Interview by David McLeavy
Published December 2019
Your work uses a language of fear, control and authoritarianism. I wondered if you could talk a little more about your relationship with these things and why it so explicitly informs your practice?
Straight in with the big ones! Haha. Fear is the root of the other two, at least in relation to my work. Fear of consequences is what keeps people from acting authentically, we either do or don't do thing that we want to because of a fear of what will happen - making fear the ultimate authority and method of control.
Making art is sort of an exercise in personal liberty, doing something individualistic that's informed by a personal language as opposed to a corporate/societal construct (or at least trying to) is an attempt to subvert control. The ultimate act of liberty is probably crime, obeying only the laws that you as an individual see as just and rejecting moral authority.
Personally, fear found its way into my work through anxiety. There are aspects of contemporary living that turn people into caged dogs and eventually, this sense of tension breaks and results in conflict.
Fear of and the resultant preparation for violence is omnipresent in our lives, either walking home at night with keys through your knuckles or coked up office workers proving their masculinity with flailing punches on high streets up and down the country every weekend - that potential is ubiquitous and accepted.
The media portrays people from outside our social groups as the other, our neighbour becomes the other and the other becomes our enemy. This impairs community and maintains authority through a fear of what this other might do. Control through the potential for conflict.
You speak about fear being one of the driving forces controlling the way we act, but how much of this do you feel is inherent within human nature and how much do you feel is being purposefully manipulated by select groups to retain control and power?
I think that fear as a physiological response is obviously inherent, natural and healthy but that's not necessarily the same fear I'm interested in. It's an exploitation and extrapolation of this fear and the emotional responses associated with it. Rather than a pure abject terror, fear is a spectrum and different points on that spectrum are more useful than others. In horror films, we enjoy fear because it comes with release - the jump scare or the vindication. Dread is a different emotion, capable of illiciting a different reaction and one that I think 'select groups' you refer to probably utilise this more constant, creeping, omnipresent type of fear.
Also, for what it's worth, I don't necessarily believe in a sinister cabal campaigning for the worst for us. I think this sort of manipulation is enacted through bureaucracy. The deindicidualisation and dehumanisation of contemporary governmental and professional process (anything from universal credit applications through to multi level management structures in which everyone is someone's boss) are essential to these kinds of control. A million spineless bureaucrats tapping on keyboards do far more damage than a drunk Dick Cheney dancing around a burning owl effigy with his mates. Any kind of progression comes from personal accountability on an individual level, the end of "I'm just doing my job"-ism.
What I find interesting about the concept of 'fear' is that everyone experiences it in one way or another, yet the its roots are more often than not hidden from sight.
How do you approach making work about something as broad and ingrained as fear? Do you consider you work as a tool to unpack and expose these types of control and triggers of anxiety?
There are two distinct things that jump out at me in that question:
I wouldn't say that I make art "about" fear. For me, making art "about" a specific subject is counter intuitive and limiting, more the way we could talk about social practice or some sort of art as activism.
Fear, in the broadest sense, is a significant inspiration and motivation in my work but only insofar as I believe it to be one of the primary motivators in everything that we do. Why we go to work, why we obey laws and social conventions, its all fear of retribution or fear of ostracisation.
In terms of being a tool for unpacking or exposing anything, the short answer is yes but in a personal way as opposed to a social or philosophical way. It's basically about developing an aesthetic language of my own fascination, obsession or motivation with the intention of being able to stand back and read its semiotic content. It's much more romantic than it is academic and really isn't intended to have any specific social purpose outside of recording my individual experience. Someone recently described my paintings as a sort of new pop art for the dystopia, which I thought was fun.
In that sense context seems key, both in a historical sense or a sense of time, but also in terms of where your work is physically placed. Do you consider the site(s) in which you will be presenting your work when you are producing it?
Sort of, but not in a traditionally "site specific" way. I really like white cube spaces, which might be an unpopular opinion, they provide contemplative space around the work and force the artist and viewer to be able to contextualise it by the content. With my work being so concerned with individual contexts (both my own and the viewers) I like a space to be quite mute.
In terms of galleries, publications or whatever: I like to work with people I respect on a personal level. The tone of a space is defined by the people who run it and it's important to me that I can connect with those people, talking and reaching consensus around the work.
How important is collaboration within your work? You mention that it is important for you to develop relationships with the people who spaces to present work, but does this ethos spread to shared forms of production with other artists?
Absolutely, collaboration is a huge part of the way I work. In terms ofdirect collaboration on new work, my upcoming show at Bloc Projects in Sheffield is all collaborative works made with Sean Campbell, which is our second time doing a project like this. This year I've also collaborated with Dasha Loyko on an audio piece that was shown with the Wrong Biennale and done a little piece with Tomas Harker called Exquisite Corpse.
