Haroon Mirza, A Chamber for Horwitz; Sonakinatography Transcriptions in Surround Sound; Installation view at Museum Tinguely, Basel, (c) 2015 Museum Tinguely, Basel; photo: Bettina Matthiessen
Haroon Mirza self-describes as a ‘composer, manipulating electricity, a live, invisible and volatile phenomenon, to make it dance to a different tune’. His work spans kinetic sculptures, performances and immersive installations.
His instruments are varied, including household electronics, vinyl and turntables, LEDs, furniture, video footage and existing artworks. Sampling, remixing and assembling rather than making per se, his approach and the resulting works, he says, exist outside of the contemporary art experience/phenomenon and express the approach of the emerging paradigm.
Forward thinking in both his practice as well as his broader thinking about what art world systems often taken for granted, he proved an insightful artist for PSC to meet at this juncture, especially when thinking about what a sculptural sensibility can mean today.
Haroon is represented by Lisson Gallery. The following is based on an interview with the artist in his out-of-the-thoroughfare studio.
Pangaea Sculptors’ Centre: We’re here in your North London studio, which has been set up in a way that’s very particular to your practice. More generally, do you have any thoughts on how current studio provisions reflect contemporary working methods?
Haroon Mirza: In the 80s and 90s people were using warehouses. It’s not like that anymore because warehouses are all now owned by property developers trying to turn them in to fancy apartments. More and more, the kinds of spaces available now for studios are office spaces. The Woodmill in Bermondsey is a good example. Studios are always changing because artists have to take what space they can. On the one hand the space dictates what the work becomes and on the other hand the work dictates the space as well.
The studio here is weird because it has carpet. And actually, though it was initially not something I designed in to the space, this carpet is perfect for what I do as it reduces echo and reverberation.
There’s an interesting parallel between the studio space, the gallery space and domestic spaces. If you look throughout history those three things often follow and inform each other. The studio space tries to mimic the gallery space, the gallery space tries to mimic the studio space and domestic spaces try to mimic gallery spaces. If you take trends in domestic spaces, like wooden floors say, they often seem to follow the design of gallery spaces. Now you’re seeing concrete floors in homes. Galleries were doing this because they had to, either for the work, or for cabling, for all sorts of reasons. There’s this really interesting dynamic between those kinds of spaces and how they influence and inform each other.
How this all has a bearing on the way people work, or the work that is made, is more difficult to predict. I don’t think you can design for the perfect space. When you over determine they often end up being dysfunctional.
PSC: How do the specifics of this studio here facilitate your practice?
HM: We initially got this studio in order to buy this building, so my wife – who is also an artist – and I could convert upstairs in to an apartment and make it into a live/work space, in part because we have two young children. That’s not what’s happened, and we’ve been here two years now. But actually upstairs gets used in all kind of ways. Once I built a really huge structure in there, a reverberation chamber, so it was really useful to have the extra space and to be able to do that here. Usually, for something like that, I’d have to hire somewhere, or someone, to make it.
Right now I’m using upstairs as a kind of rehearsal and recording studio and if I didn’t have that space, I wouldn’t have that option. I mean, I could do it all down here but it would be far more complicated. We’ve also done events in the studio. We’ve had thirty or forty schoolgirls up here. It was their teacher that organised it. She invited loads of designers, architects, musicians and artists to come in and talk to the students about what they do. What it means to be an artist. That was kind of cool.
In the studio before in Hoxton, Gabriella, who used to work with us, was an active member of the ELF [East London Fawcett] and they used to do all kinds of things. They used to do screenings and music events and all sorts. So you know, having this space just enables, it opens up opportunities to try new things.
PSC: Can we ask how you got from being this emerging artist who graduated from art school in 2007 to being an established one who is recognised round the world, who is collected internationally and who works with Lisson?
