James Thompson // Casting Space

Thompson's work deals with the perception of space and its interpretation. He works across physical and digital media using pre-existing spatial situations as the starting point recording and re-interpreting to construct new multi-dimensional experiences of reality.

I guess when I first started at the Royal College [of Art] I was doing the Masters course Design Products. I started in 2010 and was working very much with furniture. I was creating furniture which was flat backed and easily assembled, that’s kinda what I’d got into. It was a two year course and there wasn’t any briefs or anything like that, the way it was structured you could choose different platforms. I went for the one which was most similar to fine art, there were eight different platforms or something like that. 


The Design Products platform suited me because I wanted the freedom of not working with a brief and being able to use the two years to investigate an area of interest. The idea then being that you can use this to sustain your practice beyond the course. I wasn’t so keen on working with larger industries or working in response to a client. It was about developing my own thinking and a body of work which began to look at these ideas. 


So whilst there I started to think about space, the experiences of space and the ways it can be recorded and re-interpreted. I was looking at quantum physics and the idea of the multiverse and parallel worlds, I was extending versions of reality. I mean over the two years you’ve got to do something right and you end up being drawn to certain areas. I suppose it was kind of, maybe, an extension of working with furniture, looking at the functions of environments and objects which encourage you to maybe experience a particular space in a certain way, maybe it’s an extension of that. It’s sort of strange how I managed to get to that point really. When I was there I started doing a lot of casting using pre-existing objects, casting from them. From that came this idea of duplicating things, copying things. I started to look into these areas of copying, duplicating, I started to look at parallel worlds and other dimensions. I don’t know, it might sound kind of lame now, but to be honest,  I started looking into Cubism as a means of representing a higher dimension of space in a two-dimensional plane. I really focused on this idea of creating replications of spaces in different places. It got me going.


I started casting, I was doing loads of casting. It was very much my visual response to these ideas. I had a tutorial  with one of my tutors and he said, ‘why don’t you start casting?’ and I was just like ‘oh, sure’. It just went from there and it kind [of] went further and further. It initially started as objects, but went onto furniture and pieces of architecture. By the end of the first year I’d built this trolley and I was moving around London casting different bits of architecture and taking fragments of spaces. I went to the Royal Albert Hall and there was a squat in Hackney Wick which I spent some time in. Then, with all this material, I brought it back to the studio and constructed tables. So, I was attempting to find new function in these casts. I feel like the table was enabling me to exist in a design context. It was a design medium, I was making everything into tables because it was a functional outlet which allowed me to satisfy the criteria of studying within a design course. With my background being pretty much in furniture it took time to move away from that: it was about gaining the confidence not to make a table but still to be able to call the work design. 


That’s kind of what started to happen in the second year when I really was able to expand these ideas. I did a project with a deconstructed flatbed scanner and I started to scan spaces and create images defined by the speed at which its passed over the subject. So, if you move quickly over the object the image is really condensed whereas if you move slower it’s more stretched and elongated. The work was no longer limited to functional or relatively functional tables. The work was visually almost a moving image.​

From there, we did a show during a design festival in Milan where I did this performance. The performance was with this scanner, basically I scanned the exhibition space and the resulting prints were shown. So then I was still casting at the time so my final show, included the scans, but I also did a project were I was based in the cafe at the RCA for the final three months. I was casting the spaces between furniture or under furniture in the cafe. So people used the café during the week and regardless of how it was arranged at the weekend I’d come in and cast distances, the layout, the movement of the space. With those outcomes I was again loosely creating other pieces of furniture. But again it was still around, it was rooted in, there was an element of function. It was a case of taking the floor between something or the snooker table or whatever it might be then giving it another function. It was about inverting things. So, the distance between two pieces of furniture are cast, then when inverted it could become a table or a chair again. The work was still routed in function.​

After leaving I think it was just a case of building up confidence and being able to feel like I didn’t need to make furniture. After my degree show I got approached by the Marzen Woo Gallery in London. They liked my work and offered me a show, a solo show, a year later. So I had a year to create new works. It wasn’t like a furniture gallery, it was a ceramics gallery, but I guess the objects exhibited were quite sculptural on the whole. It kind of freed me. 


