INTERVIEW: Graham Fagen

Zingmagazine 23 contributor, Graham Fagen has a mind akin to a tornado: one idea seemingly starts to spiral and picks up other disparate ideas until a cyclone of items such as Jamaican reggae, Auld Lang Syne, Scottish identity, and the 18th century slave economy is barreling out as a (no doubt, unusual) series of songs. Fagen’s recent film The Making of Us, part reality TV and part scripted metafiction, will be shown later this month at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. His forthcoming project in issue 23 features a sort of smorgasbord of his work ranging from a photograph of a  “pish balloon” (just as gross as it sounds, and, which was, it should be further noted, plagiarized in a YouTube documentary) to ship blueprints to stills from his film. 

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

The Making of Us is a film that explores that threshold between fiction and reality by making the process a part of the narrative and the audience a part of the cast.  It's not too far from reality TV. Why do you think the interrogation of reality is currently a popular subject of art and film?

Maybe it is so popular because the boundaries of reality are so blurred today by TV shows and Internet living? Just like the blurred boundaries of the concept of truth! The Making of Us developed from an interest in the way that we, as viewers, look at the arts, i.e., theatre you sit down for a known period of time and in an art gallery you stay for as long as you want. Theatre director Graham Eatough and I clashed these two together in an earlier project called Killing Time and it was interesting to see an audience work at finding their place in the work. For The Making of Us we wondered about other influences that could be added to such a scenario, such as a film crew.

In your piece, Natural Anarchy, there is an order in the color pattern of the lettering and language itself is a kind of order. Do you think humans can achieve actual anarchy? Would we want to?

Yes, I’ve used primary colors. We didn’t invent these colors; their matter of factness was discovered by us. They function, do a job, without us controlling or arranging them. The same is true for all natural order. I love this fact. And I love the ambiguity of Natural Anarchy and how people interpret the work. Viewers seem to split between being worried and looking for an explanation or relaxed, smiling at the thought. It does seem to divide viewers like that.

I’ve no idea if humans could achieve actual anarchy! Some might want to but the situation reminds me of the Groucho Marx quote “I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member”.

What is the significance of exploring culture via art?  Why not explore culture scientifically or statistically instead?

Culture is, of course, explored scientifically and statistically. This work will result in facts and figures that are usually used to direct and demonstrate a need for a political direction.

I’m interested in the things are hard to give exact meaning to, the territories of nuance, paradox, subtlety, contrast, vagary, etc. I’m interested in a position that is hard to pin down or describe. Something between categories. For me that is my understanding of the complexities of culture and it is also the way that I understand my reasons for making art.

Do you do collaborations regularly?

Yes, I’ve done some collaborations. The collaboration work I’ve done with the theater director is maybe the most prominent work I’ve done in that retrospect. The other one that’s very obvious is that I worked with a music producer named Adrian Sherwood. I approached Adrian to work with me to see if he’d be interested in reworking at old Robert Burns song. Burns lived in Ayrshire in Scotland where I went to school in the late 1700s. He was going to leave Scotland to go work in Jamaica and he was going to work on a sugar cane plantation as what polite society would call a “bookkeeper,” but what in actual fact was a slave overseer on a plantation. When you left, you never had enough money to come back, so the community that you left considered you as dead and gone. So he decided that he would self-publish a book of his songs and poems to leave as a memento. So he did this and he heard rumors that a printer in Edinburgh wanted to reprint the poems and he canceled his sailing to Jamaica from the west coast of Scotland to travel to the east coast where he booked another passage to Jamaica, which he would take if the rumors of the publisher weren’t true. The rumors about the publisher were true, so he stayed in Scotland despite having booked a few passages to go to Jamaica and it was his book of poetry that kept him here. Four years before he died, he wrote a poem called “The Slave’s Lament” and because I grew up in Ayrshire where Burns lived, at school each January on the anniversary of his birth, we had to recite by heart his poetry to the class.

