Kate Adams: Feeling and Knowing

By Catherine Elwes

the-not-knowing-of-another-kate-adams.jpgThe Not Knowing of Another, 2008

On a remarkable installation

Facing out to sea like a majestic ocean liner, the restored Modernist masterpiece that is De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill is first and foremost an architectural statement. It is about space – managed architectural space but also about social space and how it is used both by communities and individuals. This concern with the negotiation of public space informed the conversations the artist Kate Adams first engaged in with curator Celia Davies and her team at De La Warr. Kate Adams has a professional interest in the nature of social space through her work as the director of Project Art Works in Hastings, an organisation that is politically active as well as dedicated to facilitating creative opportunities “with and for young people and adults who have complex needs” [1]

How those needs are met in the design of urban environments and public buildings is a fundamental concern of the organisation and one, which informs much of the curatorial strategy of De La Warr. As an artist, Adams has particularised that inquiry by making a series of works with her son Paul Colley who was born with complex neurological impairment. The most recent iteration of her practice-based investigation took the form of a major video installation at De La Warr, which sought to evoke Paul’s experience of public space as well as address more phenomenological questions about the ways in which the human organism relates to the fluctuations of sense-data that might arise, for instance, in a walk down to the sea.

Such a journey provides the central imagery of Adams’ installation, The Not Knowing of Another (2008). The walk is fractured into different perspectives, deployed across a small floor monitor and 4 video projections, three on the walls and one bird’s eye view directed onto the floor. This spatial arrangement creates an analogous ‘built’ environment to the ones Paul negotiates on his way to the beach. Each sequence is predominantly focused on Paul, his subjective view provided by a camera attached to his body, its output determined by his actions and movements. The accompanying soundscape is made up of the incidental activity of the sea and wind on the day interspersed with fragments of speech including the exclamations, shouts and laughter that constitute Paul’s rich repertoire of utterances. The audio dimension is enmeshed in what Bill Viola calls ‘undersound’, the serendipitous babble of voices outside the gallery space and, when I visited, in the muffled thundering of surf and rain as the remarkable Pavilion faced off the elements, standing its ground mere meters from the seashore.

The final element in the soundscape and one, which becomes critical for the viewer, is a synchronised recording of Paul’s heartbeat as he encounters the bewildering succession of challenges and thrills, the roller coaster of the senses and the psyche that for him constitutes the experience of a walk through the coastal landscape. Distilled into a sculptural arrangement of screen images and sounds, these recordings, or what Adams calls ‘soundings’ provide a glimpse into the ‘inner language’ of Paul’s experience. Each visitor to the space creates a unique – but never complete – picture of what that might be, drawn from screen to screen or led by the sound fluctuating across parabolic speakers. The fragmentation of experience in the immersive space of the installation goes some way towards simulating the drama of Paul’s own responses to what he sees and feels. In this way Adams creates what she calls a ‘tension of viewpoints’ that say as much about “how we all experience the world” [2] as they do about the particular subjectivity that determines Paul’s passage through the world around him.

The moving image appeals predominantly to the senses of sight and hearing, in this case, leaving out the vast array of neuro-sensory experiences Adams and her son underwent on their walk. Only through the imagination can we recreate their responses to heat and cold, to changing smells and the taste of salt in the air. We cannot feel the abrasiveness of sand to their touch or the stinging slap of an onshore wind as they move through space within and beyond the frame. Paul’s heartbeat on the soundtrack both signals these omissions and offers a coded equivalent of the ‘qualia’, to which Adams often refers and which I interpret as the irreducible, universal experience of place mediated by the senses. When the wind gets up, or a train thunders by, Paul’s heart audibly races; when the prospect of a vertiginous descent of steps to the beach alarms him, his heart beats out his distress. Paul’s physiology becomes a barometer of the absent senses. Through the potent sound of his embodied responses, we hear the vastness of the space, the rush of oxygen in the sea air quickening his blood, the disorientation and vertigo induced in him by suddenly feeling the ground move underfoot as he encounters the unstable terrain of pebbles and stones on the beach. (Paul does not rely upon ‘knowledge’ of the property of things, the solidity of ground). Through sound, Adams conjures up the whole gamut of senses, as well as the readings and misreadings involved in Paul’s dramatic encounters with nature.