I found at that time I needed a space to respond to, when I was at College I used the cafe mainly because it was there.It was space to test things and when you’re still learning this is really important. For this project I needed to find a new space and I started to like the idea of using spaces which have a particular function which no longer exists or spaces where time is stored or spaces where the intended function wasn’t necessarily filled or the space was in transition. Anyway, close to where I live is this former psychiatric hospital. It’s been turned into luxury accommodation. So, I contacted them and there was a sports and social club which had taken one of the old wards and there was a few rooms where patients lived that were empty. I was given access to one of these rooms for 95 days, so, I though okay. For the show I developed all these different recording tools, I had the scanner, the different casting processes and I spent 95 days in this space just recording  and recording it, generating information, cataloguing the environment, duplicating the limited architecture. The space itself was probably 2 by 3 metres. There was the door, the window and an air vent. It was sort of limited because of this. Through the different medium though I managed to generate lots of different outcomes. So then, that came together in this exhibition called Expanding Spaces at the Gallery in 2013. There were lots of scans in there, lots of kinetic rotating bits, there was an inflatable, a video. I expanded on lots of the ideas I’d only touched on before. It was great to think it out whilst not having to put it into a design context. Now I was practicing as I wanted to, I didn’t have any criteria to meet.​

I’m still looking at replication. I started to do and look into exercise videos and performance as they look at replication in the same way that casting is about the replication of physical spaces. Again, exercise is physical but it’s about actions rather than pure physicality. 


I guess when I graduated I was still selling bits of furniture at the Mint Gallery down in London. It was alright but I feel like I was being asked to rather than really wanted to, I was more interested in the concept about how the object was made. It wasn’t really about making these desirable objects for super rich clients that were like ‘can you do it in a slightly different colour to match my carpet’. It wasn’t really about that for me. I took the decision to do less commercial stuff and move into teaching as a way of allowing me to work more experimentally and to also be an environment which is all about ideas. You know, teaching is all about ideas, particularly on a Foundation, it’s all about new ways of thinking. It’s kind of freed me to work more experimentally rather than having to always be thinking that I need to make more commercial works to pay the rent for the studio. I can use teaching to do that but also to be thinking.​

So recently, in fact, I’ve just got funding for my next project. I haven’t really spoken about that yet. I can tell you about the one before and I guess I can briefly mention the current one. So, last year I did a residency at Leeds Art Gallery whilst the gallery was closed for refurbishment. Maybe it was two years ago but the work was finished last year. Anyways, it was closed for refurbishment and while they were in this space they discovered this Central Court Gallery, that’s what they call it. It was all cladded in the 70’s to make a dark room for projection, they removed all the cladding and realised they had this amazing sort of window, they essentially discovered a new environment, so asked me to come in because they know I do stuff with recording spaces in transition. I spent over a couple of months in the space with the recording methods I’d been developing throughout really. Scanning, compressed moulding, I did a few filmed performances. Yep, so then from that I developed work from the space. I think galleries having interesting contexts as they’re spaces where multiple realities exist depending on the particular way an artwork is shown. It talks about some ideas I think about. It has that relation to my themes.


Until that point I’d been recording stuff but hadn’t really thought about the performance element of the actions. The actual process of recording in itself is quite performative, whether that’s moulding or casting or even taking scans it creates a dialogue, It’s performative actually. I hadn’t really thought of that as an outcome until I’d done this residency. I’d been filming myself recording but not really doing anything with that. I think the action of working directly in response to a space became more of an outcome in its own right rather than just part of a process. It became quite a ritualistic process. It made the methods more interesting. You just build, you do something then another idea comes from it and I guess that project was the first time I’d worked with a public gallery. I’d done some commercial ones, some residences, but that’s the first time I’d do a project with a public one.​

The work developed a lot but it still talks about architecture, space. It’s a reaction to them, it’s a performance of them. I like the idea of them not being finished. I don’t really like sculpture in the sense that you just look at an object and admire it. I deal with inflatables and I like them because there in constant transition because they move between fixed state and inflating/ deflating. They’re changing constantly. If I make an object I might do a series of performance around it in an exhibition context so it’s not just a dead object. In a way, my reason is that if you’re making a chair it’s not a dead object. People are using it, people are sitting on it, it’s a performance around the object. So my work still is in design and is dealing with space and architecture, but not in a conventional sense.


So, I’ve just got some funding through from the Arts Council for the biggest project I’ve done probably. Next year is the Yorkshire Sculpture International so there [are] lots of events that are happening in Leeds. There are the main four, the four corners of the Yorkshire sculpture triangle: there’s the Hepworth, the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds Art Gallery and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, but alongside that they’re doing this artist led program and there’s funding for things happening in Leeds. 

I’ve some funding to do a project which is gonna be shown from the 22 June to 19 of July 2019 in the old prison in the basement of the Town Hall. It’s incredible, the whole basement is made up of cells, a crypt, a court room, I’ve also got access to the clock town. It’s gonna be a series of work for that space. It’s not really been used since the 90s, it’s used a bit for record storage and emergency planning but not much else. It’s a space which is both connected to the city but not, which maybe relates to a lot of the work I do with these parallel realities. The plan is to work in response to locations across Leeds and do a series of performances gathering information from unwanted public monuments, spaces between architectures, redundant/construction sites, these sort of spaces. The work will draw on this and present alternate versions of these spaces within the Town Hall. That’s next.