Wednesday, 15 August 2018

The Arty Hotels To Stay at Around the World | Culture Trip

Whether you’re after some calm minimalism or over-the-top opulence, these are the most divine arty hotels to inspire your next vacation.

Paradiso Ibiza Art Hotel, Ibiza

Taking its inspiration from Miami Modern architecture (known as MiMo), the Paradiso Ibiza Art Hotel is the latest resort addition to Ibiza’s San Antonio Bay. With its pastel pink hue, mixture of futuristic and Art Deco design, and contemporary art throughout, this adult-only boutique hotel needs to be on your Ibiza bucket list. Exclusive Arty Parties, which mix art, fashion and music, will be held during the season as well as monthly micro-residencies with international artists in the glass-walled Zero Suite, so guests can see the creative process in action.

At Six, Stockholm
Exuding tranquil Scandinavian calm, your experience of At Six will be punctuated with selected artworks by leading contemporary artists, including Olafur Eliasson, Julian Opie and Richard Long. Specially commissioned for the hotel, Jaume Plensa’s optical sculpture Mar Whispering (2017) greets you in the lobby and a giant Tacita Dean photogravure of an icy landscape hangs above reception. A series of rare prints by the American Minimalist Sol LeWitt compliment the Modernist furniture in the lounge areas. And in the bedrooms, Swedish artist Kristina Matousch has created a series of subtle mirror-based works.

Park Hotel, Tokyo
You can literally sleep in a piece of art at Park Hotel Tokyo as over 30 suites have been decorated by Japanese artists. Each following a different theme and featuring art including Cherry Blossoms by Hiroko Otake, Lucky Cat by Soseki Natsume, Kabuki by Yamaguchi Keisuke and Haiku by Rieko Fujinami, the artists’ residences capture the beauty of Japan for guests to experience in a unique setting. “I wanted to paint a festival that never ends,” says Tama Art University graduate Nanami Ishihara of her wonderfully vibrant queen suite that is populated with dancing rabbits, elephants, tigers and revellers in traditional costume.

The Walled Off Hotel, Bethlehem
The Walled Off Hotel might say that it has “the worst view of any hotel in the world”, but that shouldn’t put anyone off as this is the genius creation of famed graffiti artist Banksy. As you might imagine, works by the elusive British artist feature throughout this unusual Bethlehem hotel, which is both a parody of London’s Waldorf Hotel as well as a clever comment on tourism due to its close proximity to the Israeli West Bank barrier. The Piano Bar is filled with surveillance cameras mounted like hunting trophies, and one of the bedrooms has a Banksy painting of an Israeli border policeman and a Palestinian having a pillow fight.

Faena Hotel, Miami Beach
Located in the Faena District, the Faena Hotel Miami Beach, formerly the Saxony Hotel, is at the centre of this cultural neighbourhood that stretches between the Atlantic beachfront and Indian Creek. The five-star luxury hotel, with its 169 guest rooms, comes from the stable of Argentine hotelier Alan Faena, and is the perfect combination of decadent design and stylish sophistication. Filmmaker Baz Luhrmann and costume designer Catherine Martin, a husband-and-wife partnership, envisioned the opulent grandeur that recalls the hotel’s hedonistic days when it was a hang-out for Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra. And to compliment that, art is prevalent throughout, with particular highlights including multiple murals by Argentinian artist Juan Gatti and Damien Hirst sculptures – the latter’s ginormous 24-carat gilded skeleton of a woolly mammoth graces the hotel’s gardens. This is where the extraordinary happens; where fantasy becomes reality. You enjoy the delectable food by award-winning chefs at Los Fuegos or Pao, relax in the sublime sanctuary of Tierra Santa Healing House – which has the largest hammams on the East Coast – take a dip in the palm-lined pool, experience golden-age glamour in the Saxony Bar and end the evening with a cabaret performance in the hotel’s very own theatre.

The Beaumont Hotel, London
Antony Gormley’s ROOM at The Beaumont gives this five-star Art Deco-styled boutique hotel a contemporary twist. The inhabitable sculpture was commissioned as a piece of public art but also houses a one-bedroom suite. Inside the crouching cuboid figure is an oak-clad bedroom and pure white marble bathroom. “My ambition for ROOM is that it should confront the monumental with the most personal, intimate experience,” said Gormley of this quirky extension for the first hotel from Jeremy King and Chris Corbin of The Wolseley fame.

