Bedding down with Charlie Sofo

Posted on February 4, 2011 by

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Charlie Sofo is a visual artist based in Melbourne, however his recent B.E.D. project, a project that has people sharing their bed with Charlie for a night, moved into the realm of live and participatory art practice. I recently wrote an article that discussed B.E.D., and Jason Maling’s project The Vorticist, for un magazine 4.2 (which you can download here). For lala, Charlie and I decided to have an extended conversation about the process and thinking behind B.E.D. Below is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Amy: So have you gained any benefits or insights by doing the B.E.D. project?

Charlie: In the beginning I didn’t know or expect there’d be benefits. I knew it was going to be awkward, but after doing 14 sleepovers, I realise every single interaction has been beneficial in some way. I don’t know about insights, but there’s been friendships formed. For instance, if we think about you and I doing the project… well, here we are.

A: Being mates now.

C: And that’s what has happened in a few other cases as well. The benefits have been, simply, closeness. But I’m ready to be proved wrong. There’s always the potential for trauma. Awkwardness is good, as well as hitting up against the limits of my ability to be social: to deal with the complications of intimacy. But so far that hasn’t been necessary.

A: The interesting thing is that you are going in blind. Usually, if you share intimacy with someone you have some history to refer to, but in B.E.D. you are activating an unmoored kind of intimacy. It is a strangely vulnerable and intense one-on-one situation, which often leads to an unusual bond forming between you and another person. I wonder what we can learn from that?

C: Perhaps it’s about tracing borders, finding that fine line between being intimate and not being intimate with someone. It’s incredibly fine. I have thought about it in relation to sex work, how you’ve got a particular structure that you set up that allows for intimacy. There’s a conventional perception that intimacy is hard to achieve, but it’s a lot simpler for people to do, given the right structure.
I’ve noticed that people I’ve gotten into bed with immediately talk about personal things. I share too, as well as listen. But almost without exception everyone has talked about private things.

A: Yes, I remember we talked about relationships. Maybe it’s the site of the bed? For me, the project signaled a lot about my own boundaries. Normally you share your bed with someone who you have few physical and emotional boundaries. It’s odd to try to sleep beside a stranger, so maybe you are drawn to talking about the people you normally let into your bed?

C: I think you’re right. It is an issue of boundaries. Definitely. I like that other people have done the groundwork, they’ve had to trust and approach me.

A: A lot of the participatory projects I do involve approaching people in the street and trying to convince them to do something. I like that your project involves an open invitation on your blog, so people must choose to get involved.

C: Yeah that’s nice. I think the thing about inviting people has something to do with my personality.

A: You don’t want to be the person who does the convincing – “Hi, I’m doing this B.E.D. project. Would you like to get into bed with me?”

C: When I hear other people talk about it, sometimes it sounds sleazy and I don’t like that. It’s pretty important that the invitation was written by me, in my own words, so my intentions are clear. But I guess you can’t avoid how people construe things, although I get paranoid about it.

A: It’s an open invitation, however you are not particularly interested in getting into bed with a complete stranger. You insist on having a coffee with them beforehand, or at least getting a recommendation from a mutual friend.

C: Which probably differs to how you’ve done projects; which is a direct engagement with the public.

A: Some years ago I had an open call out offering to take people’s portraits. Participants were able to dictate how and where the portrait would be taken. I accepted anyone who showed interest in the offer. It got a bit weird because I’d find myself in strangers’ lounge rooms taking photos of naked men. But for me it was important to not refuse anyone. It’s different in your case. You are putting yourself in a particularly vulnerable position and so a bit wary.

C: Yeah, I’m managing that vulnerability. It’s highly managed, to be honest. I don’t want to refuse anyone. I’m trying, where possible, to follow through but there are limits to my capacity.
If I felt really uncomfortable I’d probably have no qualms refusing. There are people I know socially, who I’d be nervous about sharing that level of awkwardness with. You’ve got nothing to lose with a stranger. Getting into bed with someone you know can be a bit harder.
My third B.E.D. participant, Matthew, talked about the importance of actually spending the time to relate to new people; that when you are out socially people really appreciate it when you make a bit of effort to get to know them better. I realised how little I do that and how I had to invent this very formal project to begin to start to do it. It’s associated with my nervousness in life. What Matthew said really underpins some of the goals of the project.

