Up and Coming: Kate Cooper Takes On the Politics and Labor of Digital Imagery

Francesca Gavin
Jul 14, 2015 2:15AM

Is art the creation of a single person or really the result of collaboration, conversation, and work from multiple individuals? This is one of the central questions at the crux of the work of young British artist Kate Cooper.

Portrait of Kate Cooper by Elliot Kennedy for Artsy.

Cooper first made her name as part of Auto Italia South East, an artist-run space founded in south London that has, over time, evolved into an artist collective. During the eight years of its existence, Auto Italia’s exhibitions, events, and projects have often been politically charged. Their conversational and performative works have examined issues around labor, creation, and experience in and outside of art production. Cooper’s own pieces outside of Auto Italia also address some of those same themes: capitalism and commercialism, in particular.

Photo by Elliot Kennedy for Artsy.


Photo by Elliot Kennedy for Artsy.

Cooper isn’t an artist working in a solitary garret with chaos and materials. “I like the difference between working as a solo artist and working within a collective. Auto has been quite important for me because it has been a space that has been about rethinking those conditions. You are constantly thinking: What are the possibilities? But also, what are the restraints?” she considers, sitting in the park outside the Auto Italia studio-cum-office in Bethnal Green. She and the rest of the collective moved here after working in a large exhibition space lent by property developers in Kings Cross. It’s a context that lends itself well to contemplating contemporary making, production, and technology today.

Kate Cooper, “Care Work” 2015. Courtesy Neumeister Bar-Am, Berlin. 

There is something very of the moment about Cooper’s moving image works, which just debuted in Ellis King’s group show “Cookie Gate” in Dublin. Her breakout exhibition was a 2014 solo show at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, in recognition of her winning the Schering Stiftung Art Award.

Photo by Elliot Kennedy for Artsy.

Rigged,V1, 2015
Ellis King

Her installation at KW, RIGGED, was based around a CGI piece playing with ideas about the body as a commercial good, the digital representation of the body, and the life and agency of the image in modern culture. Alongside her own involvement in the process of making, Cooper’s work involves processes and collaborations with people working with digital images and film. There is no such thing as an artist working within a vacuum, she suggests. “I’m interested in labor practices within this digital imagery—it’s almost like a complete collective practice,” says Cooper. “I’m interested in the slippage between those labor practices and how that might become quite formalized or not so hidden.”

Installation view of Kate Cooper, RIGGED, 2014. Photo: Theo Cook. Courtesy of Kate Cooper and KW Institute for Contemporary Art.

Installation view of Kate Cooper, RIGGED, 2014. Photo: Theo Cook. Courtesy of Kate Cooper and KW Institute for Contemporary Art.

RIGGED’s digital aesthetic crossed over between art and the gloss of CGI commercialism. “I am completely fascinated by the images of desire within capitalism but also their violence,” she explains. “What possibilities for new relationships to images and new forms of agency can we invent and produce? Who owns these images and who is given permission to use them—also, how are they related to ideas of class and gender?” Cooper notes the long history of women being used as a “digital prototype, the test card within digital imagery.” The work itself was driven by an inquiry into “What position that body really inhabits? What are our connections with our bodies?”

Cooper’s fascination with hyper-capitalist images came from a desire to understand if there was a possibility for them to take a critical position. Rather than just being images we are drawn to, in Cooper’s world, the glossy female digital body becomes something more complex. “Could they stand in for some of the labor we refuse to do? I like the idea that we can put these images to work, to be in control of these things, rather than them controlling us.”

Photo by Elliot Kennedy for Artsy.

Her work, which has often taken the length of a TV commercial spot, draws on the aesthetics of PR campaigns and advertising. Beyond the history of art and artist collectives, an interesting and significant influence on her work is the structure behind fashion production. She references a documentary on designer Raf Simons, fascinated by how the designer’s relationship with the (largely female) technicians connects to the way she produces her own work. “I’m always interested in how people work together to produce work. How am I working with these other artists? How are they influencing how I’m working? How am I influencing how they are working? I think the infrastructure of how fashion is produced is fascinating to me, how as a designer all your references are contained within a human body.”

Good things are brewing for Cooper. She’s in a two-person show curated by the Whitney’s director of digital media, Sarah Hromack, at New York space K. (formerly known as P!). This September she will mount a solo presentation with Neumeister Bar-Am at ABC Berlin. With her years of experience working with installation and display, expect a naturally inventive approach to exhibitions where the human body and technology meet.

Portrait of Kate Cooper by Elliot Kennedy for Artsy.

Francesca Gavin