Luke ‘Luca’ Cockayne’s new exhibition Hard to Look at, also featuring work by Carys Reilly and Chandelle Waugh, asks how we can explore difficult subjects in a way that is safe for artists and viewers. The exhibition takes place at Whitespace Gallery in Edinburgh from Saturday 7 to Wednesday 11 October.
The synopsis for ‘Hard to Look at’ warns of themes including psychiatric admission, psychosis, self-harm, suicidal ideation, sexual assault, domestic abuse, miscarriage and pregnancy loss, and other potentially triggering content. So it’s with a degree of caution that I ask my first question: what kinds of art, in what formats or mediums, can viewers expect from the show?
There are three main pieces, Luca explains. Chandelle’s is a sculpture, featured in the ‘Out of Sight Out of Mind’ exhibition last year, called Fruit of the Womb. It’s “a good example of work that is both beautiful and has potential to be really, really upsetting”, Luca says. Carys’ is a video piece, previously exhibited at Salt Space, called Provocateur. A rejection of ‘asking for it’ narratives, it challenges the erasure of victim stories in favour of a focus on the perpetrator, shifting the lens back to the victim. Then there’s Luca’s own piece, the manuscript of a book about his time in a psychiatric hospital, with supplementary material as part of a conversation about unreliable narration.
It’s unlikely to be the kind of exhibition you can breeze in and out of, in other words. “The making of the work might be cathartic. But the sharing of it is something that I personally don’t think we’re doing a very good job of protecting the artist or the audience.” For artists, Luca explains, sitting with the work for the duration of an exhibition, seeing others interacting with or witnessing it, can be especially taxing. “If you’ve made something that is painful to you, then that can be quite a difficult emotional experience.”
Partly in response to this, a key element of the exhibition is continuous curation. “Over the course of the week, I’ll be changing things around, depending on how people move through the space and what they feedback about it, and also what the artists think.” Luca plans to involve viewers in this process, largely, “by being there and talking to people. There’ll be lots of discussion. It’s kind of what people will need, what they’ll ask for.” Viewers will be able to use traffic light bracelets to indicate whether they are comfortable being approached and asked how they feel about the exhibition, how triggering they find it.
I’m curious about the idea of active consent, which is also mentioned in the event synopsis. I ask Luca how he will make sure viewers are able to actively consent – or refuse consent – to view each piece. Will there be signs, warnings?
“There will be content warnings, but they might be in various different forms. Some people don’t like content warnings, because they provide spoilers or they can make aspects of what you’re about to see seem more threatening. Also, sometimes people just genuinely forget that there are certain things that are traumatic for other people.” It will never be possible to capture all the elements of a piece that might be triggering for someone, so showing this kind of work inevitably comes with some risk. How does he hope people will respond?
“I hope that we’re able to keep people safe. I hope that no one has a breakdown and no one has a psychotic episode. The question becomes when we as curators, or as audience members, know when to intervene or say, ‘Actually, this artwork is really upsetting, and I don’t think it should be on the wall where it is.’ People are quite good about saying it with nudity or sexual stuff, but not very good with other things.”
This is a highly subjective and contested boundary, Luca acknowledges. One of his initial ideas for the exhibition was a performance piece about self-harm. But one of the other artists wasn’t okay with it, so he didn’t do it. I ask what he feels is the value or importance of sharing this kind of work with others.
“I like to do this thought experiment where I think, if I fell into a slightly alternative dimension where nobody was there, but everything still worked, like, all the food was still fresh, and the lights were still on, what would I be doing with my time? It helps me focus on what’s important, and why I’m doing certain things. I think that there are pieces of art that I’ve made where I wanted them to exist, and it doesn’t strictly matter if they immediately burst into flames. Because the making of them, and their existence, was the point. And some things I’ve made and done have been about trying to communicate a particular thing to a particular audience. It’s important for me as an artist to know the difference.”
In this case, of course, the point of the work transcends the fact of its existence. In some ways, Luca says, the exhibition has a practical purpose. “If nobody else existed, I would still need some artificial deadline to finish this book. It’s just been quite difficult for me to finish it, because it’s painful. But for myself, I need to finish it, I need it to be done.”
The exhibition is also a way to start a conversation, “this conversation that we’re having about content warnings generally and about visual art and curation,” about the book. “I’m trying to decide whether or not it’s a book, or a visual art installation. So it matters to me to get feedback on the book. I want the book to be as good as it possibly can be, so that it resonates with and helps the most amount of people.”
We’ve already been kicked off Zoom once, but I chance a final question. Is there anything that Luca feels would be too far, anything that should never be shared?
“Absolutely not. We definitely should be doing experimental work; I think that there’s so much potential of what we could do. I just think that we need to look after ourselves as we do it. And if we’re not looking after ourselves, then that has to be part of the work, almost. A lot of this kind of work raises some really interesting questions about bodily autonomy, about the responsibilities we have to each other, about what the duty of care means. I think the risk is part of what makes it interesting.”
He distinguishes this from the desire to be provocative for the sake of it – the “strain of art where people are like, ‘Fuck the establishment, I’m gonna take a shit on the floor.’” Still, there’s a clear attraction to rebellion in Luca’s work. “I’d been actually thinking about it for a while, what we can and can’t get away with in terms of performance art, and what we can do in our own homes versus what we can do in public spaces.” He recalls a squat with Temporary Autonomous Artists where he got to smoke indoors as part of a performance piece for the first time ever. “To be able to smoke a cigarette onstage was just really revolutionary for me.”
Ultimately, Luca’s work is about uncovering what’s hidden, uncomfortable, and sometimes dangerous; bringing human darkness into the light. “I think that there’s a lot of human experiences that we are not seeing, because of who is making the work, and who is commissioning the work, and who is funding the work. Honestly, it’s very strange to me that the work that I’m making is the work that’s considered risky when there’s so much more of the human experience that could be explored. I just feel like we need to be having these difficult conversations, so that we can be more true and authentic to human experience. What’s past the R rating?”
Sioned Ellis is a Talking Heads volunteer living in Edinburgh. She currently works in public policy in the third sector and enjoys making art in her own time.