On Edge


The production of a normative human body is a vital means of social control. In an interview with Stefan Szczelkun, artist Alexa Wright explains how her work experiments with the defended boundaries of the human/self, and the affects unleashed by their transgression

For the last 20 years or so, artist Alexa Wright has focused on questions of identity, interrogating the boundaries of what we consider it is to be human. Through interviewing a variety of subjects (including people with disabilities, opera singers and convicted murderers) her work often investigates how affect, embodiment and notions of humanness relate. A recent work, which I saw at her doctoral retrospective, explores the particular potential for abjection to disrupt our normative sense of identity and order. Although the dimension of affect tends to be expunged from academic paradigms, the aesthetic dimension lends itself to such investigations. However, too often the competitive forces of the art market lead artists to use facile shock tactics, which only serve to inoculate us rather than enable us to think. Alexa Wright's work avoids sensationalism and takes a more serious and useful approach to this material.


Affectivity is at stake, the capacity to feel and be impassioned into revolt, to have feeling destabilise ourselves enough to risk the making of an ‘unnatural' difference...

Howard Slater ‘Burdened by the Absence of the Billions'1


SS: I would like to focus this discussion on one or two of your pieces although, as far as I can see, there is a narrative that runs across all your art practice. Could you describe this before we talk about any particular works?

AW: Even though my work takes several different forms, including digitally manipulated photography, video, audio and interactive installations, there are clear links between the different pieces. One important aspect of all my work is that it invites the active participation of the audience on some level. I mean that the viewer, or listener, is acknowledged as part of the work, or sometimes even as its subject. Sometimes people actually see themselves, as in the interactive installation Alter Ego, which is a kind of virtual mirror. But even when it is not that literal I am interested in trying to force people to become aware of how the work impacts on them personally. For example, by setting up a spoken dialogue between machine and human user, the most recent interactive installation, Conversation Piece, can give the user the sense that he or she is entering into quite an intimate relationship with an invisible, virtual character. The photographic works ask viewers to reassess their existing values, or at least to become aware of themselves in a more reflexive and perhaps less obvious way.


SS: Your interest in challenging ‘norms' is also evident in many of the works.

AW: Yes, that is part of the same process. I suppose I knowingly or unknowingly set up structures that aim to destabilise people. I am interested in investigating and representing what is at the boundaries of what we consider human in one way or another so as to ask individual audience members to reflect on particular social or individual ‘norms' that they maybe take for granted. The first work in which I consciously attempted to do this is I, made in 1999. In each of the eight photographs that make up this series, a disabled body part is detached from the identity of its original owner and digitally incorporated into an image of me.

SS: So there is an idea of what is acceptably human in your mind?

AW: Not in my mind. In everyone's mind! I think we all have our individual and collective notions of what is socially and culturally acceptable or ‘normal'.

SS: How do you see those ‘norms' being maintained within society?

AW: That's a big question! How do I answer that?

SS: It is a question that interests me quite a bit, in that the idea of what is human seems to be held in place by certain affective processes. I mean, when you perceive that the boundaries of what is human are being transgressed then certain sorts of feelings are evoked. Feelings of discomfort or strangeness, or even something more profound and unsettling.

AW: Do you mean when you perceive this boundary transgression in someone else or in yourself?

SS: Either.

AW: I think what you are talking about is something like horror, or what Julia Kristeva calls the abject. According to Kristeva, what causes abjection is anything that disturbs our sense of identity, system, or order. Anything, or perhaps anyone, that is in-between, ambiguous or composite. I am interested in exploring the fears and prejudices that set in when we are unable to establish a clear and tangible boundary between what we think of as ‘us', ‘really normal' people and ‘others'.

SS: It is interesting that those received cultural ideas about who or what is acceptable obviously have practical outcomes - they lead to oppression, and to the creation of social hierarchies. They contribute to a political structuring of society.

AW: Yes, in this way I guess you could say that my work is political.

SS: But you don't seem to stick with any particular causes, if you can call them that.

