Interview with Ilona Sagar

June 2017

A series of interviews with SPACE Art + Technology artists in residence
What were you doing in the year leading up to the residency?
I have been working on a series of projects that oscillate around a core body of research that expresses the complex and changing landscape of health and wellbeing. Amidst global uncertainty and social unrest, the urgent nature of discourse surrounding health, technology and social mobility feels like a pressing subject to understand. My claim is that these notions translate to the wider impact and changing shape of mechanisms of labour, governmental structure and social contract; those aspects of neoliberal governmentality, that can be described through the lens of biopolitics. An emphasis on self-regulation allows the body to become a form of capital and product. ‘Good health’ therefore is increasingly valued as consumer asset rather than human right.

One of my recent projects that best exemplifies this would be Prosodic Breakers, at Performance Studio, a piece that uses speech patterns, gestures and the body movements of a group of performers as an interface to examine our multi-faceted relationship to the divergent ideologies surrounding health and personal wellbeing. Working with contact microphones on their neck and chest, each performer acted as a component of a narrative that explores the history, design and social context of health and welfare. The resulting broken conversation between participating speakers is as much about the stutters and mistakes of the voice as it is the delivered text.

Another example is The Grounds We Tread at The Pump House Gallery, a solo commission that draws upon the scales of language associated with the space of care and emotional labour. The performers acted as mediators, reiterating spoken text in real-time as it is played back through headphones. The live work pushed the performer to their limits, using durational verbatim and gestural technique. This is a recurring theme in my practice and has definitely fed into the work that I am researching during the residency. This work was also significant for my second major collaboration with Dr Stephen Hicks. We worked with body and eye tracking data captured from the performers, generating a text work, and other responsive visualisations, throughout the exhibition, which played with the syntaxical paradigms of power between technology and the body.

What are you working on at the moment?
During the residency I have been researching and developing a new series of moving image and performance works. I am particularly interested in considering how we design around the body. How do the devices we use dictate our shared environment? Do we control or co-habit with designed objects? Part of the work I am developing involves working with Stenography and Palantype. I have been speaking to both the inventor of the Palantype machine and a world record holder for verbatim reporting (360 per min). I am interested in this type of verbatim reporting as it is used both in legal modes and for disabled access and creates a blur between assistive technology, language interpretation and human/computer interaction/adaptations. It is an ever-spreading web of research, and I’m enjoying immersing myself in this niche world.

Throughout the residency I have been collaborating with Oxsight, an organisation who are engineering devices to assist users who are registered blind. Through my conversations with Oxsight and further research, I am beginning to realise how complex our contemporary understanding of 'able' and 'disabled' bodies is. There is a tension between sameness and difference in how wearable tools are designed, marketed and perceived by the public. The idea that bodies are either enhanced or normalised is an uncomfortable perspective of wearable technologies and raises the question, what is a good body? How much are we a measurement of our ‘body capital’, labour and efficiency?
On the 25th and 27th of June I will be holding two workshops. Working in collaboration with OxSight and Torr Vision Lab, and Alex Taylor from Microsoft Research Cambridge Lab, Human Experiences & Design Group, the event will investigate our relationship to assistive technologies, asking: how can we safeguard agency and subjective experience? Participants will be invited to imagine new ways of rendering our physical environment and translate the objects it contains into sonic semantics. Testing wearable vision enhancement tools will act as a catalyst for a much wider exploration into the politics and language of assistive technologies.

How have you found the residency so far?
It has been great to contribute to the studio and be surrounded by like-minded people who understand the landscape of research that I’m exploring, but equally can challenge it in a rigorous and unexpected way. I have really enjoyed getting to know other residents practice and approach more deeply. The studio has been a really energetic and inspiring place to be part of for the last three months. The residency has given me much needed space and time to research and expand my ideas. The production support and critical engagement from the curatorial team has been really brilliant and has helped me to take steps forward in my research.

What’s coming next?
This July I will be screening work for nawki at multiple venues including SPUR and Eastside Projects. Later in the year I will be launching Correspondence O. Based on the history of the Peckham Pioneer Centre, the research conducted there and its subsequent conversion into a gated community, Correspondence O will be a multifaceted work which expresses the complex and changing landscape of public health and the social shift away from a group mind-set to a more egocentric, user-focused and technology infused understanding of wellness. This new piece will be the result of in-depth research and experimental collaborations with a number of different practitioners and institutions, including The Wellcome Trust, RIBA, Cambridge, Exeter and Oxford University. It will culminate in a moving-image installation opening at South London Gallery in December 2017 and will accompany a new publication with Black Dog Publishing that will launch around the same time. I am also in the early stages of planning a project at CGP gallery to launch next year, and I hope that this will be a way to continue to antagonise the rich and challenging subjects I am currently working with.