An introduction to: Kevin Cameron and Gillian Steel
As a part of the daily routine people go through the motions of numerous tasks almost unconsciously. Walking to work, doing the washing, folding clothes, cooking, cleaning – all of the actions are repeated so many times they become automatized. At least that is what one of the first contemporary art theorists Viktor Shklovsky sustained – he views art as that technique by which object and actions are made strange, defamiliarized, it increases the difficulty and prolongs the process of perception.
Inspired by the theory of estrangement, Kevin Cameron and Gillian Steel created Make Strange, a project for GI2016 encompassing two models of engagement – a drop in studio and a parallel film project with a group from the city’s refugee community. The title of the project comes from their interest in estrangement as a formal device and on the idea of people being strange, strangers which is obviously pertinent to the way refugees are perceived. “The initial proposal was about seeing the people and the culture of the city (Glasgow) through the eyes of a stranger,” Cameron said.
The artists gave the participants, a group of refugees from Eritrea, the tools and knowledge to share their stories, and the group has taken the project in their own direction, as Steel explains:
“The brutal reality of where and what they have escaped from is uppermost in their minds – while what is bewilderingly strange to them is an apparent lack of awareness of that reality – even the name of their country ‘Eritrea’ is strange and unheard to many people they meet here. So, in the process of developing the work various and individual interpretations have evolved.”
A confluence of factors, including the charged political situation in Eritrea, the previously unknown milieu of Glasgow and a project stimulating contemplation on their uncommon condition, proved to be propitious for telling stories. Cameron noted: “They have literally arrived in the UK with nothing but stories and I think they are very keen to share their experiences widely.”
For the purpose of group engagement, Cameron and Steel opted for screen printing and caffenol film processing – techniques the artists are familiar with and that are adaptable to the levels of sophistication of each user. They additionally offer the possibility for engaging in a craft process which the members of the group directly control, and this results in a sense of satisfaction or empowerment.
There is also a social and historical significance to the techniques, as Steel explained: “What appeals to me most is that they are tools of multiple duplication and historically a powerful means of spreading propaganda and maintaining control of public opinion – but in the hands of this group it is being used to present the very human, individual and often tragic detail of that control.”
Participative work and a focus on filmmaking and print processes pervade these artists’ work. We asked Kevin if it has to do with empowering an individual through artistic creation.
“I think it is empowering for the participants to have the opportunity to articulate their experience. The project came about as the group approached me to do more work after the initial work with Scottish Refugee Council and Holocaust Memorial Trust, so I presume that this is something that they feel too. They are very diligent about the work and very concerned to engage with people.
“As a filmmaker myself I think it’s important to build into the work you are doing some acknowledgement of the process of representation, which again leads back to ideas of estrangement and making strange – laying bare the device.”