‘I thought you made dodgy installation work’

Artist duo John Wood and Paul Harrison interview each other—discussing their best (and worst) ideas, humour, and the work that broke John’s neck

Artist duo John Wood and Paul Harrison interview each other—discussing their best (and worst) ideas, humour, and the work that broke John’s neck

John Wood and Paul Harrison make single-channel videos, multi-screen video installations, prints, drawings and sculptures that examine our relationship to space, each other and the everyday – undercut with subtle slapstick, and a touch of melancholy. Here, the artists interview each other, reflecting on collaborative highs and lows, humour, and their next work for von Bartha.

Paul Harrison: How good is your memory?

John Wood: What was the question?

PH: How good is your memory?

JW: Bad, getting worse, old man memory… I think that’s why we draw so much in the studio, noting things down so we don’t forget them. Why do you ask?

PH: I just wondered what you thought of me when we first met, and as that’s a long time ago now…

JW: I thought you made dodgy installation work

PH: Thanks. In my defence, we were students when we met.

JW: No excuse for dodgy installation work… you were the year above at art college, so I didn’t know you that well. I thought you were OK. What did you think of me?

PH: I thought you were the cool kid in school… and I’ve spent the past 25 years finding out I was very wrong. I thought you were OK too.

JW: Was there a point where you thought, ‘Yes! I’ve found the perfect collaborator’?

PH: Not yet…

JW: We’ve never really had the ‘let’s work together’ conversation, have we?

PH: No, not really and it seems a bit late now.

JW: Initially it was about being able to get on, not annoy each other, find the same things interesting, find the same things amusing… and then it became about the work we wanted to make.

PH: As we’ve found it’s quite hard trying to make art, harder still to try to do that for a long time. Being able to be together in the same room all day without losing it with each other is really important.

JW: It’s easier though, isn’t it, collaborating?

PH: What do you mean, easier than being on your own?

JW: Yes.

PH: No, it’s awful… Yes, it is, much more fun, it helps to have someone as interested as you are in what you are doing, it really helps, I couldn’t imagine working alone. I mean, sometimes I dream of it.

JW: Well, that almost happened after Luton (2001) – we came close to killing me.

PH: Oh yeah. In the end it was just a broken neck – worth it though wasn’t it? It’s a nice piece of work.

JW: I’m not totally sure it was worth it, but I agree it’s a nice piece of work. What’s the best piece of work we’ve made do you think?

    • Video: Luton (2001) by John Wood & Paul Harrison, available until 30th June, 2020

PH: Tough question because all our work is excellent of course…

JW: Naturally…

PH: …but, if pushed, I’d probably say Notebook (2004). I’m not sure it’s the best ‘Art’ we’ve made but it’s a personal favourite.

JW: Why’s that?

PH: I guess we both have a personal attachment to the work—all the work. It’s impossible for us to watch in a pure way, like a viewer can. Each work brings back memories of both making it; all the things that went wrong, all the changes we made, how cold it was in the studio, that kind of thing, but also what we were doing outside of the studio—what we were doing in our actual lives.

JW: And all those factors effect what you think of the work?

PH: Yes, and they help determine how we view the work I think, especially when it comes to the idea of a ‘favourite’. So I guess with Notebook, I just remember enjoying making it. It was a real challenge, but enjoyable. But equally I could say This is a projection (2018)—that’s another favourite, I enjoyed making that too.

JW: Are there works you haven’t enjoyed making then?

PH: Yep

JW: Why?

PH: I guess for the exact opposite reason that a work would be a ‘favourite’: something about making it I didn’t enjoy or maybe things outside weren’t going so well. Drum and Bass (2018), for example—I really like it as a work but to film it was a pain in the ass.

JW: Maybe I should explain for the reader that Drum and Bass is a video work in which I play a bass drum and you play a single note on a Bass guitar, alternating on each beat at 180 bpm for 540 beats. It was so easy to drift off or totally fuck up and that kept putting pressure on us to get it right and get the final take.

PH: As I said, a pain in the ass. But those works, and there are a lot of others which were not fun to make or film, are not bad works for that reason they are actually some of our best.

JW: Have we made a bad piece of work?

PH: Oh yeah, we have, definitely… well maybe not totally terrible, but very definitely not very good.

JW: Care to share? Though I think I can maybe guess.

PH: Study No.1 (1993)

JW: I thought so… again, for the reader, for this work we built a cardboard ramp with two toy trucks on it—one at the top and one at the bottom, connected via a pulley. When we poured sand into the top truck, it ran down the ramp and pulled the other truck up the ramp…actually, you were wrong before, that work was totally terrible.

    • Video: Notebook (2004) by John Wood & Paul Harrison, available until 30th June, 2020

PH: We have bad ideas every day, don’t we? It’s important to have bad ideas, but equally it’s important not to actually make those bad ideas into works.

JW: We have made some bad ideas into works though

PH: You think?

JW: Yes, I think Sheep Entertainment (2012) was a terrible idea, that terrible idea being to ask the question ‘How do sheep entertain themselves?’

