Forme Journal.

A conversation with Alexandra Davenport and Lucie Armstrong

Alexandra Davenport is an artist working with photography, performance and text. The gestural body is central to Alexandra’s practice, through an exploration of the performativity of image-making utilising choreographic methods. Representations of womxn in visual culture, the body as image and neuroscience are key themes communicated within Alexandra’s research and practice.


Circuit Training (exercises in self-doubt), 2018


LA. Hi Alex, firstly I was wondering if when creating work are you at all communicating an aspect of yourself or your personal experience? When viewing your portfolio I feel like I am perhaps seeing you acting out or translating a part of yourself, but this may of course be myself projecting my own thoughts onto your images. I personally feel a real connection to your photographic practice and I am interested to know how important is it that you are in your work yourself? 

AD. My work isn’t autobiographical per-se, but it is definitely informed by my experience. At risk of sounding cliche, my practice helps me to make sense of the world and so I would find it very difficult to separate the two. So in that sense, my presence in my work is inevitable, however my physical presence — being “in” the work that is, is dependent on the individual work. Sometimes it comes down to convenience, as a kind of an easy place to start and test out an idea. Other times it feels important that I am physically “in” the work as the presence of the artist can drastically shift the context.

With my 2018 live performance work Circuit Training (exercises in self-doubt) it was a mix of the two. I ended up in the work firstly because it was convenient! I didn’t set out to make the work with myself in it, however as the work developed it became important that I perform in it. Who I work with is also key. Circuit Training  was developed with Elizabeth Bradley who is a fantastic practitioner in her own right and also one of my closest friends. We already had a strong bond because of our friendship, but it became stronger through performing together and the energy that brings to the live performance is crucial - it added an emotional level to the work which I hadn’t anticipated. Elizabeth also designed the book of essays I wrote ‘To be confirmed exercises in self-doubt’, which sits in conversation with the performance. Dealing with the (In)consistency of images, each essay in the book signals back to histories of image-making, whilst utilising personal experiences of violence, empathy, and gender as an anchorage for the writing. The fact that she was so involved in that process as well as the performance was coincidental, but it really rounded off the work — it felt more resolved somehow.


Circuit Training (exercises in self-doubt), 2018

LA. The way you speak about working with Elizabeth Bradley sounds rather similar to how I feel about working with Ali Bell, an actor that I have been collaborating with over the past year. We already knew each other but sharing our thoughts and experiences has brought a much closer friendship between the two of us. This has been an additional and fun aspect of the work we made together, and we now continue to collaborate. I have become very interested in using collaborative auto-ethnographic research methods, and Ali and I write to each other during the forming stage of an idea, I was wondering if you have any specific research methods that you turn to and whether these adapt when working independently or when with another person?

AD. I like that as a methodology! In recent years I've been very drawn to contemporary authors such as Maggie Nelson, Deborah Levy and Durga Chew-Bose (to name just a few!). From the traditions of those such as Joan Didion, their writing intertwines autobiography, theory, philosophy and poetry. I remember reading The Argonauts (by Maggie Nelson) for the first time and was completely blown away how intimate, emotional and intellectually stimulating the whole text was.  In fact, I read in an interview somewhere with Nelson that her work has often been categorised as ‘Auto-Theory’. I was interested to learn that the term has roots in feminist practice and has become shorthand for theoretical inquiry that uses the self as an ethnographic source. It was after reading many of these ’styles’ of texts that I began to really enjoy writing and in fact it could be said that my MA Thesis took a kind of ‘auto-theoretical’ approach. My research methods vary from project to project. Sometimes I get ’set-off’ by a word, or a line or text, and other times it could be an observation in daily life or an image I see on the bus. One thing that has become clear to me in recent years is how important writing is for my work and research. I’m very curious about things, and I enjoy research which is varied and deep. I try not to shut things down in the early stages, but quickly find myself becoming overwhelmed with information. Writing has become a way for me to work through all of this “stuff” that I accumulate, it helps me to make sense in a way I haven’t experienced with other mediums.

I would say the main difference when I’m working on my own is that I’m very much ‘in my own head’ for a while, and I need to work like that sometimes. It’s important to accept that not everything has to be shared immediately and that there’s nothing to prove. When working with other performers, most works start in the form of movement workshops - and this in itself I see as an important method of research. As mentioned below, I think it’s so important to have the opportunity to develop movement together rather than dictate it.

Commute, 2017

LA. Without having a background in dance, unlike yourself, it took me a while to feel like I could, or should, work with choreographic techniques. Using improvisation and collaboration was important in developing my confidence with this aspect. When working with others as part of a performance/piece of work, how do you view the interaction? Is it a collaboration? Is it important to you that they understand the initial ‘idea/theme’ behind the piece and is their improvisation involved? 

AD. It’s absolutely a collaboration. Although I may have an idea of how I see the work developing, the work is dependent on the contributions of those who come into it with me. Everyone brings their own position, body and experience — expanding the work in more dynamic and exciting ways. It’s important to make space for this. My 2019 live performance work In the Gap Between is a really interesting work in-regards to this. The starting point for the work was thinking through traditional synchronised dance structures such as the Corps de Ballet or the Chorus Line. Historically these dance structures acted as ‘backdrops’ - with the dancers acting as figurative, predicable and non-threatening objects within it. The mechanisation of the body in this way allows no space for the individual dancer. I wanted to challenge this and so I used this as a starting point for a movement workshop whilst on residency in Edinburgh. I had the opportunity to work with 3 fantastic performers Kirstin Halliday, Hannah Wright & Chloé Pagani and together over 2 days we began working through this proposition. The work began to form through the movement workshop, and it became much more focused on what happens ‘in-between’ movements — that unstable but exciting space in between.

