As part of The Net Gallery’s London summer degree show series, Richard Unwin speaks to Tobias Bradford, a Swedish artist who graduated this year with a BA in Fine Art from Goldsmiths, University of London.
Richard Unwin: You’re originally from Örebro in Sweden, where you took a foundation course at the local art college. What kind of exposure to art did you have growing up and what was your experience like on the foundation course?
Tobias Bradford: Although neither of my parents come from any professional art background per se, they have both always been engaged and encouraging in any creative whim my brother and I decided to pursue. My father actually did study art at a university in Fort Lauderdale, Florida – which is where he met my mother who at the time worked illegally as an au pair – and although his career took a different path later in life, as he moved to Sweden with my mother, I think he is quite proud that I am in some ways following in his footsteps. In retrospect some of my most cherished memories are also spending time with my grandfather in his workshop where he makes model airplanes, where we were always encouraged to take part in and make pointless constructions for the fun of it.
The foundation courses in Sweden are pretty different from the UK in that they are usually two years, and they are somewhat less focused on preparing a portfolio for a university application. In fact when I enrolled at Örebro art college I had no real knowledge of academia or any intention whatsoever of pursuing a bachelors degree. My main focus at that point was to pursue a career as an illustrator and at that point I had no experience or knowledge whatsoever of contemporary art. My experience on the foundation course was completely formative, in part due to its focus on termly field trips to galleries all over Europe, as well as studio visits and tutorials with visiting artists which were quite daunting and critical but necessarily harsh. I’ve always enjoyed tinkering with machinery and such, but I didn’t realize it could be considered as an art practice until around the second year of my foundation course. I really believe that any further successes I might have achieved are completely due to these conversations and exposure to the scope of contemporary art which I experienced at Örebro art college. It’s a really tiny and relatively unknown school but they really deserve more credit.
RU: What made you choose Goldsmiths and London as the place to study for your BA? And did the course turn-out as you expected?
TB: The Swedish art universities are incredibly difficult to get into – this being because there are only about five in the entire country and they each only accept about 15 people every year, and so as my foundation course came to an end I somewhat frenetically applied to any school I came across. If I’m being honest, my application to Goldsmiths was very much a result of me being desperate to be able to continue making art. I’m still amazed that I was accepted because my portfolio at that point was a mess. Whether or not it met my expectations is hard to say because I didn’t really have any expectations at all. I initially found it difficult to cope with the individualistic nature in the course with a relatively limited amount of contact hours (particularly considering the huge tuition fees which also do not exist in Sweden) but in retrospect I think it’s important to be able to accustom yourself to these conditions, because realistically this is something you are likely to have to cope with as an artist in the real world. Although at times I have felt quite isolated at Goldsmiths I will say that I am eternally grateful for all of the amazing tutors as well as classmates I’ve met and befriended during this time, which in the end I think is the most valuable aspect of any education as abstract as Fine Art.
RU: It’s interesting that you mention spending time in your grandfather’s workshop as a child. The work you presented in the Goldsmiths degree show has a feel of the workshop and the inventor about it, as well as perhaps literary connections like Frankensteinor Pinocchio. Is there a direct connection from the degree show work back to your grandfather’s workshop? And what more recent influences have you drawn on in developing your childhood interest in machinery and model making into an art practice?
TB: I think there’s definitely a connection. Especially the sense of carelessness of making things as a form of play, or the sort of magical quality in making something and then seeing it “come alive” so to speak. For example I remember connecting a battery to a DC motor and being very entertained just watching it sort of hopelessly thrash around on the floor until eventually disconnecting itself. That sense of chaos made it really unpredictable and fragile in a way which made it feel like a living creature. That vivid sense of engagement and joy in pointlessness probably gets harder to keep track of as you age, but through art making I’ve been able to revisit it on occasion.
