John Kippin and Chris Wainwright
in conversation with
London, 16th February 2012
In the run up to Futureland Now, the two artists met with Liz Wells, editor/curator, to reflect upon some of the issues raised through their work. This included: the role of art, in terms of social investigation and commentary; the North, as concept related to a changing industrial and mercantile social economy; aesthetic strategies, radicalism and hegemonic processes within visual language; the limits of documentary. The conversation also explored how the two artists came to work together in the first place, the sociopolitical context within which that initial working relationship developed and why it seems important now to revisit questions interrogated though the original exhibition and publication Futureland (1989). Noting that the focus or fulcrum of the project is the North East of England, they reflect on visual practice as a means of addressing the global nature of economic links and social resonance.
Liz: John what is your immediate reaction to the role of art if we are thinking about its social investigation, about art as commentary on contemporary issues?
John: It is such a difficult question, because I think that probably most artists feel their expectations of what they do running way behind the practical, really running behind what they can reasonably expect to achieve in terms of changing anything. So to me the process of art acts as more like water eroding a stone rather than something that is hugely incisive or active. But, if we’re involved in it, it culturally positions us in a place where there is some possibility to think about values. And if art doesn’t become an embodiment of values then it really doesn’t have much purpose.
Chris: Yes, I broadly agree with that. I think there is an issue about the role of art but there is also a question about the position of artists. Over a period of time the artwork and artists grow further apart for obvious reasons – art generally lasts longer than people. So art does have an initial close functioning relation to the artist, to authorship and its dissemination, but also, over time, art acquires a progressive independence from the artist, and therefore its intentionality and reception can shift significantly. In some ways that condition of independence or distance was part of my interest in revisiting Futureland almost 25 years from the first time that we engaged with the idea of creating it. The work we produced back then now has a detachment from ourselves in the sense that it was produced at a time when we were probably thinking very differently to the way we think and work now. In a broader sense for me it was not about making the work address social issues because I am not sure by choosing to be an artist you can really say that you are embarking on a strategy that’s likely to bring about significant changes in those issues by your individual actions; you’d choose another profession if that was the case. But I think artists do have a responsibility to be a concerned witness, to be engaged critically with issues that then come out through their work. The work shouldn’t necessarily illustrate social issues or concerns, but recognise that they significantly inform it; sometimes in a very obvious way, sometimes they are more opaque. I think working through photography, which both of us have chosen to do, we are aware that the visualisation of those issues are fairly transparent because the medium itself doesn’t obscure information as much as if you were choosing a more plastic medium that wasn’t so much geared towards representation. So you can’t avoid references, but that doesn’t mean to say that the approach should be trying to explain or illustrate an issue. I’m not comfortable with making work that is singular or becomes over instrumentalised.
Liz: Rhetorically it could be suggested that artistic creativity is about thinking outside the box, looking around the sides of issues, bringing different perceptions to bear. For me one of the criteria for evaluating art is whether imagery makes me think differently about something that matters.
John: Yes, and something that actually affects you in some way so that it changes some aspect of your life experientially in some respect.
Liz: Yes, even if only minimally
John: Yes its very important, in a small way, but its never going to change your life over night, or only very exceptionally. But that isn’t what you’d be looking for it to do.
Chris: But it can also affirm .For me it can strengthen a view that you have; maybe if you have an emerging notion of something that is relatively unexplored or undeveloped, seeing it and exploring it through the work can actually bring it on further. So it might not always make you think differently, It might actually empower you to think ‘yeah I am on the right track’ because there is something affirmative emerging from it.
