Artist

Interview: GRANT FOSTER

I first encountered Grant Foster's work in 2008, in the John Moores 25 painting prize exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. I was happily haunted by the gnarly, tragi-comic, skeletal, uniformed, character depicted in his painting Hero Worship (2007). I was especially delighted that Grant looked and sounded exactly like the artist that was meant to paint it.

A couple of years later painter Eleanor Moreton recommended Grant for a group show I curated with artist Matthew Houlding Memory of a Hope, at my gallery in Liverpool. Grant rocked up with a couple of paintings under his arm, including Relic (2008), another spook with eyes made from found coils of braided hair, a gouged hollow for a nose and a Joker-esque red grin. The other comparatively delicate painting, carved out of mustard yellow beeswax, of a melancholic muse Beauty is Not Compassionate Towards You reflected his thirst for knowledge of what painting can do and his refusal to back himself into a corner.

Grant is an intensely bright, political, considerate, and playful artist, unrelenting in his determination to reveal the complex web of systems, images, language, and hypocrisy that shapes us and that rains down upon us daily. He makes viewers really work for it. Lurching from fine, barely-there delicate colourful wisps and washes, to chewy, densely whipped knots of oily bleakness, he pushes and pulls at memory, and the limitations of painting to test the blurring of coercion, power, impotency, and submission.

Grant Foster (b.1982, Worthing), is a London based artist who completed an MA in Painting at the Royal College of Art in 2012. Foster’s recent selected exhibitions include: I’m Not Being Funny, Lychee One, London, 2019; Trade Gallery, Nottingham, 2018; Ground, Figure, Sky, Tintype Gallery, London, 2017; Popular Insignia, Galleria Acappella, Naples, 2016, Salad Days, Ana Cristea Gallery, New York, 2015; Holy Island, Chandelier Projects, London (2014); Bloomberg New Contemporaries, Spike Island and ICA; (2013-14). In 2019 he was the Randall Chair at Alfred University New York, 2019; Fellow in Contemporary Art with The British School at Rome, 2019; and a Prize-winner in John Moores 25, 2008.

I'm Not Being Funny, installation view, Lychee One Gallery, London, 2019

What are you doing, reading, watching or listening to now that is helping you to stay positive?

My partner works as a doctor in a hospital, so our experience has been a little different perhaps. Between the reality of her experience and the situation as its unfolded publicly, the small things in my daily life took on new meanings. I would take extra care making breakfast and found new pleasure in mind-numbing chores. At the height of lock-down it started to feel as if we were communicating with our cats in new ways – which obviously sounds absolutely insane. Yet those small duties went some way to mitigate the white noise from outside.

What are you working on and how has the lockdown affected your ideas, processes and chosen medium?

I think artists are good at being able to adapt – it was clear that lockdown was coming in some form or other – so I made preparations to work temporarily from home. Once I was able to focus on making work, I got into a new rhythm of working, which ran alongside all the domestic stuff you have to do.

I’ve been making work on paper, which at the time is very automatic and when I look back at them, they have distinct themes. There’s a motif of a worker that has kept re-appearing over time and now this figure has become more disembodied perhaps. I’ve also been looking at the things that surround me more. We were given a wonderful model of a human-come-pig-head as a wedding present – so he’s been popping into my imagery! Once I was able to return back to the studio, I’ve been painting with what feels like a renewed rigor, perhaps as a consequence of this moment of reflection.

I’ve also started to collaborate with some old friends to make music – we started this before the lockdown but have been able to devote more time and energy to it. This is one the things that the last few months has shown – is that, once you take the vampiric shit out of everyday life, there’s still a decent amount of time in a day.

The Rat King 1576, 2020, Acrylic oil and oil stick on canvas, 182 x 147cm

What do you usually have or need in your studio to inspire and motivate you?

Normally a sense of calm – and a clear head, which is weird as my more recent paintings can appear quite frantic - I’ve got a postcard of Piero’s, Baptism of Christ which I’ve had for a long time now – it’s an astonishing image of stillness that I like to look at.

What systems, rituals and processes do you use to help you get into the creative zone?

I like sweeping my studio floor – I’m not really sure why but I find it terribly calming.

What recurring questions do you return to in your work?

We have a very binary attitude in the wider world, we think in terms of systems such as cause and effect – and I don’t think that offers us the full picture – art can exist in place between knowing and not knowing. I try to create processes within my work where I am forced to re-assemble my intentions – and I hope there can be opportunities for art to grow within those cracks. 

Youth Serum, 2018, Glue, oil stick and pigment on collaged canvas and Polyester, 95 x 177cm

What do you care about?

I’m not being flippant when I say the future. It’s obviously becoming clear how the shape of things to come is going to be defined by our collective actions over the coming years. We have the potential to travel along a number of wildly varying tangents, each of which are drastically different to where we are now. It’s impossible not to be concerned about this.

What risks have you taken in your work that paid off?

I’m an itchy type of artist – and have changed appearances over the years. For me painting is a balancing act between material exploration and subject – and I’ve allowed myself the opportunity to follow where the material leads the work, seeing how that corresponds with the subject. For me, art is a verb – it’s an act of doing, in this way the act is democratic – and the to do, implies freedom and there’s strength with that.

My last solo exhibition felt like a departure from what I had shown previously. I wanted to bring something raw and direct back into the work – and had become interested in the methodology of collage as a way into this. I’d been making a large number of paper-works at the time, with collage acting as a natural way for me to resolve an image on a smaller scale. I developed an interest in coloured fabrics and pre-staining canvases, thinking I would use these materials instead of mixing paint more conventionally on a palette or in a pot.

I wanted the work to communicate, through the anxiety and indecision of making it if you like, that there is a sense of empathy with that process. The way I was working at the time –with these collaged forms, felt very open ended as there were countless variations of an image to consider. It was this sense of open-endedness that offered me a new set of possibilities which I’m still processing.

Torments of The Worker, 2020, Acrylic, ballpoint pen, correction fluid, pencil, crayon, Letraset and marker-pen on Sotheby’s Merger Paper, 27 x 20cm 

What risks have you taken that perhaps did not go so well but you learnt the most from?

I think my biggest problem (there are many to choose from!!) is that I’m naturally inquisitive regarding materials – and as a consequence this may have seduced me into sacrificing the psychological depth that can come about through really pursuing a given material with singularity.

Everyone for Themselves and God Against All, 2016, Crayon, charcoal, pigment and glue on canvas,100 x 70cm

What is your favourite exhibition you have participated in and why?

It was one of the first shows I did in 2006. Some friends and I put on a painting exhibition in the warehouse unit I lived and worked in at the time – we painted the floor grey the night before, printed out fliers, bought the drink in – and invited everyone we knew. There was a real sense of innocence to it that I still value now.

What would you hope that people experience from encountering your work?

I am concerned by a tendency that considers ambiguity a weakness or as something that needs combating. I would suggest precisely the opposite, that it is because of this moment we’re in, where nuance has been continually derided by not only our political class but by the information and communication systems we have become accustomed to – that imagery, art, ideas and culture in its broadest sense – this is the realm where nuance and ambiguity must be allowed to endure, in order for us to learn how to move forwards.

I Work for You, You Work for Me, 2016, Glue, paper, pigment on canvas, 195cm x 185cm

Could you tell us a bit more about at a time when you felt stuck and what you did to help yourself out of it?

Writing has always helped me to find a way around problems which aren’t necessarily logical or with a fixed exit. My brain has a tendency to veer toward extremes – and I find writing a decent way to navigate between two poles.


Measure by Measure,
2017, Bleach, charcoal, glue, oil stick and pigment on collaged canvas, 150 x 115cm

What kind of studio visits, conversations or meetings with curators, producers, writers, press, gallerists, or collectors do you enjoy or get the most out of?

Generally speaking, I enjoy people coming to the studio – as that’s really where they can see the thinking – and doing, that goes into the work. And it’s where I can gauge how we might get on, by the way they look for a paint free spot to drop their belongings!

Do you have a trusted muse, mentor, network, or circle of friends you consult for critical feedback?

