Interview by David McLeavy
Published October 2017
Bob Bicknell-Knight's work as an artist and curator deals with the complex culture and politics of the online space. By often using and referencing popular online icons, Bicknell-Knight (re)presents aspects of the internet to examine consumer capitalist and surveillance culture.
The Choice of a New Generation, installation view, Muse Gallery, London, 2017
Your work as an artist but also as a curator seems to be very ‘current’ in the sense of the subject matter that you are focusing on (surveillance, consumer capitalist, future utopian environments, etc). Where does this interest stem from and why do you think it is important for artists to question issues such as these which are so heavily embedded in politics, anthropology and media commentary?
I think artists are usually pre-conditioned to react to what’s happening around them, and as someone who’s active on the internet, due to my age and position in society, these issues of surveillance, on and off the internet, accompanied by the corporate/government takeover of the web, affect how I act and function on a day to day basis, from sponsored ads clogging up my Facebook feed to putting tape over my webcam. As an accompaniment to this, I’ve always enjoyed reading science fiction, especially as I grew older and I actually began to understand the distressing parallels between our world and the utopian/dystopian worlds being portrayed in these books I was reading by Philip K Dick or Margaret Atwood… There’s a long history of artists and writers questioning the political or institutional systems they’re working within, in this case a lot of my work revolves around the reduction of rights that people have, be it in a real world sense with the rise of Donald Trump and more specifically his travel ban earlier this year, or in a virtual way with bills being passed that allow the UK government to peruse our internet history.
A Mountain Walk,Gear VR, virtual reality app, iPhone 4s, headphones, plastic, wood, stainless steel, grass fibres, scenic lichen, miscellaneous wires, 2017
So leading on from that, why do you feel it is important to display works or curate groupings of works together and place them online as oppose to in a gallery or in the physical public sphere? Is it important for you to use the tropes of the very thing that you are critical of, in the same way artists have been doing for centuries?
Bearing in mind everything I’ve just said, a lot of my current online curatorial practice is due to funding, or a lack thereof, rather than attempting to specifically protest against the traditional gallery system or the governments take-over of the net. Running an online gallery and hosting online exhibitions fundamentally reduces costs, at the same time enabling me to have discussions with fellow artists and curators, inviting them to be a part of the platform just like an offline space would. Although on a more positive note the use of the online space hopefully broadens the reach outside of the art sphere, utilising social media platforms to do so, as well as allowing anyone with an internet connection to view art from the comfort of their own home. The virtual gallery space of isthisit? seeks to provide an established platform for digital artworks to exist within rather than simply on an artists personal website, giving prominence to the work whilst allowing curators to experiment with the medium of the internet.
I miss you Blockbuster, installation view, A217 Gallery, London, 2017
I think once you’ve embedded yourself within a system, using it on a daily basis; posting to Instagram, checking the news, sending emails, it’s very hard to say that you’re using these luxuries in a knowing or ironic way. However, a lot of the time, hypocritically, I do use elements or ideologies within my work that I’m critical of but still indulge in, attempting to highlight the absurdities or oddities of them. A recent video piece utilised the emoji scroll you commonly see on live Facebook videos, questioning how diluted our reactions to real world violence have become when viewing distressing events through the lens of social media. I still use Facebook and watch news broadcasts on Facebook Live though, so maybe I'm as bad as everyone else, only attempting to cover that fact up by making hypocritical artwork about it!
To stay on the subject of isthisit? has your understanding of the role of curator (assuming that you consider yourself a curator through ithisit?) changed since you began working on the site? If so how?
And in addition, how much interaction IRL do you have with the people that you work with on the site and is this important for you?
I think everyone’s idea of what a curator does is usually slightly skewed, until you actually become a curator yourself and realise what a lot of it involves; hundreds of emails and other admin based activities. I now see the curator as organiser, not in a negative way, but that title seems to encompass everything that a curator does (having discussions with artists, choosing artwork, transporting artwork, writing emails, creating art platforms, commissioning artworks, etc, etc) rather than simply ‘curating’, which to a lot of people is still thought of as simply deciding how high or low a painting is hung on the wall, outside of the art world’s sphere anyway.
Alongside curating online exhibitions on the site, I also organise offline shows, which usually consists of a mix of people I’ve worked with in the past on isthisit? as well as artists who are new to me. In the lead up to these I go on as many studio visits as I can, as they’re slowly becoming my favourite activity that a curator gets to undertake. These visits are incredibly important; getting to see the work in person alongside actually getting to chat about the artists work, rather than reading a pre-scripted line in an email or on a website. I always love the private views of the offline shows too, as they usually bring a lot of the people I’ve worked with in the past together, enabling me to meet them and actually talk AFK. These interactions, however short, are hugely valuable to me. Unfortunately, when I do work with someone for solely online projects we rarely meet; I’ve been working with some people for over a year now and still haven’t met face to face. It’s a shame as you learn a lot more about a person, and the artwork that they make, through having physical conversations with them but due to geography sometimes this just isn’t possible. Online, everything has the possibility to be false, or hidden behind a façade of misinformation, it becomes a lot harder to do that when you finally get to meet them! However, being aware of all this, pretty much everyone that I do work with now, both online and offline, I originally met and talked to in the online space and through the isthisit? platform, so by default I’m an advocate for online interactions.
