An inspiring insight into London based Artist and Photographer Jo Longhurst, her whippets and The Artist Support Pledge.
The refusal (part I)
- Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you like to spend your time?
Most of my time is spent in and around East London, where I live and work. We have a studio space at home in Bethnal Green, and a workshop / art store in Hackney. The dogs are almost always with us – in either space, or walking along the canals and parks between the two.
- Terence and Vincent are great names, where did the inspiration come from?
In the early days of our self-employment, there was an unfortunate incident with an unexpected VAT inspection – and a misunderstanding about what could and should be charged for. Happily, the net result was a tax refund - of a large enough amount to buy two whippets. Vincent and Terence (VAT), born in the year 2000, were our first whippets. We loved the formality of these names, and also that they could be easily shortened to Vinnie and Tel - traditional East London names for recall at Hollow Ponds, where we used to run them. We now have our second generation of whippets – Quinn and Coby. Coby’s kennel name is Midnight Cowboy - a great name too, but also a bit of a mouthful for recall.
- What attracted you to whippets originally?
We had planned to take in a rescue greyhound, but I was quite unwell at the time, and I wasn’t confident I could handle one. A whippet seemed a good compromise. I have Yorkshire roots, as does my partner. The whippet has always been popular in Yorkshire (especially with the miners, who would show and race them) but had fallen out of favour with London owners. We liked the idea of re-introducing the whippet to East London.
The refusal (part II)
- Are there any special connections you have made through Terence and Vincent?
In our hunt for a whippet, we went out into the home counties and met breeders in Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire, and on the Newmarket horse studs. These breeders have become long-term friends. It was their passion for the dogs, their loving-but-no-nonsense approach to breeding, and their commitment to the whippet show scene, that inspired my application to the Royal College of Art, and the art project The Refusal, which is still on-going.
- How would you describe your relationship with your dogs in 3 words?
- Could you explain a little about you and your practice?
I work across various mediums, including photography, moving image, performance and installation. I would best describe myself as an artist working with photography. Photography is almost always an integral part of what I do: I use historic photographs as source inspiration, appropriate them to make new works, or incorporate my own images into dynamic installations. I also like to play with, and subvert, traditions of photographic practice.
- Your work often follows a narrative around perfection, could you tell us a little more about this and why this is an important theme within your practice?
Perfection is such a fluid concept… one that has many definitions and many different social, cultural and political associations. Many of these are not good… (think Fascism, and the ideological emphasis on physical perfection!) But, despite being an almost always unattainable goal, Perfection also inspires great labours of love. This struck me most strongly when I first met whippet breeders, and experienced for myself their single-minded focus on breeding a better, more perfect, show dog.
- Could you explain your work “The Refusal” and your interest in the relationship between dog and breeder?
I am interested in human systems and structures: how we are judged, shaped or affected by our social and political environments, and how we as individuals are expected to conform, or fit in. In The Refusal I worked with a close-knit group of British dog breeders, following their showing and breeding habits over several years. I also drew on my experiences with my own pet dogs, which seemed unrepresented or diminished in serious art practice. The shaping of the domestic dog has a history in nineteenth century Eugenics, a movement closely linked with the invention of photography. In The Refusal I wanted to explore our present relationships with our dogs, and the cross-species interplay of power, control, love and obedience. I found that contemporary philosophy had somehow by-passed the vital relationship we have with our pets. This was before the publication of Donna Harraway’s magnificent Companion Species Manifesto, when only wild animals were considered worthy of serious thought and comment, and dogs in art were most often used as a stand in for some human attribute. I wanted to question these conventions of portraiture, and to present a re-evaluation of our relationship to our pets.
- How do you feel about breeding and the obsession to create the best show dog?
I have ambivalent feelings on this. Clearly, the extreme end game of this kind of practice can be unhealthy in many ways. But the sight of a pack of whippets running together is very special. The breeders I’ve met on this journey have such love and care for their animals, and are keen to consider and use all available technologies to monitor and promote good health in their dogs. They are keen to breed that special, perfect specimen … that’s what drives them forwards, but I have experienced nothing but support and kindness from all the breeders I’ve known, even though my own dogs have not been especially suited to the show ring. Some love it – both humans and dogs – others don’t. It requires a lot of commitment, and many of us would rather be lounging in bed at the weekend, or running them out in the forest.