A: A lot of my motivations for doing social art projects is to do with my frustration with social boundaries. Often the motivation is to get direct communication with someone else. But do you think this kind of project just works on a therapeutic level for everybody?

C: No, not when you ride past their house in the morning and drop in for a coffee. It’s not therapeutic, it’s enmeshed in your life. Something has been gained in it. There a therapeutic elements in it, definitely. But I guess we all go into these things in the hope that some of it will last. You don’t make social art, or art that is about testing boundaries, without wanting to have real change.
I don’t think this project could have been possible without the internet. Over the past year I noticed there was interest in things that I was writing on my blog and discussion around my own practice, and I started to change what I was doing. Instead of just discussing what I was doing in the real world I would actually formulate things that could engage people, and also meet the people…

A: The people who were reading your blog? Your audience?

C: Yes, that’s the thing. Break down the idea of an audience, because that’s useless, no one wants that. We all want peers. An audience is like a dead thing.

A: So you were after something more responsive. You don’t want people to just view your art, you want people to involve themselves in it?

C: There is that tendency to use your audience as the content but it probably has to go both ways. If you are going to require something of people, you probably should give something back, especially if it is quite risky. That is why I haven’t documented B.E.D. And by not having documentation, it’s putting all the emphasis on the action itself. It’s placing more meaning on an interaction, as opposed to the object afterwards.

A: As artists we are often quite conscious that we are asking people to do things for us, so we try to be respectful. And yes I think that is a better way of getting more participants and more people comfortable about it…

C: But it isn’t a complete solution. I don’t think it’s the right strategy for every artwork.

A: No not for every artwork, but that’s the strategy that you feel comfortable with?

C: Yep. There’s that artist who deals directly with exploitation, Santiago Sierra. I feel ambivalent about his work… I’m not sure if I’m coming from a prudish or judgemental perspective…

A: How about ethical?

C: Actually maybe it is. I can’t disassociate from that…

A: I don’t think I’d make work that necessarily exploited the participants, but I am interested that there are a lot of self-imposed rules in participatory art. We often go to great efforts so that participants aren’t made to feel uncomfortable or manipulated – but couldn’t that make good, complex, critical art?

C: Well you could say that you are always going to exploit people. It’s a fact. But I think you might want to work out strategies to mitigate the damage.
I worked it out for myself back in art school when I was doing photomedia. I realised that taking photos of people was immediately exploitative, so it had to be about acknowledging that and working out what kind of engagement I wanted to create. Maybe a negative or angry interaction might sometimes be the right solution.

A: Currently there seems to be a lot of work by live artists that aims to achieve a deeper level of human connection between people. It’s almost formulaic how many projects create situations where strangers come together in a heightened sense of intimacy. I just wonder how much more ground is left to cover on this theme? Is there more to learn?

C: Yeah, I know what you are talking about, cause on the one hand it’s symptomatic – why are people trying to reach out, why are we trying to create these situations? Is it because there is a deficiency in how we live? Is it a societal thing? I’m not entirely sure. I think any artistic or cultural thing is about building, building on a way of relating, or redefining it.

A: I’m interested in the people that you end up in bed with. They are people like you, sourced from your social circle or friends of friends. Was it your intention to go beyond that and sleep next to people that you wouldn’t normally meet?

C: No initially I didn’t really want anything from it. I guess there’s more to gain the less I know a person, so seeing how it’s progressing definitely makes me think about broadening the scope of it.
Since starting the project I have been told about various artists who have done something similar. But the projects have all differed. Gillian Wearing, for instance did a project…

A: Take your top off – where she got into bed with transsexuals.

C: And there was this stark photo of them both with their tops off.

A: Gillian Wearing is conscious of the exploitative potential of her work, so if she asks someone to take their top off then she’ll take her top off as well. I like that she makes the transaction explicit, and the photos are quite beautiful.

C: Yeah they are very raw and tough. It’s a very tough project. It’s about your own capacity and what you are able to do. You have to do the best you can with your own personality. When I started doing B.E.D. and saw the Gillian Wearing work, I realised I couldn’t take a photo. Wearing’s were really strong photos, and I really don’t know what mine would be saying, other than “this happened”.

