“Are you OK with dogs?” asks Jo Longhurst when I arrive at the front door of her east London studio, before I’m eagerly greeted by Quinn and Coby, a pair of silky whippets, who slink around my legs. I’m not surprised that Longhurst lives with dogs; one of her best known artistic projects focused on the competitive world of dog shows, to explore ideas of power, control, love and desire.

Trained in photography, Longhurst’s expansive practice also includes sculpture, moving image, performance and installation. “When I studied photography, my work never felt like it fitted neatly into its conventions,” she says. “What I found frustrating was the sense that ‘you have to do it this way: you frame like this, you make work in series, every image should be printed the same size, this is how it’s done.’ So part of my work became questioning the conventions of photography itself.”

Taking a slow and collaborative approach on projects that often play out over many years, her work explores traditions of portraiture, and critiques theories of representation, gender and eugenics. She has won awards including the Grange Prize in 2012, Canada’s highest award for excellence in international photography, and a National Media Museum Photography Bursary. In 2015 she worked with rhythmic gymnasts in a social project in Rio de Janeiro, and in 2018 created new moving image and performances for the Cultural Programme of the European Sports Championships in Glasgow and Perth, which was shortlisted for the SpallArt Prize.

In summer 2023 her solo exhibition ‘Here, Now’ at Studio Voltaire, London, marked a new direction in her practice. Using bindweed as a metaphor for societal attitudes to disability and chronic illness, it featured photographic collages, text and a moving image work made in collaboration with a collective of artists who live with unseen health conditions.

A grid of 12 photographs of whippet dogs shown in profile, all facing to the right
Jo Longhurst, Twelve dogs, twelve bitches, 2008, installation view (detail), Royal College of Art.

EW: ‘Here, Now’ is part of your ongoing multidisciplinary project Crip, which considers the existence of invisible disabilities or differences through video, photography and research. This is the first time you have made work that you appear in and that refers to your own unseen disability, albeit indirectly. How did this shift happen?

JL: I was looking for a new direction in my practice when the a-n Time Space Money bursary came up in 2021, which also coincided with a commission for Hapax magazine to make work that represented a change in practice.

I had been thinking about plants and started photographing bindweed near my studio. It’s considered an undesirable, marginalised plant, which grows in a twisting, anti-clockwise direction. It’s also tenacious and grows vigorously in edge- and borderlands.

During lockdown I met online with Lisa Slominski [curator of ‘Here, Now’]. We talked about my own health conditions. She said, ‘I think it might be good to tackle this [in your work].’ And I was going, ‘no, no, no, no.’ At this point I hadn’t ever publicly mentioned my own health conditions, let alone addressed them in my practice.

I’d read Ill Feelings by Alice Hattrick and hers was the first voice I’d heard that I really identifed with. The a-n bursary was pivotal because it gave me the structure and permission I needed to reach out to people like Alice – who appears in moving image work Here, Now – and artist Leah Clements.

Dark gallery space with projected video showing bindweed on one wall and adjacent a cluster of 6 framed collages
Jo Longhurst, Here, Now, 2023, installation view Studio Voltaire, London

You developed Here, Now with eight women and non-binary artists who live with unseen disabilities and conditions. How did you work with the group?

I wanted to make a contemporary portrait of people with unseen conditions and illnesses. It was a challenge, not least because obviously you can’t see these things and I’m predominantly a visual artist. But also because of people’s different needs, including my own.

We initially shared our experiences through one-to-one and group conversations. We talked about Crip Time [a concept that addresses ways that disabled and chronically ill people experience time and space differently to others] and about our own relationships to time. Many of us have to lie down a lot and stay very still. It’s not sleeping and it’s not resting in the sense of ‘I’m going to have a little nap’.

Given the collaborative nature of the work and the unseen conditions of participants, how much did you direct their actions during filming?

There were a few set things that I asked them to do: shots of them standing, shots with closed eyes and slowly opening them, and everyone made some kind of a twisting or unfurling movement.

Some of us chose to lie down. We’d talked about potential movement or immobility that would symbolise us. For many of us, when we’re visible, out in the world, we’re upright and appear fine; in the film there are small glimpses of us ‘performing well’.

One participant – who was quite unwell at the time – didn’t want to lie down because that’s how they spent all their time and they didn’t want to be seen in that way. But somebody else said, ‘I’m going to lie down, because my ancestors never had that opportunity!’ Another person wanted to dance because that’s her thing. While I’m behind the way the images look, I wanted there to be some tangible agency. It was very empowering.

Blurry video still showing a figure lying on their side, facing away from the camera, in a plain grey space
Jo Longhurst, Here, Now, 2023, video still (HD video for projection)

In the preparatory sessions you showed the group 19th-century photographic portraits of women diagnosed as ‘hysterical’. What is their significance?

