This interview is being conducted on a Google doc. I’ve seen your Drive; you use it regularly and with a certain energy. Further, there’s an underlying aesthetic reminiscent of SketchUp in your work. How important are these technologies within your practice? Would it be wrong to make a separation between your art practice and the organisation of your life?
First of all, I don’t feel like I make a clean division between technology and not-technology. I think the political reality of today is that we are all subjects of a blended Capital/Information management system, where all of our activity and production becomes a form of power that is transferred to the systems it is deployed within. I was born by caesarean section in a high-tech operating room, and if I walk down the street to sit in the park there’s a subway under my feet, CCTV cameras along the way and scores of planes overhead, so I think it’s a dangerous false dichotomy. To that extent, being knowingly involved with these technologies and articulating that in artworks is a kind of Thanatos. This also leads on to the realization that the traces of this contemporary Thanatos have a new material texture. Something I labeled before as the ‘New Abject’. This isn’t an abject of shit and blood and dirt, that one finds throughout art history in things ranging from Dutch still life to Mike Kelley sculptures, but rather a psychological abject that is in relation to these control technologies and capital systems. To that extent I think the texture of freeware such as Google Drive is one expression of this New Abject. Its pared down, limited range of operating choices reminds you of your subjugation to the provider, normalizing their possession of your activities within, in exchange for the convenience of the free service. If I make an image PDF with Google Drive it’s never going to be as slick as with expensive dedicated publishing software. The layout options are less flexible, and the image quality is limited. So there’s a kind of shitiness that isn’t dirty, it's still a binary affair, but it vaguely expresses these political and subject-relations. I think the aesthetics of this relation are interesting because they display a shift in commodity fetishism. The productive labor-relations behind an object can still be literally concealed, but there are sign systems we are now able to read that desublimate them. In thermodynamics desublimation is when a substance passes from a gas directly to a solid, without becoming a liquid, as in snow forming from water vapor in clouds. I think this is a metaphor that feels right for me to describe the way that these formerly gaseous relations are all of a sudden laying around in piles on the ground. Maybe it makes good sense to pack them into a projectile.
Thinking of projectiles, and thinking of where you project them, maybe we can talk about site specificity. In particular there’s an attention to location in your work; you’ve appropriated the old name sign of the ex-library you live in and turned its letters into sort of fettered sculptures - molding Rotherhithe into Roma. Paul Virilio talks of the shrinking of the world through technology in terms of speed and terror, but maybe this is a reductive way of thinking about it. Are you a nomad? A cyber-real airport flaneur? (Is it interesting to talk about issues of gentrification, globalization and networks, at this point? They’re very real problems that hurt people as much as they help them.)
A year or two ago I sent Nicolas Bourriaud a Facebook friend request -- I have a screenshot of the confirmation -- that at the time struck me as light-hearted joke about his relational philosophies on art. I occasionally still check us in somewhere together, like the Shoreditch Boxpark, and a little while back he even responded saying he didn’t remember being there with me! I think this tenuous level ‘relation’ is the kind of discourse that people found problematic in his theories, even though he was absolutely prescient in identifying that artists had shifted their orientation toward production in line with changes that were happening more generally in global economic patterns and cybernetics. So I think this period of romanticizing the airport dweller is a 90’s or early 2000’s thing for me. I think it reflects a utopianism that was burst in a few different bubbles since then. I definitely spend too much time in airports, but I think what interests me is the bus or train ride to get there rather than the symbolic aspect of the place in general. For example a week or two ago I had to go to a small city in France, and the airport is miles outside the center with only a city bus connecting it if you don’t want to pay for a taxi. As soon as you got outside of the airport the area had this completely unexpected American feeling to it. Big box stores and motels right next to the highway. I started taking photos on my phone out the window of the bus and realized that they looked exactly like google streetview. I must have been at just the height of the their elevated camera. So I was having this experience where I was hyper-aware of my physical place -- trying to kind of visually process a new landscape -- but the results of that processing just looked like I was in front of my computer again. So I find this kind of thing really interesting as well -- places becoming specific or unspecific, sometimes both at once! The Rotherhithe-Roma piece and the others in the same vein (Rotherhithe-NYC, etc.) came from this feeling of understanding your political and spatial existence in a place. Our London studio is in a vacant library in a central area that has so far avoided gentrification, and we are that first wave. I feel conflicted but not necessarily badly about it, as we run a project space whose shows are free and open to the public; people teach classes and do various events here -- and the many people who pass through are great customers of the liquor store and pizzeria on the street. So it’s not like we’re property developers forcing people to sell so we can build a new condo. But of course we do represent that tipping point where the neighborhood starts to slope toward the generic spaces of every major western city. So I think those sculptures were involved in this transition point that I am a part of. Hiring some workers with a lift truck to remove them and fabricating them into these self-consciously glamorous mobiles. Whether they celebrate or mourn this tipping point is ambiguous for me because I’m more concerned with the event itself and how that might become legible in a concentrated form like a sculpture.
