. So I was thinking about libraries and librarians. My thought was that there would be some sort of room where biographies were written, but as they were written about people they had a kind of necrotic effect. So you write a biography about a person, and that defines what’s going to happy in their life, when they die or something like that. So that was the really rough idea I had, and I thought the use of necrotic in relation to the biography seemed to make sense. It’s really unlikely phrase, and I liked it, and as I began writing it became obvious it was not going to be a really straight forward fleshed out idea but it was going to be almost non-sensical script that riffed on those themes. So to explain what necrotic means, the idea of something that is irrevocable, you get an infected part and then the rest follows. And I was thinking can I map that onto the idea of biography and writing. So I guess I was trying to ‘spookify’ the library, or the process of writing. But that was quite an early idea that isn’t really present that much in the finished thing, which is fine. Also, I like titles that refer to places that are real or not real and in the case of ‘Necrotic Biography Room’ Jill’s character is talking about this room, describing it. But also it refers to the filmmaking set or room, and again when it was shown at Pavilion it was in this room, so it seemed to be one those lucky kind of titles really.
GB: Lastly, for you, what is the difference between costume and clothing - when is someone "in costume" as opposed to simply wearing an outfit?
DS: I had really thought of it before, which is why it is such a good question! But I suppose earlier I was talking about intentionality. So if you put on an outfit we know that you have decided to put on that outfit and there is an intentionality there. But costume is slightly different, almost like you’re trying to project something or become something or someone else. I don’t know if that is just obvious or not! But it is definitely around that idea of projection, intentionality. The most obvious example is you dressing as someone else or dressing as a person from a different time, place or culture. But in terms of my practice it’s just to do with artifice really. So in theory, say for example in ‘Necrotic Biography Room’, the other people who aren’t Jill in the film, they are all just wearing normal clothes. But you could argue that they knew they would be on film, they knew they would be recorded. So it’s a difficult thing to define really, and I’m not sure whether I can! I think it’s got something to do with projection and intentionality and artifice!