UNBUILDING in words

Mermaid Arts Centre, 21st Aug – 17th Oct – 2010

James Merrigan interviews Damien Flood and Alan Butler

with 2 comments

Introduction

This first interview is with Damien Flood and Alan Butler. The two artists are collaborating on a project that is defined by their shared interests in music and popular culture.

Context

Usually, you only question a piece of art critically after it has fulfilled its purpose as an object in a gallery, in public, as a performance etc. I am very aware that as producers of this project both artists are at the vulnerable stage of making, binning and rebuilding. In a way you could say we are reopening the wounds that were formed through art college critiques – so lets get to it. After seeing the work in progress ( this is for the readers at home) – what I would call a construction site for a potential model of a town or city – that could be from the  future or the past? The model seems to be made from craft materials sourced from Evan’s Art Supplies, recycled cardboard boxes from Temple Bar’s ‘pissed on’ streets, chinese takeaway containers from your late night consumption in the studio? The latter assumptions form a picture – an imaginary dystopia. Which brings me to their influences, appropriately enough – Bladerunner and Slayer.

Image: Studio Work in Progress

James Merrigan: I am intrigued by the line that all artists thread between referencing popular culture and making art for a space that is all about distancing itself from the capitalist world at large – before being swooped-up by the art market, or not. The Californian thrash-metal band – Slayer – have been referenced lately in contemporary art circles by the painter Wilhelm Sasnal, whom Roberta Smith has described as being ‘locked in some kind of pictorial post-traumatic stress syndrome.’ [1] Sasnal has admitted to listening to Slayer – and not the obligatory John Cage. In 2007 at the 10th Istanbul Biennale ‘The Slayer Pavilion was an installation art piece by David Dorrell, Melissa Frost, and Mihda Koray… It featured the set of a teenager’s room, in the centre of which was a dummy representing a boy who had hanged himself.’[2] Koray goes on to say that “The thing I miss about London while I’m here [Istanbul] is the strange youth culture/ subculture. It has a lot of power, and it’s a constantly moving scene, be it exciting, pretentious, silly, attractive or sincere in its creative endeavours.”[3] Closer to home, unlike London and New York, there seems to be a fear of blatantly assimilating popular culture (or admitting to the connections) into modes of art making outside of art colleges. Do you agree with this view, and if so, why do you think this is the case and how are you threading this line as artists?

Image: Wilhelm Sasnal

Damien Flood: I do agree that there is a fear of integrating popular culture with art in Ireland. There isn’t the same currency attached to the use of popular culture within art. Primarily, there may be a fear of it ‘dumbing down’ the work. I think even within artists’ research there is trepidation of drawing on ‘the everyday’ as a source. There tends to be a lot of artwork made in Ireland that is all about Art and revolves first and foremost in its own little art bubble. This is a completely acceptable approach but, for me, it does not leave many opportunities for future developments. I agree that using such source material may be problematic. It can be a potent resource to employ, however it can also bring very high rewards. If merged correctly it can shape an entire new angle or bring that all essential ignition to the work. The employment of familiar, accessible material may be additionally subverted to form contradictory, jarring affects. This is one of the main reasons why I initially chose to work with Alan. He works directly with popular culture.

With this project we are both appropriating and subverting the sources in a different mode of working. What I mean by this is in making the models I am using an intuitive process which lets them grow naturally. This has brought about an almost obscured look to the model city. It would have been possible to purely mimic the structures depicted in Blade Runner, but I prefer to hint and disrupt the sources, rather than bludgeoning the viewer with them. Working this way has let the project take on new elements. Originally there wasn’t a plan to use food packaging to create the models. This came about organically as I pushed the buildings into more unlikely shapes. This further led to the notion of advertising being part of the actual make-up of the buildings, which additionally expands the reading of the work.

