In this conversation, art historian Iberia Pérez and visual artist Susi Gutiérrez discuss the project ‘Doodle Walks,’ how it came about, its relation to ideas of belonging and dislocation, and how experimenting with digital media has changed Gutiérrez’s artistic practice. The result of more than a year of online exchanges between the authors, this conversation began in early 2017 during the initial phase of conception of the exhibition project PLACE: Relinking, Relating, Relaying, which took place on January 2018 at the Ruskin Gallery, Cambridge.
Iberia Pérez: Your contribution to the exhibition PLACE: Relinking, Relating, Relaying organized by the Art Language Location (ALL) team comprised a combination of video, storytelling, printmaking, collage, drawing, and painting. Could you talk a bit about your creative process and how the different mediums feed into one other (e.g. the collages and the doodle walks) in this particular work? How does this specific artwork tie in with your broader body of work?
Susi Gutiérrez: My creative process has particularly changed in the last year. It no longer involves only spending time in the studio. Everydayness is almost as important, including my individual experiences as well as the ones I share with others. Everything I do emerges in my work, which up to now had consisted mainly of printmaking and painting. Last year, when I was asked to contribute to the exhibition PLACE I realized that I do not need to be tied to a specific medium and methodology, what I need is to explore my surroundings and to walk.
The collages and the doodle walks presented in the form of video were the best way I found of contributing to the exhibition, but they only appeared as a final proposal after some months of experimentation, research, and the Skype conversations we initially had with some of the artists and people involved with the ALL organizing committee.
The series of collages think over notions of fragmentation. Our minds function as a blender that mixes all the bits and pieces we collect every day from a variety of sources like the internet, TV, newspapers, and social media. Through these collages I am trying to make up stories about random people cutting out shapes, faces, and landscapes from magazines and the internet.
IP: From the Surrealists to the Situationists, or, more recently, from artists such as Francis Alÿs to Janine Antoni, walking as artistic practice has a long tradition in the modern and contemporary history of art. However, in contrast with the flaneur’s idle walk, it would seem as if your walks through the Cornish landscape have some sort of meditative, somewhat confessional, quality to them. While you are walking what seems important is not so much the time spent walking, the trace you leave behind, or the many people, objects, or places you encounter along the way, but rather the stream-of-consciousness interweaving different aspects of your surroundings –location, time, sound– with your own personal history. Could you elaborate on how you arrived at this idea of the doodle walks? Was this the first time that you used social media and video in your practice?
SG: I have always been aware of how the stories and thoughts we create as we walk and travel vanish. When I walk I tell stories to myself and sometimes I speak out loud. I have always been concerned about this, wondering if I am mad. On occasions I Imagine how many stories are lost! One day, I remember I started recording my voice. I was walking back from my studio along a rural road and I decided to narrate how I arrived in this country. I had no audience, just me and the surroundings. When I arrived home I listened to this recording. It was very intimidating, as ifthe person that was speaking was not me. This was the first time I did a recording. The next time, I not only recorded my voice, but I also filmed my feet walking as if I was doodling or marking my passing of time. I am sure that at some point, most of our thoughts and non-spoken experiences go somewhere. According to Anton Ehrenzweig, author of ‘The Hidden Order of Art,’ little is known about the way in which the artist is helped by his unconscious while he/she is doing his work. What we have been collecting, material and imaginary, emerges throughout the creative process triggered by mysterious stimuli. To me the experience of walking through new environments has given me a sense of self possession and confidence in moments when I needed to perform the simple act of existing. In some way it worked as a spell that needed to be done. Art historian and curator Paulo Herkenhoff clearly expresses this idea in his text ‘Autonomous Doodles, Verbal Scrawls and Erasures on Drawing in South America.’ I read it after I had started doing the doodle walk videos and I agree that some things are unutterable. Herkenhoff investigates this concept through the work of artists such as Mira Schendel, whom I find incredible. Through the impregnation of the ink on delicate Japanese paper she was writing, sculpting, gluing, printing… This text made me realise that there are different ways of drawing and that what I try to do as I walk is to retrace myself on different landscapes.
When I was asked to be part of PLACE, I wanted to engage with the ideas of relinking, relating and relaying, so imagining how the participants are seemed to be an interesting way of starting a project where the main idea was to engage with others regardless of distances, languages, and locations. Walking was the best way to establish a dialogue with some sort of ghost that can listen and see what mortals do not usually share. At the time, I was reading a book by the Spanish author Javier Marias titled ‘Cuando fui mortal’ [‘When I Was Mortal’], published in 1996. The phrase comes from the words of the ghost of Enrique VI to his sleeping assassin Ricardo III in Shakespeare. The stories that Marias writes in this book made me think about the variety of encaged spirits that exist within us. In my doodle walks, I decided that I needed to let them out, to be as free as possible.
