Phoebe Collings-James

Phoebe Collings-James

Apartamento Magazine - Phoebe Collings-James

London: Phoebe Collings-James is flexing her muscles. I meet the London-born artist (1987) at her home and listen as she reflects on the development of her layered and multi-dimensional practice. We talk about the kinds of knowledge production that artmaking engenders, non-linearity, and what it means to embrace not knowing. Having been a working artist for many years, she’s spent this time cementing her method—engaged in community forms of artmaking via her involvement in Black Obsidian Sound System (BOSS), teaching university students, and running Mudbelly Ceramics, a skill-sharing research outlet for her practice based in East London. Her interest in ceramics began in 2014, during a Nuove artist residency in Italy. Since then, she’s been contending with how to make clay speak and what embodied manipulation can make it say. Her first institutional UK solo show, A Scratch! A Scratch!, at Camden Art Centre in 2021 showcased a number of armours made of ceramics, each adorned carefully with different etchings, imprints, and braiding patterns. She’s been thinking a lot about protection and the value of a calcified shield, politically and emotionally. Ahead of this interview, she sends me sound pieces, photographs of her sculptures, and video work, which at their core seem preoccupied with grieving, heartbreak, and the crafting of sensorial environments that produce a new way of seeing and relating to one another. Collings-James is in every sense of the word a tender artist: sensitive to the environment around her and constantly drawing from her experiences to steer the direction of her work. Her work has that quality best defined by Keats as ‘negative capability’: the ability of the artist or writer to exist in uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts without ‘an irritable reaching after fact & reason’. We discuss the irony of a penchant for softness when her work must harden in order to be displayed. She’s concerned with moments of rupture and material that seeps out in these instances. She doesn’t shy away from the performance of pain. Lending a critical eye to what others might find sentimental or embarrassing, her work invites the audience in, imploring them to practise listening to frequencies that might, by virtue of oppressive conditions, be hard to tune into. The result is a strange resonance, an unfurling. Collings-James is trying to move us, and we’re being called to witness. The choice to answer that call belongs to us.

Apartamento Magazine - Phoebe Collings-James

Your latest show, A Scratch! A Scratch!, synthesised different elements of your sculptural and ceramic practice. You were extending Sylvia Wynter’s project of thinking beyond the limits of European conceptions of the human and the rational political subject via fragmentation and vessel-making. The show was about thinking beyond the bounded body, but clay and ceramics also have their own limits. Could you speak a little about how you got to this point as an artist? What does it mean to try and escape one limit conceptually using a finite form? 

With ceramics, in terms of thinking about how it functions materially, I was interested and curious about acknowledging it as a site of movement. While a ceramic has limits, it can also be manipulated. What is ceramic? It’s a manipulated molten rock that exists just like rocks formed from lava emitted by volcanoes. It begs the question of what a ‘natural’ process is. Who says? I think this relates to Wynter’s questioning of what it is to be rational, human, or, as she proposes, hybridly human. Clay, or at least the high-firing commercial kind, is a highly malleable compound. It remembers. If you put it in a certain position, it’ll remember the curve or flatness of that initial movement long after you’ve taken it through several other manipulations. And even with the most careful techniques, the clay’s memory may endure cracks and ruptures during firing as it tries to return. 

Thinking theoretically or philosophically about expansiveness, ceramic actually becomes an analogous material. It can represent the ways our bodies are hardened and almost calcified in certain environments, but because of its malleability, it’s also always a site of potential. I hope the show encouraged viewers to recognise that sites of knowledge and emotional experience are processed and represented through limited forms, like a body, but there’s still potential within that to change and be changed. Wynter’s work directs us to the concept of impossibility, and I see this concept as a tool of the imagination that I explore through my practice.

Apartamento Magazine - Phoebe Collings-James
Apartamento Magazine - Phoebe Collings-James

I think about the scene that the show takes its title from as a real moment of tenderness. In the seconds before his death, Mercutio’s bravado hides the weakness of his body. There’s a sadness in knowing that you’re going to die and performing strength anyway. And I was interested in the ways your practice has helped you think through the performances we enact. How has it helped you engage with the body and its relationship to this concept of tenderising and making soft? Isn’t that ironic, because what you produce needs to be hardened?

I love the last part of the question, and I guess my answer is that perhaps my work is a failure. Perhaps the notion of tenderising is completely at odds with the use of hardened material. Not that I’m trying to make work that’s a failure, but maybe the dissonance is representative of a larger gap that I’m trying to give name to. Having some distance from that exhibition, as its impact is unfolding for me, I’m thinking about how the room and all the text surrounding the work was presented. There were lots of personal narratives running through that weren’t explained explicitly because I was feeling cautious about how it’d be held in the grip of an arts institution—the 10-year anniversary of the London riots, for example.