How important was it to situate yourself in London, therefore?
I think London’s iconography is really interesting because it’s so removed from the experience of the city. In places like New York or Paris you always have the feeling that you’re participating in the filmic experience of the place you have logged in your memory. London’s pop images feel like a flaky concession to that. The experience you actually have is somehow almost characterless. Pure economy. I think the extreme expense of living also has two important effects. Firstly it means that people have smaller studios and less money for materials, so they are economically drawn to projects that can utilize things they probably already have, like computers. Secondly and for the same reasons of space, when people do get together they usually do it somewhere public -- in bars or galleries rather than people’s houses, so there’s a kind of public character to interpersonal relations, which somehow feels coextensive of networked relations. I really like London because it’s so difficult, but doesn't really offer any models for how you should deal with that. It forces you to keep it real, invent your own.
I feel also you have a relationship with older types of media - Gutenberg media - particularly present in your wall prints. We can of course trace the Internet of today as having emerged from these technologies, although the web may also prove to be a rupture as significant as mechanical movable type in the 1400s. Can you explain more about the use of this aesthetic in your work?
That’s an interesting question because I was watching this video with Jaron Lanier where he plays a 7000 year old instrument from Laos that he describes as being the forerunner to the computer via its relation to the steam driven pipe organ and the Jacquard Loom, which was an important advancement in what came to be known as programming. Anyways, the instrument still makes noise, in fact, it sounds like a traffic jam from the period where people still honked their horns to express frustration in gridlock. I think a lot of what gets labeled as ‘post-internet’ art isn’t actually ‘post’ at all because it deals hyper-specifically with the textures and experiences local to network experiences, especially the logics and experiences of screens, types of exchanges that happen in this environment etc. But I think that it’s more like ‘high’ Internet rather than ‘post’ Internet. If you think of ‘high modernism’ it’s exactly that painting which was completely absorbed in the aesthetics of its own highly specific debate. And if you really think about it, the screen and canvas share virtually all of the same properties. 2D space that can have an illusionistic quality. Messages conveyed through either depictions that mimic binocular vision or shared symbol systems. Everything that happens on your computer screen is already a painting, if not a fancy one. I think for me, being ‘post’ this technology has more to do with understanding your political subjectivity and mental space as being conditioned by this experience, and taking that conditioning back toward the question of ‘how do you make art?’ It’s not really that interesting to just repeat a paradigm’s surface effects.
More specifically to those pieces you mentioned, they are maybe an illustration of this intersection between an ability and a conditioning from technology on one hand, and a material experience on the other. I travel a lot and newspapers still exist in lots of places. I mean, half the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day, which means they don’t have iPhones, so I think there are some old things, like printed media and bread, for example, that are still contemporary things in the literal sense: ‘with time’. They’re with time because in a simple Marxist sense they have a use value. As another example, I found out through looking for one that its actually really expensive to buy a used photocopier in London because dealers pick them up and resell them in Africa where there’s a huge market and need for basic outputs of documents etc. as bureaucratic cities are developing.
I see that there are all kinds of methods of showing, encoding and transmitting, and all of them have material supports. Whether that’s a nuclear power station that feeds electricity to a data center in the US, or a contemporary offset printing press that can produce 70,000 copies an hour. A big part of my work involves language, and as language always has a material aspect that is indivisible from its meaning, these different material supports present different possibilities of working. If I’ve got a newspaper I can cut it up and work with it just about anywhere. You can usually get a pair of scissors, a gluestick and some paper for a few dollars. If the newspaper is in a language I don’t understand, I’ll use the google translate app on my phone to figure out one bit at a time, which also allows you to come to structures that might be outside of your normal grammatical and logical language patterns. I’ll look for words that seem interesting and then try and string them together with the translator. So it's a very hybrid process: on one hand there’s the kind of surfing through the newspaper format, and on the other using the technology to help me make non-sense of it. Which I think ends up incorporating the site of production without excluding the network relation that’s always there now.
I really want to talk about poetry. Maybe a key relationship in your work is that between poetry and LOL. Can you say something about this?
Poetry for me is the broken condition of language that manages to keep going despite being broken, perhaps by using the broken parts for something else -- a kind of repurposing. And also a liminal activity that presupposes an agreement -- that the author and the reader collectively produce meaning, but that this collective production might not be useful, have a particular point, and in that way undermine the agreement that makes it possible. LOL, if it’s a thing at all, is maybe a similar kind of gerrymandering between agreement, performativity and the empty center. I think maybe the added dimension with LOL or maybe even better lulz is a little bit of schadenfreude. It’s the enjoyment of creating a disruption, or simply uncovering one that was already there. Panic can be productive insofar as it forces an identification outside of the obvious systems one exists in. When a normally law abiding character in a film is being chased, they’ll generally run through backyards, even other people’s houses -- they’re not thinking about the property rights that frame that activity under the law as ‘trespassing’.
