Hertfordshire-born multi-disciplinary artist Danielle Dean spoke to us ahead of showing her new project, "Amazon" at the Tate Britain.
Reader's Digest: How would you describe your art?
Danielle Dean: My practice is about culture, media, advertising and film—how those material histories have an influence on the ways we behave and how we talk to each other.
I’m interested in the idea that there’s nothing pure about our way of being, and that it comes from a history of stuff that we generate, that we consume, and that we repeat. In how culture has an influence on us, is a simple way of putting it.
RD: You work across many different mediums—painting, installation, performance, video—do you have a personal favourite?
DD: My favorite is video because when it when it works, it’s so exciting. And it feels like it makes the most sense for some of the ways that I work because I often work with real people.
For “Amazon”, I worked with workers who use the crowdsourcing platform, Amazon Mechanical Turk. Working with video means that I can connect with them and find ways to collaborate with them in the project. The video becomes a thing that we’re collaborating together to make, and something that we can all use, or share and be proud of afterward.
But video is also super expensive, and it takes a long time, and it’s exhausting. So after making a video, sometimes, I think, Oh, let me just go back to the studio and paint.
A video still from "Amazon" by Danielle Dean, 2021
RD: Your work questions how we’re shaped by commercial narratives. When did your interest in that begin?
DD: I think that it was sparked when I was living in London after my fine art degree when I spent a couple of years working in an advertising firm. That was so revealing because we watch adverts on TV and take it for granted—you don’t necessarily understand how it was put together, or for what reason.
By doing it myself, I understood things like target audiences and how they find ways to build on stereotypes so that there’s a connection to a certain demographic. That sparked my curiosity and then when I did my MFA at CalArts, that’s when I started to turn to looking at the history of advertising, looking at archives going back to the first print ad in a black and white newspaper.
Art Now Danielle Dean Amazon (c) Tate Photography (Jai Monghan)
RD: Do you recall any adverts that made a particular impression on you?
DD: I really used to love the Cadbury ads. I thought they were really creative. It’s interesting that now you can get away with not necessarily seeing ads the way that you used to when you watch television, because we all stream now. You still get bombarded with adverts, but not in the same way.
Another thing that I’ve been really interested in over the years is how we’ve embodied some of the sensibilities of adverts, or the system of capitalism—how those things become part of who we are. And it’s getting harder and harder to disentangle ourselves from it.
If I have like, one look at an ad, Instagram seems to know that and then millions and millions of that same ad for say, a face cream, bombard you. It’s a bit more psychologically damaging than it would be just watching a random ad on a TV. It feels way more targeted and personal.
Bazar, image by the artist
RD: "Amazon" incorporates footage shot by collaborators across the world. Why was collaboration an important part of this project?
DD: Yes, collaboration is always something I do with videos. When I started out making this project, I knew very little about Amazon Mechanical Turk, so how could I be a person to make work about it? That was the first thing I thought. I knew I needed to involve people on the front lines, actually doing the work.
When I first started out doing this project, I was actually focused on Ford and the Fordlândia narrative that gets reenacted by the AMT workers. I was looking at archives of the events that happened in the Amazon forest when Henry Ford set up this utopian workcamp to yield rubber. I realized that I needed to make a work that would fuse that history with the present—how could I make what happened in Fordlândia relevant to today, when work conditions are very different.
That was why I decided to work with Amazon Mechanical Turk workers. It seemed totally fitting because it's an extreme version of the Fordist assembly line, in that it's a workforce that is disseminated across the world. As an employer, you don't have to worry about the workers' conditions because they're not in your factory. And they're also on their own doing discrete tasks, which is a bit like the Fordist assembly line, but they're even more separated, and even more alienated, which from the point of view of a profit-driven model, is great.
So I was struck by those work conditions and wanted to know more. That's why I collaborated with the people doing it to not put my judgment on it, because it's not my place to do that, but to find out exactly what it was like through them.
Danielle Dean, Amazon (Proxy), 2021. A Performa Commission for the Performa 2021 Biennial
RD: Who or what are your biggest influences?
DD: I'm really interdisciplinary. I think I've fused a lot of different influences, like social practice, although I wouldn't say what I, what I'm doing is only social practice, there are aspects of it that come from that history in the sense of working with people who are not in the art world over a long space of time. "Amazon" took two years, so we were working together for a long time.
I'm also influenced by the history of painting, and by sculpture…all of it! And then in terms of artists that I have been influenced by, I worked really closely when I was at CalArts with an artist called Charles Gaines. He was my mentor, and I was really influenced by him. I'm also influenced by the culture industry, looking at how Disney films are made, for example, and how advertising is done.
“ART NOW: Danielle Dean” is on show at the Tate Britain until May 28, curated by Nathan Ladd and supported by the Art Now Supporters’ Circle
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Header image: Danielle Dean. (c) Tate Photography (Jai Monghan)