Naturally there are a few people I gravitate towards where we share a sense of trust.

Which artists or creatives do you feel your work is in conversation with?

There are lots to list! But more recently through the music I’ve been listening to I’ve become interested in the idea of layering images – and how associative flows can affect our perception of the world. The early albums of Cabaret Voltaire did something similar with the repetition of collaged tape-loops. To me, there’s a connection between those auditory analogue experiments and the associative, almost hallucinatory flow of Francis Picabia’s Transparencies paintings. I’m becoming more and more interested in how images layer upon one another and what this can offer – in a similar way perhaps, to how one may connect seemingly incongruous phenomena, such as the patterns on a wall or apparently random noises.

The Beast with Two Backs, 2020, Oil and pastel on panel, 80 x 60cm

How do you make money to support your practice?

Through a bizarre combination of tech-work and luck.

What compromises have you made to sustain your practice?

Money, health, self-worth – being an artist is a joyous game of masochism.

What advice would you give your past self?

Don’t try and please everyone, Grant.

Beauty Boys, 2019, Acrylic and charcoal on collaged paper, 57 x 76cm

Can you recommend a book, film, or podcast that you have been inspired by that transformed your thinking?

One of my closest friends put me onto The Weird Studies podcast, which is based around art and philosophy – and it’s the best one I’ve come across so far.

Follow Grant on Instagram @foster_grant or visit his website

Follow his gallery @tintypelondon on Instagram and website Tintype Gallery

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Coming Next...

An interview with Manchester based art collector Connal Orton, who works as an Executive Producer in television, making comedy and drama programmes for children. He previously worked as a theatre director, specialising in first productions of new plays.

Blog-Eleanor

Interview: ELEANOR MORETON

I first met Eleanor Moreton in 2007, when she was Durham Cathedral Artist in Residence.

I knew before we met that I loved and connected with her paintings, but during that first meeting I was also struck by her curiosity, playful sense of humour, delight in the absurd, and her unwavering commitment to challenging the status quo.

I have been lucky enough to have many rewarding discussions since with Eleanor, during studio visits and in making exhibitions together. I relish our conversations, as she peppers them with references to music, philosophy, poetry, European history, and reveals brilliant insights into other artists work. She is one of the most interesting and interested artists I know.

Her work is informed by this wide-ranging research and a passion for developing new skills. When she's not painting, she’s reading, playing or performing on the violin, dancing, meditating, cooking or caring for friends.

Her rich, multifaceted paintings reflect her highly attuned ability to conjure yet simultaneously deconstruct the subject, the surface, the frame; seducing the viewer yet rejecting the possibility of allowing them to soak up the sun for too long. Eleanor reveals the power at play, the beauty and the horror of our questionable relations. She is always unflinchingly honest.

Eleanor Moreton is a painter who lives in London. She studied painting at Exeter College of Art (BA), Chelsea School of Art (MA), and Art History at the University of Central England (MA).

Her most recent solo show was Wodewose, at Arusha Gallery in Edinburgh, 2019. Previous  solo shows include A Cold Wind From The Mountains, Exeter Phoenix, Exeter, 2017; Monro Room, The House of St Barnabas, London, 2016; California Dreaming, Canal, London, 2015; Tales of Love and Darkness, Ceri Hand Gallery, London, 2014; I See the Bones in the River, Ceri Hand Gallery, London, 2012 (reviewed in Art Monthly by Peter Suchin); The Ladies of Shalott, Jack Hanley Gallery, New York, (reviewed in Art in America by Julian Kreimer), 2010; Im Wartezimmer, Ceri Hand Gallery, Liverpool, (reviewed by Jonathan Griffin, Interface, and Robert Clark, The Guardian, 2010) touring to The Terrace Gallery, Harewood House, Leeds, 2010; A Buried Life, Reg Vardy Gallery, Sunderland, (reviewed by Robert Rob Clark, The Guardian, 2008; Eleanor Moreton Paintings, DLI, Durham, 2008.

Key group exhibitions include The Classical, Transition Gallery, London; Sampler, Arcade Fine Arts, London, 2017; Liberties, The Exchange, Penzance, and Collyer Bristow, London, 2016, with Helen Chadwick, Rose English, Hayley Newman and Jo Spence.

Her work can be seen in The Anomie Review of Contemporary British Painting by Matt Price, (Anomie, 2018) and Picturing People by Charlotte Mullins, (Thames and Hudson
, 2015). She has participated in art fairs including Frieze Art Fair, London, Art Rotterdam, NADA Miami, The Armory Show, New York, VOLTA, Basel and Manchester Contemporary.

The Way (entering the meadow of certainty), 2019, Oil on canvas, 170 x 210 cms

What are you doing, reading, watching or listening to now that is helping you to stay positive?

I decided I would try and use the time as a sort of retreat, to pause and reflect on my life. Tending my garden, cycling around Wanstead Flats have kept me cheerful, and nice chats with friends and neighbours.

What are you working on and how has the lockdown affected your ideas, processes and chosen medium?

The real way that Covid19 and lockdown have affected my work is in a sense of compression and intensity. The lack of distraction has reminded me of long periods in my life when I buried myself in my work. Whilst I wouldn't choose to do that now, it does have a calming effect, because making art is one thing you can do, one place you can be, where you can affect change.

The frustrations and complexities of relationships are on hold, which, though sad, has been restful.

I don't know whether this is related to lockdown, but I've being trying out working on unprimed canvas. Perhaps lockdown gave me a container to do that. And maybe there's a sense of distance too, so it feels possible to stand back and assess where things are going in my work.

The Family Wood, 2018, Oil on canvas, 90 x 120 cms

What do you usually have or need in your studio to inspire and motivate you?

I need to be warm and I need a teapot (with tea in it); all my materials around me, a chair, a wall and writing paper.

What systems, rituals and processes do you use to help you get into the creative zone?

I have a mantra that anything goes in my studio. I can work, or I can not work. It is a space of possibility and not of obligation or duty. I do what I feel like doing. It must be pleasurable, if I want to spend time in it and freedom is what gives me pleasure.

What recurring questions do you return to in your work?

What a challenging question! My work is very closely connected to my inner life. So recurring questions are 'Why am I the way I am?', 'Why are they the way they are?', 'Why are things the way they are?'.

I recognise that I am fascinated by what in previous eras would have been called Evil and by those who get pulled into its orbit. Hence paintings about Charles Manson, murderers, Bluebeard, Josef Fritzl. I am interested in sexuality and repression, masculinity, and femininity. Whilst there is a strong psychological component in my work, I don't take one theoretical position. In fact, my work is an attempt to get away from theoretical positions. Painting for me has been about moving the activities of the mind into the body.

The Murderers, 2016, Oil on canvas, 76 x 81 cms

What do you care about?

I was brought up a vegetarian when nobody else was, which was awkward. Children's parties where I was afraid to eat in case I inadvertently ate meat. So I always had this horror of killing animals. I find I am getting more and more upset by the way we try to dominate the natural world.

I care about the position of girls and women in many parts of the world. I would like to see an end to FGM.

What risks have you taken in your work that paid off?

I can't think of any! Perhaps because I don't think there are any real risks in making artwork, unless you make something that falls on someone's head. That is one of the amazing things about art. You can do anything because no one's going to die (well there are a few instances where people have voluntarily made that their area of investigation). And I can't really think of anything I have done which I could say paid off either.

Hole, 2019, Oil on Canvas, 35 x 30 cms

What risks have you taken that perhaps did not go so well but you learnt the most from?

There are many times when I've tried to make paintings and they have gone under, swamped by over-working and, perhaps, under-preparation. But nothing is lost. Nearly every painting is a learning experience.

I think there is something about contemporary painting which is, and should be, quite humble. I don't think a painting has been made that is riskier than Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, and that was made more than a century ago. That was an amazing era when painting was clearly taking the obvious risks and adventures. I think the risks we take now are subtle, psychological, philosophical. Painters know we're not considered at the cutting edge in the art world. Yet we still do it. In my view, the risk and the challenge are to go, possibly quietly, into the absurd and the incomprehensible.

