Tom Cardew

Interview by Bob Gelsthorpe


Published July 2019 


You trained as an architect, worked as an architect and then made a decision to stop - was it no longer satisfying for you?

Okay, so architecture as a study and as a day-to-day job were two fundamentally different things: Studying architecture was an artistic practice, rooted in an anthropological concern into how people engage, use and play with space. It was also abstracted from certain realities, like the genuine question of who’d actually pay for something to be built (particularly now when almost nothing is state funded). I enjoyed it, but at the same time it could be frustrating when you make a series of compositions or models that could only ever be a representation of a possible future of a building, and not the ‘finished’ thing in themselves. The reality of working in an office on a daily basis was that it had very little to do with the study: for me, too often it felt like just a job with very long hours and very little reward. I jumped ship and went back to the reasons that lead me there in the first place.

So you enjoyed the study, but not so much the actual day-to-day practice. I haven’t read Ivan Illich but is the step away from normative competitive culture a critique of capitalism?

I would say so. In relation to critiquing the learning environments, approaches to learning and the educational structures that we (we being state educated) are put through so as to becoming good little automatons that’ll do white collar labour for the duration of our adult lives in exchange for just enough cash to get by. Or, something like that. That’s what remains in me from having read the book, anyway, and that take could quite possibly be more what I think than what the book intended to communicate.

And at the same time, can you tell me about the workshop you ran at Tate exchange?

This came about, again, from thinking about avatars as devices to perform, or to share, a version of oneself - like a twitter account, or indeed a gaming profile. I also wanted to create work with children in expressing something about their own life, their own living and their own education. My thoughts on education were and are that it is a dictation, and focused on state education - where students learn pieces of information without ever being asked to critically think about what they are learning or why. Just: learn it, repeat it. If you do, you're clever. If you don’t, you're not. This mode of education, that I went through, is really frustrating, really limiting, and impossibly challenged by the artificial austerity environment it’s placed into by these Centre Right governments (who only care about, and indeed want, the quality education being for private use).

So, I asked a group of year 5 students to speculate, as playfully or sincerely as they wanted, upon their future selves, in first person singular: hence the name ‘Present Future.’ It’s a project I’m going to continue in the near future. Working with more Primary State Educated school groups to tailor what they want or think about for their education and their future.

One thing that I found really interesting about doing this workshop (and the subsequent video piece) was that it demonstrated, in a very small way, the bounds of children in state education (in 2017) to dream and to imagine potential futures for themselves. And basically, I’d like to continue this work to look at how to expand the opportunity to dream and to consider life beyond the (to them) really strange educational demands of school.

The series of unfocused photographs - was that a cipher for unlearning the structured and functional approaches that are demanded in architectural practice?

It was something of a de-education. I was actually reading De-schooling Society by Ivan Illich at the time, which spoke about learning through decentralised methods, of breaking away from certain expectations and presuppositions from normative competitive culture. So, yeah - it was a practice of undoing the strict approach to work and to working life that I had learnt through architecture.

And, at the same time, it was something of a cathartic, semi-auto biographical exercise as I had up until my early 20’s had extremely poor eye sight. I was effectively blind in my right eye, and had unfocused vision in my left. I saw everything in a blur of coalescing colour, unless I had my glasses on. Laser surgery wasn’t an option as the technology wasn’t able to do anything to improve my sight. But then, in 2013 it suddenly was a possibility for my dodgy eyes and I decide to have it. The day after the op, I had close to 20-20 vision for the first time. The change was a shock, I remember seeing a tree trunk without glasses on after the operation and was like, ’SHIT that tree is in HD.’ Only, that’s what sight was like for most people already. So, that experience had quite a part to play in decision making of that series too.

I think that’s dark, funny way of manifesting a massive shift in your person - I did something similar addressing my dentures a few years ago and a bit of humility goes a long way - did this unlearning free you up to enjoy making again and experiment openly?

Absolutely - the freedom to follow whimsical (or supposedly whimsical) interests without having to validate, rationalise or explain why I was doing what I was doing. Just take the photo of the moment out of focus, and let the colour in. Almost embarrassingly simple, but as you say, I think I was interested in expressing humility in the work, in my own living, just by letting myself play with ideas without knowing any particular end goal. And that it was mundane, my life. And life in a global sense too: when the gloss of the image is ignored for a moment. And that it’s okay for life (and art!) to be mundane. I spend and still spend most of my life just sitting about and, sometimes, ideas come to me. Most of the time, though,  I’m just sitting about.

