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An interview with Uma Breakdown

There are two artists at FACT this month, headlining the gallery’s 20th birthday celebrations. One is the extraordinarily extraverted Jenkin Van Zyl, whose film is exhaustingly harsh, set around a series of gruelling trials that reflect common societal anxieties. The other, is Uma Breakdown, whose installation provides a far gentler approach to dealing with those same anxieties.

In our interview, they mention one phrase repeatedly; light weight. The experience they’ve built is set around a video game save room, but it shares a fuller set of narratives about life, death, and rebirth.

As a trans artist that rebirth is particularly and personally significant to Uma Breakdown, but it resonates further. We talk about radical solidarity, and its implications on the act of making art, and how a set of rules can be used to build an idea as much as an exhibition.

The result is a wonderfully peaceful multimedia exhibition that tries in every way to do no harm, and present neutral, editable, narratives.

PKS

How does the gallery relate to the video game? It says it’s a ‘save room’ in the exhibition description, but I’d love to know more about why the artefacts you’ve chosen to display are there, and how they relate to the game.

UB

It’s become interchangeable; save room and safe room. The shift in language is something I’m particularly interested for this leg of Earth A.D.

So I guess I need to do a little bit of history. This is a touring exhibition that started a year ago. I was co-commissioned by Wysing Arts Centre, FACT and QUAD. I was going to have three different web based video games that go with it. And the work could be reconfigured slightly across these three years.

I’ve designed materials with the idea that it’s going to be transported. So it can be collapsed and taken apart. I want it to be light weight, as much as it can be for a show of this size.

For the first version, there was a bunch of references for how that safe room was gonna work. And one of them was a mausoleum. And an archive specifically. In The X Files, secret documents are put into an endless looking file room. The first version was a bit like that, and a bit like a mortuary, but also a field workshop from an archaeological dig.

There are a few franchises that I’m really interested in because they have similar mechanics. Particularly Castlevania, Symphony of the Night onwards. For the save room, you actually get in a coffin. And Resident Evil, with its safe rooms that are specifically safe places from the horrors outside. And Dark Souls with its bonfires.

Regardless of all the stuff that’s going on outside, when you’re in here you are safe. It’s a place to reconfigure yourself, to adapt. Time stops in the video game when you’re in these rooms. You can stay in there as long as you want. You can choose to never go out.

Last year, I played Resident Evil a lot and there’s a bell tower where you can’t be attacked by anything. I love the idea that the bell tower is this place where time doesn’t move. But also a space that marks a moment in time. Like a bell that strikes midnight, or a bell that’s rung because the king’s dead, or someone’s got married, or there’s a fire. It’s a thing that says “after this, something is different”.

FACT is the second leg of the show, and like the save room, it’s also a place where something happens that says “there’s a marked point”.

PKS

The plinths seem to have very specific dimensions. Are they reflective of the project, or designed simply to be useful and functional display units.

UB

Back at the beginning of the project, I thought about this for a while. They’re roughly meant to give the impression of a stone reliquary or a coffin. But they’re also a bit like a work table. And so I used dimensions that would satisfy both.

They are 60 centimetres high, 60 centimetres wide and 200 centimetres long. It’s big enough that, if it was a coffin, I could get in it. But it’s also not completely alien from the size of a table, or a worktop and I want it to do a bit of both.

On a practical level, the show is largely made from grids. The objects around the room are skinned on the outside, with fabric or rebar mesh. There’s reinforced fabric that’s inside some of the cast objects too. Physical grids work in the same way that digital images are made from grids. So it doesn’t have to be a real surface, but a series of plot points that make a mesh.

And the rebar comes with 20 centimetre holes. So it was like using these exact things and therefore not having to make anything specific for not having to use more energy than is needed.

PKS

The coffin definitely comes across as a tool. Do those dual functions of the grid, refer back to the games mechanics then?

UB

I’ve been thinking of them as coffins throughout the whole thing. A coffin is one of the big images in the show.

I’m really into the idea of a coffin as a reparative tool. Like how Dracula comes over to Whitby, he has to have a coffin to protect him, and it’s full of dirt from home. And it’s this device that protects him from the environment that he can’t handle, which is daylight.

There’s also, and I don’t want to do a big deep dive into Warhammer 40,000, the idea of the coffin as a reparative thing turns up in that as well. And it’s also a thing within Dark Souls games as well.

I guess it’s like the body is never more vulnerable when it’s held in a coffin, this is what this does. It keeps it safe. And so it becomes a room full of coffins. Not as a grisly thing, but like “here’s where we look after people.”

PKS

How do you want the viewer to receive the exhibition? Particularly in relation to death.