Image: UR-A Project- Istanbul Biennale

Alan Butler: From the point of view of making work, I don’t see any difference between Slayer or Liam Gillick, or the ‘Smurfs’ for that matter. I mean, really, when it comes down to it there is no way of defining which is more ‘worth while’, because cultural value systems are too complicated, too laced with subjectivity. More importantly, there are far too many economic and professional agendas attached to cultural produce to say that Liam Gillick making a big drink is ‘better’ or ‘more important’ than Tom Araya (Slayer’s frontman) singing/screaming about torture. The thought of comparing the two doesn’t bare thinking about. It is at this point, when it is all just ‘stuff’, when everything is on a level playing field, the potential for appropriation emerges. All images (and sounds, movies, texts, etc.) hold the same value initially when you arrive at art through remixing things. The only value anything ever really has at this level is ‘how appropriate is this to the work?’ or ‘what does this do to the meaning?’, be it aesthetically or conceptually. Cultural products have a life of their own, even if I appropriate something for a very specific reason, a viewer could hold a different association with the item, implying a new meaning on the piece. With the assertion that there will never be any truth in art, whether it is Slayer or Gillick, what makes cultural remix exciting is that things can potentially spiral into chaos. The dogmatic power is removed from artists, curators, institutions, commissioners, record labels, production companies and so on… (we have a generation of kids demonstrating this on a massive scale on Youtube). So, why are so many artists using Slayer? Irony maybe? Slayer has one of those names that works with their reputation, like Megadeth or Black Sabbath. Maybe it’s their ability as a brand to be that ubiquitous thrash metal symbol – a postmodern shorthand? I saw artists reference Slayer in galleries around Asia in the last couple of years too. Louie Cordero from Manilla was one that stuck in my mind, he made an crazy sculpture of a kid in a Slayer t-shirt being crushed by a huge canvas. Then of course there was Matthew Barney who actually hired Dave Lombardo (Slayer’s drummer) to perform in Cremaster 2, but that was probably because Barney was a fan and needed a good metal drummer, rather than the fact he was actually from Slayer. There is definitely the guts of a great exhibition about Slayer in there anyway.

Image: Blade Runner

AB continued…I don’t know if this sounds strange, but a lot of artists in Dublin seem to like their art to be ‘fine’, which isn’t always compatible with pop culture. One problem with this is that it is not necessarily an artist’s job to make ‘fine’ things. When things aren’t fine, the lazy assessment is always to consider it ‘low brow’ and dismiss it. I’d argue that pop culture can be used in any level of intellectual discourse – it is very versatile material. Artists should just make things. If it is a requirement that things have to be ‘fine’, who should decide whether or not it is ‘fine’? The curator? The audience? Damien Flood? But things don’t even have to be fine. Art can be anything and it is sometimes a sad thing to see art that looks like contemporary art. To me that is the homogeneous – as opposed to the art that appropriates the ubiquitous, supposedly-homogeneous imagery for whatever reasons. This homogeneous stuff I am describing – is that stuff that has almost no catalyst in it that is visible. It looks really like contemporary art. So much art in galleries in every city in the world is like this. I’m not saying it’s bad by any means, but it is all out there existing, at once – oh the art of it all! It happens in Dublin all the time too. Especially in such a small city, I have always had an unsubstantiated suspicion that artists must fear being seen to be making mistakes – being oblique and making safe contemporary art that looks like safe contemporary art is an easy way out of this.

AB continued…So with all of that in mind… In regards to this project, myself and Damien were looking at our shared cultural influences from various sources. Music and movies are, of course, a huge influence on how our initial understanding of culture was formed. It is about going back to those original perceptions of reality that were mediated by things we consumed culturally. The Bladerunner thing came from when we started talking about how the future used to be presented to us. Then we are remaking a Slayer score in the style of those ‘synthy’ Blade Runner tracks, that’s Slayer being used as something esoteric right there. You would have to know the track to get the joke in full, but the audio itself does something additional anyway. We are doing something absurd and somewhat, philosophically speaking, impossible. We are attempting to make something from our former, and therefore narrower, perspectives. It’s funny because, we have to second guess or reinterpret our previous perceptions of reality. That is our ‘unbuilding’. I predict weird things will emerge because of this. Whether or not some of our creations will be ‘low brow’ isn’t really an issue for us. In fact, not worrying about this will offer us freedoms in the creative process that perhaps our usual routine may not allow as easily. We have an idea what it is going to be, but I think we are open to the idea that it could be different at any stage. I think what will be important in all of this is that Damien and myself are willing accept the fact that it might all be wrong. Whatever that means.

Image: McDonalds in Bray

JM: In an article by Henrietta Huldisch for the Whitney Biennale 2008 catalogue.[4] Under the sub-heading ‘Modesty of Materials’ she said something that could be described as prophetic or a recycled cliché of failed capitalism; she wrote:

Beyond ecological disaster, the contemporary American landscape also bears the scars of overconsumption and disposability, epitomised by endless strip malls, rampant suburban sprawl, undistinguished corporate box architecture, and the rusty ruins of industries that moved operations elsewhere.

