Freshers week has arrived and, in conjunction with the 60th anniversary of Sussex, I decided to interview past student and artist Claire Oboussier. Luckily enough her partner in the arts, Vong Phaophanit, was also available to answer some questions for me. Here is what we discussed:
Words by Tom Gregory
For people who don’t already know your work, could you give us a brief overview of what you guys do together?
Claire: It does actually go back to Sussex. I went to Sussex in 82’ and I met with Vong in my Erasmus year in France in 84’. We actually started a collaboration as soon as we met. Vong was at art college in the south of France and we just started exchanging ideas, a lot of them were literary at that stage. We continued this informal relationship until we went to stay in Berlin for a year and that’s when we really started to formalize our collaboration. In terms of what we make, we are not very discipline focused. Vong trained as a painter and I trained more In theory although I was always making art and taking photos. We make anything from large scale installations to film works, photographic works and art books. We also do a lot of interventions in public space, they are often sculptural and sometimes they are light based – we’ve used a lot of neon and LED. We tend to choose material as a way of channeling an idea rather than just sticking to one signature style. We tend to start off with an image which we both understand at an intuitive level. Then what happens is that theory and ideas come and stick to that image and give it force.
Vong: Most of the time it is based on intuition and the visual. With time, once you have something to look at or touch, then words start pouring out and that’s how we like to work. It’s a lot to do with allowing ourselves that freedom to produce work that is not frozen by words.
You said earlier when you initially started collaborating, a lot of your ideas were literary ones. Could you tell us a little bit more about these ideas and your literary discoveries at the time?
Claire: My literary ideas around that time were very much linked to Sussex as well. I started off studying French in a European context but soon realized I’d find it a lot more interesting in an African context so I switched after the first term. I had lecturers like Homi K. Bhabha and I had a wonderful personal tutor called Richard Burton who was a real early pioneer of afro-caribbean French literature. At the time, the community of tutors at Sussex were really pioneering in bringing so many of these different ideas to the UK. It was a really good, tough push into the world of ideas and theory. Within the African studies group we had a real diversity of students from all over the world. That was really great for me.
How does this notion of a diverse and multicultural space influence your work?
Claire: In every way. Right from day one, in every single way. It’s a discourse that we have been constantly evolving for 36 years now. We try to resist this kind of impulse that is, in many ways, quite a racist one: to put artists of colour into a specific box where they are categorized by their heritage. We’ve always felt that an artist of any heritage has the right to be an artist who can speak through their work about anything they wish to. They don’t have to speak about their colour or their ethnicity. It’s something that we feel quite strongly about. But of course that can go slightly against the grain sometimes. There are a lot of movements that are rightly advocating for artists of colour which is great but there is definitely a tendency for ghettoization. It’s a position which you need to continually review and question.
How do you deal with the pressures of the commercial art world and do you ever feel like you’re making art for other people or for money?
Claire: Good question. No, we don’t really feel like we make art for other people, but we may have slightly shot ourselves in the foot there because we resisted being too involved in the art market and you can do that if you navigate the commissioning process. We worked to commission mainly, which was basically just a way of financing our studio and earning a reasonable living – we were producing public art at that time. Our first ever project was in Brighton in 1985 and it was called The Scaffolding Art Project. We had studios in Brighton as well – at Red Herring. We’ve been really independent by just taking on the clients that we wanted to take on over the years. We’ve been able to survive that way without going into the commercial art market or needing representation from a gallery. It’s getting tougher now though.
Vong: The commercial side of the art world is everywhere now. It has managed to infiltrate even museums and art galleries. Any major museum now has a private spot which makes it hard to remain neutral. How can you maintain the status of being there as a public body? We have to acknowledge that changes are happening, it’s the same with the NHS and it’s the same with education, it’s all tricky.
To finish off, what is your advice to art students who are perhaps struggling to channel that intuition that you spoke of at the beginning? What are your practices for getting into ‘the zone’?
Vong: Well first of all, you need to believe in yourself as an artist. Nobody else can do that for you. You need to feed yourself with an awareness of life. This intuition I spoke of relates so much to life experience, to empathy and to love. It’s not just about what I want to make or who I want to work with. The way art colleges teach now, it’s divided into subjects – gender, race, identity. Sometimes it’s important to re-question this. Why do we have to deal with this?
Claire: Yeah, don’t let those kinds of structures completely contain you. Because if you do that then you will produce something that fits in a sort of remit. I think that is really dangerous for art practice. You can’t sit there trying to produce an image that is safe and that you’re not going to get criticised for. That’s not what art is about.
Check out Claire and Vong’s website here: https://atopia.org.uk