Interview by David McLeavy
Published in July 2020
The Painter and Their Desktop, 2017
When I think of your work I usually picture your paintings, specifically the work The Painter and Their Desktop, 2017. However painting is only one facet of your work. How would you describe your practice and is it useful to think of yourself as a painter or is that limiting?
Hey Dave. Yeah, it’s a good example to start with as around the time I was making this painting in 2017, many other (non-Painting) parts of my practice were beginning to develop; namely sound, print and installation work, curation, collaboration and research. Since then, I had a bit of an internal conflict with the limits of the linear ‘Painting cannon’ and the one-dimensional nature of the medium. I don’t read much Painting theory; I research psychology, technology and things that have nothing to do with art. So you could say that Painting is like the ‘book cover’ to my practice and all of the ideas and motivations I get from research make up the book's contents using whatever medium is most appropriate.
I want to talk more about The Painter and Their Desktop, 2017, and your motives for making the work. For me it speaks of your broader interests outside of painting and looks to shed light on the conditions of the contemporary artist as a whole. Such as the studio often being substituted by the laptop and that the traditional practices of some artists are now less common. Am I on the right lines here?
Yeah absolutely. So it’s important to know that the painting is based on the Apple macOS Sierra default desktop image which is a very modern picture rendered through a very traditional medium in this case. It was the backdrop for millions of Mac users in 2016 who ran this OS. With this in mind, making this painting is as simple as opening a laptop then painting the first picture that appears and this square and simple character comes into the production of the work. I think a lot about the fact that artworks aren’t anonymous; they’re connected to someone that’s made them so forging persona’s behind my paintings is something that started here. This character is based on a lot of research from Tristan Harris’ tech ethics NPO ‘The Centre for Humane Technology’. I was listening to lots of interviews with Harris whilst making the painting. One of CHT’s concerns is that users of tech platforms are much easier to manipulate and capitalise on if they’re predictable and simple and companies like Facebook have shown they have the means to change users in this way.
With my paintings, the choice of what picture I re-produce is open-ended and they’re usually pretty close to the photographic source (I don’t care much for gestures or obvious brush strokes). For me, it’s really about the choice of what is being painted - a bit like what makes a good DJ. The intention, naivety, arrogance, conformity, behaviour, attitude, etc. behind choosing and painting an image is such an important context to understand the work through.
That leads nicely to a new series of paintings that you are making which share a similar sentiment or intention; that being the importance of choosing what is being painted as opposed to the stylistic nature of painting itself. You spoke to me last week about a series of paintings of stills taken from the children's animated film Toy Story that relate to loss and abandonment. I wondered if you could talk a little more about them?
Yeah, this is what I’m working on during lockdown at the moment. I’m making a selection of painted stills from Toy Story using the film franchise’s narrative as an analogy to explore recent relationship types between the user and certain big-tech platforms. It’s still a WIP so, at this stage, I won’t explain how I fuse the two subjects, but I’ll detail some of the content and challenges the project tackles.
When I was researching tech platform relationships, I was interested in Woody’s approach of abandonment prevention by tricking Andy with hidden messages and location tracing efforts (the above painting is based on this great scene from Toy Story 3 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BDuD0SrQxDg ). There are so many parallels here to how real-world tech platforms use similar attachment strategies on their users. The challenge I was facing here is that a lot of research on this is in huge books and long scientific papers. For example, Shoshana Zuboff’s ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’ is 704 pages and it’s evident that technology ethics isn't a widely accessible subject yet.
Toy Story, on the other hand, is accessible, very well known and you call it a children’s film but I’ve sat next to adults that have wept watching it. Not only do I think the vast majority of people know it; they have a deep-rooted childhood connection with it and its characters. This is a good example of why image selection is important for me because the pre-made narrative I’m working with is already stable and much clearer to tell other stories through. When choosing the images to paint, I’m looking for pairing opportunities between the film's events and real-world events; real techniques that are used by real tech companies concerning their relationship with the user. For example, one piece of work I'm making tackles similarities in how social media platforms influence its user's decisions to Woody's use of fake sticky notes to influence Andy’s decisions in the film. How I tell these parallel stories is something people will have to wait for when the exhibition opens.
[The show has been postponed for obvious reasons. My Instagram is the best place to keep up to date with its opening.]
It’s true what you say about technology ethics, or other progressive socio-political subject matters being relatively inaccessible to the masses. There is something about painting that opens things up a little more, perhaps not to the degree that a blockbuster animation on the scale of Toy Story 3 does, but perhaps when compared to other contemporary art forms.