Working with people is super important to me, sharing ideas gives us perspective and makes things we might otherwise never have thought of. From a critical perspective, it's great to get more involved in the work of other artists as well - collaboration on a conversational level is equally important, being sat in the pub arguing about art is as valuable as anything else and is something I'd consider an equally collaborative exercise through the exchange of information.
I want to talk a little more about the aesthetics of your work, or the visual language that you regularly employ. You seem to collect and re stage images from elsewhere and are interested in DIY cultures. Could you talk a little more about why you approach making work in this way and where you source some of your imagery?
Yeah, basically all of the imagery I use is taken from somewhere else. I'm particularly fond of taking shutterstock images and editing out their watermarks, same with police archives. It's nice to be able to take something back from businesses built on suppressing access to information or just generating banal, homogenous content... but that's an aside. Normally I draw on top of these images and mess with them until they look like something I'm interested in, which is basically the production and perpetuation of my own visual lexicon and doing so in a way that feels honest.
Pop culture, subculture and DIY aesthetics are built on necessity but developed through creativity as much as pragmatism. From Peter Kennard or Ray Pettibon through Mike Kelley and Chris Wool and then Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch to younger artists working today (people like shawné michaelain holloway and Parker Ito do or have done this in different ways in the past half decade to great effect) the aesthetics of 'DIY' or subculture has a strong lineage in contemporary art history. With that having been said, DIY is a broad term and for me generally refers to self-motivated or not-for-profit cultural or social movements and doesn't hold any one aesthetic language. The methodology and being creative with resources on hand is the primary link.
For me your work speaks not only to ideas of pragmatism, but also refers to speed, more specifically the pace at which self organised political propaganda or anti establishment visual culture forms in response to particular situations. The way that banners are made to rally against oppressive systems at mass participation events or the way that memes appear online to rapidly satirise contemporary culture.
Some of your work also appears to link with the aesthetics of the occult, including quasi mystical symbols, such as semi human hands or circular formations. Is this an important reference point for you?
Yeah, the speed aspect of is important, both practically and aesthetically. A lot of the time people can put distance between themselves and the work by implementing convoluted processes, I prefer to keep things simple.
It's definitely an important part of what I'm interested in but particularly because aesthetics like that are developed through their functionality, how well they communicate with or manipulate people. It's the same for political propaganda, advertising etc.
Also, it is interesting how that approach may or may not translate effectively to a studio based practice, as studios are traditionally spaces for the production of artwork, often over extended periods of time. How do you use your studio?
I am absolutely a studio artist, I couldn't be without one. My studio at the rca just looked like a bomb hit it, black walls (it used to be a project space) and a concrete floor covered in red ink, total murder scene. I work pretty chaotically and tend to go from thinking of something to making it quite quickly, so my studio has to have a fluidity to it which tends to mean it's covered in pots of ink, scraps of paper, canvas and whatever other detritus I've dragged in.
I'm also a member of Serf in Leeds, a group of artists working in shared studios. My space there is primarily used for my writing work, so it's a pretty different environment. I have grand plans for a larger space in the future where I can have a wet/dry space with all of my electrical equipment set up. In the past I've worked in sound and video and would like to introduce that again but I guess we'll have to wait and see.
I want to talk more about your writing practice. Do you consider it part of your work or do you consider it a separate or ancillary part of your work?
When I first started to write professionally, it was very separate from my own work but more recently, it's come to inform it significantly. Writing has always been something I've been very comfortable with and is a way to participate in a conversation outside of, or with a different relationship to, aesthetic discourse.
Critical discourse, art or otherwise, should aim to inform the reader as opposed to define whether or not something is good.
I was reading a review recently of a show I'm looking forward to checking out, Sean O'Connel's 'Broth Tarn' at The Civic in Barnsley. The review was positive and I was pleased to see a show outside of a major city receive that kind of coverage but their use of a star rating system really aggrivates me. I find it difficult to trust anyone who thinks it's a good idea to sum up an exhibition out of 5 stars - that's not the purpose of criticism.
There are advantages and disadvantages to being an artist who writes, it's a great way to connect with people whom I share ideas with and to be able to get a shot in the discourse but at the same time, it can overshadow the work from time to time. I'm not a journalist and I'm not interested in being one, I write about what inspires me and try to do so in an honest and direct way. 5 stars for me, I guess.
It's interesting that you don't like to think of yourself as a journalist, as I imagine that many people come across your writing first and your artwork second, mainly due to the reach of some of the platforms that you have written for (Mousse, The Quietus, etc).
