Paul Harrison and John Wood talk about their practice that keeps humour at its core

The duo discusses the Six Boxes series, and taking a two-dimensional plan to a three-dimensional performance, which eventually gets consumed in a 2D form through a screen.

by Rahul Kumar Published on : Jul 10, 2020

In an introduction by Tate UK, they are referred to as the “art-word equivalent to Laurel and Hardy”. Video works of Paul Harrison and John Wood are funny and intriguing, strange and bordering weird, but definitely eye-catching. Harrison and Wood create works that are minimal, sans frills and layers. They feel almost effortless. “We have been interested in the idea of architectural spaces in a very basic way, the relationship between a wall and a floor; point, line and plane...” says Wood, and “and we worked with these very simple interests,” adds Harrison.

Here is a fun interview with the duo as they share the ideas of collaboration and humour in their practice.

01 mins watch ‘Six Boxes’ (single sequence) | John Wood and Paul Harrison | STIRworld
Six Boxes (single sequence) Video Credit: John Wood and Paul Harrison

Rahul Kumar (RK): What encouraged you to explore and fuse “aesthetic research with existential comedy” through your video works?

Paul Harrison (PH): To be honest, we really didn’t have a clue what we were doing when we first started out…

John Wood (JW): …we still really don’t have a clue what we are doing!

PH: That’s probably true, but maybe we shouldn’t tell people that.

JW: I think they can guess!

PH: But in a good way though, don’t you think? I mean not being certain, not being in full control of what you are doing, it’s kind of interesting...

JW: …it’s frowned upon though isn’t it in the wider world, it’s seen as being unprofessional, never admit you don’t know, never admit to a mistake, that kind of thing.

PH: You are right but maybe that’s because in the wider world people have proper jobs with consequences. If they make a mistake then an economy crashes or someone dies, if we make a mistake then the only consequence is that someone is mildly disappointed with a piece of art.

JW: Has anyone ever died from disappointment, do you think?

PH: If they have then some of our earliest works could kill!

JW: You are talking about the performances…

PH: …yeah and the very early video tests we made.

JW: I guess that’s to be expected, we were young, we had hair, we were messing about trying to find out what we wanted to make.

PH: We never sat down and thought, right, ‘aesthetic research!’, that’s what we are going to do.

JW: We never sat down and thought, ‘existential comedy!’, that’s going to be our thing.

PH: We just sat down and thought, ‘let’s try and make something interesting…’

‘100 Falls’ | John Wood and Paul Harrison | STIRworld
100 Falls Image Credit: John Wood and Paul Harrison

RK: You perform small and simple tasks in controlled manner in your six-part series titled Six Boxes. What is the attempted expression and takeaway for your viewers?

JW: What do you mean small and simple? It took us ages!

PH: To be fair though, we have always wanted the work to look simple, easy and effortless. Even if making it is complicated, difficult and…

JW: effortful?

PH: Is that a word?

JW: Yes, but an ugly one…

PH: Talking of ugly… we always wanted the work to be kind of beautiful, even though that’s always been a bit unfashionable…

JW: …the forbidden word!

PH: And maybe it’s the wrong word, perhaps visually interesting?

JW: That’s probably more accurate, though less accurate in terms of the number of words…

PH: That interest comes in part from the relationship between the viewer, being human, seeing another human on screen, that physical relation between ourselves watching another ‘version’ of ourselves doing something…

JW: like, ‘I know what that would feel like’.

PH: I guess we have always been interested in the physical, how elegant or clumsy, brilliant or stupid we can be when we are out in the world.

JW: We fall over and it hurts.

PH: We fall over and it’s funny.

JW: It’s about how we exist in and relate to the world in a physical sense, and in particular with Six Boxes, how we relate to the built environment.

PH: How it liberates us but also restricts us, we like to play around with those ideas.

JW: We are not architects, well maybe we are architects who are incredibly bad at maths…

PH: …and not so good with materials.

JW: But we have always, right from the beginning, been interested in the idea of architectural spaces in a very basic way, the relationship between a wall and a floor; point, line and plane, that kind of thing.

PH: Six Boxes picked up on those interests, very simple structures, very simple rooms…

JW: …‘Wood and Harrison’, Architects, for all your garden shed and lean to needs…

PH: as long as you don’t mind if they’re a bit wobbly.

‘Board Combined’ | John Wood and Paul Harrison | STIRworld
Board Combined Image Credit: John Wood and Paul Harrison

RK: Most your works invite viewers to challenge the stereotypical ideas of what art is, how is it presented, and what it may mean to acquire it. Irony and humour remain key to what you do. Please share with us the most fascinating and intriguing reaction you have ever received for your work.

JW: We can’t share the most ‘intriguing’ reaction, it’s too rude to print.

PH: Ah! The one in Sweden.

JW: Yep, though generally the response to the work is very positive in most places we have been and across all age groups…

PH: though you did have that one in Wales…

JW: Oh yeah, I ended a talk with a Q&A session and the first question was  ‘Can you do anything else?’

PH: What they were really saying was ‘I really hope you can do something else, for your sake…’

JW: That kind of reaction is really rare though… I think the work is relatively accessible and actually quite traditional in some ways, well, it feels that way to us.