A Breakage in the Hum, vinyl print on acrylic, 2018
I often think of contemporary art as a mechanism to either obscure or highlight something, or in some cases both. Your work tends to use techniques of obscuring things from the viewer in some way to perhaps highlight something else. I am thinking of works like A Breakage in the Hum, 2018, where a fire exit sign seems to be purposely blurred. This approach might also be applicable to the new Toy Story works, but in contrast to hiding something, you are opening up possibilities by highlighting certain subtle thematic threads in the narrative of the film. I wondered what your thoughts were on this?
Yeah absolutely, maybe the most simple way of explaining these links you mention is that they suggest expanded or additional narratives in things that are ready-made and seemingly complete. For example, the safety sign is a repeated, invariant object, legally required in every public building so any change to it (like the simple change in this work) removes its legal status. It stops it from blending in as this sort of ‘default building interior feature’ and in the context of the installation the work was made for, it's able to expand as part of a new narrative.
‘A Breakage in the Hum’ was part of a larger, impromptu one-night event at a multi-room guardian property in South London. The event was like a mini art festival with performance rooms, music rooms, exhibition rooms and our (myself - http://oliverdurcan.com , Corey Bartle-Sanderson - http://coreybartlesanderson.com and Steven Gee- https://www.stevengee.com ) room which was the buildings’ boys toilets. We titled the bathroom project ‘Night Shade’ (see our websites for documentation) and made custom versions of objects or features you'd expect to encounter in this type of room. Considering it wasn’t a functioning bathroom (unplumbed), we were interested in the default behaviours and default objects that were expected and prompted by the room from its aesthetic cues. Public bathrooms have universal behavioural rules; there’s etiquette inside them that doesn’t exist anywhere else and our challenge was to disjoint this.
The outcome was bizarre, to be honest. A lot of people didn’t know that they were still in an art space when walking in, so Corey’s custom made urinal cakes were pissed on, some people laughed at the room in realisation, others showed aggression at groups inside as they expected it to be a private space. For those that stuck with the confusion, however, and saw the default objects were in fact artworks in camouflage, a slow transformation happened in understanding the bathroom in an art context. It’s this state of uncertainty where real experience and discovery happens and you could argue that ‘social expectation’ was part of the materials list in the installation. It was with this element of pre-established expectation, that we could detail to derail a suspended state of uncertainty and that was such a big part of the project.
I love the subtlety of that project. There is something about people being in the room at the exact moment that they realise something else is happening. As if the room at one split second is both bathroom and artspace, cultivating a truly unique shift in perspective, which is radically different to entering into a gallery, where your expectations are already conditioned by previous visits.
The Biscuit Factory, Bermondsey, London
You often work collaboratively, you mentioned working with Steven and Corey, and I wanted to ask how you go about collaborative working? Do you even consider ‘collaborate’ to be the most appropriate word for the way that you work with and alongside others?
Haha, this is a story that ends up with me sitting in a therapists office for four months. I think the term collaboration is very paired up with the terms 'responsibility' and 'workload' too, which can easily become very fuzzy when collaborating.
Just a bit of background context - in 2016, a few of us launched artist and curatorial collective IKO (It's Kind of Hard to Explain) - http://itskindof.com, exhibiting artists from around the UK whilst also making it into a brand. We collaborated very closely here as we were all learning how to operate an art brand and curate together from scratch. After a couple of years, I had loads of archived project ideas that wouldn’t have worked for the direction IKO was going in, so I left IKO and started Shipment ( http://www.shipment.org.uk ) as a sole Director in 2018.
I learnt as I went along that Shipment posed different challenges to IKO in that I wasn’t sharing the workload in the same way. Once we secured a space in The Biscuit Factory (Bermondsey, London, see picture above), the first season of exhibitions inspired by shows like ‘Strange Days’ at 180 Strand ( http://strangedays-memoriesofthefuture.com/about/ ) and ‘O’ Magic Power of Bleakness’, Mark Leckey's solo show at Tate Britain (https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/mark-leckey ) started (just on a much smaller budget!). I was working with a great intern, Lucie Albrecht, great designer, Ryan Sargent ( https://ryansargent.co.uk ) and sorting logistics with Karolina Magnusson-Murray ( http://karolinakarolinakarolina.net - who also had a solo show at Shipment) which was very different to IKO where jobs weren't compartmentalised quite as much.
I learnt that running this project (4 exhibitions / 13 events over 3-4 months) without sharing the responsibility as I used to in IKO meant there wasn’t an option to step back if I needed to. It was a really exciting time with ambitious exhibitions and hundreds of visitors passing through but this came with being all-consumed with the workload, burning out halfway through and neglecting my non-art life, almost losing my job, personal relationships affected, etc. At the same time, the outcome of this intense workload led to invitations for international exhibitions and residencies so I've reflected a lot on the trade-off between career development and burnout in the emerging art industry since. It led to a lot of thought to define my ceiling - I think there's a consensus to stay as busy as possible and discard the concept of doing too much in the first few years of being an artist in the UK - this was certainly my experience. So for these reasons, I stand by putting a lot of thought into knowing when to collaborate and share your workload.