Toad, 2019, Oil on canvas, 50 x 45 cms

What is your favourite exhibition you have participated in and why?

I mostly love being in group shows and the moment when you have finished hanging a solo show is fantastic. I have to say though that it's really all over then. I don't really enjoy Private Views.

But I do absolutely love performing on stage with John Hegley: a high point for me was a late spot at Latitude with a big audience, many of whom had flowers in their hair. Another was at the Udderbelly Festival on the Southbank, in a beautiful venue, rather like an old music hall, joined by Diego Brown and the Good Fairy. More recently in a cabaret at the Wanstead Tap, with the fantastic Frank Chickens topping the bill.

What would you hope that people experience from encountering your work?

What stage performing with John has shown me is how joy can be spread and how humour can bring brief respite to our lives. I think this is profound and humbling.

Of all the visual arts, I think painting has the most power to touch us in a deep, complex, non-literal way (of course I would think that!). I can think of a few painters who succeed in this, but it's rare. I would like to touch people in that way although I don't think I'm there yet. Writing this reminds me to focus on that aim.

Shopping, 2019, Oil on Canvas, 50 x 40 cms

Could you tell us a bit more about at a time when you felt stuck and what you did to help yourself out of it?

When I was at Chelsea doing my MA, my father died, and I found myself blank. On the advice of my tutor, I went out with a video camera with a very open mind, curiosity, no agenda.

When that sense of lack happens to me now I'm very gentle with myself, and gentle with my work.

When I'm stuck struggling with a particular painting, that's a different thing. I work on many paintings at the same time and when one is proving difficult, I just put it out of sight and work on another. At some point you'll take the original painting by surprise and know what needs to be done.

Walking, 2019, Oil on Canvas, 45 x 35 cms

What kind of studio visits, conversations or meetings with curators, producers, writers, press, gallerists, or collectors do you enjoy or get the most out of?

I don't get many conversations and I'm always curious about what people say. I like to hear the positive and the negative because it's all useful. It's always good to see Rosalind Davis from Collyer Bristow, Agnieszka Prendota from Arusha Gallery, yourself, and Monika Bobinska who ran Canal.

Do you have a trusted muse, mentor, network, or circle of friends you consult for critical feedback?

Yes, but very few! The relationship must be very trusting for me to know I'm hearing their truth and for them to feel safe to tell it.

Which artists or creatives do you feel your work is in conversation with?

That's very difficult. There are painters whom I admire and feel a connection to, like Mama Andersson, Jochim Nordstrom, Hernon Bas, Michael Armitage. There are photographers like Stan Douglas who resonate. They are all image makers and storytellers. However, these are only one-way conversations. Amongst my peers, I would say there are various low-key painterly (and personal) conversations going on, between me and Cathy Lomax, Jacqueline Utley, Jeff Dennis, Greg Rook, John Campbell, and Freya Douglas Morris - and others.

The Hunting of the Wodewose 3, 2020, Oil on canvas, 52 x 80 cms

How do you make money to support your practice?

I've done many things: lecturing, admin, cleaning. I was a PA in the House of Lords for a year, I worked at the Institute of Psychiatry, interviewing Alzheimer’s carers another year. Most recently I worked in the finance department for the studio providers, Acme. To be honest, I gave up lecturing because it was so hard to get. I needed to make money and took the path of least resistance.

What compromises have you made to sustain your practice?

I think the compromises early on were huge. I did meaningless, unsatisfying work, so I was very poor; I put my personal life second. I stayed in unhealthy relationships, I didn't even consider whether I could have a family. I didn't expect to have very much, and I think at times life was much bleaker than most people outside the art world would tolerate. For quite a long time I blamed my practice for this, but now I can see the bigger picture better.

What advice would you give your past self?

Believe in yourself. Be brave, be seen.

Gift 2, 2020, Oil on canvas, 52 x 80 cms

Can you recommend a book, film, or podcast that you have been inspired by that transformed you're thinking?

In painting, I think finding the work of Karen Kilimnik was transformative. I was brought up to over-invest in logical thinking and I tended to try and think my way through painting. In Karen's work I saw the kind of dreaming and fantasy which was natural to me, but which I hadn't realised was allowed. I was for a long time very hidebound by what I thought was allowed. After that, painting stopped being painful.

A book that was transformative would be Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche's 'Shambhala - The Sacred Path of The Warrior'. It was my introduction to the practice of Tibetan Buddhism.

Follow Eleanor @eleanor_moreton or visit www.eleanormoreton.co.uk

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Coming Next...

An interview with Francesca Gavin, curator and writer based in London. She is the Art Editor of Twin, editor at large at Kaleidoscope and contributing editor at Good Trouble, Beauty Papers and Semaine. She was the co-curator of the Historical Exhibition of Manifesta11 and has curated exhibitions internationally including Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi (Somerset House); The Dark Cube (Palais de Tokyo), E-Vapor-8 (Site Sheffield), and The New Psychedelia (Mu).

Blog-Gaika

Interview: GAIKA

GAIKA is an artist, musician and writer based at Somerset House Studios.

The first major work I encountered by him that lifted and moved me was SYSTEM, a pulsating, flickering, interactive shrine, a call and response and homage to the cultural impact of Notting Hill Carnival.

I love the intensity of his live performances and his attentive, brooding vocals and haunting soundscapes. GAIKA’s astute and unwavering commitment to addressing blackness, immigration and the brutal hypocrisy and constrictions of our political systems resulted in commissioning his work Heaters 4 the 2 Seaters for the 2019 exhibition Get Up, Stand Up Now: Generations of Black Creative Pioneers.

His uniquely dystopian, poetic vision and ability to shape-shift between art forms and contexts also made him the perfect fit for Somerset House’s annual outdoor commission 100 Names of God: Hymns from the Spectacular Empire - an audio-visual light-fest for the senses, ice-skaters and wider community.

GAIKA’s work punctures a membrane between spirituality, activism, and popular culture.

Photograph by Emanuel S

GAIKA, born Gaika Tavares, is a musician known for his futuristic beats and conceptual art. Born in London to parents from Grenada and Jamaica, he has forged a solo career as one of the leading voices in British rap. He previously described his interactive sculptural work Heaters for the 2 Seaters as a "technologically-advanced superior-premium-reaganomic-multisensory mixtape for air-borne professionals who like John Woo and promises every attendee will get a glass of Cristal."

What are you doing, reading, watching or listening to now that is helping you to stay positive?

I'm just making a lot of stuff, so I don't completely lose the plot - so I'm not really consuming much music outside my own.

I did listen to Mother by Goldie on repeat for a bit and S.O.S Band Sands of Time is on heavy rotation on my system.

I'm drawing odd organic things with no conscious purpose.

I'm watching a lot of very nerdy music gear videos fantasising about my post-Covid beachside studio situation.

What are you working on and how has the lockdown affected your ideas, processes and chosen medium?

I'm working on a number of different things; a big audio-visual broadcast installation work, a Zoom party series, an essay film, various remixes and a sound sculpture work.

I struggle to work at home, but I've managed to build a control centre in my living room and crack on.

Image courtesy of the artist

What do you usually have or need in your studio to inspire and motivate you?

I need peace and quiet, so I usually work in the dead of night like some sort of traphouse vampire.

What systems, rituals and processes do you use to help you get into the creative zone?

Something I call "two-wheel dérive" - I go for a random cycle in the day just orienteering around without the use of a map, taking it all in for a bit.

What recurring questions do you return to in your work?

Are we living in an elaborate simulation? Am I really sorry for breaking your heart? When does the rioting start?

What do you care about?

Everyone I have ever met.

What risks have you taken in your work that paid off?

I think not sitting in the comfort of expectation that comes with one form of success has been a risk worth taking.

I entered the music world with a background in visual art and regardless of the success of my records, I still felt compelled to continue that journey as an artist

Ploughing forward into new territory more based in structure and mixing that with video and music work could have failed spectacularly. At first, I battled with a certain amount of imposter syndrome.

