Manuscript, Manchester, January 2004
Interview with Dryden Goodwin on Friday 12th December 2003 following the opening of Dilate at Manchester Art Gallery
We are standing in the centre of a darkened video installation surrounded by eight video screens in panoramic arrangement just above our heads. A crack of thunder inaugurates a succession of dissonant ambient sounds, the screens pulse and strobe - disclosing to us various abstract shapes, one of which is recognisable as a blinking human eye - and then they go black. A jumbo jet passes low over our heads with a loud stormy whistle, revealing a cloudy sky-scape filled with similar planes in various stages of flight. The spectators adjust their stances in order to track the passage of each plane from one screen to another. They hear the noise of a child breathing and for a short while are standing on the deck of a ferry, the eight screens having synchronised to show a beautiful evening seascape. Suddenly we are in the middle of a dusty urban sprawl surrounded by a swirl of shoppers, masonry and vehicles. Occasionally, the eight screens pause on a single frame, just long enough for us to make out the smiling face or wary glance of a punter, before resuming their anarchic choreography.
We are watching Dilate: the most recent video sculpture of artist Dryden Goodwin. It is the opening night of this new installation and Goodwin is sitting to one side, watching the spectators turning and twisting as they try to take in all eight screens of his installation at once. He is doing what he does compulsively in his art: discovering how people interact with urban spaces. He seems to be pleased with the effect he has created.
Goodwin is a young, up-and-coming London-based artist whose work Above/Below was included in the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003. His films and drawings are critically acclaimed and, despite being stylistically avant-garde, humanistic meditations on the nature of the private and the public in urban Britain. Managing a balance of voyeuristic surveillance and affectionate curiosity, his cinematic installations are a fascinating mixture of the menacing and benevolent. In Closer (2002), a three screen installation at Tate Britain, Goodwin covertly videoed unsuspecting people in office windows, restaurants and bars whilst "touching" their faces from a distance with the point of a laser pen, tracing their features with obsessive attention. In earlier work, Within (1998) and About (1998), has Goodwin making unsolicited recordings of passers-by from a moving train, bus or escalator. These recordings are also melancholic in tone, reflecting Goodwin's frustrated desire to sculpt the space and time of a certain moment, using video manipulation, in order to preserve it.
Dilate is being shown at the Manchester Art Gallery as a "contemporary balance" to the current exhibition of Turner Seascapes. The successive panoramic cityscapes and landscapes literally dilate as we progress from a child's bedroom to a sitting room to a desolate motorway - before the horizon withdraws to reveal rolling coastline and a beautiful seascape. As with his previous video installations, the scenes in Dilate are structured in such a way as to confuse and radicalise the viewer's experience of them, constantly disorientating the audience in order that they should continually revise the nature of their emotional engagement. These disorientating, fractured scenes make you wonder whether Dilate is a meant as a response to or a criticism of Turner's dramatic, robust seascapes. It must surely be a daunting task to have to provide a "contemporary balance" to an artist as culturally monolithic as Turner?
"I began work on Dilate before I knew it was going to coincide with the Turner exhibition so I didn't think of it that way. Turner is however an artist I've looked at a lot, so I was very excited. I'm especially affected by Turner's use of water-colours. He was trying to find a language which would convey a particular structure of feeling. This relates to my own intention when making video installations. I try to use video as he uses water colours, as a transparent language to describe emotional content over form."
Goodwin is a home grown talent, having studied at the Slade school of Art in London, but his influences are predominantly international. He attributes many concerns of his meticulously arranged video sequences to Stan Brackage and the Austrian artist Peter Kulbelka, whose class he studied in for four months in Frankfurt. It is hard to know where to place Goodwin in the contemporary British art scene. When we think of the "young London artist" we can't help think of Tracey Emin or Damien Hirst, but there is nothing self-declamatory or deliberately sensationalist about Goodwin's work, if anything there is a sense that he withdraws completely from his art.
"I try not to impose too much of myself for fear of breaking or interrupting the illusion. My intention is to create a direct mediation, to collapse the space between viewer and viewed. In my single screen work I try to make the audience feel they are between me; the person with the camera, and the material I am shooting. In Dilate I have tried to create an enclosed imaginative space, one from which the artist withdraws, creating a kind of vacuum in experience into which the viewer is drawn. I'm excited by CÚzanne paintings and drawings, he considered that beneath the surface of things there is an inherent logic, a logic that should be revealed rather than imposed by the artist. In my work I'm attempting to recognise and reveal, rather than impose. I like this idea, that there is something already there to decode."
