An interview with Conrad Shawcross with art journalist Helen Sumpter, artist studio, September 2009.
‘Chord’ is your most ambitious and large scale work involving rope-making machines. What are the ideas behind it?
‘I’ve realised that my obsession with making rope machines is about finding a metaphor for the way in which we perceive time – as a line or a cycle. We experience time in terms of days and weeks and months and years but probably very rarely relate that to the monthly cycle of the moon or think beyond that, to time on a cosmological scale. In ‘Big Bang’ theory everything emerges from one point, and it embodies the idea of one universe, but there could be lots of ‘Big Bangs’ that merge and overlap. The spools on the rope machines rotate like planets, out of which extrudes this rope which functions like a time line, each section of which can be traced back to a specific moment during the machine’s operation.’
How do those ideas relate to the Kingsway tram subway?
‘When I was approached to submit a proposal for a work for the subway it was initially the linearity of that space which made me think of the rope machines and to create two machines that gradually recede away from each other, creating the rope between them until the spools run out. It’s really about swapping space and time; the idea of them being interchangeable. All these things are metaphors for trying to understand something that’s quite ethereal. It’s still a major debate in Quantum mechanics – how one defines and measures time and its relationship with gravity.’
How will ‘Chord’ interact physically with the space?
‘The two machines are almost the same height as the tunnel so there will be something reminiscent of a pair of tunnel diggers, boring into the space. The rope will be about 8 feet in the air so that viewers can walk beneath it, and as the rope grows there will be a series of crutches to support it, along with a chain of mine lights, which will be plugged in as the rope expands. I’m hoping that there will be a sense of both expansion and illumination into the darkness.’
You have made several artworks before ‘Chord’ that have involved movement. Is your interest in movement also about time?
‘Partly, although I make a lot of static works which deal with the same epistemological ideas but don’t involve a moving element. Movement can be a very obvious structural and visual metaphor to describe time. But Cosmology now deals with things beyond the visible and without an understanding of abstract mathematics, which most of us don’t have, structural metaphor and allegory seem the best languages to use. The language of machines is interesting in itself – when a new machine is invented, how do we create the new words to describe it?’
Are there particular machines that interest you?
‘I’m about to start a year’s residency at the Science Museum and a lot of my work has been inspired by going there as a child and young adult. Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, designed in the mid-nineteenth century is one of my favourite objects. It was the first computing machine but was never realised in Babbage’s lifetime. One reason for that was that workshops at the time didn’t have a unified system of thread cutting. None of the parts fitted together because the threads didn’t match and so Babbage ended up with a box of bits. Also the idea of having a machine that didn’t make a tangible product made no sense to people at that time. And with no computer screen – just dials and rotations, it was very abstract. The tragedy is that when it was finally built to Babbage’s plans in 1990’s using contemporary manufacturing processes, it worked almost perfectly.’
Does the title ‘Chord’ refer to music in any way?
‘I have used the spelling of a musical chord and it does have all these disparate elements coming together to form a whole, so it is a composition of sorts. But with a different spelling it also relates to the anorak cord that is used in the spools to create the rope. I’m not really interested in making sound as a product and I haven’t envisaged the machines making much noise as they will be working very slowly and predict they will be silent but I am interested in the mathematics of music ratios. I have a pendulum driven drawing machine that makes harmonic drawings. The drawing table swings backwards and forwards and a pen to and fro, creating an algorithm that decays to a centre, other sculptures have taken these same ratios as a starting point to create extrusions of light in space. If you change the length of the pendulum it changes the ratio. It was an engineering invention by the Victorians to measure vibrations in buildings during the construction of the first underground Tube lines. So it’s also another way to visualise time and space.’
Your earlier sculptures have a particular aesthetic but ‘Chord’ is a much slicker looking machine. Is there a reason for that?
‘A lot of earlier work was made in wood using a system of pieces that, out of necessity at the time, were able to fit together with ready-made parts. It was quite liberating in one sense because I had a template for all the pieces and could make multiples of each one and bolt them all together. But it gave the work an almost antiquated or nostalgic feel, which isn’t something I had wanted. And while the aesthetic drew people in, it also became a bit of a shackle because it made it difficult to think in a freeform way. ‘Chord’ is still a beautiful machine but the aesthetic is stripped down to its functional elements.’
Will the rope that ‘Chord’ produces become a separate element to the work?
‘Chord’ will be twisting 162 strings of anorak cord together, each machine using 162 separate spools, two each of 81 different colours across the spectrum. Over the month the machines will produce 300 metres of rope, so it will be quite a substantial object in itself. The rope will become a physical record of the installation and of that specific duration of time.’
How significant is science to your work?
‘I did an ‘A’ level in physics but that’s as far as my science education went. It’s more a fascination with how developments in science affect our perception of reality. We tend to assume that our experience of life is the real world but there are always new layers that can be peeled back further. On one level ‘Chord’ is a machine that weaves a multi-coloured rope, but it’s also weaving all these ideas together.’