Oh my god­dess!

Turner prize win­ner Char­lotte Prodger’s film Bridgit is a search for iden­tity. She talks to Char­lotte Hig­gins about gen­der con­fu­sion and re­sist­ing the ‘iPhone artist’ la­bel

The Guardian - G2 - - Front Page - Pho­tog­ra­phy Sarah Lee

Char­lotte Prodger on the mys­ti­cal quest that led to her Turner prize

If the an­nual Turner prize may be seen as a rough-and-ready barom­e­ter of Bri­tish art and Bri­tish pre­oc­cu­pa­tions, this year’s ex­hi­bi­tion gives a fairly un­am­bigu­ous read­ing of the cul­tural weather. Con­sist­ing en­tirely of work in film, video and mov­ing im­age, it is de­void of those Turner prize sta­ples of high jinks, daft hu­mour and goofy provo­ca­tion. In­stead, its sub­jects in­clude state-sponsored vi­o­lence, fake news and the shat­ter­ing limbo of be­ing a refugee. One of the short­listed artists, the multi dis­ci­plinary col­lec­tive Foren­sic Ar­chi­tec­ture, uses tech­niques in­clud­ing in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism to ques­tion the ac­cu­racy of an ac­count by the Is­raeli po­lice of a con­fronta­tion that led to two deaths in a Be­douin vil­lage in the Negev Desert. An­other, Naeem Mo­haiemen, has of­fered an oddly com­pelling film, last­ing an hour and a half, cen­tred on the 1973 Non-Aligned Coun­tries con­fer­ence, com­plete with archive footage of Madame Binh and Yasser Arafat. It is se­ri­ous art for se­ri­ous times, and feels com­pletely right just now.

The win­ner, an­nounced on Tues­day night, was the 44-year-old Glas­gow-based Char­lotte Prodger, with a del­i­cate, mul­ti­lay­ered, po­etic film, shot en­tirely on her iPhone. Com­pared with other short­listed artists, it might seem do­mes­tic, in­te­rior – but it is no less po­lit­i­cal and no less of the mo­ment. Filmed around her flat as she re­cov­ered from surgery, and in Scot­land’s forests and on its sim­mer­ing grey seas, it ex­plores her own queer iden­tity in a way that touches on deep his­tory, wide-open land­scapes and the pol­i­tics of iso­la­tion and con­nec­tion, sep­a­ra­tion and union. It quotes from her own di­aries as well as draw­ing on other texts such as Ju­lian Cope’s The Mod­ern An­ti­quary. When the prize was an­nounced at Tate Bri­tain in Lon­don, she sat com­pletely still for a mo­ment, stunned, while her proud dad leaped to his feet and cheered.

De­lighted and shocked, she is still try­ing to take in the win when we meet the next morn­ing. The £25,000 prize money will come in handy. “I’ll be liv­ing off it – my rent, my stu­dio rent, my liv­ing costs, my ma­te­ri­als,” she says. Like the oth­ers who were short­listed this year, her kind of work is not eas­ily com­mod­i­fi­able. She is cer­tainly not one of the hand­ful of artists mak­ing a mint from the glob­alised art mar­ket.

In her ac­cep­tance speech, Prodger made pointed ref­er­ence to Scot­land’s con­tin­ued com­mit­ment to a free univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion. Born in Bournemouth, she grew up mostly in Aberdeen­shire af­ter her fa­ther moved there to work as an en­gi­neer; her mother was a sec­re­tary and re­searcher. She left school with two high­ers – not enough to get her a place at univer­sity. She took a cou­ple of vo­ca­tional cour­ses (in­clud­ing one in pho­tog­ra­phy) and did a va­ri­ety of jobs: “I worked in a sand­wich shop, a jumper shop, in the Ko­dak lab in a branch of Boots in Ed­in­burgh, in call cen­tres, do­ing data in­put, clean­ing.” It was work­ing as a life model at the Ed­in­burgh Col­lege of Art that in­tro­duced her to artists and con­tem­po­rary art. At 23, she got a port­fo­lio to­gether and ap­plied to do art as a ma­ture stu­dent. She stud­ied at Gold­smiths in Lon­don and later, the Glas­gow School of Art.

Her film, Bridgit, takes its ti­tle from an an­cient god­dess of that name. At one point a voiceover talks of the al­ter­na­tive names for the de­ity, which, it says, have shifted over time and place. Bridgit’s is an un­sta­ble, con­tin­gent iden­tity that none­the­less of­fers some hope of a ma­tri­lin­eal, non-pa­tri­ar­chal pre­his­tory; later, the film refers to the the­o­rist, artist and writer Sandy Stone, who, via work­ing as a sound en­gi­neer, built her own com­puter and worked with the les­bian sep­a­ratist la­bel Olivia Records. At an­other point, Prodger de­scribes be­ing a teenager in Aberdeen­shire, work­ing in a care home in the early 1990s, tak­ing acid and ec­stasy in her down­time, while, un­known to her, the mu­si­cian and an­ti­quary Cope was rang­ing over the ne­olithic sites of her home county, thick with stand­ing stones and stone cir­cles, which he de­scribed as “bang in the mid­dle of the Great Mother’s heart”. Prodger was try­ing to work out how to be a young gay woman; here were signs in the land­scape that she had yet to read.

