Eloise Hawser’s work spans print, sculpture, performance, video, sound and everything in between. She has exhibited nationally and internationally, and her first institutional solo exhibition Lives on Wire was presented at the ICA in 2015. She is a nominee for the 2018 Max Mara Art Prize for Women.
Heavily research driven, the London based artist often makes work in response to societal structures found within architecture and machines, and our body’s relationship to digital shifts in technology. Born in 1985, Hawser sits upon the cusp of the Millennial and Gen X generations, growing up with some basic IT knowledge, but keeping pace with the increased technological advancement whilst navigating her art practice. Her fascination with ‘how things work’ is never more present than in her latest exhibition at Somerset House, By the Deep, By the Mark.
Over the last two years, Hawser researched Somerset House’s relationship to the River Thames upon which it sits. She connects the historic civil engineering used to create subterranean sewer systems with innovative medical imaging machines which measure the liquid flowing within our own bodies. Through the appropriation of 3D imagery, archival prints and one-of-a-kind medical objects called ‘Phantoms’ (specially designed objects used to test medical imaging equipment such as X-Rays, MRI and CT scanners in place of a human), Hawser brings together a stunning three room sculptural assemblage. I caught up with her at Somerset House where she also has a studio, to talk more about this impressive exhibition.
Can you talk a little about how this (two-year) research project first came about?
I had started to look at on-screen simulations of water, a process known as CFD (Computational Flow Dynamics). The software does not allow you to model water, as it is too expansive and unbounded, so you have to use an algorithmic package to determine how it forms. This means that within the software the “water” has its own behaviour, not imposed by the human hand or modeller.
While I was investigating this area, I had moved into a studio in Somerset House, where I learned about the buildings very close and important historic link to the River Thames. For example, it still has a (now-truncated) water gate from a time when boats were steered right into the internal flooded courtyard. This changed entirely with the building of the embankment in the late 1860s, from which time Somerset House has been separated from the river by a wide stretch of pavement and road.
All of this played into an idea that interested me, about the manipulation of nature; about pushing the natural flow of water away from buildings and human constructions, thereby taming and directing it. In the 1860s, the Victoria Embankment formed a kind of first frontier against labile nature as represented by the flowing river.
My show is concerned with such attempts to monitor, measure, map and control the unbounded flow of liquid life, how the transfer of dry screen-based calculations can be applied to the world, whether within our own bodies or out in the wider world. Trace passageways – now these technologies model real physical scenarios.
At what point did you start to make the connection between the sewer system designed by Joseph Bazalgette and the bodily flow of liquid through the body?
Bazalgette created the first linked, covered tunnel system conveying London’s foul water downstream. But Bazalgette’s sewers are gravity sewers, each with a large ovoid aperture (for backsplash). In the human body, by contrast, the heart is a pump and our blood flow is pulsatile (meaning it is pressurised when we stand up). When it comes to the software technologies that help in simulate and predicting the flow of water or gas through pipes and apertures, there is some superficial overlap in the such as methods; Computational Flow Dynamics (CFD).
However, there is a larger issue with which the show is concerned: control. I am fascinated by human attempts to control and manipulate flow: of water, gas, or blood. Our ever-increasing ability to measure and control through continual advances in technology, seems like a kind of “playing god”.
While Bazalgette’s sewer was an intensely physical project, and hundreds of hard-labouring bodies manually cleared the subterranean tunnels, (an image of them, caged and contained, is included in the show), nowadays computer models, codes and algorithms can take their place. This new way of doing things is far removed from the direct physicality of bodies working.
This seems particularly apt when we consider how controlled or manipulated we can become through digital media like Facebook, as potentially witnessed through the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal. But even before this, Britain’s manual labour was slowly being replaced by computers and machines, changing our economy to a service industry rather than a manual one. This has echoes of your other work, such as Lives on Wire at the ICA in 2015 where you programmed a machine (a vintage organ) to conduct an orchestra – like they used during silent movies. Who knew technology would not only physically change us, but socially and mentally too? Do you feel technology has now taken a more sinister turn?