Monday, May 19, 2008

Art Space Talk: Graham Nicholls

Graham Nicholls is a London based video, installation and new media artist. He is known for his immersive psychological installations and videos. Graham was one of the first artists to explore the possibility of using the Internet for live video streaming and more recently at the forefront of artistic experiments with virtual reality. He is also known for his use of psychology and Neuro-linguistic programming in his interactive works, adding a new level to how installation art is experienced. His video art is a balance of concept and technique, drawing upon filmic photographic and an architectural awareness of space.


Brian Sherwin: Graham, can you tell us about your academic background? Where did you study? Who were your mentors? Perhaps you could tell us about some of your early influences as well?

Graham Nicholls: I left school with no formal qualifications due to the social problems I was encountering and probably due to a lack of expectation academically at the time. My parents both left school at fifteen and most of my friends in my neighborhood had no ambition to go to university, it was seen as a world for the rich or upper class. It was my growing interest in areas such as mysticism, ritual, meditation and the more philosophical sides of religion that opened me up to academic ideas and learning. My awareness of universities and mainstream thought never really grew until after I’d already left school.
When I got to around twenty-one I decided that I would try to get into art school on the strength of my paintings, drawings and photography; as well as the knowledge I had gained through personal study. I spent months working into the early hours of the morning to put together a portfolio. I applied to Central St. Martins in London and was given a place on the foundation course. After that I studied at Middlesex University, also in London, which had a good mix of tutors from the very contemporary to the more traditional. Jon Thompson who had been Damian Hirst’s tutor and had been deeply involved in that generation of British artists also started working there, which pushed everyone to be more professional and conceptually stronger I think.
Apart from the art that was happening around me at the time, film was my major influence. I probably would have focused on film but for the fact that I wanted to draw people into a kind of multi-sensory experience that so far only installation art has touched upon.
As far as artists who have influenced me I think I’ve always been constantly looking and inquiring into new areas, so my influences are always shifting. But my early influences at art school were people like Bill Viola, Christian Boltanski, Ridley Scott, Cindy Sherman, James Turrell, Anish Kapoor and Louise Bourgeois. They would probably be the key ones, some for more stylistic reasons and others in terms of ideas.

BS: Graham, in 1999 you had your first solo show in New York City. You have stated that the show helped to launch you into the international arena. Can you recall that experience?

GN: It was a very exciting time, I think British art was just starting to get attention in the US and the opportunity of showing in a major centre of art encouraged me to look beyond the UK based scene. I think that show resulted in me getting other shows in the US and internationally, as well as selling enough of the photography I’d been working on to allow me some freedom in how I worked. The gallery was also going to be showing the influential filmmaker Jonas Mekas, often referred to as ‘the godfather of avant-garde cinema’, the following month; so getting the opportunity to meet him during my time in NYC was quite inspirational.

BS: Since that time your work has become more and more experimental. Why did you decide to break into new territory with your art?

GN: Well it was the nature of what I was trying to achieve; I wanted people to have an ‘experience’ not just look at an image or be surrounded by sensory stimulus like in a more conventional installation. I wanted to make things more inward, like a meditation. Technology might not seem the obvious choice for this, but in a sense technology can be molded for whatever purpose we choose and that purpose can be a more intimate one if we want it to be. Plus by drawing upon my knowledge of meditation and trance states I felt I could create something unique in terms of an artistic experience.
People would be drawn to come into contact with their own unconscious, to genuinely interact with what I was creating. Epicene, LAM, and the Living Image all used technology and hypnotic techniques inspired by areas such as Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) or guided meditations to have a direct almost visceral impact on the person inside the installation.

BS: Graham, your installations and videos reveal a deep knowledge of psychology. I understand that you have studied psychology extensively. What aspects of the study of psychology do you enjoy most? Do you focus on any specific schools of thought?

GN: Well as a layman the areas that interest me most are the practical tools within ‘psychology’ in its broadest sense. I suppose by psychology I mean exploring the faculties of the mind or consciousness through a range of methods and tools, not strictly the academic field of study. So I have drawn ideas from a range of areas including Milton Eriksson’s work with hypnosis, Transpersonal Psychology and also Richard Bandler and John Grinder’s NLP processes already mentioned. I have also practiced and studied different forms of meditation and visualization techniques.

Another area that has influenced my work would probably be Robert A. Monroe’s Hemi-Sync technology, which uses sound frequencies to cause a change in brain state. Monroe originally devised this system to aid in inducing Out-of-Body Experiences (OBEs), which as I have experienced hundreds of similar occurrences in my life, was what initially caught my attention. Hemi-Sync is now being used for much broader applications such as improving memory and learning.

Virtual Reality similar to the type I used in collaboration with Roma Patel and Trudi Entwistle in the Living Image project has also been used to help patients overcome phobias by allowing a safe environment in which to confront a fear. The Living Image also had elements of this kind of approach as it allowed the participants to go to places that would be too fearful or threatening in normal everyday life.