I was researching asylums, and systems of control and health, when I came across these photos taken in psychiatric institutions. Although the idea of ‘hysteria’ was discredited long ago, we discussed our feelings about these images and how this kind of representation can linger. The passive, helpless, slightly mad, hysteric woman. She can’t be helped, but can be labelled and studied.

That idea of every ‘hysteric’ – or people who have certain sicknesses, or who have committed certain crimes – looking the same, goes back to eugenics and relates to your previous work that explores similar ideas around agency, visibility and performance. The Refusal is a body of work about competitive dog shows and Other Spaces focuses on elite gymnastics. These are very particular worlds – how did you gain access to them?

When I started with the dogs, I was looking at breeds and thinking about race and class and ideas of ‘perfection’. And how much emphasis there is in photography about getting the perfect shot, the ‘decisive moment’ [a term coined by Henri Cartier Bresson in the 1952], of eradicating any mistakes.

I went to dog shows for over a year with my own dogs to learn what it was like before I started working on that project. But still, it was a very closed world. In the end I used a little stereoscopic camera to photograph the dogs of the best breeders.

When I was younger I was a competitive trampolinist. So I had a flavour of gymnastic competition and the rigours of training. As Visting Artist at Heathrow Gymnastics Club, I went every Sunday for a year, just to watch. Then I had two photo sessions of five minutes with each gymnast. They were very good. But the coaches didn’t like that my photographs showed imperfections – they’re not like performance shots for press or Instagram, which conform to certain conventions and expectations.

Gymnastics is so gender conservative, with very prescribed gender roles. There were a couple of pieces that the all-male coaching team at Heathrow wouldn’t let me do, which I later made in Canada, when I won the Grange Prize. I had a residency in Toronto and made contact with a gymnastics club with a female coach. She wasn’t very interested in art, but she absolutely got it when I told her what I wanted to do. That’s where I made Cross, the image of a young female gymnast in a red leotard, hanging in a cross shape on the rings apparatus.

A young female gymnast wearing a red leotard, performing a cross shaped pose on the rings apparatus, against a black background
Jo Longhurst, Cross, photograph. From the series Other Spaces (2008 – ongoing)

Female gymnasts don’t perform on the rings, but do they use them in training?

Yes, and it was symbolic. The British coach didn’t like the pose, he said, ‘it’s not feminine, think of something else.’ There’s so much in life, especially if you’re female, that is hidden and then you perform. Gymnasts score points for making it look effortless. And have to look glamorous while doing it. The women have to flow and be fluid.

I was trying to turn that on its head and show this act of strength and capability and power. But she’s in a cross, wearing red, so it’s also about sacrifice.

Can you tell me about the performance you made in 2012 with gymnasts at Mostyn, Llandudno, as part of your exhibition ‘Other Spaces’.

Gymnasts need flare to perform, but I wanted to make a work that also highlights the layers of drudge work, the time and repetition. So the performance was very much about that discipline and unseen labour.

I worked with Bangor Gymnastics Club. They wore plain leotards I made, rather than fancy leotards with stripes and glitter or team colours.

We used the corridors and stairs at Mostyn, which is a beautiful, angled, modernist-style building. Minimal but very complex geometric architecture. The gymnasts performed on rubber mats – their shapes were informed by basic core geometries.

A person wearing a black leotard, lying face down on a black mat, with arms and legs lifted and extended. Behind them is a large glass window with a view of concrete geometric architecture
Jo Longhurst, Untitled (intervention), 2012, at Mostyn, Llandudno

In that exhibition there was a striking photograph of a gymnast who appears to be suspended in mid-air, horizontal, like she’s lying on her back. It was installed across the width of the gallery, several metres wide, butted up to ceiling, so she appears trapped.

Yes, she was very constrained. It was an image pushed to the limit in every way and then expanded so it was really pixelated. Weird things happen when the pixels struggle. It looked like the Hubble images of star systems.

She’s in the middle of this multiple twisting somersault. The coach hated it because her hand was out of line. But I loved it because she seemed so serene.

And I was thinking about animal instinct and intellect, the processing and learning that you need to do these somersaults and land properly. And the pull between the two. At what point do you just have to trust instinct? How do you know when to come out? All of that. And this image was so inscrutable.

Crip, like all of your projects, is ongoing. What next?

I want to make a bigger exhibition where I can put into practice what I’ve learned about different needs and ways to engage people. How to create Crip-friendly spaces that aren’t cut off from everything else. That can be activated by Crip performances or readings. The collective has grown since Here, Now, through Instagram and responses to the exhibition. So I want to create space for other people to also present their own work.

‘Here, Now’ was at Studio Voltaire from 9 August – 10 September 2023