Seguridad: Cash Fractals 01, 2020, Strange Edition, New York, Photograph: Guarionex Rodriguez Jr

What risks have you taken that perhaps did not go so well but you learnt the most from?

Honestly, I think my vocal political musings have a detrimental effect on my career. I think people often turn to music for comfortable, easy answers or diversions.

This is rarely something found in my work directly, as I aim more often to ask mortally difficult questions.

I won’t play the game, I won’t separate my art from myself for any reason and I think this is a risky strategy in the era of artistic commodification across disciplines.

I think I am, above all, an authentic person. In hindsight, I think there is, and was, a naiveté in thinking that I could engage with certain entities considering the politics of today, barefaced, without strife.

Seguridad: Cash Fractals 01, 2020, Strange Edition, New York, Photograph: Guarionex Rodriguez Jr

What is your favourite exhibition, event, or performance you have participated in and why?

My favourite thing is always the last thing I did. I recently debuted a show in NYC called Cash Fractals after a three-month residency. It was a mixture of processed video, generative sound, and performance. I hope we get to do it again somewhere.

What would you hope that people experience from encountering your work?

My works are largely considerations of psychogeography, morality, technology, memory, and emotion.

I want people to get truly lost in the worlds I build, and for that journeying to trigger internal investigations beyond the moment of encounter.

Seguridad: Cash Fractals 01, 2020, Strange Edition, New York, Photograph: Guarionex Rodriguez Jr

Could you tell us a bit more about at a time when you felt stuck and what you did to help yourself out of it?

I always juggle different projects at the same time, to avoid feeling creatively stuck in one place although I do tend to hyper-focus on work to the point I can't sleep.

Recently I just felt overwhelmed and despondent by everything that’s going on. I thought I’d do some aerobics and ended up in a hole of Billy Blanks Tae Bo® Fitness videos online.

I sampled the (fire) music and then and took up skipping on my porch for a bit instead. Seemed to do the trick.

Image courtesy of the artist

What kind of studio visits, conversations or meetings with curators, producers, writers, press, gallerists, or collectors do you enjoy or get the most out of?

For me studio visits from people who have been traditionally excluded from the art world by circumstance are the most rewarding.

Gallerists or curators that facilitate these sorts of experiences are worth their weight in gold.

If you work with a commercial gallery / agent / label how does this relationship affect or inform your work and life? hat emerging artists are you excited by right now and why?

I think this is a hugely important relationship, your representative can shape your career and therefore your life with the choices they make.

I've always tried to make sure that everyone I work with in terms of sales is aligned with my creative visions, or artistic ambitions

Otherwise, the relationship is totally pointless. I'm very hands-on with the commissioning process so there are no gaps in communication.

I always try and make sure my agent also knows the materiality of any planned works and the detailed technical capabilities of my studio.

Do you have a trusted muse, mentor, network, or circle of friends you consult for critical feedback?

Muse? As cliched as it is, I am very much inspired by relationships past and present. Romance is how and where I anchor memories and contextualise more intricate political philosophies.

In terms of criticism I've got some really good people I look to, in order to tell me the raw truth, as they see it. It's not always advice I follow though, but it does definitely help.

I'm blessed in never really feeling shy in sharing unfinished work or protective about it in in anyway, as I don't think anything I do really matters like that.

I'm always sending my people demos and sketches, I suppose its cathartic in a way.  They say it's difficult to keep up and weird especially as I rarely revisit my own work once it's finished and out.

My circle is super diverse but most of them aren't people the outside world would consider artistic peers. I think it’s difficult to get or give objective criticism if there’s any element of competition.

Also, a lot of my circle take it upon themselves to archive my work as they know I won’t, I’m glad about that. For me, it’s always what’s next....

Photograph by Emanuel S

Which artists or creatives do you feel you’re work is in conversation with?

Torkwase Dyson, San Yuan and Peng Yu, Hassan Rahim, Dean Blunt, RZA.

How do you make money to support your practice?

With great difficulty currently, I only make cash directly from my practice.

What compromises have you made to sustain your practice?

I've definitely made compromises in terms of my physical and mental wellbeing by constantly working.

What advice would you give your past self?

Respectability Is Immaterial.

Can you recommend a book, film, or podcast that you have been inspired by that transformed you're thinking?

I can recommend a few books:

Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files; The Designer and the Grid by Julia Thrift and Lucienne Roberts; The Bed and Bath book by Terence Conran and Journey to Nowhere: A New World Tragedy by Shiva Naipaul.

Follow GAIKA @gaikasees or visit www.gaika.co  @warprecords @somersethousestudios

 

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Coming Next...

Another refreshingly honest interview with Eleanor Moreton, a London-based, prolific painter, who has exhibited internationally in public and private galleries and at art fairs...

Blog-George-Vasey

Interview: GEORGE VASEY

I first met George Vasey in 2013 at my gallery in London and subsequently enjoyed the text he published in a newspaper, as part of his MFA curating course at Goldsmiths. I have enjoyed following his career and programming ever since. I admire his gentle, inquisitive, interrogative, considerate and generous approach.

I am also humbled by his voracious appetite for research and his extraordinary knowledge of so many different aspects of culture and society, evident in his responses below. His curatorial approach weaves art historical and contemporary references, artworks, images and objects together, so they resonate and riff off each other. His exhibitions are sensory and intellectually rich, playful, meaning-full and respectful to the artists vision. It’s clear in all manifestations of his ideas that he loves art and artists and is committed to bringing their work to a wider public.

Photograph by Thomas Farnetti. Source Wellcome Collection 

George Vasey is a curator at Wellcome Collection and writer. He has curated projects across the UK in commercial and public galleries. He has previously worked as Curator at Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art (NGCA), Sunderland and as a Curatorial Fellow at Newcastle University. In 2017 he co-curated the Turner Prize at Ferens Art Gallery, Hull. His writing has been published in Art Monthly, Burlington Contemporary, Frieze, and Mousse magazine. He is a trustee at New Contemporaries, an Artist Adviser for Jerwood Arts and on the executive committee for AICA UK. .

What are you doing, reading, watching or listening to now that is helping you to stay positive?

I listened to a podcast recently where the musician Laura Marling describes writing as “breathing out” and research as “breathing in” the world around her. This moment feels like a breathing in period where I’m processing what is happening. I’ve been reading a lot and recently enjoyed books from Rachel Cusk, Rebecca Solnit and Jia Tolentino. I’m currently reading Elton John’s Me which is very funny. I just finished Jerry Saltz’ How to be An Artist which is full of great advice.

I’ve been listening to lots of podcasts and watching online projects. I’ve particularly enjoyed Transmissions by Tai Shani, Anne Duffau and Hana Noorali. My partner Elinor Morgan and I listen into Jonathan P Watt’s Radio Caroline most nights. It’s great to feel part of an online community that these projects foster. Music is a huge part of what makes me happy and I’ve enjoyed new albums from Caribou, BC Camplight, Fiona Apple and Childish Gambino.

Shona Macnaughton performing at Blend the Acclaim of your Chant with the Timbrels, 2016, Jerwood Space London. Image copyright of Hydar Dewachi 

What are your core values and drivers that you bring to your curatorial work? What do you care about?

I’m just fairly obsessed by art. It hooked me as a teenager and in some ways, I wish I’d found a passion with a job that was more secure and paid more, but that’s life! I feel very fortunate that I get paid to work with artists and learn from them. I make sense of the world through art (and music, films and books) and care deeply about what artists can bring to the world. I want to make galleries and museums feel more accessible to audiences and ensure that more people from a diverse range of backgrounds have opportunities in the art world.

I remember training around 800 volunteers for Hull City of Culture when I co-curated the Turner Prize in 2017. It was such as transformative experience and it articulates what I care about — sharing an enthusiasm for culture with others. Many of the volunteers were so committed and energised and they wanted to learn about contemporary art. I once heard somebody say that a curator’s role is to turn confusion into curiosity, and I think that nails it.

The Everyday Political, 2018, (installation view). Photography by Damian Griffiths. Courtesy of Artists and Southwark Park Galleries

How do you develop your curatorial ideas? How you test or scope your ideas? 