This was not the first time I used social media or video in my work. In 2008, inspired by the artist Steve McQueen, I produced a short film titled ‘The Blue Dress’ with ten fine art students as a response to a reality TV show. In 2014, I did a work for the final MA degree show at the Ruskin Gallery called ‘Unscripted Dialogues’ based on the idea of the train station as a theatre. I went every day, at different times of the day, to a train station to observe people for an hour. I took pictures of strangers who were waiting for the train or walking, I filmed them, and produced a series of screenprints based on some of the individuals. Then I posted the pictures on Facebook and invited friends to create a story for each character, which I then displayed on storyboards next to the prints.
IP: In your videos you walk through places like a cemetery, a garden, the beach, the Tate St. Ives. How did you choose the locations of your walks, or which moments to share? What connections were enabled through these walks?
SG: I think that this was another way (apart from making collages) of connecting with the project PLACE from where I live. In this sense, the first videos were less conscious than the last ones. When I had the chance of going somewhere interesting, I knew that I was going to film. At other times, when I was walking in random places, I could be assaulted by an intense need to say something, so I turned on the video camera and started the sentence very much as the surrealist artists did in the 1920s. I was not sure of what was going to come out. Sometimes people passed and looked at me, but the ordinary act of talking through a mobile phone would cover me. Later on, I became used to it, finding that locations like the gym, or an old Victorian Hotel could trigger interesting thoughts and words. I remember being curious and excited about the type of thoughts a location was going to produce. The need to record my voice could happen at any time and I was ready for this, like a nomadic hunter. The problem is that the words were never as satisfying as the thoughts, that’s why I was mainly speaking my native Spanish language which facilitated the process of transferring the thoughts.
In one of the doodle videos my feet walk towards the Tate and, in a whispering voice, I say in Spanish: ‘hoy no tengo nada en la cabeza’ (‘Today my head is empty’). My feet walk to the big new Tate Museum in St Ives wondering if I will get a coffee voucher. Volunteers get one as a reward after their shift, and I share how ridiculous I feel with myself when I become an obedient volunteer.
At times, my mind was empty but my body was driven by pure energy as with the urgency of running, shouting. The spoken language was still unformulated. The motions of the mind varied according to the places I walked through. But again they were not chosen as footage, nor were they planned. It is in some way a means of scanning, but while a machine will record all the details of an image, here I was recording a verbal impulse triggered by an emotion. Once I was aware that I was going to share the doodle walks within a gallery context, something changed invariably and I felt I was performing.
IP: The theme of belonging, which kept recurring throughout our conversations during the course of this project, is very present in your work, particularly in the doodle walks. In these videos –and going back to the issue of language you just mentioned– you talk about ‘la sensación de no pertenecer a ningún lugar’ [‘the sensation of not belonging anywhere’], which resonates with me as I have also spent half my life living abroad. When you have been away from the place you used to call ‘home’ for so long that constant feeling of dislocation somehow becomes your natural state of being. Could you elaborate on why this theme is so important to you? How making this work enabled you to explore the question of belonging and how it resonated with the broader theme of PLACE?
SG: I remember the conversations we had. They were very liberating, especially because we talked in Spanish. Conceptualizing in English has never been very easy for me, especially when I was an art student and had to articulate ideas about my work all the time. ALL encouraged the participants to use their own language and this is why it was so attractive and important to me. The themes were chosen collectively through online conversations. It was an inclusive project in every sense.
The Bulgarian-French philosopher Julia Kristeva, became my favourite author when I started thinking about notions of belonging and dislocation, writing, and experimenting with different materials. She proposes that the modifications in the status of foreigner, imperative today, should lead us to reflect on our ability to accept new modalities of otherness. Following Kristeva, you could say that PLACE embraced and welcomed ‘new modalities of otherness.’ I felt at ease when I was asked to contribute with a work that explored some aspects of boundaries and borders, belonging and connections, as this was the first time since I arrived to the UK that I had had the chance to develop something linked to my personal experience. I never thought about the success of my proposal in terms of pioneering something ‘new’. I offered what was genuine to me and I am very pleased that it was appreciated. I could not do something that I was not enjoying. I wanted to talk about belonging and dislocation but not too seriously. I also needed to have fun and allow myself to be irreverent.
