The British artist talks UFOs, pseudoscience and dial-up internet as we go deep into his roving, ever-ambitious practice
At times, artist Iain Ball is pragmatic, meticulous with words and thoughtful, at other times he’s excitable and joyfully susceptible to conspiracy theories, but then he’s also speculative and cautious. Aware of the tensions between the different ways that he views the world, he weaves these conflicting thought processes into his multi-faceted artwork.
I first came across one of Ball’s enigmatic sculptures at the Future Gallery in Berlin: a deep, vibrating hum emanated throughout the space, seemingly coming from a muddy sculpture that stood on a podium the shape of a molecular structure. This totem-like piece is one belonging to Ball’s Energy Pangea series – or his ‘Rare Earth Sculpture Project’ – which he’s been working on since 2011. The sculptures are named after different rare earth elements – a group of 17 chemicals that tend to occur in the same ore deposits and which are scattered sparsely near the earth’s crust.
The sculptures are closely related to one another but are also their own entities, and they exist beyond a tangible shape in the form of accompanying websites or soundscapes. Each work is deeply rooted to the earth that its namesake comes from, often environmentally bent in terms of its themes, and at times shrouded in partly satirical corporate rhetoric. Some of the sculptures allude to occultism and the primeval, exploring the place where what we think we understand and what we really don’t begins to blur.
I speak with Ball about growing up in South-West England and travelling into nearby Bristol for Adidas trainers; about the ideas that string his works together; about UFOS and pseudoscience; and about the ways in which his projects articulate what Ball sees as a fragmentary and irrational present.
POSTMatter: With the rare earth sculptures and the accompanying websites, you’ve created a fictitious world that mirrors our own. Why did you decide to create such an all-encompassing fiction that extends into realms beyond the gallery?
Iain Ball: A common criticism, especially of art that involves the internet and other modes of viewership or context, is that it can fail to engage a first-time viewing gallery audience, leaving them lost with the feeling that the work is somewhere else. I think my work is caught in a tension between taxonomy, logocentric presentations and their opposites, such as modes of presentation that avoid categorical reductionist outputs, and become more indefinable, unnameable and ungraspable.
My intention is to develop what I call Sculptural Systems; what this essentially means is that there is no single privileged viewer of the work, but there are multiple points of perspective or access. In this regard, I’m trying to think and work from a place that does not privilege the human viewer but rather sees the ‘audience’ as just another agent or component, which co-creates the amorphous nature of the sculptural system.
I see what I’m doing as pre-existent and I’m trying to weave or knit a plastic sculptural network from various novel agents, in turn creating even more novelty. There are primary nuclear components to each ‘piece’, but the emphasis on what is swirling around these nuclei is so strong that it’s impossible to understand the nucleus without the outer parts. These layers are intrinsically bound to it – it’s just that you might be zoomed in too far to see them, for example in a gallery. Those outer parts give it mass and gravity, and they bind its meaning. They form a constellation that gives it a modular plasticity, but I wouldn't necessarily want to make it all visible in a gallery environment. This is a way of creating timeless artefacts, of representing reality, of carving stone or marble, or at least trying to do so within such precarious conditions.
PM: Do you see each sculpture as a separate work, or are they chapters in an overall piece?
IB: They often end up being projects within projects within projects. The horizontal lines that you can see on my website separate my bodies of work into different periods. Right now I’m in the ‘Energy Pangea / Rare Earth Sculpture Project’ period, which is proving to be quite a wide timescale. They all form part of a whole, but also act autonomously.
PM: I’m interested in your use of corporate rhetoric, and also your references to the New Age movement. What is the relationship between the two?
There is an emphasis on slick corporate post-minimalism interbred with late 90’s to early 00s era y2k paranoia, and DIY internet conspiracy room-full-of-crazy hyper-intensity homepages made by self-proclaimed ‘experts’, whilst being into all the latest brands and consumer tech.
There’s a reason for this of course, and it's probably generational circumstance. I grew up in a small village in South West England. My mum had all of these books in the downstairs toilet on ancient aliens and government cover-ups of UFOs, and my Nan suffered migraine with Aura, which meant she would have celestial visions and was a remote healer. My parents had a business that sold hearing aids, and they had a home office where the dial up internet, AOL, laminator and corporate knickknacks sent to us by the large hearing aid companies could all be found. I would go to Bristol and buy Fila basketball trainers, and Kappa and Adidas gear.
