Digital Art Museum

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Sue Gollifer interviewed by Mick Hartney

Sue Gollifer is an artist-printmaker, who lives and works in in Brighton. For most of her professional life, she has taught in the School of Art at the University of Brighton, formerly Brighton Polytechnic, while maintaining a prolific output of screenprints, and more recently computer-generated work. Earlier this year, she curated ArCade, the first British open international exhibition of Fine Art prints made wholly or partially with digital techniques, which is currently touring the UK. She is very involved with the World Wide Web, on which she has her own virtual gallery: Untitled.

Can you say something about your art education?

After a Foundation course at Scarborough, I took my Dip.AD course at Coventry, where I studied painting. The atmosphere there - in the mid-1960s - was one of extreme rigour: every decision, every mark one made, had to be justified. I thrived on it. My teachers included Barrie Cook, Arthur Hillier, Mike Sandle and Harry Weinberger.

One way of responding to that context was the theoretical exploration which Terry Atkinson, Mike Baldwin and others were involved in, which emerged as the conceptual art group Art & Language , who for a time were producing only written work...I was not particularly interested in that route. I suppose I was more pragmatic, more concerned with making things: in my case, six-foot square paintings. I was working in collaboration with another student. We thought it was important to discard a number of assumptions that seemed to condition the making of art objects: the idea of the individual maker, the expressive gesture, and so on. The work itself seemed to be more important than who made it. I used screen-printing at that time as a sort of research base for the paintings. The colour relationships in the paintings had to be absolutely precise, and to work by trial-and-error on the canvas was impossibly expensive: one mistake and you had to start all over again. Screen-printing was a practical way of rehearsing the colour combinations in the paintings.

The problem was, screen-printing was seen as a graphic process - I had to go to a different building, a different department, to use it - what Rauschenberg and Warhol were doing had not yet filtered through. People said: "Oh, if it's screen-printed it can't be valuable - it doesn't have the quality of an etching." Well, I wasn't particularly interested in their notion of 'quality': I had a different set of criteria. It's similar now, in terms of computer-generated work. A lot of people still have problems with art which comes out of a laser-printer or a photo-copier. I went back to Coventry recently, and of course screen-printing is now part of the Fine Art department, as it is in most colleges.

What happened to the collaboration?

It came to an end, as many do. But one thing in particular survived, which is very relevant now. I used to sign works with just my surname. It didn't seem to me important that anyone knew whether I was male or female: it was the work, not the person, which had to stand scrutiny. A lot of the discussion around the Internet today centres on that business of transcending, or ignoring, personal identity - defined in terms of gender, class, colour, location, or whatever. And the new communications technology offers incredible opportunities for collaborating with like-minded people, wherever they happen to be physically.

How did you survive after college?

Like most ex-art students, I suppose. I got a job. As it happened, I worked on research into the quality of colour inks, for a company printing cans and packaging - not a million miles from the research I've been doing in the last couple of years at the University. Then I took a post-graduate specialist printmaking course at Brighton, and they gave me a day's teaching a week, which in those days was just enough to live on. It's an arrangement which has helped hundreds of artists survive, and which sadly was eroded until a year or two ago, when it re-appeared as research assistantships. Then I got more part-time teaching, at various colleges, and began to sell work.� There was a bit of a boom in the '70s, when corporations were buying art for offices, and I was commissioned to make quite large editions of my prints, by London Graphic Arts, and by Christie's Contemporary Art, who signed me up as their first wholly abstract artist, and did rather well as a result. Meanwhile, I fitted the work in with bringing up children, like so many other women artists. I rented a succession of short-life property studios, and founded a studio co-operative through nagging Brighton Council. I now work in a studio that I own: I recommend it.

So how and when did you start using computers in your work?

In a sense, I always have. That's to say, I was using mathematical principles to form the work from the '60s on. I was very much stimulated by the Cybernetic Serendipity show at the I.C.A. in 1968, when a lot of computer work from around the world was seen together for the first time, but when I tried to get access to computers, there always seemed to be obstacles: I would have to learn programming languages, the computers were too important to be used just to make art - that sort of thing. So I sort of had to become a computer myself, doing the calculations and measurements the hard way. Remember, I was at that time heavily influenced by Victor Vasarely, Jesus-Rafael Soto, and the so-called 'kinetic' artists: Yvaral, and the Groupe de Recherche d'Art Visuel - though not by Bridget Riley: I thought all those references to landscape and emotional response were totally beside the point. When I finally had access to a personal computer, in the '80s, it simply provided a vastly more efficient set of tools. In fact, the work I do now, entirely with computers, looks far less 'computer-generated' than the work I used to do entirely by hand: it has to do with being liberated from the tiresome tasks, and being able to concentrate on the images and colours.

Can you say what your work is about?

However I make it, it's about surface and appearance. Knowing that the surface is flat, there are a million ways of referring to depth, while keeping the flatness in mind. Some of those references involve grids and symmetry, others involve irregularity: warps, folds, contradictions. Sometimes logical spaces seem to suggest themselves, at other times paradoxical situations. At each juncture I see my job as selecting and focusing on the most highly-defined - and the most pleasurable - statement of the proposition that seems to present itself. Each work, also, is about what the previous one could have been, and what the next one might be. If that sounds vague, I'm sorry. The works are not vague: they are very specific. Words can't stand in for images, if the images are working properly.

What are you involved with currently?

ArCade was a big success, and will be touring for some time: ArCade II will soon be in preparation, and it will probably be very different in form. Meanwhile, I'm helping to set up a sort of global workshop for women artists on the World Wide Web, through which collaborations and group exhibitions can be established, with participants often living thousands of miles apart.

I thought you said the new technology was making gender distinctions irrelevant?

In theory, yes. But it's a statistical fact that over 85% of Internet users are men, although the computers are mostly assembled, or used as word-processors, by women. That labour/power relationship needs to be redressed. This project is just one small contribution to a better balance.