QUEER CONTEMPORARIES: In Conversation with Florian Houlker
FH (about their own practice):
My practice is based around explorative investigations in to the post industrial landscape. I explore the now redundant sites which are often overgrown or reclaimed by nature. Through these explorations I see these sights as regenerative sites of potential, a healing space, to which man made creations are abandoned then reclaimed.
SS: Your work seems to be really intertwined with historical change in the North West, and your own identity navigating through spaces in the North West, could you tell us more about the significance of the North within your practice?
FH: Historically my family has resided in the north west for around four centuries, stretching from Broughton in Manchester northwards up to Accrington. My family historically have been working class and predominant factory workers, (Loom workers, Weavers, Blacksmiths and Joiners) creators and makers who learned skills and used their hands for their living.
I find this interesting and I identify my abilities of using my hands to the place where I was raised, it’s in my blood, it’s a part of my identity, so I find myself wanting to learn more industry based processes, this is why I've been using ceramics more in my recent practice as there's a connection with the materials to where I live (Clayton-Le-Moors) which transpires in to clay town on the moors. This is where the Accrington NORI brick comes in to play as the factory used to be up the road from where I live. I've noticed over my life that the area has changed, where factories stand they become redundant, demolished, flattened and predominantly pave way for modern housing estates, an architectural identity being erased. So, my explorations are focused to the currently standing and recently demolished industrial landscape.
SS: You explain that your practice is about traces, identity and reclamation. Is there something cathartic for you in exploring these things through art, and do they feel closely related?
FH: I think there is an element of catharsis in my explorations, as its in nature, it's a place where I can switch off, just searching the landscape for bricks allows me to just be in that moment, as when I'm looking for something, not necessarily just bricks, but out researching, the noise of everything else is gone, as I'm actively exploring and focusing on the objective in hand.
Similarly, when making in the studio there's a regimented routine to making as it's by process, its repetitive and cathartic, with the level of repetition I feel it connects to the factories with the content of the work of which was produced by repetitive processes within them.
I think they're connected as I'm tracing the landscape for a forgotten narrative which is then reclaimed, then making from those reclamations, I make a new identity, something unseen, a new trace from the reclaimed, it’s an ever-intertwining cycle.
SS: What does reclamation mean for you, in terms of your own identity and how it is interpreted through your art practice?
FH: It's connecting my families past and history of place in to my identity, not forgetting my roots; yet using them as a way of moving forward to create and make, I feel that the ability to create work through craft-based processes allows me to make work which has a semiotic identity to place through visual arts.
SS: “Yellow-Brick-Paused” is a fascinating installation, to us, it seems to imply a path to something better, much like the function of the “Yellow Brick Road” to Dorothy in Wizard of Oz that ultimately takes her on a journey of twists and turns. Does your non-binary identity play into the theory of this piece at all, or is the context much broader than that?
FH: I think over lock-down I've had a lot of time to think about myself, my identity, my career, and having that time has allowed me to reflect and see myself for who I am, it's allowed me to become at peace with myself, without interjections or judgements from society, and it's made me think of this journey on where I wanted to be and how to get there. I feel the reference to the yellow brick road was a reflection of those twists and turns that I've gone through in my life only to realise I've been me all along, it's just that I haven't given myself time to nurture me or be accepting of me.
SS: Could you talk a little about the process of seeking out and reclaiming objects for this work, and the process of transforming them for use in the installation?
FH: I start my research by searching through online map resources, this allow me to see ordnance survey maps, a topographical look on the landscape, there's a tool which allows you to overlay maps from different ordnance surveys showing the topographical change with transparency settings, allowing me to pinpoint the previously occupied sites at the current date.
This then furthers my research in to certain areas, I then go out and aim to see the areas of the sites, I sometimes have conversations with people near or at the sites and gain local knowledge from these places, this usually then leads to the explorations of the sites themselves or even other sites which have been brought up in conversations.
Predominantly the later stages of my research are very much in the field, it's about explorative investigations, where I wander and get lost in the subject matter and the space there of. The post-industrial landscape for me evokes a sense of wonder, imagining what these places were like at peak of industry, now desolate and overgrown with flora, there's a calm to these once industrial hives of activity, as nature has reclaimed the once occupied spaces.
Only old photographs of these places exist, barely the foundations are left, just these hidden jewels in the undergrowth, it’s exciting to come across a new brick of different design, shape or function, they're artefacts of a recent past in our history.
The external shape of the bricks have this flat smooth facade, this non-porous petrified robust brick, it's recognisable as a shape, as a three dimensional object, a part of a whole; the interesting part of the brick for me is the Internal identity, the hidden font, the makers mark, a marker of time to its creation, it's something which is always hidden as the identities face each other in the wall. Only on the demolition or deconstruction of these places is when we see their hidden identities.
Focusing on this internal identity was an interesting part of the research, taking that unseen element of the brick and allowing the identity to be shown in the form of a tile; something which would have covered the walls or the floors of the former internal structure.
One of the elements about these tiles I liked is that NORI is revealed as IЯON the iron being the high content of the brick itself from the local clay deposits giving the brick its famous name.
I used slip and clay to make the tiles, the porcelain and terracotta were poured in to the inlay of the brick; this was challenging as I was pouring it on to a petrified surface, so I didn't know how the material would react or harden as there wasn't a porous mould to dehydrate the slip evenly.
The Gelb clay was kneaded into the brick, forced into the form a very manual and aggressive process to make sure the fine detail was captured. Initially I wanted to fire the tiles, as this would highlight the warm yellow of the Gelb clay, the purity of the white porcelain and the rich earthiness of the terracotta, but due to the current pandemic this wasn't feasible. I started to view the tiles in their natural raw form, as it feels more authentic to the time period it was made, it just waits in this brittle and delicate state, which I think is a cursor of our current time.
We would just like to thank Florian for taking the time to answer our questions and for allowing us to share their work through our Queer Contemporaries Showcase!