As I get older, I realise more and more the impact that this all had on me. I think that living in a rural area made this all the more intense, and I want my work to have a sense of urgency because I’m drawn to conspiracy and pseudoscientific-thinking. I’m drawn to brands and the latest products and the language around them; I think it’s very primal and I’m aware of that, so I try to present this whilst acknowledging my own irrational mind.
PM: As well as being works of satire and parodies of research practises, your work is infused with a sense that art can open minds and expand ideas. How do you negotiate the tension between satire and optimism?
IB: I started saying that my work was a parody of research practice because I wanted to be clear about what it’s really about, which is, at its core, experimenting with materials and forms. These materials are often informational, speculative, hypothetical, non-localised, emergent and fragmentary. I think it’s important that there is emphasis on this as a practice, over say research and context, and over concept also, because today all contemporary art is research-led whilst also being conceptual and context driven, so I wouldn't want to privilege those things.
I’m drawn to brands and the latest products and the language around them; I think it’s very primal and I’m aware of that, so I try to present this whilst acknowledging my own irrational mind.
We live in strange times. We surely live in an age of uncertainty with many things to be optimistic and satirical about; many things to make us feel doom and dread and fear, or just jaded and as if we don’t care at all. I feel high degrees of ambiguity, and I try really hard to present the reality that I see and feel. The projects often present themselves wearing the garb of context art or social-sculpture or art-activism or land art, but it’s not clear whether it’s satirical or even convincing itself. I maintain that it can be both, unsure of its position, and have strange properties like cornflour mixed with water.
PM: The latest rare earth sculpture ‘Terbium’ visually alludes to occultism, molecular structures, human biology and also sportswear. The music by Goch is hypnotic. This sculpture seems more overtly dark and ambiguous than some of the others, and it’s your first rare earth sculpture without a textual component. Could you talk me through this decision?
IB: With the previous two sculptures before Terbium I started to experiment with different ways of formulating the textual component, almost callously throwing words at it; some words seem random and misplaced, others are very specific and integral to what I want the work to do. And then that formula pretty much broke down. Context is central to the way that I’m working on these projects, so the role of the text was often to connect the objects to a wider system of relations - for instance, what Timothy Morton termed ‘Hyper Objects’.
Terbium was very much a pattern-based tautological exploration of connection and meaning that ended up becoming what it inevitably is, it is consequentially quite dark and ambiguous. The first part that I started with was the small mud figure (mud owl). Whilst visiting my parents who live near the Bristol Channel, I went to the beach and gathered the estuary mud and made that thing.
Over a year or so I started thinking about building a mega-structure for the mud owl, which would act as a temple, palace or tomb to hold it; to honour it. The building of this structure is an exploration of Xavier Séguin’s project Eden Saga, dark forest psytrance and many of the things you mention; alchemical formulas I’ve been exploring since this whole project began, and terbium utilised vibration resonance technology which spreads sound onto a surface. The outcome, I hope, says a lot more than a text could express.
We live in strange times. We surely live in an age of uncertainty with many things to be optimistic and satirical about; many things to make us feel doom and dread and fear.
PM: What rare earth element are you working on next, and can you tell me about the process of beginning a new piece?
IB: I’m working on a new project for Praseodymium which takes as its starting point a GCHQ document leaked by Edward Snowden called The Art Of Deception - Training For A new Generation Of Online Covert Operations. This is pretty much a workshop to train secret service personnel how to spread ambiguity, confusion and misinformation on the Internet with the aim to disrupt certain groups or individuals who are enemies of the government, it’s essentially a PSYOP and harnesses how the Internet already operates.
I’m interested operations such as CIA agents who give false information to ufologists and groups, which expend vast amounts of affective labour on creating fake UFO sightings, the shock doctrine, the recent situation with the ‘agreement’ and all of these things channelling into the realm of double, triple, quadruple bluffing and weird hysterias and collective psychosis. I want to push this, somehow, somewhere. It’s in early development.
For more information on Iain Ball's work, click here.