I really appreciate your honesty when answering this and I think this is a point that a lot of people face in one way or another. I know I have personally reached that point on numerous occasions, but have been fortunate enough that ways around or out of projects have presented themselves just in time, but I am aware that this doesn’t happen to everyone and some really fantastic and talented people have been thrown out of the art world as a consequence.
I don’t want to dwell on this point for too long, but I want to know how you manage your workload now, in particular what have you had to drop in order to re-focus and how did you make that decision?
I think managing personal workloads well really comes from having experienced too much or too little work in the past in that if you don’t have those memories or experiences to reference it's hard to take any sort of structure seriously. It’s easier to manage when you’ve experienced neglecting things that are important to you which is different for everyone. The all-consuming art-world mentality that I mentioned obviously can cloud this judgement though. So what I’m saying is the harder you’ve f***ed up in the past the better you'd become at managing workloads seriously!
For me, I have a basic checklist in the back of my mind (and as a sticky note above my desk) that I check now and again to make sure I’m at a good level of - sleep, exercise, meditation, inspiration, diet, caffeine, socialising, family. These are all things I’ve neglected in the past due to an imbalance in workload and I don’t think they’d make their way onto the list if I hadn’t.
I like the simplicity of that checklist, and perhaps that’s why it works for you.
Ghost Town, installation view, Coherent, Brussels, 2019
Ghost Town, installation view, Coherent, Brussels, 2019
Can we talk about another work of your, All The Shows Have Been Closed Down, 2019. This work was shown as part of a collaborative exhibition at Coherent, Brussels. Some of the ideas that seem to be presented within the exhibition, titled Ghost Town, seem even more relevant at the moment, with any physical spaces across the world operating differently, or seizing to operate at all. Could you talk a little more about the work and the overall direction of the exhibition?
Yeah, this work ties really nicely with collaboration too. “Ghost Town” was another collaborative exhibition between myself, Corey Bartle-Sanderson and Steven Gee and was about a fictional future scenario where the art market had folded alongside a recession and artist-run spaces like Coherent (where the exhibition was held) had been abandoned. It also responded to Art Brussels which opened during the same period and we made a simulated Art Brussels flyer announcing their closure and announcing the crash in the industry. We transformed the gallery into an abandoned site with interior interventions like pulling lighting cables out of the ceiling to make them hang down and artworks that supported the show's narrative like dust sculptures by Corey. There was a priority for all of our interventions and artworks to reinforce the narrative of the show; transforming the space collectively as opposed to marking our own territory with individual artworks. Our artworks crossed over so much that it was hard to tell who’s artwork was whose and in many ways, it didn’t matter as we all contributed ideas to each other in developing them.
“All the shows have been closed down” was a sound and kinetic work that heavily referenced the song Ghost Town originally by The Specials (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZ2oXzrnti4) and covered later by Kode9 & The Spaceape (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FfjHgPZ7WWA&t=54s). It consisted of a very loud, hidden subwoofer playing a muffled version of the Kode9 cover that vibrated many of the objects in the space through its reverberation. This was paired up with a strip light that had its electronics interfered and responding to the sound when the vibrating pulse spread through the space. When thinking about the exhibition as a film set to a fictional scenario, this work acted a bit like a gloomy soundtrack.
The original song I used for the work parallels the ideas in our exhibition scenario but originally referenced the urban decay, deindustrialisation, unemployment and violence that came from the 1981 recession and riots in the UK when it was released. As myself, Steve and Corey had made many previous projects similarly through a recession, under austerity and have skirted around a commercial model, like of the environment The Specials were commenting on, the project is partly referencial of our own experiences too.
There seems to be strong parallels ‘Night Shade’, which we spoke about earlier on, in that I imagine members of the audience were probably somewhat unaware of what was ‘artwork’ or if they were still standing within a space that remained dedicated to the presentation of contemporary art.
Two Steps Back from Dancing in the Smoke, Shipment, London, 2019
There is a recurring theme in your work where you are interrogating the spaces where art exists and challenging what these spaces may be or how they function. In both ‘Night Shade’ and ‘Ghost Town’, you are presenting alternative settings to experience the work, and I wondered if this is something that has developed over time and where that may lead you in the future?