HM: There are two ways to approach answering your question. The more complicated involves clarifying this term ‘emerging’ so let’s start with that. I would argue that I am still an emerging artist and that unless my practice dramatically shifts, I will remain an emerging artist no matter how established I get. This is because I’ve come out of the emerging paradigm. In the same way as you can bracket contemporary art to a particular type, that you can differentiate between what art from the modern and contemporary paradigms looks like, I think you can do the same between the contemporary and the emerging. So emerging is a thing in itself.
People talk all the time about emerging art, emerging artists, emerging economies, emerging this, emerging that. It’s almost a state in itself. The state of emerging. It talks to what’s coming next rather that what is now. I think the works that can be associated with this idea or notion of the emerging paradigm have a sense of multi-disciplinarity, a sense of no fixed boundaries, spatially or otherwise. Perhaps too there’s no real idea of finished work.
The simple answer is that I was just lucky. I was lucky that my work happened to go in a direction in which people saw interest and found value. And I was lucky that I was doing what I was doing at the right time for this to happen. When I came out of college it was 2007, the recession had already hit and galleries needed to find new ways of moving forward with their programming. And I was a bit of a punt for Lisson, in a way. Of course we also got on and we had similar ways of thinking, similar ways of working. But I was prepared to work really hard and they were prepared to support that. So that was lucky.
For me the thing wasn’t market drive. It wasn’t that my work suddenly started skyrocketing in price. It was different. It was closer to the trajectory of maybe Ed Atkins or James Richards, where there was just an amazing amount of curatorial interest and this happened very quickly.
PSC: So can you talk a bit more about how your career developed? Were there key junctures?
HM: I did two MAs. The Goldsmiths MA was more important for the work because that’s where I developed a very specific way of working. But presenting that work wasn’t a part of the programme there. It was a new MA. It had only been going for one or two years. I was one of the first people to do the course, one of only two on the course in the first year. And then in the second year there were a few more people.
When I finished I was really pleased with the work that was made. But it wasn’t like we had a big show and people came to see it. After that I went to Chelsea College of Arts where I don’t think the work developed in a meaningful way. I mean, it got more focused and refined but I don’t think there was any kind of dramatic evolution in the work at that time. But what Chelsea did was give me a network of more similar peers. The peer group was more appropriate and the show at the end was more appropriate for what I was doing.
At that time I was also working for Jeremy Deller as an assistant and I met Greg Hilty through Jeremy. Greg wasn’t Curatorial Director at Lisson Gallery at the time but instead doing projects independently. One of these was with Jeremy and so I was working with Greg on this. He didn’t know I was an artist and I didn’t know that later on he’d be working at Lisson Gallery. And so the next important thing, I guess, was being selected for New Contemporaries and then Greg Hilty coming to see the New Contemporaries show and him saying, ‘Oh so this is your work and you’re an artist’ and me going, ‘Oh so you work at Lisson Gallery, that’s kind of nice’. So that’s how that conversation started. About a year later he invited me to do a small presentation at the gallery within a group show. So it’s a combination of a lot of things, actually.
PSC: So if that’s your becoming, perhaps we can ask you now about your works’ becoming. We’re particularly interested in the idea of the lifecycle of an artwork and how you go from concept, to realisation, to sale, to aftercare.
HM: That’s a good question actually because no one asks about the aftercare. But there is aftercare. Ben’s actually working on a bit of aftercare right now. [He nods to his assistant working close by in the studio, Ben Barwise.]
Alright, so I guess the first part is more complicated in that there’s no real strict process about how the work might emerge, develop and grow. Other than that there’s a whole bunch of materials that I use frequently. From LED lighting to micro controllers and currently solar panels too. The work is all made in the studio, pretty much 90% of it, and mostly Ben and I make it. Nowadays Ben will do the programming and the R&D on all the technical and computer side of things. You know we build different kinds of devices. They’re all unique, but essentially multimedia players that control video, light, sounds and sometimes other stuff. They usually develop via the context of whatever we’re finding interesting at that time. Once they’re finished they hang around in the studio for a while. Sometimes this might only be for a day, other times for a year, depending on what the work is.