John: In some ways it may just open questions up for you, make you think about them. This might not necessarily be just the ‘issue’ that is in front of you, but a quality of engagement that makes you think about whether or not the issue has any real concern for you
Chris: Relating that to Futureland, we were making work at a time when the Thatcher government was saying what they were doing was good for the country in terms of its regeneration policy aimed at changing the post industrial landscape and its communities. Of course we all knew it wasn’t, or at least some of us did. We were making work against a tide, against a strong political tide. How true the sceptisism has proved to be? Look at where we are now with high levels of unemployment, social division just as extreme and a continuing lack of real sustainable investment outside of some isolated high pofile projects. I think the work we made back then did to a large extent empower people to develop critical positional views, to be saying ‘look this ideological rhetoric about what is going to happen in a post-industrial society and in the North East in particular is questionable. To question the assertion that the region will turn it into a consumer and leisure focused society as a legitimate replacement for work and that everyone is going to have more leisure time’ an improved quality of life and so on, and so on. I mean we knew that there was just not going to be a quick fix to create a viable sustainable future..
John: Yes, I think we try to find some of those kind of issues really because they start off as policies which are about some kind of social engineering or creating a particular type of society but so often it is just managerial and, beyond a sort of political ideology, it doesn’t have very much of a political philosophy that’s linked into any idea of what’s interesting or what’s good for people or the actual quality of people’s existence; it’s all about management. Thatcherism brought management into mainstream politics and effectively that is what we have had ever since. It’s why now it’s very hard hand on heart to say that what the left and the right are prepared to do is significantly different one from the other. And that seems to me a huge casualty. But it is something that we have to respond to, and I think that in a sense it is no longer possible to see the world in the way we did when we were much younger and perhaps more idealistically focused in some ways.
Liz: You’ve mentioned three points that beg question. One is youth and idealism. The second is ‘people’ as an undifferentiated term, whereas people have very different experiences, and always have done, but particularly in the legacy of the Thatcherite culture of centralised control. The third reference is to the post-industrial and the ideal of a transformation to a consumer culture and leisure. In terms of regional economies, historically the industrial has been much more significant in certain parts of the country than others; it follows that a post-industrial transformation is going to have different and perhaps much more complex resonances in places such as the North East by contrast with, say, the south-west.
John: Nobody is taking that seriously. The current governments response has been to close the regional development agencies. Unemployment in the North East is running away, for example, we are losing four times the amount of jobs in the public sector than the rest of the UK. So there are real and terrible consequences of government policy at the moment, but there is no coherent strategy for putting that back. The real number of the unemployed is probably four times the official figure depending which calculations you use. But if you return to the numbers that were so hugely doctored in Thatcher’s time, many real jobs disappeared and there’s no strategy in place to put those back, nothing beyond the hope that the private sector alone will somehow make things work, but they won’t, or not without a convincing strategy for growth alongside a belief and commitment to the value and importance of the public sector.
Liz: By ‘real’ job, do you mean a job that is productive in the sense of transforming materials in some way that makes them value-added in a classic Marxist understanding of the nature of the capitalist system? Are you contrasting that with some notion of a sort of softer job in for example the public sector or for example service industry?
John: No, I wouldn’t make that differentiation. There is another argument around production and capital, but I am just thinking in very simple terms: real jobs are jobs that provide enough income. They are not half time at minimum pay rates – that’s not a real job in a way because you can only just about keep body and soul together but you can’t do all the things that our culture is expecting you to do – to consume at some kind of reasonable level, buy a house (because there are no or few houses to rent anymore) and bring up a family – perish the thought! So you need a reasonable level of income to do those kinds of things. Basically we lose the statistics and think that the problem has gone away. But it hasn’t, it’s just seething away there. And kids are being brought up in the north of England and they have to leave, there’s nothing for them and it’s a tragedy. I think there are serious problems here that have to be addressed. This is getting totally political isn’t it, but the fact that the current government does not represent the north of England or Scotland is actually placing the North back into this position where it feels a kind of desperation. Recently I have heard arguments for a regional assembly. The fact that Scotland is talking about independence reflects pretty much the same problem – effectively they’re ruled by public school boys from London.