When working up an idea for an exhibition I ask myself some simple questions; why should I do this now? What form should it take? Who is it for? Who should be part of the conversation? These questions are really crucial in developing an idea into a workable proposal. My ideas often come tangentially, and they can percolate for many years. They often emerge while I’m washing the dishes, having a conversation with someone or going for a run. Ideas are shaped in conversation with artists and peers, and each project is formed through these collaborations. What you often see in the gallery is a negotiation between lots of different factors. Ideas are the easy part and turning them into compelling projects takes lots of strategy, time, commitment and energy.

A good example of how an idea became an exhibition was These Rotten Words, an exhibition I curated at Chapter Arts Centre in 2017. The title came from a photograph of graffiti that Mark Leckey posted on Instagram that said, “words don’t mean anything anymore.” I just loved the poetry of the statement. It made me think about political disempowerment. I thought about the idea of disillusion being a fertile space for new forms and how punk music often played with the repetition of words to shift their meaning into melody. I liked the word rotten (after Johnny Rotten) and thought it framed the ways in which some artists I’d been in conversation with (Anna Barham, Anneke Kampman, and Marie-Michelle Deschamps) were playing with language. Hannah Firth invited me to do an exhibition alongside a festival they were doing around the spoken word and the show came together.

These Rotten Words, 2017, Chapter Art Centre, Cardiff. Image courtesy of Jamie Woodley. Work left to right: Anneke Kampman, Rebecca Ackroyd and Joanna Piotrowska 

How do you discover artists and what makes you finally decide you want to work with an artist?

I go to a lot of degree shows and see as many exhibitions as I can. A lot of artists get in contact with me and people recommend artists all the time. I try and do studio visits as much as possible. Over the years I’ve discovered many great artists through New Contemporaries and Jerwood Arts, two organisations who have both played a pivotal role in giving artists their first real exposure and I’m now involved with in different ways.

Working with artists is often about building relationships. I may put an artist in a group show and if the conversation is fruitful that may build into a commission or solo show. I often write about an artist’s work and develop a relationship that way. Of course, I work with someone because the work is good but it’s important that we both get something from the collaboration and that we can work well together. I want to feel like I’m useful for an artist and not every artist needs the kind of support I can offer.

Shona Macnaughton performing at Blend the Acclaim of your Chant with the Timbrels, 2016, Jerwood Space London. Image copyright of Hydar Dewachi


How do you gauge which artists and artworks will be interesting to audiences?

I trust my gut instinct and I try and listen to what audiences are saying. A trendy early career artist may get you lots of attention in the art world but have little traction with local audiences in Sunderland. With an exhibition programme you’re trying to take people on a journey that registers on a local as well as national level.

I think if the rationale of an exhibition or programme is embedded in a story people are interested in they will engage with it. You’re trying to figure what is important to people and then undermine or at least broaden their expectations. People want to understand the rationale for the work in front of them — it’s often not the work that’s boring or inaccessible, it’s the interpretation. People want something to hook onto. I don’t believe that the curator’s job is to tell people what value art has to their lives has, but empower people to contribute to, and contest, what is valuable to society. When people come into a gallery and tell me that they don’t understand the work, I often say; “good, neither do I.” Let’s learn together.

What do you offer or provide artists in the curatorial relationship?

I studied art originally and made work for years and came into curating through putting on shows in my front room. I know what it feels like to sit in a cold studio and be lost with your own work. I think artists typically need space, time, money and dialogue to make their work. In the first instance I offer recognition and discussion. I’m a fan and a critical friend. If the right opportunities come together, I can help with fundraising and create visibility for the work. Sometimes that can be as simple as a nomination for an award, a recommendation to another curator or an actual show.

When I work with an artist, I’m offering them my attention. I often say that I’m a curator not a magician. I have no magic wand and I make no promises, but I’ll work hard for the artist to help them in any feasible way I can.

Can you describe what you ideally want to achieve when curating an exhibition?

I’m aiming to achieve different things with specific projects. I’m trying to add something to the cultural landscape and to foreground the voices of artists I think are doing interesting things and perhaps I feel are being overlooked. At Wellcome Collection, where I currently work, we aim to challenge how people think and feel about health, so the projects are really attempting to bring art into conversation with cultural and scientific discourse — to critically examine assumptions, and to explore how knowledge is formed through particular ideological structures.

What I’m typically trying to achieve with an exhibition is the sense of something prescient that has a personality. A good show is the product of lots of listening and good conversation. Ultimately, I want to learn something through the process of curating. Each project takes something out of me and gives me something and I want to surprise people and surprise myself. I want to go on a journey with an artist. I’m like a companion on a walk — although I’m useless reading maps.

Can you describe one of your most rewarding relationships with an artist - what factors made it enjoyable?

There have been so many artists who have become friends so I wouldn’t want to single one out! A good relationship with an artist is super crucial. I’ve worked on exhibitions and commissions for two years where you’re speaking to the artist daily. I think transparency and honesty are really important. Problems arise when an artist feels like the institution isn’t listening or caring about their work. What I’ve learned is that it’s good to be really clear from the outset about roles and responsibilities and not to over promise and also for the artist to be clear about what they need.

Sometimes artists just want to be left alone, others want to talk about everything, and you become a sounding board. The relationships that have been most rewarding for me are when it’s a conversation and you feel that the artist respects your advice and you’re helping them to figure something out about their own work.

Potholes: Drawings of Eric Bainbridge, 1981-2016, 2016 at Workplace Gallery, London. Image courtesy of Workplace Gallery

What risks have you taken in curating that perhaps did not go so well but you learnt the most from?

I’ve curated projects that really haven’t worked that I’m proud of because I was trying something out. Through experience I’ve realised that it's best to start with something simple and build on that. Complex projects quickly unravel unless there is a strict framework.

The projects that I think haven’t worked so well are ones where I’ve tried to respond to a hot topic and not followed my own passion. I often say to students, what is the question your project is posing? If you can’t answer that, the project needs reassessing. I think it’s important to listen and be part of a community, but it takes time — for me at least — to figure out what is personally important.

I do think that bad curating tends to be a kind of visual mixtape, assimilating hot trends but bringing little to the party. So that’s what I think a lot about; what’s my take on this? Who can help me tell this story? I also think it’s crucial to know when to insert your voice and when to take a step back. It’s important to foreground other people’s voices that can tell stories you can’t and learn from these voices.

Turner, 2015, (installation view) at Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art. Photo courtesy of Cornelia Baltese

What is one of your personal favourite exhibitions or events you have curated and why?

A few projects stand out. The first exhibition I curated at Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art was a solo show by Joanna Piotrowska who has gone on to have exhibitions at Tate Britain and be included in the Berlin Biennale and in a show at MoMA. I did a show of paintings (displayed horizontally on wheels) with Cornelia Baltes with a budget of £500 that was bought by the Arts Council Collection. It’s great when you’ve committed to an artist and helped them in some small way on their onward success.

The Everyday Political at Southwark Park Galleries in 2018 was also an important show for me. The director Judith Carlton invited me to curate an exhibition of artists from the North-East to coincide with The Great Exhibition of the North. I still feel really proud of that show as it made me re-evaluate how to make group exhibitions. It felt like a time capsule and captured the conversations I was having with artists such as Joy Labinjo, Adam Phillips from Foundation Press, Emily Hesse and Holly Argent among others.

It was the product of so many studio visits and long discussions with people like Paul Moss at Workplace Gallery and Judith. I have a lot of fond memories of the project. I ended up co-editing an issue of Art Licks with Holly Willats off the back of that show exploring strategic regionalism — the idea of working into the centre rather than working from the centre outwards. It was about regionalism as an idea rather than a location.

The Everyday Political, 2018, Southwark Park Galleries, London, Image courtesy of Damian Griffiths
Work left to right: Joy Labinjo, Women Artists of the North East Library, Harriet Sutcliffe and Kuba Ryniewicz

What would you hope that people experience and learn from seeing one of your exhibitions or events?

I think that people should know themselves and the world slightly less when they encounter an artwork. I think good exhibitions can raise questions, create nuance, and undermine expectations. I also want people to be inspired.