Kate Adams chose to record those encounters on video partly because of the convenience and portability of the technology but also for the intimacy with the subject that video makes possible. Video transmits the impression of being close to the ground through the photographic realism of the image; the crispness of its resolution improving almost daily with successive advances in technology. The documentary verisimilitude of video can easily be unseated with digital effects but Adams was careful to leave the image intact and so position the viewer as witness to events. Video technology is already culturally inscribed with the stamp of authenticity, if not of truth now that it has been enshrined as the default medium of television newsgathering. In spite of the deconstructive strategies of experimental film and video throughout the 1970s and ‘80s and avant-garde artists’ determination to expose the camera’s lie, the moving image continues to be accepted as unmediated evidence perhaps because critiques of illusionism are both outmoded and swamped by the seductive deceptions of contemporary reality TV and the authority of the evening news.

the-not-knowing-of-another-kate-adams-2.jpgThe Not Knowing of Another, 2008

Adams is well aware that vérité video is in fact as malleable as a scripted fiction and that her editing of the work directs meaning as effectively as a voice over would have done. But she undermines her own regulation of the work by her decision to split the footage across multiple screens. In this configuration, the work cannot be fully contained by the gaze. It is difficult to create a complete picture of the installation without eyes in the back of a head that can turn, at speed, on 360º. In this way Adams refuses an equation of video verisimilitude with truth and maintains an equivalence in the work with the ambiguity and chaos of what Tom Sherman terms the unedited, ‘raw data’ of lived experience.

Partly for this reason, Adams’ work is not always comfortable to watch. We are presented with a convincing facsimile of a handsome young man whose disabilities are not immediately apparent. It would have been quite easy for Adams to edit out those moments in which his reactions cross the boundaries of what we regard as normal behaviour. But the artist reveals the whole range of Paul’s gestures and facial expressions, which slip back and forth across the normality divide making us aware of how arbitrarily the line has been drawn. Both categories of ‘normal’ and ‘deviant’ behaviours contain elements of the other. Adams, informed by a close reading of Foucault, would seem to be suggesting that it is merely a question of degree, a critical mass of traits that must be reached, a point of definition historically established for the convenience of institutions and state ideologies rather than the well-being of individuals.

We first encounter the screen individual that is Paul Colley in Adams’ installation when he emerges from the cavernous space of a train depot, a repository of obsolete rolling stock that both Paul and his mother clearly take pleasure in exploring. Coming out into the light, he seems uncertain and comes to a halt. Thresholds and transitions are difficult for Paul so his mother takes his hand and guides him towards the footbridge that will lead to the shore. This is the moment in which we understand that what we are imaginatively recreating here is a relationship between two people, between a mother and her son. From the outset, I read the work as a double portrait and while the walkers make their slow progress to the sea, this viewer who has also raised a son was able to relive the symbiotic relationship that constitutes the child as an extension of the mothers’ body. The helplessness of the infant is internalised as a problem of survival for the mother as much as it is a reality for her son. Old age will one day rob him of his precarious sense of mastery and everything in between is a struggle to prevail against what seem to be, at times, impossible odds. It is a mother’s burden to live both the trials and the triumphs of her progeny. As both parents and children we can project the challenges of our own lives into Paul’s struggles to negotiate and make sense of the undifferentiated sensations the world throws at him. Like him, we resist change and find new environments threatening, like him we struggle to communicate and to find our way in the world. In Adams’ installation, Paul becomes not so much an object of disability as a touchstone of all human experience.

The filmmaker William Raban considers the brain inadequate to the task of processing the internal turmoil that sentience unleashes. For him, the viewfinder and film frame act as structuring devices for the raw material of his thoughts and feelings. The substance and aims of his practice are the transmission of ‘thoughts on film’. Kate Adams also anchors thought in the moving image, but through editing rather than in the initial framing. She creates a loose coherence out of a series of spontaneous observational shots conforming to the idiom of subjective camera, or as she puts it more succinctly, through editing, she “pulls together what we have recorded” [3].

