Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Cocaine Jesus Interviews murmurists

I was interviewed recently by the writer, Cocaine Jesus (aka C.J. Duffy) - as part of my inclusion in the book, Avant-Garde For the New Millennium, edited by Forrest Armstrong, and soon to be published by Raw Dog Screaming Press (ISBN: 978-1-933293-71-4). Below is what resulted.

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Hello Murmurists, For me you are the cutting edge of all that is modern. Be it your images, your music or your words. I once described your work as being modernist. Was that an accurate assessment?


That’s really kind of you, CJ. Not sure I precisely deserve that kind of glowing accolade. But thank you. I’m just glad my work gives you pleasure. To your terminology … Often these things get either mixed-up or misappropriated. The notion of what constitutes Modernism, Post-Modernism, Late-Modernism etc. forms a complex, involved debate all of its own; one I am familiar with because of my academic background in the arts; albeit that was some time ago by now. There are, briefly, various kinds of Modernism – all differently constituted. It depends who you read, what you believe in. So, I’m not sure it would really answer your question if I said I was either working within such a tradition or I wasn’t. It might be more informative to say I personally believe in and work with some of the central tenets of Modernism as it is general understood: notably, the idea of progress, the validity of experimentation, the idea of ‘making strange’…; but that I similarly employ techniques which often get aligned to Post-Modernism: pastiche, a mixing of the various ‘styles’ of Modernism. Something did happen in the 1960s, around Minimalism; wherein the populous lost faith in the meaningfulness of having one ism replace another in linear succession. But, personally, I don’t think it’s as simple as saying all that is over with, and wallowing in some kind of implosion, or cultural free-for-all. I believe in the optimism of Modernism – despite its shortcomings; and the artists I hold dear - as heroes to me, literally heroes, such as R.B. Kitaj, Scott Walker and Terry Atkinson – perhaps reside right there on the cusp of Modernism/Post-Modernism, as I feel I do myself; making content and meaning from such a schism. It might be playful but it is also intended to be serious – serious insofar as it is meant to have depth and meaning, it is meant to communicate something understandable; albeit demanding the audience’s familiarity with the concepts and attitudes from which it is made. I’m not a populist, by any means. I think it is perfectly valid to use rarefied sources and to hope for an audience who understands the language being used.

How would you best describe your art?

I see myself as a figurative artist – in all senses of that word, and regardless of the medium I’m using: be it visual, film, or text. I do use amounts of abstraction, and in a conceptual sense there is obscurity there, too; so another form of abstraction, one might say. But it always has to have that figurative element for me: hence my concern with the human form; with social situations – personal, psychological, cultural, political, comedic, etc. I see the work I do as a kind of documentary, too. So, at its best – or at least in toto – the work should never really or fully lose that connection with, at least my view of, reality. But I’m also a Surrealist, a Dadaist, a Symbolist – and identify with that historical lineage; and with a black comic, gallows humour bent to boot. So I am concerned with using absurdity, weirdness, juxtaposition and such to offer other ideas of what reality might mean or be said to legitimately include. Again, some heroes for me here would be the likes of Chris Morris and Antonin Artaud; both of whom, I would argue, respectively push and pushed humour and absurdity in order to reveal different truths and positions. I rank humour very highly, in fact; and feel some of those who get branded as comedians and humorists are amongst our greatest thinkers.

I have often seen the humorous side of your work although it can be quite ‘barbed’ can’t it?

If by ‘barbed’ you mean pointed in terms of meaning, a kind of satire, then yes, I agree. Satire is humour with a kick, one might say. Certainly, I try not to be bloodless, anodyne. Figurative, documentorial artworking necessarily and naturally has a point-of-view, in my view; and any point-of-view will divide opinion; being provocative to that extent. I am personally for such engagement, and I see the work as a form of dialectics.

What influences play a part when you are creating?