Chris: We are getting into a more focused discussion around politics, economics and ethics than maybe we should be at the moment. Yet that agenda is critical to the motivation behind the work that we do. We are not politicians in the sense that we don’t formally represent constituencies of people but there has to be a point where you use all of that information as well as your personal belief structures as motivation for making work. For me the issues are primarily about the making of the work, not whether we can directly influence political strategy and thinking. The issues that are being brought to bear on what John’s just highlighted highlight a set of dilemmas for how people live their lives with some kind of dignity and a baseline of provision is probably beyond the actions or responsibility of any single government regardless of ideological emphasis. It’s to do with the whole global intersection of economy and where influence is and that’s not always in the realm of governments as the private sector has a key role to play as well. If we tackle all that then we are going to be here all night trying to put the world to rights but I do think it is vital to get a sense of that global agenda as a kind of baseline that runs through the focus of our work. The conditions in 2012 are not that different to the conditions in the late1980s. The same issues of class divide, economic divide defined by geography and cultural divides and unemployment trends still exist. So in terms of the question, why are we doing this show now, part of the reason is because the issues haven’t gone away. The very thing that we saw happening in 1989 in terms of initiatives to reinvigorate a region, that whole regeneration rhetoric from people like Heseltine is not a lot different to rhetoric you now hear around the Olympics for instance which is coming to London and the UK as we speak. There is part feeding frenzy and part hope that this one big bash will kick start a process that will help sort all our problems out. Of course it won’t. Here we are still dealing with the North, looking at places that we looked at 20/30 years ago saying, actually very little has changed in terms of the social and economic orders and political neglect. The landscape might look a bit different but actually we can still see through pictures exactly the same kinds of issues.
John: It’s interesting I think because we talk about this as if it is a northern problem but it isn’t of course. It is a problem about how we perceive Britain as much as anything. Britain, even the idea of Britain, is something that is in contention at the moment, but it’s not about London it’s about all the other places really. London is a kind of island state in some way within the country. When you look at, say, Scotland, the idea of Scottish independence is expressing a very real frustration. Britain is regional, but somehow wherever the problem is, it’s something you can fix in London. In the North East our participation in the Olympic games is somebody running though the town with a torch! Conceptually there is no sense of how a nation needs to function to be a nation.
Chris: There is a tendancy to default to a sort of tribal subculture mentality when there is nothing that confidently holds us together. If you suddenly find that you can’t believe in the government, that you can’t believe in the monarchy, you can’t believe in a whole number of things which are meant to be somehow representing the glue that says you are a nation, then you say let’s have a Welsh assembly, let’s have a Scottish assembly, let’s have a North East assembly, let’s call ourselves something that allows us to create an identity that we can control and is self generated. That kind of fragmentation or dispersed identity makes us very vulnerable in terms of representation, in terms of being able to mobilise any kind of leverage on issues that affect our lives. What that does do at the same time however, is create incredibly valuable and positive local self awareness that allows people a kind of dignity and common purpose that they expect the state to respond to. Or expect a combination of state and a recirculation of private profit to provide investment and opportunity for. If you talk about The North then it’s almost too easy to consign it as just another subgroup, as distant, a tribal notion, as different and as a stereotype. In this sense there are ‘norths’ all over the UK. There is a ‘north’ in Hastings on the south coast where I spend a lot of time, where you’ve got a high percentage of families, three or four generations, who have never worked. You have got unbelievably high levels of unemployment, single parents on benefit, a high percentage of social housing and mental health issues, and lack of serious investment, and so on. It’s no different in that sense to places in the geographical north.
Liz: You’re talking about the political context that informs how you develop your practice but on the other hand you are saying your work is not directly translating a political context. You also say you can go back and work on the same issues because they haven’t gone away nearly 30 years later, although the literal content of the image might of changed a little because what is happening at the mouth of the river is very different certainly than 30/40 years ago. How do you think about aesthetic strategies? You were both pioneers experimenting in the use of colour photography, John in your case in use of text within the image, Chris in your case exploring new digital processes. That your work seemed cutting edge in a sense enhanced the political; the aesthetic reflexivity somehow feeds into the political reflexivity. How do you rethink that now 30 years later when the issues are the same the content of the images shifted but not necessarily as much as one might expect?