AW: No, that's right. Although I have made quite a bit of work on the theme of disability, I am not particularly interested in supporting any cause as such. I'm more interested in undermining the established values that create social inequalities more generally. Not just for the sake of being anarchic, but really more in order to try to understand what it is we think we are and to get people to look at the structures that put those values in place.

SS: But your work doesn't do that on an intellectual level. It does it by engaging people and confronting them.

AW: Yes, it seems important to engage the audience aesthetically. Maybe because if the work provokes a visceral experience, that can be a more genuine response, which is difficult to ignore or to rationalise. For example, when I was making I it was very important that the images were aesthetically strong and at the same time sort of gently confrontational.

SS: So there is a conscious strategy behind what you do?

AW: Actually it is not conscious. I am only beginning to understand what I have been doing in retrospect - looking back at the work I have made over the past ten years or so. I am not sure what will happen now that strategy is becoming more conscious.

SS: Certain sorts of knowledge are not well expressed in an academic way - in the form of words and concepts. For example, social problems, both on a big scale and a local scale seem to function on a visceral level that academic knowledge is not very good at engaging with. It seems to me that your work accesses that non-verbal level of communication.

AW: Well yes, that is...

SS: But that also creates a problem in terms of a critique of your work. It is difficult to translate those kind of embodied, affective processes into words or to rationalise them.

AW: Yes, I think that might be true. But when people do see the work they often have very strong reactions. For me it is very important that I am working on a visual level, even when I am using the spoken word.

SS: When you say visual I think you mean visceral.

AW: I suppose so. I think maybe aesthetic is the right word, because it is to do with the senses in general.

SS: Another word I came across when I was thinking about doing this interview is ‘trauma' - if you define trauma as an experience that overwhelms one's ordinary emotional abilities - something that is too difficult to process with the resources you have at the time.

AW: Maybe I make traumatic work!?

SS: Well, yes. Often trauma has a sense of drama about it, but actually it can happen in the most mundane way, if it just means that one's ordinary emotional abilities to process an experience are overwhelmed at the time.

AW: That's interesting.

SS: If we think that the academic framework supplies us with everything we need to know about, there is a big section missing which is to do with how we feel.

AW: It is also something to do with bodily intelligence. Thankfully the Cartesian idea of a complete split between mind and body is going out of fashion now, but we still seem to hang on to the idea that the mind is the ‘intelligent' part of us. I believe that the body has physiological reactions to emotive events that are intelligent, but pre-linguistic, or maybe outside of language.

SS: So it is not that the mind is not involved - there is still judgement involved.

AW: Of course. I don't believe that mind and body are separate.

SS: Perhaps it would be good to talk about your installation Killers now? Could you describe this?

Image: Alexa Wright, Killers at Ormeau Baths Gallery, Belfast, 2002


AW: Yes, that is actually quite an old work, made in 2002. The installation consists of between four and eight wooden booths. They are a bit like polling booths, or confessionals. People sit one at a time at a booth, which is like a little desk in a language lab. There is nothing to see, just a pair of headphones on the desk. When you put these on a microswitch triggers a soundtrack to start from the beginning. In each booth there is a different person telling you about how he or she murdered somebody and how they felt about it. The narratives last between about six to ten minutes. Because you are sort of encased and on your own with the narrative and it is clear that what you are hearing is not the voice of an actor, but the ‘real' person, you can't help but be affected by it. It feels as though you have quite an intimate relationship with the person who is telling you their story.

SS: I think what you get from that relationship is a really discomforting involvement with another human being who is obviously troubled. This is even more disturbing when the person doesn't sound troubled, even though you know they must be because of what they are telling you. You have to engage with the voice on a number of different levels.

AW: That's right. You also have to deal with the emotions that it evokes in you. When I was recording the interviews I felt a great sense of empathy for each individual because their stories are so human, but of course you also can't help feeling they are different because they have killed someone. I wanted to put the listener into exactly this position, where each person would catch him or herself in the act of creating a distance from the narrator at the same time as empathising with him or her. I wanted to put people into a kind of moral dilemma - not to condone killing of course, but to get people to reflect on the way that we judge one another.

SS: ... and in so doing to gain knowledge of those processes. It seems that there is not enough work done to understand people who have committed such anti-social acts.

