Home Arts P. Staff on their show full of live wires, acid and blood at Kunsthalle Basel

P. Staff on their show full of live wires, acid and blood at Kunsthalle Basel

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Acid, poison and live electrical wires are all materials used in the – often literally – caustic work of P. Staff. The British-born, Los Angeles-based installation artist and filmmaker caught the eye for their 2019 solo show at the Serpentine Galleries in London, in which they designed a piping system to drain corrosive liquid from the ceiling of the building. Nearby are acid-etched metal works of detailed examples of the scaremongering ways in which the UK media reports on gender reassignment surgery, underscoring staff’s continuing interest in how the laws and regulations governing our bodies behave. intersect with queer and trans identities. The show’s titular film installation, On Venuslater appeared at the 2022 Venice Biennale.

For their largest exhibition to date, at Kunsthalle Basel, Staff carried out a series of unsettling interventions in the building’s architecture, replacing door handles and power outlets with dried blood and installing large electrified nets to delimit the space. In the last rooms, new cinematographic installations address the themes of slow horror, psychodrama and the encounter between violence and pleasure.

A staff detail Through Evil (2022), a printed vinyl work encrusted with electrical wiring
Photo by Paul Salveson; courtesy P.Staf

The Art Newspaper: Electric nets and dried blood, you haven’t made the Kunsthalle a particularly inviting space. To what extent was the installation dangerous and to what extent is the spectator in danger?

P. Staff: I like to use materials in which violence, abrasion or agitation are fundamental, because they reorient the choreography of the gallery, change the way you navigate in space and change the way you understand your position, both corporeal and other, in relation to the work. With dried blood waste, I collaborated with a designer, Basse Stittgen, who invented a way to clot blood without any additives. It is also the first time I have used electrified netting – set to high voltage – although my 2022 exhibition at the LA Commonwealth and Council gallery also featured energized electric wires embedded in a wall. As with my acid parts, I work with a professional chemist and engineer, so while there is some danger, it’s more about the theater of danger. Although a part of me doesn’t want to talk about it. There should be some doubt.

So you don’t want the spectator to know perfectly well if he will be injured?

It’s about asking yourself how close do I want to get to this job? How badly do I want to put myself in the danger line? It’s a question we ask ourselves all the time: when we see someone fall in the street, when we decide to go demonstrate, when we assess how safe it is for you to go home at night as a woman, or as a queer/trans person. The gallery allows this questioning, a safe space to feel insecure.

A still from the video that was part of the staff exhibit Prince of Homburg (2019), which examined queer and trans identity
Courtesy P. Staff

In your shows, these hazardous materials, such as acid and electricity, play central thematic roles and, in this way, also become protagonists. For what?

I’m interested in the space where violence veers into anarchic pleasure – the strange line between how good it can be to destroy something, or yourself, and how necessary that destruction can be. . The electric fences suggest prison detention. But they also represent our nervous system, or the electric crackle that can be felt in the body during times of danger and pleasure. For me, associating with dangerous, hazardous materials is about presenting a trans politics that does not give in to the pressure of good. Trans people are so reviled in the UK, so there is pressure to act as the ideal subject, the well-behaved trans person. I find it far more interesting to focus instead on the layered complexities of the violence we face.

Tell me about the films in your exhibition at Kunsthalle Basel.

One is a five-channel synchronized hologram fan piece showing a video poem. The title of the show In Ecstasy comes from here. It brings together a lot of what comes up in my work, the relationship to evil, the autonomy of the body, destroying oneself in order to remake oneself. The Last Piece is a new movie titled The American night, which uses an old Hollywood technique to simulate the night. Shot entirely in daylight, the content is fairly mundane – people going to work, cars driving by – but it’s shot in this jarring and disorienting faux night. I was interested in thinking about the collapse of day into night, as a move towards a fracture of normative life as we know it. It ends up looking like my version of a horror or zombie movie, in which the sun seems like the most terrifying thing you’ve ever seen.

This is your first exhibition of new works since Covid. How has the pandemic changed interpretations of your work, much of which is about disease and contamination, although more related to HIV/AIDS.

On Venus was not prescient of the pandemic, even though there are literally images of a wet market. But the contagious body horror it presents was brought to life during the pandemic. Go back to the Venice Biennale, in the main exhibition The milk of dreams, was incredibly intimidating, as I wasn’t sure he would still stand after a mass experiment. I am divided on whether it is productive or detrimental to compare Covid and HIV. In my work, I am deliberately promiscuous about the things I put in dialogue with each other, both materially and theoretically. There are specifics to the ongoing AIDS crisis that cannot only be disrupted by Covid, but it is interesting to also view these pandemics as clashing with each other.

Through your hazardous site specific facilities, you demand a lot from the institutions you work with. You also demand a lot from your audience: your Serpentine Galleries show in London featured animal abuse videos that many viewers probably found upsetting. Why are you doing this?

I often ask a question of tolerance. I’m not talking about moral or ethical tolerance, but more like taking the hand of the institution, and the viewer, and asking: how long can we stay together in something uncomfortable, and can- we stick to it until we’ve reached an answer? It becomes a collective effort to stay with disturbing and confusing facts that relate to who we all are.

Staff P.: In Ekstase, Kunsthalle Basel, until September 10

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