We visited multidisciplinary artist Rebecca Hammett in her home and studio to find out more about her intriguing approach to performance art and her current creative projects. Coming from a deep desire to address the tension between movement and stagnation and influenced by the likes of Stelarc, Lygia Clark and Rebecca Horn, her artistic practice ‒ which has elements of action painting and actionism ‒ is investigating the concept of posthumanism by using exoskeletons and other peculiar prosthetic contraptions as creative extensions of the human body.
How did you become an artist? Was there a decisive moment or an existential turning-point that drew you artmaking and performance?
I was making art before I knew that was what I was doing. I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t making something. For me it’s been a way of life, an integral part of my existence. I have this need to make, it is possibly the only way I know how to accurately communicate an inner thought or feeling. Before I considered art as a career I dabbled in performance in theatre setting. The first time I was driven to take up art as a career was as a teenager when I visited the Tate Modern to see Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project in 2003. I distinctly remember an odd occurrence, it was raining outside and I came into the space and in total contrast there was sunshine and it felt like a summer’s day. I was then confronted with Susan Hiller’s work An Entertainment which was a video of a Punch and Judy show highlighting domestic violence, this threw me completely off-kilter. I knew then that this is what I wanted to do, to change people’s perceptions from a rainy day to sunshine and confront people with the truths of human existence to give them the opportunity to stop and think.
What or who influenced you the most throughout your explorations and experiments as an artist?
My influences have come from many unusual and different sources. For my current work I have been influenced the most by Stelarc, Lygia Clark, Jean Tinguely, Rebecca Horn, Ushio Shinohara, Gabriel Orozco’s Breath on Piano (1991), Albert Einstein’s theories of time, Science fiction movies like 1984 and TV programmes, for example Fringe. Also by books like The Body Electric by J. Geary (2002) and How We Became Posthuman by N. Katherine Hayles.
What were some of the most inspiring seminars you attended as a student at the Cardiff School of Art and Design?
Some of many of the great seminars I attended were by Robert Pepperell, Andre Stitt, Steve Thompson and Paul Granjon. I really can’t remember any seminar that I left without feeling invigorated and inspired.
Are you affiliated to any -ism?
As an informed contemporary artist you can be influenced by many ‘ISMs’. My practice is influenced by so many artistic movements I find it difficult to narrow it down to one, however it can be said that my practice has elements of action painting and actionism.
You make extensive use of exoskeletons and other peculiar contraptions during your performances. When did you first contemplate the idea of using them as creative extensions of the human body? Are you building them yourself?
It evolved from a desire to incorporate movement and body in my work, I wanted to give life to my work. Following the death of a person close to me I disliked the notion of stagnation. I felt a need to control the situation by choosing to objectify myself. Following this idea the exoskeleton developed from my sketches to building prototypes.
How do you first approach an idea for a new performance or project? Where do you usually begin?
It could be an interest in a particular subject but more than often as a sketch.
One of the main subjects of conversation during your visit to Artes Mundi was the idea of space/place and what happens when an artwork is moved from its site specific location to a gallery space in a different country. Integrating this argument into your approach to art wherein the artist and the work of art are one and the same, what happens, in your opinion, when a human being is moved from its site specific location or environment to a space/place in a different country or unknown territory?
Essentially for my final piece of work on the Master’s course I used this idea by removing myself from the space and only exhibiting the exoskeletons from my performance piece. I displaced them in such a way that the pieces were hung in a white space, ‘limitless space’. The idea was to take them away from anything which may give the exoskeletons’. By doing this I created a space where the exoskeletons could be viewed for themselves. Also, throughout the Masters exhibition I distributed paintings, drawings and sketches of each exoskeleton. I discovered through this elaborate displacement that some things were gained, the idea of body and movement was there but the idea of objectification was lost because you had no idea of gender, which was possibly both positive and negative. I don’t think that at any point the paintings were connected to the exoskeletons by the viewers, unless they were prepared to take time to read the statements; when this occurred, then an exciting discovery was experienced by the viewer. I feel that surely by placing any art piece in any gallery place it becomes displaced.
One of the key concepts informing your artistic practice is post-humanism. Do you feel that the human body is becoming an obsolete tool or a ghostly burden in the process of artmaking?
If you refer to How We Became Posthuman by N. Katherine Hayles, I believe that we have become posthuman already, yet has the body become obsolete? No, I simply feel that the body is a vessel or another tool to view the world and may in the future become trans-human. However, most theories about trans-humanism talk about extending the body so even then would the body become obsolete or just adapted.
What is your relationship with technology?
As I am Dyslexic I have a conflicting relationship with technology, I have been forced into a position in order to meet the same criteria as others. I feel my coexistence and conflict with technology has been translated in my work with the exoskeletons.
How do you know when a performance act is complete?
I believe that all artwork is in a constant state of flux. Sometimes you are restricted by the space and time constraints given.
What do you think goes through someone’s mind after leaving one of your performances?
One viewer commented that it was like watching some alien creature learning to walk for the first time.
How is your art received by the local art scene?
Sometimes interested, sometimes misunderstood.
You are passionate to create, but also to teach. What can you tell us about the young generation’s interest in art? How important is art for them?
I believe that the younger generation are constantly making artwork in new ways but are unaware they are creating it as it has become integral to their daily lives.
What advice would you give to a young person deciding to pursue a creative career?
To be passionate and willing to apply themselves. A lecturer once said to me: “there is nothing in art and design worth doing unless you are scared out of your mind with fear to show people”.
What other disciplines are you interested in or involved with?
Science fiction, philosophy, physics, sociology, psychology, nature, exploration, anatomy.
Where do you go for inspiration?
Galleries, museums, coffee bars, restaurants, the countryside and a few places I visit for contemplation.
How would you define the role of the artist?
To offer a new perspective, to confront people with the truth about human existence. To provide people with the opportunity to stop and think.
What about the future? How do you see yourself evolving as an artist?
I hope, with the confidence I have gained from my Master Degree, to finally apply for commissions, grants and awards in order to financially continue and develop my practice. This year I am currently working to accumulate some new concepts.
Can you recommend us:
A song: “The Collector”, by Nine Inch Nails and “Where is my mind”, by The Pixies.
A book: Phantoms in the Brain: Human Nature and the Architecture of the Mind, by V.S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee, 1998. Also, Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, 1818.
A film: The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, by Terry Gilliam and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, by Yorgos Lanthimos.