In the context of your project for UNBUILDING, do you have a sensitivity to the current climate whether that be economic or moral (Religion)? How does this sensitivity effect the aesthetic of the work? As your work is site specific to Bray do you have a sensitivity to Bray as a place or is art just about building ‘castles in the sky’?

AB: Bray was a starting point in the conversation. It’s still there but not entirely visible. Maybe Damien can answer that, since he is from Bray.

DF: As you may expect, there is sensitivity to the current economic climate. There was an initial discussion about materials in which balsa wood was mentioned. However we chose to use materials that have a direct link to childhood creativity, i.e. recycled cardboard. As a child, anything tangible and accessible posed as a tower of creative possibility. Balsa wood may have been too slick and taken away from these central ideas.

These ‘shanty’ style materials also speak of what is going on socially. Being from Bray, I have a natural, in-built sensitivity to the area. However it was important to not get into any finger pointing about the town. I also have no interest in numbers and statistics about urban planning. Alan and I discussed whether we wanted to get into that territory and we realized that the work was not about that. The work is not a specific statement about conserving, recycling or living more responsibly. Instead it is more of a bittersweet comment about the broken promises of childhood. In this way, the work does relate to the ‘castles in the sky’ quote.

 JM: Since I talked to you last your cardboard city has grown and you have replaced the Slayer soundtrack with SimCity computer game jingles (The computer game SimCity was originally developed in the late 80’s; the objective was to build your own city based on real world scenarios). The SimCity Jingles sound utopian and maybe reflect an optimism for building with capitalist fervor. In contrast, Slayer are the cliché of anti-american sentiment being screamed out by unhappy american teenagers? So, why the change of position? Or is utopianism another form of rebellion?

AB: The Slayer thing is something that will have to be revisited, though maybe in another project. They have a lot of mileage, but for this reason itself, we had to take them away. They are too weighty, culturally, and it was a layer that the project did not need. It’s interesting you say Slayer is unhappy and anti-America, and many people would agree with you I’m sure, but when I listen to them it’s just 100% America fun. I think that’s why we made synth versions of the Slayer. We also moved from Blade Runner to SimCity when the works seemed to be looking like the work of a cretinous town planner. Taking the angle of artificially second guessing how we would make cardboard building if we removed our art education (and common sense), the optimism embedded in the SimCity jingles just seemed to work, but also some of them are just plain crazy sounding. SimCity affords the player to mess up the place and experiment, which is what will happen with our models – before the experts come in that is. It’s really quite strange hearing all of these old 8 bit tunes, as well using the samples as a cultural and generational reference, they will help add some sort of ambient dementia in the space.

D.F: This progression occurred when we started to assemble the work together in one space. The buildings had been gradually constructed in my studio which was too small to generously experiment with the layout. As the structures began to form a town plan we realized our Bladerunner references has become superfluous. In their place was a physical, tangible interest in the models at hand and how they were arranged. I think with the progression of any art work there is always a phase of trimming the fat. The employment of Slayer lead to additional cultural references that were not as strongly linked to our primary concerns. In some ways we were confusing and diluting the ideas. SimCity was one of those games that, as a child, allowed you to lay your imagination bare. This game allowed the creation of a preposterous and absurd future. We realized our interest lay in the tension between childhood dreams and present failed utopias and saw the potential of this exhibition as a creation of our own megalopolis.

Image: Tomoko Takahashi

JM: In a condescending review by Jonathan Jones in the Guardian in 2005, Jones wrote that the Japanese artist ‘Tomoko Takahashi’s career is a cruel joke played by the art world on someone you suspect may be a complete innocent.’[5] Takahashi was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2000. Her work resembles cityscapes made from the detritus from daily life but with a fascination with bright colour and toys. Jones’s problem was with her obsessiveness with form overriding any content. How do you balance or stop the artist’s obsession with form (form could be the SimCity soundtrack also) from covering up content? Or is form content?

AB: I don’t think form and content are always necessarily separate. As a viewer or consumer, if you are willing to dive in, everything has history and meaning. The viewer just needs to be interested in ‘stuff’. The artist Nico Vascellari creates really interesting works which rely on general or object-specific lineages and social context to create work, he wrote in one of his catalogues “Every object has to have its own autonomy… apart from its origins, generally”, to come from that perspective, Takahashi’s work must have meaning embedded it whether she or Jones like it or not. The form with our project is kind of the same as the content – I suppose, or at least its form is to provide some food for thought, the content will be created by some other people at a later stage. If the viewer is willing, they can get whatever they want out of it, though sometimes it can be a considerable leap of faith. Perhaps our project might annoy people in a similar way.

