17 June 2010
So tell us a bit about yourself.
I am an artist based in Glasgow. For the last two years I’ve been undertaking a Leverhulme Scholarship on the Master of Fine Art programme at Glasgow School of Art, which is just coming to an end. It’s been an intensive experience and has given me the space and time to reflect on the career of ‘artist’ I had, perhaps quite naively, found myself pursuing. I think it is essential that artists begin to question and evolve their role in the twenty-first century – not simply carrying-on blindly following this path. Art is, after all, a superfluous or luxury thing. In a world which will increasingly have to be streamlined to prioritise the essential in order to sustain our growing population, this re-think is all the more urgent. Whilst I was on the course, I wrestled with these questions – attempting to explore the ethical implications of persisting in choosing the role of artist in my 2010 thesis Trajectories: How to Reconcile the Careerist Mentality with Our Impending Doom.
What’s your history art-wise?
My ‘career’ was launched in 2002 when I completed the project Eat 22, for which I attempted, and succeeded, in photographing everything I ate for a year. This project garnered lots of interest in the popular media, with articles in magazines and newspapers all over the world and within an art context, when it was exhibited in the Science Museum London in 2003 and was subsequently purchased by the Wellcome Collection for their permanent collection. This began me down a very specific path, which I now refer to as my ‘data collecting’ practice, where for over five years I documented and recorded information about nearly every aspect of my every day routine: how far I travelled (Gold Card Adventures), how much I weighed (Daily Quantification Records), when I sneezed (Sneezes 2003), the number of people I spoke to etc. It was obsessive to the point that it took over my life and prevented me from noticing or thinking about what was going on elsewhere in the world. It all became too much so I decided to ‘quit’, become a ‘recovering data collector’ and retrain myself as an artist. This period saw me develop a number of works which dealt with the notion of a conscious abandoning one’s former self and reprogramming with new information and a new outlook on life, such as the Artist’s Training Programme™, Work With Me and Know Your Thinkers & Theorists. Concluding with the publication of the first book about my work Confessions of a Recovering Data Collector, which surveys my former working methods as though a symptoms of a condition inflicted subliminally by a childhood spent in Thatcher’s Britain, and documents, with the help of writer Sally O’Reilly, the process of ‘therapy’ which helped me rehabilitate myself. The last two years spent on the Master of Fine Art programme at Glasgow School of Art have also been integral in this process.
What inspires you and drives you?
I am actually interested in analysing the ‘motivations’ themselves – the different pushes and pulls which present themselves when one chooses to become an artist. There are very few other careers that are so individualistic. There are also very few other careers where nobody quite ‘needs’ your product / service less and where nobody would necessarily mind if you ceased production. It is therefore essential that you possess a strong drive for success to get anywhere. I’m interested in what sort of character / personality has this drive. Whether these people are drawn specifically to choose this career or whether the artschool training engenders this in young artists. Most importantly, I’m interested in how we might be able to reconfigure a small proportion of this excessive self-determination and self-worth in order to use it for less self-interested and more altruistic ends, if this is at all possible.
Why have you recently been choosing installation over other methods?
I wouldn’t say that I am specifically drawn to any one medium over another. I certainly advocate that the artist finds the most suitable media for conveying their idea, rather than restricting themselves and the possibility of their ideas from the outset. A lot of my works have a high conceptual presence – in that they do not take a tangible, physical form. Something like the Artists’ Lottery Syndicate exists as a network of people engaging in the activity of buying lottery tickets over a given period of time (one year). People can just as easily engage with the idea of the Artists’ Lottery Syndicate by reading about it in the paper, than they could by encountering any other documentation of our existence. When I am creating work specifically for a gallery though, I try to think about the sort of work I would like to encounter myself. I enjoy work that offers both a strong visual impact, but has a lot more going on under the surface – something that offers both instant ‘percept’ and lasting ‘concept’.
Your recent work seems quite reactionary, do you find that you need current affairs for inspiration?
Over the last few years, I’ve come to realise the importance of the artist’s role in reacting and responding to what is going on the world. I believe it should be the artist’s role to raise questions about and challenge different aspects of our current social, political and economic order. I think it’s irresponsible for artists to remain blinkered to what’s going on in the world around them, but at the same time, I do not think it is their role to preach. Artists can and should draw attention to or raise certain issues in a provocative, yet politically ambiguous way allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions.
