Artist of the Month
January 2018

 Lisa Selby

Our first Artist of the Month for 2018 is Nottingham-based artist Lisa Selby.

"My work, I think, is a lever for thought and my recent experiences motivate my desire for change."

Tell us a bit about your practice, how would you describe the work that you do?

I’m using documentary modes of production and storytelling through narrative arcs to focus on complicated addictive behaviours found in the struggle/need to self-medicate and escape. Currently I’m reading through diaries and paperwork left behind by deceased heroin addicts in my mother’s friend circle. I want to explore the blunt reality of living in the mechanisms of the modern welfare and prison systems, while continually questioning my positioning and ethical approaches.

The personal and political is planned out in fragments that have culminated in an exhaustive archive; photographs, telephone conversations, letters, stamps, monologues, diaries of dead heroin addicts, court transcripts, surreptitious video footage and interviews. Social media and live events act and will act as modes of regular communication, drip fed to an audience in an attempt to break down the stigma of addiction to open discussions between all involved and those looking in. People tend to feel awkward ‘liking’ these images but the amount of private messages keep me active and posting.

I advocate for addiction awareness issues and support plans by posing questions and attempting to have my audience think through ways of challenging and changing systems. Addiction is a dark and controlling illness and if we want to see recovery then we need be empathetic and work towards rehabilitation not punishment.

My work, I think, is a lever for thought and my recent experiences motivate my desire for change. There are many well researched flaws in the rehabilitation and justice system. I want to be able to change circumstances for those people who are hidden away and stuck in addiction, institutions and problematic systems. Ultimately I want to help to change the stereotypical views of addicts, work towards changing elements of the UK justice and welfare systems, lower crime rates through rehabilitation awareness, achieve more freedom and help others to develop a sense of personal responsibility.

Special Brew and You

Special Brew and You, 2017

Your current work is obviously very personal, what made you decide to focus on this as an art project?

It’s not something I planned and I’m not sure if I would label it as an ‘art project’. I recently discovered my partner was a heroin addict. My mother and her friends have been addicts for most of their adult lives. Last year I travelled across China on my own to discover opium and porcelain trails. When I returned my partner was in prison and my mother was dying. So it’s something that’s consumed my brain; the banality and grim intensity of it all. I’m beginning with the personal as the core and drive of the work, then working outwards. I am re-evaluating my whole practice, how it functions what it proposes and what purpose it could have.   

My previous work helped me to understand the language of objects and all of a sudden my thinking shifted to what I’d been confronted with. I began to scan the environments and belongings of addicts who were close to me, looking for evidence to discover what was really going on; users often lie and manipulate to cover their lifestyles to get what they want. I think I immediately went to object arrangements because that’s what I know from my previous sculptural work.

Mother's Cancer/Constipation Medication makeshift Crack Pipe

Mother's Cancer/Constipation Medication makeshift Crack Pipe, 2017

I don’t want to use people for the benefit of my own art practice. My positioning is key. I don’t think I could be a stranger just walking around with a camera soaking it all up. The enquiry is the most important thing for me; not fixed solutions or glorification. I want to give a platform for people who are struggling to get their voices heard. I want to produce work and create events that use art to address problems; connecting addicts and addiction with society and systems/networks through meaningful and responsive engagement. I have spoken to many prisoners about the rules and injustices within prisons. Prison microcosms, rehabilitation and punishment systems and structures that reflect the countries they are in, their daily issues. I plan to use these conversations to activate the change they are striving for.

Do you find this archiving and documenting a cathartic process as well as an artistic one?

No, I don’t see it as cathartic at all. I get asked that all the time. It’s an understandable reaction but it’s not true. These are familiar situations. I’m used to it now. I didn’t take the photographs or footage as a release at all.

I try not to manipulate the photographs too much. It’s more important for me to be objective. Documentation helps me to investigate and discover in a forensic way. For example I found a Kinder Egg capsule at my mother’s house covered in blood and my partner later told me it’s for ‘shotting’ drugs (drug dealing/smuggling anally). The photographs provide us with lifestyle clues; injecting while you’re filling out a benefit form or how you can turn an asthma inhaler into a crack pipe. At first glance, all that might be missed.

Which artists working at the moment do you admire?

Patrick Goddard is a good friend of mine, who helped me to document footage at my mother’s house and at her funeral. His politically driven, narrative-based work is funny, self-deprecating and poetic. There are so many but here are a few that are looking at similar contexts: Jeremy Shaw, Jenna Bliss, Rineke Dijkstra (The Buzz Club 1996-97), Jasmine Johnson (More than two performance at the Barbican), Mustafa Hulusi (Afyon), Hannah Black, Ciaran ò Dochartaigh, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Jon Rafman, obviously Richard Billingham’s work straight out of college.

The Koestler Awards are amazing, the annual UK exhibition, in partnership with London’s Southbank Centre exhibits work across the UK, and from British prisoners abroad. The programme includes talks (about the artwork and criminal justice system), performances, exhibited artist family days, pop-up shop and tours. The latest panel talk was an incredible experience.  

Drugs not hugs

Hugs not drugs, 2017

What projects have you got coming up?

I have been recording sounds from within the prison system (through phone calls and in the visits area). I aim to hold a performative event with live and recorded sounds from the prison accompanied by a busking violinist - I am searching for appropriate venues. I also aim to visit Norway’s Halden Prison; their ethos is ‘Nature is Rehabilitation’. Norway's incarceration rate is just 75 per 100,000 people.

I’m working on three love stories (three separate yet intertwining films). Over the past two years, I have recorded (and continue to record) a large archive of sounds and images from the routines of addicts, alongside co-dependents/enablers who live around them like satellites. Amongst these users are:

1. My recently deceased bohemian mother; whose heroin addiction left a wake of chaos in her life and surroundings. I have documented her (crack) house, her funeral, those around her and how the UK council and funeral services dealt with the death of an addict (insensitively).

2. My recovering heroin addicted partner; who currently resides in prison. I have documented from when we met at Alcoholics Anonymous to his present situation. I collect his thoughts and feelings from before incarceration and from the inside through recorded telephone calls (with him and other inmates), emails and letters.

3. My father. An avid stamp collector (his stamp addiction takes over his life) and sugar addict (with diabetes). We will follow a path as he escapes with child (me) from my heroin addicted mother and lands in the 1982 Lebanon war. We were fighting on the side of Israel (I was not aware of this as a child in the bomb shelters); this links to the stamp collection. This collection also includes a large digital photograph and paper/document/object archive/stamp collection (from the Europe and the Middle East).

Published 4 January 2018

Lisa Selby on Axisweb >