Formula for Fantasy | An Interview with James Richards

On the occasion of the curated programme Formula for Fantasy, curator Dasha Birukova interviewed one of the participating artists, James Richards.

Formula for Fantasy engages with the themes of imaginary thinking, existence, desire and ambiguity, all part of the rather amusing realm of dreams, or a parallel reality which the human being cannot fully cope with.

For this programme (featuring also Emily Wardill, Mikhail Maksimov, Anna Studinovskaya, John Wood and Paul Harrison, Paul Spengemann, Dmitry Kavka, Sara Culmann and Gabriel Abrantes), Richards is showing his video Rosebud, which documents the violence of the use of sandpaper by Japanese authorities to censor the works of Robert Mapplethorpe, Wolfgang Tillmans or Man Ray.

Formula for Fantasy will be screened on 9 July, at the Municipal Galleries – Quadrum Gallery, Lisbon.


Dasha Birukova – Let’s talk about the duality of life, real and unreal. Art often plays with this ambiguity, and sometimes it’s difficult to recognise a line between reality and fantasy. What is your relationship with these two worlds and what kind of reality do you try to create in your works?

James Richards – The aim of my work is to produce its own reality.

The work sets up a field for the encountering of different materials, sensations, experiences.

DB: Do you try to make a structure using this flow of images? Do you try to build a narrative line? Your universe of images and visual expressions requires a sort of semantic key. How do you find this?

JR: I don’t often work with pre-existing structures, at least not intentionally.

When composing a work, I immerse myself in the collected materials and find my way out through editing and manipulation.

En-route a structure or form for the piece starts to emerge. Its becomes apparent what is needed and what is not needed.

Brakhage’s idea of ‘Pre-cognitive vision’ also feels an important guide.

DB – Can you talk about Rosebud and how you worked on this video?

JR – The work was made over a two-year period.

I had been invited to Japan to do a residency in Tokyo and spent the month filming the early spring storms.

The video is shot with a cheap underwater camera that I was using a lot that year.

I would carry it around with me and film while dipping it in puddles and lakes, leaving it on the ground to capture visual distortions created by light or liquids hitting the lens.

It was in a period of experimenting with using the video camera as an almost prosthetic extension, something more connected to the hand than to the eye. But always, of course, with an interest in the images it was hoovering up.

While also in Japan I spent a lot of time in the library.

It was here that I came across the images that had been censored by customs officials.

The genitals of certain images had been rubbed away with fine sandpaper.

It was explained to me that the part that needed, for legal/cultural reasons, to be censored was that part of the image that might ‘incite arousal’ in the viewer.

Of course, this is very subjective. And sandpapering too seems to me very beautiful – futile and beautiful.

It was about a year later that the material I was shooting with the underwater camera and the footage of the sandpapered images came together.

Things need some distance and time before they can be finished.

I didn’t want to make something about the cultural politics of censorship. I realised I wanted to make something about this spectrum of violence and sensuality possible through fingertips and touch.

The film plays of chiming between the paper-thin image, human skin and the taught meniscus of water.

DB – How would you define ‘video’ and ‘cinema’? And how would you articulate your video practice?

JR – I see myself as an artist who makes videos. While I do have a lot of interest in the history of video art and experimental film.

At the art academy, I spent a lot of time at LUX in London, EAI in New York.

Interning, seeing as much work as I could. It was with these two organisations where allot of my most important art education took place.

My video work comes from the position of editing as a form of authorship.

How cutting, postproduction and sound design – utilising material from extremely diverse sources, combined in the right wrong ways – can become a kind of writing.

You can start constructing sentences with images and sounds. It can move from the more distanced stance of appropriation and become very intimate.

I feel that most of the thinking in the work happens when images are being cut or manipulated. It’s a thinking through a direct, hands-on manipulation of sounds and images.

DB – Have you ever thought to make a mainstream film with a script, actors, etc.?