I think it’s more than just sitting about- I can see in the film ‘we’ (2015-2017) that there’s scenes with your laptop paused on different YouTube clips. How do you feel about ‘suggested video’ algorithms? Is this where you came to the avatar generator software, just sitting around and scrolling through YouTube?

It certainly is more than just sitting about, I’m being facetious! I suppose, by that, I mean being open to ideas or reasons coming to me, rather than, say, having a preconceived idea of an answer to a particular question that I ask myself when I’m engaging in my practice. If you already have all the answers, then why bother exploring the question?

Regarding ‘we’ & the shots of the laptop - I was interested, and am, in the cultural ‘need’ to compete, to profit & to be ‘successful’ and wondering how these ideas, these demands and their criteria in living through that prism, exist. I was aiming to just observe a place in a particular time when neo-liberal ideals said that this community must be forcibly removed and in it’s place a ‘new’ and ‘better’ set of refurbished housing (as deposit of wealth for the wealthy) and to see the place, the objects, the weeds, the sky - just letting things into the frame - then, to return to certain advert mantras that sort of keep these for-constant-profit thoughts ticking along in the mind of the consumer.

I suppose through ‘We’, I was attempting to see things in a non-anthropocentric way, and then to look back at these implanted distractions, these adverts that try to disrupt your thought process... and as you say, these algorithms consume what u consume & then spit back moments of targeted content of this ‘n’ that which tangentially wants you to buy something... whether that’s a lifestyle that will, down the line, lead to you to but certain things (that would then lead the algorithm to success) or a more explicit advert for a thing that a percentage of targets would purchase after consuming the advert.

This interest of how the internet dictates your consumption definitely led me to looking into digital avatars, such as FB, insta & indeed the character avatars used by live stream gamers. In ‘Love Hangover’ the guy is more an exhausted sock puppet for caricaturing/satirising/confusing neo-liberal big money office types.

Mundane is good, mundane is regular, consistent - most people just want a happy, healthy, quiet life and late capitalism tells us we shouldn’t be content with that. Taking stock of smallness is a resistance to this, does your use of materials play into this or am I projecting too much?

Yeah - I think the same as your statement there. My materials are pretty much only ever those that have gone past their ’sell-by date'. Yet these things that have so much inherent depth, history, life but are casually tossed over the consumer’s shoulder because our consumerist mechanism creates an environment where it’s perversely cheaper to get a new one than it is to fix/reuse/retain something old. Designed obsolescence crops up in my thoughts a lot - from the more sculptural pieces (all found or discarded materials) to the Mac Mini’s, monitors & computer screens that are an assemblage of unwanted and ‘old’ products in ‘Love Hangover’. The guy that is the face of ‘Love Hangover’, is for me a face of Late (and fatigued) Capitalism. The question of what creates a contented life, or as certain hippies and gurus say ‘a vital life’ is, for me, contingent on each person and all the factors that has created them as they found themselves now. Yet, what we are sold, what we are advertised as being comparatively ‘good’ or ‘worth’ in life is centred around consumption, on perpetual consumption and perpetual ‘improvement.'

Usurping that algorithm and projecting its failure is where Love Hangover connects. Art still exists in that Neo-liberal ecology of fetishising competition and success, so instead of asking you about plugging your next show, can you share a few links to people, projects and tools that have made ‘Love Hangover’ possible?

Sure! The main person to thank for the technical side of ‘Love Hangover’ - of perfectly syncing 15 monitors, 7 pairs of speakers and 8 computers together to play various video files in is Zach Poff ( He's developed a free to download programme called ‘Multi-Screener’ (available on his website) which allows you to smoothly create an ethernet router connection between Mac computers that will then play in-sync video files on 2+ screens per computer. In theory, you could link together 100’s of screens until the RAM is exhausted, should that be your thing. It works a charm, and there seems to be no other software like it available. Apparently the whole ‘industry' uses it, and Zach Poff puts it out there completely for free. Of course, you can (and if you use it, should) donate, and as such it is a kind of small example of an economic model where you pay what you can afford / think it’s worth.

