Name: Tina Douglas
Occupation: Muliti-disciplinary artist (incl. Painting, sound art)
Nationality: Australian
Current release: Tina Douglas's Objects Of Interest, a collaboration with Magda Mayas, is out via Room40.

[Read our Magda Mayas interview]

Recommendations: Scientific American magazine (1845 – present). I love the diagrams/illustrations trying to depict the unseen and trying to explain how the how the world works. I see these as a form of art.
Hilma Klint paintings. A revolutionary western abstract artist born in 1862.

If you enjoyed this interview with Tina Douglas and would like to stay up to date with her work, visit her official homepage.

When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

For a large part of my life I have seen myself as a ‘visual artist’, focusing on how we read and see visual art. But more and more I have realised that this seems a strange thing to be. We are informed by all our sense input, not just vision. While looking at a painting on a wall your individual senses do not operate in a vacuum. The space, ambient sounds, smells etc are all part of the experience.

In 2017 I began incorporating sound with my visual artwork. node was my first exhibition which combined traditional visual art materials and sound. Works had various touch points which triggered sounds by touch or proximity. I discovered that the sounds between works in a space could overlap and thus the audience could create their own compositions.

Since 2016 I have been incorporating conductive painting and objects as part of music performances. I touch, stroke, hit the conductive paintings during my performances to manipulate sounds in real time. I suppose my live improvised performances use the conductive paintings as a form of ‘visual score’ which I 'play' in real time. It was a way of me engaging or controlling sound in a direct intuitive way. I think this experience fed the idea of constructing individual visual scores for musicians / sound artists.  

For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?

I have been interested in the relationship between the senses and expression for a long time as an artist. In a strange way this interest may have begun with my sister who acquired brain damage. My sister became non-verbal and unable to laugh, cry. We were both young at the time and it was a great shock this could happen to a person. Very gradually my sister began to use her breath to make faint sounds and simple physical gestures to show us pleasure or discomfort. I started to think about how most communication / expression were essentially this and part of an essence in us.

Regarding being an artist – it wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I really understood there was such a thing as an ‘artist’ or ‘art school’. I knew you could be an illustrator, graphic designer, art teacher, hobby artist - but for some reason it had not clicked in my brain that it could be something I could do as a serious endeavour. I knew of ‘famous artists’ -but they seemed something from the past. Maybe it was due to growing up in rural Australia with limited access to information and experiences.

I also think the fact I am a mixture of many nationalities played a part in how I felt I fitted in in the world. Though I grew up not knowing much about these cultures I came from, there was a sense there was more to the world than what immediately surrounded me. It made me curious and more determined to not accept the world in front of me. I think all of these things encouraged me to develop early on a strong inner world. I think this inner world has been an important resource for trying to develop a voice.

How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?

Part of my creativity is trusting myself.

I have been making things for a while now and part of that journey has been to make sure I hold my nerve. That I am always open to risk – not fear new approaches, new materials. That I am living in the world going forward, not clinging to the past. If I feel I am setting up barriers to explore new areas, or find myself repeating myself, I stop and question myself. Shift my head by going and doing something else.

What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?

In the beginning there was the fear of the blank page. I think this is a common thing. I remember I used to work out ways to train myself to just start drawing. Just to make myself plunge into the pool.

At art school and with my peers, being a ‘painter’, meant that you stuck to this medium, or maybe did some prints, sculpture as an aside. That you did ‘studies’. Or if you chose ‘performance art’ you only did that. Otherwise, I was told, you did not look like you knew what you were doing. To me this was like making a living museum of yourself.

I always found it was better not to be locked into what I was meant to be doing as an ‘artist’. I tended to try different things, which has only grown since.

Time is a variable only seldomly discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?

I guess the scores I make are experiments in how to talk about relative perception and actions and not so much about imposing specific time. The length of the paper, number of pages are the only indicators given to the musician/sound artist of time. I do not read music, but notation feels like a very formal and linear ‘language’ driven model. To me it leaves out a whole world of elements of expression or sensibility and I was thinking about how to involve other senses like feeling and a tactility.

I wanted to think about a score as more than organized 2D characters on a piece of paper or screen. Something which did not have to be approached reading from left to right but that you could pick one point in the score and move out from that point … like throwing a pebble in a pond.

The nature of time is something I am very interested in. The visual score offered a model which might work for these kinds of experiments.

How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?

I am often trying to communicate to a particular musician. I suppose I am hoping that my own long relationship with objects, shapes in my visual language will also talk to others.

My language is abstract, but I think abstraction can communicate fundamental meaning which can be used to direct and describe sound in a composition.

Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?