John: Interestingly enough part of why Chris and I first started to work together on this was because social documentary was dominant and celebrated, and it tended to be black and white. It also tended to believe cause and effect: if I show you something that is unpalatable or complicated or difficult, something will happen as a result of my photographing it. Now I don’t think that we ever believed that; we were artist- photographers working with our sensibilities and our ideas, naturally incorporating our political views. I had been a painter, and studied fine art at Brighton Art School (now part of University of Brighton), although when I arrived at art school I virtually gave up painting. At the time the dominant influence was conceptual art and people were starting to work with film, video and photography. Art school was very much a mixed bag for me, and I was also interested in musical things. But eventually I came back to making pictures and I think that is when I rediscovered photography. That neither of us had a regular photographic background or training meant that Chris and I weren’t locked into a 12 x 10 black & white picture aesthetic so we were more interested in other ways of thinking about things both intuitively and intellectually. I think we felt that campaigning humanistic photography wasn’t achieving what was claimed. Maybe it was a kind of cynicism, but there was an understanding that can only take you so far and we need to develop new audiences, new ideas, new ways of talking about some of these issues, however they might translate.
Chris: A bit like John I didn’t go through a formal photographic education, I studied Fine Art specialising in sculpture at Sheffield Polytechnic (now Sheffield Hallam University). Then I studied Graphic Design at Master’s level at Birmingham Polytechnic (Birmingham City University) which gave me a very good technical grounding. I got very involved in the debates around photography, particularly in the way that it was being used by conceptual artists to record events that were performed. or of a temporary nature. There the photograph became the only thing that existed as evidence, or residue so in a sense it was pure documentary in its nature. It became a quite rarified artifact very much on a par with the nature of a painting or piece of sculpture – so it was very interesting to see conceptual artists work exhibited in art galleries as photographs, especially as very few photographers were exhibiting in art galleries in 1988. By then though there was a very strong tradition of specialist photographic galleries emerging which had come about through concerted pressure in the mid 70’s and through the development of photography within the Arts Council in particular. So there were two parallel cultures: one was a photographic culture with strong specialist galleries, often very socially focused, and nationally networked; and then there was the more established art gallery/museum culture within which photography was not so well established or represented. So both John and I found ourselves between both these sectors, not easily identified within the photographic social documentary tradition because we came from a different kind of register of interests, and not really being engaged within the art gallery sector. It was interesting that one of the things that we used as an argument for Futureland being shown at the Laing was that it coincided with the 150th anniversary of photography and we sort of politely asked the Laing if they knew that in 150 years they had never had a photography show.
For me one of the reasons why I chose to print on canvas was that it was a slightly tongue in cheek way of saying “well if you have difficulty accepting them as photographs you can consider them as paintings because they’re made with pigment on canvas”. It was also in a more serious way, a marrying up of some of those emerging innovations in digital media with very traditional forms of representation through painting. So on one hand the pictures were new and radical and groundbreaking but another they were very traditional. They were stretched on traditional painting stretchers and were printed on canvas, they were using inks they weren’t using conventional photographic materials and they had a monumental scale.
Liz: I remember them well -, you called the canvasses Scanachromes. Did you have to research how to do that on canvas? Also, was it the idea of a tongue in cheek reference to the painterly tradition, particularly the north as represented in the Laing, that led you to research the idea of Scanachromes and being able to use canvas or did it happen in more roundabout way?