During the riots, my close relative nearly died by a stabbing. I’ve been trying to process the brutality, as every seven years or so since I was a baby these traumatic instances with stabbings have happened—to people I’ve watched as babies, who are my protectors and kin, to friends of friends, or to relatives of lovers. It’s dense and fraught, even when people escape death. Even in this conversation I feel cautious about how explicitly to speak. But in the lead-up to making this work it felt like it needed to come out somehow. I said to an old friend, ‘I want to go there, but I don’t know if this space can hold it, and I don’t know if I can hold it’. At the same time, I was also experiencing a double heartbreak that was shredding me, with two different partners over a two-year period. I was very raw personally, and there were lots of decisions to be made. In the run-up to the show I was thinking, ‘How might I protect a memory or a collective experience from this institution? And how might this protection be translated in that environment? When does grief need privacy? And what’s lost by only telling part of the story?’

Apartamento Magazine - Phoebe Collings-James

People also make their own associations, which can’t be controlled.

There are certain words and phrases associated with these experiences of Black people and knives, like ‘gang violence’, ‘knife crime’, and ‘Black-on-Black crime’, phrases that I just couldn’t bear to have evoked. There were just so many different things happening at once, which I guess are various processes of grief. And so, I sought solace in remembering Act Three, Scene One of Romeo and Juliet. It felt like a useful conduit for this potential, for the many different layers of overlapping and non-linear stories swirling inside me. And within that scene, I’d always been struck by the tenderness, the eroticism of what it means to perform a masculinity for one another, no matter what your gender is—the tenderness of pride, shame, fear, and all these things. It became more relevant in trying to connect something that I was processing as an artist and personally, too.

And yeah, you’re right, there’s a sadness about dying and performing strength anyway. I think often life can also feel like that—in no way apathetically, but tragically. When I hear you say ‘the performances we enact’ I see a physical act of grasping, trying desperately to be seen or known. If this work has got me any closer to an insight, it’s probably in the way my own body deteriorated in the making of the show. I got diagnosed with asthma and was physically wrecked by making it. As for thinking through bodies, my practice keeps me connected to my body. Having deeper intuition, for mine and others, while also recognising they exist as live relics.

Clay becomes a kind of armour to protect and encase your memories, a form of shelter and protection. If grief is a sensory experience, what’s the sensory potential of clay for you? And does clay act as a conduit for your grief?

I think there’s a quite literal sensory element, which is being able to impress onto something. The marks made by pressing into clay, pressing clay into something else, rolling it out—there are so many different parts of the process and of the clay body itself. That’s how people talk about bags of clay, as bodies. They talk about different clay bodies and what their qualities might be in terms of density, aggregate, colour, and so on. There are lots of quite literal familiarities.

I think a lot of it’s about transformation. I wonder if grief in its most ubiquitous form is something that transforms. Clay is also transformative. The process of something transforming from earth to stone is one that also encompasses magic and a huge process of heat that’s incredible and exceptional. I think a lot of people experience grief as something that can’t be processed or even lived with in any kind of constant way without ebbs and flows, with periods of levity that inform the experience in complicated but vital ways, too.

Apartamento Magazine - Phoebe Collings-James

There seems to be a strong Black feminist ethic that runs through your work. It makes me think of Gail Lewis’ provocation that Black feminism is a project of ethical relation. Your work is always trying to reach out to its audience and get them to understand the different potential of themselves and others. How does Black feminist theory shape your creativity?

It’s integrated and embodied in every aspect of living and making work. The year I was making A Scratch! A Scratch! I was reading Alice Walker’s The Temple of My Familiar. That definitely informed my ability to tell multiple stories in a layered and textured way that wasn’t shy about being crude or explicit about all elements of life: sex and love, social and political consciousness. It taught me that those things live together. Walker’s book imagines many different lives and the spiritual threads that tie them together. Black feminist theory has taught me more broadly that liberation is tied to daily life and not just a place that’s ‘over there’, something done by someone else, whether that be the government or the state.

How does this understanding influence form—what you choose to say and how you say it?

The more I’m immersed in Black feminist theory through study, reading, and speaking with friends, I’m aware of how it’s becoming integrated in every aspect of my life. Working in the studio, I can see that my decisions are directly impacted. There was a moment when I was making the bells that would go on to form the three hanging elements of the sound work Joy Comes with the Morning that some of this study became visible. I was trying to make a huge ceramic barrel-type shape to hold the sound and was standing on a table with two people assisting me, trying to stop the piece from falling apart. I think it was our third attempt. Everyone was over it and on the brink, and I was just like, ‘Stop. This isn’t what this work is about, this isn’t what the clay is trying to do’. Then that night at 4am I had a semi-lucid realisation that I needed to go with the centrifugal force that the bell so clearly desired. Instead of rolling out large slabs, trying and failing to get them to work in the round, I got on the wheel, threw some weird psychedelic plates with deep ripples within each one, and then mounted them together to create a large bell form. It’s maybe an odd reference, but it was a real moment of imaginative reflection on whether there might be another way, which I think is ultimately Black feminism’s guide.