I’ve always been interested in ‘experience-driven art’. We used this term a lot in Shipment meetings. The Shipment projects were and were influenced by shows that utilised larger, less polished, informal spaces and required the audience to adapt or adjust to entering into them. When I secured a hall in the Biscuit Factory (Shipment location) the thing that excited me the most was the amount of space visitors could access but didn’t need to use (see picture above) and this was totally a personal response to my finding tight, bright, white gallery’s and gallery openings uncomfortable and overstimulating. I’m an introvert, quite sensitive to sensory stimuli, so these scenarios distracted me from focusing on the actual art I visited for. Having the extra space allowed visitors to roam and meander in their mind a bit without having to focus so much on their immediate surroundings or other people that were sardined next to them. As a season of projects, this excess space reflected a total escape from the velocity and enclosed nature of the city and of social media which I felt was so prominent in the general London art experience.
My interest in how the mind responds to different spaces and scenarios has developed in a much more research-heavy direction. To be honest, although Shipment was promoting slower, more spacious experiences, I think the majority of people are casually adapting to faster, more digital experiences, prompting my tech ethics and cyber-psychology interests. I’m about to begin an MSc in Psychology at Greenwich University with rough plans to do another MSc in Human-Computer interaction afterwards. It’s a big turning point where my interests that began in an art context are shifting much more towards the sciences and the next step is the science or technology industry. Seeing work by artists like Ilona Sagar, Lawrence Abu Hamdan and Forensic Architecture that conduct and use industry level research and present it in an art context helped make this shift seem tangible. So in the next 5-6 years, I can imagine this is the direction I’m going in.
Your shift to study Psychology and then potentially Human-Computer Interaction, could be seen as a complete change of direction, whereas I see it more of a sidewards step, that continues many of the threads of research that you have been tugging at for a while, but maybe framing it within a slower and more rigorous framework.
I don’t want this to seem like too blunt a question, but how hard was it to come to the decision that, firstly, you needed to go back into education and, secondly, that the sphere of education was in a discipline outside of the traditional route through contemporary art education, such as an MA in Fine Art?
I’ve always questioned whether I wanted to do an MA in Fine Art. When I was in my early 20’s it seemed like a good milestone to work towards getting into the RCA but then by my mid 20’s I was already hanging around and curating shows with people that had graduated from Fine Art MA’s so didn’t feel the need. So I guess after that the milestone is gallery representation, but I know a small handful of people that have this or are getting it and learnt that there’s still another few milestones after that to be able to live a comfortable life above a minimum wage job... Plus, you’ve probably got to keep making work that’s sellable so exploration is limited... Plus, a gallery could and will drop you at any point if they can’t sell your work... Plus, you have to also be natural at networking, keeping up a social media presence and paying for all your materials and R&D time. I’m not criticising anybody that works in the industry but these combined norms are unheard of in the technology or science industries. With time to think about this, sticking to the purist art industry route just seemed like I was walking into a future that didn’t suit me and prompted me to weigh up my options and put my career eggs into other baskets.
With seeing a massive gap in cyberpsychology that I wanted to contribute to around the same time as the realisations I just explained, I found a new route in the science direction but this transition was challenging for a few reasons. The first is that when I graduated from my BA at 22, I started to set deep-seated expectations of having an autonomous life via my art by the time I was in my 30’s. When hurdles came my way, this expectation allowed me to tunnel-vision myself past any rationale that might tell me to change direction earlier on. The second was that I’d attached a large portion of my identity to this industry and the people in it. You shape yourself to a community and a way of socialising, working, promoting yourself, etc and although I won’t stop seeing the people (and I think it would be interesting to combine minds in both art and science), there is a requirement to detach from 8 years of living in this way so I can focus on studying something completely different. It required the quiet period of lockdown, (plus the existential milestone of almost hitting 30!) to push a curiosity for change into a concrete decision. I think there were a few occasions in the past couple of years where I tried to explore change but never followed through.
On the back end of this, its very new territory but it feels insanely and surprisingly liberating to have a clean slate and a new set of prospects that weren’t possible before. I welcome other readers that have gone through this process or are thinking about it to reach out to me.
Self realisation, in principle seems simple, however it is often one of the most difficult destinations to arrive at. I also think it is an important point that you raise around wanting to make changes in the past, but never following through. The lifestyles that most of us lead, especially when having to juggle multiple different jobs (some paid, some voluntary), there is very little time available for self reflection, or at least meaningful self reflection. I think the current pandemic has afforded some people that space, and it will be interesting to see how the next 12 months plays out in terms of the direction that the artworld and the people within it take.
Thanks for taking the time to chat to me and good luck with the start of your MSc in September.
If you like this why not read our interview with Haich Ber Na
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