IP: I appreciate how since the beginning you made a deliberate attempt to connect with the other participating artists and the people involved in this project, including myself. You appropriated the concepts and ideas of PLACE, incorporated them as part of your methodology and used them as artistic material in your work. This aspect is visible, for instance, in the collages where you cut, paste, superimpose, and manipulate different images or visual elements that you collected from various participants in an attempt to bridge a gap between you and the other. Could you talk a bit more about how this process came about? What this experience meant to you? And, what were some of the challenges you faced while creating this work?
SG: I am fascinated with human relationships and how people interact. Needless to say, the way we connect has been changing according to advances in technology and as a consequence the notion of who we are is more complex.
I also feel that because I did not meet the participants before, the concept of the real and the imaginary were blurred. For me, cutting, juxtaposing, and creating layers through collage –that sometimes were ripped apart or painted over– are ways of expressing the strangeness of trying to gather or getting to know those characters/participants, which I had never seen before. The experience of working with elements collected from the internet and elsewhere was in some way like digging in order to find clues.
What does it mean to know the other? Social media is one of the sources we use in order to find the answer, but how do we use the information we find?
I called the collage experience ‘the secret games’ because the process of making and superimposing found images was mimicking the experience of trying to find out information about the people that, like me, were participating and trying to connect with the project. The doodle walking and the collages I did filled the gaps or lack of clues I had about these people.
IP: It is interesting that you mentioned the word ‘digging.’ It reminded me that you studied archaeology at San Marcos University in your home country, Perú, back in the late 1970s, right? The concept of the ruins, for instance, is present in works like ‘Retracing,’ which was on view at the exhibition. How has your background in the field of archaeology dovetailed with your practice as a visual artist?
SG: I like to visit ruins. They are poetic and remind me of the beginning of humanity. When I visit the old mines and derelict buildings in Cornwall I feel nostalgia about the Peruvian ruins and realize that I have started forgetting a lot of what I used to know. Last year, in order to show the participants of PLACE where I live, I created footage in the Levant mine, took several pictures in the surroundings and produced a screen print where I also pasted a cut out of myself. I feel that my background in archaeology has allowed me to create relationships with the ancient traditions that I have discovered here. I am starting to make better connections with an environment that is no longer as strange as I thought when I first arrived in the UK.
IP: On a slightly different note, could you elaborate on how you understand the role of the viewer in your work?
SG: Just as a story can be interpreted in multiple ways, I invite the viewer to take part in the routes, paths, situations, and very familiar places seen in my doodle walks, so they can complete the narratives by creating their own stories. My intention is to grab their attention so that they will want to follow my footsteps and be transported to a different time and place. I filmed my feet as I walked, creating 40 different videos on various locations in Cornwall such as St Ives, Falmouth, Newquay, and several National Trust places. Each video has a duration between two seconds and 3 minutes long. The length attributed to each doodle walk has to do with the duration of the different journeys and thoughts I had, which were very fragmented. I cut the duration of the videos intentionally in order to create intrigue, leaving loose ends as in some form of narrative.
IP: Has your artistic practice changed at all after combining new technologies and more traditional media? Do you plan to continue experimenting with digital technologies and exploring the concept of the doodle walks in your visual practice? What new projects are you working on?
SG: The doodle walks opened my mind to new possibilities and added a new device in my toolkit.
I am now back in my studio working in my own painting and printmaking, which I notice have changed. However, since I used digital technologies, I have added an element to my work which consists of the observation of my surroundings with the possibility of creating sound pieces. I will do more doodle walks including people that are interested in saying something that has been repressed or that they would like to share, and the challenge to me is to make a group of more than ten. If this grows, it would be great to set some footage and to walk together, each of us filming our own feet and voices. I have envisaged this as a one year project. I like the idea of exploring notions of the ordinary in relation to what can we manifest as humans. So, I am planning to find new locations to do more doodle walks. These locations would probably provide the acoustics and inspiration for new doodle walks and imagery.
Since PLACE, ‘Doodle Walks’ has been part of an exhibition I participated in at the Penwith Gallery here in St. Ives, Cornwall, and I will show the 40 videos at the St. Ives local library as part of the Arts and Literature Festival in September.
Susi Gutiérrez was born in Lima, Perú, where she studied archaeology and textiles conservation. In the UK, she studied Fine Arts at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. About her work, she says: “My prints and paintings are constructed through process. Feelings and emotions are important in both. They often reflect and reference the stories I build as I walk, the small details of our surroundings, the people with whom I make connections or not.”
Iberia Pérez is an art historian and researcher based in New York. She currently works as C-MAP Fellow for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Museum of Modern Art.