Apartamento Magazine - Phoebe Collings-James

You cite artists such as Doyle Lane, who was known for using bright colours and markings in his ceramics, as guides for your own work. Lane had a practice that had to be sustained by other forms of work in order to make a living as an artist. What have you learnt from the legacies of Black ceramicists and other forms of Black artmaking?

I feel like I owe a lot to Doyle Lane in particular. Finding him when I did was really important—the combination of his work is some of the most impressive I still think I’ve ever seen by way of colour and glaze chemistry, and the power of him talking about business. If you go to art school in the UK, definitely in London, there’s a certain point of post-conceptual art theory that’s drip-drenched its way in, for better and worse. It places the idea of a domestic space, or anything outside the gallery space, as inferior. Even speaking about money or selling work outside of the given art stock market is frowned upon. It’s not taken into account how an artist might make a living, especially anyone who doesn’t have familial wealth or support. So I think that finding his work—it was inspirational in terms of both sustaining himself as an artist working in segregated California in the ‘50s and because it’s beautiful, but also the breadth of it is invigorating. From making beads that he’d give out to the kids in the local community who’d use them for playing out, while also making pots to sell, which sustained a more daily function, and then making these incredible murals that he described as clay paintings. And I just saw that and thought, ‘This is multiplicity’.

Any aspiration to make art for the purposes of selling it for tens of thousands of pounds is a reckless gamble and should be known as such. You’re doing so at the whim of market interest and peak conjectures of capitalism. Doyle Lane spoke of business very specifically; it was important to him as fuel for his creativity’s prosperity. Not to go on too much about market stuff, but this idea of authorship and patronage is something that’s really important to me. When collectors buy artwork, especially at a certain level, they often want a pound of flesh, you know? I think one way of functioning that’s less harmful is for collecting to be seen as a form of patronage, supporting artists’ lives. This is probably a naive socialist ambition when actually the whole system needs squashing! But at least there might be a chance to fuck with things a little where you can. When I first began to show work I made a lot of videos; they were able to travel in shows long before I could join them. On the occasions when I’d sell video work, I’d keep them up on Vimeo, often changing them—futile attempts at swerving capture.

Apartamento Magazine - Phoebe Collings-James
Apartamento Magazine - Phoebe Collings-James

Does your studio, Mudbelly Ceramics, exist as an extension of your belief in community and collective experience, which are fundamental to Black art?

This goes back to Lane as well. I conceived of Mudbelly initially as a space that could sustain me as an artist, by selling the wheel-thrown slipware I’d been making. I had far more control over selling those pieces at studio pottery prices to a much wider audience, which had long been something I’d wanted to find resolution for. How can more people live with art if they want to? The pots are also interconnected with my wider practice, relating to my drawings, and they sometimes function as material sketches. As a space for study, Mudbelly is connected to this self-reliance, wanting there to be a space for Black potters to share their skills and to learn outside of the dominant pedagogies that actively block access to Black students. So far, all the classes have been an absolute dream.

How did it go from being a research outlet to a teaching space? How did the idea of community and collective experience start to take shape?

I was living in New York when I first started taking throwing classes. I had an amazing teacher, Jaleh Fazal, but the energy in the class was dominated by the fact that almost everyone I met there was white and middle class. When I moved back to London I encountered the same thing, with the dissonance being all the more acute because the pottery spaces were in Peckham and Leyton, historically working-class areas home to diverse African and Caribbean communities. As my skills grew, so did the desire to be learning alongside Black people and about other clay narratives than the white studio potter or East Asian paths. I knew there was more to know! And this connects to how I try to be in community in other areas of my life and work. It was also important that it was free and that I could learn more about the multi-layered access barriers to spaces, aside from the obvious cost, as a matter of resistance.

What have been the main features of the workshops? What have they taught you?

Lots of energy! I think we’ve all really got a lot out of it, and the workshops have taken many forms, staying somewhat dexterous. The initial course was open to all for eight weeks with a rotation of teachers, another was specifically for a smaller group of practising artists to help them realise a more focused sculpture idea. There was such a high volume of applicants—now on a rolling mailing list—that I feel we have to continue. Trying to be intentional about the classes being intergenerational and queer-Black-feminist energy has also been important and radiated through. I learnt how to hold space better as a teacher, and much of that came from watching the other potters who’ve been involved: Shawanda Corbett, Bisila Noha, Chris Bramble, and Freya Bramble-Carter. It’s hard to describe as fully as it feels. Gathering as Black people isn’t a promise that everything will run smoothly, but there’s an intention to organising in this way which can materialise in a sense of expansiveness. A number of people reflected on the space it opened up for them while learning; to learn alongside other Black people in a space that’s for you, while living in a world that so often says it’s not, can be a deeply profound experience.

