Artist Interview: Laura Besançon
Interviewed by Ann Dingli
Portrait of Laura Besançon
Laura Besançon is a Maltese-French multidisciplinary artist. In 2017-2019, she completed an MA Photography degree at the Royal College of Art, developing a multifaceted practice coloured by her foundational education in Communications and Psychology at the University of Malta. Besançon describes her practice as centring on “notions of play, connectivity and place”; themes she explores through multi-disciplinary mediums with a strong focus on communication. Her work also explores appropriation, reconfiguration, shifting perspectives and what she labels “playful action”. Besançon’s 2018 work, Alone, Together, invited residents of a UK residential tower block to participate in a form of documented communal performance. Besançon was a finalist for the 2019 MTV RE:DEFINE Award, run by the Goss-Michael Foundation, and recently was recognised by the 2020 Aesthetica Art Prize. Besançon speaks to Ann Dingli about the dualities she explores in her work, as well as the fluctuating definition of togetherness.
Ann Dingli (AD): Your background is in Communications and Psychology. As a starting point, can you talk about how this foundation feeds into your art practice?
Laura Besancon (LB): Before my pursuing my MA at the Royal College of Art, I had never followed any kind of formal art education, but always wanted to ‘do something more’. I had previously pursued Communications and Psychology at Undergraduate level, as they were both broad subjects centring around the complexities of human life and our daily reality – human nature, social dynamics, interconnectedness, perception and reality. I realised I wanted to explore and research these complexities from an artistic perspective and to use all communication tools for an artistic purpose, rather than for the media world, especially in such an image saturated world.
I often utilise communication tools in my artistic practice, combining both older, slower mediums and new technologies and communication tools as part of the process, or the final work. A lot of the work is more conceptual than retinal, hence why I feel that having a varied background, rather than a formal art education prior to my MA, has been beneficial. I am interested in ideas, concepts, more than the final visual product, although I strongly place importance on both. In my opinion, ideas are more important in today’s world.
AD: I'd like to look at your work, Alone, Together, and its commentary on the nature of living alongside, yet separate, from others. What do you believe converts places into communities? Can communities be silent or apart and yet still possess togetherness?
LB: You have a machine. It will only work if all the parts do the job they are best at, on their own, together. This interconnectedness with a shared purpose. A community is a group that shares a commonality. In Alone, Together the artwork was shared. My idea only came through because of the residents’ participation. If I did not send the letters it would not have happened. Individually but collectively, it happened – a co-created, shared moment, together on a mental and emotional level. It might also have an after effect in a more physical dimension – I wonder whether the residents will initiate contact the day after, when they meet spontaneously, say in the lift or around the block.
During the live work, I felt that each of us participants, including myself, acknowledged each other’s aloneness and togetherness, through the action performed together in our separate spaces.
So yes, I think a community can still possess togetherness by being apart – through openness, respect, acknowledgement and care about the individuals around us and the bigger picture or a common goal. At the end of the day, we are all alone, and that is what we all have in common.
Alone, Together, 2018
AD: You've spoken about the duality of proximity versus isolation. Many artists over time have touched on visual themes of community that denote sentiments typically unassociated with togetherness. From George Grosz to Martin Parr, artists have shown that the idea of saturation doesn't always emulate positive feelings – it can be about despondency, alienation, hopelessness, boredom, degeneration. What is your central message on togetherness?
LB: As much as we are craving physical proximity with people, how many times have we sat close to someone and found absolutely nothing to say? In times like this, we can be even more together, by thinking about what benefits us as a collective whole, living in the present and into the future. Being apart is the best we can do for the collective whole. There has not been a stronger moment of togetherness, or its effect, in a way.
Individual action affects the collective outcome. Play, openness, vulnerability and trust with people you do not know plays an important role in togetherness.
AD: Your work Still, Life also comments on physical grouping. Can you talk about the connection between the two works?
