Interview: Aaron Butt

Aaron Butt / M.E (6.72%ers) / 2016 / Vinyl on aluminium composite panel / 50 x 50cm

Aaron Butt is an interdisciplinary conceptual artist currently completing a Master of Fine Art at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). He was a finalist in last year's Churchie National Emerging Art Prize, and his series Missed Encounter III (2017) was recently on view at Maverick Hair & Art Space. Aaron's work investigates our subjective responses to random imagery that he collects from a range of sources.

From 31 July to 6 August Aaron showed us his work and process on our Instagram @inresidence_ari

Interviewed by Meg Slater

MS: Based on the artists you referenced during your takeover (Bas Jan Ader, Stephen Danzig, David Sudmalis and Gillian Wearing), you have a great deal of respect for the efforts of conceptual artists. What is it about conceptual art that resonates with you?

AB: What interests me about conceptual art is that it is reductive in nature and draws attention to the actual experience of viewing it. A conceptual artwork is an idea in its simplest form, often referring to itself. There was a point when I began to tire with my work and the work I was looking at always referring to something outside of the gallery, the one place I am interested in most. Of course I still do this as well, but I began to search for ways in which I could bring attention to the fact that you are looking at the surface of an object in this weird ‘emptyish’ space called a gallery. Conceptual art does this very well. The worst thing historical conceptual artists tried to do was dematerialise their work. Of course it resulted in new formats (xerox, photograms etc.), but trying to avoid the art market and seeing objecthood in opposition to the transmission of ideas was naive and fatal for the movement.

This is a still from Gillian Wearing’s Dancing in Peckham (1994). One of my favourite self portraits, Wearing dances pretty wildly in the middle of Peckham Shopping Centre and captures people trying to not engage with her. In one of the stills on the right hand side is the most 90’s children you’ll ever see. I like how the vaulted glass window in the background frames the figure and it’s pretty funny. This work doesn’t really have anything to do with falling or bungy jumping but I like the idea of bringing attention to yourself in public, then watching yourself and watching others watching or not watching. These different levels of looking are becoming more important in my work. Like historical conceptual art and minimalism, you’re made completely conscious that you’re watching. You’re almost more conscious of your own body than Gillian’s, despite her wacky dance moves. Gillian Wearing won the Turner Prize in 1997. Gillian Wearing. Dancing in Peckham. Colour video with sound. 1994 Watch some here - #dancing #gillianwearing #takeover #inresidence #art #videoart #peckham #selfportrait #shoppingcentre #1994

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MS: You often present random, seemingly unrelated visual stimuli to your audience in order to generate a subjective response. Could you tell us a little bit more about what led you to develop this method of making?

AB: My interest in these seemingly unrelated images is linked to the mind's natural ability to search for patterns in the images’ configuration and imbue them with meaning, but it is only through the reduction of your own intentions in the work that this is possible for the person looking. For example, I was doing a talk on M.E (Leap into the Void) (2014), and struggled to discuss the works without revealing my initial intentions for this reason. An audience member remarked that the blurring and degradation of the images reminded them of the original Godzilla film. The neurological ability to jump from a picture of someone bungy jumping to Godzilla fascinates me, and so I present seemingly unrelated images to provoke this ‘apophenic’ process. What connects these images, if anything? In many ways this idea began with a quotation by Isidore Ducasse, "He is fair … as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella," so admired by the Surrealists.

This is the last image that I will be sharing for my In Residence takeover. It is a work that I made using a BMX helmet that I bought on ebay similar to the one I wore. Covering the helmet are silver vinyl letters from a unique font. The reason I wanted to show this image is how a gift generated a body of work that has merged with other projects (such as the font) and sparked an investigation into looking and being the subject of looking at that has extended beyond these images and continues to result in new works and series. Missed Encounter III runs until August 12 at Maverick Hair & Art Space and my MFA Graduate exhibition Missed Encounter II will be on from October 2 - 5 at Frank Moran Gallery, QUT Kelvin Grove where there will be these works I have shown and many more. Thank you for having me In Residence ARI and thank you to everyone for engaging with my work. M.E (Randy Helmet) (studio view), 2017, vinyl on found helmet, 30 x 25 x 18cm  #art #sculpture #helmet #studioview #blackandwhite #wearable #text#takeover

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MS: You have a broad range of experience exhibiting for publicly funded galleries, commercial galleries, and Artist Run Initiatives (ARIs). How do you compare these spaces? Which setting do you prefer?

AB: Working in these different settings have all been very different experiences. They present different types of work for different reasons, and I have had to be cognisant of the audience of each type of space. When I go to a restaurant and they have a sample item with lots of different things, I’ll order that; I love variety. So I guess in terms of exhibiting, I get the best of all of these worlds. It’s a great feeling when someone you meet in a commercial setting comes to an ARI show, or someone in a publicly funded gallery acquires a work from a commercial exhibition. Instagram has been great for connecting these different spaces to my work and to each other. As for preference I have enjoyed exhibiting in each setting! Every opportunity to show work in public is a privilege.

MS: In one of your takeover posts, you mentioned that you enjoy looking through artist books and libraries. What are some of your favorites?

