File Note 42: William Hunt - Camden Art Centre

Interview by Margarita Gluzberg



Interview Images References Quote Biography Credits


The subject, WILLIAM HUNT is attached to a polygraph machine. The interviewer, MARGARITA GLUZBERG, appears to be calibrating the device.


Ok, I think we should just start.

I think we should start.  

Stupid machine.

An interview by its very nature is inauthentic: a construction formed in the final edit. This polygraph machine placed between us, is a hindrance that exaggerates the inauthentic. I was wondering if during your project, when you invited musicians to do a polygraph test, you used it as an intentional object of provocation? 

There are provocations running through the majority of my work. I devise situations where communication is thwarted – a bucket over the head, being upside down or underwater. In fact provocation is a very nice word: other people have always talked about it as obstruction. 

I see the machine as a set of layers and tricks…

It’s a question of whether people choose to collude with you. The theatre of the polygraph machine was a space that both parties could step into, and then because nobody knew how good I was at detecting if they are telling the truth, it set up another sort of threshold.

The machine appears to be a complex bluffing mechanism. Control and pre-test questions have to be answered in order to calibrate it and attain this so-called truth. Conceptually, how much did you engage with such tactics in your project?

My questions were exploratory rather than leading, and since the musicians had rarely been questioned about their work in this way, they gave uninhibited answers. The results depended on how much authority they gave to the machine but also on how good they were at their own craft. Their charts were then much more idiosyncratic and looked like no one else’s – the charts of those who didn’t know what they were doing weirdly all looked the same. With the polygraph test, the musician’s experience of performing becomes heightened – equivalent to pressing ‘record’ on the tape player. Knowing a moment is being captured creates a tension, and then a focus, a point at which you can succeed or fail. There are lots of devices to make this happen in the theatre or concert hall, but not so many in the gallery or artist’s studio; so you get to reinvent them. Phil Spector talks of how to trick a singer struggling to get the perfect recording, by blaming it on the microphone, and then just swapping it for another one, exactly the same. The polygraph machine obliquely acts in a similar way: the musician might think the authenticity of their sentiment is being examined, whereas in fact, it’s their skill in performing.

Music seems inextricably linked to some idea of authenticity.

It might seem mawkish for someone to cry at a pop song by a constructed band. But the reason why that’s an authentic response is that it’s their own projection of what the song is, triggered for example, by remembering exactly where they were the last time they heard it. 

It becomes a re-enactment of a sentiment. The physiological response is real and actual, but it’s not necessarily a response to the thing in question. What then, do you think is the value of the ‘real’ in art – like Werner Herzog actually dragging a boat through the jungle when making Fitzcarraldo?

There’s huge value in really doing something. When you listen to Herzog talk about moving that boat over a mountain – that’s where his authority comes from. In my performances, I leave just enough undiscovered so that I’m also really going through it, rather than acting it out. 

In your case failure and heroism are all intertwined, and the responses you elicit from the audience are very ambiguous.

There are social conventions and structures that I’m conscious of. These are behavioural procedures that put people in a place that’s comfortable, so they are able to accept the experience that’s about to happen. The situations I create don’t necessarily adhere to these rules.I’m setting up particular sets of circumstances, and then letting them go along – seeing what happens, and how I myself as a performer and the audience, manage.

I’d like you to address the question of embarrassment.

In the social context, the faux pas is wonderful – everyone stands round awkwardly, hyper aware of what has just happened, present in the moment. But if you inflict it knowingly, it loses the power to do this. Performance Art is kind of an embarrassing proposition, and people use strategies to avoid it. My performances have separation built into them: you can watch or you can walk away.


The polygraph machine is disconnected.


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Tape Op Magazine 

The Word Magazine 

Federico Garcia Lorca Jeu et théorie du Duende (The Duende: Theory and Divertissement) Allia

Nick Cave The Love Song (lecture, 25 September 1999, Vienna)

 ‘I was lying on my back in Zurich trying to sing and play the piano that was tipped over on top of me, when my mind wandered off... “I wish they hadn’t booked a fondue restaurant for the after dinner... I hate fondue”.

Panicking from my lapse in concentration I threw myself back into the performance with more gusto, but feeling a fraud. I wondered if the audience had noticed and would they believe me later when I said “Yes, this is delicious.”’
William Hunt


William Hunt (b. 1977) lives and works in London. He studied at Goldsmiths College, London (2005), Slade School of Fine Art, London (2000). Recent solo shows include ‘I Forgot Myself, Looking At You’, Wentrup, Berlin, Germany (2009), ‘Recorded Live, Picture This’, Bristol (2009), ‘Tempting Fate, Swimming Alone’, Witte de With Centre for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam (2008). He has also exhibited in numerous group shows including ‘Still-Film’, screening at Tate Britain (2008), ‘Been So Up It Feels Like Down To Me’, Presentation House, Vancouver, Canada (2007), ‘Silence: Listen to the Show’, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin, Italy, ‘Sleep of Ulro’, A Foundation, Liverpool (2006), ‘Geisai No.9’, Tokyo Young Art Fair, Tokyo, Japan (2006) and ‘God is a Gallery’, Galuzin Gallery, Oslo, Norway (2006). He is represented by IBID Projects, London, and Wentrup, Berlin.


Margarita Gluzberg is an artist.

Supported by Bloomberg.