AW: Well, these are not serial killers. They are all people whose crimes were circumstantial and you really do get a sense of the events that led up to what happened, so in a way the crimes seem more understandable. At first anyway. When I was interviewing people in prisons we were just sitting on either side of a table, usually unsupervised, and people really did seem to want me to hear their stories. As I said, I did feel a lot of empathy, particularly with the women. But then when I was editing the tapes, listening to them over and over again, I noticed that things didn't always add up. I came to realise that the stories weren't quite as straightforward as I first thought. I'm not sure how much that is evident for listeners in the gallery situation, but for me it was an interesting aspect of the work. All these ambiguities make it more difficult to pin down and to define your relationship with the subjects.

SS: This makes me think of my time sitting on a jury... Another key aspect of this is ‘the voice'. I mean that ‘the voice' contains a whole realm of communication in timbre and rhythm and so on that is lost in text-based academic discourse.


AW: Yes, the voice is crucial; Killers wouldn't work as a text piece. Roland Barthes writes about the significance of the voice in his essay ‘The Grain of the Voice', which I have only discovered recently.

SS: The voice is definitely more evocative.


AW: What is interesting to me is that it is an embodiment of language. This work is not just concerned with words, but with embodied words.

SS: Because this is an audio piece, not a visual piece you don't get the visual performance, you just get the voice by itself.

AW: Yes, and that is very important. At first I thought the installation needed a visual component. Obviously I couldn't photograph the prisoners themselves, but I did shoot a lot of video footage of the backs of heads that I was going to project in the space around the booths to give some sense of physical presence. But then I realised that this was too much information because actually as you listen to the voice you embody the person anyway. You can't help but form some kind of mental picture of the person in relation to your own experience.

SS: Let's move on to a more recent project. Can you describe the piece you are working on at the moment?

AW: Yes, I am one of four artists who, in 2006, were invited to participate in an interdisciplinary study of the psycho-social effects of heart transplants taking place in Canada. We have all been asked to make some sort of interpretive material. For various reasons there have been a lot of delays with the project, and it seems likely that it may not now go ahead in its anticipated form. But the research I have done so far has led me to quite an interesting place, so I am planning to make a piece of work anyway. I am thinking about the literal image of taking in someone else's heart - incorporating it into your physical being - as a metaphor for other sorts of intimate relationships. I am hoping to be able to video a heart transplant. I'm in the process of trying to get permission to do this at the moment, but it is not easy. I have been watching videos on YouTube as part of my research - there is one where you can see the surgeon put his hand into a person's body and pop the heart out. It is quite amazing, and does provoke that visceral response we were talking about earlier. At the moment I am looking for ways of combining that sort of imagery with short audio clips of people talking about intimate relationships and the effect of these on their sense of self. I mean all sorts of intimate relationships that call for a readjustment of the boundary of the self - sexual relationships, mother-child relationships and so on. I am hoping to combine footage of the literal incorporation of the heart of another, in which the me-you boundaries are physically broken down, and then trying to look at that on an emotional level as well.

SS: So this is all about the mythical connotations of the heart in our culture?

AW: It is partly to do with that. The heart is obviously a fascinating symbol. I find this work a bit difficult to talk about because it is still in the early stages of development, but I think this project is also about the relationship between image and language. At the moment I'm trying to figure out what kind of language to use. I have developed a way of working for many of my projects that involves interviewing affected individuals with first hand experience and using excerpts from those interviews in the work in the form of either text or voice. But I am not yet sure how this will work in this project. It is very difficult to access any of the material I need, so I am still preoccupied with practicalities at the moment.

SS: I find it interesting that there is such a problem with interviewing heart transplant patients. Why is this?

AW: Partly because the whole process of transplantation can be very destabilising for someone's sense of identity, particularly when it is the heart that is being transplanted. There are cases when people have been interviewed for medical purposes following transplant and then the interview has led them to a breakdown. So the medical profession is very protective of these patients. Even though I am a sensitive interviewer there is obviously a concern that the questions I would ask might lead the heart recipient to a difficult place. Transplant is a very traumatic process - apart from the physical effects of the drugs and so on the psychological and emotional implications of having someone else's heart living in your body can be quite profound.