These things will be logged, photographed and put into the inventory. We have a database of all the works. Alice Hackney, Studio Manager, will make a file that will have all the information about the work, what it’s made from, the size and so on. Then Ben will make installation instructions. Sometimes we have spare parts or other elements that might need shipping with the work. It’s quite crude though. You know, the photograph isn’t a professional photograph. It’s an iPhone picture. We might also make a recording of the work if there’s sound involved. So we have all of that information stored and then it will get shipped to whomever, either to a show or to Lisson.
Aftercare is really a strange thing because some people really care about aftercare to the point where it’s completely extreme and some people don’t give a shit. Some people that you think won’t get the work out of the crate, actually do install it. Sometimes people want complete and detailed installation instructions, or me, or someone from the studio to go over. Right now Ben is working on some aftercare for an older piece (Taka Tak, 2008), incidentally the one that was shown in New Contemporaries. It’s now owned by the British Council. This aftercare is kind of fair enough. It was originally made half in Pakistan and half here, made with loads of found junk basically. So there’s this small LED device I found from some street seller in Pakistan. It’s essentially like a one off thing. A unique object. But it’s quite fragile so through a conversation between Ben and the British Council, we’ve decided we’ll make a few of them in case it breaks. But that’s kind of a weird thing because its not like we made it in the first place. So Ben is having to actually find the circuitry from the original, work out what the circuit actually is and rebuild it. And we’re going to make five or six of these and clone the circuit. So that’s one example of aftercare.
Another example of aftercare is something simple such as the lights aren’t switching on and you end up going and wiring it in properly for them. Sometimes there’s a constant conversation but more often the work just disappears and you never hear of it again. Though some people are really fussy. There were actually three works that I made in 2010/11 where they had these really fragile LCD screens, really thin, ripped out from TV and computer monitors. And the gallery was hanging them and because they were extremely fragile they would keep breaking. And this happened with this one particular work that was in a collection. It was confusing until we established that it was just being handled badly by the technicians in this collection. So my gallery had to buy that work back in the end because it kept coming back and forth, back and forth. They were complaining to Lisson that they’d sold them junk and we were complaining that they were breaking it by handling it carelessly. It was this really frustrating thing.
PSC: What about the reinstallation of a work in a new space or context. Does the spacing between objects in an assemblage stay the same no matter what? How does that work?
HM: It really depends on what kind of work it is. It’s a practical thing. The installation of works usually depends on the space. It’s a curatorial decision. It doesn’t have to be me that makes those decisions. Though I can if they want me to. Some things of course have to be a certain way, say for example that pole propping that solar panel up [he gestures to a work in the studio]. That needs to be vertical and if it isn’t it might fall down. But other than that I don’t care where it’s positioned or how it’s positioned or where the speaker is. The speaker can be anywhere as long as it’s attached to it. Even the LEDs. With the LEDs there might be a bit of it that needs to be in a certain place but that’s it. And you can’t expect to have control.
I can think of a work right now that was made with two objects positioned very carefully. A very decent collector bought it, who I know really well, they’re actually friends, and they installed it and sent me a picture and it’s a different configuration. So I said to them, ‘You know it’s not meant to be installed like that’ and they said, ‘Yes, but we didn’t have enough space so we had to push them together’. [Haroon laughs.] I was like, ‘Fair enough, ok’. You know in a way its out of your hands at that point. You don’t get someone from DFS saying you can’t put your sofa there or like that.
PSC: Frieze has just come round for another year. Can you talk about the rise of the Art Fair and showing in that particular context?
HM: Well, now there’s this strange phenomenon of people making, and being asked to make, works for art fairs. So we now have such a thing as work that only exists for art fairs. Art fairs have become a context for which to make work. I don’t think this is necessarily a problem because this has happened throughout art history, whereby you are commissioned to make pieces for a specific context. And an art fair is a specific context and is no less relevant as a space than, say, a museum or a church for example. So I don’t particularly have a problem with that.
