The Women’s Institute Newsletter scooped us – clinching the first interview with Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane before their upcoming show. But, the WI is a mysterious and powerful organization, so you can understand their choice.
I’m in Soho, meeting Jeremy and Alan. Jeremy has just been told he can’t have a pint of Tetley ‘because its horrible’ according to the barmaid. Pointing at the jolly master of the hounds logo Jeremy says, ‘Support the huntsman!’ It’s great hanging out in Soho with artists. We might go to the Colony Rooms like Francis Bacon, or the Groucho like Damian Hirst. On the other hand Nandos, that weird chain restaurant success story selling chicken and hot sauce is across the road. In the end we settle on a generic pizza place.
We’re discussing their forthcoming show at the Barbican Curve Gallery – the Folk Archive. First shown at the Tate in 2000 as part of the New British Art Show. Five years later, they have updated it. They’ve been traveling the UK to find things they could buy, borrow, or document.
They say that the curation is a kind of ongoing process, related to the ephemeral nature of the subject matter. Though at the time we met the exhibition was still in a state of flux, they start to reel off a list of things that might be in it: A mechanical petrol driven elephant, trade union banners, an anonymous cock and balls formed out of clay perched on the edge of a skip. There are events, like the gurning championship. There are festivals like a crab fair and a Scarecrow convention. It is as broad in its media as contemporary art. There are fanzines, websites, performances, events, and videos.
Finding this stuff was ‘a bigger problem than could be solved’ according to Alan. Initially opening up a website (www.folkarchive.co.uk), they assumed they’d be flooded with submissions. Actually, it’s been much harder. Jeremy explains that unlike artists desperate to show their art, most of these things already have their audience. For the people who make them, being part of the an art exhibition is ‘something on top of what they are doing already’. ‘They don’t need us’ says Jeremy.
They’ve been looking hard. One productive weekend saw them scouring Blackpool – a kind of British ‘less’ Vegas seaside resort – where they found a joke shop with coffin shaped display cases (‘beautiful bits of conceptual art’ says Alan) and secured a loan for the show. They also got some choice examples for a section of the exhibition Jeremy describes the ‘most novelty novelty products’. That includes some Shit Spray: ‘it’s like party spray, but brown and smells like shit!’ Jeremy continues, coining a fine tag line if Shit Spray ever decided to advertise. Later that weekend, they arrived at a village fete and ended up judging a 150 entry Women’s Institute cake competition.
Looking through the black and white proofs of the catalogue, it suggests sound effects of generic village fete. At first glance, it looks like a portrait of the UK as a vibrant utopia of self-expression: a bit cute, slightly kitsch, and very charming. But peering a bit harder, it starts to look less utopian. There are fathers4justice in fancy dress outfits scaling landmarks in desperate protests at child custody laws. There are the beautiful sectarian murals of Northern Ireland. And there, the countryside alliance – the aristocracy cynically appropriating forms protest traditionally associated with the genuinley oppressed. These are things that are desperate and serious attempts to assert a particular groups identity and communicate specific points of view. The amateurish workmanship lends a kind of nostalgic feeling, but it’s actually a nostalgia that is sometimes unsettling, sometimes aggressive.
Alan and Jeremy describe the Folk Archive as a collection of things that ‘the individual, human spirit comes through’. It’s about ‘customising and taking charge’, and the ‘creative spirit’. While it’s funny and ridiculous, it’s also a serious examination of the role of creativity within public life. They explain that its important that the Archive works on different levels.
Folk art in the US is respectable. It has proper museums, historians and collectors who pay top dollar. Alan and Jeremy suggest this it is partly because of the brevity of US history, and partly because of its class-less structure. Which I guess means by implication that they believe British art is heavily infused with history and class. One function of the Folk Archive might be to open up the gates of Art to other influences.
British interest in folk has often been tinged with utopia and tainted with a certain wild-eyed fervour. Think of William Blake staring at Stonehenge, and imagining strange histories of ancient Briton. Or think of the Art and Crafts movement hankering after medieval life whilst in the midst of Victorian industrialisation. They drew on folksiness as a source of identity and as a way of imagining a better future. In William Morris’ sci-fi novel of a future London ‘The News From Nowhere’, the streets are filled with happy people in hand woven clothes selling delightful handmade objects to each other. Making things, Morris fantasised, was part of everyone’s everyday life. While Morris imagined a future society where everyone was happy, Alan and Jeremy see it here and now. These are miniature, everyday, creative utopias. They see it in the democratisation of manufacturing thanks to the increasing availability of technology. Alan cites combinations of Photoshop and vinyl cutting as displayed in Dalston Kebab shops. These digital and CAD/CAM pictures of Kebabs in front of biblical sunsets are the inheritors of Morris’ vision of artisan production.
