Tim Sandys is an artist in Glasgow, Scotland
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Citizen (2015) Interview: Tim Sandys & Elke Finkenauer

Citizen (2015) is a work by Glasgow-based artist, Tim Sandys. It is comprised of an action in which, over a period of months, over two hundred bespoke containers, each containing unique contents, were secreted under cars and later retrieved. For exhibition, the corroded and damaged containers were arranged alongside a database detailing the container number, contents, vehicle registration and dates of secretion and retrieval. It was displayed in June, 2015 at the Glue Factory, accompanying Sandys' other sculptural work.

 


Citizen (2015)

The following is a transcript of an interview between the sculptor Elke Finkenauer and Tim Sandys.

 

EF: What are we looking at?

TS: Its an array of round about two hundred containers – each of them have individual and unique contents. They were sealed to the elements, closed up and coated with raw iron. Each were individually numbered on a strip of high visibility paint. They were later attached to the undersides of civilian vehicles, left for a period of time – sometimes days or weeks – and then retrieved if possible. I would attempt to get them back.

EF: So there are still containers under cars right now?

TS: That's right, this array represents only the ones I could retrieve. The gaps aren't planned. They represent a numerical absence.

EF: I'm interested in your choice of word, 'civilian'. I think of that as a word used within a military context.

TS: Well, I suppose I automatically went after cars that appeared... I knew I didn't want to put them under cars that had a corporate or business branding. So no logos or advertisements – no taxis. These were all cars that looked like they belonged to just one person. One number represents one individual or instance.

EF: And what was the motivation behind that decision? Is it an awareness of treading carefully around the potential for 'trouble'?

TS: Maybe. I think its because when I started the project I was working entirely in residential areas near to my home. I was obviously having to do this in the dead of night so a quiet area was preferable. Instinctively I was perhaps trying to minimise the amount of blowback I might get if things took an unexpected turn. I wasn't sure how easy it was going to be to carry out. I wasn't sure about the mechanics of the undersides of vehicles, whether I could attach things securely and quickly enough.

EF: So no owner of any car was aware of your action?

TS: That's right.

EF: And all car owners were unknown to you?

TS: That's right.

EF: How were they attached?

TS: My first attempts were using plastic cable ties but there was an occasional problem with melting. The same thing would happen with nylon. I just couldn't be certain which bits of the car were going to heat up and that became apparent when I started retrieving them. Rare earth magnets were a neat solution but too expensive when scaled up. In the end, I devised a simple loop and knot system using hemp twine. It seemed the most reliable. Fewer were lost.

EF: Lost as in... do you mean lost as in you were unable to find the car again or that you would check under the car to find that the container was gone?

TS: I would be sure I found the exact vehicle and I couldn't find it. I mean, that did happen quite a lot.

EF: I see.

TS: And even when it became apparent that the box was gone – I would look under to find that sometimes twine was still attached to the car but the container was gone.

EF: Right. I've looked at the pieces in the past but something has only just struck me about this – that the twine seems to resemble a fuse of some kind. It brings me to an analogy where because these things have individual contents, they could be a gift or a bomb. It could be a message in a bottle too.

TS: I had a choice. Of all the little choices I had about secreting and retrieving objects, I had to think about how do I do this, should I do this and should I even display them at all. I asked myself whether it was worth keeping the hemp in place. I think it makes things a little more visually interesting – perhaps a little less self-conscious. Still, its interesting that you say it makes you think of a fuse because – I think it was in June – when the show was being installed, someone was walking through the gallery and said that everything I make looked like a bomb about to go off. I thought they were just referring to the array but I realised they were talking about all the physical pieces.

EF: To me, that description reflects the active nature of the work. The action associated with the work or that sits behind the work. I think of the thing that is about to happen or may once have happened – its potential.

TS: Do you mean for this piece?

EF: I mean generally. Obviously, the fuse idea relates to a bomb about to go off but the work overall has this sense of disruption. There's this potential for something that could be construed as disruptive but you don't know which end of it you're seeing. Is it the potential or the aftermath?

TS: Maybe that ambiguity negates a literal reading of how it looks in a gallery space.

detail

EF: Can you talk about 'action' and your work in relation to the idea of 'action'?

TS: I guess it can only be described as an action, artistically, but it became very under-whelming quite soon on. It became very habitual so the nature of going out each night... and I think I usually carried about ten or twelve of these things with me at a time. I had my little notebook and the database on my phone... it became a very habitual action – as everyday as walking to the studio or workshop.

