Creator of Work David. A. Kerr speaks with artist Demelza Watts about the process surrounding a particular exhibition at Whitechapel gallery, which revealed important questions regarding labour in art, the Museum and its relationship with artists, and art as labour vs. labour as art.
DAK: So Demelza, to begin, your work seems to operate (more broadly) as a construction and deconstruction of space, and the way we as humans create it, does this sound like an accurate description?
DW: Thank you, that’s a very succinct way of explaining it. I am interested in how we use space and how space can preclude activities or enable us, especially in our homes. My fascination lies particularly with living spaces that are not owned by the occupiers but are still considered by them to be home. How do we adapt to other peoples choices of layout, furniture, kitchens, occupancy standards, carpets in bathrooms, top up electricity keys, feature walls, dining tables, textured wallpaper, I could go on listing for hours. Many homes have no access to workshop spaces or external space for “messy” work. What is the link between this lack of workspace at home and disposable culture? I wonder how we are social in living spaces that are shrinking, does this make us more public? My childhood vision was that the home was a cornucopia of nurture and experimentation; a site of care, an architecture of generosity, of play, an incubator for identity building and a performance area to share it, a place to recover from work, a core of creativity that then expands out into our workplaces and social spaces, a display of craft, a sanctuary for belonging. So I am compelled to explore, document and challenge the way we use our everyday spaces, homes, workplaces, public space; as this is a combination we all attempt to balance.
DAK: And you collaborate on occasion with your father, a bricklayer by trade, as I understand?
DW: Yes, over the years I have worked for several artists in delegated performance works, the money is usually ok and it’s invariably enlightening. I’m very interested in the artist’s relationship with their performers and have written papers on this role of the artist as an employer. So I was looking to find some middle ground between the artist as a performer and the artist as an employer, exploring being an artist as employment at the same time. Collaboration is a great place to explore this, I wondered how many lines I could blur or ideas I could layer up in a collaboration/delegated performance/artist performing conglomeration. This is how I came to the idea of working with one or both of my parents. Parents are physically and emotionally linked to you, an intimate connection is perceived if not evident, but they are also, of course, separate people with identities outside of the parent titles. So at this point, I thought of my fathers work. My father Brian has been a bricklayer since he was sixteen, studying bricklaying at college in the mid-1970s. Something that has been evident to me since a young child is that he believes in bricklaying, in the same way that I believe in art. My father’s craft is becoming less valued over the years, which translates to there being less paid work, what was once the primary building method in the UK is now being replaced by faster, cheaper and less craft lead methods.
So this seemed to be an interesting collaboration, for me to work as an artist and for Brian to work as a bricklayer. This is how “All in a Day, Brian” came to form. I developed the concept, to ask my father to build the tallest brick wall he could in eight hours, his typical working day. My father designed it, a single wythe, stretcher bond, wall, that steps up in opposite directions from each end to support its height. We intertwined all of the processes, from concept through to execution. I helped with the pointing (the finishing of the cement in-between the bricks). Brian titled the work, a role that as the Bricklayer he never gets to do. Architects and homeowners name houses, not the workers. I made the materials list, which frustrated some critics, unable to understand how Brian could be a coauthor of the piece with me and also be listed as “8 hours of my fathers time” in the materials list. For me the materials list illustrates the dichotomy of my relationship with Brian, we collaborate as an artist and a bricklayer, at the same time as a daughter and a father. So as the bricklayer Brian built the wall, and as the artist, I applied for an opportunity to exhibit it.
DAK: So can you explain a little about how you came to be asked to participate in a particular exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Gallery?
DW: Every three years the Whitechapel Gallery puts out an open call, to all artists living in London to submit artworks for their Whitechapel Open Exhibition. The show has existed since 1932 and has exhibited a long list of incredible artists over the years. When in 2015 we were invited by the curators to perform the work in the Whitechapel Gallery, I thought great, now my father will get added to that list. My father’s mantra has always been that built well a wall can last up to 99 years, but built correctly a wall can last over 100 years. Brian’s pride and pleasure is built on his work continuing to do its job well after he is gone. So I like the fact that together with myself, Brian, as well as his work will exist in the Whitechapel Gallery Archive ad infinitum.
A caveat of the work All in a Day, Brian is that my father gets paid for his work as a bricklayer. After all, it is not common practice for a bricklayer to work for free. The Whitechapel offers no artist fee for the London Open exhibition but covers any delivery costs and the materials needed for site-specific works, so in our case they agreed that that included the costs of Brain’s labour. So in the exhibition, my father existed in two roles, first listed as a collaborator without a fee (I made sure that we were listed as Brian Watts and Demelza Watts) and secondly as a paid worker receiving his normal daily fee as a bricklayer to build the work. Unlike my fathers work, I could not ask for myself to be paid as an artist on conceptual grounds because it doesn’t work, after all, it’s common practice for artists to work for free.