Visitors to the exhibition are greeted with the words: “Friendly, honest, straightforward, refreshing, dynamic.” That’s a quote, I think?
Yes—it’s the “brand values” of a major telecoms corporation. Applied to the gallery walls, the statement becomes a kind of promise, or perhaps an obligation, on behalf of the museum to its visitors, as well as an echo of the many interrelationships between art institutions and corporate sponsors.
The show incorporates a new video work, Palais de Justice, which you filmed at the nineteenth-century courthouse in Brussels and which envisions a legal system controlled by women, rather than men. How did the project come about?
By chance, I heard about a vast and partially ruined Brussels courthouse, which was still in full working use. Right from my first visit, I was fascinated by this building, designed as a marble monument to law and state power, which was also a labyrinthine and unravelling enigma, full of secret corners and the iconography of patriarchal power (statues and paintings of great male judges etc). Unlocked rooms full of junk furniture sat next to operational courtrooms, there was graffiti on the interior walls, stuffing coming out of courtroom chairs, and you could just wander through it all and explore. A proper anarchy in the making. And instead of the aesthetic blank one may associate with law, the building is (to my eyes) hauntingly beautiful, not least in its use of theatrical and painterly light. Portholes in the court doors make trials watchable in a way that is totally different to the familiar representations of law within TV and film.
I shot the piece myself, and since I was not given official permission, but there were also many tourists with cameras, right from the start it was a constant game of cat and mouse in terms of filming judges and trials at a distance, without being spotted or thrown out. That feeling of subterfuge and spying quickly became part of the aesthetic of the work, which uses long takes and the portholes as a framing device to create a feeling of the camera (and the viewer) as a voyeur, watching these women in both an admiring and eventually a somewhat intimate way. The judges’ power seems to draw us in, and here and there they seem to meet the camera’s gaze, a suggested stand-off between artistic and judicial power, but by the end of the piece, we see younger female lawyers, mainly from behind, and the camera takes on a sense of wanting to touch. Through very long lenses we get too close to hair, necks, hands and ears as if we are an entranced intruder. In many ways, the work is about ideas of power, observation and law as a kind of lens—and it asks whether a camera can ever escape the male gaze.
Are all of the female judges in the video real judges? That is, how far did you have to distort the reality of the courthouse to present this particular vision?
Although the work’s aesthetic is painterly and definitely not documentary, everything in the piece is “real”—I filmed only real trials in progress, and real lawyers at work, without the knowledge of participants, or any permits. Nothing was staged. Out of seven thousand lawyers who work at the court, and twenty-seven large courtrooms (many of which appear in the piece), there were always male lawyers and judges around, but I also found many female judges and lawyers in court every time I visited, and that immediately became the core concept of the piece—I filmed only female lawyers, judges and defendants at court. By implication, if an entire legal system was run by women, then what kind of society would this be? Is it a matriarchy? Is it utopian? And in such a society, or such a legal system, what role do the men play? I included shots of various men in the piece, but they seem diminished. For example, we see male lawyers trying to persuade female judges, who only occasionally bestow attention, and we see male lawyers wait endlessly and nervously outside a courtroom for a female judge who never lets them in, or we see an old gentleman slowly wheel a weighty trolley of archival files through the dark corridors. The men seem to be in support roles, or isolated and secondary. It was fun to reverse the truth like that.
Can you explain the title of the exhibition: The New Architecture?
The title refers to an idea of architecture that is immaterial, social and future-oriented—such as systems of corporate power—as much as to a science-fictional proposition of women in control of justice, and what kind of power structures that might create. It also relates to the idea elsewhere in my show of law as a kind of choreography.
Many of your projects revolve around the law: your Redshift series, for instance, touches on copyright. Where did this interest begin?
In around 2001, I set up an artist residency for myself at Xerox’s research base in Cambridge, England. There I met their inhouse patent lawyer and developed an interest in the ways in which patent law tries to define the creative act. From then, law beckoned as an institution that had been little explored by artists, and one which had such a relevant philosophical literature in terms of art—Derrida, Agamben, Deleuze, Foucault, Butler etc. I spent the next sixteen years developing artistic works which have featured many types of law—land law, outer space law, contract law, intellectual property—all from the perspective of trying to see art from the position of a stance which is “other”. In so many ways, mainly to do with its lack of visuality and lack of understanding of creativity, law is an “other” to art, and yet when one takes an artistic subject—ideas of site, space or landscape, for example—law offers me a way to reframe it in a playful and unfamiliar way, in which I can also conflate it with ideas of control, rhetoric, power and neoliberalism.
Your legal meditations also often have a touch of the sublime about them: not just Redshift but also Report of the Legal Subcommittee, which includes a transcription of a United Nations meeting in which international delegations express frustration at their failure to devise a legal definition of outer space. Is there a line from Romanticism to your practice?
There is, and I set this up because I am so interested in the Romantic idea of the artist. This is typically the male, lone, tortured “genius”—a cliché which persists, including, most insidiously, within the art system itself. Of course, I admire many artists who have been associated with the Romantic tradition, including Friedrich and Beuys. But nevertheless, it needs to be punctured.
“Carey Young: The New Architecture” will run at the Dallas Museum of Art until 9 April.