After the residency, I was commissioned by Webber Gallery to develop the work for a live performance at Peckham 24. At this time, I worked with performers Duane Nasis, Amelia Tan, Andrew Oliver, Sara Stenbæk & Rachel Coleman to develop the live performance. The movement vocabulary for the live work is developed in rehearsals where performers explore every day micro-actions such as shifting weight, turning, stretching & leaning. We then use this as the material to thread into the structure of the work, and so the work is very much shaped by those who perform it. Again, it’s very much about connection, trust and collaboration and an opportunity to develop movement together rather than dictate it.

  In the Gap Between, 2019-present

LA. When creating a performance-based piece of work, how critical is the clothing and space that the piece is performed within to the work itself and its meaning? The relationship between performance and fashion is of interest to myself and I felt that the piece for Vogue Ukraine was an incredible example of the fusing of what may be perceived as the separate aspects of fashion and art.

AD. I’m quite interested in how clothing and space can shift a work. With Circuit Training I spent A LOT of time musing over the costuming. It felt important that it should be something specific for the performance (aka not just street-wear), but equally I didn’t want it to feel too theatrical and shift the focus away from the movements. It was very difficult and after going through a lot of options, I eventually settled on the overalls. There were lots of things I liked about them, they frame the body in a very particular way, but I also like the idea they’re put on for “work” and then removed. Circuit Training has so far been performed in 5 different spaces, and although there are a few essential criteria for how it’s performed I’m always interested in how the work translates into new spaces. For example, the piece was originally performed at the Royal College of Art MA show in a more controlled traditional gallery setting with sound coming from other works in the space, and then a few months later at an outside performance at dusk as part of Visions in the Nunnery in Bow, London. In the first space one of the sounds you could hear throughout the space as the performance was taking place was a ticking clock, which actually paired with the work quite nicely (although when you’re in the space performing all day it gets a little bit testing)! In the second, we were performing outside and so had to contend with some noise from roadside traffic and the outside flood lighting definitely made it feel more dramatic.

When the Vogue Ukraine Commission came along I was quite dubious as I was worried about messing with something that felt very resolved… but then this is where collaborations can be so wonderful! Working with Image Group (Photo duo Thomas + Adrien) & Kyanisha Morgan (the stylist), we had lots of conversations about the performance, setting and styling. Exploring the live performance work within a new set of conditions and exclusively with the camera, the 8-page editorial uses both B&W and colour photographs as well as a mixture of ‘action’ and ‘portrait’ images of the performers. This strategy was adapted as means to ‘profile’ the work and performance as opposed to simply ‘documenting’ the original live performance. Using a mix of both tailored and fragmented pieces, we wanted to play with the shape and lines of the body — and not just replicate the utilitarian styling of the white boiler suits used in the original live work.

It wasn’t until the magazine came out that I really saw the potential of the editorial work. I think the main realisation was that it can do something different and doesn’t have to be competition with, or a compromise of “original” live work. The whole team were so fantastic to work with, I felt they really understood the intention of the work and I was able to bring it to a whole new audience.

Vogue Ukraine Art Issue, editorial collaboration of performance Circuit Training (exercises in self-doubt), 2019

Photographed by Image Group
Styled by Kyanisha Morgan

LA. This is really interesting for me to read, the use of clothing and what they symbolise and represent is something I continually think about when making work. Finding that specific piece or garment that fits with the narrative or theme but that does not take away attention from it is a really critical but difficult aspect to work out and I don't often hear people discuss this when reflecting upon photographic construction.

AD. Absolutely! I work with lots of fantastic students at Bournemouth, many of whom work with performance and photography. “Costuming” in the context of performance is something that we talk about a lot, and it’s often a very difficult balance to get right.

Vogue Ukraine Art Issue, editorial collaboration of performance Circuit Training (exercises in self-doubt), 2019

Photographed by Image Group
Styled by Kyanisha Morgan

LA. How do you approach the capturing of a performance? Is the capture as important as the live piece? Do you view them as different? 

AD. Unless immaterial/ephemerality is conceptually tied into the work some way, I think it’s so important to properly document your work — especially live work! That’s not to say that the documentation will translate the original intention (as we know, that’s historically a very contentious subject), but even just on a practical level those documents are important for getting your work out there, writing applications & commissions etc. Yes it can be practical more so, but equally (as with my Vogue Commission) it can also open up new avenues and ways to think about the work. There can be an intended mode of viewing, as well as alternates which offer a further reach/different interpretation. I think there can be a tendency to be too precious, and again it’s important to make some space to allow the work to grow. There’s so much more room now with technology to think beyond traditional modes of documentation/dissemination (photographs, video, text) and look to other modes such as IG Stories, IG Live, YouTube, Twitch etc. It’s something I’ve become very interested in within my recent research, and even more so much with the global pandemic. There’s a great essay around this subject from Claire Bishop entitled “Black Box, White Cube, Gray Zone: Dance Exhibitions and Audience Attention.”. Thinking through the white cube, Bishop speaks of how these spaces themselves have become ‘recalibrated as a space for unlimited documentation: taking installation shots (and selfies) and publishing them on hybridized public-private online platforms’. With these spaces being transformed for the purposes of documentation, the role of the audience as documenter/participant as well as spectator is potentially really interesting too! 

LA. Does the thought of how an audience may interpret your work ever cause you to make changes whilst in the development stage?

AD. I think that’s a natural and very annoying part of any creation process… and if you think about the imaginary audience in your head too much it can actually inhibit the making. I think it’s especially difficult if you’re working in a new way/with a new medium, and the anxiety becomes that the audience won’t like the “new type" of work. But in short I would say no. The work will find its right place and its audience, but most importantly, I want to make work that I like and interests me, and so I try to trust that there is value in that.

  Venus Study l, Venus Study ll, Venus Study lll

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