'We believe in the power of objects as a means of generating a contemplative space for an audience.' (Parsons and Charlesworth)
Installation view, Venice Architecture Biennale 2021
Apparel, Installation view, Venice Architecture Biennale 2021
Installation view, Venice Architecture Biennale 2021
Parsons & Charlesworth (Tim Parsons, Jessica Charlesworth) are collaborative artists focusing on the objects and habits of humankind. Their inventive sculptural practice relies upon creating objects that allow us to examine our future selves and perhaps navigate better. Utilizing sculpture, objects, narrative writing and photography, their work addresses key social, ecological and technological challenges of our time, including climate change and the future of work.
Recent commissions include the exhibition Designs for Different Futures at the Walker Art Center and the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale at the Arsenale from May – November 2021.
They began collaborating in 2010 after relocating to Chicago from the UK. They have exhibited worldwide: Museum of Art (Philadelphia), Museu de Arte, Arquitetura e Tecnologia (MAAT Lisbon), Museum of Contemporary Art, and Fernwey Gallery (Chicago), WantedDesign (New York City), Aram Gallery (London). Honours and awards include 2020 Mitchell Enhancement Award, 2019 Canada Council for the Arts Grant, 2019 Artist-In-Residence at Krems, Austria, 2010 First Prize Winner for Project Vienna, MAKVienna, Austria. Their work is featured in private collections and in the permanent collection at the MAKVienna and DePaul Art Museum. They both teach at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Can art enhance social change and what role could artists and their work play in this? Could one even consider a leading role?
PARSONS AND CHARLESWORTH:
Cultural forms have always helped catalyse social change. So the question becomes 'how can they do so more effectively?' Sadly, we are living through a period of increased social division. Culture has an important role to play in countering this. While many artists have positioned themselves as activists, art, design and other forms of culture have a very important role to play in highlighting nuance - in revealing the complexities between polarised positions.
Design has also been gradually embracing this broader role, diverging from its traditional mode of finding “solutions” to the problem of generating capital. There is an increasing acknowledgment - within education but also from within the commercial design world - that design has to be about asking provocative questions.
In the face of the radical upheavals and crises that characterise our time, may we still dare to hope for a better future? What effect could narrative have on the process of shaping such a future?
Hope - however misplaced it may be - is a prerequisite for us to continue working. We have to have confidence in the efficacy of the work we produce, however that does not mean the work itself has to be inherently optimistic in tone. Dark humour, irony and satire are all methods that we use to engage the audience with ideas.
We live in a time where the mis-use of narrative, in the form of political rhetoric, is rife. Understanding this, and being aware of the tools and processes of creating narratives therefore becomes more important for individual liberation. Storytelling can be a highly effective way of promoting empathy and engendering a sense of connection and belonging. It is also a far more impactful way of communicating issues than facts alone.
What might be the impulses of a transdisciplinary dialogue between art and other disciplines to catalyse social transformation? Which fields of expertise and practice could be fruitful for your own work?
A certain naivety and openness is important in intentionally ignoring boundaries without dismissing expertise. Placing long-term goals and consequences over short-term gains is also key. However, before such impulses can be effective, the structures that govern how work is done and how it is supported need to change. For all the talk of promoting trans/inter/cross disciplinary working, disciplinary boundaries still exist and are often resistant to change. Funding structures tend to follow disciplinary lines, making trans-disciplinary projects difficult to realise. We have to stop working in silos and try to break down the boundaries between disciplines. Different realms also have their own language, stereotypes, and suspicions about neighbouring disciplines which hamper dialogue and collaboration.
In our work we are keen to develop relationships with experts in fields such as climate science, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and neuroscience. These are all areas we are interested in researching further and making work about. We have interviewed experts for our projects in the past, but it would be great to establish longer term trans-disciplinary collaborations.
We are also looking to explore ways of narrowing the gap between speculative projects and so-called “reality”. In the field of design especially, speculative or fictional projects are regularly dismissed as ineffectual fantasies, overlooking the important role they can play in promoting discourse. Without giving in to this narrow attitude, we are interested in how such projects can go beyond prompting discourse and have a more direct influence on impacting change.
Assuming it would be possible to build a better world on the ruins of the old one, how could this new world look like? What do you wish for a better tomorrow?
There are so many barriers to overcome, but to name a few…
A new form of international cooperation that overcomes national interests has to be achieved in order to address the climate emergency and the related humanitarian crises it is causing. Capitalism, as it currently operates, is antithetical to the required changes needed to avert a climate disaster, and hence we need to find a way of rethinking this system and promoting a workable alternative.
We are not particularly optimistic that any of this can be achieved! Despite past progress, human nature seems to have a habit of maintaining divisions, be they social, political, economic, generational, technological etc. A better tomorrow would be one without these divisions, and one that takes a less human-centred perspective.
It is often said that a distinctive skill of artists and creatives is to seek the new, and always start from scratch on a blank paper. When you start a new project, what strategies or rituals do you use?
Our starting point combines a research insight with some kind of broad opportunity we are asked to respond to, such as an open call or an exhibition with a broad theme.
While trying not to be formulaic in our approach we do call upon certain strategies that we are experienced in, such as synthesizing research insights into personas which are then developed into fictional narratives. We dive deeply into the subject matter we are exploring. In particular, we look at emerging scientific advancements, social trends and critiques of capitalism. Through discussion we establish a formula for the outcomes we wish to present.
The aesthetic aspects are as important as the theoretical, and hence we also conduct a lot of visual research, collecting imagery and creating drawings and 2D and 3D collages.
Ultimately we always want to manifest the ideas through objects because this is what we are trained in and because we believe in the power of objects as a means of generating a contemplative space for an audience.
Before developing ideas for object we look for an appropriate framework, container or vehicle for the ideas. Examples from our past work include survival kits, a vending machine or a trade fair stand. These formats allow us to borrow familiar forms and language to help support the narrative behind the project. It also helps create a balance between reality and fiction. We are creating speculative objects or alternative realities through object, and to be effective they have to ride a narrow line between the real and the fictional. Each object has to be believable while contributing to a broader thesis.
The interview was conducted in July 2021