Do you help fundraise for the show you curate & if so how?

Yes, more so in some contexts. When I worked as curator at NGCA I had to fundraise for every show and most independent projects need to be fundraised for. You’re normally modelling various outcomes for a project based on whether you’ll get money or not. Money has typically come from trusts and foundations, universities, Arts Council, many countries have some form of public funding that enable you to work with international artists. Occasionally commercial galleries and collectors have put money into projects, but my experience is that its typically about building value for projects by sourcing in-kind support and partnerships that can bring money into commissioning opportunities for artists.

Sick Ardour, 2018, Anna Barham at Newcastle University. Image courtesy of Anna Barham

What emerging artists are you excited by right now and why?

You’ve finally stumped me! Lots and I’ll probably forget loads of great people. So, I’ll just focus on artists I saw at last year’s degree shows. Sof’ya Shpurova makes enigmatic and surrealist figurative paintings that riff on Russian folklore and contemporary motifs. They felt very mature for such a young artist. Ayo Akingbade who is currently at the Royal Academy and is already doing incredibly well. Akingbade makes fantastic short-form lyrical documentary films that explore power, identity and community. I can’t wait to see more work by her. Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley’s VR work at the Slade BA show really stayed with me. The work “centres black Trans experience” and it was an intense and psychedelic experience that is really an assault on the senses and makes you feel intensely vulnerable. It’s one of the most interesting uses of VR I’ve experienced.

Misbehaving Bodies: Jo Spence & Oreet Ashery at Wellcome Collection, 2019. Co-curated with Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Collection, London

What helpful resources would you recommend to artists?

A-N (Artist’s Newsletter) is a great place for practical advice on fees and contracts etc. Artsquest is great also. It depends where you are based but a lot of organisations such as The Newbridge Project (Gateshead), SPACE (London) Eastside Projects (Birmingham), Spike Island (Bristol) have great schemes that provide support and networking opportunities for artists. I think the best resource is your peers really and building local and online communities. I tend to learn about things on Instagram and Twitter.

Do you have any advice for artists working with curators?

Curators are often incredibly busy and split between multiple projects and obligations, so professionalism is key. Keep to deadlines. Be ambitious but realistic. I think clarity is really important. Both parties should be clear about what they can commit to. Be upfront about the terms of the collaboration and don’t be afraid to question contracts and ask for further support. Every curator is different and bring different approaches to the relationship but as you learn about what you need apply it to the next project.

Also, I often say to artists that I like their work and they can keep me up to date with projects. Artists keep in touch with curators! Invite people to your studio. Encourage conversation. Remember that curators represent institutions, but they aren’t the institution.

Follow George on Twitter @georgevasey and Instagram: @georgevasey

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Coming Next...

An interview with GAIKA (aka Gaika Tavares), a British artist, musician and writer from South London. His debut album, Basic Volume, was released in 2018 by Warp Records, who describe the sound as "gothic dancehall and industrial electronics"

Blog-Iain-Jane

Interview: IAIN FORSYTH AND JANE POLLARD

I have known Iain and Jane and been a fan of their work for over 15 years. I am continually amazed by their endless curiosity, thirst for knowledge and ability to chart new waters.

They have an incredible ability to see opportunities where others see obstacles. Whether it’s performance, curating, producing films for the cinema or TV, they are meticulous in their planning and collaborative processes, in extending themselves and others to go beyond the imaginable. They are experts at spotting and mining the real potential, interrogating identity and getting to the heart of the matter. They think big and they always deliver. Their honest answers are reflective of their preferred way of working – straight talking, rising to the occasion, enabling others.

Iain and Jane

Photo: Paul Heartfield

Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard are artists and BAFTA-nominated directors working across film, installation, performance, sound, documentary, and TV drama. Working collaboratively since meeting at Goldsmiths in the mid-nineties, their work has been exhibited around the world and is collected by museums and institutions including Tate and the Government Art Collection.

Their debut feature film, 20,000 Days on Earth, won two awards at Sundance and nominations from BAFTA and the Independent Spirit Awards. In 2015 Iain & Jane received the Douglas Hickox Award for best debut director from the British Independent Film Awards.

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Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard with Nick Cave, on the set of 20,000 Days on Earth, 2013. Production Still Amelia Troubridge

What are you doing, reading, watching or listening to now that is helping you to stay positive?

We try our best to help each other to keep things in perspective. But with all the perspective in the world, it can still be tough to stay positive. We’ve been trying Transcendental Meditation, and that’s been helping. We’re finding that TM works for us better than mindfulness. The book ‘Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity’ by David Lynch is an inspirational read.

One thing that’s been amazing to see is so many friends creating these incredible communities online. There’s Carol Morley’s #FridayFilmClub, where people watch a film at the same time and then discuss it afterwards. Sue Tilley’s life drawing classes have kept going on Facebook and Noel Fielding’s #NoelsArtClub on Instagram every Saturday 3-5pm is giving kids and adults a creative outlet. Tim Burgess’ #TimsTwitterListeningParty have taken on a momentum all their own, and Jarvis Cocker is helping the nation drift off to sleep with his #BedtimeStories on Instagram.

We don’t avoid the news as much as we’d like to, but we try to balance it with equal amounts of comedy, satire and funny cat videos.

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The Dali & The Cooper, 2018, Episode in Sky’s series Urban Myths, first aired on 3rd May 2018. Directed by Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard, featuring Noel Fielding as Alice Cooper, David Suchet as Salvador Dali, Sheila Hancock as Gala Dali and Paul Kaye as Cooper’s manager, Shep Gordon. Original score composed by Richard Hawley and Jarvis Cocker

What are you working on and how has the lockdown affected your ideas, processes and chosen medium?

The hardest part is fighting the feeling of frustration. Almost all our work has fallen away, with little promise of any of it returning anytime soon, and that’s an enormous weight on the mind. We also feel the weight of knowing full well that this long period free from many of the usual daily distractions should be an ideal time to be creative. It’s especially frustrating, as an aspect of our practice involves scriptwriting, and on paper, isolation should be the ideal time to write. But so much energy is needed just trying to stay stable and sane, that the focus isn’t there. It’s especially tough working collaboratively, as our brief periods of productivity never seem to coincide. It’s a daily challenge, but we battle on!

There’s a couple of ’strategies’ we’ve tried to implement. We’re forever making lists of films we want to watch or see again because they relate to a particular project or idea. But it’s one of those things we've rarely found time for. So, at the start of the lockdown, we committed to watching one film every day. The discipline of it is useful, and the 55+ films we’ve watched so far has left us feeling enriched.

Another project we’ve undertaken is using the time to take stock. We’re going through more than ten years’ worth of hard drives, making sure our masters are properly archived. Along the way, we’ve unearthed some fantastic memories. We’ve shared some of them on social media.

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The World Won’t Listen, 1998, 60 minutes, Live performance featuring The Still Ills

What do you usually have or need in your studio to inspire and motivate you?

People! Our work relies on meeting, talking to and collaborating with others. If anything, people are the “stuff” of our practice. That’s what we’re missing the most right now. Sure, there are other ways to communicate. You name it, we’re using it; we’re Skyping, Zooming, hanging out in Google Hangouts, chatting on WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, getting annoyed with Teams and even Houseparty-ing. Of course, we’re lucky to have all these options, but none of them beat being in the same room. And while it’s possible to keep talking about our work, so far, we haven’t found any way to continue actually making it.

One of our biggest inspirations is books. Our studio (and home) are full of them. But our studio is also a very practical space, with whiteboards and everything on wheels so we can quickly reconfigure. Since we moved into our studio at Somerset House, we’ve discovered that the absence of things is as important. Home is full of distractions. Oh, and cats. Same thing, really.

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Poster for 20,000 Days on Earth, 2014, Feature film, 97 minutes, Director: Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard; Writer: Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard, Nick Cave; Producer: James Wilson and Dan Bowen; Composer: Nick Cave & Warren Ellis; Starring Nick Cave, Ray Winstone, Blixa Bargeld, Kylie Minogue, Susie Cave, Arthur Cave, Earl Cave; Cinematographer: Erik Wilson; Production Stills Amelia Troubridge

What systems, rituals and processes do you use to help you get into the creative zone?