A: And you can say that just as well in your diary entries.

C: Or even right now. That’s the other thing; all the outcomes of the project have come out in these kinds of conversations, some of them formal, some of them informal. So when you initially asked about interviewing me for lala, I thought this was the best possible forum to have the work exist anyway. Because if you turn up to a gallery what are you going to find out?

A: The fact that you aren’t documenting B.E.D. means it becomes about the enigma of the experience. Do you like the fact that there are people out in the world retelling their experience with you?

C: I wonder what they say actually. I’m interested.

A: People are so curious about what goes on. When I did the project with you everyone wanted to talk about it -“So, what did Charlie wear? What was it like?”

C: Yeah, it’s interesting people do that cause it seems so everyday and quite simple. It’s probably that the possibility of intimacy is there and people are into that – tabloid style… I do wear a standard pair of boxer shorts.

A: The project boxer shorts?

C: I didn’t want an outfit. I just thought I’d wear what I normally do.

A: But that’s what struck me about your project – it’s not a performance. When I was writing the un article and talking to Jason Maling about The Vorticist, it was clear his project is a performance of sorts, he plays a role. But in your project there is no structure or uniform or role played, it’s just: “Hey, I’m Charlie in your bed.”

C: Well yeah it’s about barriers again. We are always playing roles, but I guess I really want to alleviate the pressure of having particular roles. I want to minimize the dynamic of artist and subject – take that away. That’s another reason why it’s not documented – I don’t want it perceived that I’m somehow ensnaring a person or placing them in an artwork. Instead we are both getting something out of it.
I’ve tried to neutralise the whole idea that I have power by constantly playing up my vulnerabilities. I’ve almost done it to excess. But it’s somewhat necessary to balance the power.

A: I think again of The Vorticist. In that project you go into Jason’s office, and although there’s efforts to minimise the difference in power – the space is neutralised to a point, like an office is neutral  – but you are still entering his space. But you put yourself at risk because you go to someone else’s private space. I like that the siting is in a participant’s own home.

C: Yeah, practically I find that really interesting. I didn’t realise how interested I was in people’s little domestic routines. It’s something you don’t fully appreciate by having a coffee with someone or going over to dinner.

A: Do you take that information away and know so much more about a person?

C: Yeah, totally. That’s half of it. This mundane shit is incredibly interesting.

A: Yet you aren’t doing anything with it, are you?

C: Well I just jot down a little diary but I don’t want to do anything with it.

A: So you aren’t going to exhibit what you jot down?

C: I’ll work it out in 2 years. You never know.

A: So what’s in the diary? I thought it was just a date and a name.

C: And I also just have a brief description of what happened, just for my own records. Like you’d have in a personal diary.

A: It would be interesting to see Charlie’s observations of all these stranger’s rooms.

C: It’s true. That’s why I reckon if I read the diary in a couple of years I’ll work that out. I’m not feeling rushed about it.

A: That’s what is nice about talking to you about your project. You didn’t go in there with an idea of an outcome. It’s more about starting with a question. I know Jason talks about The Vorticist in the same way. For him, it was really just a question of who would respond to his invitation, and it still interests him why people continue coming to him for this strange interaction. I guess that’s part of the answer to the question; people are interested in a one on one experience even though it’s unclear and ambiguous.

C: I often wonder what people are expecting actually. And it’s possible they could always be disappointed – “This wasn’t interesting. He isn’t the person I thought he’d be”.

A: People go to it with their own questions. What would it be like? What does this mean for me? It’s that mutual uncertainty that makes it interesting.
Do you think you’ll get to the point when you are so good at it that it loses the point? At the moment it makes you feel vulnerable, it takes risk, but once you’ve done it a lot you’ll lose that. Is that the time you’ll stop?

C: Exactly. That’s why I have resisted doing them back-to-back. I’ve taken them slowly and they’ve all been really considered. Each one has it’s own requirements.

A: Do you feel this project has made you think of other projects you’d like to do? Will you continue making live art?

C: It’s probably been one of the most personally meaningful things I’ve done to date. It’s also made me realise or underlined a particular motivation in my practice. It’s bared my own intentions to me.

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Posted in: Interviews