In general I think a large part of my motivation comes from revisiting emotions and ideas that are related to memories of the experience of interpreting the world as a child. There’s something otherworldly about autonomous machines – especially if they behave in unexpected or unpredictable ways, and this can be really indulgent and playful, but also discomforting depending on the context. I think this applies to technology in general. Mary Shelley for example mentioned that she was inspired by the development of electricity and its possible capacity to “create life” when she wrote Frankensteinas you mentioned. Early experiments in electricity were almost like magic shows, except they were “real”. Recently I have been reading a lot about spiritualist seances for contacting the dead which were a huge attraction in the 19th century. The setup was often very theatrical and would incorporate cutting edge technology like the telegraph, as well as complex mechanical contraptions to make ordinary objects levitate or move by themselves. Even today there are communities dedicated to contacting spirits through radio, and even the internet. I think this is interesting in showing that a lot of the technologies we depend on today are rooted in very mystical and even supernatural ideas which developed symbiotically in their application to our everyday lives. It makes you wonder if there are elements of our current day-to-day experience of the world which in the future is going to seem as fantastical as contacting the dead through a telegraph, or reanimating a corpse with a spark of electricity. I think there definitely is, but the strangeness of some of our interpretations of the world only really becomes visible in retrospect.
RU: It sounds like you were already quite proficient in the technical abilities needed to produce your work. Was the teaching at Goldsmiths more theoretical and conceptual in the way it helped to develop your practice?
TB: I can’t say I would consider myself very talented in terms of technical abilities. It’s like that thing I mentioned before about being entertained by a detached motor moving around on the floor; in a lot of ways I set pretty low standards for myself, at least regarding the technical finesse of my work. This is partially because I’m really easily distracted and want things to happen quickly, but that also gives it more room to be surprising or behave unexpectedly. I generally enjoy when things turn out a bit pathetic, I think it makes it easier to empathise with. Also, things can break in really interesting ways which add to their anthropomorphic qualities. The teaching at Goldsmiths is very theoretical in general, but I really enjoyed it. My studio process is usually pretty spontaneous and maybe based more on an immediate emotion rather than loads of theoretical research, but the critical studies were really helpful in opening up new ways for me to expand on the reasoning behind my practical work. I’ve figured out that subjects like psychoanalysis and the uncanny, absurdism, denormalization, phenomenology, playfulness, animism and mythology etc. are all really related to the core of what makes me want to make things, and the structure of the course was very helpful in the sense of giving me the time, resources and encouragement to explore that.
RU: How did you find the experience of moving to London? Did you have reservations about studying abroad and do you now feel that it was the right move to make?
TB: I initially found it really difficult – I think in part because I’m a pretty homely person and I moved from my own apartment in Sweden to really small and frankly pretty shitty and overpriced student housing near Goldsmiths. Because I was a bit older than your average UK university student I didn’t really feel like I fitted in with the student culture here either. I didn’t have so many reservations before I went, I think I imagined it would be easier than it actually was. London is really huge compared to my hometown, which makes you feel pretty insignificant as a prospective artist when you’re trying to stick out. Where I’m from there’s maybe like 20 people in what I would consider as my “art scene” demographic, where as in London the number is probably more like 30,000. Although I also feel like London and perhaps the UK in general is a bit more accessible and open when it comes to opportunities for inexperienced artists, probably in part due to the scale but also a sort of general cultural awareness and pride in visual art. Another thing also is the difficulty in trying to establish yourself in two countries at once. I’ve been lucky to still have had some opportunities in Sweden whilst studying here, but I definitely feel like I’ve missed out on a lot too. In regards to if it was the right move or not – I think it’s hard to say. I definitely feel like I’ve developed a lot as an artist here, and I don’t regret choosing to study at Goldsmiths. Maybe you should ask me again once I’ve started paying my student debt!
RU: You’ve mentioned both the scale of the London art scene and the difficulty of maintaining a presence in two countries simultaneously. The contemporary art world is both vast and very international with major events happening all over the world, all year round. You also said that when you were at school you didn’t have much exposure to contemporary art. During your time at Goldsmiths, I was wondering how easy you’ve found it to keep abreast of things that are happening in art around the world, and whether the university encouraged you to look at current exhibitions that were being staged while you were studying?
TB: As I mentioned, I feel like the general Swedish populace is in some ways less culturally engaged in contemporary art as a whole. That is not to say that there isn’t plenty of amazing art in Sweden – however I do think the relative smallness of the community makes it feel a bit more inaccessible, especially for emerging artists. In London you’re kind of surrounded by interesting things going on, not just in terms of the big galleries, but also on a more open and welcoming level like artist-run spaces, workshops etc. This makes it easier to be more engaged in some capacity, although I still don’t get out as much as I should. In general Goldsmiths is pretty encouraging in terms of engagement with practicing artists, especially through things like weekly artist talks, tutorials with visiting artists and tutor-led gallery trips. I’ve sometimes felt that the discourse surrounding art here can be a bit overly anglocentric. Maybe that’s to be expected in such a big and culturally significant city as London, but it’s still a bit sad regardless since there’s obviously great art in other places too.