Is there anything in the media that has inspired you recently?
I was recently interested and excited by our general election, enough to devise and take part in a new ‘endurance performance’ General Election Drinking Game. The introduction of the first ever live leader’s debates on TV added a new dimension to the election campaigns it finally seemed as though politics was talking in a language that could compete with mainstream entertainment culture. I’m not necessarily sure that that is a good thing, but it certainly geared up engagement to a certain extent. The live coverage of the performance, which featured four ‘players’ representing the main political parties and attempting to drink one shot of lager for every seat in parliament they won, aimed to provided an alternative commentary on the results. I am excited about the possibility of electoral reform. It seems long overdue so I’m looking forward to the referendum that the Liberal Democrats managed to barter with the Conservatives.
I’ve noticed many of these projects involve audience participation – what do you personally gain from this if anything? Or is it more to draw people in to the piece?
When I do involve an audience, I like to think about how I would like to be engaged myself in a gallery. I like to think about offering something which is on face value ‘fun’ – an experience, an object or an event – which then provides more to think about and an ambiguity of the knock-on effects. For example, my Vending Machine, which vends out free packets of crisps to passers-by whenever search terms relating to the recession make the headlines in the BBC News RSS feed – initially seems like an act of generosity. The thrill I wanted to replicate is that when you get something for free from an actual vending machine, or find some coins in the change slot of a payphone – one of those little day-to-day occurrences that can bring a smile to your face. With the Vending Machine however an added weight comes with the ‘gift’ – there is the idea that some other event in the world has had to occur in order for this to happen. Something ‘bad’ has had to take place to produce something ‘good’, this is all without the added question as to whether it is even ‘good for you’ to get a bag of crisps which you would not otherwise of had / needed and to eat them superfluously. I aim to use the simple give-take interaction between the artwork and its audience to allow them to chew over this complex array of ethical conundrums, whilst they are chewing over their snack.
You also seem to be interested in consumption (Greed, Eat 22 & Tea Blog) why is that?
Consumption has always been a central interest, dating back to the earliest gallery projects I have archived on my website, which look at different types of energy – kinetic, potential and chemical and how this is converted between these distinct forms and consumed in the process. Energy consumption is the core of all life on earth and is something that is going to become more and more of a central issue over the forthcoming century as the energy we are used to consuming – namely fossil fuels – begin to run in short supply. There is recurring question of what is superfluous consumption and whether we will be able to begin to use just what we need and not just what we want. Documenting my own consumption was in some way a method for stock-taking – of creating a record of what it all amounted to over the course of a year (or even longer). I think I wanted to make visible this process of consumption that we all do, every day, and to begin to differentiate between want and need.
Did those projects teach you anything about yourself?
I learnt a lot about myself in terms of hard facts – that I ate 1,640 meals and snacks over the course of a year (Eat 22) and that I drunk 1,650 cups of hot drinks in three years (Tea Blog). A lot of both of these I’m sure were surplus to requirements. Most of all it just encouraged me to notice the detail of what I do day-in, day-out – to take note of my behaviour and to begin to ‘tread more carefully’. The older concerns of my former practice have begun to manifest in my recent work / interests in the form of my Environmental Policy, which I published on my website earlier this year. This is a real life series of rules / guidelines which I attempt to adhere to in order to reduce the impact of my lifestyle on the environment around me. Noticing the little details in our day-to-day lives remains of upmost importance if we ever want to stand any chance of fighting climate change. It is essential that we grasp the bigger picture of the knock-on effects of the small choices and actions we make each and every day.
Finally, what does the next year hold for you?
The Artists’ Lottery Syndicate project launches on 2 July 2010 at Arts Admin in London – with a special launch event / get-together for members of the public and all the artists involved. We will then be gambling collectively in every UK Lotto and EuroMillions draw each week for a year, in the hope of hitting the jackpot. Then later in the year I am working on a project called Trajectories with funding from New Media Scotland. The project, which comes out of the research I did for my thesis Trajectories: How to Reconcile the Careerist Mentality with Our Impending Doom will be a website, which allows users to compare their lives to others’ to see how they ‘match up’ against their successes and career trajectories. Then I have a solo show in March – April 2011 in London and hopefully a few other things on the horizon…