Slimy, shining, slithering, slick, glistening and glowing, there just aren’t enough adjectives to describe RCA grad Katie Bret-Day’s art. Interested in the posthuman condition, she captures the viscous materiality of photography to explore the interconnection of existence. In this conversation with this London based artist and where’s the frame, we talk about the curious objects you will find on her shelves, the ways she creates these visceral images and her fascination with life.
Since we cannot meet in person and do a studio visit, can you describe your workspace or dark room perhaps? What’s the most peculiar item?
I largely work from home, I always have, I use other spaces when I need them but I produce work in a pretty intimate and spontaneous method so for me, for now, this works. I have an array of cameras, scanners, probes and my enlarger, most of what I do is very low tech and often happens in the early hours of the morning. I am also surrounded by plants, books, pictures, and music, a multitude of distractions and inspirations depending on where the day takes me. There are all sorts of specimens and creatures in the fridge, some of which need regular feeding… The most peculiar item is a tough one, I share my space with some unusual objects and beings. Sea Anemones, slime moulds, fossilised fish and a glass eye are just some of the objects you will find on my shelves. My favourite is probably the diatom slide, the sheer fact it’s microscopic means it’s something you have to make an effort to truly see, and when you do they’re so beautiful.
You were trained at the London College of Communication then the RCA. Can you tell us more about these two schools?
Going to art school doesn’t make you an artist but I’ve had some amazing experiences, discussions and training that have helped shape where I’m at today. LCC feels like a lifetime ago, it was there that I started to explore the colour darkroom and conceive the processes I am still developing today. I took several years to decide I wanted to do an MA, I think it's a big decision, and I’m glad to have done it. At the RCA my research became much more focused, I better understood what my ideas meant and how they exist as a body of work. Like most experiences in life you get back what you give, you have to approach things open, interested, un-offended and willing to grow.
Your work seems to have a close relationship with science, especially organic materials. Can you tell us more about the experimental route you chose?
I have always had interests in science, I love its strange position of fact and theory and the philosophical questions that erupt from it. Life fascinates me, and I mean this is a very broad sense. I'm talking entanglement, the way in which bodies are material information that form, reform and travel in a universe that’s like a perpetual melting candle. We have such a disconnect without contingent reality, a lost appreciation for the balance in which things exist, this capitalistic distancing is the root cause of our environmental fragility. It is these connections and hierarchical disruptions I explore in both my research and studio practise.
The way in which I make images is very multifaceted, there is often a long series of manipulations, interruptions and destruction that come between the image capture and the final print, often producing negatives that hold experiential time rather than capturing a moment. I created a neologism “mortogenesis’ to describe the act of creative destruction that life is based on and this is also largely how I make work. I look at material as aggregate forms, and by playing with the elements of an image I shift between micro and macro-scopic registers. This fluid way of working assumes a liminal space whilst still grounding itself in familiarity. The work is by nature experimental as it’s exploring an unknown or unseen element. Sometimes science seems so distant, a theory, a prediction, a statistic but I hope that the work I am making helps visualise ideas or to at least prompt conversations around our entailed living and the importance of the non-human.
Can you please describe your work/style in less than 50 words?
My work is about materiality and agency. I explore how different layers of existence connect, and are made visible. I find new ways of looking and making strange, stretching indexes and imagination into a new liquid reality. I work in a considered chaos that never emerges as expected.
You were featured in the Guardian as 1 out of 5 rising talents as well as a featured on the TATE commissioned Photography Ideas Book in 2019, How do you feel about the exposure? Has it affected your art in any way?
Exposure is always great because it means people are seeing your work and sharing these ideas is the ultimate goal. I am always so grateful for peoples support and feedback and you should always celebrate these positive moments. The Guardian article came at a wonderfully transitional time as I was moving back from Switzerland, opening a group show at Photofusion and finally showing the work I had been making between my degrees and starting my MA at the RCA. I don’t think exposure necessarily affects my work but sharing projects is a crucial part of developing and often letting go from certain strands of thought or ways of making.
You were part of the first online RCA graduate show in 2020, can you tell us more about the experience?
I mean it was all quite peculiar, how could it not be? We didn’t really know how things were going to look until about a week before it ‘opened’. Because we were working towards an unknown myself and others decided to make webpages to host our projects. I tried to create a space that went beyond the portfolio format of RCA 2020, as this didn’t support my research or method of work, and played with the verticality of digital space and its relationship to anthropocentric hierarchies. I don’t know much about coding but I used this as an opportunity to experiment and learn something new. Obviously not having a graduate show was a disappointment after 2 years of work but I think it forced everyone to think more about how arts and culture are disseminated. Without a physical show it meant we really had to consider how work is experienced in digital space, not just a document of a show but how we can use digital technologies to make the work engaging and convey itself within the haptics of a screen. I think this is a hugely positive thing, to learn how to engage better not only in a national lockdown but to reach people that may not normally have access to the arts for a multitude of reasons.
Do you have any life soundtrack? Like when a sad song comes in and you pretend that you’re in a music video, kind of song.
There is rarely a moment in the day that I’m without music, especially if I’m working. My taste is very fluid, although I’m not really one for a longing look out a rainy window, the one genre I don’t think I could live without would be Italo disco, any disco actually. If I need a boost, I stick on a little Pino D’Angiò and get the blood back into my body.
What’s the weirdest thing you encountered in the streets of London?
Honestly I think people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, I’ve definitely been spotted in some odd scenarios. However I did see 2 crows eating a live pigeon once, that was fairly unsettling.
What’s your favourite London gallery/museums? And why?
It's hard to pick one, there are so many national and independent spaces that offer up amazing art, curiosities and history. If there is one permanent collection that never fails to surprise me it would be the Natural History museum, I’ve been going there my whole life and there is always something left unseen. Plus if you get a change to go behind the scenes, there are fish with hands and a colossal squid… need I say more.
What’s next for you in 2020/2021?
Things are so uncertain right now which is both terrifying and exciting. I’m still making work, considering a PhD and looking forward to a future of possibilities.
All photos courtesy of the artist.
where's the frame - ‘in conversation with’ is a weekly series featuring London-based vanguard artists. Stay tuned for more interviews, published every Friday.