Away from school, I was making my own music, and I sort of caught the tail end of the punk movement and along with the punk movement came Jamaican reggae so I was buying a lot of Jamaican reggae records and I guess I wondered out of idle curiosity during my teenager years why at school, what was being taught as my cultural heritage was kind of meaningless to me, but yet the cultural polar opposite, Jamaican reggae, meant so much more to me than what my cultural heritage was according to school. I had a chance to research Burn’s father and that’s when I discovered that he booked these passages to live and work in Jamaica and that finding helped me make some bridges with that idle curiosity that I had. 

So I approached Adrian Sherwood who works in London with a lot of Jamaican reggae artists and performers to see if he’d be interested in working with me to remake a new version of Robert Burn’s “The Slave’s Lament,” but with reggae performers.  That was a great process, I really enjoyed that one.  It was creative in that Adrian was into the idea and we talked a lot about the songs and the kind of feel I wanted the songs to have, and he would recommend people that he’d worked with that could help us achieve the sound and feel we wanted the song to have, and then you let them do what they need to do in order to achieve the song.

In an interview you said that your process is “an inquiry into cultural formers.”  What are “cultural formers”?

There’s a sculpture that I made not long after I graduated from my master’s course and the sculpture’s called “Former and Form.” It’s a really simple sculpture.  It’s pieces of wood that are held together with G-clamps and into the pieces of wood I poured some concrete and when the concrete was set I took out the cast and set it next to it. So it was a very simple sculpture and the size of the concrete was about the size of a house brick that’s very common in the UK. The more I worked on projects, the more I realized how important this sculpture was because this sculpture felt like a thinking model. What I was interested in about the sculpture was that I could show a form or a shape, but I could also show the mechanisms that were required in order for that shape to exist. In order for that shape to exist, I had to have some concept or some idea of what shape the mold had to be. So it was a cause and effect relationship.

When people started asking me what my work was about, I tried to find the shorter way to explain the complexities, and that’s when this concept that was becoming clearer to me from that earlier sculpture about “cultural formers” and things that shape our cultures and the way that we behave and then the way that we shape the culture, so the two-way relationship that’s there as well. The thing that was really important to me about that as an artist was the understanding when I started being invited to do other projects.  One project in particular, I was invited to be what in this country is called the “official war artist.”  I was asked by the Imperial War Museum to be the war artist for Kosovo and that’s where my knowledge of what I was trying to do as an artist became really important because not only was I able to understand a reason for examining my own culture, but I realized that comprehension was actually really important and it can help you understand other people’s cultures and find relationships to help understand what the differences are. So when I went to Kosovo to understand somebody else’s culture, for me, it was so interesting, because their culture had basically been destroyed. The work that I tried to do there was address cultural breakdown or cultural shifts of knowledge and logic that makes a culture hold together. 

I’m curious about what you mean when you call a sculpture “a thinking model.”  Can you explain that?

When I was making it, I was making a concept that I had that was quite simple in a formal sense and when I made it, it had a life and it was exhibited.  It was for the Arts Council’s collection, so it had its own life, but its relationship with me is still the conceptual one.  For me, that sculpture explains the complexities of what a cultural former is, or the way that I’ve been using that term “cultural former.” 

How does art interact with the breakdown or development of culture?

When I came back from my time in Kosovo and made the exhibition for the museum, it was interesting because it was a question that especially journalists, maybe no so much art critics, but journalists would ask about, like, that must really have changed you? There were lots of questions about what value and what’s the use of making art about this sort of subject.  There’s a lot of literary theory you could talk about the relationship to, maybe, genre, but for me what was important about my work was that real life theory. So for example, having been to Kosovo and trying to make an art work that would maybe try in a small way to address the complexities of war and conflict was very important and it was important that that work was exhibited in a museum that hopefully people came to see and try to understand through the artwork a different position or a different route to what war and conflict is.  So you’re not experiencing it through the medium of a newspaper or a television or from a politician or from a UN official, it was a more paradoxical introduction through the medium of art.  Paradoxical because it’s a simple way to access a very complex situation. That subject of “cultural formers” is very real in terms of a subject area that’s real and that’s what key in priorities for me when I’m making the work as an artist. 

