Interviews with Artists

Paul Rooney



Jeremy Akerman: JA

Eileen Daly: ED
Paul Rooney: PR


23 March 2011, Liverpool



ED: How did you get started writing?


PR: I started at art school. Right from foundation course onwards I was interested in both art and literature. I was offered a place at Edinburgh Art College and started using Edinburgh city library quite extensively; at that stage I was reading a lot of fiction and doing some writing. In the final year wrote a fictional film script about a young artist who goes to Paris to meet Manet, Courbet and Walter Benjamin, amongst others. Reading back on it, it was really pretentious, but it got quite a good response from the art history tutor.


ED: What was the motivation for the first piece of writing?


PR: I was interested in T. J. Clark who wrote The Painting of Modern Life, a really interesting discussion around Manet and early modernist painting, so I went to Paris and the film script was partly based on that trip.


JA: Did you go to Paris on your own at that time?


PR: I got a travel award for one of my essays, so yes, I did go on my own.


JA: Was there a performative aspect to the work in those days, or was it writing on the one hand and visual art on the other?


PR: It was still compartmentalised, and my painting practice was quite conservative. I didn’t use text in my paintings and I wasn’t really aware of conceptual art or artists who used text in their work. I was really just very influenced by the fiction and historical writing I was reading, and also by some theory.


ED: Were you in the band ‘Rooney’ at that point, writing lyrics or other types of writing?


PR: No, that was also later, I was a bit of a late developer generally. I had written some tunes when I was 15 or 16, and all through art college I kind of expected to be asked to be in a band somehow, but it didn’t happen, and I didn’t initiate it either. It wasn’t until I was 30 when I was teaching students at Staffordshire University who were in bands that I thought I ought to have a go at recording. They loaned me some four-track tape recorders and I was away. A crucial turning point was when I found a way of doing the lyrics, which had been a problem until then.


ED: Can you describe what you were like at 15?


PR: (laughs) Earnest young lad, absorbing everything. At about 13 I started listening to Joy Division and they had song titles that referenced literature and so I read all those books. Apparently Ian Curtis did the reading as well, he didn’t just like the names. So linked to the Joy Division thing was a kind of serious culture as well, which was a bit superficial at that stage, but reading Wuthering Heights for A level – I’ll never forget the point that Cathy dies, it was like an epiphany, when you realise how powerful these things can be.


JA: At that age, it’s as good as it gets: music, literature and visual art.


PR: I remember reading Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment, they’re incredibly funny novels, which was another really interesting discovery at that stage in my life. Gogol, Dostoyevsky and Beckett are humorous writers. So you start from Joy Division – and there is absolutely no humour there – and you kind of carry on thinking that the most interesting art is going to be like that: dark and thrilling and totally serious. But that marriage between absolute seriousness and absolute absurdity, which I found in the literature, is what I’ve really held on to. It’s there in Irish writing. I had a phase when I wanted to explore my Irish roots – it was a teenage thing. It didn’t last, but at the same time it was great discovering Beckett and Flann O’Brien. James Joyce for me is still the most complete artist.


JA: Do you think that an artist has a particular kind of approach to writing?


PR: I found it easier having something to start off with, a found text or an interview that I’ve done. My first voice-over video piece started with a written description of footage of me meeting a warm-up comedian, for instance.


JA: Is it visual, that starting point?


PR: I don’t think it’s necessarily visual. Let Me Take You There started with a TV documentary, which then I described in writing, so that was a partly visual starting point, but other works were based on texts I’d got people to write describing their day at work. I see the initial texts I use a bit like objects, so manipulating them is like a kind of sculptural practice, or maybe collage is closer to it.


JA: Does it work better for you to get pushed for starting something?


PR: It has yeah, if I am commissioned to make work with a particular context or subject it’s quite nice to be pushed into that unexpected territory and it refreshes you. Maybe you end up making the same kind of work [without the commission] but it appears and resurfaces in a different way in different contexts.


JA: Often the protagonists in your stories are scarred or disfigured or inadequate … are you Diane Arbus-like in your attraction to a subject or people?


PR: Maybe that comes out of a rediscovery of reading Beckett, The Unnameable for example. Most of my work has focused on a disembodied voice. The script’s starting point may be an interview, with some hotel maids for instance, to which I’ve added other references and sources, but it is often still the individual voice that carries the narrative and occupies the space – the fictional space as well as the literal space – of the work. The point is that this voice, which seems singular, is in fact composite, fractured and unstable. The Unnameable is that unstable voice pushed to the absolute extreme. In The Unnameable the novel’s narrator exists as a voice that can’t stop itself speaking, and although it has a vague memory of having a degraded physical form, which is propped inside a pot outside of a restaurant – it also has memories of other vague forms, events and beings – as the story goes on it becomes clear that nothing that the voice says is reliable, even to itself. I was attracted by the extremity of that experience: a sense of self that is absolutely uncertain, and is pushed to the limit.


