This interview dates from 2011, just after the the duo had a solo exhibition at the South London Gallery. I found it hiding in my hard drive and thought I would share it with the world. It was part of an unpublished project.
When did you decide that you wanted to become artists? Was there an epiphany?
For both of us, applying to art school was a way of delaying a decision, something to do while figuring things out. When we met at Goldsmiths we began our ‘collaboration’ by organising stuff together, we used to curate and publish an object-based art magazine in a box called Words & Pictures. It was a way of testing the waters really, finding out if we could work together and what that would be like. From there we began talking about ideas for work we’d like to make and eventually took the plunge and began actually making work together. If there was an epiphany, then it was probably when we began to realise that the stuff we were making together was better than anything we’d been making individually. By the time we came to leave our BA there was no question that this is what we were going to do, and that we would do it together.
What is the best context for your work?
Our work seems to operate best in a quite general public context, for an audience that doesn’t necessarily have any knowledge or experience of ‘art’. We like working in galleries because you can have so much control over every element of the work, but for us, nothing beats the excitement of something live. We like to set up situations, obsessing over every detail, until the point where the audience arrives and, at that point, you have to let it go. Over the past year we’ve been working on a big project for a sort of performance/installation/even happening in a large public square in Toronto’s financial district. They’re the kind of projects that really get under our skin and drive us forwards.
Why did you choose to work together as a team? What do you think makes a good collaboration? I think Dieter Rams once said, it is the ability to be controversial and it not effect your friendship.
For a brief moment at college it felt like we were in danger of collaborating secretly on two practices attributed to individuals. Of course there’s a long history of artistic collaboration, but at the time there didn’t appear to us to be any realistic way of us working together openly, within the constraints of an academic institution that required individual assessment and examination. We quickly realised how ridiculous this would be and came out, as it were, with our intention to work together. We were living together, working together in an organisational and curatorial capacity, and discussing ideas for work together – it just became inevitable. This is the only collaboration we’ve ever known, so it’s hard to say what makes a good one, but ours is based on a firm belief that the whole is greater than the sum of parts. We have never let ego get in the way, so there’s never been jostling for individual credit or attention, the work is what matters. We often say that collaborating allows us to externalise the conversations that individual artists have with themselves in their own heads, and that’s exactly what it feels like really. Working like this is conspiratorial, we push each other to go further than either of us alone would dare to.
Could you talk about the title for your SLG show, ‘Public’s Fear’, it makes me think of Talking Heads with this fear of public speaking, and seems to invoke some notion of shame in some way….
Like most titles, there’s a few different things going on. Obviously on one hand there’s a play on ‘public sphere’, which felt appropriate for our first major show in a public gallery, but we did also want to hint at something darker, which we felt was being played out through the selection of works and the exhibition design. The entire show was framed by the piece that we placed above the gallery, in the specially constructed mezzanine. That project, Silent Sound, had originally been made in Liverpool in 2006, and it was really important to us to be able to present it as part of this show. In many ways it feels like the culmination of a lot of things that had been going on in our practice, but also a jumping off point for much of the work we’ve made since. It plays with ideas of subliminal communication and questions how and what we choose to believe. The installation totally focusses your senses on the auditory, so it’s a pretty intense experience and playing with that psychological aspect of the work has become increasingly important to us. We also consciously placed File under Sacred Music right at the entrance to the show. That work represents another significant point for us, and really marks a point where we began to resolve the live side of our practice into our film and video work in a way we were happy with. That work also raises a lot of questions about what we as a public find acceptable. It’s unusual for us, we’ve always been very much against single word titles for anything!
Your work seems is very affective (which is lacking in a lot of the work that you reference), playing with the confessional, musical and comedic which are all to some extent, strategies that can destabilize critical distance. I was wondering whether you could talk a little bit about this….I am thinking about how you often converge an art historical motifs with the aesthetics of the entertainment industry.
Something we’ve often said is that we want to make work that is experienced on an emotional level before an intellectual one. Over the years it’s become obvious that in large part this attitude has been a reaction to our experience at Goldsmiths in the mid nineties. In the shadow of the YBA’s, there was very much a tendency for students to make these big, expensive, shiny things that would look sexy in empty lofts, and then bolt on some half-arsed critical theory in order to explain away these hollow gestures. We instinctively reacted against it and became immersed in the more intimate DIY culture of music, drawing our influences from fanzines and small labels, organising stuff, publishing stuff, making things happen on a more personal level. For over a year we didn’t actually make anything, and as our practice has developed that principle has remained pretty solid. It feels like less of a soapbox these days, but something we still feel pretty strongly about.
Working with widely understood cultural languages – like urban music videos or stand-up comedy – enables a more direct communication with a viewer. We think that these days it is really difficult to speak without using a recognisable language – and for art this ‘art-i-ness’ can affect your connection to the work or its idea in a pretty reductive way. While we know viewers approach our work reading it as art we still aim engage them in an act of participation – directly and emotively.