How does art differ from media?

The difference would mainly be the way that you see the subject matter in that you make a conscious decision to go to an art gallery or to a museum.  Then once you’re there there are preconceptions about the way that you as a viewer would behave or react or interact with objects, or the formality of the construct you’re seeing within these places. That’s a very difference relationship to receiving media in the privacy of your own home. It’s public, for a start. 

That’s maybe one of the reasons I started to become interested in working with a theater director – thinking about the notions about how we perceive art and how we receive art depending on the place that we’re in. If you go to a theater, you’re quite prepared to sit in a comfortable seat for an hour and a half and watch something and kind of believe the fiction that’s being presented to you, but if you go to an art gallery it’s very easy to go out and think, “I just don’t like this at all” or “This is aesthetically doesn’t engage me so I’m just going to walk out.”  Or you may do the opposite and you may be really engaged and spend a long time there.  That question of differences in media is about the ways that you receive them and the associated notions of different media. 

Does art take in history and culture and shape our perception of it, or is art on the other side of that fence and shaped by history and culture?

I think art sits on both sides, certainly in the ways that I’ve received it and perceived it, and the way that I have worked with it. I would like to think that I’ve worked on both of those points. I was about to say on both sides of that fence, but maybe that’s the first thing, maybe it’s not a fence, it’s more fluid than that. There’s a lot of debate in the UK about is art political or where is the political art or where is the political art going. For me, the art that I enjoy and the art that I think is important is the art that can be both of these places that you talk about.  It’s art that will not just provoke, but can also offer opportunity to reflect and use art history as well. 

I think we live in a kind of a cynical time – on the brink of environmental disasters and constant wars.  It seems to me that so many contemporary artists and writers and thinkers are engaged with this sort of darkness as a way to try to engage with the world.  But then what is art’s role in this world?

That’s quite a description of “the darkness.”  It reminds me of a documentary I just saw in which a young journalist was interviewing the Sex Pistols when they had just started and at that time in Britain there really was darkness because a lot of the power stations were working three-day weeks and four days of the week you could be in a power cut situation and there were lots of cuts and garbage men were refusing to pick up garbage.  I remember seeing my very first rat, which I thought was a rabbit because the rats were so large.  Going back to the point of the darkness, there was a young journalist interviewing the Sex Pistols for a news channel and you could tell the young journalist was quite a liberal guy and you could tell he was really excited about what the Pistols were doing and the fact they were raging against this sense of cultural and societal breakdown. So he’s got his microphone and he’s interviewing Johnny Rotten and he said, “Johnny, we’re a country on its knees and you’re coming along and rallying against political authority. What are you going to do about that?” And he passed the microphone over to Johnny Rotten and Johnny Rotten just said, “We’re gonna make it worse.” Which I thought was a fantastic answer and for me it’s quite an important answer in relationship to what you’re talking about. Because I think the other thing that’s really important is that artists and intellectuals of course have always been part of a more liberal stream, but they’re always part of the bigger majority as well and I guess that’s where those limitations on what kind of influence you can have on these kind of political powers. 

What’s interesting about the kind of “darkness” – and these are your words, Rachel, not my words. The thing about the darkness that is Rachel’s is that slowly you start to find out about the mechanisms that control the way that we work politically and how we do business. The banking crisis and things like that, you start to find out the truth about the mechanics of how governments are influenced not necessarily by voters, but much more influenced by oil firms, banking industries, people like that. 

So it’s a good point that “darkness” is my word. The body of your work that I’ve seen – there’s a grittiness to it and a humor to it, but it’s not consistently dark.  How would you characterize the era that we’re living in and facing as artists and thinkers?

I think we need to stay extremely positive about it. I think we need to be cheeky about it.  That cheekiness is maybe the most important thing. By “cheeky” I mean that we don’t become afraid to say what we truly feel we need to say and we say it in whatever way we think is the best way to say it.