Chris: There was a small group of artists who like us including john Hilliard and others who, were pushing new areas of commercial technology, trying things out. Colour photography was relatively new anyway, obviously not in the commercial world, but in terms of how artists and photographers were using it. It was very much a case of finding out through the network that there was this new technology and the guys at Scanachrome in Skelmersdale near Liverpool were developing it so why not go and talk to them. What was really interesting was that I was going into an environment as an artist wanting to make non-commercial imagery, and that environment was set up for purely commercial purposes. So you’d wait in line while they did a huge billboard for Hovis or Renault cars and then you were next in line and you were saying, “well I would quite like to do a bit of colour manipulation here, and can we change the ink guns round here a bit”, and they were looking at me like was an alien. That was new to me because I had always worked as an artist in fairly accommodating environments where you were around other artists or you were in an art education institution where it was accepted or even encouraged to do things in an unusual and challenging way. So to go into a factory and say can we just swap these colours round on the machine because I would like to see what happens, it was like complete anarchy. They got used to me eventually and over a period of four or five years we did some really interesting stuff. I think that my graphics background helped me to adjust and to communicate in their language and I got my sleeves rolled up and did much of the prep work in the factory as well.
Liz: What’s interesting within all of this is that you two guys found each other. How did you find each other?
John: Well we found each other through an organisation called Spectro Arts Workshop, God know why it was called that but it was a complex, publicly funded with print making facilities, photographic facilities, a gallery and music making facilities. There was an idea there – a philosophy if you like – that arts were for everybody and arts were to be taught and talked about and made available to people both as producers and consumers. It was pretty much in line with a lot of thinking at the time around community arts. For my own part I’d been working commercially so I came to Spectro as the antithesis of what I’d been doing. To me it embodied ideas of practice that were valuable, relevant and engaged with the community. Chris and I found ourselves working in the photography department, and we sparked off one another.
Chris: We were both people who came to the North East from elsewhere. I think that’s quite important as we didn’t see ourselves as part of an indigenous northern culture, although I do come from Sheffield which I’ve always considered to be part of the North. Over time the North East became a place that we both felt very connected to through our work, and also through living and working there. We developed an understanding of and enjoyed good relationships with the photographic community, even though we didn’t fully share the dominant approach to photographic practice. We gravitated more to the constituency of people who were exploring and merging practices around performance, time-based media, artists film and installation because that for us suggested much more progressive ways of thinking about image making and an enlarged context for dissemination and dialogue. If we had thrown our hat in with the documentary photographers and film makers of the region, I think all we would have done is helped to consolidate that tradition and somehow perpetuate it and if it was going to shift it was going to shift very slowly. Whereas in the emerging performance, film and installation areas, there was a lot more potential, more speculative thinking and really interesting theoretical debate. There was much more questioning of forms of production and the context for practice than was evident in the photography arena. The way in which photographic, film and media culture embraced, say, feminist discourses, was interesting, and really important questions, not just about gender but about class structures, identity, economic opportunities and the emerging area of cultural geography were being asked.
Liz: And language discourses…
Chris: Yes, language. All those things just seemed right as a contextual framework: John was working with image and text that linked absolutely to some of the discourses about identity and representation. I was making work that was questioning permanence and value and how to change and adapt to those changing debates in emerging practices, and so on.
Liz: Since Futureland in 1989 you two have gone off on different tracks; this is the first time you’ve exhibited together again. Does the work that each of you have done in the intervening years relate to the original ways of thinking and visualization for Futureland and, of course, the return to Futureland Now?
Chris: Well, we’ve been looking at the original Futureland images and then laying them out alongside images that we’re working on right now and introducing some key images made in the twenty five year gap, then making some kind of linkage that isn’t necessarily chronologically focused, but adds up to some form of continuity. When people see the actual exhibition or the publication there will be some very different approaches in my work than in the original Futureland pictures where an actor was formally placed in the pictures. In the intermediate period very few images had people in them. The current pictures are again working with performance, working with people actually doing more formally structured things and using larger numbers of people than I did previously. So there is a continuum if you follow it through but the agendas are slightly different. I’m not making work about the post-industrial North East as such. That seems to be something that I have moved away from not just because I physically moved away from the region.. My work now is looking at broader issues, particularly ecological and environmental issues to do with land and resource use and how the way we live our lives is affecting the planet’s ability to sustain human needs. More specifically, my recent work is about climate change, its about the way we are screwing things up through over reliance on dirty energy and the effects of an out of control mass consumer culture which is driving the world economy. Those social, economic and political issues evident in the original Futureland exhibition are absolutely embedded in issues about environment and climate. The same imperatives, the same drive towards excessive consumerism, are responsible for the way we’re messing up the planet. So there is continuity; it’s not always a visual continuity but there is a kind of underlying set of values that characterises my work.
