Joe Hancock, Leeds / Catriona McAra

‘Deus Ex Machina: Origin’ (2013) © 2013 Joe Hancock

Deus Ex Machina (2014-15) steel, retroreflective glass beads, stairlifts, custom electronics 450 x 300 x 300 cm Photo: Phillip Clarke. © Joe Hancock 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Last summer, &Model curatorial projects, Leeds, hosted a residency for artist, fabricator, and former handyman, Joe Hancock (b. 1976), a recipient of the Phoenix Bursaries following a fire in The Mackintosh Building at Glasgow School of Art (GSA) on the eleventh hour of his degree show. Funded by the Arts Council, Hancock’s current research-practice on acts of repair feels timely for many reasons, not least the physical and emotional repairs required after what happened at GSA (May 2014). His research further explores the intersection between art and labor as modes of making, and, in doing so, questions the notion of “the work” implied in the appearance of any material object or idea as a result of his practice. The residency culminated in a one-off performance (8 off), and coincided with an exhibit in a local industrial estate by &Model’s sponsors, North Brewing Co., of what would have been his degree show installation Deus Ex Machina (2014), a large-scale kinetic sculpture comprising two encircling stair-lifts. The latter was selected by &Model curator, Derek Horton, from the artwork’s exhibition at New Contemporaries in the Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh (2015).

Deus Ex Machina made a comfortable fit with the factory-like environment of the northern brewery. The warehouse offered a less clandestine project space than the neo-classical galleries of RSA, and thus enabled an unadulterated encounter for a different type of audience. Turning to the sculpture, the artist tells us that themes of customization and dissonance were key. When activated, the two chairs slowly coasted up and down their respective routes at a pace that gave room for pause. One is inclined to associate stair-lifts with their intended users, the elderly and/or the infirm, a link that might then prompt further reflection on loneliness or the breakdown of communication. As absent subjects or understudies for the human figure, the work was rendered poignant; the hovering chairs and their distinctive emptiness conjured an atmosphere of loss. The title was apt in this regard—as a theatrical device or divine trapeze for Grecian tragedies, Deus Ex Machina also spoke to Hancock’s earlier occupation as a theatre technician, lending the monumental edifice a biographical dimension. Certainly, he had inherited one of the two stair-lifts after his grandmother passed away. Moreover, the artwork’s reprisal was marked psychically by the history of the object: no matter how restored and pristine its retroreflective surfaces, a double trauma still scratches at its core. In thinking on a sculptural level, the elegance of this kinetic duet offered a kind of mechanical choreography, a dialogical patterning or circadian rhythm. A deliberate connection was sought between the asymmetrical mating cycles of cicada species and the chittering sounds of their wings within this whirring, mechanized formation. Embedding prime numbers in its operations, Hancock’s Deus Ex Machina provided an elegy on the mathematical formulae and frequencies that underscore the aches and desires of the human condition.

Meanwhile, (8 off) was being developed on the ground floor of &Model. Until the performance night, this residency had been shrouded in mystery. For a time, all that could be observed at street level was a diorama of industrial equipment, functioning as museum artefacts or a shop window display, harkening back to the readymade machine aesthetics of Marcel Duchamp. As it transpired, for several weeks Hancock had been working behind-the-scenes on the meticulous construction of a wooden workbench. By the evening of the performance, this hypertrophic workbench had been extended so that, end-to-end, it spanned the entire 14 metres of the ground floor space. This created a peculiar sense of linear perspective which was later disrupted. For a moment, the bench became what Michel Foucault might have termed a heterotopia—audience participants leant on its table-top and placed their refreshments and possessions instinctively on its surface.1 Like the chairs of Deus Ex Machina, the awkwardness of this spatial divider was treated ergonomically as furniture while retaining a self-conscious sense of reverence that it might shortly be returned to its status as an artwork. The bench became a character, serving as a host for

(8 off) [performance] (2016) / oriented strand board, C16 grade wood, bolts, screws, glue, plunge saw, dust extractor, personal protective equipment / 1440 x 90 x 94 cm / Photo: Josh Johnson. © Joe Hancock 2017. All Rights Reserved.
interaction and engagement. Groups clustered in the foreground and along its edges, hypothesising what might be about to happen. After socializing in plain clothes with his guests, the artist quietly disappeared backstage, changing into a workwear uniform, before returning in performance-mode, unspeaking, working, making. The combination of the industrial equipment, ear-defenders, safety glasses, blades, timber and woodscrews inevitably raised the art historical specter of the constructivist artist-as-worker (ca.1925) or the machismo of Richard Serra’s experiments with molten lead (1968). However, on closer inspection, Hancock’s practice owes more to 1970s’ endurance art practices, such as that of Chris Burden and Gina Pane. Like many worked surfaces and products of modernity, the actions appeared to be executed effortlessly (or in suspended parentheses) but were, in fact, a physically grueling ordeal for the artist. As the title hints, (8 off) involved slicing the lengthy bench into eight identical segments with the aid of a plunge saw.
Interloper (2016) / woodscrew, plunge saw / 2.4 x 0.6 x 0.6 cm / Photo: courtesy of the artist. © Joe Hancock 2017. All Rights Reserved.
One unanticipated visual effect was the pyrotechnic spark ignited from searing through a screw, later appropriated as a residual artwork, Interloper (2016). Like drawing or carving, the cuts that created “the work” were the result of heavy-duty labor. As each task was completed, new heterotopias appeared in response. Completion was signaled by the artist removing the performative vantage point of his safety glasses before exiting the gallery stage.

According to the artist’s long-term plan, the resulting eight benches will find new homes where they will operate individually in a variety of contexts before being reassembled, experiencing a productive afterlife and continuous cycles of narrative repair. For Hancock, artists working today are not deskilled but differently skilled. His residency and its satellite outputs presented a strong case for this argument. More, it offered a psychosomatic instruction-manual towards mending the voids and traumas that punctuate collective existence.

Endnotes

  1. Michel Foucault, ‘Of Other Spaces,’ Diacritics, 16:1 (Spring, 1986): pp. 22-27.
Catriona McAra

Dr Catriona McAra is Curator at Leeds College of Art. She has published extensively on Dorothea Tanning and Leonora Carrington with a particular interest in feminist aesthetics and surrealist legacies in contemporary practice. Recent articles include “Witch Milk: Samantha Sweeting’s Lactation Narratives” for ASAP/Journal.