Interview with Artist Karen Kramer, Borrowed Time, Jerwood/FVU Awards

Celebrating its third edition, the Jerwood/FVU Awards proudly introduces the new exhibition Borrowed Time which will premiere two moving-image installations by Karen Kramer and Alice May Williams. These significant new works have been developed following the award of £20,000 to each artist in May 2015. Following its debut at Jerwood Space, London from 9 March to 24 April 2016, the show will travel to CCA, Glasgow from 28 May to 10 July 2016.

As the title Borrowed Time suggests, the resulting works reflect on the uncertain nature of our contemporary economic and ecological moment, while also alluding to wider historical patterns and elemental forces. Never has there been a time, perhaps, where we have borrowed so much against the future economically – from the loans and mortgages of domestic realities to the sophisticated economics of financial derivatives. And never has there been a moment, perhaps, where that feeling of living on borrowed time, of a clock ticking louder and louder, has reverberated so ominously ecologically.

Kramer and Williams both submitted bold proposals to the 2016 curatorial theme that are, by chance, both centred around power stations. FVU is working closely with the artists, overseeing the development of the films over the 10-month production period.

The Eye That Articulates Belongs on Land by Karen Kramer

Shot in Shiretoko National Park in the far north of Japan, and around the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor, Karen Kramer’s The Eye That Articulates Belongs on Land explores the ‘re-wilding’ of the landscape around the plant since particular areas became off-limits to human access. A symbol of mankind’s capacity to blight the natural environment, and a rallying point for worldwide ecological protest, Fukushima has also been a useful test-case of the efficacy (or otherwise) of retrospective damage limitation. Almost five years on from the first radioactive leaks, scientists are starting to be able to better evaluate the effects of Japan’s clean-up programme, while other commentators have been moved to remark on nature’s own ability to repair and re-establish itself.

Avoiding romantic notions about the power of nature as a force for transformation, Kramer’s film, with its apparent contrasts between the pristine environment of Shiretoko and the blasted wilderness of Fukushima, is a reminder of how our reading of the landscape is deeply subjective, and prone to being clouded by myth, or partial knowledge. In this, as well as considering a specifically Japanese response to nuclear disaster and airborne contagion, Kramer mobilises figures from Japanese culture and mythology. Prominent among these is the figure of the fox: shape-shifting, quixotic, cunning; queering our first impressions of what is in front of us, alerting us that things are not always what they seem.

A: How does it feel to have been chosen to present your work at the 3rd annual Jerwood/FVU awards exhibition Borrowed Time?
KK: Naturally I’m pleased and feel tremendously fortunate. This production likely wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the award, so I’m grateful. In a climate where funding for artists is so scarce, awards schemes are vital. However, at the same time, they generally tend to promote a sense of competition among peers, which I have mixed feelings about.

It helps that the curatorial theme that applicants were invited to respond to for the Jerwood/FVU award was so appropriate, so relevant to my practice that I really felt I had something to say about it. Being granted the award confirmed, for me, the feeling that this was actually a conversation I could participate in.

A: You filmed in Fukushima, was this experience as haunting as it sounds, and did you observe any hope for recovery in the area?
KK: Well, we shot part of the film in a town located within the Fukushima prefecture but I also filmed in Hokkaido as well.  Fukushima is a large area that has suffered quite varied effects from the Tohoku disaster. I don’t think this is widely understood in the West, where media coverage gives us the impression that Fukushima is a single distinct town or village that has been thoroughly and uniformly destroyed. That’s not really the case and, to some extent, my film is about questioning that way of thinking about disasters and boundaries. Disasters are borderless and contingent, they occur at multiple sites, simultaneously or not, affecting different localities in different ways across different time scales. With this in mind I find the conventions of hope and recovery quite odd terms. Knowing what we now know, is rebuilding homes on coastal plains really recovery? What is meant by hope when the effects of radiation on a landscape potentially last longer than any known human civilisation? The language used in the aftermath of disaster is important and I think needs to be more precise.

A: Do you believe that the concepts highlighted in your film are to some extent universal?
KK: I hope the film is a cross-cultural work but I can’t help my own Westernness. I think the most important manoeuvre for me to pull off is, on the one hand, to accept the cultural specificity of my own perspective and accept that it will underscore the film, while on the other hand not projecting myself onto the region. That would put me in a position where I presume to speak as and for the people affected by the disaster, which would be a massive error.

A: What do you hope viewers will gain from watching your film?
KK: I suppose that we need to rethink our relationship to landscape and more specifically about our relationship to water – which is absolutely not obedient. Also, I hope they get a sense of the interconnectedness of ‘natural’ and ‘man made’ disasters: how the separation of the two is always kind of illusory, and the language of the ‘natural’ disaster is often used to legitimise socio-economic crises.

A: How does The Eye That Articulates Belongs on Land explore themes of time?
KK: Well I suppose you’ll have to go see it. Like most of my work it’s concerned with what Tim Morton has called “the deep shuddering of temporality” so within the context of one event we have a massive variation of time scales: there is the immediate (the earthquake was six minutes long). There was about a 20 minute window in which to escape the tsunami if possible. The effects of the consequent nuclear disaster will last thousands of years. The economic structures that populated the region so densely can be seen within about a 40 to 50 year time frame, but the geological process that lead to the earthquake is unfathomably old. My work always concerns the convergence of these temporalities in a sort of rupture.

Jerwood/FVU Awards 2016: Borrowed Time, Karen Kramer and Alice May Williams, Jerwood Space, London – 9 March to 24 April 2016, CCA, Glasgow – 28 May to 10 July 2016.

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The call for entries for the Jerwood/FVU Awards 2017 will be open from 12 January – 11 March 2016, with the theme and title Neither One Thing or Another.

The Jerwood/FVU Awards 2016 are a collaboration between Jerwood Charitable Foundation and FVU in association with CCA, Glasgow and University of East London. FVU is supported by Arts Council England.

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1. Still from Karen Kramer’s The Eye That Articulates Belongs on Land, 2015.