Liz: One of the things I notice when I look across your work is the way in which the colour red turns up all the time. And another thing is the performative, for example, painting the water with a red torch. So I think there are some visual continuities and it would be interesting to hear you talk a bit about that.
Chris: The red: well I suppose its become a kind of signature, you know, ‘oh that’s a red picture it must be a Wainwright…’! Some of the origins why I use red are fairly straight forward and others a little bit more complicated and harder to articulate. The red aspects of the image are potent signifiers. Red’s a classic colour for signifying danger, for heat, for warning, its a persuasive colour that is hard to ignore and has a persistence which is not always comfortable.
Liz: Love and passion?
Chris: Yes, it’s a very warm colour, it’s kind of energetic. Its interesting you relate it to love and passion as I do feel highly emotional about the areas that I now work in, the high Arctic in particular. In other ways the use of red it simply goes back to my interest in history of art and landscape references, you know how Constable used to put people wearing red in landscapes as a focal point, as a counter-point to nature.
Liz: As in the greens and browns of nature?
Chris: Yes, and even more so with the work that I’m doing about environment. That kind of intervention into what’s often portrayed as a natural world i.e. the green world by the ‘civilised’ world, by passions and by the kind of harm that people do. So you stick someone in a red jacket in a green landscape and it adds that kind of tension. More recently I have been using semaphore signaling using red signal torches. I do a lot of work now around the coast and at sea including looking at shipping movements, communications systems and codes.
Liz: John your work has often been site specific in the years since Futureland. You’ve done a number of residencies and commissions. Do you see links between the specificity of a residency or commission and the more personal imperatives involved in working where you live?
John: In a sense it’s always about the way you are in the world and how you respond to it. Perhaps because of my background, that was not one that would be fantastically familiar with art galleries for example, for me it is always about broadening audiences, engaging the kind of people with whom I identify, I suppose. So inevitably I have always thought about strategies needed to reach out to audiences that I want to have a dialogue with. All artists need an audience in order to communicate and complete the cycle of work. So there is a very practical side to me that wants to engage with problem solving, that’s the first thing. And I have always found working on commissions stimulating, and it’s an exciting challenge to complete that communication circle.
Liz: Can you illustrate that with reference to one or two commissions?
John: The commission at Compton Verney in Warwickshire was a good example. Working in a place like Compton Verney was interesting because of what the house and estate represent in the public imagination, especially given that appeasement meetings were held there in the run up to the Second World War. So what it somehow represents is an unattainable idea of Britishness. You’ve basically got an aristocrat’s house representing somebody who believed almost in the divine right for the aristocracy to rule. And I was coming from a very working class socialist perspective. So for me to think about that was fantastic, whilst at the same time recognising the contradictions that come through education so one could admire the architecture and the spaces and the works of art that those kind of people where able to put together and many things about the fact that they were so much in control of their own destiny in a way that my folk never were. So to take that on board and think about that in terms somehow of Britishness, of Englishness in my case, and how that kind of reflects on ones own identity was a real challenge. It’s something that I might just read an article about otherwise. So to actually engage in it as a creative enterprise was a really positive and interesting idea.
Liz: Or the lighthouse off east coast?