ED: Was Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis a reference for you because of a sense of transformation? A lot of your characters go through some form of transformation, for example, in Spit Valve, the kitchen fitter finds himself becoming spit. Or in Soufflé the narrative is about a character trying to change identity. Is that something you recognise?


PR: I’m aware of it and I’ve been interested in that process. It’s to do with a sense of possibility, a potential for change, but yeah there could be other issues. I am interested in a sense of inadequacy in relation to your space or situation, or to your physical form.


ED: Do you mean the space you occupy in the world?


PR: Yeah, it’s quite simply political in some ways: the way that people occupy menial roles in institutions, for example roles that are quite visible but are powerless because they’re lacking any agency in their situation. The idea of social transformation has to start in these places, but it’s an old idea. Being brought up a Catholic, I was probably influenced by the Christian and Jewish focus on the downtrodden as the chosen ones, which is also a Marxist idea of course, that the lowest of the low have to elevate the society as a whole. There is also a redemptive aspect to writing that I like, which is having a starting point – even if it’s not that promising – and turning it into something articulate.


ED: Is it related to the constraints within society? In your writing there’s a lot of curious attention to the details of qualifications – the people you write about mention rules, regulations, health and safety issues a lot – and it appears that the characters are constrained by these things. To some degree it becomes a completely absurd quality that they imagine different identities for themselves, such as in Words and Silence.


PR: The political aspect is there: the idea that the call centre worker shouldn’t be so restricted in their working practice, and so on. Maybe you could say the voice in Words and Silence is resisting those constraints by using imaginative play, by wasting time and annoying people; it’s a kind of destructive resistance, which is not necessarily about positivity or righteousness. It does seem like there are a number of my works where the starting points are conventional working-class scenarios but in others I deliberately didn’t want to begin with that starting point. In these cases I might start with middle-aged quite well-to-do blokes with supposedly middle-class values because they have just as much containment within their situation, and just as much potential for imaginative leaps beyond it, as anybody else does.


JA: I have been thinking back to the Brothers Karamazov, where Dostoyevsky lays out in front of you half a dozen viewpoints, which gives you every possibility for different situations; no finger is wagged at you but cause and effect is shown in a way which is inescapable, and which suggests a kind of morality. Do you see it like that? Are you trying to raise all of the ground and not just the moral ground?


PR: I am interested in a general existential awkwardness in a way that’s not necessarily always linked to social structures or a moral position; and I seem to veer towards a dark humour in relation to these problems, particularly in the works with more abstracted entities, such as in Spit Valve or Lucy Over Lancashire.


ED: Can you say more about writing that has influenced you or which has made you think re-think writing in an art context? You’ve previously mentioned an article by the American artist David Robbins as being an influence, and I had noted about him that he specifically chose to live outside New York as he didn’t want to be at the centre of the art scene there as he felt it would be too much influence on his own practice. Is your choice to live in Liverpool a similarly conscious decision?


PR: I read that David Robbins text at a point when I was a bit stuck and didn’t know how to deal with certain ideas. It could have been something else that came along at that time, but when I read his piece about a supermarket checkout girl, lots of lights went on in my head: I thought, ‘I can use that idea’, the idea that art can also be writing. At that time I had some footage of me at Granada TV shaking hands with the warm-up guy and I was really interested in the whole situation of what a warm-up man does in relationship to the rest of the TV machinery. So I wrote a text about that footage and my experience, and the David Robbins piece was the key. In terms of living here in Liverpool … I did have ambitions to go to London, I applied to Goldsmiths and had a horrible interview, but once I’d got into Edinburgh that was it. Then I got a job at Staffordshire University so I moved back to Liverpool, but it wasn’t a conscious career decision to stay in the city, it was just easier to commute to Stoke from there than from Edinburgh. I like the idea, though, that there is a value in being outside of things, so that other influences that are not the usual ones can create a space in your environment. If you are constantly occupied by what’s fashionable or current then those other spaces may not open up as much.


JA: Art writing? Where do you fit in?


PR: The category of ‘artists who write as their practice’ is an unformed idea for me. I don’t feel constrained or overburdened by it because it’s so flexible. Every little bit of art writing experiments in its own way with what is possible, slightly redefining the boundaries; so I don’t feel it as an entity that is clear, that I am part of or not part of.


JA: Do you feel you can work within its boundaries?


PR: The only boundary I see is a similar boundary to one that writers probably work with, this is, whether or not the writing does or does not cohere as a piece of writing. That’s the area I’m interested in.



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