- In my experience Whippets are either full of movement or incredibly still, you capture both aspects in your work. In some images the whippets are posed and in others there’s movement, do you direct this or are you capturing a moment?
I always like to work with the dogs – to see what they do and react to that. For The Refusal, I had a starting point for each piece of work. I set up a series of studies, with a formal structure from which to explore a particular idea. For example, in Twelve dogs, twelve bitches, I recreated in a studio the formal pose the dogs are required to adopt for the judge in the ring. During one of the shoots, one particular dog deliberately stepped out of line, the paw a slight blur in the otherwise pristine image. This image struck me as an act of resistance, and became the title work of the project, The Refusal (Part 1). For the mirror works, I was exploring a dog’s lack of Narcissism. I sat each dog in front of a mirror. The dogs twisted and turned as they were confronted with their own image, and this movement threw up some interesting possibilities.
- I see similarities between your work and Edward Muybridge. What do you think of Muybridge’s work and his explorations into space, movement and time?
I am flattered! Muybridge is such an influence in the history of photography, movement studies, and also in human /animal studies. I love that he pushed the boundaries of what was possible technologically, and gave us so much food for thought, even now. In 2018 I made The Refusal (Part IV), a 22-screen moving-image work, for the Cultural Programme of the European Championships, which uses archive footage of a gymnastics competition. A failed approach to the vault is slowed down and re-played in various configurations along the screens. This work directly references Muybridge’s seminal studies. I also have a really important movement piece still to make for The Refusal. It has an ambitious technical set up for both production and exhibition. I have tried, and failed, to get it funded over the years… but still hope to make it one day. It presents the breath-taking movement of young show dogs running around a ring, their tightly-cropped bodies abstracted; the movement sped up, slowed down, and projected onto 4 large floor-standing translucent screens, which can be viewed in the gallery from all aspects (including that of the judge). In this work I hope to subvert the overt regulation and order of the show ring by introducing rules and configurations of my own devising. The dogs’ moving form, and the palette and pattern of the dogs’ coats, will take centre stage, to create an immersive, meditative, experience - a contemporary nod to Muybridge.
- What are your visions for the next few years, as we move through the current situation?
Artists are constantly faced with the challenge of how to make and fund their practice, and of course how to pay their bills. I go from long periods of solitary work, to intense periods of socially-engaged practice, involving commissions, residencies, performance and site-specific installation. Lockdown has intensified this divide - and funded opportunities are more scarce. Artists have always been resilient, and external constraints and restrictions have long been the source of creativity. Although it is more rewarding to visit archives, institutions and communities to really get what they are about, much background research can be done online. As we come out of lockdown, I hope to adapt my working processes to enable me to safely continue with my patron scheme, Bow Wow Wow, undertaking bespoke portraits, based on works from The Refusal. While this is not possible, I have made a special edition print of my dog Quinn for the wonderful Artist Support Pledge, a great new community initiative to enable artists to support themselves and other artists by selling works for no more than £200, and pledging to purchase another artist’s work each time their sales reach £1,000. Anyone can buy work - you don’t have to be an artist to join in - and the scheme is offering a much-needed lifeline for many of us right now. As a result of this initiative, this work has now been purchased for the Hyman Collection, and is part of the on-line exhibition, ‘Art in Isolation’. In the coming months we will all be experimenting with new ways to connect and work, and while, for me, an online exhibition can never replace the tangible experience of being face-to-face with a physical artwork, it offers a very welcome connection to those health workers who are experiencing the real challenges of this moment in time.
Left - Untitled, Artist Support Pledge print. Right - artist self portrait with Quinn
It was a real pleasure to speak with Jo and learn more about her practice. If you are interested in purchasing a print for the Artist Support Pledge please follow Jo here as there are a few still up for grabs .. I'm am lucky enough to have one and I can't wait to have it framed.
I have made some incredible connections since launching Occam; many like minded and creative individuals who share a similar ethos. My inspiration is sought from the people and hounds we meet, the lifestyle we choose to lead and experiences we share as a community.