I guess being a ‘painter alone in the studio’ I never used to think about collaboration. Now I think if there is a relationship- that you are building on something, real exchange can happen which can be exciting and surprising.

I was also interested in finding a way of generating improvised sound responses using ‘form’ - to add a physical tactility to a score. I am attracted to performers who have close relationships to objects, who are very involved with the qualities of objects to generate sounds. I related how they use ‘form’ in their approach like another dimension. Being predominately a visual artist, I related it to my relationship with my tools and creating marks and wanted to expand this. I felt that it would be interesting to see what would happen when these relationships crossed over.

I think the pandemic also has increased my interest with collaboration / exchange. I don’t know if it is because of the lack of opportunities to have exhibitions and performances where intimate spontaneous exchanges can occur between myself and the audience/fellow performers. I feel online experiences don’t seem to really allow this to happen.

That was also why I prefer to give the physical visual scores to a musician during a project. The physical qualities of the objects I made were important to me and I feel may not have been able to communicate via a screen.

Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?

I have no fixed schedule in terms of making things. I only like to do it when I am in the mood. But when I am in the mood, I am usually very obsessive and do it in long blocks. I forget everything else. Until something pulls me out like attending to my bread-and-butter job. But I quite like this.

I find forced breaks are good for my personality. I can get stuck and not realise it. When I am making things, I often have the television or some audio going. Some random streaming, news, sounds, my own libraries. Sometimes silence. I look at data maps and how these effect our lives. I have a good collection of historical documents I like to use for a perspective slap. I think about and collect discarded things. I go out to the garden and wonder at the way things grow. How nature persists. Listen to the birds at daybreak. Photograph the stars. This all-feeds in. Some sort of unconscious mapping.

Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?

I think when I began making paintings and objects which were conductive, where I was able to build on the relationship of touch and gesture, outputting in the form of sound.

Another artist had seen my graphite drawings, and knew I was interested in technology had brought up the fact that graphite was conductive and could be used in electrical circuits.

There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?

I usually work at my studio or in my home in a particular space. As I am making things, I pin the works all around me as they are made. It’s like I am building something. Not directly like a narrative. Really put there to look at from the corner of my eye. Just to give me more hints – to the next point of departure. I never know how many, what form the works will become at the start. Things start generating themselves, trigger other things, directions.

The initial works might not be anything like the main body of works. Just things that give me glimpses. Trigger something more interesting. Things can hang around a long time. I stop or destroy something when I feel I’ve lost touch with it. When the exploring has gone.

I find distractions can be important to me. To stop me overthinking things. Something unexpected - someone yelling out of the window … all help pull me out of my own belly button.

There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?

For me the past, present, and future are in constant dialogue, so influences are a given. Even if we are not aware. Copying is a tradition in creative fields. Usually as a form of training or reinforcing a tradition.

For me I think it is legitimate to use cultural material, whether in the form of cloning, duplicating, repurposing, if it is culturally part of my experience. I feel other cultures can give some guidance for approaches, but the original purpose needs to be respected and understood.

Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?

I have enjoyed observing audiences trying to understand the relationship of a sound to a what they see visually. The large felt work I made in 2016 sort to shift expectations using soft organic shapes which when touched by the audience triggered artificial or mechanical sounds. When I’m performing with my conductive paintings and objects, people don’t expect to see a painting make electrical hums. Or an organic lump makes a metallic ring.

I like to remind people of given associations they may have developed and to think twice.

Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?

I am very aware of my position as an artist. It is a privilege. I feel it is becoming more important for me to connect and be aware of consequences. That the elite element of art be rethought, both in snobbery of materials, gender, cultural background.

Some materials, instruments, technologies use rare materials, contain toxic chemicals, require large amounts of resources. I think if I make something, I should make sure it is made with purpose, not short term, or unnecessary waste. I try to repurpose materials like the 3D plastic printing mistakes, discarded wood, paint, card, paper. I love a rubbish skip. I am known as a bit of a reciprocal for obsolete machines. I suppose I see it as all part of an archaeology.

Making things which will become part of an exchange is also important to me. After a collaborative performance I give the conductive painting, I used to the organiser (usually a musician I played with). Some have later told me that they had re-used the painting in their own set ups. The individual visual scores I make are all given to the musician as a gift for their sound responses. I enjoyed how the publicly interactive works saw the non-musicians generate improvised performances.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?

I feel music can express the betweenness of things we feel and experience in life and with death. An awareness of the unexplainable or non-verbal. So much is verbalised and written - I think a bit too much. Music can show relationships and feelings you may not be aware of.

I also find the improvisational, a less prescriptive approach, can lead to the unexpected and unpredictable.