Not surprisingly therefore, nothing is staged in Dilate - Goodwin is more like a documentary maker than a film director. There is often no specific game plan or preconceived idea that is bought to the creative process, only a desire to observe and capture and understand. Earlier works such as Heathrow (1994) and Ospedale (1997), set in Heathrow airport and an Italian hospital respectively, feature a variety of scenes of human reconciliation and heartbreak captured on camera. In both works, Goodwin took the role of a passive observer, "focusing on a specific detail of this or that scene as a way of dealing with all these powerful experiences that are passed into your hands."
He is in a sense an artist of opportunity. "I try to select and capture appropriate material rather than orchestrate a specific situation, although I am attracted to spaces in which there are likely to be moments of human intimacy or poignancy, like in an airport and hospital. It is a matter of collecting building blocks of material from the various scenes you encounter. Dilate combines structures of emotion and attempts to develop them into something meaningful, but the actual process of collecting and building, shooting and editing, develops organically. I shoot a bit, review it, and then try to develop its suggestive or evocative potential. The creative process is a dialogue between me and the material"
Although he continues to draw on his talent for drawing, the attractiveness of video for Goodwin is its potential to manipulate time in order to intensify and preserve the various moments of intimacy he portrays onscreen. Previous works such as Hold (1996), One Thousand Nine Hundred and Ninety Six (1996) and One Thousand Nine Hundred and Ninety Eight (1998) are extraordinary kinetic pastiches built out of single frames of footage and shown at various film speeds. The resulting optical effect is one of a still image - of a face, aeroplane or a car - that buzzes with latent energy. The use of differing video speeds, cycles of repetition, animation and still frames and are all a part of Goodwin's time-based visual language, and are bought together to great effect in Dilate.
"I'm really conscious that these time based constructs can conjure, and engage, and set up emotions. By slowing something down or showing briefly you can reveal more of what is actually there. Time becomes very useful as a way of framing the material, as a way of getting people involved with the work. There is an incredible emotional potential in these scenes. By speeding up or slowing time down - or repeating it - the audience get a renewed perspective from which to consider these fragments of time. It becomes more emotional and more involving through degrees of temporal distortion. I'm looking for ways to express a sentiment without being sentimental."
The intimacy and privacy of some of these scenes is also touched with nostalgia for the lost moment. In a sequence reminiscent of earlier works, the eight cameras of Dilate focus on passing strangers with an intensity that borders on intrusiveness. The cameras are directed exclusively at a person's face: "a portal into a potentially very private world". Our experience of these people is sensory rather than cognitive: no biographical information about these people is disclosed, and it becomes difficult to interpret their quizzical expressions or fix them in our minds for any length of time. Goodwin makes reference to the 'poignant failure' of trying to capture or recreate these encounters.
"There is a forlorn sense of trying to pin an experience or a chance meeting down, a sense that is very much a part of what I do. In any particular moment that excites you, or stimulates you into pushing 'record' on the camera, you are aware of a context which is peculiar to that event and which, no matter how hard you try to seize or apprehend it, nonetheless leaves you with an inevitable failure. But you realise when you work with time based materials that you are creating a new moment out of an old one, and that's exciting. You leave the parts intact but conjure something new out of them. You're trying to pin something down but in doing so you're celebrating the fact that you can't by creating something new: so it is a birthing as well as a wake."
Part of the fun of Goodwin's work is his almost mischievous people-watching. He describes his relationship to his subject matter as one of "hovering" at the "threshold between the public and private". It is fun to speculate about how he might go around achieving his results: creeping up on his subjects or peeping at them with his camera from behind a bush, possibly camouflaged in black - like the man in the Milk Tray adverts. In fact his camera manner is frank and decorous: both Closer and About end with scenes in which Goodwin allows himself to be caught in the act - leading to some confrontational moments when, as Goodwin says, "the person realises that I'm not just an enthusiastic tourist" and regularly meet the gaze of his camera with a flick of the middle finger.
In Closer he uses a laser pointer to transgress physical and (especially) social barriers between him and his subject matter: "It's essentially a sympathetic gesture, but there is scope for alternative interpretations. The laser pointer evokes associations of intrusion, of surveillance or the laser sight of a gun. I am concerned about how the material is portrayed. If I'm stealing someone's image then I want to be respectful. It's very important that in Closer I try to obscure people's faces behind a reflection or a shop sign. I am conscious of the temptation to consider yourself the godlike centre of an artistic universe. There is a danger you can become overly manipulative. I am very conscious of the need for a balance to be struck."