SS: Heart transplants have been going on for a long time though haven't they?


AW: Yes, since 1967. But this study I am involved in is interesting because it suggests that now scientists are starting to look at the whole person instead of looking at the heart as a purely mechanical device that is separate from the mind and the emotions. Having said that, the idea of organ cell memory still provokes a lot of outrage. This is the idea that if you take someone's heart and put it into someone else's body it will carry with it some of the personality traits or sentiments of the donor. People either passionately believe this or they are very dismissive of it.

SS: So you are performing another kind of surgery - trying to differentiate myth from science?

AW: Well, the imagery I want to create will be quite bloody and brutal: looking into someone's body, seeing their heart being ripped out, but I'm trying to find a way to show that and combine it with narrative reports that will be emotive but not sentimental.

SS: I think this is a good time to go on to talk about your collaborations with scientists. You have been working with scientists for a long time haven't you?

AW: Yes, for nearly 15 years now. In particular with Professor Alf Linney at UCL.We have collaborated on three projects over the last 12 years.


SS: So your work has been part of a dialogue between a scientific approach and an artistic approach. One of the more recent pieces that came out of your collaboration with Alf is Conversation Piece. Can you describe this installation?

AW: Conversation Piece is an interactive computer installation that mimics human social relations. In the installation a disembodied synthesised voice that we have called ‘Heather' tries to engage individual audience members in dialogue. Each interaction is focused around a small sculpture displayed on an exhibition plinth. When you walk up to one of the plinths there is a system that tracks you visually. This triggers the disembodied voice of Heather, who tries to catch your attention by saying ‘Hello', or ‘Excuse me'. Then if you approach one of the sculptures Heather will try to engage you in conversation. She might ask you what you think of the sculpture, comment on what you are wearing - the system can see you - or ask you out for a coffee. The installation uses speech recognition and synthesis software, concealed microphone arrays, a dialogue management system and a directional sound source, which means that only the person at the plinth can really hear what Heather says. If you are standing somewhere else in the room you only get to hear half the conversation. If you are standing in exactly the right place it sounds as though the voice is inside your head, which is quite strange.


Image: Alexa Wright, Conversation Piece at ISEA 2009, Ormeau Baths Gallery, Belfast

It is important that the interface is transparent and that none of the technology is visible because this helps to give the illusion of a personality who is listening and responding. It encourages people to attribute human sensibilities to the machine, even though there are no visible human features. Sometimes it really feels as though there is another person there, at other times the conversation is a bit more tricky. It really depends on two things - how well the system recognises what you are saying and how much you are willing to invest in making the conversation work. So it takes a bit of understanding on the part of both the person and the machine!

SS: Isn't that the idea - that at first you find yourself just carrying on as if there is a person there and then suddenly you realise this is stupid, I am talking to a machine - what does this machine know? You have to start to think about what kind of relationship you want to have with the machine!


AW: Kind of, but sometimes it is difficult to rationalise because it is actually quite compelling to talk to Heather. There is a strange emotional process that goes on in talking to a machine that appears to understand you in some way. It is very conversational. She can flirt with you, or get annoyed with you or tell you her problems. You still feel something even when you know you are talking to a machine, particularly when she is more provocative. I find that interesting. At the moment Heather can't very often deal with questions, and people do like to test her by asking questions. But even though she either ignores the question or doesn't give a satisfactory response, most people seem to be compelled to keep talking to her. To me that is quite interesting because it parallels what we often do in human to human relationships.

SS: Carry on talking you mean?

AW: Well, we keep trying to make the conversation work. I think this demonstrates the degree of empathy involved in any conversation.

SS: But it also makes you more aware of your own feelings because there isn't actually anybody there.

AW: Yes, absolutely. There is no embodiment - the machine voice has some modulation, but this doesn't give much away. In fact, there are some better synthesised voices now than the one we are using, but I didn't want it to be too perfect because I want to cause the kind of emotional confusion you are talking about.

SS: How does the scientist relate to the aesthetic interests of the work? Is he just in it for the science?

