Tom Cardew


Interview by Bob Gelsthorpe

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Published July 2019 

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Tom Cardew recently presented ‘Love Hangover’ at g39, in Cardiff, resulting from a year-long research and development period, followed by a production grant from Arts Council of Wales which enabled the realisation of the project. ‘Love Hangover’ brings together Diana Ross, CGI avatars and tech-storeroom aesthetics as a refreshing use of the choral in contemporary practice.

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So, in ‘Love Hangover’, we’re directed down a corridor packed with old audio visual equipment, cardboard boxes, and shelving - a store room cross-section. One monitor displaying the CGI avatar of a disheveled city worker leads you in, then another, and another, and then turning the corner into a darkened room. A dozen or so monitors display the same avatar, in the same tech store cupboard aesthetic of wiring, lights, boxes, chairs but via different moments of mumbled talk, commands, humming or states of mind, all across varying levels of obsolete or near obsolete AV technology. Can we first talk about that transition from the singular to the multiple - it might seem small going in, but as this project is the result of a year long research and development period, I’m really interested to know the thought process around that multiplication.

I wanted to work with a very generic image - that of a standard, out-of-the-box motion capture avatar ‘mask’ - that would be used to channel a series of competing voices, vying for attention, for conversation, albeit that they all speak unidirectionally: monologuing away without listening to their neighbours hosted in the TVs or monitors to the left or right of them. With technology as means to communicate digitally, such as the use of these avatars, users tend to send out info from one singular profile per platform, but then simultaneously there are a sheer plethora of avatars in communication with one another in a mad glut of content, info and signals, particularly in platforms like Instagram and Twitter.

I’m interested in the utter chaotic madness of omni-directed information via social media, and indeed through radio and TV, where you’ll hear/read the usual “There is a forest fire in Japan // Smallpox is on the rise // Lovely weather in Tenby this weekend // Paul Gasgoine is going pro again // 30 Species are extinct since the morning // Lovely cat plays with a ball of string // Conflict rising in the Middle East // Great discount on stuff up to 50% off // Housing crisis in St Tropez // Cucumbers are on offer today // Postmen go on strike...” The multiplicity of this form of communication renders all the various singular pieces of information, typically important or entertaining in their own right, into a nonsensical cacophony of voices vying for your attention.

Regarding the journey through the installation, that comes down to g39 being generous enough to include their own AV store as the initial entrance into the main Love Hangover space. The first animated avatar-guy, who is trapped in the glass tube of a 90s box monitor is something of a signal to subtly introduce the relationship between CGI masks and out-of-date technological equipment as a kind of rabbit at the end of the tunnel to follow, hopefully giving an initial sense that something isn’t quite right here, and more of that disquiet to follow when entering the main space.



Love Hangover,durational multi-screen installation, g39, Cardiff, 2019
Courtesy of the artist & gallery


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 about 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 made 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 itself. 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.


A Material Platform (Public Sculpture), pallet wood, annual flowers, penny coins, The SPACE, Hastings, 2015
Courtesy of the artist


In contrast to this, can you also tell me about the workshop you ran at Tate exchange?

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 want to build upon through working with more Primary State Educated school groups to facilitate what they think and want in terms of their education and their future.


Present Future, workshop with year 5 Copenhagen School group, Tate Exchange, Tate Modern, 2017
Courtesy of the artist


This project 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 I am focused on state education - where students learn pieces of information without ever being asked to think critically 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).

The children in the group individually articulated their projections of their future through the avatar of an animated cat, as a documentation of this workshop, culminating in the video of the children's avatar speeches. The cat avatar allowed for a caricature mask to be worn, and the cat animation is itself something benign and familiar, which allowed the group to play with their stories openly. Facilitating this workshop, and developing the subsequent video piece, demonstrated, in a subtle way, the bounds of children in state education (as of 2017) to dream and to imagine potential futures for themselves. Somewhat idealistically, I hoped that it would create an opportunity to extend their bounds of possible futures. Again, I’d like to continue this work to look at how to expand the opportunity to dream and to consider life beyond the really strange educational demands of school.

Sight was a series of unfocussed photographs, installed at Electro Project Space in 2015, - 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 working life that I had learnt through architecture.

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, the work ‘Sight’ was something of a cathartic, semi-auto biographical exercise, as I had up until my early 20s had extremely poor eyesight. 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 decided to have the operation. The day after, I had close to 20-20 vision for the first time. The change was a shock, I remember seeing a tree trunk without glasses 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 a 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 a 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.

