QUEER CONTEMPORARIES: In Conversation with Josie Tothill
JT (about their own practice):
As an artist and workshop leader, making change is central to my practice. Stories and materials develop in tandem, spanning an explosive range of media including sculpture, video, music and performance. I engage diverse communities in creativity, connectivity and political change.
SS:“Whole” is a really captivating film. It documents what must have been quite an extraordinary experience for you. Could you tell us about how you felt making this piece, whilst in the process, and reflecting on it afterwards?
JT: Thank you! Yes, it was an amazing experience. I made this piece whilst on a residency at Merz barn in the Lake District with MSoA Interactive Arts course. It was actually on the way there, on the coach I was talking with @amina.png and @kanwalxart and I remembered something I use to do as a kid; whenever I was scared at night in bed I would imagine being buried in the earth. I would imagine something similar to dying, a conscious merging with the earth, I would try to feel the worms and bugs and the earth on top of me. I think it was like, if I could make peace with that, nothing else could hurt me. But I don't know I'm not a phycologist! Maybe I was just a weird kid (I definitely was!).
I hadn't thought about it in years but once I remembered, I couldn't get it out of my head! We were in this extraordinarily beautiful landscape surrounded by inspiring friends. To be mad enough to want to be buried alive it is one thing, but being in a community of artists who I love who say yeah do it! That's what makes it possible.
@balubalou and @lleuadglas helped dig the hole and buried me. We found a beautiful spot and soaked in the view and sleepy rain while we dug. It did feel slightly ritualistic. There is a strong folk tradition of moving of materials to influence yourself or the world. The ground was very rocky, so they were very gentle when covering me. I felt cared for. The weight of the earth pressing down was amazing. It was January and it was pretty cold! As my body went numb, I couldn't tell where it ended, and the world began. I would shiver then let go and relax my body, become still. I definitely felt a kind of surrender.
The time it took between coming out of my hole and finding a shower that would work was pretty physically painful but something I had to laugh at (otherwise I think I would have frozen to death!). After finally finding a working shower I felt glowing! It was like a spa treatment!
During the process I had no explanation for it I just knew I wanted to be buried! When I got home and showed the footage to my boyfriend Nick he instantly made the connection to the act and my mental health. He made the music that accompanies the piece then I edited the footage to his music. He actually made the music in our cellar and I think you can really hear the damp cavernous underground in the recording. There are these deep long base notes then more frantic melodious strumming that harks to this folk like glee and darkness. So, Nick's music was what made me understand the piece after the act
SS: Is landscape a crucial element of your process in creating films, or do you rely as much on your relationships with others as well as the space inhabited?
JT: Oh yes landscape is important to me! I also wouldn't see landscape and my relationships with others as separate. I think we are made of landscape and we are part of the landscape. We are just the atoms around us rearranged into some crazy mess of consciousness and limbs.
Humanity is defined from other animals by the way we labour upon our environment. Even now every exchange has a material base. It’s all routed in landscape. How I relate to people, how I live my life - it all relates to landscape.
SS: Is there some particular significance in rural landscape to your films, or could urban spaces function in a similar way to help you achieve your vision?
JT: Totally urban spaces can function in the same way! I am a big fan of urban walking and I look at that landscape with the same eye. I am fascinated by the nature of a city. A little daisy pushing through concrete always makes me so happy! I feel like it really shows how human intervention is still part of this ecological web. Urban landscape, also political and social landscape play a big role in my art.
SS: You work quite collaboratively within your own practice, and seem to realise works with others in mind even through the process of making. What are the benefits and potential difficulties for you in working this way?
JT: Yeah collaboration is very important to me. I feel like I can’t escape it! I guess I don't consider myself separate from the physical and social landscape, so I am always collaborating in some sense! Working with others brings different skills, knowledge and energy. You can dare each other to push something further. I collaborate most with Nick. Even when we are not working on something together, I need time with him to have the energy and perspective to make work.
Sometimes I really build my own world and my own logic and collaboration can be difficult if you are trying to bring people into something that is already formed. You lose so much potential if you are trying to reach a place you already have in mind. You have to really let go of your own preconceptions. Being honest is really important; its ok to say 'I'm finding it hard to let go of X how do people think we should approach it' or 'you're taking a lead on X that great with me! are you ok with that responsibility?'
SS: You explain that “Whole” was about exploring your mental health through catharsis. Does art function as a catharsis for you in general, and if so, do you favour a particular process?
JT: In general no! This is quite unusual for me. I tend to be less interested in self-expression because I'm not so interested in The Self. I'm interested in the world, politics and stories! I can get quite methodical when making art. It’s a strange all-consuming kind of method! The process is still cathartic but Whole was something else. I had been really struggling over winter and Whole was like some kind of exorcism. It was an expression of my mental health in relation to the world around me. If we focus on pure self-expression, we are in danger of individualising our problems. We have a mental health crisis rooted in capitalism. We need cathartic expression but part of that has to be about realising the political landscape our problems arise from. On the day of the general election in December I had buried a statue of Boris Johnson in a similar way (but with very different intentions!). We can't just express ourselves; we have to smash capitalism!
I take great inspiration from artists who always pour themselves into their art. I think it’s very brave and I am always learning from others! I try to work instinctively and that leads me to many different materials and ways of working.
We would just like to thank Josie for taking the time to answer our questions and for allowing us to share their work through our Queer Contemporaries Showcase!