John: What those kinds of opportunities do actually is to enable you to pull together research that you might do and things you might be thinking about. Projects are quite discursive in a way. So I worked in a Martello tower on the Essex coast. When I started I was thinking about what structures what might be made to defend a border line: the Essex coast, ok, it’s close to France, it’s a likely place for invasion from Napoleon onwards. Well I started to think about that and about the coastline as a border, and then it began to change into considering it as a place that was actually defining identity, particularly in terms of the fact that the English aristocracy descended from the French aristocracy, and through invasion significant historic changes occurred. So the work I made was to try and think about that in a more contemporary context, about how we define our identity though a number of things. Those things include the land that we occupy, the places and the spaces that we claim as somehow intrinsic to our being. And of course like anything to do with identity, the harder you look at it, the less watertight it becomes as an idea, the more slippery it becomes as a concept. So I wanted to think about nationality and about identity and to realise that these things are really just political expediencies that are extraordinarily mobile and used for all sorts of reasons, mostly not very good ones.
Liz: That’s really interestingly, because one of the things you’ve both said consistently about Futureland Now as a project is that, although the focus is a return to the North East, the North East is acting a sort of fulcrum for trying to understand something that is international, indeed global. What you’re just pointing out is this is nothing new. But do you see this as operating slightly differently in the internet age and what new challenges are there about the globalness of internationalism now that maybe weren’t quite so evident in the late 1980s in the first Futureland investigations?
John: I think one of the truly frightening things is that that littlest change in one place has an immediate effect elsewhere. Despite the interim 25 years during which time cultural sectors developed actually no one has begun to address the real problems that are far more structural and far more complex; and yes, they apply across the world. So part of what Futureland achieved was thinking of the North not just as a place but also as a measuring device for testing the temperature. But how can we understand a place that was created around a specific function that it no longer fulfils, and how is this rolled out across not only the UK but everywhere?
Chris: I guess I started to think about these types of issue in a slightly different way. There are all kinds of imperatives about addressing social inequality or financial inequality and the kind of difficulties that many people have just leading a dignified life, and so on, not just in the UK but worldwide. For me there is a new overriding concern that is bigger than all of that, namely the way that collectively as a human race we are destroying the planet that’s supporting us. And I just think that it’s such an abstract issue that I don’t think it’s been collectively addressed seriously enough. Or if it is being taken seriously it requires such a seismic shift in attitudes to do anything about it that little happens. I’m not trying to be doom laden about it, but I do think that unless there are some fundamental changes in the way that people live their lives then there are going to be some really catastrophic times ahead that are going to happen much quicker than people predict.
Liz: Yes, and this is global, so the North East is merely one place that will be affected. But this wheels us back to the question we touched on earlier: as artists what can you do in relation to that? The image that John evoked of art merely being a way of dripping a bit of water on the stone is very vibrant; if you drip water on the same stone for a long while you gradually penetrate that stone. Is that what keeps you making work?
Chris: For me it’s because that’s what I do. I have chosen to work as an artist and educator and operate within the expanded parameters of what is possible in those fields, It’s as simple as that cheap synthroid generic.
Liz: But why do you go on doing it, you could stop doing it.
Chris: Well I could stop doing it but I’m not sure that I could find a better mechanism to express the way I feel about things and I still get very excited about image making.
Liz: It’s interesting you use the term ‘feel’ because feeling relates to poetics as well as intellectual analysis.
Chris: Maybe it was an immediate term that I used but I think that part of my practice comes substantially from a British fine art landscape romantic tradition. I was brought up in rural Derbyshire, where I lived for part of my life on a farm, where a lot of early influences and life experiences came from. My early experience as an artist was also through painting. Its interesting that three of my recurring artistic reference points are Joseph Wright of Derby, Samuel Palmer and John Martin. Ironic that Martin has such a strong relationship to the Laing Art Gallery. In fact I have titled on of the new works in the show after one of his paintings, ‘The Great Day Of His Wrath’. It’s a kind of end of the world vision as we descend into hell surrounded by flames and damnation. I made the new piece on Teesside against the backdrop of heavy industrial out pouring.
Liz: The Romantic movement first emerged just in advance of industrialisation, which is probably not at all coincidental. Romanticism was about getting away from what we were causing and if you were aristocratic or upper middle class and affluent, you went to Greece or Italy and reflected on places that were the pre-industrial. So actually I think there is a very interesting discussion to have there.