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 agree. My materials are pretty much only ever those that have gone past their ’sell-by date'; found, recycled wood and tech. These things that have so much inherent depth, history and life but are casually tossed over the shoulder because our consumerist mechanism creates an environment where it’s perversely cheaper to get a new product than it is to fix, reuse or 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 Minis, 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 find themselves now. Yet, what we are sold, what we are advertised as being comparatively ‘good’ or ‘worthy’ in life is centred around perpetual consumption and perpetual ‘improvement.'


Love Hangover,durational multi-screen installation, g39, Cardiff, 2019
Courtesy of the artist & gallery


I can see in the film ‘We’ (2015/7) 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?

Regarding ‘We’ and the shots of the laptop, I was interested, and am, in the cultural need to compete, to profit & to be successful and wonder how these ideas, demands and their criteria exist. Through this video, I was simply observing a place (Balfron Tower: a 20th C Brutalist council housing tower design by architect Arno Goldfinger) in a particular time when neo-liberal ideals said that this community must be forcibly removed and in its place a new and better set of refurbished housing should be built (as deposit of wealth for the wealthy). At the same time I wanted to observe that place itself as a scenic environment: the objects, the weeds, the sky - just let things into the frame - then, in other scenes, return to certain advert mantras that sort of keep these for-constant-profit thoughts ticking along in the mind of the consumer. It creates a numbing indifference in the individual that in part allows for these injustices to occur.


We, video, 12 minutes 34 seconds, 2017
Courtesy of the artist


My interest in how the internet dictates your consumption definitely led me down the line to 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 and confusing neo-liberal big money office types.

Art still exists in that Neo-liberal ecology of fetishising competition and success, but I think that usurping the Neo-liberal capitalist algorithm is where ‘Love Hangover’ connects. Do you have any thoughts on taking this specific work further, on tour perhaps?

This is actually a piece I imagined taking form in different ways, particularly in relation to the acoustics of a given space, since sound is so integral to this piece. At g39 we went with a confined main space, which lent itself really well to the sense of anxiety, claustrophobia and isolation in the work. I’d like to explore different iterations, experimenting with the level of coherent speech in the piece, by either breaking it down into syllables and stuttering that are repeated and overlaid, or refining the intentions of the monologues. Along with that, the context of the audience comes into my thinking: how a developed form can relate to, or dislocate from, the differing communities of people who would experience it. 

Final question - more tangential but on my brain for way too long and I’m interested in what other artists feel about it - the Minister for Culture Tourism and Sport in Wales is now making decisions on whether 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 - and 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?

This 'bolstering', as I think I understand it (probably wrong) means 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 the body responsible for this decision is in the process of making a decision, there needs to be greater urgency and publicity about the desire/need for a national contemp art gallery.
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 cultural gap 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.
 


Sight, 625 photographs, Electro Studios Project Space, St Leonards-on-Sea, 2015
Courtesy of the artist


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 comparing this to Wales could be a useful addition to the report. 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 the 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.
 
There should for sure be a MOMA in Wales alongside 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 it 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 turning a myriad artist led spaces into the National Gallery of Wales could be quite an anti-establishment decision, whether it is accidental or not.


Love Hangover,durational multi-screen installation, g39, Cardiff, 2019
Courtesy of the artist & gallery



Can you share a few links to people, projects and tools that have made Love Hangover possible?

The main person to thank for the technical side of Love Hangover - which involved perfectly syncing 15 monitors, 7 pairs of speakers and 8 computers together to play various video files on is Zach Poff (https://www.zachpoff.com). 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 synchronised 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.

Tim Hamper recreated MOOG’s Diana Ross’ Love Hangover (MOOG’s respectful edit) instrumental by creating each individual ‘stem’. His work is very important to the audible layering of the work and I’m really indebted to his help.

g39 (http://www.g39.org) have been hugely supportive through the install and duration of the show. They have had to figure out how to turn on all the televisions, monitors, speakers and mac minis, which is no mean feat.

Aled Simons (https://aledsimons.wixsite.com/artist) went out of his way to stock the installation space with as much paraphernalia as he could muster. He’s got a good eye for installation composition. I’ve got him to thank for the christmas decorations in the main install space.

I should also 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 (meaning a 22-inch TV perches at an angle uncomfortably).

Thanks Tom.

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Love Hangover was at g39 from 4th May to 13th July. Tom is currently showing ‘I Forget why I Live to Remember' at Tension Fine Art in London, more information can be found at https://www.tensionfineart.co.uk/exhibitions-tom-cardew/ or on Tom’s website.

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tomcardew.co.uk

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