Charlie Ford’s (MFA 2017) performative actions both allude to everyday life—the objects, costumes, and bodily movements—and disrupt their familiarity through pacing, gesture, and tone. Within this choreography, the stage is set to reconsider the world around us through the space between: stillness and action, object and body, seriousness and humor, control and failure.
This artist conversation frames Ford’s practice through his visual and performative background and his experiences in SFAI’s MFA program—and through the changing notion of “gesture.” Originally from Greater Manchester in the UK, dance, choreography, and visual arts were intertwined in Ford’s life: a required subject in high school led to a bachelor’s degree from London’s Middlesex University in Dance Studies—read on below.
Stephanie Smith (SS): Tell me about that leap from dance to visual in your practice.
Charlie Ford (CF): After university I was performing quite intensely with some choreographers—both dance and physical theater I would say. Although I loved it, I lost interest in being someone else’s performer, I think I was probably tired as well. I wanted to make my own solo work, and somehow bring in visual art. I wanted to look at choreography around visual artists, which was kind of always the plan, and to not think about movement in a dance environment or context anymore. I wanted to perform choreography as performance art, not dance.
Another shift was working in the furniture design business with my dad and brother for a couple years. It really made me pay attention to the designing of space. I would be visualizing spaces from a bird’s-eye view, even empty space became extremely visual…and that’s when something changed for me.
SS: Furniture also actively shapes and constructs space, and I see that the way you construct your performances too.
CF: Yeah. I think that clearly informed the first year of my MFA—I was making performance work that tracked and measured space with the body. I remember measuring my house in my hand’s width and making floor plans from that exercise. As I said I was looking at space from above and then seeing how my body could fit into it architecturally and mathematically, and how this process can make performance. I think that’s how I got where I am.
SS: What are some overall ideas that you explore in your work?
CF: I always think of my work exploring tension. The positive and negative tension of things like intimacy, failure, control and precision, which we can all experience on a daily basis. My work’s not necessarily a personal narrative, I don’t think it’s anybody else’s narrative either. I just think we all have feelings of tension that we don’t like to talk about, especially failure. But we do all feel them, sometimes for no reason at all, they’re hard to control.
SS: I think your approach is open enough that different parallels can be drawn—and felt.
CF: Yeah. There’s a funny balance in my recent work between precision and the risks of failing. I like that line where it’s kind of serious, but humor can be felt as well.
SS: Does that precision come from your choreographic background?
CF: Yeah, I suppose it does, and from fitting furniture as well. In the dance training that I had, you’re taught how to move in a certain technique or a certain way, so you learn about different types of precision. The choreographers I like to watch the most work site-specifically and away from the stage. They base their movement on the architecture of a space, so it seems reactionary, quite neat and rigid. That precision within space is important to me: an awareness of width, height, and depth.
But also I’m glad you picked up on the clothing actually. I realized that I was working within a certain color palette when choosing costume, green top and with khaki trousers, and started seeing my performances as colorful for the first time. My aesthetic is usually quite muted, so the clothes bring something interesting from a color point-of-view, and from a durational one. As I wear the same costume in different works, they survive and live through different things.
SS: They probably wear too…
CF: Yeah, totally. They get dirty. Sometimes they hang in the space after the performance to show that there was some sort of action left behind. They are an object, just like the brick, the stone, the paper, and the jar. And now I’m excited about exploring how those objects live as sculpture—rather than just remnants or artifacts from a performance.
SS: On a related topic to performances “living on,” how do you use documentation and video editing to mirror your performances? There’s a similar kind of presence in your videos and performances, especially how you use pacing and sound in an almost sculptural way.
CF: I like to think of my video work as performed documentation, it’s very intentional. Editing has become something that I never thought it would. I can build tension, silence, stillness and pacing with the cut of the camera - all without performing live. Live performance and video are equally important, to me anyway. I don’t necessarily perform live all the time, but I also realize when performances need more than just video. But there’s a gray area in between that, there’s always a gray area, which I like.
I want the documentation to look a bit makeshift as well, less than this perfectly filmed, cinematic thing. It sits in between the both. There’s effort put into but not enough effort to make it perfect. Sometimes I just use myself, a camera, and a tripod; other times I have two people just document me with really simple camera movements.
SS: Absolutely. You felt this in your installation at the SFAI MFA/MA Exhibition at the San Francisco Mint: the spatial layout, placement of the video monitors, and your performance within and around. And you won best in show, congratulations!
CF: Thank you. Yeah The Mint had a lot of restrictions to work around, but that actually guided the composition of the space. With much help I built two pedestals that housed video screens, playing experiments in the resonance of control and a version of sometimes made specifically for the camera. The pedestals were built at a height where the viewer had to almost look in and have a more intimate experience with the videos. I wanted them to have a similar kind of objecthood to the objects that were situated in the space around them.
On the public opening, I performed five still positions that are echoed in the videos and I wore the same costume. I performed throughout the building—pushing the plank on my head through the crowded main corridor and laying with my face in the gravel in the doorway. Stillness is a huge part of my work—not just how long you can hold stillness for, but how tense that is, how calm it is, how peaceful it can be. The gesture of stillness when there are people moving around you.
The still positions I held were an ode to the video works, which move at a pace and keep an act going until there’s a kind of climax. But those moments of stillness after are my favorite because it cuts the tension right down again to the point that it’s funny.
SS: I think there is a little bit of humor in your work too that people can pick up. It’s kind of seriously funny.
CF: No I agree. I only figured it out when I’ve been watching it back. But actually there is … It’s not sarcasm, is it?
SS: Maybe dry humor? In the mundanity of the movements and the objects, it’s not overt by any means, but you can find humor in it.
CF: Yeah, finding humor in objects that have a lot of seriousness to them, like those that construct our life—a glass of water, wood, or pipes. A lot of my work is having fun with those things, to get the full potential out. I’m so obsessed with the brick. I don’t think I’ve reached any sort of boredom with it yet. That’s just something that’s going to be ongoing.
Image credits: 1. GIF of performance stills from Body Language, 2016; 2. Gesture, 2016; Performance for video, duration variable; 3. THREE, 2016; 4. GIF of performance stills from sometimes, 2017; Photos by Marco David; 5-6. Courtesy of the artist; 7. experiments in the resonance of control, 2017; 8-11. Installation view of the 2017 MFA/MA Exhibition; Photos by Dana Morrison; 12-14. Performance stills from the 2017 MFA/MA Exhibition; 15-16. Installation view of the 2017 MFA/MA Exhibition; Photos by Claudine Gossett; 17. Remain, 2016. All images and videos courtesy of the artist.