Ash Tower is someone who forges paths between research, writing and an arts practice. He currently has work at FELTspace titled 'Studies of Nature' (on show until 18th February). We meet Ash in his office at UniSA, where he is entering his third year as a PhD by Research candidate. We ease into this interview with a few questions about his office as a work space ...
Ash: I don’t know … we kind of just make the office ours, which is nice. I like having this office mentality as opposed to a studio mentality. I find some people, when they have studios, are a lot more isolationist.
You get artists who are in studio set-ups who want to be social and they want to hang out and smack talk - which is generally me. I’m a sporadic worker and like being social with the people around me. But obviously some artists like to be left alone and lock their door. I think I’m very good at annoying those people. Whereas in this office everyone’s happy to have a bit of a chat. Either that or they’ve been secretly hating me for the last two years.
Verso: I like being able to hide - I don’t like it when people can see me cry.
Ash: We’re also pretty good when the crying comes around. We’ve all experienced some pretty traumatic moments over the past few years, so we’ve been pretty good at counselling each other through.
The addition of a couch was also good idea. People can come and sit and talk to us which is nice. I think it’s nice. Otherwise there can be a bit of a culture of leaving everyone alone in this office.
Verso: Do you use the space strictly for your PhD or does it crossover to making also?
Ash: The reason that we’re doing this here is that it does cross over, in the sense that I don’t regularly have a studio space. I’ve got one at the moment because I needed somewhere to construct the work for FELTspace, but I think I have to give it up at the end of February as I’ve had it for three months. Which is kind of the general approach to a studio for me … they're a staging ground for putting together work, not necessarily places where you might settle and contemplate stuff. This is very much where that happens for me - it's PhD research, making work and doing other writing jobs. It’s essentially a collective space that’s not home. I need to enforce a pretty strict work/ life division. Which is why I don’t bring work home with me and I desperately try not to get lost hanging out on Facebook on my office computer.
Verso: Does this office space work as well as it does because some elements of production for your work are shipped out?
Ash: Definitely. A lot of the elements are manufactured by other people. I think for a long time my artistic work has very much been the practice of logistics, or just finding the right people to do the right things. A lot of that is run from here.
Verso: Does that ever come up - your hand in the production?
Ash: I don’t think it does. I think that discussion has been had and to some extent resolved a while ago in the general canon of western art practice. I think one of the resounding things that came out of the FELTspace show, which I wasn’t expecting people to say to me, was how well finished it was - because it was very obviously not made by me. I can’t make an honour board or do all that cool stuff, but people were still saying it was a key to the work - that it had been well finished.
General acknowledgement that you can put together really polished work, and for people to see that you can have someone help you with that, is not seen as a negative any more. Maybe ten years ago when people were more fascinated on the romanticism of an artist crafting something out of nothing by themselves. That is not my interest at all. There is a definitely a place for the handmade and for the artist to struggle with material and all those concerns. I don’t think they’ll be forgotten about. Particularly because of the dialogue of manufacturing and production in our society, there is now a space for people who want materials as standard, professional and as 'regular world' as possible. I think that drives the manufacture thing for me - that the process is pulling together elements of the existing world.
That honour board should probably be made by someone who spends most of their days making honour boards, rather than me learning how to do so, which could be done eventually but probably with a lot more time and money. It’s not about putting the woodwork on display, it's very much about the idea. I'm happy that this space is becoming a lot more cemented … people can be just as impressed by polish and quality and we don’t necessarily have to have a discussion about how I can’t route timber etc.
Verso: Perhaps you could explain what your interests are and how they link in with your PhD and practice?
Ash: It’s kind of funny. I realised after the opening at FELTspace what my practice has been doing while it hasn’t necessarily been front facing in the last couple of years.
When I started my PhD in a slightly different area, it was deliberately separate from my practice because at the end of Honours I wasn’t prepared to make art again for a while. Although I’m realising more and more with the work I’ve been making recently, my self titled position of 'artist researcher' is more resoundingly true than I think it used to be. In that I’m an artist and I make artwork, and I’m a researcher and I make research and publish articles. Both of those things have elements of each other in them. To use the work at FELTspace as an example - a lot of that commentary on scientific articles and dialogue around the scientific community and scientific culture couldn’t have come about without my knowledge of my research, which is very much researching how artistic and scientific cultures communicate and negotiate space together. Without that experience and doing that research, it would’ve been audacious to make comment on scientific communities without necessarily being a member of them. That’s not to say I’m in the centre of that world now, but I can provide a bit more expertise on it than an artist with different concerns. So, I think they are now converging even though I had tried to keep them separate.