In fact, you can draw a direct line through the history of British Art connecting the Arts and Crafts to Punk. Folk art revolution could happen though wallpaper as much as learn-three-chords-and get-on-a-stage DIY attitude. Punks anyone-can-do-it culture is certainly resonates in the Archive. Folk can often suggest the mystical or magical. But Alan and Jeremy aren’t telling us fairy stories. ‘Its Anarchy, not Alchemy’ they say.
What connects Alan and Jeremy’s Folk Archive to these predecessors is a dissatisfaction with bland mainstream culture. They describe how the idea took shape as a reaction to the Millennium Dome. That government sponsored celebration of Britain, which actually consisted of large corporations like Ford and British Telecom combining with overblown architects and terrible brand consultancies. Unsurprisingly, it was awful. Nigel Coates designed something called the Body Zone, a large human-shaped thing that you could climb inside. If the Dome was capable of irony, you might assume it was a portrait of those responsible: hollow men and women. Tap them and the sound echoes in the hole where their sole should be.
The Folk Archive represents another Briton. Jeremy keeps mentioning the rural, which Alan consistently disputes. What they do agree is that it is that the Britain the Archive is drawn from is anti-metropolitan. It takes a stand against the tasteful urbane monoculture, against life edited by Sunday supplements, policed by style magazines, and enforced by fashion. It is against ‘taste imposed from above’ as Jeremy says. It shows that contemporary culture is vast and broad and endlessly surprising. By comparison it reveals how parochial and conservative mainstream culture is.
The title of the exhibition is important. They say that it’s not Folk in the traditional sense, and it’s not an Archive either. In fact, they are more specific about lots of things that it isn’t than what it is: scientific, anthropological, outsider art, definitive, objective, original.
If it’s not those things, then is it art? And if it is, then which bit is art? Is it the pieces themselves? Or the curation? Or the juxtaposition? Do these things have an intrinsic artistic value? or is it something that happens when it is carried through the doorway of the Barbicans gallery? Actually, does it matter?
Most of these things are unusual enough to stand up on their own terms. But they are only being exhibited because Alan and Jeremy choose them. ‘We are looking at it from the perspective of artists’ says Alan, ‘looking at it as art, and it satisfies the same thirst that looking at art does. We are saying, ‘Isn’t this interesting? It reminds me of an art experience’. We are asking ‘where does that leave us as artists?”
Jeremy isn’t sure if he has been described as a modern day Hogarth, or if it something he’d like to be described as. Alan suggests that he is more like Robin Hood. So Jeremy casts Alan as Friar Tuck. I think they are trying to explain their relationship to art and to the rest of the world. Hogarth, I guess, because he represented through art bawdy, gin soaked everyday life. Robin Hood because he robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. Maybe they feel like they are redistributing the cultural value of Jeremys recent art prize.
They are certainly conscious of their position in relation to the things they like and the art world. Jeremy says that they are at the ‘epicentre of the art world’. Alan describes their role as being a bridge to the rest of the world. I pass them a pen and a piece of paper so they can draw a map. Alan goes first, drawing something that looks like a ring doughnut, then a bridge between the central circle and the outer circle: That’s us’ he says. ‘But what’s that?’ asks Jeremy pointing at the centre circle. ‘Its art, its an island’ replies Alan. Jeremy draws his version: two islands, joined by a bridge (looking like a pair of specs). ‘That’s art’ he says pointing at one island. ‘And that’s everything else’, pointing at the other. Alan’s is clever-er graphically, while Jeremy’s is more didactic. Alan’s shows art like a castle, with a moat, defending itself against the surrounding rest of the world. Jeremy’s shows art and everything else as separate continents, which suggests expeditions mounted between one and the other, like Columbus, Darwin, or maybe Ellen McArthur.
‘We are defiantly not outsiders, and we are not iconoclasts either’ they say. ‘If we didn’t respect art, we wouldn’t be putting this stuff in art galleries’. The Archive has a positive, pluralist view. One that would rather embrace than reject things. Its challenge is its wide screen vision of creativity – from white cube of the gallery to a white cube of sugar dropped into a teacup during a Women’s Institute cake-off.
Alan describes the British Contemporary Art Champion meeting the British Gurning Champion as a ‘tromboning of culture’. Which is a great phrase suggesting the coming together of distant things soundtracked with a comedy brassy slide sound effect.
With that, the Robin Hood and Friar Tuck of the art world hop on their bicycles, clad not in Lincoln Green tunics, but fluorescent green safety jackets. They pedal out of metropolitan Soho, towards the exciting and mysterious suburbs.
first published in Moden Painters