Before I could speak, x spoke
10 February - 5 March 2017
Winnie Herbstein studied at Glasgow School of Art
She currently lives and works in Glasgow
A conversation between Sophie Purchase and Winnie Herbstein, Outpost Gallery, 6th February 2017
Sophie Purchase: So your work is very process driven and I wondered how when you make things, the instructions for making kind of feed into the instructions and diagrams that you’ve used in your animations and whether they feed into each other or whether you separate them in a sense?
Winnie Herbstein: I would probably say that my work was research driven in its beginning stages, in its inception. I am interested in how materials work, but I use materials, like concrete, metal and wood, because somehow they feel closed off to me. Maybe we’ve talked about this before, but there’s the feeling that materials are gendered - how concrete belongs on the building site and metal in the forge. They’re heavy and dirty - concrete comes in these heavy 25 kilo bags, that are really difficult for my body to lift and there’s something about that I find empowering. The act of going through and learning these different processes, like what the best way to pour concrete is and finding out what will make it stronger. Often that means asking questions or asking people for advice, but the process of me accumulating that information is really important. Being here and welding with Davide was a great experience because in Glasgow I’m part of a woman’s welding collective, we teach each other because we believe it’s important to create spaces in which you can feel comfortable learning. Working here with someone else has broadened my skills base, so when we’re working in Glasgow we can use that information, which in turn improves everyone’s skills. So, really the process element of my work is more like a political thing for me. The diagrams are slightly different in a way. The ones in the show came from an engine manual for a Nissan Skyline. This is linked to a project I did last year in Arbroath in Scotland, I worked with a girl racer and her husband who had a Skyline, so I came across these manuals and was fascinated by the cartoon imagery in them and the fact that people actually refer to these as a way to fix something mechanical. Thinking about the decisions that the illustrators made; thinking about wanting to make things clear, how this information is passed along, who actually reads these etc. There were certain things I was drawn to, the animations that will be on the walls are these moments where the instruction is to hit the piece with a hammer and it has these cartoon stars coming out; the manual is very carefully put together, but it gets to the point where they don’t know what to do anymore and the suggestion is to hit it with a hammer. It’s this anger and this frustration and this force, but also this playfulness and there’s something in it that’s slightly sexual, so it has all of these things kind of wrapped up in it. I think the relationship between the diagrams and the sculpture lies in ‘skill’ – from a position of who can and can not access these skills… which I guess leads to conversation around power relations.
SP: Just going back to your materials again, using industrial materials - is that something you fell into in order produce certain work or something that you actively wanted to do in order to push against that feeling of it not being meant for you?
WH: I think it’s a bit of both really, I always really loved working in wood, but I’ve always felt really nervous about really getting into it and going into wood workshops. You know, I’ve spent a lot of time in workshops, but I always questioned why I felt unconfident being in those spaces. I suppose it came with an increased awareness in feminist histories, which helped me to understand my position a lot more. I’ve been reading the work of Cynthia Cockburn; who is an amazing woman, she wrote these books in the ‘80s about technology and gender, the masculine feminine kind of divide, so through that I realised that these feeling I have don’t just come from a lack of confidence, it’s something else. So now I feel it’s a real conscious effort to undertake this type of work, I want to weld this thing and still it’s something where I feel like I’m not taken seriously. Even if you go into a hardware store, with all the right language it’s still this feeling of someone knowing better and maybe they do, but also I’m never going to be given the chance that I know as much as them… so today it feels like it’s conscious. But I also love it, like welding the table over the weekend was just the most exciting thing, it’s really empowering, because you go from these materials that are relatively weak and even in a moment you make one weld and it’s so strong, to think that you can just do that is an amazing feeling, I think.
SP: The title of your show is Before I Could Speak, X Spoke, could you talk a little about that?
WH: So, Before I could speak, X spoke, I guess it’s again thinking about how people are positioned. In a really straightforward way it can reference ‘mansplaining’ and those kinds of things: who’s allowed to speak and the expectation of who’s allowed to access spaces and skills. But I’m thinking about my position both as the ‘I’ and also as the ‘X’. In Glasgow I’m on a committee of an artist run space, the power balances within the group are not just based on gender, but the colour of people’s skin and people’s sexuality. So my position shifts, from a position of no power to a position of power, I think it’s important to become aware of when your position changes and when others are affected, in order to address those balances.
SP: Thinking about intersectionality …
WH: Yeah exactly and elements like the table, which is really interesting for me as a structure - the different spaces that it sits in, it sits in the family home and it’s also in the office, the boardroom table. These places are sites where power dynamics are enacted. I did a lot of research a few years ago into King Arthur’s table, which was revolutionary in being round and therefore no longer had a ‘head of the table’. It was meant to dispel hierarchy, but these dynamics always exist. The table is a site of discourse, or a site of addressing something. I kind of liked it, that in the exhibition, the table sits in the space, as a suggestive thing, but the space is silent, there’s no chairs at the table - it’s just a decorative object, but there’s always the possibility for it to become practical.