In using ceramics and sound to tell a story, how are you avoiding the trap that a story functions in a certain way, or even that it has to have a beginning, middle, and end?

I think the beginning, middle, and end thing isn’t that much of a problem. The trouble is acknowledging that there are always multiple perspectives and stories happening simultaneously. That’s more of the layering I’m interested in, in terms of data, images, and symbols. And then in terms of sound, I like there to be a very dense landscape of information. I guess I think of linearity as something in line with hegemony.

Apartamento Magazine - Phoebe Collings-James

I was listening to Joy Comes with the Morning and it felt as though you were trying to usher something in. Talk to me about sound as methodology, as a means of expanding sensory or affective landscapes.

Sound has the possibility of unfolding in a space. I like the idea of sensory deprivation, having very low light or darkness, and creating a sound that ultimately fills that whole space with images and references. I like to sample sounds from the environment I’m inhabiting, as it gives me a chance to pull out a lot of different references at once that might conflict at different times. I think of sound as a 4D or 5D entity, and so it appears scripturally in a way that makes working with sculpture and sound feel very fluid. There’s often an instinct when I’m out in public spaces to record moments that I’d otherwise find difficult to articulate.

Joy Comes with the Morning attempts to usher in a journey, or a number of journeys. The title most literally speaks to the motion of dreams, surviving a night of terrors, and the light that’s possible in a new day. Circadian rhythms. Then there was the annual journey through a series of tarot circles hosted by the artist Daniella Valz Gen; 12 poems from these sessions are spoken throughout the work. Longer cycles stretching back decades to teenhood are also resonated through the samples of Our Song—there’s a stretching of time, a reaching towards, back, and under to find home. If there’s an ushering in, then perhaps it’s also an ushering out, a release of grief, regret, and breath through a number of cyclical rituals all held tort by the bells and water bowls.

Is sound another way to make your desires known as an artist?

Yes. Sound does that. How to articulate desire is something I want to know and am grappling towards. Especially as sounds collide, there’s way more texture that allows for a mash-up of different ideas or experiences at once, in a way that’s hard to do with language alone or with other materials. It’s kind of like the phrase ‘you know what I mean?’, which is an invitation for the other person to delve into everything they already know and all that they can imagine to connect what the fuck you might mean—and there’s the trust in the asking of the question that an attempt of understanding will be made. And it’s quick. It requires a nod or a yes in return, perhaps if it’s understood or not. Somewhere in that mess of an analogy is what I feel sound has to offer.

Apartamento Magazine - Phoebe Collings-James
Apartamento Magazine - Phoebe Collings-James

Sounds 4 Survival, another one of your sound works, is about a choral translation of a desire to live. The repetition of this desire clears a space sonically. ‘The artist’ is often imagined as a solitary figure that works from a singular creative impulse that must be separated from others to come to fruition. A lot of your work seems to have a collective instinct or a choral element. What’s the purpose of collectivity, particularly in your sound work and the overlapping and layering of multiple voices?

I’ve said it to you before, but I don’t want to die. This idea of survival is predicated on that. And the only way to keep me alive is collectivity and support. I don’t really see being an artist or artistic work as outside of living and the rest of life. And so it becomes crucial to work collectively in order to navigate some of the questions or curiosities I might have. I spend a lot of time on my own, which is something I need, that in turn amplifies supportive relationships.

I think that collectivity in sound is about listening. Quite often some of the samples I use in my work are me walking through a space and recording the murmur of other people’s conversations or walking through a field in Cornwall and recording the cows and the sounds they’re making as they wait to be let out of a pen, or the sounds of water rushing, which I guess is another form of communication. Changes in the intensity of water gushing communicates that something might be happening upstream, something might happen downstream. That kind of collective listening or attuning to your environment is important. Some of the sound work I make is a lot more solitary. Sometimes it feels as if I’ve gathered in my sonic palm different parts that are beginning to make sense to me and then bring them together to try and give some form to an articulation. That’s another form of collaboration. That kind of collectivity, of voices, is about listening, learning, and understanding the things that are very proximate to me through the experiences of other places or people.

Your work invites us to remain attuned to our environments, to listen. What does home mean to you?

I have an image of a turtle, with all its softness protected by a hard shell. I think home has to first be ourselves and the people we love. But the bricks and mortar matter too. I guess I hope it can be a place to sleep, to be stimulated aesthetically, to have privacy to digest all that goes on in our public terrains. I guess home is somewhere to exhale.

Apartamento Magazine - Phoebe Collings-James
The product is being added to cart!