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The Centre of Attention: Pierre Coinde and Gary O'Dwyer, Gary Thomas interview, 22 September 2009



APEngine’s Gary Thomas talked to Pierre Coinde and Gary O’Dwyer – The Centre of Attention – when they took a break from editing their feature length film Action Diana, which gets its world premiere as part of the AND Festival at FACT Liverpool, this September.



So, who and what is the Centre of Attention?

Gary: The Centre of Attention it started off as a gallery, but we also treat it as an artist. So it makes work as well and does some curation as well. We’ve been going about 10 years. It’s basically the two of us yes. I work as an artist as House of O’Dwyer as well.

So you see Centre of Attention as being ‘it’.

Pierre: It. Yes, we say the Centre of Attention does this and it does that. Which slightly removes it from us. When we talk about different ideas for work, I would say, or he does, “with that then it’s more of a House of O’Dwyer work and this is more of a Centre of Attention work”.

Do you think of yourselves as a partnership or an organisation?

Gary: In the very beginning we wanted it to seem like it was a big organisation. So we wanted to give it quite a grand name. So it was like a Centre of Attention Studies, give it that kind of feeling. And also it was quite serious, but also could be humorous as well.

Pierre: There’s been an on and off Centre of Attention magazine. There’s been a Centre of Attention prize.

It’s incredible to have sustained over 10 years – and without funding – at the level that you work – ambitious, complex, sophisticated projects. And you have that extremely impressive list of collaborators and artists – in your website archive.

Gary: There’s everything here.

Pierre: We often do about eight shows or so a year, so every new show adds a few pages. It’s only because it’s been a 10 year endeavour that now there’s 1000 pages. But it’s quite a regular activity - regular exhibitions or works. Whether it be in London or overseas.

It’s an extremely varied breadth of work. I wonder if there’s an underlying thing that’s driving what one might call your ‘practice’?

Gary: Well we’d thought that would be revealed – that’s one of the reasons we’re documenting everything, because what we’re into would be revealed to us. We never really had a fixed agenda except for – what can you do with no money, and how long can you keep going.

Pierre: And we started as a gallery because we thought that artists, at the end of the 90s, early 2000, had a lot of varied places to show work, but at the same time, galleries were just presenting work the same way as they had done for the past dozens of years. We were interested in how work is presented. What part is the public taking in this?

Whether it’s in terms of exhibitions that we create, or works that we make, there is always that sense of presentation and production and consumption of art.

I think one of things that’s evident is the characteristic of openness and wanting to engage.

Pierre: It’s partly that you have to bring some vulnerability or that we tend not to hide behind the projects. So we don’t usually present things with the pretence of an objective manner. It’s obvious that something will have been either curated by us, or if we’re on location, it actually involves interactions with us. At the same time, it’s open for the visitor or the viewer to have any sort of interaction that they want.

In terms of performance, I’ve always disliked it where the rules are too much dictated in terms of how will you interact with the work and vice versa.

We did a show called The Curators in New York, which was me and Gary in the gallery space, saying “we’re cutting out the middle man” – the artist. Just showing the curators, because it’s the curators that have an important message to put across.

But the visitors could do anything that they wanted in terms of how they engaged with that work. And some of them were artists and thinking well, this curator’s here, I’m going to show them my portfolio.

Other people were abusive because they were feeling robbed, that there wasn’t any work on the wall to see. And it’s just open to whichever way you want to engage with it.

Gary: We’ve always had the sense that people would like to be involved with art rather than just looking at the decorative panels hanging on the wall, or an object on the floor. And then just walking by and feeling really empty.

That they somehow can interact with you and respond in person, whether they like it or not I think.

Pierre: At the same time, sometimes the generosity veers towards asking what we as artists can get from the public. In Action Diana – we need to make the film, so we need you – the public – to do something for us. We’re asking you to be the generous one.

Another characteristic is the wit and humour and fun in your work. You know, you use the word ‘play’, which I don’t think means it’s not serious – I think it means it’s all the more serious.

Gary: Yes, we’re quite keen to distance ourselves from art that pretends to be or poses as serious, like that’s somehow art because it’s serious, when art should include everything that life might include.

And humour would so obviously to be part of that. But hopefully it’s not treated as throw away just because we don’t present ourselves as so serious.

In a way I don’t care about that anymore. I used to be more worried – that it’s a bad name, The Centre of Attention – that it sounds like a big joke. But now I don’t really care. But people still don’t know what we’re doing. Are you a gallery? Are you an artist?

Pierre: It’s partly our own aim – not to make it easier for people to be able to classify and say “Oh yes, it’s about performance arts.” Or “Oh, they’re curators.”