Chris: It is interesting, but it takes us away from discussing tactics, what do we do and why we do it. Although we are seeing right now in terms of climate change, dramatic affects on the planet’s eco systems that can be traced back to the industrial revolution as the point of significant escalation.
Liz: And why go on trying to do it? None of us are any longer in our early 20’s, fresh and enthusiastic or just emerged from arts school!
John: I think art chooses you, rather than the other way round; artists need to make things in order to make sense of their lives so it becomes a question of well what do you make things about? I have often thought that in my case if hadn’t become a photographer it wouldn’t really matter as I’d do something else, perhaps drawing or painting, but I would still be asking myself the same questions but approaching them in different ways.
Liz: So you are talking about thinking through making, about the necessity of a tactile approach to things.
John: Yes, the materiality of the process of thinking through making things is absolutely essential to making art. And as Chris has said about feeling, well you can’t always identify what those things are and how they motivate you, but you are responding to them all the time. As I said earlier ideas of value and virtue are tied up in the process as well. So it’s complex in the sense that you could say ok, there is a political problem, so I’ll make some work about it and address it, but that probably wouldn’t really be your primary motivation.
Chris: I agree, I never approached making work in a singular way or about an specific issue without a real concern for the whole process of making an interesting or engaging image in its own right. I’ve felt very strongly about things and events, like the miners’ strike in 1984-86. That was something happening in the community I was brought up in around Sheffield, the then called Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire. and I saw what damage was being done to whole communities and families. I basically witnessed along with the whole nation, the effects of the latest British civil war initiated by the cynical Thatcher government declaring war on the British working classes,. I felt very, very strongly about it, yet I didn’t make one single piece of work that addressed those issues. But it was there, it was like a constant prodding, a constant motivation to continue thinking, looking, questioning and absorbing in a way that would motivate my practice.
Over the past few years I’ve spent some time in the High Arctic looking at climate change with a group of scientists. The work I’ve come back with from there is not the type of work that’s going to get used in a campaign or that people look at and go, yeah we really are screwing things up aren’t we. What they might do is look at the work and be absorbed by the heightened visual impact of the image. Because in the end, as I said earlier, I think there is a role that the artist has and there is a role that the art has as it becomes independent of the artist and you’ve got to somehow allow those two things to take their separate paths and allow people to bring their own meaning and interpretation to the work.
Liz: You are both university professors working in an art education context, which surely informs our various approaches in some way.
Chris: Yes, I think it’s really critical that we both spend a lot of our time as educators as well as being artists and that’s been a conscious career decision on both our parts. And if you go back to the question about motivation it is also to inform our position and responsibilities as educators.
Liz: Responsibilities as educators to do what?
Chris: To be in a position of – well not so much authority, because knowledge essentially is relative – but to have something that is substantially resolved or well argued that you can take into an educational context that can be of use to other people, so that they might actually see that what you’re doing, what you’re saying to them and where you’re coming from has a kind of validity. So for me being involved in education as a teacher, a leader and a manager, as a person who can have some influence over education has been really vital to maintaining an absolute belief in and commitment to practice.
John: I would support that, it’s interesting curious how one’s work is referred to and used by other people and also that you can never control this, including the way it’s accessed by students and what they feel is the virtue or value for them in it. In a sense being in education puts you into a continuous debate where you are always reflecting on and considering your ideas and, hopefully, refine and challenge them. That’s a fantastically fertile environment. As Chris said that’s part of who we are and part of what we’re very happy to be. In a sense it is also indicative of the role that we see for the work and some of the ways that it goes out into the world. It’s not static, it will have different interpretations and different meanings and different contexts, so I see education as part of that very dynamic ongoing context. I hope we will be talking about this exhibition and this book not just in the near future, and part of doing so will be to ask people what they think of it and to build something around their responses.