All the usual things come into it – events, situations, things I like, things I don’t like, things I find funny, things that outrage me. I have my obsessions; and I’m a firm believer in worrying away at the same things ad absurdum, ad nauseam maybe! So I work in series with lots of things. I see these serial works as kinds of multiples – as in Joseph Beuys, Fluxus; with the idea that, over time, they accrue into one distinct strain, within my work as a whole. I like materials, too. So, process is a big thing with me. Again, it’s that old idea about experimenting, about believing in that methodology, about seeing what happens. I do have firm ideas about what I am trying to do, but I also like the intuitive aspects of just pushing material around and seeing what comes out. As to personal, psychological motivations … Well, I’m lucky in having a partner, Annie, who takes a great and informed interest in what I do. She is my muse, for sure.

Annie acts as a sounding board as it were?

It’s not as simple as that; it’s more I have her in mind when I’m creating things. Her opinion is not something after-the-fact, which I might use to modify or attenuate some artwork I’ve made. She’s utterly intrinsic to the whole process.

A lot of the images you create have a certain absurdist almost repulsive look about them. I mean I enjoy them but what are your thought processes behind them?

I see the human body itself as eminently physical, visceral, a solid presence. To use a flawed, false opposition, but one which is generally understood … Whilst the world of the mind is where I’ve generally spent most of my adult life, I believe in physicality and want to meaningfully express that in what I do. So, I love, say, playing guitar – the feeling of it, as much as the sound it makes. For me, it’s as much about the body as about the mind. With that in mind, I like the images to affect the viewer in similarly visceral, physical ways; to provoke the more colourful emotions – of laughter, disgust, bewilderment, bemusement. Again, some heroes here would be Diane Arbus and Francis Bacon. But just as in Modernist movements like Fauvism and Cubism the human figure was, let’s say, deconstructed and distended, I see my images as continued work with those same concerns. Through weirdness, ideally, comes truth, I think. In addition, I find such things aesthetically interesting – attractive, in fact. For me, the physical world is erotic and eroticised; and, thus as a starting point, I don’t deny that viewpoint in my work, and as a form of engagement I seek to explore how that idea might look and what it might be made to convey. Few of my tastes are mainstream – including sex; so those appetites play a part. I seek to celebrate variety and difference, and, in some sense, to insist – by repetition – that the weirdness I portray is, in the end, as legitimate as anything else. Here, I love the work of Nan Goldin and Leigh Bowry.

Another side of your work, that often features on Discharge are your pieces entitled ‘Item#’. To me they often represent a section of humanity that is isolated and lonely and who can only communicate via myspace, MSN, facebook etc. Please correct me if I am wrong here.

Again, these are figurative. They are about human beings; and feature either a single person or perhaps a formal couple. Often these iterations are pitched as if to a distinct person – maybe in response to a question or series of questions another person has notionally asked, but which is unavailable to the viewer; other times their content is more detached, rhetorical, adopting therefore a kind of universal resonance, insofar as we can all identify with the existential angst they often contain. By now, I have written hundreds of these; and I see them as orbiting one another, some connecting, some connecting briefly, some uttering into a kind of void, and so forth. Each is a kind of speculation on the subject’s part. They contain hopes and fears. They contain likes and dislikes. Personal philosophies are unfurled along the way, and often these tracts are not quite sensical. One technical motivation for me here is the procedure, in semiotics, of ‘failing to signify’; which I first encountered in the work of Art & Language. Basically, the items series plays with disconnections between sign and signifier. So, that’s a theoretical background element. More importantly, though, these works take their stylistic impetus from personnels, as you rightly surmise. But they are not so much an exploration of loneliness as you suggest, more an illustration of the unavoidable individuation of the human condition itself. So, without getting too grand, we are all by definition alone, orbiting, sometimes connecting, sometimes not, sometimes seeming to make sense of it all, other times lost in the fog and meaningless of existence. To me, without wishing to be overly reductive, the human condition itself is the ultimate comedy – limited time, no expiry date, no indication of what happens next, the vagaries of communication; all that stuff. That’s why I use the rubric, ‘laughing like a drain’… That’s why I see the efficacy and sense of gallows humour. I feel we are quite literally living that cosmic joke, and all our elaborations and distractions are our attempts to deal with, disguise, and deny that situation.

I see. Still quite a distinctly sad concept in itself; not loneliness but a sense of hit and miss relationships where one can ‘orbit’, as you put it, another individual but without really knowing that individual?