AW: Alf is quite a particular sort of scientist in that he also makes sculpture and has a strong interest in art, but since the beginning of our collaboration he has been interested in the way I push his thinking. Somehow the ideas I or we come up with always demand some new scientific or technological research and he finds that interesting. Usually at the start of each project Alf and other scientists say that what we are proposing can't be achieved, but each time we have achieved it in one way or another. Alf is also interested in what the installations can tell us about ourselves.

SS: ‘In one way or another?' What do you mean by that?

AW: Actually at the moment Conversation Piece is not really very intelligent - the system uses a very complex tree structure from which it selects pre-determined responses, or makes up sentences from a range of pre-existing components. We did plan a mark 2 of this project that would use artificial intelligence more thoroughly, but this would be another big and expensive project. It is do-able, but it hasn't happened yet. It will depend on improved word recognition. At the moment the system only recognises one word at a time.

SS: It seems to me that the interests of scientists and artists are very different. Your artwork is put into a public space and people interact with it. This brings the knowledge out into the world and people can do with it what they want. Hopefully they gain something from that experience. Whereas scientists are usually interested in publishing the knowledge as a report that is discussed with other scientists.

AW: Well, not always. That is research science, but sometimes science is applied!

SS: Your work almost seems to supply the dimension that's missing from a lot of science, the affective dimension, the visceral effects.

AW: Yes, I have been collaborating with medical scientists since the mid 1990s so I have become quite familiar with the scientific approach, and recognise that I do approach the representation of what is human in quite a different way. It is not about discourse, but it is about affect, as you say. In an essay on visual culture, Irit Rogoff talks about what she calls ‘new objects of inquiry' that ‘go beyond analysis towards figuring out new and alternative languages which reflect the contemporary awareness by which we live out our lives' - it seems to me that this ‘contemporary awareness' involves a level of reflexivity, both on the part of the artist and the audience. This is part of what I find exciting about making work - that it is, hopefully, bringing a new way of looking at things and a new understanding for the audience on an emotional level as much as on an intellectual one.

SS: With that in mind, do you prefer to show your work in what might be recognised as mainstream ‘art' contexts, or in contexts like the Wellcome Trust gallery, where a piece of your work is in the semi-permanent collection?

AW: Nowadays I prefer to show in galleries. However, the Wellcome is a very particular case. It is an art-science context, but it is also one that is increasingly being taken seriously by the art world. Years ago, at the start of my career as an artist, I was most interested in making work for non-gallery sites, but nowadays I definitely prefer to show in what you call ‘art' contexts. I am not sure how much that is to do with my own expectations for the work and how much it is to do with more general changes in the way that value is assigned to artworks.

SS: Ok.

AW: Maybe I feel that in an art-science environment, or even any other non-gallery context, my work is not taken so seriously. I think I feel that when work is seen in a science context in particular, it is more likely to be seen as instrumental in some way, rather than as a statement in its own right.

SS: Maybe I see your work as bridging the gap between science and art in a way that is too restrictive?

AW: The relationship between science and art is well established, and in a way I don't want to dwell on that aspect of the work.

SS: I can see why you want your work to function in relation to the art world. It is to do with legitimation isn't it?

AW: Yes, I think it is.

SS: This question of context is more complex than I thought. There seem to be two factors that inhibit public recognition of your work. Firstly, the close association with science, which effects its legitimation in an art world that is not that interested in science, and secondly the affective dimension that we were talking about earlier. I mean, the value of your work resides in the area of affect, which could be related to certain feminist discourses. As yet this doesn't seem to be recognised.

AW: Well, yes. There are all sorts of political positions that are not mainstream in our current commodity culture and which might be more accommodating of the sort of work I make, but this all sounds a bit defeatist!

SS: No, I don't think that is a negative thing - it is a problematic to be engaged with.

Stefan Szczelkun <Stefan AT ukart.com> is an artist, living in South London, with an interest in open artists' collectives and networks


Alexa Wright's interactive installation, Alter Ego (2005) will be showing as part of LOCATE ME at the Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien, Berlin, 22 May - 08 August 2010


1 Howard Slater, Burdened by the Absence of the Billions, Metamute, September 2008,