TNC Interview 2023
Film / Art / Exhibition
"I’m energized by the idea that there aren’t any boundaries limiting what an artwork can be."
Russell Perkins, Conduit (2022) Photo: Arthur Péquin
At the Lumen Prize 2022 Russell Perkins won the Futures Award for The Future Tense, a sound installation developed in collaboration with researchers at SONY CSL Paris, with support from the European Commission’s S+T+ARTS Initiative and the Fondation Fiminco. We spoke with Russell about being part of the Lumen Prize and his installation, Conduit, currently on view in the exhibition Barbe à Papa at CAPC Musée d’art Contemporain de Bordeaux.
Hi Russell, it’s great to get to talk with you, how has everything been going?
I’m alright! So nice to talk with you.
Where did your passion for art come from?
Art for me offers a way to make sense of how economic and political forces—things that sometimes feel very abstract—can become material and specific, bodily and personal. How these forces get under your skin.
For example, over the last few years I’ve been thinking a lot about risk, speculation, and precarity. My grad school was a few blocks from Wall Street, and I was reckoning with how to pay off my student debt. I ended up making work about a casino on the outskirts of the city. I tracked down the smell that’s pumped through casino ventilation systems, and also recreated the casino’s distinctive sound environment with a group of singers.
I remember feeling like I was starting to get some appreciation for the role of gambling under capitalism on the day I realized that all the slot machines play in the same key—no matter what unanticipated combination of sounds overlap in space, there is no possibility of dissonance.
How much has your approach to your art changed since you started out?
A lot! I’ve only just gotten to the point where I don’t always think ‘oh god what have I done’ as soon as I finish a project. I think initially I wanted my work to come out of some sort of pure introspection in an empty studio, and gradually I’ve learned to ask questions that force me to leave the studio.
One important turning point for me was working for the artist Jill Magid. Jill’s practice involves insinuating herself into systems of power—like Liverpool’s CCTV infrastructure or the Dutch intelligence agency—and examining them from within. I learned from her how important it is to be asking questions that you actually don’t already know the answers to, and which will lead your work in directions you can’t anticipate.
You won the Futures Award for The Future Tense at the Lumen Prize 2022, what has it meant to you to get this type of recognition for your work?
I’m really grateful for it. The Future Tense was first shown as a 24-hour performance on the outskirts of Paris—maybe a hundred people saw it at most. The Lumen Prize has given the work a broader audience, and it’s an honour to be recognized alongside so many ambitious artists.
What was the experience like being part of the Lumen Prize?
I think the team behind the Lumen Prize is deeply invested in championing artworks that engage with new technologies. That support extends well beyond the prize itself, and for any artist it’s meaningful to have people who are rooting for you and want to put wind in your sails.
Russell Perkins, The Future Tense (2021) Video: Nelson Bourrec Carter
When working on a project like The Future Tense how important is the creative collaboration between you and your team?
Collaboration is crucial in my projects. As an artist I don’t ever want to become an expert. Whether I’m working with forensic detectives, biochemists, or professional singers, it’s important for me to maintain the position of a curious outsider. That means I rely on people who do have these specific kinds of expertise, and who are also willing to talk candidly with someone who’s outside their world.
In The Future Tense I was incredibly lucky to work not just with artificial intelligence researchers at the Sony Computer Science Lab, but also with my longtime collaborator Charlie Culbert, the filmmaker Nelson Bourrec Carter, and three outstanding singers.
The publication for The Future Tense was called “One of the most Beautiful Swiss Books of 2022” by the Switzerland Cultural Ministry, and it is a stunning publication. What was your process like working with designers Hoang Nguyen and David Gobber on the publication?
Hoang and David are brilliant. Working with them I try to give over as much creative freedom as I can handle. From there it’s a conversation where we each push each other to imagine the piece in different ways. We’re working on a few new projects together and it’s very fun.
Did you imagine you would get such an impressive reaction for your publication?
No it’s such a nice surprise.
Conduit is currently on view at CAPC Musée d’art Contemporain de Bordeaux as part of the exhibition Barbe à Papa, can you tell me a little bit about the concept behind your latest installation?
With Conduit, I wanted to find out what sounds money makes when it moves through the financial system. I didn’t know whether electronic trades and transfers would even have a sound. But then I asked this question to a number of energy market participants—commodities traders, finance journalists, a power plant operator—and they all talked about ‘noise’ in financial markets. Sometimes they meant randomness, or volatility, sometimes either too much or too little market activity. The project is an attempt to make this financial noise audible, and channel it through my body.
When working on a new installation like Conduit how much flexibility do you allow yourself or do you prefer to stick to a set plan you have made?
I can be pretty rigid, but at the same time it’s crucial for a project to end up somewhere I couldn’t have planned out from the beginning. Making Conduit really benefitted from active dialogue with the curator, Cédric Fauq, who pushed me to deal with the exhibition space on a more architectural scale than I’d initially planned.
We ended up installing a massive aluminium drop ceiling—the kind you might find in an airport or an office—through a long hallway in the museum, which was originally a colonial-era sugar warehouse. The ceiling is hooked up to hundreds of electromagnets that cause it to function like a giant speaker or musical instrument, so that it resonates to transmit the sound of my voice.
Is it hard to let go of work once it is complete?
Not usually. My projects tend to involve a lot of planning and logistics, so by the end I’m usually ready to move on. I also get to a point where it’s hard for me to look at them, so I need to let go for a while to be able to come back later and actually make sense of what worked and what didn’t.
Russell Perkins, The Future Tense (2021) Photo: Nguyen Gobber
How important is it for artists to continue to push the boundaries of the art they want to create?
I’m energized by the idea that there aren’t any boundaries limiting what an artwork can be. But that usually means I’m totally lost at the beginning of a new project. When that happens it can be helpful to invent boundaries to help guide me forward, even if I end up letting go of them later on.
What does your work say about you?
Usually more than I mean it to. When I’m working I always ask where my body is located within the project. I made a piece a couple years ago where I invited a group of male-identified, professional poker players into my studio and filmed them playing a tournament. The camera slowly rotates around the players in a circle, looking just over their shoulders.
When I showed the piece to the artist Nancy Brooks Brody, who was my mentor through the Queer|Art Fellowship, she was like, ‘this is the gayest video I’ve ever seen!’ I was trying to comment on masculinity and financial speculation, but the piece is also clearly about my vicarious participation in heteronormative social space—looking in from the outside and trying to interpret facial expressions like a foreign code.
What would your top tips be for emerging artists?
I don’t think I’m in a position to be offering anybody tips, but I’m finding it helpful to think about the art-world in terms of accessibility. What are the conditions I need to access a space or an opportunity? What can I manoeuvre around, when do I seek out support, and what conditions can I contest? This helps frame things less in terms of what can I do better and more in terms of what scope is there for solidarity with others in my community.
And finally, what would you like people to take away from your work?
There isn’t a take away. I think that’s what I like about art – when it isn’t transactional.