Altered State: A conversation with James Newitt

James Newitt, Altered State, 2006, two-channel video installation. Installation view, Handle With Care, Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, Art Gallery of South Australia. Photo courtesy the artist and Criterion Gallery, Hobart
James Newitt, Altered State, 2006, two-channel video installation. Installation view, Handle With Care, Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, Art Gallery of South Australia. Photo courtesy the artist and Criterion Gallery, Hobart

One of the most vivid memories from my school years was the arrival of two new students. They were a brother and sister from Sudan. Growing up in a rural town on the outskirts of Sydney’s suburban sprawl, the cultural diversity that defined its suburbs had yet to infiltrate my town’s population – one that remained largely Euro-centric with links to Australia’s colonial settlement or the waves of migration that followed the World Wars. Their arrival brought with them a new reality of Africa. A knowledge of the second Sudanese Civil War that had been raging since the year of my birth but which had remained largely outside of mainstream reportage. Through a shared language of youth, they both quickly made friends, and initial impressions were dissipated for the normality of school life. This is to simplify the process of assimilation.

Having worked as a curator in the suburbs of Western Sydney for the last five years, I have seen the population of refugees from Sudan steadily grow, and have often wondered what became of the brother and sister when they finished school, of their family here and of those who remained in Sudan, of their many stories untold. The two-channel video Altered State (2006), by James Newitt, features three residents of Hobart in moments of performance: Alfred, a refugee from Freetown, Sierra Leone dances to hip hop; Aurelia, from Sudan sings; and Fabio, a migrant from Zimbabwe, also sings while holding his traditional Mbira.

I recently spoke to Newitt via email about this work and the ethics of working with other people’s stories:

Susan Gibb: Where in the world is James Newitt and what takes you overseas?

James Newitt   I’m in San Francisco at the moment after driving from LA through Death Valley, here for a few days before heading to Mexico for the end of the year. I was lucky enough to be awarded the Qantas Foundation Encouragement of Contemporary Art Award in 2009. The award is really incredible. It is aimed specifically at artists for whom travel, engaging with new places and situations is important in the development of their practice.

Your work often engages with place and the people that live there. What is the inspiration behind this decision?

I’m aware that a lot of the work I do deals with issues and social conditions related to different places, but I don’t think I ever consciously decided that I would commit to this as a concern throughout my practice. I guess I did make a decision to work within a “situational” rather than studio-based practice. I wanted to confront and be confronted by new situations and to make work in response to this. Sometimes I enter a situation with a clear idea of the work I want to make, sometimes I construct a situation to fit an existing idea, sometimes I develop ideas through being immersed in a particular situation. Each of these approaches tends to deal with people and place, sometimes in very structured ways and sometimes in very open and unpredictable ways.

Your video Altered State features three Hobart residents. What inspired you to work with these people?

Altered State was made after I attempted to make an earlier work with Alfred. I was really interested in Alfred’s story – this young body builder/boxer/rapper who came to Tasmania with his family from Sierra Leone. He sometimes performs hip hop in Hobart and my friend who helped him get some gigs introduced me to him one night. His rapping is sort of awkward but the stories he tells through his lyrics are quite incredible. I wanted to try and make a video with him that spoke of contemporary displacement using the performative mode of hip hop to tell a story. The video didn’t work, I took Alfred to a location I wanted to shoot and the whole thing felt constructed and artificial.

At the same time I was filming a music video to repay Alfred for his time and as part of that video I filmed him at his mother’s house where he was also living. I realised that the image of Alfred performing in the vernacular 1950s domestic interior of his mother’s house spoke more strongly to ideas of displacement. I also realised that I needed to create a conversation or “call and response” through working with other performers to shift the work beyond a singular portrait into something more universal. I spent the next couple of months finding and negotiating with Aurelia and Fabio. They both bring a very different perspective to the work from Alfred’s frenetic dancing.

James Newitt, Altered State, 2006, two-channel video installation. Photo courtesy the artist and Criterion Gallery, Hobart
James Newitt, Altered State, 2006, two-channel video installation. Photo courtesy the artist and Criterion Gallery, Hobart

How did you meet Aurelia and Fabio?

I met Aurelia through a friend who was teaching her English. Aurelia’s daughter came with us to help translate. The whole experience was quite intense for me (and perhaps Aurelia too) because I had to be really clear and concise about my ideas and intentions behind the work. Aurelia is a Sudanese elder and a very well-respected woman, especially in the Sudanese community in Hobart. I was really conscious not to be presumptuous or confusing when I was explaining the work to her. This was also quite an early work for me, so I wasn't absolutely confident in my own processes or ability to successfully realise the video.