What is interesting is that it does something strange to the market because if people are buying artwork from art fairs, what that means is generally it’s an art work that has no provenance. Or, it’s a piece that didn’t sell before. So it’s not the best. It’s like a clearing house. But you know this is the market and the art world of course feeds it. That’s basic economics. It’s a completely crazy market but a market none the less. It’s completely unregulated. And actually artists can’t do what they do unless they sell their work and, if the only way artists can sell their work is through that channel, then so be it. Some artists might make the most crazy installation, which you know they will never sell, but then they might sell some rubbish that they’ve made because that’s what people want to buy. But if that’s what people want to buy then whatever, you know, that’s fine too, and it means that artist can fund his or hers mad installations.
PSC: So what is the difference in your work for art fairs compared to your work not for art fairs?
HM: For a while I was making works specifically for art fairs. The gallery calls them furniture pieces now. They were works with furniture or assemblages with bits and bobs. They were works that I was already making that worked for that context. But then it got to a point where the works that I was showing in museums and galleries – proper shows – were becoming more installations. And for art fairs I was making more consolidated versions of these as furniture works. In the end I felt like I was making works just for art fairs to the point where I would title them: Work for an Art Fair. I was just being honest about it.
Now, there’s been a development in my work, which is working with solar panels, and I‘m making these solar works, which are an interesting move for me. You know these weren’t made for art fairs. They were made because of a process that I was already investigating. I got interested in the process of making these things. And actually they are also great for art fairs.
PSC: Do you know who buys your work?
HM: Pretty much. Not every single person but it’s always a conversation. Yes.
PSC: This interview is part of a series we’re doing entitled The Industry of Sculpture as we know the business of being an artist takes more than just creativity and luck. How have you professionalised as you’ve become more successful?
HM: I have a company called HRM199 Ltd. A lot of artists have to have companies when they have members of staff or turnover that yields over the VAT limit. That’s a normal thing. But its not often thought about. The focus is always on the artist. One of the things I’m trying to do here is to change that. To be more transparent.
So, from next year onwards I’m going to try and step back as the protagonist of what the studio does so that actually the studio does projects. The shows we do will also be by HRM199 Ltd. rather than by Haroon Mirza. If there’s any crediting then both Alice and Ben, and any other collaborators, will be credited just as much as myself because it’s an organisation doing these things not just me. You know I’m not the creator of it all.
PSC: But we’re assuming HRM are your initials?
HM: These were the name/numbers that were given to me as an email address when I started uni. So I will be the artistic director of this company rather than operating under the pretence that I am the artist doing all this stuff.
PSC: Where does this desire come from?
HM: I think it’s about transparency, about what a practice really is. What is an artist? And what do they actually do in relation to what others do; their support structure. It’s me wanting to be more straightforward about it. I mean why is it any different to a design studio or a music company or a corner shop? It’s not really. But somehow there’s this idea that art is sacred. Aura and artists are sacred. It’s just to maintain the market you know.
PSC: This sounds like a very different approach to authorship than the one that has been favoured historically by artists.
HM: It’s trying to remove authorship. Though of course you can’t because at the end of the day the things I make, I kind of made them. But then the code that Ben is writing, that’s his code, his work, not my work. And Alice might do things here too. So you know there are the things that I’ve made but there might be other things that are not at all my authorship. It’s kind of being more upfront about that.
So Ben builds 3D printers here and Alice makes jewellery. I want the studio to be a usable space. That they are users of the space as well as working here. I want there to be things that happen here that are not at all controlled by me. It’s more creative that way. And you know what, because of Ben’s work with 3D printers, 3D printing has become the focus point of a recent work. If Ben hadn’t been here and hadn’t been doing his thing, then that work would never have happened. It’s about recognising those connections and links.
It’s quite a sculptural sensibility to bring together all these different bits. It’s almost like an assemblage in itself.
This interview mentioned:
East London Fawcett Group, the East London branch of the Fawcett Society, the UK’s leading campaign for equality between men and women. ELF organises talks, parties, arts events, sporting activities and much more. It is 21st Century activism for women and men who believe in progress and who want to be a part of an exciting movement that comprises a growing network of interesting and engaged people in East London. The group is open to all and membership is free.