Multi-screener was recommended to me by Stefhan Caddick, ( who was my mentor during an R&D phase of this work in 2018. Stefhan is an artist based in Mid Wales, who works with various forms of multitudinous video and sound work, with his recent work being in relation to geographically rural life. He guided me through various problems that came up when going from an idea and an attempt at following a feeling of what the work/experience could be into as a functioning artwork.

g39 have been hugely supportive from the start, and during the show itself having to figure out how to turn on all the televisions, monitors, speakers and mac minis each time the gallery opens. It takes a while. The amount of support they offered in setting up the installation made ‘Love Hangover’ what it is. Aled Simons ( also went out of his way to stock the installation space with as much paraphernalia as he could muster. I’ve got him to thank for the christmas decorations in the main install space.

Oh and I should take my hat off to Jen and Adrian in Treharris for their very cheap 2nd hand Logik TV. Not only did I get a monitor for the show, but I learnt a lot about their mobile caravan, where they go in peak season and the problem of rounded corners walls in caravan bedrooms (that meant 22-inch TVs having to perch at an awkward angle).

Final question - more tangential but on my brain for way too long and interested in what other artists feel about it - the Minister for Culture Tourism and Sport in Wales is now making decisions on wether the National Gallery for Contemporary Art will go ahead, and the last recommendations taken forward by the minister were to bolster the current contemporary art offer throughout Wales, with no stipulation of a commitment to a new organisation, a new gallery - I want to apply pressure on the Minister wherever possible so that this isn’t lost in political bureaucracy - I would love to know what you think about it.

Lastly, you're an artist from, and now based back in Wales. What are your feelings on a proposed National Gallery of Contemporary Art in Wales?

For sure we need one. It’s really disappointing/strange that we don't have a contemporary art institution/gallery/museum by now. It’s 2019 ffs. I personally find it confusing though, does the investment come from the Arts Council, UK Government, Welsh Government, Welsh Assembly? (and does the latter do anything?)

I just googled the Minister for Culture Tourism and Sport, I’ve got a feeling he was around in the pre-industrialisation period… “He enjoys trail running and hill walking” (I like hill walking too tbf) - maybe we could find where he likes to go running and create a perpetual art performance along his favoured track until he gives in, or until he adds on his biography that “He enjoys contemporary performance art.”

I see that you can write to him - has anyone written a well-structured script that people en masse could then email/post to him to show their support for a contemp art institution?

This 'bolstering', as I think I understand it (probably wrong) is that they’re going to do nothing and say that they’re doing something new. Is that right? "Wales, we recommend a world- first –a dynamic national model that combines a series of interlinked locations across the nation, heralded by a ‘National Canvas’...” The National Contemporary Art Gallery Wales will also be defined by a distributed set of 6-8 galleries across the nation.” I guess, if as you say he is in the process of making a decision, there needs to be greater urgency and publicity of the desire/need for a national contemp art gallery. Maybe through another round of testimonials or advice from the main people in contemp arts in Wales? A series of posters may create visibility to an extent. I currently don’t know enough about the situation and it’s recent past regarding all the bureaucracy and ‘decisions’ these politicians and councillors make. Do you have a good handle on what’s been concluded? Would you be able to explain it to me?!

Comparatively, Wales seems to be a culturally poorer nation than, say, Scotland, which has Museums in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Perth, Aberdeen and more, but nonetheless we have a hole culturally where a contemporary art museum should be. The lack of an artistic institution is, I suspect, political. Welsh politicians shrug their shoulders to contemporary art, instead we get some more regurgitated Dylan Thomas or ’new’  and opportunistic nationalism from Plaid Cymru.

I saw that a new arts institution in Tallinn (Kai Arts Centre) is to be developed in the next few years. Estonia may well be a wealthier country than Wales though. I know there’s already a million surveys for this or that, and perhaps it’s already been done, but making a survey demonstrating what each country possesses as contemporary art / cultural forums and compare this to Wales could be a useful addition. I imagine most European countries are doing much better and it would highlight how badly Wales is doing on this front.

This feasibility text (in the link above) looks like another self-congratulatory riddle that councils cheers themselves for writing. Reading this, it’s like my CGI guy in ‘Love Hangover’ had just completed it. I find it really hard to understand. I really appreciated your maps of venues around Wales though! Very useful.

There should for sure be a MOMA in Wales along side the current spaces, like g39, Chapter, Glynn Vivian, Elysium etc. It’s an easy argument to say it’d be much better if the new institution were to be distinctly separate from the spaces that exist, so that is becomes itself an additional and supportive framework for artist led spaces / artists. But, not just via some kind of trickle down footfall way - it would need to be through connections, opportunities and real links to these spaces. Then again, the model of making an artist led space into the national gallery of Wales could be quite an anti-establishment decision, whether it is accidental or not.

Thanks Tom.



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