Q&A: Julia Dickens talks meaning, horror, and communication

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You might recognize Julia Dickens’s work from event posters or album artwork, but she’s predominately concerned with her fine art practice, through which she’s pursued themes of personal expression and perceptual différance, exchange, meaning, temporality, and nothingness, among other subjects. On Friday (Jan. 10), Dickens will install two banners in The Great Hall’s main hall to get Long Winter patrons thinking about their fears. Full interview below.

Long Winter: At the AGO Takeover, you were giving away stories in exchange for other people’s stories. 

Julia Dickens: I’d written down little stories on scrap paper and people could in turn write me a story and we would do an exchange, or people could tell me a story orally and then I would tell them one as well. And I found in the beginning of the night people just wanted to write things down and then in the second half most people just wanted to talk. I gave them both options and they were like, “Well, can I just tell you?” and I would be like, “Well, sure. Yeah, tell me.”

Some of them were funny, some of them were very intensely personal. There was one story that I got that was actually profoundly disturbing. Very, very brave of this person to tell me. Obviously this was a big, big secret. So I was like, “Wow. I have to tell you a secret. I can’t withhold now because you just told me something that was probably really difficult to say.”

The response was really interesting. And I feel sort of selfish about it because I feel like I did it so I could glean things to bring into my own practice: ideas or things I could excerpt in other text art. It was a really great experience. By the end of the night my face hurt from talking too much. My friend met up with me after at the bar, and I was like, “Can we just chill? I don’t feel like having a conversation right now. I’ve been having conversations with strangers all night.”

One of the more interesting ones – I don’t know who he was, but I’m sure I could figure it out – was this guy, he was a politician, or he said he was about to start running for office, and he had all of these people working for him, and he expressed that, “All of my staff really believes in me, but sometimes I don’t know if I even believe in myself or what I’m doing. Everyone has more confidence in me. Sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t even be there,” and I think it was interesting to hear someone that is obviously in a position of some sort of authority, or power – influence – be able to express that – “sometimes I feel like a total fraud.” And I’m like, “Of course, that’s very human.” But we had a long conversation just about that particular feeling. That was pretty cool. It was a fun night.

LW: It’s an interesting experiment to do with authenticity and anonymity.

JD: It’s weird to engage in projects like that. I’m sort of performing and I’m giving something away and I have a stack of little stories that belong to other people that I can look at and read, but I’m not making something that someone can purchase – someone can look at. I felt like doing that project I was giving up my authorship a little bit. I don’t need to come out of this with this visible product that was made specifically by Julia Dickens and has my specific stamp. People could walk away with little stories that I had written, but I didn’t sign them. Doing things like that is a nice exercise. It’s just like this one specific time and then that’s it. You can’t recreate that experience or see this piece of art any time you want. I guess that’s kind of what performance is. I don’t know. I don’t do a lot of performance-based work, so that was sort of a test run.

LW: You don’t describe yourself predominately as an illustrator, but the bulk of the work that you’ve got up on your Tumblr has been split between commissioned work and fine art stuff that general you show in galleries. 

JD: That’s pretty much it. A lot of the commissioned pieces that I’ve done – most of it I haven’t even really been paid for – are illustrations that’s mostly been poster work and in the past I’ve done a few things for bands, but I predominately have my own studio practice. It’s one of those things where I haven’t really pursued illustration and with the things that I’ve done, other people have asked me to do it. And if I liked the idea then I did it. I designed the poster for Ghost Hole, this huge Halloween party that my roommate throws every year. She approached me at the beginning of the fall, and she was like, “I want you to design the poster for Ghost Hole. I want you to do graphic design for Ghost Hole,” and I was like “Oh yeah, that’s great. I would love to do that. That’s right up my alley.” Or say my friends work at Xpace and they will contact me and they’ll be like “We need an illustrator for this event” and it’s just sort of been things like that. But I do not actively pursue being an illustrator.

LW: You mentioned to me that you were exploring text-based work.

JD: Yeah. It started because I was doing a split studio project with myself and my ex-boyfriend. He had been working through a lot of ideas and he needed to show them somewhere, and I had planned this other show that didn’t work out. I was working through a lot of ideas and making a lot of mind maps and I wanted to make a wall of text and have it display process. So my interest in text art sort of started just as [an illustration of] process, like writing down my thoughts and writing things I find significant and gleaning things from literature or music or anything in my life and making a collection out of them and then I’d display that collection at the end along with some preliminary sketches for other larger works that I’d made. And I just found that I really liked it.

I enjoy the process of making text. I find writing letters really satisfying. Just the act of doing that. I can’t really explain it. When I [first] did it I realized, this is something that I want to be part of my part of my practice on a regular basis.