LB: Still, Life was a project that developed alongside Alone, Together. Through further research on play, I became quite interested in the playgrounds of Aldo van Eyck and his concept of the city as playground. His minimalistic, aesthetic play equipment were intended to stimulate the creativity of the child. I felt there was a strong link with the way I felt about the process of Alone, Together, with the buildings being a sort of internal playground and how – through participation, imagination and play – architecture is brought to life.
I photographed a few of the remaining playground structures, found in various locations around Amsterdam. During my research on van Eyck, I was intrigued by archival photographs of the playgrounds, depicting his sand pits full of people, both young and old – a very different scene from the reality of today where children play more on screens and there are less interactions in these spaces. This decrease in physical, outdoor play is depicted in the photographs I took, which were more of a still life, void of any human or social interaction. In Alone, Together I wanted to bring a request to play into the buildings, into the city – a kind of reversal, maybe it could bounce back to the streets.
Still, Life installation view, 2019
AD: You seem to be interested in the tension between stillness and movement, silence and noise, solid and non-solid. Why are these contrasts important to you?
LB: I realise that all these works, which start from an intuitive need to create them, are works that speak of contrasts and apparent dualities. It is probably about the complexity of life and the fact that change is the only constant. I live in the present and react to the present. Life is full of contrasts and the more I focus and navigate them, becoming aware of the ever-changing nature of things, the more I find that I can deal with, progress, and remain future positive.
Again, life is full of contrasts. On one hand we want a greener more sustainable future, but we are overbuilding and making vertical gardens. There is so much irony around. You can either become depressed about it or play with it.
Oftentimes I am looking for the overlap, looking closely at the in-between, exploring thresholds, and the space of interconnections. It is a space of compromise or understanding of both sides, which I feel is important, especially in a world that frequently resorts to black or white thinking.
AD: Your work is very structural – whether physically or by way of structured rhythms. What are your influences in this respect? You've mentioned architecture and infrastructure, and seemingly music is also important to you. Can you elaborate on how these disciplines impact your thinking?
LB: My influence is music, without a doubt. My MA dissertation was entitled Seeing Music, centring mainly around the formal qualities that architecture and music share. Many artists and architects saw similarities or were deeply influenced by music in their work. I find myself looking for a certain musicality in visual art. My musical influence is definitely evident in Alone, Together – a music track is used as a tool, as part of the process, with the beat, rhythms converted into action and light in the windows – a visual, collaborative piece with the result being a kind of visual orchestra. In other works, I also see and create with a musical, rhythmical attitude.
I play with, or make reference to architecture, industrial materials and tools related to infrastructure because they are the materials of today. I want to make beautiful the ugly, at least for a moment that might, in turn, create a different way of perceiving the everyday. For example, since presenting Still, Life at the RCA, I received a couple of messages from people who saw the work, telling me that they think of the work when they bump into a road sign frame, a frame that is usually a nuisance, diverting us away from the chaos of roadworks.
Still, Life close up view, 2019
AD: Can you talk about the work you'll be exhibiting at VC? Does it look to pull together a central theme, or will you be developing a completely new trajectory? Do you plan to make a comment on collectivity in the time of the pandemic?
LB: The exhibition is titled Playful Futures. I will be showing works I have never shown here before, from 2018 up until now. I will be exhibiting the documentation of my participatory work Alone, Together (2018-), Still, Life (2019) and other works I made during my time at the Royal College of Art. I will also be showing other recent works made in 2020 and 2021, which have resulted out of a progression of research and thought following the Alone, Together (2018) project. I would describe the works on show as playful yet serious.
I have also invited other artists I have met during my time at the RCA to exhibit alongside of me, as I feel that there is a certain dialogue happening between us. It is also a great moment to keep up with the spirit of collaboration, especially under the current circumstances, and to bring some works from the UK despite Brexit. Regarding whether I will be making a comment on collectivity in the time of the pandemic – I will leave it to the viewer to figure out!
Downhill i , 2019