The Museum Has Abandoned Us, installation view, STATE OF THE ART, Berlin, 2017
Do you feel that curators and/or artist-curators, such as yourself, are beginning to play a role in defining a group or a new set of artists that are working together on digital and IRL exhibitions. Something like a support network or a form of collective advocacy?
There’s definitely a set of young curators/collectives who’re working between or within online and offline space, who are all aware of each other’s existence, although I’d be hesitant to call it a group as that feels like it’s an exclusive club or something, where in actuality it’s more like a series of mostly unfunded collectives or organisations who like each other’s work on Instagram, sending the occasional email and very rarely meeting in real life, or at least that’s my perspective on it. I’d hate to be seen to be a part of a club of curators, even if that came with support structures, as that feels very cliquey and could turn into nepotism, an aspect of curation I do try to avoid, so am constantly looking for new people to work and collaborate with, with a continuous call out for curators to email me who might want to get involved with isthisit?, as well as generally open calls for the majority of the projects that I undertake. The idea of collective advocacy however is really interesting, like a collective is endorsing my platform by being a part of it, or you’re endorsing isthisit? by asking me to be a part of YAC, or vice versa. It just goes back to the idea that the more you do, the more reliable you become and more people want to work with you.
Simple Human, installation view, 2017
To move to another element of your practice as an artist. You use internet memes or refer to them in some way in many of your works, I use Pepe The Redeemer as a singular example. What is it about internet memes that you find interesting and a source of reference.
I think I’m most interested in the various connotations of memes, how you have to have a certain knowledge of the subject that’s being talked about, or be a member of a certain Facebook group, to be able to understand the very convoluted meaning. What’s meaningless to some is incredibly pertinent to others, akin to art in a way. This is why I’ve used Pepe the Frog in a few of my works, originally a fairly wholesome meme, that slowly became a symbol that the alt-right has supposedly stolen, although at the moment the creator behind Pepe (Matt Furie) is sending takedown notices to a variety of people who’ve used the meme in far-right ways. For me a blanket statement declaring that Pepe is an alt-right symbol to everyone who uses it is problematic, context, as always, is incredibly important. People still use the meme on and off the internet to convey a variety of meanings, which has been happening to Pepe since it’s early days on Myspace and 4chan. With Pepe The Redeemer, I’m attempting to draw certain comparisons between the abuse of Pepe throughout the years, being turned into a ‘blank canvas’ in a way, for anyone to use and take for their own, and Jesus Christ, someone whose ‘original’ ideologies (whatever those may have actually been) have been warped and changed over the years so drastically that they’re unrecognisable from the original belief system.
Pepe The Redeemer (detail), HD Video with sound, TV, polyamide, USB drive, miscellaneous cables, 2017
You use the comparison between Pepe, or the way the meme of Pepe has been (ab)used and the many trials of Jesus Christ depicted in the Bible. Does this have some relevance in the work The Pepe Trials?
Yes, it’s said that Jesus was tried six times by various prominent figures before he was eventually crucified. In The Pepe Trials these trials have become physical hardships, rather than linguistic accusations. However, rather than there being an ‘end point’, where Pepe is eventually crucified and becomes the ‘Redeemer’ character in the later work, the video loops, attempting to make a point that Pepe will continue to be Pepe, solemnly dancing away, however much hatred or violence is thrown at them. This was made partly in response to when Furie tried to kill off Pepe a few months ago in May, which of course is impossible to do. Memes have to die of their own accord, with 'death' on the internet manifesting as nobody talking about you anymore. There are probably thousands of memes that were once incredibly popular that are no longer used, but declaring that Pepe was dead had the exact opposite intended reaction, more memes utilising the frog were produced and they were back in the news, thus the loop begins again.
What are your ambitions for isthisit?
My main concern at the moment is funding for the project, for the general isthisit? platform alongside the offline exhibitions that I organise. I'd love to be able to pay artists a fee, but everything at the moment is unfunded, which is a continuous source of frustration to me and (I assume) the artists that I invite to be a part of the platform. I'm aiming to put together the magazine on a quarterly basis, continuously seeking sponsors and stockists, and to continue working on offline exhibitions for the foreseeable future. I eventually want to run my own gallery space, although to make that sustainable it may involve moving out of London, but for now I think I need to learn more about the 'business' of the art world before entering the realm of going to art fairs and selling artists work for a living.
isthisit? Issue 2, essay by Bob Bicknell-Knight
What do you think have been the biggest successes for you that have come from running isthisit?
I think the success for me is having the privilege to work with so many amazing artists, to be welcomed into their studio spaces and houses to discuss their work, eventually showing it in a gallery space. The offline shows have been successful in a more stereotypical sense, with hundreds of people coming to the private views, but at the moment I’m more excited by the conversations that isthisit? has enabled me to be a part of, which is a less tangible sense of success I guess, but still very important to me as an artist and curator. I love being emailed artwork or having discussions with people who might come up to me at a private view, being recognised to be doing something current is the biggest success that I’ve encountered so far, and I’m looking forward to continuing those discussions in the future.
Bob Bicknell-Knight artist and curator based in London working in installation, sculpture, moving image, net art and other digital mediums. Along with his solo practice, he is the founder of isthisit? and the Director of A217 Gallery.
If you like this why not read our interview with James Parkinson
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