In our quarter-century (bloody hell!) of working together, we’ve learnt quite a bit about the nature of creativity. We’ve been lucky enough to witness it in some remarkable people and talk to them about it.

Here’s something we know we know, something we learnt from Nick Cave. Creativity is not difficult. Anyone can do it. You can take the tiniest idea and, providing you stick with it — put the time and effort in — it will grow into something. You must do the work and trust the process.

And here’s something we know we don’t know, inspired by Gil Scott-Heron. Creativity is elusive; it comes from somewhere else. Gil would say it came from ’the spirits’. The name doesn’t matter, but you do have to understand that it comes from the side. Somewhere out of view, often from the darkest corners at the back of your mind. Sometimes in the shower. Sometimes only when the fuse is lit by the creativity of others. It's sparked by many things and will bounce hither and thither, as you try to catch it. It’s elastic, elusive and electric.

In our experience, creativity is also obstinate. It refuses to be tied to a specific ritual or circumstance. To us, creativity seems to be 90% effort, maybe 9% bloody-minded self-confidence and 1% pure magic.

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Who is Gil Scott-Heron?, 2015, 60-minute feature documentary

What recurring questions do you return to in your work?

There’s a line that pretty much sums it up for us. It's from an oft-quoted Albert Camus essay:

“When we are stripped down to a certain point, nothing leads anywhere anymore, hope and despair are equally groundless, and the whole of life can be summed up in an image. A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover through the detours of art those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened”.

In our film 20,000 Days on Earth, Nick Cave elegantly describes the process of song writing as chasing after “those moments when the gears of the heart really change”. And, while we’re throwing around the quotes like an art student on an essay deadline, we should also mention our fondness for these words from Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Letters to a Young Poet’: “Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart… you need to live in the question.”

That’s what we’re trying to do; live in the question.

What do you care about?

We care about the arts. This is the stuff that we build lives around. Many of us construct our very sense of self through our relationship to arts and culture. They are a powerful tool, able to effect great change. And when the going gets tough, the arts are a lifeline. Who isn’t feeling even a little bit less isolated right now by climbing inside a book, playing great music, watching movies or playing video games? Yet as a society we seem to be giving up. We’re literally letting go of the stuff that makes us who we are. It’s a catastrophe.

In 'Know Your Place', his essay on class in the art world, Dan Fox puts it perfectly succinctly: “Art is for everyone, but participation in its professional systems is not.” He goes on: “I find art profoundly interesting but, despite 18 years in the business, I feel alienated by the games of hierarchy that play out around me, because they involve forms of classism that few will admit to.” It’s well worth a read in full.

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DOUBLETHINK, 2018, Video installation, Sheffield Doc/Fest, Tudor Square. Photo Henry Rees

What risks have you taken in your work that paid off?

Risk is such a hard thing to talk about. There are artists who’ve taken a risk by introducing a new colour into their palette. And there’s artists who’ve taken a risk by getting themselves shot. There isn’t a ‘risk scale’ that makes any sense to draw comparisons.

Likewise, how do we quantify whether a risk has ‘paid off?’ In our minds, it only makes sense to talk about risk if there’s something genuinely at stake. Maybe if you’ve built a commercially successful practice by doing one particular thing, then anything that deviates from that is a risk to your steady source of income. But because we’ve never had that, we’ve never had to face those sorts of risks.

For sure we’ve taken chances. We’ve borrowed money to make up shortfalls in project budgets. We once completely changed a proposal that had been agreed by a museum, and somehow managed to convince them to come with us on a completely different creative journey. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes it backfires. But artmaking should be a process of constantly taking creative risks. Without that, what’s the point?

What risks have you taken that perhaps did not go so well but you learnt the most from?

When things haven’t gone well, it’s usually because we’ve pushed things too far. But we feel duty-bound to do this. Maybe if our practice had evolved with a specialisation, we’d feel different. But our interest is in what it’s possible to achieve as an artist. That means we’re always going to try to break things.

Probably the first time we understood the value of this was while we were making a series of live art projects in the nineties. With one project, we found the breaking point for that set of ideas. But by being pushed to confront failure we were able (eventually) to reformulate that strand of our work into what became our biggest and most successful live project. Perhaps it’s too much to say it would never have happened without the earlier mistakes, but it was absolutely better for what we’d learnt along the way.

Such a mixed practice has given us an amazing range of experiences, even if we’ve learnt it’s a hard way to make a living. We’ve worked with live performance, directing film and television, video editing, scriptwriting, curation, sound installations, collaborated with musicians, writers, actors, technologists, scientists, even magicians. And although what we choose to experiment with frequent changes, we enter each project with the same heads, minds, and hearts. For us, that’s what being an artist is all about.

silent sound

Silent Sound, Installation view and performance, St. George's Hall, Liverpool, 2006/7

What is your favourite exhibition, event, or performance you have participated in and why?

Like children (so we’re told) it’s hard to pick a favourite. But the projects we enjoy the most are invariably the ones that scare us the most. Fear is important, it’s the fuel in the tank.

Silent Sound, a live performance and installation we made in Liverpool in 2006. It was the first time those two sides of our practice came together, with the gallery component of the piece created, quite literally, overnight. This was also the first (and to date only) project which involved us personally performing. Aside from the huge adrenaline rush, the work also felt like it was entering new territory for us. A lot of subtle psychological trickery went into a piece that was ultimately rather honest and exposing.

It would be impossible not to also mention 20,000 Days on Earth. This film allowed us to work through so many experiments. It was making this that we met the cinematographer Erik Wilson, who we continue to work with. He’s truly inspirational. And of course, the film has opened doors to projects we would have previously never been able to realise. So, it’s very dear to us.

20k_days_on_earth_a

20,000 Days on Earth, 2014, Feature film, 97 minutes, Production Still Amelia Troubridge

What would you hope that people experience from encountering your work?

Put simply, we want to make work that can make someone else feel the way we have felt in the presence of transformative objects and experiences. We want our work to have an immediate effect and leave a lasting impression.

Could you tell us a bit more about at a time when you felt stuck and what you did to help yourself out of it?

Whenever someone badly lets us down it throws us off our tracks. When you’ve put so much of yourself into a project, it can hit hard. We’ve been in some real ruts over the years. It’s rare, but when it happens, it’s the most anti-creative situation we’ve ever found ourselves in.

There’s something debilitating about feeling like you have no control over anything anymore. And that creates a completely different kind of crippling fear. It's tough to claw your way back from feeling so powerless.

Very early in our career, we did a project with an ‘artist-run’ space. We’d agreed to split the costs of making the work 50/50. But when the bills started coming in, the gallery always had a reason why they couldn’t pay their share. We scraped by and borrowed money to clear the debts, hoping their contribution would eventually come through. It never did. For a pair of baby artists, just finding their way in the world, that was so destructive. To this day, we find ourselves occasionally being unhelpfully distrustful in a way that we know traces straight back to that experience.

There’s no sure-fire fix that we’ve been able to find. In time, you dust yourself off and start to try things. Play. Fail. Daydream a little. Slowly you being to bounce ideas off other people. And bit by bit, you become unstuck.

DOUBLETHINK

Doublethink, 2018, Two screen video installation (15 mins, looped), Filmed at Somerset House Studios, London

What kind of studio visits, conversations or meetings with curators, producers, writers, press, gallerists, or collectors do you enjoy or get the most out of?

The best visitors are those that bring a cheque book! (Sorry, not sorry.)

Okay, flippant answers aside, the best meetings and studio visits are with those who can push you beyond the things you usually say. Those stock phrases you collect about your work that act as a crutch when you’re forced to talk about it. We’ve never believed that we’re the experts on the theory surrounding our work. We know what we’re trying to do or say, but that doesn’t mean we’re succeeding.

Listening to someone you trust completely tell you something you never realised about what you do is incredible because with this new insight we’re able to progress, refine or change what we’re doing.