The process of "hovering" at the "threshold between the public and the private" often involves creating a dialogue between the two spheres. Goodwin is also attracted towards private moments that reflect a national or historical significance. One Thousand Nine Hundred and Ninety Seven (1997), for example, documents the faces of passers-by outside Buckingham Palace after the death of Princess Diana, or Two Thousand and Three (2003) documents individuals in the massive anti-war processions in London last year, whereas a sequence in Wait (2000), shot during the final seconds before midnight on the eve of the new millennium, focuses itself on the anticipation of just one woman.
The soundtrack that accompanies each installation is similarly used to create suggestive and lyrical associations between a succession of otherwise radically different tones, moods and images: "Dilate has eight visual landscapes each lasting approximately two and a quarter minutes and eight corresponding soundscapes consisting of the wild sounds found in each space. Sometimes these soundscapes match their corresponding visual sequence and other times they're mixed up in different combinations, the complete cycle of all the permutations is two hours and thirty seven minutes. For example we might hear the child breathing as we watch him asleep in his bedroom, hear the car during the motorway sequence, or hear aircraft noises when we watch the planes. In the next sequence we might see the car but hear the child, watch the planes but hear the chanting from the religious space and so on."
The soundtrack is predominantly ambient in character, punctuated with occasional metallic, sustained notes. It is typical of Goodwin's style that these sounds and notes denote nothing specific, but are infinitely evocative. He points out the crass way in which a sound track could be used to manipulate the viewer's emotions. The function of the sound track in Dilate is structural rather than emotional: it is intended to create patterns of associations in the mind of the spectator.
Goodwin explains that "I hope by spending time a viewer would form a mental map of the eight episodes, begin to create associations between each episode. You hear the sound of the city, of cars and voices, placed over the panorama of the sea and draw connections by reconciling these two different aspects. As they watch and listen the audience build potential narrative layers. Having said that, they might just as easily choose to resist this kind of patterning. The shift from city to the sea could as easily be about leaving somewhere, or going somewhere to leave an experience behind - within the parameters I've set up, I want the viewer to have an active autonomy."
The specific relationship between sound and image is familiar territory for Goodwin. He did the music video for Aqualung's 2002 hit Strange and Beautiful (I'll Put a Spell On You). The video was created by animating light pencil sketches of singer Matt Hales, whose fragile image is deconstructed into simple geometric shapes or obliterated with heavy pencil lines in time with the music. It fulfilled what Goodwin refers to as the video's "commercial imperative" without intervention from the record company: "They liked the idea that the video only revealed so much of Matt because they didn't want to give too much away at once. They wanted to excite the curiosity of the audience with a slow drip feed of information. The video is quite secretive in this sense and I hoped that it would cause the viewer to look a little closer".
The result is strikingly effective. It must be a slightly counter intuitive project, as a filmmaker, to create an image as the accompaniment to a sound, rather than the other way around. But the video is more than this: "I had done portraits of Matt Hales before we did the video, so it was linked to the work I was already making. The lines I drew were delicate and minimal, as are the motions they describe. Matt's performance was so understated that I spent a lot of time getting all the intricate, delicate movements down. The first time I saw the video on TV I was struck by how pale and ghostly it looked. Music videos are generically robust, often more in-your-face projects primarily designed to illustrate a piece of music. I hope the Strange and Beautiful video is distinctive, exploring a visual metaphor for the song. I think the ideas 'strange' and 'beautiful' are evoked more vividly using a minimum of visual material."
The video bears stylistic similarities to Goodwin's other drawing projects, especially such works as Sustain (1999) or Reveal (2003). Like his video installations, the drawings that make up these pieces are preoccupied with space, time and intimacy. Goodwin begins his portraits with an initial image - often a face - and then draws a palimpsest of successive images on top of it. This technique allows him the ability to "transcribe a time period into a single moment, to mix the successive with the simultaneous, the chronological with the synchronic". For Goodwin drawing has one particular advantage over video: "with video the technology acts as a barrier between me and my subject and you loose the immediacy of looking into someone's eyes when you draw them".
This generosity that Goodwin habitually extends towards his subject matter is one of the most striking and impressive features of his work. Where the current cultural zeitgeist is characterised by a media-savvy scepticism towards the status of both the image and the idea of a common human experience, Goodwin distinguishes himself from the pack by celebrating both. "Strange and beautiful" is as good a starting point as any for describing Goodwin's work: the exact meaning of any particular scene in Dilate is always subject to continual revision, but emotionally the work is bright and lucid - and ultimately satisfying.