PH: I remember us crying with laughter when we came up with that, but it’s a good piece of work though, isn’t it? To explain to the reader, we made 102 cast sheep, 100 just standing looking ahead—we had to cast them because toy sheep always look to the left or right, never ahead (yes, really). We arranged them on the floor in a circle looking inwards; in the centre of the circle are two sheep, one standing on top of the other.

JW: It actually looks really elegant, especially from a distance. It looks like a scatter sculpture from the 1960s—and then you get close and you see what’s happening…

PH: I’ll add that to my list of favourite works. Anyway, what about you? Favourite work?

JW: I would say 3 Legged (1997) is probably my favourite. It brings back memories of being young and being able to move… a bit.

PH: I can’t help but notice that we have both chosen quite early works as favourites…

JW: Nostalgia, probably.

PH: I wouldn’t disagree. It’s funny with the earlier video works, people just come up to us and say, ‘Don’t you look young?’ and what they are actually mean is ‘Don’t you look old now?’

JW: It’s also funny with the earlier video works that people think they are funny.

PH: Yes, I remember that being quite a shock to us when we first showed them, like: ‘These are our works of art about the human body and space, and living in the world, and our relationship to one another etc…’

JW: …and people just laughed.

PH: Yes. Not a bad response though really and, once we got over the surprise, we did start to use that ‘humour’ as a way to engage the viewer, and then hope they would notice other things going on.

JW: I’ve always thought some of the works were mildly amusing, if anything, but maybe it’s the context in which they are viewed that amplifies any humorous content. I think—or at least I hope—the works are accessible, whether that’s down to any humour being present or if it’s more that the works are relatable in the way that a lot of the situations we set up are everyday… or maybe every other day.
I remember one of our first conversations about the work we were making was about how we should try and make work that was ‘watchable’, and by that I think we meant making work that people wanted to watch.

PH: Yes, because there is a lot of unwatchable video art isn’t there?

JW: Yes, I mean there’s a lot of bad painting, awful sculpture, terrible performance, but the art form or medium which has the highest proportion of crap work made is definitely video.

PH: Let’s hope we are not adding to that canon. I guess that’s not for us to say…

JW: I don’t think we are… with the exception of Study No.1, of course.

PH: Maybe we should remake that piece, go all Chris Burden and do it life-size.

JW: It would still be crap… we did talk about re-making Board (1993) though, didn’t we?

PH: Yes, until we realised we couldn’t physically do it anymore. Or maybe we could do it but it would take us a lot longer.

JW: Board (1993) Duration 3 minutes. Board (2020) Duration about an hour and a half…

    • Video: Board (1993) by John Wood & Paul Harrison, available until 30th June, 2020

PH: Do you think that’s why we make a lot of other things now? I mean, why we make paintings, sculpture, drawings and stuff?

JW: What do you mean? Because we are no longer physically capable of making some of the video works?

PH: Yeah, I mean, let’s face it, we were both Adonis’s in our early twenties…

JW: ….agreed.

PH: But now we are not.

JW: I don’t think that’s the reason. I mean, we couldn’t do some of the stuff we did, but the video works evolved from those early performances more because we felt we had done all we could with that kind of approach and we wanted to explore other things. I guess that’s also why we started to make paintings etc. We just wanted to explore other areas.

PH: And I guess make different types of shows too—not just room after room of video works, that can be hard. Hard to change the tone or pacing of a show if everything is moving image.

JW: It’s also fun and a challenge to make other kinds of work. A bit of a risk—not in the way that skydiving is a risk, but you know what I mean…

PH: Yes, of course, and not only in that we could find out that we can’t paint… but also that it can confuse people: ‘I thought these were the guys that made the funny videos? and now they are doing this?’

JW: But it all fits though doesn’t it?

PH: Yes—well, to us it seems to fit and be a natural progression. It’s the same approach, it comes from the same place, the same thinking.

JW: I suppose A film about a City’(2015) is a good example. That started out as an idea for a video work and, in the end, after about a year of working on it and realising the things we wanted to say just didn’t work in that medium, it became a physical architectural model.

PH: Another favourite, if I’m allowed one more… we showed it at Gallery von Bartha in 2015. We’re due another show with the gallery later this year, what are we going to show?

JW: Not sure… but we’d better come up with a plan

PH: So the gallery don’t think we are idiots?

JW: Yep

PH: I really like this stage of making a show, when everything is open and, in your head, it will be the best show we have ever made…

JW: …or the last show we ever make.

PH: We have a lot of new work, paintings, drawings, odd bits of sculpture, odd bits of other things be great to bring that all together. It’ll be a great show, I think. We have new video work too, video number 64.

JW: Yeah, we talked the other day about how it has taken us 27 years to make 64 video works, so roughly we need another 13 or so years to take us up to 100 video works… we’ll be in our mid-sixties by then.
I wonder what our 100th video will look like?

PH: I’m guessing it will be called Mobility Scooter (2033)

JW: Can you imagine how bad both our memories will be by then?

PH: What was the question?

  1. All videos available to view until June 30th 2020
study No.1
In the making: 'Study No.1 (1993)' with John Wood on the right.
Studio shot (2007).
Left: Paul Harrison, right: John Wood

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