AB: Yes I like books and libraries, and the smell! The reason I like art books, artist books and libraries so much is because, living regionally, my mum bought me books on Picasso, Da Vinci and Dali from Aldi (of all places) long before I set foot in an art gallery, and so I associate books with this youthful discovery of art. Also, books are not time based like exhibitions, so you can look at and experience art whenever and wherever. I love all libraries but QUT Library is one of my favourite places. I love big, well illustrated artist monographs and artist books like Ed Ruscha’s. I was lucky enough recently to be part of the 6th Artist Book + Multiple Fair organised by Grahame Galleries + Editions at QCA, which also had a great exhibition of artist books called & So… in the Library, which coincided with the fair. This really drove home that books are works and objects in their own right.

Another object I made from the video of me falling. I like the idea that each page is 1/30th of a second. Unlike the video you can watch it as fast or slow as you want; you have more control. I’ve always liked books and artist books. Sometimes I wonder if I like books more than art and art is just an excuse to look at books. I probably like going to libraries as much if not more than galleries. The best thing about books is the smell. I once challenged my partner to hold up some of my books with my eyes closed and I smelled them. To her surprise I got them all right. M.E (Bungy Flipbook), 2017, artist book, 15 x 20cm each, open edition #book #artistbook #bungy #flipbook #art #video #instagramtakeover #inresidence

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MS: Based on your practice so far, it is clear that you are an interdisciplinary artist. How do you select a medium for each work? Have certain mediums been more effective than others in realising your ideas?

AB: I work in a range of media as I like variety, and each medium has advantages and disadvantages. I've never understood the mentality of ‘committing’ to a medium and defending it. There have been so many artists who have worked across various media and styles and still forged a unique vision. When I work I am responding to existing images and objects, and surround myself with a range of materials. I ask myself, what does the work need? If it’s origami, then I’ll try to learn how to make origami. Artist Bruce Nauman said something like what keeps him in the studio is that he has to periodically start over. I like that idea. While it's a falsity, I like the idea of starting each work with a clean slate and responding to the unique qualities of its source material.

MS: Many of the works in your Missed Encounter III (2017) series made me feel uncomfortable. It is difficult subject matter to grapple with at first glance, before you read anything about the work and realise that you have edited out the cord that kept you safe while you were bungee jumping. I liken my viewing experience to how I felt when I first saw video footage of Chris Burden’s performative works, during which he places his body under immense physical duress to allow viewers to understand seemingly “inartistic” gestures, and reevaluate the purpose of art. Did you intend to arouse this kind of response from your audience?

AB: It is a small shock to see this figure in freefall. I edited out the cord during the freefall because for that three or so seconds the cord wasn’t necessary, and then of course became completely necessary after that. The funny thing about this quite dark image is how badly the cord is edited out. I wanted to bungy so that I could tick it off my bucket list. I wasn’t thinking about endurance so much, but was interested in how mirror neurons, those responsible for empathy, make you identify with the figure and reflect on your preconception of what it feels like to fall. Those watching me were not nervous because I was unsafe, but because part of their mind was up there with me, about to jump. Also, going back to presenting ambiguous visual stimuli, I was intrigued by the various associations of the images depending on your subjective experiences. Some people may think of Yves Klein, others Godzilla. I like that you own your experiences. There is no right or wrong when it comes to the perception of art.

I’ve never really taken to the medium of video in my practice. Making them is so frustrating I’d rather work. Also, I think I’m an impatient viewer; I want everything in the frame right away, like a Bruce Nauman video. I liked the video of my bungy jump - no having to hang around for the action, no investment of time. I was interested in how I could turn this short clip back into an object, so I printed the images and arranged them into grids in frames. I was intrigued by how the images made a wave-like pattern that you were unable to see in the video, and that each frame represented roughly a second of time. #triptych #grid #blackandwhite #bungy #selfportrait #art #takeover M.E (Leap into the Void), 2016, framed photographs, 67 x 98cm each

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MS: What role do you think ARIs play for emerging Australian artists?

AB: Living away from the city has unfortunately stemmed my experience with ARI exhibitions, which tend to be one night events for obvious reasons. They have had such a positive effect on bringing young artist’s work, particularly experimental work, to the public, and I have enjoyed seeing artists who have exhibited with ARIs be selected for curated institutional exhibitions. These small, dynamic projects seem to be very resilient. I really admire online projects and their ability to bypass the problems associated with a physical space without compromising critical rigour. I have become very interested recently in exhibiting in virtual spaces, and the possibilities continue to surprise me.

MS: You have had a great deal of success in both Brisbane and beyond with respect to being recognised for your artistic efforts. What advice would you give other emerging artists aiming to develop their practice and exhibit their work widely?

AB: Thank you, I appreciate that. The main things I would say to other emerging artists is to keep making work no matter what. Make time and space in the week to work. Apply for opportunities that interest you and don't be phased by rejection. Be active and visible in both physical and virtual art spaces; you can’t be considered for things if people don't see you and your work. On rejection, I was thinking the other day about how many ‘unfortunately on this occasion’ rejection emails I have received over the years. I searched it in my inbox and it's about 100, which is cool.

MS: What do you plan to do once you have completed your Masters of Fine Arts (Research) at the Queensland University of Technology? Will you continue to practice in Australia?

AB: Once I complete my Masters of Fine Arts (Research) degree I will rest for a year or two and then enrol in a PhD. I find the university environment incredibly supportive, productive, interesting and valuable. Hopefully next year I can get some opportunities to show interstate again, but I’ll definitely be staying in Queensland unless I could get a short residency overseas. Who knows what's around the corner.