Negotiating the paradox of material states.
Artist Robert Cervera investigates materiality through his interest in the way properties of materials change. The artist’s “dialogue with materiality” has been present since his childhood in Spain, where he was surrounded by family that engaged with the land in an agricultural and practical way. Through an experimental approach to making, an aspect of serendipity exists; only shaping ideas after testing how a material behaves. Concrete, one of his preferred mediums, holds endless associations – anthropological, historical, sociological – while other materials he uses explore changing states, like jelly setting from liquid to solid. While the sculptures respond to architecture and the built environment, the concept of containment is also prevalent. He alludes to how there is a similarity between a reservoir and the Cloud – both are concrete containers responsible for amassing large quantities of “more or less shapeless assets (be it water or data).” Containment considers skin as the body’s protector, concrete as a barrier between inside and out, data holding our personal information. When visiting Cervera’s studio, I witness the modern technology that the artist is concerned with. Sculptures are inspired by the cooling systems inside a computer case and the metal strips used on server racks, and he has learned how to code to produce musical compositions. Music is a new route for the work that he is embracing, exploring playable sculptures compiled of cylinders which are blown into like trumpets. We discuss his plans for future collaborations with musicians, composers and programmers, which will no doubt add a greater depth to his multifaceted practice.
What made you choose to study an MA in sculpture at the Royal College of Art here in London? Was moving to this city to continue studying rather than staying in Barcelona a logical, choice for you?
I actually never studied art back in Spain. My art education happened in London and it started relatively late in my life. Five years into living here I decided to give my fascination with art some training, starting with a Foundation course, all the way to that MA. I applied to the Royal College because it felt like the place that suited my sensitivities best.
Have you felt your work change alongside your transition between cities?
It’s only been recently that I’ve started to be involved with the art scene in Spain, doing two residencies there and some shows. But funnily enough both residencies have been instrumental in some of the latest developments in my work, so there’s probably a reverse dynamic between the two cities that is having an effect on my art.
We are all guided by our actions, environment, emotions and desires. What was it that inspired you to become an artist? Have you found experiences and memories from your childhood to influence your artistic practice today?
I think many artists can trace back to circumstances in their childhood many of their most idiosyncratic choices. There was a strong sense of physical agency in my extended family that I can still relate to. I’d see grown-ups working agricultural land, mixing concrete to self-build a small house in the countryside, using their hands to negotiate their environment. That dialogue with materiality is definitely at the heart of my work.
Why are you interested in interrogating materiality? Are there any specific materials that you focus on in your work, or that draw you back in to continually investigate?
I’ve used concrete extensively in the last years, but also other materials that change from liquid to solid – from strawberry jelly to silicone. There is a magic and a paradox in that transformation which still fascinates me. Concrete also comes with as many implications as you may want to find in it: political, anthropological, psychological, historical, sociological. So alongside the sculptural and processual interest in the material, there are other theoretical motivations.
What does your process of making a work look like and how does it begin?
I tend to work experimentally with materials, trying several things in parallel in the studio. I try not to have ideas. They eventually do land on some of the experiments, pointing towards further experimentation and creating a sort of lineage of interests and connections. At first, though, my intention is to delay their arrival, trusting the messy hand-to-brain process.
I’m interested in how you incorporate elements of flow and structure into your works. On first reflection, these ideas seem opposing in nature, but you form a harmony between these in your practice through letting your subconscious roam free whilst you create until you stumble upon a form that solidifies your next creative direction. Can you tell us a bit about why these two aspects are so central to your work and process?
I’m not completely sure where my fascination in that dialectic comes from, but perhaps from moments in my childhood like the ones I’ve mentioned: being in some field looking at how a relative would be watering it, directing free-flowing water from a canal by using a hoe to make little ridges with soil, rebuilding them in real time as the water licks them down to conduct the flow this way or that. There is a non-binary beauty, a constant dialogue between the thing contained and the thing that contains. A hybrid between the two, that resonates with me and seems to offer a positive model for our times, based in negotiation and accepted entanglement.
The way you investigate real-life locations, such as data centres, and architectural features, namely dams, in your work fascinates me. How have you unified ideas of space or location with your creations?
When you look at those big-scale engineering projects, you find a similar material logic at play within them. They are essentially concrete containers made to gather and control big masses of more or less shapeless assets (be it water or data), often placed in similar locations and facing similar physical challenges. The material questions that we have to deal with are recurrent, no matter if you are a hydraulic engineer in ancient China, a Google data centre manager or, in my case, a sculptor in Bethnal Green.
