Interview with Bryony Hussey

When I was researching into your practice, I had been intrigued by the word ‘happenstance’: an idea recurrent in your work. What do you mean by ‘happenstance’?

B I really like this word because I like the idea of something you happen upon; I think that it says more than just chance. Happenstance is, for instance, when you are walking from where you live to where you work and you happen upon something. I am interested in something that punctuates your day rather than just a chance encounter. Happenstance is not about the mystical part of destiny, but it’s just the everyday happening.

V I have been thinking about your Mantel Piece (first image below); when I saw it for the first time on display at your degree show, you told me that with this piece you wanted to create that kind of tension of when something might happen anytime. So I was wondering: how much of the piece is set? and how much is improvised?

B It was a hard balance. I started to work on the piece one day in the studio while I was doing other work, and at the end of the day I just decided, ‘let’s try some stuff out!’ So it was a total chance. Everything I did was by chance; the choreography happened after. I carefully studied the footage for moments that did or didn’t work, where the tension is kept. I showed it to other people and I asked them which moments for them were good mistakes versus the movements where the mistakes revealed too much, losing the tension. I let things happen as well. Each clip was filmed in one take but I did it 25 times in one day. After watching them all I picked one I felt had the right moments in it. So in a way it is very staged for its duration on screen but at the same time, even if I am doing the same action, there is a difference between every repetition; the vast amount of repetitions inform the work.

bryony hussey

V Did you plan what objects you were going to use in the Mantel Piece?

The work actually stems from another piece, Red Box (first image top left below) which containing the objects you see in Mantel Piece. Red Box focused on the actions of packing and unpacking: I open the box, I take everything out, make sculptural relationships between them, dismantle them, put everything back and close the box. I continue this action again and again, in a sort of handmade loop. I chose the objects when I came back to University after having been without a studio for a year. I packed the red box with loads of the stuff that I wanted around me while I made work. A lot of them are kind of souvenirs linked to experiences of different places. They are personal, not emotionally, but in a sense particular to me. I wanted to have them around me and so they became the source of the material.

I had already developed a kind of language and aesthetics with these objects when I started to work on Mantel Piece. A focus on a relationship between the objects based on colour was formed. The gestures that stem from Red Box were my way of making sketches of what I wanted for Mantel Piece to be, and from that I chose which objects were going to be used. I didn’t decide where I was going to put them until the moment of filming; it wasn’t choreographed in that way to begin with, although the objects were lined up and were put on like characters being brought on stage, becoming more like props at that stage.

the red box

V I am really interested in the role embodied by objects in your practice and the way you relate yourself to your work; the presence of your hands is a constant. Particularly I am thinking of your practice in relation to the current debate on the binary object/subject; so my question is: how do you relate your own subjectivity to your pieces?

My role is to activate the objects similarly to how they activate my memory when I look at them. In Mantel Piece for instance I want my actions to evocate associations: the objects are not being treated like something that is unfamiliar, but you also are not sure what they are doing. If you just see them in the shelf on their own, without any action or context, I don’t think you will have seen them as anything more than a window display. The fact that they belong to the person that is moving them is a big part of it; my own subjectivity in relation to them is a huge part of why they become significant. I want people to spend time with these objects in a way that maybe they wouldn’t otherwise; you might have something in your window for 20 years and maybe you don’t look at it for 5 minutes on its own like in the way my video makes you do.

Screen shot 2014-07-09 at 22.54.03Infinite Memo book, 2014

V Do you provoke the happenstance in this case then?

B Yeah, I used to call my first work of this type ‘unpacking my archive’ because it’s always very much about that; it’s about that ritual of having objects which you don’t look at very often but every maybe 6 months you go through them. You become slightly detached from them because they are not in your life all the time, but are still personable to you; this mood of re-looking is what I wanted to get across. It’s like when you look at images of yourself before you knew yourself at that point, when you are too young to remember moments but you have the images of those moments; where your relationship with your own subjectivity is quite disorientating. I’m interested on how you relate to yourself through objects.

When I saw Mantel Piece for the first time, I first thought that you wanted to work with something that feels instant, but now I understand that it is actually more than just instant.

Yeah definitely! I think that it’s about the second look at something. I really like re-reading things, and looking at what happens in the second viewing. Every time I have showed Mantel Piece or other works, they are always on loop; I am interested in what happens when it comes back to the second time and what happens when you start to predict things. It is indeed instant, but it is also about what happens when you keep an instant, in this case relationship between two things, and keep showing on the same instant. The final work is a surrogate or souvenir of the instant in question; what is that souvenir in relation to the instant? And what is your relationship to that instant now? I am very interested in how we understand the present through our own experience of the past.

The word ‘instant’ makes me think of our digital age; a continuous stream of instant images overwhelms us. How do you relate your practice in response to this? Do you feel that your practice resists this somehow?

In some ways I think it’s more a questioning of it; because things are so instant, we question reality a lot more. Now there so many competing sources that people are much more suspicious of the information they receive. A lot of my work is a kind of suspicion of how truthful something is; how truthful are this objects as artefacts of something? They are physical evidence that this memory happened but are they really? Or are they just surrogates of the moment? I think these kinds of questions are what I am examining in relation to the instant.

Screen shot 2014-10-29 at 22.51.37

V The display is a really important element in your practice. I am thinking in particular at your piece over the (shoulder) (third image top left above) or your other project where the hands through green screen are holding a shelf (see above). So the hands again, and in this case they are functional to the display.

Yes display is a huge part of our culture and the way we look at things. I am really interested in different modes of display from shop windows to the domestic. For example, the way someone puts things together in their room where arrangements are made often purely for display. Ornaments are a classic example in that they are rarely if ever use but are present for display. Even haphazard arrangements in busy newsagents where you only happen upon (coming back to the idea of happenstance again) the things that you need are of intrigue to me. Although the display is not very functional, it is still there; with my work I am trying to figure out what role display plays in our life with objects.

And why the hands?

I really like this idea of something made by hand and craftsmanship. There are loads of semiotics of display that use hands, for instance directional instructions by air hostesses on planes, or the movement of shop assistants hands when adjusting displays in a shop. I really like the idea that every time you see an arrangement, it had to be created by someone, even if you don’t see the presence of a person its there.

V Does that show the limits of the objects then?

B Yeah, I am definitely setting the parameters of what they can do by implicating myself so heavily. But in Mantel Piece for example it is also about keeping the transparency: even if I had taken my hands out of the video, my hand in it, as my direction, was still present in the editing. So I suppose showing my hands in the video is a way to address myself in it overtly that might also be an element of ambiguity.

What do you mean by ambiguity?

B The hands seem very instructional but you are not really sure as to what. We are so used to seeing hands in an instructional way that maybe you expect to be told something but you aren’t. It is more about the idea of doing something by hand and in this way showing my own subjectivity somehow than anything else.


Bryony is a London-based artist. Mantel Piece was chosen for Elevator Gallery’s annual ‘The Tomorrow People’ exhibition as part of Hackney Wicked Festival last Summer.

Second image top left above: still of ‘Infinite Memo book’, 2014
Bottom and cover image: ‘green shelf’, 2014


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