I think if you make things clear then that skews the way that people might look at the work. Whereas I would hope that it’s the work, whether it be a curation work or an artistic work, that helps define what The Centre of Attention is.

I guess your point there isn’t simply to be stubborn and not to define yourself, but to say that these are changing definitions and things aren’t sort of fixed.

Gary: There are opportunities out there that we don’t know about. So why define yourself so rigidly. It’s keeping ourselves open to opportunities that we don’t even know exist.

When we started I don’t think we thought we’d be in the Venice Biennale as The Centre of Attention.

Pierre: Or in the AND Festival.

Gary: And people were confused, like “Oh you’re a gallery but you’re in Venice.” Well, we’re a gallery and we’re artists. And Centre of Attention makes products for exhibition.

Pierre: But I suppose it is easier for artists who make a well defined range of products, because this is what they’re known for, this is what they’re asked to do and they’ll just carry on doing it.

Gary: And familiarity can even make you start liking things you never actually liked. Just because every two years you’ll say “Oh, that’s the thingy.”

We don’t really do that because we keep everything so random - but when you actually list them you can see some sensibility going through most things.

Even with the thing we’re working on now, the Pavilion for Post Contemporary Curating, which is utopian, conceptual.

I was initially very impressed.

Pierre: Oh, not any more?

Well, then something dawned on me!

Pierre: It dawned on you that the English Heritage might not let it happen.

And a million pounds seemed quite cheap for what you’re proposing

Pierre: That’s just to start, that’s the feasibility study!

So, Action Diana. It’s going to be a feature film?

Gary: Yes. We’ve been working on it for a couple of years. Because we only make it as a performance so it has to have the framework of a show. So it has to be either in a gallery or sponsored by a gallery or a theatre.

How do you mean? It’s a film, but how do you mean as a performance?

Gary: Because we regard our making of it and dealing with the public as a performance that you can come and watch as well, and not get involved.

Pierre: It’s an exhibition, and it’s about what you do with the materials that the exhibition provides, which is a space and people. So we didn’t say we want to make a film lets go out on the street and do that.

Our approach was – what is it you can do and make and create from an exhibition, and that is a film. So it’s only being made during exhibitions.

And you spent time in Liverpool making it?

Pierre: Five weeks, six weeks, more, yes.

And who are the people?

Gary: Just whoever might visit the gallery, or whoever’s going past the front door who looks like they might be good for the film.

Pierre: We’ve filmed in several locations. So the longest period has been in Liverpool, but also during the summer we did a few stays in Mount Stuart, which is a 19th century neo-gothic mansion on the Isle of Bute. Where again, this is a public space open to the public so coaches arrive and we just used them to make that film. And we also did some filming in Guttenberg, in a theatre in Vienna. For the theatre in Vienna, people would arrive at 8 o’clock in the evening and instead of actually seeing a play, they’re just actually making the film with us.

And at the end of the evening we show the rushes. So the work gets created there and then.

Gary: So this fits in with our making ourselves vulnerable, and then to show them immediately, that was one of the most satisfying ways of doing it. Because everybody arrives, you do the filming and everybody is watching, people can help.

And then the conclusion, at the third act, everybody sits down and watches what they’ve been doing. And it’s hilarious for them.

But in the edited film – is that a film or does the process remain evident?

Gary: It does in that there are unedited rushes that we call scene selection – so scene selection Vienna exists on its own. But in the final Action Diana film, we treat it properly, so no takes or bloopers.

Pierre: Action Diana in effect is a series of portraits of people saying a dialogue and being put together. Where the main character in the film is played by several hundred different people according to who was where at what time. But it doesn’t take in all the different takes and it’s not about the making of the film – it’s a narrative story which is probably very difficult to understand because of the changing actors.

Because of the way it’s told?

Pierre: Yes. But at the same time it doesn’t matter too much, because really they are portraits of visitors to John Moore’s University.

And what is the dialogue? Is there a script?

Pierre: It’s a 1960s script by Frederic Raphael.

Gary: Which adds to the performative aspect of making it, because we’re standing there with big idiot boards and people are reading off that. We don’t really give them time to rehearse or anything.

How do people respond to your invitation to take part?

Gary: Most people are happy. If you select them they feel that you know that you want them for something they’re suited for.

You’ve cast them.

Gary: Yes, exactly. But sometimes we’re working so quickly they’ll be doing it, they go off and then they come back and say “What was that about..what have you made me do, what is that for?”

So it’s quite varied. Some people just get it immediately. And I don’t think people feel used or that they’re being made fun of. But they are generally all quite bad actors.

But even the actors are quite bad – the people who are actually actors are quite bad.

Pierre: I think if you’re visiting somewhere and suddenly you’re being asked to be in a film, it changes your perspective or how you look at the exhibition space, because you’re not external anymore, you’re part of something that’s happening there.