You produce a lot of music videos etc, I was wondering what your thoughts were on how the music industry has changed over the last 10 years. The music video especially seems to have changed quite radically. I am really interested in this proliferation of ‘home-made’ video’s…..I was wondering whether you could talk about this?
We fell into making music videos by accident. In 2008 we were asked by Nick Cave if we’d like to have a go at making something for the upcoming Bad Seeds record. The video we made, for Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, was in many ways quite a logical extension of our work, and used many of the same devices, such as the performance straight to camera, single take, no edits. After that we started being asked to direct videos for other people and if it feels right, if it’s for a friend or a band we particularly like, then we’ll do it. One we’re particularly proud of is ‘I’m New Here’ the video we directed for Gil Scott-Heron from the last album he made before he died – its a video that has no directorial voice clouding the honesty of his character and performance – perhaps because we don’t see ourselves as music video directors we feel a freedom not step back.
We only really know the world of music videos as outsiders, so it’s hard to say too much, but the two significant factors in the changes we’ve all seen over the last few years would seem to be that on the one hand the entire music industry is in a financial pickle and budgets for making music videos have crashed through the floor, while at the same time accessibility to the technology that enables people to make videos cheaply and to even make videos without any particular skill or training means that so many more people are having a go. It’s so common now for bands to have a friend with access to a high definition camera and reasonably easy to use software that videos can literally be made for a couple of hundred quid, which obviously most record labels are only too happy with. More than either of those things though, the biggest impact seems to have come from the shift in how people see videos. The number of outlets for music video broadcast on TV has shrunk to almost nothing, meanwhile there’s been a huge surge in online video sites like Vimeo and YouTube and online media, Pitchfork and so on, who have the mechanism to put videos in front of fans in the way TV shows and dedicated music channels like MTV used to. The change in context, screen size, resolution, legal broadcast requirements and so on has forced a huge shift in the way videos are conceived and made. Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! was made at a size we thought would work well on You Tube – we knew this was where most people would view it.
Your work takes the form of portraiture and the myriad ways that we construct and de-construct our own identity, do you see your self as artists who, are in a sense, creating portraits?
Very much so. So often the ‘stuff’ of our work is people. We arguably started making self-portraits, in a very overt way. Now we rarely feature in our own work, but of course it’s all a form of self-portraiture as much as anything else.
‘A Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’, a work you showed at the ICA in 1998,seems to pre-empt in a lot of reenactment work, I’m thinking specifically at the ICA in the last few years we have had Nina Beier and Marie Lund inviting a songwriter to re-stage a performance word for word and Einsturzende Neubauten re-staging a performance from the 80’s. These two performances seem to tackle this issue of authenticity in some way, but your work specifically tackles the ‘master of the artificial’, I was wondering whether you would like to expand on this?
We were never particularly interested in questioning authenticity, and the ‘re-enactment’ works we made were never about exploring the past, which seemed to be an important aspect of Jeremy Deller’s ‘Battle of Orgreave’ for example. We were really most interested in exploring something about the present, through a reflection of the past – about how we deal with experiencing a reconstituted past act in the present moment, where we site ourselves in it and how we process it psychologically. Through the intense research period for A Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide we became increasingly interested in the documents and fragments that became our primary sources for re-assembling and therefore accessing the past event. The discrepancies we found between eyewitness accounts and actual physical documents were staggering, and we became obsessed for about a year in how to identify, unpick and replay these details. Ultimately, that led us to making File under Sacred Music, our video recreating an infamous bootleg video of The Cramps performing for the patients at Napa State Mental Institute in 1978. It was important to us to base our work specifically on the VHS cassette tape we had purchased on eBay. The bootleg has been copied so many times and in so many ways that two copies of the same tape can look wildly different.
A work such as Performer. Audience. Fuck Off, makes me think about how performing is a negotiation between the performer and the audience. It’s a transaction and stand-up comedy seems the most naked form of this transaction (you have to make people laugh!), a lot of your work seems to return to this idea, that the spectator becomes implicated in this situation, I was wondering whether you could talk a little bit about this…..
This really comes back to our earliest intentions, to want the viewer to be firmly implicated in the work, and to become engaged on an emotional level before an intellectual one. Although we never began by thinking of our early work as ‘performance art’, and have never had any interest in performing ourselves, that unique relationship between a performer and the audience was, and is, pivotal to the work we make. After working quite directly with music for a number of years we became interested in other modes of performance. Silent Sound in 2006 was something of a hybrid and later we became interested in how we might employ comedy in our work. Outside of our work we’re huge fans of stand-up and spend a great deal of time at comedy gigs, and we usually try to bring humour, on some level, to our work.
We’re coming back to Performer. Audience. Fuck Off next year with a major tour as we want to experiment in this area much more.
Do artists have responsibilities?
Only to themselves.
Where do you want to go next?
We’re at the very early stages of development and fundraising on a feature film. That’s where we want to go next!
Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard met at Goldsmiths college in the mid-nineties and have been collaborating since. Based in London, they are represented by Kate Macgarry Gallery.