I want to focus on one of your works specifically. You made a small sculpture, consisting of a brick covered in cement and broken glass that was simply installed on a white plinth. In a separate conversation we had, you described this work as a weapon of sorts. I wonder if you could talk a little more about this work, it's origins and whether or not you feel like your work is combative in any way?
I mean, journalists have no integrity. Journalism is selling ideologies and not news. Art journalism is mostly focused either on the market or scandal, it degrades to tabloid very quickly. That's not something I'm interested in being a part of. The magazines I work for, generally speaking, publish articles that I would like to read and our working relationships function on consensus, a desire to contribute to discussions in a functional and positive way. Other great publications (two I love are Spike and Adbusters) handle art writing in a valuable way, not everyone is writing trashy puff pieces and hatchet jobs - I just want to be as far as possible from the hysterical clickbait that's come to typify contemporary journalism.
Yeah, that work ('brick') was and is a pretty important one for me. It's unskilled and ugly but it speaks to so many of the inspirations and ideas present in my work. It's inception came from seeing these and similar improvised security systems constantly, there was glass concreted into the walls surrounding my school playground. I made this work in Wakefield whilst on a residency at The Art House and I was thinking a lot about Wakefield's previous status as an EDL (the English nationalist movement previously lead by media scumbag hate evangelist Tommy Robinson) stronghold, that kind of hate for the other is typified through the British relationship to security. Glass jammed in the top of brickwork is a violent gesture. It's says you'd rather tear open someone's artery than have them get onto your property but for some reason is considered noble, or at least an understandable thing to do. It's also a violent aesthetic for the other, the British fear of the unnameable other, the new British desire for closed borders. I wanted to make something that took the violence of these systems and distilled it to a simple object, in doing so I made a weapon. In the gallery, this has the capacity to be weaponised very quickly and (thinking of the brick as a symbol of grassroots resistance and revolution) turned into a threat against the people put those systems in place.
Also, I'm not an activist. I'm an artist and my lineage is in art history. I wanted to reference minimalism (an aesthetic I've always been into) and the duplicitousness of its position in history. Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII was described as an attempt to emphasise the honest of media, how bricks were bricks and that they had integrity because they build houses - not something bourgeois like art. But bricks are not produced on an industrial scale to build houses, they are produced to make money. There is no honesty in industrial material, and that relationship between industry and honesty is directly relevant to the place this work was made as well.
You mentioned that your work 'brick' was 'unskilled and ugly'. We have spoken about it a little earlier in the interview but I wanted to know if it is important that your work utilises a specific aesthetic, or lack thereof? Is there something more direct by choosing to take a less 'beautiful' approach to making work?
With that one particular work, it really had to have a stark aesthetic. It had to just be what it was and that's it, it's a displaced security system that becomes a weapon when isolated. It's also a sculpture. In order to speak to those two things, its aesthetic had to be pragmatic.
In terms of my paintings, I find that question a little. More difficult. I think a lot of them are really beautiful, they sit well in my aesthetic sensibility and history - for me, they are beautiful. Maybe they're not super clean or finished to an artisan standard but I don't care much about that. I guess part of that beauty does come from liberation, being able to act directly and permanently on the canvas. Years ago, I worked for H&M for like 3 months (one of the worst jobs I ever had) and there was a dude who worked there who'd always wanted to be a rockstar. He dressed like Paul weller and had a kid pretty young which I guess precluded him from ever achieving the dream, but once a year he'd go to ibiza and binge up like he'd made it. That guy was talking to me about art and said he tried to buy something from the local degree show every year because "there's love in a painting". That statement has stuck with me forever, it was a totally offhand comment but it summarises my relationship with the medium perfectly. If you do it right, you leave a lot of yourself on the canvas, that's the beauty in painting.
I really like that. It's interesting how often the most casual of statements stick with you. Before we finish, I wanted to ask you more about your upcoming show TULPA at Bloc Projects, Sheffield. Could you talk more about the show and what to expect from the work Sean Patrick Campbell and yourself have been producing?
TULPA was inspired by Sean and my shared love of horror. Horror has always been the maligned genre, for the outsider or a little holiday into the parts of ourselves we prefer not to inhabit. Another thing it's always done well is social commentary, manifesting generational fears and speaking to the presence of anxieties in a given zeitgeist. A lot of what horror does is providing aesthetic representations for these more nebulous fears.
Without giving too much away, the show is a combination of collaborative works and works produced through collaborative research on a theme, the notion of a Tulpa, the manifestation of an idea in the physical world through belief. Sean's work for the show is pointed more towards the rural, old world ideas and mine to the contemporary urban and subcultural landscape. We both hope the show will be an opportunity for people to look inward and become more conscious of their own relationship to aesthetics and the semiotics thereof with regard to their own fears, anxieties, outrage and beliefs.
If you like this why not read our interview with Ashley Holmes
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