EF: Going to the gym?

TS: Something like that. It felt relatively mundane. The early sense of excitement or transgression that did concern me quite a lot in the early stages, it deteriorated quite quickly, even when I started venturing into neighbourhoods I wasn't familiar with. I had to expand. Geographically, as the action grew, I had to target areas that I wasn't familiar with.

EF: ...target...

TS: I had to become more attuned to things like whether there was an easy line of sight between the house or flats and the vehicle under attention. So yeah, it became very habitual and relaxed. It normalised. It reached a sort of personal plateau of normalisation very quickly.

EF: Something you said in that comment interests me – through a matter of process, transgression can become routine. You get used to what you're doing. That speaks to a wider context of desensitising which makes me think of politics. So, for instance, when a politician wants to launch some big idea they launch it in small increments to handle the uproar in small doses and then they ramp it up. Because they use this initial action to desensitise people that's how they achieve an end result. Do you think of this in political terms?

TS: I think there's an element of an abuse of power which makes me think of political activity. By conducting this I know I'm abusing something. There's an element of betrayal or abuse of civic duty or trust.

EF: And a desire to – within your work there's a desire to... you want to convey your own personal abuse of power ...misuse of power?

TS: I feel it there somewhere. I would agree with you. There's something there that feels like a need to test the water first and... I would get out there and I would think, 'okay, I have done this – I can get away with that'. The very first night I did it, I remember coming back that night and feeling very uneasy and wondering if someone was following me home right there and then.

EF: I can understand that.

TS: But that sensation was gone after the fifth or sixth time I went out. So if I was aware of my 'misrule' or 'abuse' of my environment, it quickly dispelled. I'm not so sure as to dwell on it in a political context because I think of it very much as an individual's action. Only one person has done this. Although I suppose it could be scaled up.

EF: I agree with you. An individual's perspective requires it to be defined as an individual act of rebellion.

TS: I think it feels too clean for rebellion.

EF: Well maybe it is an individual act which remains a secret or personal form of rebellion that no one else would know about. The thing that feels more political to me is the repetition, the systematised mass. It makes me see them as a collective. You often work in multiples and series though.

TS: Describing it as a series is perhaps a better descriptor. It applies better to an action rather than an object.

EF: I guess the series applies to the way they have all been numbered and catalogued. Tell me about that.

TS: The contents of the boxes were overly documented. Aside from the photographs of the contents, I kept a database that held track of the number, the contents, the vehicle registration, the date of secretion and the date of recovery where it was applicable. I didn't track the address of each vehicle partly because I assumed it was changeable but I also had a bad feeling that if I were to be apprehended, that level of detail could look really suspicious – too malevolent. I also kept a status column but it became apparent early on that recording levels of damage was neither here nor there. The only status that mattered was whether the container I was attempting to recover was there or not. In the end I presented a formalised printed version of the database alongside the array of containers I was able to get back. Presenting that was a formal concern for the gallery. I debated whether I needed do that at all.

EF: It conveys something about the action. It gives the viewer the chance to work out a deeper meaning. How would you see the work without the database?

TS: Without it I'm fairly sure it would have to sink or swim as a purely aesthetic object, albeit one that implied order or sequencing. The numbers on the top left might belie a purely formal reading and still imply it as a mechanism as well as an art object. Still, to completely explain the action, to hand the whole story on a plate to whoever experiences it has the effect of closing it off in some way. It draws too neat a line under it.To make it more easily digestible empties it of something.

EF: I think it takes away the opportunity for independent thought from the viewer.

TS: There were two 'art people' who came to the exhibition and they independently arrived at a different reading. They thought the contents were things I had stolen from cars. They arrived at the assumption that each object was a missile of some kind. When they saw the damage to each and the added information of the corresponding database, they thought that I had hurled each object through a car windscreen and then interred inside them something I had taken from the car. I was really interested in that because it seemed so convoluted and overblown. Still, they arrived at something that was emblematic of the transgressive and had that flavour of predation. There was something about the formal qualities that still betrayed the essence of the action.

EF: I think it key that they still arrived at that sense of transgression – and that if you had given all information up front that may have been bypassed altogether. It makes you ask how much detail you need.

TS: I kept the detail for myself and I kept the detail to myself. Only I selected the contents of the containers and I chose in what level of language to account for them in the database. Still, it remains some kind of personal knowledge and even when you see them written and described on the wall, in many cases the viewer really has to go out of their way to picture what the contents are.

