An Interview with Fay Nicolson
To chat with Fay Nicolson is to join her in a dance where her multiple interests and intentions jump and weave together in perfect time. The particularities of her expertise range from Dalcroze’s Eurhythmics to improvisational dance, and through being introduced to her own paths of inquiry an experience of her work is made even richer.
We were first introduced to her work from seeing a two-person show alongside Louisa Gagliardi at Tomorrow Gallery, New York back in 2015. For that exhibition, Fay had installed a series of hung canvas pieces that featured both painting and silkscreen printed elements and behaved very effectively like the wings of a theatrical stage set. It made perfect sense to then discover that Fay’s practice is inextricably linked to music composition, methods of performance and oratory. Often her printed pieces become backdrops, sets or even costumes for her carefully crafted stagings.
During a recent studio visit with Fay in London we were thrilled to flip through a folder of gorgeous watercolors on grid paper that had been used as the basis for a series of large-scale digitally printed silks. Hues slowly transitioned from blue to red; orange to grey in a manner that Fay links to the tonal relationships between musical notes.The translation of these painted motifs from the paper to the hung silks felt akin to the process of moving written prose from the page to a public performance.
More from the lovely Fay herself below!
When did you start printing?
My first experience of printmaking was studying on my Art Foundation Course in Nottingham when I was about 18. The course introduced me to a variety of processes that expanded the possible scope of my creative output; dark room photography, casting, ceramics and various printmaking processes. I loved screenprinting because I felt it had a trashy immediacy and had the potential to grab aspects of everyday life and re-contextualize them. It referenced the aesthetics of the Xerox and I adored the absurdity of repeating banal information again and again.
I made my first performative piece during this year in response to being asked to consider the theme of ‘travel’. I screenprinted fabric with bus time tables, fashioned the textile into a bikini and then wore it, waiting endlessly, for the bus. The tragi-comic disjuncture between the ideal or romantic and the bleak or colloquial has always been of interest - most likely because it’s been a recurring experience throughout my life. In fact, this recollection now reminds me that my very first experience of printmaking (despite the fact that I only stacked prints and cleaned squeegees) was actually working in a screenprinting factory on an industrial estate when I was 17, mass producing things like stickers for Raleigh Bikes.
What was your experience during art school with printmaking?
When I went to Central Saint Martins to do my Bachelor of Arts there was a charming screenprinting department. It was housed in a 70’s prefab structure built on top of an existing roof in an internal courtyard in Soho, London. It really was a little island. The two technicians were amazing and one of them used to play his saxophone every lunch time. It was a wonderful escape from the studios and encapsulated all the romance an art school should contain (as romance is not at all an out-of-date frivolity as some may suggest – it is a defense mechanism, and ode to divergence and a mode of survival!)
My later BA work relied heavily on printmaking; on cut and paste, the absurd and banal, the ubiquity of the mass produced and fiction as critique. For my final show I created the Head Office of Fay Incorporated; a company whose product was its own history. Along side the painstaking installation of disgusting blue carpet tiles and magnolia walls, the installation contained lots of printed matter, including a sprawling plan of the Fay Incorporated Factory (constructed from a stolen, cut and pasted, tip-exed and photocopied plan of the existing St Martins building that contained the installation).
My MA was within the Print Programme of the Royal College of Art, which I was attracted to because (at that time) I hated the rigidity of the terms Painting and Sculpture and enjoyed the idea that print was an ever present, flowing visual texture in contemporary experience. The MA was a time of re-engaging with aesthetics and materials and re-negotiating my relationship to the definitions and responsibilities of being an ‘Artist’ that had been so carefully constructed for me on my BA.
Where do you now typically make your work? Home studio? Shared print space?
At the moment I make work at home. I live alone in a one-bedroom flat and have turned this room into dedicated studio space. I head to my friend Sonsoles Print Studio in Peckham to expose screens and make editions on paper. Otherwise I work from home in a rather chaotic, DIY fashion.
How do you see your print background informing your more expanded practice?
Print is very processed based and involves many stages in the image production process. It encourages an ability to plan ahead and demands both aesthetic and technical considerations, which I enjoy. Print (particularly screen print) encourages an analytical and deconstructive way of considering image making. Layering, transparency, negative and positive become very important. I liken these skills to being able to listen to a piece of music and take apart its production in terms of instrumentation, how and where is was recorded and how these elements are mixed to complement each other.
Although screen printing uses photographic approaches it is not at all like taking a photograph. In printmaking the image is not instantly captured; the production of an image relies on an element of abstract thinking, of the potential to be reductive, to think in the inverse, from the future, through the mirror. To form images through imagining what needs to be missing rather than what needs to be present. Screen printing is about blocking out certain information. It is a defensive and secretive process!
I have a background of amateur dance and music making and I feel that in many ways this also influences the way I work with print! I don’t make my screens in order to fit together to create a whole image (perhaps a photographic or painterly approach). Rather I see my screens as motifs, gestures or textures that come together in various ways like a musical mode expressed across a body of work. In his book Music and the Mind, psychologist Anthony Storr writes that “music is a form in time”. I very much identify with this conception of making; which is performative, durational, narrative and unravelling.
Who would you love to collaborate with?
I would like to work with musicians, dancers, producers, videographers and sound recordists and engineers! In a dream world I would like to expand the performative aspects of my practice and explore what is possible when certain skills and processes can be delegated! Alongside these practical considerations I tend to rely on my intuitive understanding of music and dance and my skills are indeed limited to the capabilities of my own body and its history.
In some ways like this constraint – I feel many collaborations between contemporary visual artists and contemporary dancers/choreographers have a tendency to look quite similar and often resemble the putting together of two separate knowledges and logics without someone to step between the two worlds (however professional or articulate these elements are on their own terms). I am interested in (and use) techniques such as Dalcroze’s Eurhythmics (music) and Release Technique (dance) that ground the body, phenomenology and responsiveness in their approach. Through the privileging of embodied experience, gesture and sensual awareness this may allow for understandings that flow across disciplines and their divergent histories and terminologies.
This inquisitiveness into perception, harmony and composition can be seen in my early digital prints such as the We Exist! We have the Will! We are Producing! series (c. 2011); through screen prints such as WORK WITH RYTHMN (2016) or UN MAKE ME (2015) only to be more explicitly expressed in later works such as the polyphonic song cycle Spa Songs (2018).
What are you working on at the moment?
I am currently making a body of work called Lelia Gone. Its spine is an epic poem following an archetypal young girl through a montage of charged scenarios. This poem is meant to be performed and a body of costumes and imagery relating to the various characters and settings are emerging. I imagine this body of work will take a couple of years to fully develop and could be exhibited or performed in various contexts or configurations (from galleries to performance spaces). I also like the idea of the text being available in book form and/or a version of the work existing as an audio recording.
As often happens with my work, the central spine emerged on its own, almost as if making itself (which in this instance has been a series of compulsive writing sessions followed by semi-improvised renditions of the text as song). I am accompanying this with regular sketching in order to visualize the work, and the production of prototypical items of costume (ruffles, headdresses etc).
I think this approach developed after spending the winter reading Greek Tragedy (like The Oresteia by Aeschylus) as well as contemporary reworkings of this text for theatre (such as Steven Berkoff’s Agamemnon). I am attracted by the lyricism and rhythm of the text, the themes of fate, violence and betrayal, and (in relation to Berkoff) the ways a body can communicate narrative and emotion both economically and abstractly through mimetic devises and theatrical conventions.