If someone enters a dialogue with an open mind and an open heart, we will get along just fine. We give a lot of ourselves when we meet people, and it’s rewarding when that’s given back.

paul

Multigraph 013 (Paul Kaye), 2018, C Type Fuji Flex, 32.5 x 48 x 3.5cm (framed), Edition of 3

If you work with a commercial gallery how does this relationship affect or inform your work and life?

We are represented by a commercial gallery (Kate Macgarry), and we have a manager/agent who looks after our film and TV projects. Working with a gallery has helped get our work placed in museums and public collections, but we’ve never really found our feet with private collectors. We know we’re not an easy fit for the art market. But as much as we wish that wasn’t the case, making work that tries to chase the market just isn’t for us.

We’re never been an easy fit in any of the industries that we have worked in. We tend to operate in a way that never quite fits the models for success. Despite their often-modest budgets, we find institutions are a good setting for us because our ambitions tend to align. We are always interested in bringing new and diverse audiences in to experience our work.

With film and TV becoming part of what we do, we now have a manager. He is a brilliant sounding board. Someone who will always tell it to us straight, even when it is not easy to listen to. Maybe because film and TV are inherently collaborative mediums, we have found that world a little easier to navigate. So much of the art world seems to go on behind closed doors, or at least doors we have never learnt how to open. We haven’t made things easy for ourselves.

fusm-2a

Poster for File Under Sacred Music, 2003, single channel video, 22 mins 

Do you have a trusted muse, mentor, network, or circle of friends you consult for critical feedback?

In 1993 at 'A Fete Worse than Death' we met Joshua Compston. He became the closest thing to a mentor we’ve ever had. We would meet most Sunday mornings in Shoreditch and tape record our conversations. These blew our minds wide open. Joshua wanted us to document his ideas, but we became hooked on his self-belief and the scale of his ambition. His ventures were a heady mix of brilliance and bullshit, but he taught us more in the short time before his death than anyone else.

Since then, there’s not been a single figure, although certain individuals at different times have been important to us. For example, the body of live work we produced early in our career would have been impossible without Vivienne Gaskin, who at the time was Director of Live Arts at the ICA.

Being two people means we have an inbuilt, and constant, level of self-criticism. We know two sets of instincts are better than one. And when they naturally align, we know we’re onto something worthwhile. But for us that only works at a project level. Regrettably, we’ve never been able to apply those instincts to any sort of career strategy.

Things are a little different in film. The art world seems so firmly bought into the idea of the autonomy of the artist that it seems to be only after something has been completed that people step forward to tell you what they think of it. Producers and executive producers in film are always able to be consulted during the making process. Most of the time, that’s a good thing! Maybe commercial galleries can provide that for some artists, but we’ve never had those kinds of relationships in the art world.

Our friends are brilliant — always open to reading a script we’re developing or watching a rough cut of something. So, there’s a handful of people we return to when we need an outside voice.

scottwalker031212w

Bish Bosch: Ambisymphonic (with Scott Walker), 2013, 25 minutes, Ambisonic sound installation, Sydney Opera House for Vivid Festival

Which artists or creatives do you feel you are work is in conversation with?

To be honest, we have never thought of our work in that way. Even some of the pieces we have made that very directly riff on existing artwork, such as ‘Walking After Acconci’, were never about a conversation with the original artist. It’s the dialogue with an audience that’s important to us.

Of course, there’s a sense in which all our work is in conversation with fellow creatives. That might be the more subtle collaborations that take place between us and, say, a cinematographer. Or sometimes the collaboration is more overt, such as the project we made with Scott Walker for Sydney Opera House. These real and direct conversations are incredibly important to us and our work.

kissmynauman_garya

Kiss My Nauman (still), 2007, 4 channel HDV projection, silent, duration: 47 mins

How do you make money to support your practice?

It’s rarely talked about, but one of the most difficult things is that the projects we’re best suited to are usually larger scale, working with public spaces. Even when the budget to realise the work is there, it rarely covers the true time, effort, and resources that the project requires. As the artist, you’re expected to be the most committed person in the room. We have no problem with that, we work stupidly long hours every single day. But when everyone around you is on a salary and your artist fee isn’t covering even close to minimum wage, it’s tough.

There’s such a strong sense in this country that the arts are a luxury, and that if you don’t have a private income to support yourself, then you should go and do something else. How do we even begin to fix that?

For almost twenty years, we supported our practice with part-time jobs. Initially in the book trade then, for 12 years in the record industry. We weren’t able to fully reshape our working life until after the success of our first feature film. Although it brought us little in the way of hard cash, the doors opened have been immense. We’ve been able to incorporate film and TV work into our practice. As glamorous as this perhaps sounds, we’re only able to take on a small amount. It’s gruelling work, and we’re not right for the sort of conventional projects that enable directors-for-hire to make a good living.

So, there’s still no single or solid source of income in our life. We try to keep enough plates spinning in the hope that some eventually pay off. We’ve never liked the lack of transparency in the art world, so let us put our money where our mouth is and give you an idea of how we’ve made money over the past year.

It’s been a real mix: Small development fees for scripted projects that may never move beyond development; some income for work on a Nick Cave exhibition which was due to open in Copenhagen but is now on hold; a percentage of the anticipated income for co-curating an exhibition that has now been postponed; tiny amounts from royalties and image licensing; an executive producer fee for mentoring a friend through the process of directing her first feature documentary.

Other than that, there may be an occasional modest fee for a mentoring day or something similar, but it’s shaky. And we’re now seriously concerned about making it through this year and the current pandemic, as we fall through the cracks of almost all Government support.

dali-suchet

David Suchet as Salvador Dali in The Dali & The Cooper, 2018

What compromises have you made to sustain your practice?

We haven’t pursued creating a family. it has never felt financially viable, and we don’t have the first clue how we would navigate that as well as working as a collaboration. Around us, we’ve built up the most wonderful community of friends and peers, who we value immensely. Perhaps this is our compensation for not having a larger family of our own.

We work incredibly long hours, typically 12 hours a day, and always 6 days a week. More when we need to. It’s the only way to fit everything in, especially when juggling part-time job commitments.

We’ve compromised ourselves financially in every way imaginable. Everything that comes in, goes back into the work. We’ve had one ‘holiday’ in the last 25 years. Don’t get us wrong, that isn’t meant as a sob story. We’re incredibly lucky to be able to travel often with our work, and we’ve often tagged days off onto the end of a work trip. But there’s no doubt we could’ve had a better standard of living with a more conventional choice of career.

What advice would you give your past self?

Oh, we’d have been far too stubborn to listen. Worry less, maybe.

Something we’d love to have understood sooner is this, a quote from Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli The best grammar for thinking about the world is that of change, not of permanence. Not of being, but of becoming.”

Sheila Hancock

Sheila Hancock as Gala Dali in The Dali & The Cooper, 2018

Can you recommend a book film or podcast that you have been inspired by that transformed your thinking?

It’s attitudes we fall for. Anyone who refuses to accept there’s a way things ought to be. But it’s a kind of alchemy, you have to be an active element in the inspiration equation.

Two books we’d heartily recommend are ‘Lanny’ by Max Porter and ‘Waiting for the Last Bus’ by the Right Rev. Richard Holloway. The Two Shot Podcast hosted by actor Craig Parkinson is a wonderful series of brutally honest conversations, mostly with actors, but they reveal so much about creativity.

The films we return to most often are ‘F for Fake’ by Orson Welles and ‘O Lucky Man!’ by Lindsay Anderson. Both have been transformational.

Visit Iain and Jane’s website and find them on socials @iainandjane and at Kate Macgarry.
All images c/o the artists and Kate Macgarry

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Coming Next...

An interview with George Vasey, a curator at Wellcome Collection and writer. In 2017 he co-curated the Turner Prize at Ferens Art Gallery, Hull. His writing has been published in Art Monthly, Burlington Contemporary, Frieze, and Mousse magazine. He is a trustee at New Contemporaries, an Artist Adviser for Jerwood Arts and on the executive committee for AICA UK.

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