Meet Warburg Institute Artist in Residence, Derek Coulombe

During the summer we were pleased to host Derek Coulombe as an artist in residence at the Warburg. He spent his residency undertaking research within the Photographic Collection (using the online Iconographic Database), in order to produce experimental written and audio works that explore figurative gesture through a lens of critical disability.

In this interview, we caught up with Derek to find out more about his work and research.

Can you tell us a bit about your project for your residency at the Warburg Institute?

I have written a text and produced a video piece using the online version of the Warburg Institute’s Iconographic Database. Both works share the title 1&19 1&3432, in them, I use critical and poetic language paired with images collected from the Database to form an imagined link between my own body—and my experience of Tourette’s Syndrome within my body—and the body of Herakles.

An image of Herakles from the Iconographic Database | Paul Arndt and Walter Amelung, Photographische Einzelaufnahmen antiker Skulpturen, Munich 1893-, no. 1886

After an introductory section the text breaks off into two fictional vignettes where I have Herakles speak with himself about his own embodiment and about his own perception of how his figure and physical characteristics have changed over time. In a third section myself and Herakles enter into direct conversation about the gestures and movements that we are made to make and repeat.

The video work presents images of Herakles that I selected from the Iconographic Database arranged on a series of automated slides and paired with a soundtrack I made from a digitally distorted recording of my own breath. My hope here is that the format and delivery of the video work will indirectly echo the panels of Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas. 


"A Puzzling Flesh", Derek Coulombe, 2022

Tourette’s Syndrome, for me, means that I inhabit a body that moves, makes sounds, and utters words without my request or control. This makes me a sort of witness to my own actions—in a sense, I both perform and watch the way my body acts in a kind of simultaneity—I watch my limbs move and hear my voice make sounds as if from a remove while not being removed from those actions at all. I relate this disordered watching of my own body’s operations to the observation of bodies pictured in found imagery and artworks—in this case the images of Herakles—as they are both encounters with gesture that are foisted upon a perceiving agent.

Tourette’s Syndrome, for me, means that I inhabit a body that moves, makes sounds, and utters words without my request or control.

Herakles from the Iconographic Database | Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Monnaies, Médailles et Antiques

The connection I draw between the experience of watching my own movements and watching the movements of other bodies through pictures is that it provides me with a concrete means of thinking through my experience of illness by removing me from the immediacy of my own body, instead placing myself within the insulated position offered by observing a picture of a body other than my own.

Within these two works on Herakles, I wanted to talk about the idea of numerousness existing within a single body. Many people with Tourette’s Syndrome have what they call a ‘repertoire’ of different tics that repeat. My own repertoire contains nineteen tics, and so in a sense I am one body that is made to make nineteen shapes, or gestures over and over again. This is what drew me to the images of Herakles within the Database—when I entered his name as a search term 3432 different iterations of Herakles came up, and his gestures, like mine, repeated throughout the images (though according to a very different set of constraints). So, I began to permit myself to imagine Herakles not as a mythological being depicted many different times and different ways, but as a single being, as a body like mine who had been made to make 3432 different shapes with himself.

An image of Herakles from the Iconographic Database | 18th century, Italian statue, London, Sotheby's (lot 168)( 4 May 1970)

Can you tell us about what drew you to the work and collections of Aby Warburg, and how it relates to this particular project?

The Mnemosyne Atlas, with its concerns around recurrent gesture and the collection and modular presentation of those gestures via photographic reproduction immediately fascinated me when I initially encountered Warburg and his work. While there are many ways to consider the Mnemosyne Atlas’ role or utility, I do love imagining that Aby Warburg was effectively drawing on these movable collage/montage techniques in order to render new knowledge within his field—there is something wonderful and radical in that. In my own project I wanted to try to retain some of the limberness that I have always associated with Warburg when thinking about the ways he utilized images and linked them to ideas. 

What are the possibilities of a project like this situated within the context of the Warburg Institute?

I think something interesting is possible whenever someone permits themselves to read images, content, or data in irregular ways. That is part of what fiction can offer research and knowledge production. Fiction, when linked with research methods, allows my own project the latitude it needs to conduct its particular kind of investigation; because while I understand that there is no pre-existing connection between my experience of these symptoms and an entity like Herakles—I am still allowing myself to form that connection and to elaborate on it—and when a process like this is granted the space to operate within a research context new possibilities can be imagined for both researcher and subject alike.

Derek Coulombe is an artist, writer, and researcher based in New York City. His research circulates around experimental writing, found imagery, and the relationships between visuality, physicality, and critical disability. He is currently a Chester Dale Interdisciplinary Fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.