If sadness is present, it logically follows that there is an inherent sadness in the human condition itself. Many have argued this; but I find that kind of analysis somewhat piecemeal, one-dimensional. I prefer to think humankind has been handed a fait accompli – life, that is, with all its uncertainties and anxieties, the individuation of consciousness, and all that – and we are just doing our best to ratify the fact of the void with the feeling that there must be more; doing all that without ever really finding the answers we need. The proposition ‘knowing someone else’ brings into play all kinds of complex notions. I think, given that fait accompli, we do our best with the situation we are all plunged into at birth. We might have thousands of notable relationships in our lives, and these will vary wildly, in terms of depth and significance, and in the way we view them. I think mankind is more exactly heroic in the way it has wrought such immense positivity and good out of a pretty unpromising situation.

Your music is very individual. Often featuring discordant sounds. Are these pieces free form or do you compose them?

The music is composed. But again process plays a decisive part; so there’s a free-form component in that respect. I do more formally improvise with the live bands I’m in – Vultures, ithyphall.brel.gory, Familiars.

I saw that recently you performed a concert with some friends. How important are live performances to you?

I love live performance. These days, live performance for me means improvisation; which means that each gig is a kind of unknown situation. I find that appealing in itself, as I like those kinds of challenges. On top of that, often I’ve not even met the people involved beforehand, let alone rehearsed with them. For instance, the first Vultures gig was like that; and the forthcoming Familiars gig will be like that.

I know that we both share a love of Kate Bush and her music. Are you like Kate in that you prefer to create music in the studio?

I like both – creating music in a kind of studio situation, either with others or sat at the laptop, as well as, as I say above, working in a live situation. I like interesting situations, difference, personal challenge … Each has it’s own versions of these, for me.

I know from previous communications that you have, in the past, exhibited your art. Any plans for any future shows?

Not as such, no. I have ideas for using film during live performances, though; that being the closest to that, I suppose.

Have the recent developments in and on the internet helped, or rather given you an extra freedom to express yourself; not just in film, although that was what initially sprang to mind, but in all the areas you pursue?

The internet has been a very big thing for me, yes. I like working with it as a kind of material – which, I guess, is what you mean. But, more than that, being someone with tastes largely outside the mainstream, sites like myspace and blogger have helped me locate like-minds and suitable contexts, find common-cause, engage in meaningful collaborations and so on. The effect this has had on my work has been immense, and I feel very positive about the internet, as a result. As such, I don’t see cyber as, in any real sense, less substantial, or more removed from the supposedly more direct, immediate relationships one can have with others whom one actually meets. Face-to-face encounters are just as capable of being socially distant and disconnected, I believe. It’s more about what one does in each situation than about inherent limitations of respective means.

Of all the artists that we both work with on Discharge, not wishing to corner or embarrass you here, but which one (ones) gives you the impulse to create your own art from? In other words who really inspires you?

As I’ve previously said – to you and to others on Discharge - I tend to think of the Discharge series as one collective artwork, across media, across time, across personnel. In that guise, I class it as one the best artworks I’ve ever seen, let alone been lucky enough to be involved in. But, of course, there are distinct voices in there; it ebbs and flows. I’m inspired by the whole thing, really; and would not want to single out anyone, thus excluding others. One thing I would say, though – in light of this interview’s connection to the book we are both featured in - is that the images get much more attention than the writing on Discharge; and I suppose that’s because images are ‘easier’ to view, consume, digest. That’s a shame, I feel, as there are several seriously talented writers involved with Discharge.

I agree totally on this point, in fact on both points. Discharge is a single entity formed by many rich talents and secondly on images. Images are the first thing a person sees before making the decision to read the words or not. Are you a voracious reader? If so what do you read? Who do you read?

I have been a ‘voracious reader’, yes. But would not claim to be now. I’m currently reading Borges – in the bath, mostly!; a book by Oliver Sacks, ‘Lenz’ by Buchner; and I re-read lots of things. I love Dostoyevsky, Golding, Conrad.

I have to say that from a personal point of view, I find your work fascinating. It took me a while to come to grips with all of it but you are a fascinating individual. How would you describe yourself?

Laughing like a drain.

Laughing like a drain indeed and with that I think it just leaves me to thank you for talking to me Murmurists.

Thanks to you, too, CJ. All the best, Anthony

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