You’re even a part in the sense that you’re playing a role for other visitors – in Mount Stuart for example, in the mansion, people were going beyond the rope barriers in the house and sitting on chairs and doing their thing. Eating from the plates. Suddenly it completely changes how you see the space you’re in. There’s an immediate engagement with the work – a work that can be lived as it’s being made. And it’s a work that can also then be watched as a film in the end.

You’ve used the term ‘hot installation’.

Gary: Because I can’t think of another word. An installation where you’re actually producing something rather than an installation where you’re just in it. I do quite like hot installation, I think it’s funny.

But the other side of what you say about process is interesting, because although you show those rushes, the process is the exhibition, but you don’t then go on to exhibit the process, you exhibit the film. Is that right?

Gary: If somebody asked to show the Vienna scene selection, I probably would show it. They wouldn’t necessarily need to show the film.

Pierre: I think there are links with other video works we’ve made where we arrive in the space and work doesn’t exist. At a private view, in Switzerland we made them have a fight. And we filmed that fight and then that was the video that is shown for the rest of the exhibition.

Gary: We wanted to reproduce a scandal, so we had them booing. We warmed them up, they could boo, they cheered, and then we’re like… “fight!”.

Pierre: Or in a project at the Cafe Gallery, we got people to do animal noises in the dark.

Gary: Get into a circle, hold hands.

Pierre: So then you’re the visitor the next day, and what you see is something a little bit weird that’s happened in that very place during that exhibition that you’re seeing.

They can be shown, and they have been shown, elsewhere. But if I was the curator I’d ask The Centre of Attention to do a work specifically for the space rather than show one from elsewhere.

Another quote of yours I’ve read is about the notion of the poverty of video art against the wealth of art in the movie.

Gary: With Action Diana, the final film, we wanted to somehow make it analogous to video art in that it’s possibly unwatchable, incoherent, you have no idea what’s going on, really bad aesthetic, cheap video camera feeling.

But there is a story embedded in the narrative. It seemed that filmmaking is just such an amazing art form that isn’t considered art really. A narrative film just seems amazingly wonderful, creative, intelligent – not all of them of course.

And video art seems a very poor relation, even with ideas, which is what conceptual video art is supposed to give you.

But is that to do with video art or is it all art?

Gary: Well you can get away with anything with video art can’t you? Because it’s quite new you can almost just do anything and it’s art. So I think people aren’t applying their full critical faculties to what’s going on yet.

I think cinema and art are separate things. And there are artists who understand and take cinema as their subject. I think Jane and Louise Wilson understand cinema. And Gillian Wearing. But I remember when they were first making work, how many art critics couldn’t understand their work in relation to cinema at all. And certainly now you get artists engaging with cinema in a way that seems a shortcut to something.

Gary: Yes, because when we tell people about the project they go “Oh..there’s a lots of remakes…” But I don’t think Action Diana is a remake because it fits all our other criteria – we do other things, whereas some people just do remakes and pretend to be doing more. They highlight the theatricality and the campness more than I’d require. But they’re almost side effects.

One of our things is not to overly fabricate anything, but do as little as you can to make the idea feel like it’s being passed across.

Also when I read about it, I think a difference between what you’re doing and other examples is that there’s something hilarious about your proposition. I think Gus Van Sant remaking Psycho frame by frame is a fantastic piece of conceptual art. You don’t have his millions, but you have his ambition!

Gary: Yes, we don’t have the resources but you know, you shouldn’t let that get in the way of our ambition.

Pierre: And our actions are less practised. And all we have is iMovie.

Gary: But Gus Van Sant is somebody who I think is making amazing art works as well – Elephant and Last Days.

I don’t know what the art world’s dealing with, but I think we should be dealing with the things that make us stop and go wow rather than with people’s responses to a Marxist theory.

I just find that quite deadening, and not inspiring. Perhaps other people can get something out of that but I don’t think that’s what it should be. It’s going to end up being like 19th century French academician art isn’t it? It’s just art for the academy, for specialists, for people locked away. Which I can see is totally attractive if you’re part of that. But if you’re dealing with life and contemporary living and art and what’s amazing about living, then it doesn’t seem so appealing to me.

And is that what your art is for, that it’s about – what is amazing.

Gary: I hope so. Because ideas are entertaining in themselves. I wouldn’t want to throw away ideas of conceptualism totally, but I think you can try and have everything.

The Centre of Attention’s Action Diana screens on 27 September, 4.30pm, at FACT Liverpool as part of the AND Festival.



Gary Thomas original interview of the Centre of Attention in AP engine


Contact: Pierre / Gary the Centre of Attention, 67 Clapton Common, London E5 9AA, UK
Tel: 020 8880 5507