Both Raban and Adams recognise the ability of the moving image to reflect an interior life as well as that of the body and its senses. Perhaps this is where we return to the title of the work, The Not Knowing of Another in which Adams hints at the isolation of each individual in a time-constrained subjectivity hamstrung by the limitations of verbal language that leave us gesturing wildly when words fail to say what we mean. Paul’s repetitive hand and arm gestures tell us everything and nothing about his thoughts but I like to imagine that he is orchestrating or conducting an interior movie of his life for an audience that included the rocks and the sea, features of the landscape that Adams believes he understands as dynamic entities. The script he is working to is indecipherable to the rationalist mind and can only be intuited.

the-not-knowing-of-another-kate-adams-3.jpgThe Not Knowing of Another, 2008

It is tempting to over-romanticise Paul’s sometimes joyous occupation of a pre-lingual world of the senses and his ecstatic and unregulated repertoire of expression. Similarly, he could be construed as enacting a heroic resistance to the rule of reason. Adams herself says that she has learned from her son “never to preclude the possibility of anything” [4]. The reality for Paul and his mother is that his regular breaches of societal protocol put the family under considerable strain and without their continued support and protection, his well-being would be severely compromised. It would be patronising to suggest that there is a kind of radical, post-normative romance to his lived reality.

If I were to quarrel with this work at all, I would contradict the installation’s title and suggest that Adams does, in fact, gain access to her son’s psyche. Her insights are the result of the unstinting attention and watchfulness through which all mothers intuit their children’s state of mind. It might seem an inversion of the feminist project to sentimentalise or elevate a woman’s maternal role above her achievements in other fields all the more so when it includes the expectation of sacrifice involved in caring for an individual with needs as acute as those of Paul. However, as George Eliot proposes in Middlemarch, when love is seen as a function of knowledge and understanding it is the key to individual development, to the discovery of the subject’s creative potential. Emotional receptivity to others allows knowledge to “pass instantaneously into feeling, and feeling flashes back as a new organ of knowledge.” [5] When I put these thoughts to the artist last week, she politely refuted my splitting of her involvement with Paul from her creative practices, but endorsed Eliot’s contention that there are forms of knowledge that can only be gained through experience adding, “Humanism, how can we function without it?” [6]

Towards the end of the video footage, Paul becomes momentarily still perhaps arrested by the universal aesthetic of landscape, his excitement temporarily subdued by the sublime spectacle of the sun setting over the sea. At this moment, I felt I was witnessing another dimension of parental experience, that of separation. Paul is envisioned alone, as a separate individual, a man whose life has its own momentum and is subject to social and political forces that his mother cannot always control. He will encounter new relationships, institutions and patterns of care – his other carers have already entered the frame in her installation. However, the emotional territory of separation is a muted, underlying current in the work and the predominant portrait Adams creates of Paul and his world is sensitive and loving and as she says, “conducted with as much respect for his preferences and way of navigating experience as possible.” [7] The Not Knowing of Another may suggest that ‘the other’ can never truly be deciphered, but the work also demonstrates that is possible to intimate another’s point of view, approximate their responses, propose temporary or contingent interpretations or simply let the camera roll. Through Adam’s work, Paul finds his own way of gesturing his life into being.


[1] www.projectartworks.org
[2] Kate Adams, statement, 2006.
[3] Kate Adams in conversation with the author, May 2008.
[4] Ibid
[5] Middlemarch: A Study in Provincial Life, George Eliot, Penguin Classic, 2003.
[6] Kate Adams in conversation with the author, June, 2008.
[7] Kate Adams in correspondence with the author, July, 2008.

The Not Knowing of Another was installed at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill from 10th May to 6th July 2008.

Catherine Elwes is Professor of Moving Image Art at the University of the Arts London and author of Video Art, a Guided Tour (I.B.Tauris).