2 May 2023
Since opening his solo exhibition BIG SCIENCE: VOLUME 1 at UKS, Martin White has introduced us to a rich and varied history that continuously unveils new contexts. UKS’ Ida Møller Engebretsen speaks with the artist and tries to wrap her head around the complexity of this seven-year project. Read on and be prepared for subjects ranging from the many possibilities of a sticky note to the comic book character Psycho Pirate with this wonderfully polite Australian artist.
IME: Hi there,
Before we get started,
I would like to welcome
Thanks for coming.
How do you feel?
MW: Oh, thanks! And thanks for asking. I feel moved, humbled and excited to have the exhibition open. I’ve been feeling very emotional. Good emotions. In waves. In a way it’s overwhelming, but it’s really nice to let it sweep over you.
IME: That’s good to hear! Through the seven years you’ve worked with the archival material that makes up the core of the exhibition, you have come across quite delicate medical data and imagery in the archive of Dr Carl Wilhelm Sem-Jacobsen. I’ve seen only a fraction of the material and it has stirred up a lot of emotions in me and in other people too. How have you been able to deal with the emotions?
MW: The emotional power of the material – which is data from and images of psychiatric patients who were experimented upon without consent – was a core part of my decision to draw the material; to place a filter between the material and the audience. I think of drawing as an act of compassion and empathy. It’s impossible for me to draw someone without feeling something for them and their humanity. So, I use it as a counterpoint to the violence of the medical imagery in which the patient is so instrumentalised and stripped of their subjectivity. However, the emotional aspect of the project is not a burden to me. We talk in those terms – bearing witness, carrying the weight – but to me that is a community. In a community we agree to help with each other’s lives and to distribute the weight as much as possible. I believe it’s important for us to see the emotional power of the material, acknowledge it and to share it as much as we can.
IME: The material you present in the artist book and the exhibition is accompanied by quite a few sticky notes with short handwritten texts that guide the audience through the material. They make me feel welcomed, protected and safe, which adds a filter of compassion and empathy between the material and the audience. Why did you choose to guide the viewer through the material in that way, and why on sticky notes?
MW: That’s nice of you to say, thanks! I love the notes as a form for a few reasons. They’re kind of like dialogue bubbles in comics, in that they can be densely packed and filled with information or they can be sparse and open, which is very expressive; they’re quite poetic – you have to write economically and to use space and pause to your advantage; they are also both familiar and informal – they can suggest scholarship or something more domestic like a note to a housemate. Practically, I have begun to use the notes as a way of screening some of the more violent imagery in the book, enabling the reader to nominate whether or not to lift the note and reveal the image. They are also provisional as they can be moved or removed, and they can help readers see the interplay between the material and my artistic choices, which are not neutral. I want the audience to feel seen and as though they are in good hands. With material such as this, that kind of mediated care and guidance becomes even more important.
IME: The notes did make me feel like I was in good hands, but they also made me very aware of your voice and presence in the material. Why did you choose to make the audience so aware of yourself?
MW: I mean, that’s where the art can live, right? In the gap between the information and the person delivering it. How the artist navigates a stream of information – are they surfing, dancing, struggling, drowning? I find that gap fascinating.
In mediating this non-fiction material, I am particularly careful. This story is and was consequential to people and their lives. Sem-Jacobsen existed. He has a family. These patients existed. I don’t know why they were at the psychiatric hospital. I don’t know the complete story of any of these lives. So I am careful to source and back up any claims I make very robustly – almost journalistically. But I am not a journalist, so I can approach the task differently. Art can build an intersubjectivity between the artist and the audience. This is inherently empathic.
IME: What do you mean?
MW: I have understood that a large part of this story is my fascination with it so I have included myself in the story and left traces of my presence – little crumbs. This work is an act of archival analysis and I am commenting on why something is included, or why it isn’t, or why one photo is archived next to another. Because of this, it’s important for me to annotate my choices and what I’ve done so that others may reverse engineer my assumptions, biases or mistakes. This is something that I think art is very good at, to create a complex framing. It doesn’t need to be reductive, simple, binary or fast.