Image: Nico Vascellari

D.F: This is a very interesting question which reveals obstacles in the making of the work.  Through being immersed in the models creation it is a problem that I am very aware and conscious of. The architectural models are definitely about form. However, they are additionally about creating an immersive, child-like space which directly links to our primary content. Furthermore, the little details, i.e. labels used as billboards, are strategies put in place to shift the work away from a purely formal discussion.

JM: How does collaboration differ from your individual practices? Less responsibility? Claire Bishop’s article ‘The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents’,[6] delivers a fascinating quote at the start by Dan Graham: All artists are alike. They dream of doing something that’s more social, more collaborative, and more real than art.’ Do you feel you are making something more real than art?

AB: Is art not real anyway? What’s all that crap taking up half the space in my studio then?! Maybe it’s crap. I am sometimes suspicious of statements that start with “all artists….” If this was a universal truth, maybe it wouldn’t need to be said. Regarding the collaboration being different from our individual practices, I think something else happens because we are simultaneously being producers and consumers with combined ‘ownership’ of the work.

D.F: I think Dan Graham is right on the money with this quote. However, I don’t think that this project is more real than art. I chose to work collaboratively to remove my comfort zone and create something diverse to my own practice. As I am primarily a painter, I wanted to explore other areas of interest that painting may not suit or express as clearly as installation. I also enjoyed the challenge that comes with working with a very different artist. There is a push and pull between our individual practices that creates a spark, or potential. I didn’t set out with an intention to create art work concerned with social aspects or make work that has a higher importance to it. I wanted to do something that is in some ways more personal.

The Unbuilding Project begins in August 2010, at the Mermaid Arts Centre.

[1] Roberta Smith, Art in Review, New York Times, 2007, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E03E5DB173FF935A35757C0A9619C8B63

[2] Saatchi Gallery Diary – http://www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk/blogon/2007/10/cedar_lewisohns_latest_diary_10.php

URA! Gallery, Istanbul – http://www.ura-project.org/?a=projects-slayerpavilion

[3] Time Out Istanbul, English Edition, April 2007, page 45

[4] Henriette Huldisch, ‘Lessness: Samuel Beckett in echo park, or an art of smaller, slower, and less, Whitney Biennale Catalogue, 2008, Yale University Press, 2008.

[5] Jonathan Jones, Tomoko Takahashi Serpentine, Monday 28 February 2005, London, http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2005/feb/28/1

[6] Claire Bishop: ‘The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents’, Artforum, February 2006, pp. 179-185

Written by James Merrigan

May 22, 2010 at 8:54 am

Posted in Interview

2 Responses

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  1. James, I have read the interview with Damien and Alan -the conversation makes for a great format for insights into the two’s position and passion for their experimental collaboration and the influences of popular culture and the relevance of appropriation. I’m glad to read Alan’s explanations of the use of appropriation – - ‘the only value anything ever really has at this level is ‘how appropriate is this to the work?’ or ‘what does this do to the meaning?’, be it aesthetically or conceptually. I’m also glad to read, given the day I’ve been having that ‘art is real’. It seems to me sometimes that they way we live reality is at one remove and experience is second, third, forth hand (except for eating and drinking and you know what else) and so sometimes its hard to believe that much really is real. But it makes total sense to keep recycling and sampling and appropriating material or ‘stuff’, keeping it all spinning and all and everything is relevant, over and over, but in different ways and lets the past keep returning in the present and making the past real again, but stranger -with that touch of magic that comes into play with distance. So the work by these artists – a fantasy city based on some notion of Bray, is positioned between childhood dreams (broken promises) and failed utopia -a past world returning into the present that might be the future – a sort of back to the future! Yes, and its real. Hope the work is going well Damien and Alan …. look forward to another studio visit.
    c

    Cliodhna

    June 8, 2010 at 4:10 pm

  2. Following on from Cliodhna assertion that ‘art is real,’ I think it can be, but the intention of the artist is always clouded. Maybe Damien and Alan’s project acts as a statement about the space that art finds itself in. Art, power and critique are all at an impasse under the umbrella of modernity. For art to become “Real,” we as artists, critics and curators have to question are postions with more than descriptive appreciation and nuanced propositions. A few committed statements would go along way, even if they are impetuous or ignorant.

    unbuildingproject

    June 8, 2010 at 5:26 pm


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