UB

I want it to be like handing someone some tools. I’m really interested in speculative fiction. And what I really love from speculative fiction is the idea that you’re handed a bunch of pieces without them all being tied off neatly. So you reach points that are well beyond what is explicitly described.

And part of your experience as the reader, or the watcher, or the player is that you imagine how these things might plug together outside. And so that’s kind of like what I always want the work to be; an assemblage of parts that may be presented a number of different ways, and might plug together.

The essential thing is to make the audience into like an active kind of agent. I want it to work so it could be this, or if I come back another day and bring something else with me in my head, it will do something else.

And that extends to the materials too. So I use open source software, I publicise the software that I use. The materials I use are very basic and crude. The processes they use are very basic.

Like, when the show happened the first time, I published the recipe for how I make the resin treatment for the fabric, because I want, you know, to continue the story. But also so viewers could literally make this kind of work and take that skill away.

I guess I’m interested in death as a, it seems a bit glib to say it, but like a beginning. Like a thing when something starts. Like the death of a previous idea.

I’m transgender, so I think about the idea of my being. I have a dead name. I have a previous life that doesn’t exist anymore. But I see this as a really powerful thing. So I want to present death in a way that’s fun and cute. That’s basically it.

PKS

It’s set in fiction, but what is it specifically that makes fiction so useful as a storytelling device for the themes you’re covering?

UB

I don’t know. I can speak to why it’s useful for me, but it’s basically just how I think through everything.

I love the idea of fragments of stories as a way of engaging with an artwork. I’m interested in the bits of narrative within it. Like the narrative of the person making it, and the implied sense of place that might be within a work, and what might play out within that.

I’m a student of Kathy Acker, so I really like the idea of narrative as a machine. Like, if there’s a plot, and it’s got all these parts running through it, you could do something to make it unstable. You could put a different character through that same machine, and it would maybe start breaking down and something else would happen.

It’s the same with plots that are really familiar. Like these narratives that turn up in films over and over again, are the same stories. I find that really interesting.

Ultimately, I think of my artwork in terms of bits of stories. But crucially, I haven’t got one coherent meta narrative. It’s more like I’ve found loads of pieces of epistolary text. Like in a story like Dracula, where it’s made up of letters to people, creating fragments within that world. They fit in and overlap.

PKS

It’s the reason I wanted to talk to you before I wrote anything about this work. Because in all of it, there is a narrative function that links in between the objects and artefacts, and it felt worth getting to know.

UB

This is basically what I mean by the idea of narrative like machine. It’s like a process.

I’m really interested in role playing game manuals. I don’t really play role playing games. But I really love the idea of the manual as a book. They’re full of fragments of law, and descriptions and images. But then there’s the mechanics that say, “This is how the physics of the world works”, using dice and stuff like that.

And from this, an infinite number of stories comes out. But you can just read the manual as a form of fiction. That’s the kind of narrative that I’m after. I want it to be just enough to grab onto that you’ve got a sense that it kind of makes sense.

So there are all kinds of systems that I followed, and all these rules for how objects work through the show. I want it to feel like it’s invested with care. I always say, if you want something to be cared for you lift it up with two hands. Everything’s held carefully here.

I just want people to kind of go, okay, maybe there’s the story. And maybe there’s the story. Or maybe it’s about a sense of a world that you can’t quite pull a story out of, but you’re in it.

PKS

I love that you mention radical solidarity in the background texts. It seems useful beyond it, but you’re starting point is trans support. There seems to be something quite welcoming and inviting to the space. What dialogues do you hope that might open up?

UB

Radical solidarity is something that I’m really down for. It’s not just about a single identity, it’s about looking out for people because they exist, not because of what they are. And not because of what they can do.

So not valuing people based on their labour power, and not valuing them based on their capacity for whatever, but simply because they exist. You watch out for people, and you watch out for other creatures, and you try to be light weight on the world.

That would be a thing I want to do. I don’t know how much that comes through, but I have principles that I follow when I try and make work.

I try to be light weight. I think about the lifespan of the materials that are used. Do I want this thing to exist until the end of time? Do I not? Could it be made smaller? Could it be made with less electricity? Less rare earth minerals?

Then do so.

I’m very lucky that I was given access to build in the way I was able to. And that I was able to go into the art world. And I am very aware that not a lot of people do have that. So I want it first of all to be a thing that’s not obnoxious, or threatening. The exhibition should not make you feel stupid.

If anything, I’d want for you to feel that you’re smarter than it, and not feel like you’re being tricked.

Uma Breakdown’s exhibition, part of Earth A.D., is open until 28th January 2024
Interview, Patrick Kirk-Smith

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