Tag Archives: Jennet Thomas

The Unspeakable Freedom Device | Q&A with Jennet Thomas

Ahead of Jennet Thomas’ talk and screening of THE UNSPEAKABLE FREEDOM DEVICE, we asked her few questions about her work and practice…

Please tell us about the piece you are screening at Chelsea in March – it seems to address both some quite serious political ideas while also being quite surreal and almost touches on sci-fi.

The idea for this work started with my reaction to the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, the cult-like status of her image, and the fateful changes she brought on. As I was developing this idea I was approached by the Grundy Gallery, in Blackpool, to make a big film/installation work. It was a great co-incidence- via the Gallery I could get access to the fabulous Blackpool Winter Gardens as a location, the very place where those key Conservative Party Conferences happened when Thatcher rose to power! So thereby came the structure of the work- it would be a pilgrimage to the Winter Gardens, involving a Thatcher Cult.

But my work is never just about one theme – it isn’t even ‘about’ stuff, rather I construct parallel worlds in which you can glimpse reflections of things in our world, inside a kind of machine of play. Everything I am working on now seems to move toward Sci-Fi and the absurd, probably because I am fascinated by the way our increasingly intimate relationship with technology is changing the nature of our reality, and how this is entangled with ideology.


You work on Wimbledon’s Print and Time-based Media course, can you tell us about how you balance your teaching and your own artistic practice? Does one feed into the other?

Everyone at UAL is aware that staff workloads are sometimes insane- even if you are part time. So no, it’s not easy balancing the two.  A brief Sabbatical helped. Working with our Print and Time Based Media students is great, and inspiring, and can definitely connect both ways with my artistic practise. It’s the systemically self-defeating bureaucratic structures and flawed power relations that the institution propagates – that generate so much needless stress that makes the balance hard.

I understand you are also taking part in Acts Re-Acts 3 at Wimbledon Space, can you tell us a bit more about your work for that?

It is a new work that will contain live performance (including a fairly deranged monologue) video animation, costume… it slightly touches upon my inappropriate moan above- it’s called ‘Enhanced Monitoring Event’ and is inspired by a spectacularly opaque power point presentation that was so incomprehensibly stacked with management-speak that it reached a delicious level of absurdity, and number of my colleagues suggested it was a bit like one of my films. It’s a work in progress.

The Unspeakabke Freedom Device

Image: Jennet Thomas

Acts Re-Acts looks at performance from both a fine art and a theatrical perspective and considers where and how they intersect, is this something you have considered in your own work before?

I don’t believe that there are – or should be – clearly defining perspectives or disciplinary ‘territories’ between creative arenas, I don’t think that is how interesting culture works. It’s something that obsesses the academic world, and those that have a stake in maintaining ‘territories’ through funding structures. My work has been crossing over various territories for decades now- it often doesn’t sit comfortably in the ‘artists film’ territory as I have long been interested in spoken word, televisual forms, and, yes, aspects of experimental theatre. Only recently have these aspects been sucked into the monstrous digestive system of the Fine Art world and become a bit trendy.

Thanks Jennet!

Jennet’s talk and screening will take place on 2nd March, see below for more information and this event and Jennet’s work…

2nd March, 18:00 – 20:00, Lecture Theatre, Chelsea College of Arts, London, SW1P 4JU

No booking required.

Details of THE UNSPEAKABLE FREEOM DEVICE book can be found at the Book Works website

For more information about Jennet Thomas please visit her blog.


Something rather disturbing happened over the summer –THE UNSPEAKABLE FREEDOM DEVICE – an experimental narrative film and multimedia installation, commissioned from Jennet Thomas, Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at Wimbledon, by the Grundy Gallery, Blackpool for a solo show in September – November 2014, was prevented from opening by the local council (which funds the gallery). It was postponed until after the general election due to, as the council put it, ‘heightened local Political sensitivities’. The Grundy Gallery staff did all they could to support the work.

Unspeakable Freedom 1

‘Unfortunately, the council’s action could be read as  politically-motivated censorship of the imagination. The film is an absurd, warped Folk-tale, that explores the idea of the image of Margaret Thatcher as an after-burn on the collective memory of our culture. It speculates on belief systems, ideas of truth, power and pleasure and how cultural memories are re-made and distorted according to the needs of each era,’ said Thomas.

The film follows two women through a broken, post-apocalyptic landscape of collapsing signs and imploding meanings on a pilgrimage to the Winter Gardens, Blackpool, where they believe Margaret Thatcher is somehow embedded in the building, and will cure their green baby. The Winter Gardens is an iconic site of Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power in 1979 at the Conservative party conference. In this fantastic, primitive-future world, the difference between technology and magic, sense and nonsense has become incomprehensible. Our characters buy a Maggie doll which spouts quotations to guide them when they pull its string. Mythical Red, Green and Blue characters – that could be distorted versions of long-dead political factions -appear to them on the journey, proclaiming their rhetoric, producing spasms of white light when they clash. The film is allegorical, imaginative and is not directly political, but Blackpool is a “key marginal” seat, and some local Conservatives in the council have seemingly become agitated about the idea of the work (without having seen it). It could also be that the issue is being used as a weapon to attack local arts funding for the Grundy Gallery, which is the only major arts resource in the whole region. Art Monthly and the Arts Newspaper have written articles on this story (below).