But it’s hard sometimes to walk the line. Because a lot of my work is very personal and it’s very intuitive and it’s things that I’m gleaning from my life, but I don’t want that to be very obvious or have that be totally part of the work. I want people to be able to read it and not be like, “Wow, that artist was having a really shitty day and that’s why she….” I guess for lack of a better way of putting it, I don’t want it to seem juvenile. I want it to be profound and meaningful and have multiple readings so people can relate it to theory or literature and connect to other things. Even though some of my work does come from that place or being like, “Oh, I just need to emote.”

LW: And I think with your focus, that’s a logical direction to pursue. All of your work that we’ve talked about so far has involved some form of personal communication, and that can be very direct or very withheld. 

JD: Yeah. I talked to Kirstin McCrea about this because she interviewed me when I did an Xpace window this summer. I made this house that, inside says, “Never Leave.” And she sort of attached the house and the idea and the fact that it was gonna be in the window at Xpace to all of these ideas about how Xpace as a gallery has had to move locations a bunch of times, and we talked about gentrification – she was sort of trying to figure out a way to relate that to the fact that it’s actually a very personal thing. It’s about my own struggle with the fact that time changes things and nothing lasts forever. [The piece is] a very sentimental and almost sweet thing, but it’s kind of desperate at the same time talking about how our ideas about a sense of home and security are always fluctuating and changing, death is inevitable – all of that stuff. That’s a big part of my work. Expressing in a sweet way, our fears and our possible desires. I try to get to the root of both of those things, trying to find what is beautiful about wanting something really badly that’s ultimately impossible. And sometimes I feel like art is this impossible thing where you’re constantly trying to communicate and express or emote, and that struggle to have your ideas be understood is quite beautiful, but it’s never totally complete and that’s even a nice thing in itself. It’s never read the same by each person.

LW: Have you done any other projects that address that concept of meaning being temporary or transitional?

JD: A lot of the stories that I talked about in the AGO project were about an impossible relationship that I just got out of. And I try not to talk about it too specifically or directly, there’s little excerpts about the way it made me feel to go into something that I knew was impossible and then to come out of them afterwards. And with that project as an exercise in trying to let that go I guess I felt a sense of wishing I could make it last forever, and the act of giving it away [is a reminder that] I can’t; it’s gone; it can never happen again; this is just a memory; it’s in the past.

There’s also a couple of words that I use frequently. One of them is “help,” and the other one is “home.” “Home” I feel addresses that because “home” is a weird concept. I remember instances where I moved or I would end a relationship – something would rock my sense of stability. “Home” seems like this giant question mark. Like what does that even mean? Because I’ll feel totally lost, and home is the opposite of lost and using that word over and over again – it’s still sort of a question mark, but since so much of my work is about navigating loss, memory, and a sense of being somewhat lost, home is the opposite of that or the antithesis. Is that the right word? I don’t know. Using that word over and over again, almost as this weird, impossible desire, being like, “One day I’ll find that – one day we’llall find that magical ‘home, sweet home,’” but maybe that doesn’t really ever exist. You know?

LW: How about the piece you’ll have at Long Winter on Friday?

JD: I’m going to be showing these text banners that I’ve made out of canvas and tie-dye. It’s like bunting, but with two sentences written out on them. I’m basically doing a text piece that I’m going to hang from the balconies in the main room.

It’s sort of changed a lot in my head as the months have been happening. I’m using two phrases that I used in drawings for the show that I did in Ottawa in December. One of them is “A strange sort of Nothing,” and one is “Peering out from an abyss.” And they’re kind of almost silly and dramatic, but the first is actually a quote from The Neverending Story, where one of the characters says, “A strange sort of Nothing is destroying everything,” and with “Peering out from the abyss” I kind of want to talk about – almost in a jokey way – an inexplicable fear that I feel that people carry around with them all of the time: of a void, of nothing, of things ceasing to exist, probably like a fear of death.

It’s not easy to explain. The fear of the absence of anything at all – that is something that I’m really intrigued by. And there’s a passage in Moby Dick – my favourite passage in Moby Dick – it’s been a really long time since I read it, but there’s this chapter where he describes the whiteness of the whale as being the most terrifying aspect of it because… people tend to think of things that are dark, like dark colours, as being negative or frightening, but that sheer whiteness – that total nothingness – is horrifying. Even in Heart of Darkness, “The horror! the horror!” what does that mean? I think with those pieces I want to address, in a jokey way, the horror: what it means to have the fear.

My work is really psychedelic, honestly because I did a lot of drugs when I was a teenager and that’s where I encountered  – or was first confronted with – the inexplicable sense of fear or dread that people will kind of carry around with them, and I don’t do drugs anymore, but I remember that very strongly, and I feel like that’s a big part of my work now.

Interview by Tom Beedham. Portrait by Julia Dickens.