IME: You have left quite a big crumb in issue #004 where you present a drawing from a meeting you had with Geir Haraldseth, a curator from the National Museum in Oslo. What happened at this meeting?
MW: Ha, yeah it is a big crumb! Geir is a specialist in artist books and is also a massive comic book enthusiast, so I thought he would be a good person to talk to about this work. He gave me some great advice in this studio visit. We talked about including more of myself in the story and illustrations of moments and encounters I have experienced while working on this, which ended in me – rather facetiously – illustrating my meeting with him. He also told me the history of the Psycho Pirate character. In Big Science, it is through the Psycho Pirate that we first hear of Sem-Jacobsen and the story spins off into that orbit.
IME: And what is the history of the Psycho Pirate?
MW: Geir told me about the massive, interconnected and meta-textual role that the Psycho Pirate has played in DC Comics (an American comic book publisher) over the last 60 years. I researched this history myself and collected all the comics that the Psycho Pirate appears in. Assembling this history, I saw that it closely echoes the history and practice of psychiatry itself. The Psycho Pirate’s alter ego has been in and out of psychiatric institutions, his father was a psychiatrist, he was subjected to electric shock treatment and has been declared criminally insane on numerous occasions. I had no idea before Geir tipped me off, so I collated the appearances of the Psycho Pirate character and redrew them in a constellation that forms the double-sided poster in issue #004.
IME: The Psycho Pirate and all the material you present in the artist book and the exhibition are from a time with a lot of paranoia and political turbulence. What are your thoughts about showing the material today, as it touches on subjects like exploitation, lack of consent, data collection, psychiatry, technology and power structures, to name just a few?
MW: Wow, ha! Big question and long answer warning alarm! The material all comes from the Cold War era, but I am actually interested in using this story to examine the 20th century and certain phenomena and events that have laid the groundwork upon which we currently sit.
This was an era of the US government’s ideological interventions into nations, industries, social groups and individuals. There was the Marshall Plan, used to bolster US manufacturing at the same time as stymie the spread of communism; The Hays Code, a set of industry guidelines used to self-censor the US film industry; the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was a body that investigated allegations of communist activity; the Hollywood Blacklist, which prevented people suspected of communism from gaining employment; and of course the Comics Code as I cover in Big Science issue #001. With all these interventions, we have political ideology policing who and what was allowed in society. This is also called social engineering. Add into this potent mix the rise of psychiatry which could be used to diagnose and treat people against their will (in most countries, including Norway, it is the only kind of medicine that can be administered against the will of the patient). This is the story of the 20th century.
Now we are in the age of surveillance capitalism and Big Data wherein we are all generating vast amounts of data. This data is being collected by the largest companies ever to exist, Big Tech, which trade that data. Data is increasingly powerful and valuable, but data is also malleable and biased, and this is dangerous in the hands of Big Tech or government. I think it is of utmost importance to examine our own history of medicine, science and psychiatry in relation to industry and politics, and to clearly look at the interplay between them. To understand these antecedents to our era could help us to understand and apply an ethical framework around such cases or incidents today. I am fascinated by the history that led to psychiatry’s rise to power and the abuses of this power. As Jenny Holzer so prophetically said in 1983: ‘Abuse of power comes as no surprise’.
IME: What I find unique and fascinating about your project is the breadth of tangential subjects the material covers; the more I ask, the more I want to know, and I just want to continue asking you more questions. But with respect to our readers – and to protect the experience of actually uncovering information in your exhibition at UKS – I think we have to round it off. Thank you so much, Martin! Any final words?
MW: That’s nice to hear Ida – that’s how I feel too! This project and this research has kept me curious for seven years now and shows no sign of letting up. But, as I say in issue #002, ‘everything is context and context is everything’. Thanks for asking!
*Image: Martin White, BIG SCIENCE: VOLUME 1 at UKS. Photo by Vegard Kleven.