EF: What motivated your choices for the contents? Some seem bland, others are humorous or dark.

TS: The first contents were literally scraps of studio detritus. I think the very first things I sealed in a box were cut up lengths of blue electrical cable sheathing. I cut them up, put them in, took a photograph and forgot about it. Things went on like that for a long time – just things I could find in the studio and then placed or arranged in combinations or patterns that betrayed a sense of composition despite their relatively dull sense of worth. Eventually, I started bringing things in from home that brought some kind of alchemy or purpose to it. So, I remember adding things like precisely measured quantities of salt or acetone. There are sachets of herbs, petroleum, massage oil, whatever.


Citizen construction detail: engine oil, coriander, blood vial

EF: It seems like a formal quality is always there...

TS: It can't not be when you're looking for it. That's a real problem for sculpture.

EF: ...but there's also pieces of you in there. I remember walking by your studio when you were drawing blood from your leg – quite a lot of blood.

TS: I remember you turning green.

EF: That went in, did it?

TS: Yes, in a small spray sample bottle. I also had a toenail resected, the surgeons let me keep it so I put that one in. It got a little nasty.

EF: Even when it gets nasty, there is a childlike quality to it. Tell me about the toys.

TS: I had found some pieces of old Lego sets in my father's attic. I placed a much-remembered Lego man into a container after painting his face with lip-gloss. The next container had a print-out of a picture of the Lego man. I think there are indicators of something ritualistic involving the giving up or the gifting of personal artefacts; one that still has the hallmarks of a process-led set of decisions.

Lego man with lip gloss

EF: But yet you had to decide hundreds of contents. It sounds like a lot of effort.

TS: Well, one often led to the next – but yes, it was a lot to get to a point where I felt a whimsical satisfaction with each container.

EF: Would you think about how people would react to opening them?

TS: Only a little – at the first.

EF: But you know they might be found.

TS: Like I said, it became such a repetitive, ritualistic thing. The initial inter-personal stuff; all the hypothesising – that gets forgotten in the face of brute repetition, although one container in particular worried me. It was an arrangement of small wires, circuit board and a battery pack from an old Iphone, they were placed on a slug of wrapped petroleum jelly. It was definitely reminiscent of an explosive device – or at least the way one might be depicted on television – I felt bad about that one.

EF: Perhaps because most of them are personal, there's a quality that makes me think of abstract expressionist painting – a kind of intense or personal dramatic thing. Some of them are warts and all, some are mundane. Even toys and broken phones, because they are personal, it brings a hidden element – like you said, a 'gifting'.

TS: There's also the giving up of value, if not actually monetary value. I was giving some personal value when each one was sealed. I remember closing the lid on a chocolate bar and later thinking, damn – I could have eaten that. I suppose that would have been quite an oddly nice thing to find. Still, the issue of ownership is just as prevalent within the action as well because when you're walking down a cold street in the dead of night in one of these residential areas you are the only one that's out there. You're only out there for that one reason. When you go out prepared with these objects in a bag, you know you're going to be climbing around underneath cars. You know you have to watch your profile and how visible you are. You absolutely know you're taking risk and you have to become very familiar and confident within your environment. Once you're familiar with the routine and you go out on just another frosty night, there's something very energising about walking through the streets and appraising each vehicle, knowing that every one of them that you see belongs to you – it is your personal property. Your are claiming it for yourself.

secretion
retrieval

EF: Did you ever get caught?

TS: Four times I was rumbled.

EF: What happened?

TS: I pretended to have dropped my phone under a car while feigning drunkenness. Another time I was asked if I was 'alright' to which I just replied 'I'm fine', as if it were my car. I discovered that for the most part I think people really don't want to know. I also discovered my ability to lie on the spot.

EF: People don't want to know... do you think that's part of living in the city? Self preservation?

TS: Maybe. One guy was good enough to go into his house to fetch a torch to help me find my phone. He came right out of the flat in front of the car. His lights weren't on which really got me because there's no way I'd ever go after a car if I thought the owner was up and awake.

EF: Did you attach the box?

TS: No, but I planted my phone. He was able to find it and I conveyed drunken gratitude.

EF: It sounds like you learned what were the safe parameters in which to carry it out.

TS: I became very adept – surprisingly so – but then you'd be surprised how easy it might be once you overcome the trepidation to which we would all feel when confronted by the social impossibility of the action. Once that line is crossed the deviance of the action normalises very quickly into its own context.

www.elkefinkenauer.com
www.timsandys.com

Recorded June 2015


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