PH: We do think about composition a lot…

JW: and colour, even though the palette we use is highly selective

PH: and the human figure too, both in terms of it occupying pictorial space but also the three-dimensional space, the work is quite sculptural…

JW: We have often spoken about how the work goes from a two-dimensional drawing, the idea, through to a three-dimensional representation, the set in the studio, and then back into two-dimensions, the screen…

PH: It’s almost as though the work happens in the studio and video is the method we use to show this to other people.

JW: True! But I guess using video adds the issue of time and a lot of other associations, the history of cinema for example…

PH: but in terms of the history of art…well you know that old thing - if the history of the earth was represented by a 24-hour clock then humans have been around for just the last second, and well, I guess painting and sculpture have maybe, in some form, been around for half a secondish…

03 mins watch Device | John Wood and Paul Harrison | STIRworld
Device Video Credit: John Wood and Paul Harrison

JW: Video art would have been around for a lot less.

PH: That’s not very scientific, hardly worth mentioning the 24-hour clock thing.

JW: But you get the point though? It’s still newish.

PH: Yeah, I think especially for a non-art audience video is still unusual, odd even, in a gallery environment, but we are all pretty good at ‘reading’ moving image, better at it than reading paintings maybe…

PH: If you see the work on a monitor then you can’t help but relate that in some way to television, and if the work is projected then the relationship is to being at the cinema…. in our case being at the cinema watching a really low budget movie.

JW: This relationship to television and cinema that we all have can help people find some kind of way into the work… Humour helps too, that can be a way in…

PH: If you find it funny

JW: mildly amusing?

PH: I would settle for that.

‘Unrealistic Mountaineers’ | John Wood and Paul Harrison | STIRworld
Unrealistic Mountaineers Image Credit: John Wood and Paul Harrison

RK: Please tell us how you conceive a project/new work and how do you divide/share work between you both? Are there things one does better?

PH: Generally I would say I am better at art than John is…

JW: and I make a lovely cup of tea.

PH: You do!

JW: Thanks.

PH: You are welcome. When we first started out we did everything together, travelled everywhere together, did the accounts together, hung out together all the time…

JW: then we started getting actual lives and got busy because people became interested in the work…

PH: We had to divide things up, but that’s really just for the things that you have to do in order to do the things you want to do

JW: When it comes to the actual making art thing, then that’s all done together, I mean we work on ideas on our own but then we meet or talk on the phone and decide together on where they go…

PH: In the bin?

JW: Yeah, quite often actually.

PH: Sometimes one of us will come up with an idea and be explaining it to the other one and you’ll notice a smile appearing on their face…

JW: That’s when you realise it’s a crap idea and they are starting to laugh at just how bad it is…

PH: We have gone past the point of being precious about ideas, it saves a lot of time just being brutally honest.

JW: Collaborating gives us the opportunity to talk about the idea and to filter out the bad ones before they get made and leave the studio

PH: Doesn’t always work though does it…

JW: No!

‘Six Boxes’ combined (3) | John Wood and Paul Harrison | STIRworld
Six Boxes combined (3) Image Credit: John Wood and Paul Harrison

RK: Please tell us about your upcoming works.

JW: Ah, that would be telling…

PH: I suppose that is the point of an interview though, isn’t it? To tell people things…

JW: I suppose… it’s difficult though, isn’t it?

PH: What, talking about things that we haven’t made yet?

JW: Yes, I mean quite often when we are making a work we have doubts, I mean real doubts about if it’s any good, if it’s interesting or not and quite often it’s not until the post production stage that we know…

PH: Or hope we know…

JW: if it’s good…

PH: or not.

JW: Exactly.

PH: So to talk about them before we know they are interesting but make them sound interesting is…

JW: very difficult… give it a try.

PH: Ok, we are working on a video about a computer printer…

JW: that’s not a good start

PH: Alright, we are working on another film that is just subtitles, no images…

JW: Again…

PH: but they will be good, interesting, whatever.

JW: You are right,  they will be. I suppose all of the work, maybe most artist’s work can sound a bit dry or vague or even dull when they talk about it in the early stages.

PH: I guess it goes back to that thing about not really knowing what you are doing, being uncertain, trying things out, thinking about things you have not thought about before…

JW: It’s not clear in our heads, so it definitely won’t be clear in yours.

PH: Ok! I will give it one more go, one of the other things we are working on at the moment is a video about a demonstration, a very weird kind of demonstration, the kind of demonstration that probably only we would go to…

JW: That’s better..

PH: Slightly, thanks, yes, ‘Demo Tape’. We have already made a version of it that was filmed and edited and then we decided it didn’t work, so we are trying again.

PH: You know what they say?

JW: What? Second time lucky?

PH: Absolutely, nobody says that… they say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

JW: This time it’s going to work though, I have got a good feeling…

PH: You might just be proving their point…

JW: Ok. So maybe it won’t, but nobody’s going to die if it doesn’t work out…

PH: …not unless it’s really, really disappointing.

John Wood and Paul Harrison | STIRworld
John Wood and Paul Harrison Image Credit: Andreas Zimmermann

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