The agency Modern Culture and Jennet  are currently devising a series of touring screenings/seminars/performances called UNSPEAKBLE FREEEDOM that will feature the film, in the run-up to the General Election and generate discussion around ideas that propose an artist’s concept of Politics as an alternative reality/language, with the potential to create meaning at a grass-roots level in new ways.’

Unspeakable Freedom 2

Unspeakable Freedom 3

Acts Re-Acts: A Reflection

Acts Re-Acts, a month long festival of performance held at Wimbledon Space,  brought together practitioners from across UAL through a series of residencies, performances, talks and screenings. Participants included Eleanor Bowen & Laura Gonzalez, Stella Capes, Edward Dimsdale, Katie Elliott, Rossella Emanuele, Richard Layzell, Douglas O’Connell, Camilla Palestra & Hanae Utamura, Annette Robinson & Belinda Wild, Jane Collins, Finlay Forbes-Gower, Katie Lerman, Italia Rossi & Trish Scott, Michael Spencer, Tansy Spinks & Iris Garrelfs, Mette Sterre, Jennet Thomas, Paul Tarrago and Charlotte Turton. The festival was initiated by Simon Betts, Peter Farley, Clare Mitten, Lois Rowe and Jane Collins in response to the fact that theatre and fine art practitioners often work in parallel rather than in dialogue, with the aim of bringing these different practices into the same discursive realm.

Scott, a CCW PhD student, whose research project Socialising the Archive examines the relationship between performance, documentation and the archive, reflected on the festival for the Graduate School. She is interested in the translation between events and documents and in amalgamating art and archival encounters.

Michael Fried’s ideas in Art and Objecthood (1967) (as conveyed by Ken Wilder) were used to position the festival in critical terms, specifically via a closing debate. In this text Fried compares modernist painting with minimalism, attacking the latter as being “theatrical”, setting up a divide between art and theatre proposing that “art degenerates as it approaches the condition of theatre”. He argues that once a work starts to exist for an audience in a particular time and space it fails to transcend its own objecthood, and approaches the condition of non art. The success of art, Fried argues, relies on its ability to defeat theatre, to surpass its own objecthood, becoming autonomous from the beholder. In later writing, Fried contrasts theatricality with absorption (anti-theatricality); the difference between an artwork engaging with an audience (e.g figures in a painting staring out of the picture plane, looking directly at the viewer) and an artwork making no concession to an audience (i.e. figures in a painting being absorbed in a world of their own). Acts Re-Acts sought to test the relevance of these ideas in relation to contemporary performance practice.

This idea of a boundary between fine art and theatre, absorption and theatricality was addressed head on by Richard Layzell who noted that in the 1970s, as a fine art performer, there was pressure not to cross the line/break the fourth wall (as demonstrated through his re-enactment of Twitch). Now, for Layzell, the dividing line has gone (as demonstrated in his screening of Art Work – Work Art, a performance in which he is both waiter and performer in a cafe).

This sense of openness and fluidity characterised most of the work in Acts Re-Acts. Instead of being easily identifiable as either fine art or theatre, work tended to be experimental, interdisciplinary and collaborative. Rather than there being a division between works (in terms of performances being either fine art or theatre), tensions existed within individual works. One of these tensions was between the live and the recorded, most performances being predicated on a dialogue between live and unlive media, akin to what performance theorist Rebecca Schneider terms interanimation. This is where live media (e.g. performance) and capture media, or media-resulting documents (i.e. video, photography) cross constitute and improvise each other. At Acts Re-Acts this meant that many of the works occupied complex temporalities, and afforded different modes of beholding and types of engagement within a single work.

In Jennet Thomas’s I am your error message, a performance critiquing institutional ideology and capitalist reward structures, what appeared to be a fictive world was portrayed on screen alluding to an ominous, spreading error that needed to be eliminated. But rather than this projection existing in a separate world, immune from theatricality, with no concession being given to the audience, Thomas entered into a live dialogue with the work, bringing it firmly back to the here and now, the space and time of the video bleeding into the space and time of the gallery.

Edward Dimsdale’s work Model Love Re-Kindled, a durational installation and performance involved the artist subjecting a sequence of photographs purporting “to capture a series of instances of love at first site” (Simon Jones) to forensic scrutiny, then playing with the representation of these actions using a visualiser and other devices. Dimsdale’s performance questioned not only the narrative inferred by the photographs but also the very nature and status of the photographic act itself. From observing the photographs, to becoming the observed to turning his phone camera on the audience, Dimsdale experimented with subject/object relations, delving into the various meta levels of the work, playing with the invisible fourth wall. The focus of the work and relationship with the audience constantly shifted, theatricality and absorption operating in symbiosis.

Having more critical debate (beyond one panel session) would have been good. But if Acts Re-Acts is just the start of a growing forum and a way of providing space for considering interdisciplinary performance that will continue to develop, the creative team behind Acts Re-Acts played this well. If Acts Re-Acts had been more about words and discourse, and less about the work, I suspect what might have been reinforced were differences and boundaries, rather than areas of communality. Letting the work lead the dialogue, rather than conversation being at the level of textual extrapolation, established a baseline for what constitutes performance within UAL. It’s now time to build on this, and the momentum generated by the festival, through further discussions and events.