How long have you been working creatively with technology? How did you start?
As long as I’ve been doing anything creatively. It probably started with a Commodore 64 Dot Matrix printer my dad would let me mess around with when I was basically a baby, and moved on to making in-the-can edited videos for all my class assignments with all my friends. I realized early on that doing something ‘creative’ meant you could make up your own rules about how it was done, and if there was a device involved that the teacher didn't quite have a grip on, even better.
Describe your experience with the tools you use. How did you start using them?
I basically use whatever makes sense for an idea, or conversely sometimes an idea will come from a tool. I tend to like things that are at the low end of the spectrum because I think they have a more visible history of relations in the surfaces and aesthetics they produce. HD always just looks expensive, but a cheap laser printer or badly compressed video articulates the level of access that one has more generally. I also expropriate things into my work, so I suppose the tools that someone else may have used become visible and part of a dialogue there as well.
Where did you go to school? What did you study?
I did a BA at the University of Toronto where I studied Physics, Philosophy, Literature and Art -- all in different departments, and then I did an MFA at Slade School of Fine Art in London, which was just art.
What traditional media do you use, if any? Do you think your work with traditional media relates to your work with technology?
I don’t really make that distinction. I think it’s all technology and all tradition all at the same time. Technology is loaded with tradition. I’ve yet to see a consumer digital camera that doesn’t make an image that replicates how your eyes work.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously? Do you think this work relates to your art practice in a significant way?
Now I’m just an artist, and I don’t think of it as work. But in the past I’ve had a lot of terrible jobs, none of which I could ever keep for very long since I’m no good at pretending that I liked them. I’ve washed dishes in a restaurant, driven a transport truck, been a night security guard, stocked shelves overnight in a supermarket, construction work, bartender. The nice thing about a shitty job is that you can keep your mental space. I remember when I washed dishes in a restaurant I was stuck in this small back room and I would just play really intense heavy metal so no one tried to make small talk with me, and if the dishes were all washed, no one cared that I was back there writing notes on kitchen-paper. I like to do things intermittently over long periods, so I think the best jobs were the ones that accommodated that. I think it all influences my way of looking at the world, and through that, my art practice. It’s good to know all different kinds of people too.
Who are your key artistic influences?
I look at a lot of art, mostly because I really love it, but I would say the people who really influence me the most are my friends. I think one of the great things about art is that you can get together with some people and redefine things, because on a certain level that’s how works are validated and come to visibility. I think it’s really important to make your own scene. A lot of historical artists I’m not friends with who I admire have been really good at that.
Have you collaborated with anyone in the art community on a project? With whom, and on what?
Yes! Collaboration is great because you get to share the energy of someone else’s ideas. But I don’t see it as some escape from all the issues of ego, more like a magnification of it really. So I collaborate with people all the time. My favorite collaboration would have to be a film I made with my partner Megan Rooney a few years ago when we were still living in Toronto. We both have these yahoo.com email address we made when we were teenagers so checking your mail involved going to the Yahoo homepage all the time. They had this newsfeed embedded in the page that was really notorious for it’s junk news mixed in with issues of real concern. You’d always have a terrible headline about a car bomb in Iraq directly under something about Britney having a meltdown, for example. So one day there was like a 400 word article about a glass-floor walkway that had been built out over the edge of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, and somehow we decided that this article should compel us to go investigate it. No further research, no real plan -- just use this garbage blurb and architectural rendering image as the impetus for a big undertaking. Something about trying to discover what depth of reality could possibly be in this trashy article. So we fleeced everyone for money to buy a video camera and borrowed a car and basically drove across the continent and back, about 10,000 km in total. We ended up running out of money of course and eating way too much Taco Bell, nearly getting robbed sleeping in a tent by the highway one night, scoring a free hotel in Las Vegas, etc. In the end we made and showed a 2+ hour, 2-channel film that was a fairly unwatchable, deep meditation about the relation between the glass-floor construction and this replica of a Hulapai Indian building that was in another section of the canyon. We always say that we should recut it, because there was really so much footage from the whole trip, but maybe it’s better as something left unfinished in a way.
Do you read art criticism, philosophy, or critical theory? If so, which authors inspire you?
Well, I studied Philosophy, Literature, and Art History and I still love to read. I think what I really like in some ideas-oriented texts is when the author is clearly trying to understand the world around them in a complex and situational way -- their perceiving self, wrapped up in political-economic systems, social histories, and entertainment technologies. I think what’s great about this approach is that it has to constantly be renewed by every generation. I’m also really interested in texts on Language. And at night I read fiction and poetry, and I also really enjoy what a lot of people are doing with short writing on Twitter. That’s a format I’ve been experimenting with for a few years now.