Dialogue with Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby

Fall 2010: v.06 n.02: Dynamic Coupling

 Beauty Plus Pity, 2009. Duke and Battersby

Beauty Plus Pity, 2009. Duke and Battersby

Beauty Plus Pity is a single-channel video situated in an environment populated by costumed taxidermic animals. Presented in seven parts, the video considers the potential for goodness amidst the troubled relations between God, humanity, animals, parents and children. See video: www.vimeo.com/9111754

How much time do you spend together? Do you live together or share a studio, or do you just get together to work on projects as they come up?

Cooper and I are partners in love and work.  We live together and spend most of our hours together.

When you are working on something do you schedule structured time together in a physical space, or meet online, or is it more organic than that?

Our process is pretty organic, though we do have semi-structured meetings, especially in the later stages of production.  Over the course of the past 15 years, we have developed certain systems and habits of production, some more fruitful than others.

Do you keep your personal/professional lives separate, or have they become seamless and indistinct? Is this okay?

Our personal and professional lives are utterly indistinct, though to say this is seamless would stretch credibility.  It is both okay and not okay.  Sometimes we fight about one another’s varying levels of productivity and dedication, and with our indistinct but deeply seamed (seamy?) practice, a discussion about the work can quickly escalate into a fight about laziness or inequitable labor divisions.

Can you, or do you, turn off your research/studio practice(s)?

We try hard to keep our minds always open to our practice, allowing things we read or see or hear to flow into our work.  Sometimes, though, we become lazy.  Laziness of mind and the self-loathing it brings on are our biggest obstacles, and are inextricably bound.

When and how did you meet each other and under what circumstances?

When I met Cooper I was I think twenty-one. I had been at the Nova Scotia School for Art and Design for a few years. He had abandoned a group of friends (skateboarding unsavories) in Kelowna, British Columbia, and moved out to Halifax. I was an intensely bitter twenty-one-year-old. I told Cooper when we met that I thought it was rude of him to crack jokes because some people were so unhappy that they found jokes painfully alienating. I found jokes painfully alienating.

But we actually met at the Khyber, when it used to be a boozecan by night and emerging gallery by day. It was great. I gave Cooper an invitation to the show I was having there, and he recognized its style, because I had been making anonymous public posters in the same style. He told me that he made posters too, and when he described them I was blown away. I had been wondering who had made those posters for months.

He also told me in the course of this conversation that he was leaving Halifax to go on a hitchhiking trip for a year in three weeks.

He handed me a little card (photocopied on construction paper) that said “Let’s Dance,” and had a picture of Emmanuel Lewis verso. We didn’t drink then and I hated my physicality, so dancing was not my favorite activity.

We danced briefly and awkwardly, and then I leaned over to him and said, “Um, ah, look. I think you’re really cute and interesting and I probably wouldn’t say this if you weren’t leaving.” Then I turned on my nervous heel and walked away, thinking, “He’ll follow me if he likes me too.” He didn’t, and I took the next bus home. I went up to my bedroom and made a poster in what I knew he would recognize as my style. It said, “Wish you said” spray painted on it through a specially made stencil. The next morning I got up and put them all over downtown Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Cooper saw them and made a response poster. He had been collecting love letters between teenagers for a couple of years, and he put one up next to each one of my wish-you-said posters. It was the most ridiculously romantic thing ever.

A week later, we went hitchhiking across the US together.  We traveled for about 18 months.

During that period, Cooper was really mean to me and kind of humiliated me and I stayed with him. And then I kind of humiliated him, but he stayed with me. Sometimes the unforgivable must be forgiven.

At what point did you start making work together?

Instantly upon meeting.

Was there a growing period, when you had to get a feel for each other’s process/priorities, learn how to communicate – or did you click right away?

Cooper and I in those early times fought about many things, but one thing we shared was an aesthetic sensibility. Politically, we needed time to develop a shared world-view. My politics were constructed primarily around gender; his around class and labor. We explained these ideologies to one another largely through the work we made. This was very exciting and transformative for both of us.

Do you gravitate towards roles in your practice – based on strengths, or personality, or skills? Or is every project a different kind of adventure?

Roles have certainly evolved in our practice, but they continue to evolve. Each of us learns new skills for each new project, and sometimes things switch up, but for the most part we each work from our strengths. Neither of us could make the work without the other.

How do you generate the concepts you work with? Do you draw, write, photograph, or do any sort of regular background practice? Is this a shared thing?

The generation of concepts has several phases, some of them shared, some independent. Our work begins with research into shared fascinations–right now, for instance, we’re making a small movie about a love relationship between a human couple and a female bonobo.  It began with research into bonobo culture and politics, then we entered a phase (while maintaining the research) of writing, which is my job; then sound and image making, which is shared; then editing–first the writing, then the sound and images. Cooper edits my writing, and we share sound and image editing.