The use of concrete, wire and plastic in your works strikes me as very construction- based material foundations. Is architecture important to you in your practice? Does this reveal itself in both digital, through your use of coding and numbers, alongside real-life forms?
I’d say that I have some questions in common with architects and some processes and materials overlap. I’m also interested in the lived experience of the built environment, how we negotiate the creations of architects and city planners daily, and how their materiality affect us. A wall of concrete talks to our body without words. Coding is a whole different chapter, but perhaps we could talk about that in a moment.
What role does photography play in your practice? Do you use images found on the internet or are they your own creations?
I use both, but I’m particularly fond of using images found online. It’s like putting your hand in a river to take a gulp of water. It’s both random and chosen, it comes from an ever-expanding pool of possibilities, both anonymous and completely personal. The image then becomes another material in my studio, often to become enmeshed with concrete.
Alongside this still, more contained, aspect to your works, performance and collaborations with musicians are also strands you investigate. Is exploring the complexities and similarities between these two mediums important to you?
There is another biographical element in that question. I studied music for years in a conservatoire and only in the last three years I’ve connected that training with my sculpture. I’m finding the ephemerality of musical performance a very useful counterpoint to the fixity of sculpture.
When visiting your studio, I really enjoyed this performative aspect to your practice that you demonstrated by playing notes on long, plastic pipes grounded by concrete. How did this more interactive strand to your work come about? Why are they human-sized in scale?
In 2017 I was in a residency in Barcelona and I started playing around with PVC pipes. I realised I could actually play them by blowing into them like a trumpet, and ended up making a ten-metre long sculpture that I played alongside five other brass players in a performance. It was a complete revelation for me. The smaller versions of that sculpture that I played for you in my studio are built for a single performer and made out of transparent tubes, so you can see the breath circulating and steaming up the pipes, as if they were externalisations of the respiratory system. I plan to make bigger pipe systems again, to be able to see the interaction between the breath of different players.
There is an element of containment in your artwork. For example, you showcase skin, a container for the body, concrete, often a barrier that splits the interior and exterior setting, and data, something that holds our digital identity. Why does the idea of containing something, essentially controlling it, interest you?
I love Ursula Le Guin’s Carrier Bag Theory, in which she proposes that the earliest human tool is not the spear, but the container (a gourd, a shell, a sling,… whatever could be used to carry more than the hand can hold). It rings true to me that creating containment (to gather things or to protect us from the environment) may be the key challenge humanity has always faced. From our own skin all the way to the data centres that gather our digital selves, we understand this need for containment intuitively. Of course, it comes with a dark side of control, cooption and coercion.
The internet appears to be central to your works with streaming, gaming, images, sound and video all playing a part, alongside ideas of data as we’ve mentioned. Can you explain your transition into experimenting with screenshots and segments of video games in your practice?
After some years researching reservoirs and data centres, I arrived at video games through some of the materials and tools I’m using at the moment. The transparent tubes in my playable sculptures come from the world of extreme gaming; they’re used to build custom liquid cooling systems inside the computer case. I’ve learnt to code in order to compose music with the sounds those pipes can make. I’m also using metal strips like the ones used to build server racks to give my poured concrete a structure.
Which tools do you use to implement the digital realm into your work? How do you distinguish between the virtual world and our physical environment in your practice, or are these dimensions actually more connected than we might think?
I’m interested in the materiality of the digital realm. The Cloud is made of concrete, cabling and cooling systems – you cannot escape the physical reality of data no matter how ethereal you make it out to be. Part of what I’m doing now is to bring visibility to that paradox, from how the code is typed to how the processing units need to be cooled down and stacked.
What do you envision your work to be moving towards? Will performance be playing a larger role?
Yes. I’m very excited about the new dimension that the musical and audiovisual elements are bringing to my sculptural work. They will be the focus of my next solo show in Barcelona at Tangent Projects and I plan to continue exploring them in upcoming London shows.
Are you hoping to collaborate with other artists in the future? Or perhaps individuals from other specialisations that appear central to your thinking, such as philosophy, computer science or music?
I’m already reaching out to musicians to join me in my performance work and thinking about future collaborations with composers and programmers. As to other disciplines, I’m really interested in Game Studies and how a new wave of philosophers are using gaming as a field in which to ask wider questions around our future place in the world.
Words by Laura Gosney