JR – No this is not something that I’ve been interested in, so far.

DB – Could you tell us more about your sonic background and how you work with sound in your videos?

JR – As a teenager, around 15 or 16, I discovered early experimental electronic music. Musique concrete, electroacoustic music, noise, these sort of areas.

I was going to the central library in Cardiff and making copies of everything I was discovering. Also voraciously reading The Wire magazine and ordering records, steeping myself in what I was finding.

After a year or two, I bought a sampler and started making my own experiments. Sampling things from old records, very crude ‘scratching’ with cassette tapes and sampling guitar peddles.

Allot of the language and learning I was doing back then is still used in my videos now.

DB – Steve Reinke presented a film last year at DocLisboa. His films have a vivid visuality but at the same time they create an empathic distance. How do you collaborate with him? What do you look for in collaborations?

JR – I’ve been a big fan of Steve Reinke’s work since art school.

The folks at Lux Film and video introduced me to the work, and it was there, some years later, that we met for the first time.

Thomas Beard, a curator in New York, invited us to work together for the first time, suggesting we might like to work together to fill an hour slot of a film festival he was programming.

We exchanged material pretty quickly. Not speaking a great deal during the process, or discussing what we were going to do. Rather we were reacting to the clips we were sending each other. Working directly onto them and then sending them back.

We’re currently working on a new video together. It’s called When We Were Monsters.

It’s still early on so there’s not much to say, but were editing/collaging together a series of texts and exchanging footage, manipulating it. The process at first is of building up a shared stock of video footage, text and audio. All that’s hovering around themes of fungi, plants, intoxication, monsters and wounds.

Were now on our third video together, in about ten years. So, there’s lots of time between each work.

In collaborations what do I look for? I guess it’s about admiration, about being drawn to a sensibility and seeing what happens when our approached merge.

DB – It’s a strange time at the moment with coronavirus amongst us. What kind of changes do you feel this unique time could bring to us and to the arts in general?

JR – There’s an element of reflection to this time. For those lucky enough to not be struggling with health or immediate financial problems.

Less travel, more concentration, the chance to revisit the things we love, in books, music, art etc. Rather than rushing to see more/produce more.


James Richards (born 1983, UK) is an artist whose video, sound and curatorial projects examine themes of obsession, desire and technology through the use of archival research, found footage and extensive collaboration. He lives and works in Berlin. Recent exhibitions include Crossing (with Leslie Thornton) at Secession Vienna (2018) and Requests And Anti-songs, ICA, London (2016).

In 2017 Richards represented Wales at the 57th Venice Biennale.

Current and forthcoming exhibitions:

The Botanical Mind, Camden Arts Centre, London

Alms For The Birds, Castello Di Rivoli, Turin

Gazette,  Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin


Dasha Birukova (b. 1985 Russia) is a curator and writer based in Lisbon. She graduated from the Russian State University for the Humanities, Moscow, Russia, art history department and at the Russian State University of Cinematography (VGIK), Moscow, Russia, cinema history department. Her specialisms are experimental film, video and media art. Birukova curated the "New Media" programme at the National Centre for Contemporary Arts (Moscow) and co-curated the Festival of Media Art "VideoFocus" organized by NCCA (2014 and 2015). She was a co-curator of the exhibition "Error Message" that was part of the 4th Moscow International Biennale of Young Art, 2014. In 2016, Birukova joined the team of the high-profile project "Geometry of Now" curated by British artist Mark Fell, organized by the VAC Foundation in Moscow. In 2017, she curated the exhibition "Pink Flamingos" at the art space BLEEK in Belgium. In 2018, Birukova was a lecturer at The Russian State University for the Humanities, Moscow, Russia, Department of the art history and at the British Higher School of Art and Design, Moscow, where she curated the exhibition «BRITANKA_coop: ritual», special project of 6th Biennale for Young Art, Winzavod, Moscow.

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