How do you make choices and negotiate decisions about what direction to take with projects?

This is generally pretty fluid in the early stages, but becomes more contentious as we begin the editorial process.  By the end, though, we tend to be pretty much in harmony about the turns the work needs to take.

Does your collaboration ever involve more people? If no, why not? If yes, then when and how does that work?

We have collaborated in the past with Stephen Ellwood, Gordon B. Isnor, Shary Boyle, Benny Nemerofsky-Ramsay, Daniel Cockburn and Mike Hoolboom.  These collaborations have worked when they are hands-off, but have been much more problem-prone when we’ve tried to work as closely with other collaborators as we work with one another.

Will you describe a project that didn’t work out or you didn’t follow through on? Can you describe something that you couldn’t agree on or you didn’t feel like you were both “into?”

Our failures to agree are generally around a part of a project rather than the whole, and usually happen in the early editorial stage of a media project.  I don’t think we’ve had to completely abandon a project yet–we just remold into a shape that we can agree on.

What kinds of singular processes or practices, studio or research, do you maintain as individuals that you may or may not bring into the collaboration?

I write and Cooper writes programs for the computer. These practices often weave their way into our collaborative work, but sometimes exist as free-standing and independent.

Do you make your own work in addition to the collaborative work, and what sort of need does this fill?

No. We only make work together.

What are the strengths in working collaboratively and what are the challenges in working collaboratively?

As I said earlier, Cooper and I both know with total clarity that we neither of us could make the work without the other.  That said, sometimes we fight, and the fights we have can be scary because of our level of intimacy.  Neither of us could make work we are as proud of alone, but nobody in the world is more capable of cutting either of us to the quick than the other.

What sort of theory, cultural circumstances, or life scenarios influence or inform your decision to work collaboratively? Would you say that your collaboration is philosophically driven, or more pragmatic?

I think our collaboration is in equal parts philosophical and pragmatic. We work together because we share a sense of what is urgent, and because we each know that the other facilitates communication of those urgent matters.

If you teach, how does collaborative practice inform the way you facilitate student projects and teach studio courses?

We do teach, and our teaching has been an interesting exercise in mutual independence. We have quite radically different teaching styles, and the classroom has been a venue for each of us to explore individual research interests.

If you teach, do you co-teach? If you do co-teach, how has that been received by the students, and how has this been received in the academic institutions you have worked with?

We have experienced both co-teaching and teaching individually. I think we are both strengthened by the presence of the other in the classroom, and I think our students like it best when we are in the classroom together. The issue is with the remunerability of team teaching (holding one shared position in a department) versus teaching separate classes (holding two positions). Although many universities are coming to see the value in spousal hires, there isn’t a mechanism in place to accord equal value to having two teachers in a classroom at the same time, teaching half as many classes as they would holding two positions.  This is one of the problems that arises in late capitalist universities.

Please point to us at a project or projects you would like to describe. Include links or attach files. If relevant, share with us a sense of the collaborative back-and-forth that may have gone into planning and making the work.

The most useful way for readers to get a sense of our process is by visiting our website at www.dukeandbattersby.com, where they can view all but our most recent finished tape, which can be viewed on Vimeo at www.vimeo.com/9111754. I think I’ve essentially described the process Cooper and I use–research, scripting/songwriting, sound and image creation, text editing, sound and image editing–but watching the work (for anyone who’s curious) may provide some insight into how this actually plays out.

Cooper Battersby (b. 1971, Penticton, British Columbia, Canada) and Emily Vey Duke (b. 1972, Halifax Nova Scotia, Canada) have been working collaboratively since 1994. They work in printed matter, installation, curation and sound, but their primary practice is the production of single-channel video. Their work has been exhibited in galleries and at festivals in North and South America and throughout Europe, including the Walker Center (Minneapolis), The Banff Centre (Banff), The Vancouver Art Gallery (Vancouver), YYZ (Toronto), The New York Video Festival (NYC), The European Media Arts Festival (Osnabruck), Impakt (Utrecht) and The Images Festival (Toronto). Their tape Being Fucked Up (2000) has been awarded prizes from film festivals in Switzerland, Germany and the USA. Bad Ideas for Paradise (2002) was purchased for broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and for the libraries at Harvard and Princeton, and has won prizes from the NYExpo (NYC) and the Onion City festival (Chicago). I am a Conjuror (2004) has received prizes from the Ann Arbor Film Festival and the Onion City Festival.

Emily Vey Duke received her BFA from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and completed her Masters at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She then worked for a year as Artistic Director at the Khyber Centre for the Arts in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Cooper Battersby received his diploma in computer programming at Okanagan College, and completed his Masters at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was the recipient of a Canada Council Production Grant in 2001. Duke and Battersby are currently teaching at Syracuse University in Central New York.