RU: The work you presented in the Goldsmiths degree shows included various disembodied, animated limbs, an upturned cup with dark liquid flowing out and a taxidermy pigeon. Can you talk a bit about the process of making the work and the ideas behind it?
TB: The degree show installation is made up out of a number of pieces which I have been working on simultaneously during the last year or so. Some of the sculptures contain elements recycled from previous work which I’ve exhibited before as individual pieces, but they really become something different in relation to each other as a group which is why I would consider it as a single installation. My initial plan was to create a monument to compulsive body movements. I’m a pretty fidgety person, and I’ve thought about times where people have for instance asked me to stop bouncing my leg during a lecture or whatever – whereby my immediate response has been to get kind of annoyed. I think deep down maybe that annoyance comes from a repressed shame or fear of the notion that I’m not in complete control of my own body. There’s a sort of existential dread in acknowledging this which has lots of implications in relation to autonomy, free will and the body as a machine. All of the limbs in my installation are connected through a system of wires and pulleys, and they are animated in a way which is inspired by those mechanistic types of bodily expressions. I also thought a lot about sound and repetition, for example in my installation there is a set of arms suspended from the ceiling playing the triangle, and this is responded to by an arm on the floor tapping its finger as well as one of the feet stomping on the ground. In unison they all contribute to a coherent rhythmic soundscape which could go on forever, or at least until it breaks.
The taxidermy pigeon was not originally intended to be included in the installation as it is a bit of an outsider in relation to my other pieces, but it sort of became involved organically with the rest of my work in my studio and I ended up really liking it. I also enjoy how it throws everything off slightly and makes it a bit harder to read as a whole. As a kid I always got really uncomfortable around taxidermy. Not in the sense that I was scared per se, but more so I found it to be really disturbing and sad in a sort of deeply melancholic way. I still kind of feel that, but that’s why it’s so interesting too. I actually found the pigeon by chance through a post in the ‘Free Stuff South East London’ Facebook group, where someone was just giving away a whole box of taxidermy animals for free. I included it in several pieces throughout my third year at Goldsmiths until it eventually ended up in its current state, where on one hand it’s a pigeon stuck in a repeating moment of soaring through the breeze, but simultaneously it’s also a dead bird on a stick with a motor and a Poundland usb fan. The idea of an action or a moment being sort of extracted from time and repeated until it becomes detached from its original context is really fascinating and something which I try to incorporate in a lot of my work. This is similar to the cup which you mentioned. The liquid is actually coffee and the cup is connected to a recirculating pump – thus stuck in a constant moment of spilling itself. I’ve been thinking a lot about abruptions in the routine of our everyday, and I feel like the experience of spilling a glass or cup of liquid is a very visceral example of that. There’s a kind of flash of despair connected to the moment of spillage – especially coffee because it stains so badly, but at the same time there’s also something morbidly satisfying in allowing a mess to happen. Similarly to the bird, the spilling coffee becomes like a reconstruction of an everyday moment stuck on repeat. I also think the recirculating coffee relates nicely to the restlessness of the animated limbs.
RU: What’s next for you and how do you now plan to develop your artistic practice?
TB: I have actually been admitted to an MA course in Fine Art at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm. So unless there’s some radical life-altering change within the next month or so I will be moving back to Sweden. This is supposedly a really great school (and it’s free!) so I’m pretty excited about that. However the prospect of leaving London along with all the friends I’ve made here is a scary thought, particularly as my girlfriend is staying here for another year to finish her BA. The good thing about this course though is that it’s structurally very open-ended, so I’m planning on being able to come back to London regularly. I might have some pretty exciting collaborations coming up both in the UK as well as Sweden, and I think the biggest challenge will be to maintain my presence as an artist in both countries simultaneously. A surprisingly large amount of my peers seem to be really against the idea of going straight into an MA after graduation. Maybe they’re right to feel that way, but I also feel like I’m on a really interesting path at the moment, and there’s so much more to explore in terms of both theory and technical execution – both of which I feel as I’ve only just started to grasp. I’m really in love what I’m currently doing, and I’m afraid that if I had to stop for whatever reason I might not know what to do with myself.
Article by Richard Unwin
(All images courtesy of Goldsmiths, University of London)