That said, the disclaimer that they have been separate worlds has allowed me to pursue things in each of them that wouldn’t be possible if they were so entwined. It has allowed me to follow bizarre theoretical areas that wouldn’t have translated well as art works. Similarly, it’s satisfying now after art school and after having to really conceptually examine your work, that you can just dig something and say that’s awesome - I want to make something about that. Although a lot of my work is grounded in theory, there is a comfort in the knowledge it doesn’t have to be and you can just make work and groove off it being something really cool that you just want to make. That took me a while to realise after art school.
Verso: Looking back, how would you say your art school experience set you up for undertaking your PhD?
Ash: I think, well, going from doing an undergraduate degree and Honours in visual art to a PhD in what is essential sociology or cultural studies was a very steep curve. Particularly the ‘on the ground’ learning needed to interview people and having to pick up multiple fields of literature you never picked up at art school. That was challenging. But I feel like the art school training has definitely helped me be flexible about my understanding of the academic community more broadly and about the dialogue between disciplines. I think there are still a lot of themes that are present in my PhD research which I owe to Honours. Although things like my methodology has changed slightly, they’re founded on similar principles. I wouldn’t say that my PhD is an extension of my Honours research but there are things that carried on quite nicely.
Verso: You’re never going to get away from some of those themes?
Ash: Yeah. Probably not. I think they’re an important part of my identity as a maker and a researcher … those cornerstone things you pick up.
Verso: Can you remember what one of our art school lecturers Roy Ananda says about that?
Ash: Yeah, you keep re-making the one work, which is horrifying to me. I can’t remember who said it, but I do take more faith in that there is no such thing as repetition, only persistence. I try to follow that a little bit. It suggests that you’re making more of an impact through doing something again as opposed to endlessly repeating yourself.
At this stage of the interview, we pause to look around Ash's office. There are a few objects we're keen to quiz him on.
Verso: What about the Let's get Abstracted embroidery hanging by your computer. Is there a story?
Ash: It was made by my friend Lizzy Emery. It must’ve been when we were living together and I’d just started my PhD. It’s based on the premise of let’s get shit faced and those basic drinking phrases. It plays off the idea that instead of drinking we needlessly theorize something and rip it out of its context and examine it in relation to critical theory. Stupid things, domestic things, like fridge arrangement. So I don’t know, I guess it carries this idea that we needlessly apply theory to every element of our existence.
...and the glass objects? Now i’m just prying ...
Ash: They’re literally my water jug and cup - made by a glass artist. I can’t remember their name which is embarrassing. I bought them from a market here, at UniSA. I spent a stupid amount of money on them - they were a Christmas present to myself. I'm totally enamoured by them. I like the right hand only thing about them. [Ash picks up cup to show it fits only his thumb on his right hand]
Verso: … and the wall of books?
Ash: The UniSA library, the Jeffrey Smart library, weeded out their collection at the end of last year. I think it’s such a waste so I used it as an opportunity to grab a tonne of books. They’re only here because I think I’ll have my office for longer than I’ll have my current rental place.
Verso: Are there any particularly obscure ones?
Ash: [Digs around and pulls out the following two books]
Devine Hunger : cannibalism as a cultural system
Myth of the Hero
Verso: Can you tell us about that deer image peering down at us?
Ash: It became a long running joke when I had a really pronounced argument with a friend about whether or not it was a giraffe or a deer. The rest of the photo shows it peeking over a Scottish hill. So … it’s pretty evidently not a giraffe. I’d like to have that noted for the record in case Lizzy is reading this.
Verso: The marble-look cushions?
Ash: The marble cushions are not mine, I don’t have such good taste. They're Nathan’s. Nathan is my office colleague - he is an interior architect. He looks at how writing and the written word - particularly the written word and its interaction with the page - can be considered a form of spatial practice. He should be close to finishing his PhD on that at the moment.
Our conversation now drifts off to the biscuit jar sitting on Ash’s desk. An argument ensues about whether or not Monte Carlo biscuits are the devil biscuit. Ash insists that they are. He also explains that that you know when his co-workers are desperate for a pick-me-up, as it is filled with Nice biscuits (It's filled with Nice biscuits at the moment). He informs us that they’re the only biscuit (other than Monte Carlo) that the 7-Eleven across the road sells.
We leave Ash’s office in the knowledge that he is now better informed that Monte Carlo is a district of Monaco. We, coincidentally, now have the task of researching the Monte Carlo method.