Fabio is quite a well-known musician in Tasmania so I was able to make contact with him through a mutual friend. He was used to performing in public so the idea of being filmed wasn’t too confronting for him. Actually Alfred, Aurelia and Fabio were all comfortable with the idea of public performance but I was interested in staging more personal, intimate and introverted performances – this was what required the most explanation, that I wanted them to perform for my camera but that it would actually be a non-performance, I needed them to pretend there was no one there with them.

James Newitt, Altered State, 2006, two-channel video installation. Photo courtesy the artist and Criterion Gallery, Hobart
James Newitt, Altered State, 2006, two-channel video installation. Photo courtesy the artist and Criterion Gallery, Hobart

The 1950s domestic interior behind Alfred is particularly poignant for the relationship it draws with a period in Australia when the “white Australia policy” was still in place. How do you understand contemporary displacement, and in particular the impact of different cultural influences in Tasmania? The interiors (and, in Fabio’s case, exterior) are really important aspects of the video and very much connected to the ideas behind the work. It’s important to acknowledge that I filmed each person in their own home – they live there by choice or because of government support.

Perhaps the best way to respond to your question about the Australian and specifically Tasmanian historical context, which these spaces allude to, is to draw attention to the title “Altered State”. The title is supposed to suggest themes of contemporary displacement and immigration – themes I have no personal experience of whatsoever – on the other hand the title is a critical reflection of a Tasmanian cultural context, a place I am much more familiar with. In many ways I feel that growing up in Tasmania one is sheltered or distanced from the cultural diversity that defines much of contemporary Australia.

It’s very difficult to speak in such general terms, but I did feel I witnessed a shift in Tasmania’s cultural diversity, which was very much connected to an influx of migrants particularly from Sudan and Sierra Leone. I wanted to try and learn more about what it meant to experience such a dramatic cultural and geographical shift, and how one could possibly tell this story from their new location in a small weatherboard house in a tiny city at the end of the world.

Across your works you establish an interesting tension between the staged and real through your use of the camera and documentary techniques. What do you aim to achieve through this?

I’m really interested in the documentary form and the potential that it offers working as an artist, but I’m also uncomfortable with the idea of working purely within the realm of documentary. For me there are a whole set of problems, possibilities and ideas that emerge when fiction and documentary are brought into contact and explored simultaneously.

Altered State explores this through quite a simple strategy of call and response. I present the work as a two-channel installation. This allows me to create a virtual relationship between the different isolated and introverted performances. I also scripted the video so that as one person finishes performing they stop, wait and “listen” to the next person’s performance. In other works staging, directing or fiction play more or less of a role – but to some extent all my works have been “staged” in one way or another. I guess for me it’s not about presenting reality and fiction as binary concepts – I don't see the world like that. Instead I aim to create a conflated sense of fiction and reality where the viewer is drawn into a narrative and then compelled to construct their own conclusions through the material provided, whether it’s absolutely “true” or not.

The idea of call and response could also be applied to your role as the artist of the work and your relationship with the subjects. How do you negotiate your own identity in the work?

One of the issues with working with other people and their stories and experiences is that in front of a camera the “subject” can be vulnerable to the manipulation of the artist. I try and be aware of this potential vulnerability with the works I make and develop strategies for negating it or at least acknowledging it. I think I tread some difficult ground with Altered State because the work deals with experiences, histories and places I have no understanding of.

I’m aware of the privileged position my own background and identity as a middle-class, white, Australian male places me in. I’m aware of my identity but I'm not apologetic about it – what would the point of that be? When I make work that incorporates other people’s stories or experiences I’ve always remained personally connected or implicated in the situation. As well as making a video portrait, Altered State is a way for me to try and better understand the shifting meaning of the place where I live.

What’s next for you?

I return to Australia in January – just in time for the opening of MoNA (the Museum of Old and New Art). Then I have to process all the material I’ve collected and filmed over the last few months of travelling. I’m also working on quite a large project with the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery which explores the myth of the Tasmanian Tiger (or Tasmanian Wolf as it was called in the Berlin Museum of Natural History).

I’ve got a couple of other exhibitions lined up for 2011 and then in early 2012 I’m going to Liverpool in the UK with an Australia Council for the Arts studio residency. I visited Liverpool as part of this trip to see the Biennial. It seems like a really vibrant place, which has undergone some serious cultural and industrial change recently, so I’m really looking forward to going back and developing work there.