I am also generally interested in Parapsychology and the work of people like Dean Radin who are interested in psychic or ‘psi’ abilities. I enjoy reading both sides of the proponent and skeptic divide in this area. But so far purely psychological explanations for psi such as conformation bias or magical thinking do not convince me that my own experiences, or those of others have no objective reality. So overall my interests in psychology are focused on the exceptional faculties that we all possess, and how to understand and develop them.

BS: Have you always had a deep interest in the human condition?

GN: Yes, all my work has an underlying focus on some aspect of the human condition, as well as how our lives impact the environment and non-human animals as well. Ethics and morality form a big part of my art and life. I am interested in how we understand and formulate right and wrong, true and false. I suppose my working class background and my personal experiences, both socially and academically, have lead me to question what makes us who we are. The relationship between the individual and the wider world I suppose. That includes our subjective experience, our morality and our politics etc. This way of looking at things lead me to become vegan and try to take much more personal responsibility for my actions.

BS: Can you tell us more about the thoughts behind your art-- what is the message that you strive to convey to viewers? Do you see viewers-- their reactions --as a part of the work?

GN: Oh I most definitely see the viewers reaction as part of the work, it’s a communication for me. I think most artists develop their view of a work as they gain feedback and live with the work for a while. We don’t live in a vacuum, we are constantly influenced, and I think that is part of the message. Many new theories of consciousness are telling us we have no free will, whether that is true or not it is interesting if you take that a step further and consider that we don’t really have individuality either. That idea can be quite scary for people if you take it as a hopeless mechanistic view of life, but it can also be seen in the mystical sense as a dissolution of the sense of self. I suppose I’m trying to convey a sense of turning inward and exploring the self and its boundaries, if they really exist.
design-di-web-- drawing of the installation The Presence

BS: Perhaps you could choose one of your installations and tell us about it?

GN: I’d like to talk about a future project if I may. It continues my work with psychological immersion. Its working title is ‘The Presence’. The main difference with this project to previous projects is that I want to explore the group dynamic. In previous projects I have focused on single participant work, but with The Presence I’m planning it will be a four person experience and will include smell and atmospheric effects, something that wasn’t present in previous work.
Based on my own research I think this will have a powerful psychological impact.
The project will use hypnotic suggestion and subliminal cues as with previous works like Epicene to guide the participants through an experience. The structure of the project will be black glass, because it is both reflective, so people will see their own image when inside it, and it also gives a sense of depth or space. The shape from above is an equal sided cross, this is so each person will be aware of someone else at the other end of the structure. This I have found creates a desire to interact or ‘perform’ in on some level, even if only unconsciously; and increases the likelihood that the person will experience something. I also want to extend the time that people can be in the installation.
In The Living Image for example each individual was limited to around 15 mins; with this project I want to extend that as much as is practical. Overall I hope the result will be an intimate and unique experience. Many people have described my previous projects as deeply emotional or even cathartic; I hope this new project will continue in that vain.
The Living Image

BS: Graham, I understand that you have been writing a book. Can you give our readers some insight into that project?

GN: The book is to do with my personal experiences and the spiritual philosophy they have inspired. It’s a kind of personal journey of discovery beginning in my early childhood and coming right through to the present. However, it’s not simply an autobiography it is also a philosophical perspective, it’s just I have chosen to illustrate why I think the way I do with examples from my own life. I think that gives it a depth that would not be present if I’d just tried to use hard logic. I also want it to reach people emotionally and that is something that is best achieved through an openness and honesty I believe.

BS: Aside from what you have mentioned already... have you been working on anything else?

GN: As well as the new immersive project just mentioned, I’m also working on a documentary that explores contemporary forms of spirituality. I want to look at lesser talked about aspects of religion and spirituality, for example, the people that work to better society through aid or humanitarian work as a result of their religion or ethical position. I think this is an important element of spiritual traditions that is often overlooked.
I have been extremely critical of religion for most of my life, but I believe that position became more balanced as a result of personally becoming more involved in humanitarian organisations. The assumptions that are often repeated about religion, like it causes all the wars etc., seems such a limited view. We’ve all heard that claim at some point, but for me that kind of reasoning is far too simplistic and bordering on prejudice.
I think we can be critical of the actions of some religious groups and seek to rationally examine their beliefs, but I don’t feel it’s helpful to try and blame one particular ideology or culture for the ills of society, we all know where that leads. Even the recent efforts of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens etc., seems to have contributed to Islamophobia in the UK at least. The film I envision will try and show a more contemporary view of spirituality that deals with the subject as the complex and diverse issue it is.

BS: Where can our readers view your work in person? Will you be involved with any upcoming exhibits?

GN: Sadly at present my time is taken up by working on my book and the new work I’m developing. But I am going to be giving a lecture in London on June 20th. It will be more related to my spiritual/psychical ideas than my art, but for anyone interested in this side of what I do that would be a good why of finding out more.


BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art?

GN: I think we have covered the important areas; if anyone wants to ask any questions they can contact me via my website:
You can learn more about Graham Nicholls by visiting his website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin

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