The whole film, her most per­sonal to date, seems to see Prodger search­ing for a place, feel­ing out of place, re­sist­ing be­ing too care­lessly placed. Her works, she says, al­ways start with a sense of “how I want them to feel, rather than what I want them to do”. With Bridgit, she wanted it to feel sub­ter­ranean. It is cer­tainly very in­te­rior: there is a lot of ma­te­rial about al­tered states, the ef­fects of anaes­thetic, a feel­ing of be­ing out-of-body. A lot about the body, in fact. There is a pas­sage where she records her ex­pe­ri­ence of pub­lic-lava­tory con­fu­sions – some­one yelling “There’s a boy in the girls’ toi­lets!” in a night club; on a Cale­do­nian MacBrayne ferry, a mid­dle-aged woman hes­i­tat­ing on the thresh­old of the loos as she catches sight of Prodger, say­ing: “I thought I was in the wrong toi­let

‘Pub­lic toi­let en­coun­ters are per­va­sive, but I don’t ex­pe­ri­ence the same con­fu­sion other queer peo­ple do’

there.” Th­ese episodes ap­pear in the film with­out ran­cour, but now Prodger says that such en­coun­ters “are just relentless ac­tu­ally. It’s some­thing that punc­tu­ates my life nearly ev­ery day now. It’s per­va­sive – though I don’t ex­pe­ri­ence the lev­els of con­fu­sion that other queer peo­ple do. It’s ex­haust­ing, mak­ing it OK for peo­ple. I’ll be dry­ing my hands and some­one will come in and they will look em­bar­rassed or ashamed. I feel for them. I want to make it all right for them. It’s a struc­tural prob­lem when ev­ery­one in­volved ends up feel­ing em­bar­rassed.”

Bridgit is a change in di­rec­tion for Prodger. It is only the sec­ond work of hers in which visitors sit in the dark­ness and watch a large sin­gle screen. Pre­vi­ously, she has made multi-chan­nel works on mon­i­tors of­ten po­si­tioned at head height, ar­ranged al­most con­fronta­tion­ally in space as a sculp­tural in­stal­la­tion. Watch­ing Bridgit feels like be­ing in Prodger’s head, or in her dreams. It opens with a view of her feet propped up on the sofa; the cam­era rises and falls in time with her breath­ing. You never see her whole body, or any­one else’s. You might see a por­tion of her hand, or a bit of her furry hat. The self is frag­mented into not just one sub­jec­tiv­ity, but seem­ingly into sev­eral, of­fer­ing the opposite of the cer­tainty of a mas­culin­ist point of view. It re­minds me of the Scot­tish poet and na­ture writer Nan Shep­herd – a writer whom Prodger ad­mires – say­ing that the bet­ter way to discover a moun­tain might be not to walk up it, but to walk around it, find­ing its se­cret places and crevices rather than its peaks.

This in­tense sub­jec­tiv­ity, or se­ries of sub­jec­tiv­i­ties, arises largely from the way it was shot – on her iPhone. De­spite its shiny, glassy, fac­to­ry­made op­ti­mism, the iPhone is, she says, “a filthy for­mat – smeared and grubby”, al­most an ex­ten­sion of her own body. She films all the time, as life goes on. Part of the split of her na­ture is a love of friends, and a de­sire for soli­tude – the phone means no crew, no has­sle and com­plete pri­vacy. At times Bridgit has a pass­ing fam­ily re­sem­blance to that most ubiq­ui­tous of do­mes­tic phone out­puts, the cat video (a black cat hud­dles in the warmth and light of­fered by a desk lamp, Don Cherry play­ing in the back­ground).

She doesn’t like, how­ever, be­ing la­belled an “iPhone artist”. “It’s just not a thing for me,” she says. “For me, it’s just an­other for­mat.” In her time she has shot on ev­ery­thing from 16mm to HD, and has ran­sacked old TV footage from the in­ter­net. She is in­ter­ested in play­ing with the pos­si­bil­i­ties of th­ese dif­fer­ent for­mats. Shoot­ing on iPhone has co­in­cided with mak­ing her first sin­gle-chan­nel works, which is a case of form and con­tent com­ing to­gether (pre­vi­ous work us­ing a 4:3 ra­tio rather than the 16:9 of the iPhone was more suited to be­ing shown on TV mon­i­tors). In any case, she says: “I’ve moved through a num­ber of dif­fer­ent for­mats just be­cause I’m 44 and tech­nol­ogy has changed.”

She is not into dig­i­tal as such, and in­deed, claims to be an ut­ter techno­phobe. “I can’t use What­sApp, and I don’t re­ally know what the Cloud is. My girl­friend has to set ev­ery­thing up on my phone for me.” At the same time, she en­joys work­ing within the pa­ram­e­ters and lim­i­ta­tions of the iPhone (“I can’t cope with a lot of op­tions,” she says), and will con­tinue to use it for her next ma­jor work, which will be a film for the Venice Bi­en­nale next year, where she will rep­re­sent Scot­land. But she won’t do so slav­ishly. “In the Venice film there will be some things that the phone won’t be able to cap­ture, so I’ll use video,” she says. A rare hint of ir­ri­ta­tion en­ters her gen­tle, peace­able, mu­si­cal voice. “I just some­times think: ‘Just stop talk­ing about the iPhone.’”

The Turner prize is at Tate Bri­tain, Lon­don, un­til 6 Jan­uary

Mak­ing the per­sonal pub­lic … Prodger

Both do­mes­tic and po­lit­i­cal … a scene from Bridgit

Prodger with Chi­ma­manda Ngozi Adichie and Maria Bal­shaw at Tate Bri­tain

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