Hôtel du Petit Moulin, Paris
Looking for the perfect romantic pied-à-terre next time you’re in Paris? Well, look no further than this sumptuous boutique hotel in the Haut Marais. Formerly a bakery, this 17-room hotel has been transformed into a little haven of splendour by fashion designer Christian Lacroix. “It brings to mind a doll’s house or those cross sections of buildings you might see in 20th-century encyclopaedias, with very different atmospheres from one floor to the next,” Lacroix has said of this 17th-century building. Each room has been lavishly designed with exuberant fabrics, exceptional wallpaper, vintage furnishings and trompe l’oeil paintings to create distinctively different spaces.

Casa Malca, Tulum
You’ll never want to leave this luxury hotel resort on the east coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. Once Pablo Escobar’s hideaway, the mansion has been renovated by New York art collector Lio Malca to create a truly idyllic getaway. Throughout the 42 beach suites and hotel, you’ll encounter many valuable artworks from Malca’s collection, including a sculpture by KAWS, an immersive print by Keith Haring in the bar and multiple kaleidoscopic Holton Rower pieces.

21c Museum Hotel, Kansas City 
21c Museum Hotels has transformed the historic Savoy Hotel and Grill in Kansas City for their eighth North American location. Specifically dedicated to collecting and exhibiting 21st-century art, the new edition opened with a showcase of site-specific commissions responding to the location’s architecture and history, as well as exhibition Refuge. The show, which is running for a year, looks at contemporary migration through the work of 54 artists, including JR, Hew Locke and Mohau Modisakeng. Designed by New York architects Deborah Berke Partners with Kansas City architects Hufft Projects, the hotel provides the Library District with a new multi-purpose arts venue that supports local talent as well as international names.

The Thief, Oslo
Quite literally wanting to rob you of the mundanity of daily life, The Thief draws on the heritage of its location – an island notorious its criminals inhabitants in the 18th century – to offer guests a retreat where contemporary art, cutting-edge design and delectable gastronomy coexist. The permanent collection boasts an impressive line-up of artists, including Sir Peter Blake, Richard Prince and Sir Tony Cragg along with emerging talent. Keep an eye out for Queen Sonja of Norway’s photographs in the library. And should you need more of an art fix, pop next door to the Renzo Piano-designed Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, where guests get free access because the hotel’s owner Petter A Stordalen is a patron.

This article first appeared on Culture Trip

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Creating a Sustainable Biennial in Riga | Culture Trip

As the first Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art (RIBOCA) gets underway in Latvia, Freire Barnes takes a closer look at how the biennial sets a new benchmark in the age of ‘biennial fatigue’.

Maarten Vanden Eynde, Pinpointing Progress 2018 | Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov

With the proliferation of biennials, a state which has been termed as ‘biennialisation’, do we really need another one? ‘Why do you need another book, another film, another piece of music? Why do you need any more of anything?’ Katerina Gregos, curator of the inaugural RIBOCA, emphatically states. ‘For me it’s better to have a proliferation of cultural production than to have a proliferation of football or a stupid hollywood movie.’
At their best, a biennial can bring together disparate ideas and a wide variety of artistic disciplines from different regions around the world to make a cohesive statement. And the first RIBOCA, titled Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More, certainly lives up to this premise.
‘The more meaningful biennials are the ones that engage with the place, the space, the geopolitical dynamics of the city, the country, and the region,’ asserts Gregos.
Not wanting to ‘parachute in and out’ as Gregos puts it, RIBOCA is all about creating a sustainable biennial model that prioritises artists and artistic production. Set up by Russian-Lithuanian Agniya Mirgorodskaya as a global platform for Baltic and international artists, the intention is to take root in Riga and yet be globally reflective, increasing the dialogue between a long overlooked region with the rest of the world.
As a country that has been consistently occupied since the 13th century, first by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, then Sweden, and the Russian Empire, Latvia has a verdant history, ideal for curatorial investigation and ripe for the picking by contemporary artists. ‘I’m very interested in moments of historical transition,’ say Gregos. ‘What happens before and after and how this is experienced by the people who live through these moments. A lot of artists in the exhibition are negotiating forgotten histories, looking into a form of correctional historiography.’
Gregos foregrounds Latvia’s ‘long, rich, layered and very often contested histories’ to explore themes of progress, time, industrialism, economic transition, destruction and obsolescence through the works of over 90 artists – 24 of which are from the Baltic states – at eight sites chosen specifically because of their histories and functions in relation to  Riga.
The biennial’s main site, the former Faculty of Biology of the University of Latvia, was once an important, progressive scientific research institution in the Soviet Union. Both a representation of dictatorial rule and innovative discovery, the Neo-Renaissance building, with its abandoned laboratories, has found a new purpose. 
Centering around scientific and technological developments as well as corporeal existence, the artworks sited here reflect upon its subsequent impact on the biological and ecological status quo. ‘I’m really interested in how artists talk about the state of the world and are able to bring new knowledge, beyond the known, beyond the expected and also beyond the biased and the polarised,’ says Gregos.
Anthropologist Alexei Yurchak’s book, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More – from which the biennial takes its name – gives RIBOCA its conceptual foundations as it navigates the paradoxes of the Soviet Union and its collapse. ‘The analogy today is like capitalism,’ says Gregos. ‘No one can imagine that capitalism could collapse, it’s become so widespread, it’s taken the place of socialist governments and countries that were once left wing.’
In a former lab, Berlin-based artist Sissel Tolaas has installed bespoke glassware – similar to scientific apparatus – which puff out odours sourced from the Baltic sea. ‘Can a smell molecule give an indication to issues on the ocean that we can’t see or hear?’ Tolaas poses on describing beyond SE(A)nse (2018). 
As part of her ongoing project to build a catalogue of ocean molecules that includes the Great Barrier Reef, Costa Rica and the Caribbean, she worked with locals to collect samples from the beaches near Jurmala. ‘It decontextualises reality in a container. I’m trying to develop different ways of dealing with issues of the ocean, engaging people’s emotions and causing action in a different way.’
Add Oswaldo Maciá, The Opera of Cross-pollination, 2018 | Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov
There are a number of evocative interactive installations and immersive video works that invite interaction. Oswaldo Maciá’s olfactory-acoustic installation, The Opera of Cross Pollination, commissioned specifically for the biennial, bombards your senses with audio and defused aromas. Emilija Škarnulytė’s epic video installation, Mirror Matter (2018), uses hypnotic audio to accompany digital renders of scientific facilities, including the Japanese neutrino observatory Super-Kamiokande and The Large Hadron Collider. And Nikos Navridis’ site-specific installation (another for the biennial) All of old. Nothing else ever… (2018) which brings the faculty’s former library back to life but with a twist, making you consider the evolution of printed material, the dissemination of information and defunct inventory processes.
From the grandeur of biology faculty, the next venue – if you follow the prescribed route from venues A to H – takes you to the former apartment of Kristaps Morbergs, which overlooks Freedom Square, ‘One of the most symbolic locations in the whole of Latvia because this is where the first manifestations happened for the first national awakening before the collapse of the Soviet Union,’ Gregos says. 
Here among the peeling paint and neglected rooms, artists examine the collective experience of change both from a historical and political perspective. Eve Kiiler’s photographic series documents the transformation of domestic architecture post-Soviet rule and Indre Serpytyte’s Pedestal(2017) align archival imagery of statues of Lenin and Stalin from public spaces in Lithuania together.
‘Very often you find “politically engaged” work turns out to be extremely didactic, dry, and very often lacking in challenging or imaginative visual content, so I’m searching for artists who are able to bridge this very difficult gap between form and content,’ says Gregos. There is certainly nothing dry about her selection.
At Andrejsala, once an important industrial trading port, now going through a process of redevelopment, an old boat and two warehouses have been turned into unlikely exhibition spaces for insightful and poignant observations on industrial obsolescence. It’s the perfect location for Jevgeni Zolotko’s eery and disquieting biennial commission, Sacrifice (2018) and Alexis Destoop’s two-channel video installation, Phantom Sun (2017) that fabricates a conflicted ideological narrative in relation to the Norwegian-Russian border. It’s even ideal for Maarten Vanden Eynde’s new work for the biennial, Pinpointing Progress (2018) that visualises the evolution of technological products produced in Riga and exported throughout the USSR.
As you navigate your way around the remaining venues that include a former textile factory and Sporta2 square, a new district of Riga, it becomes ever more apparent that RIBOCA is an important moment in Latvia’s history, ‘I feel that this biennial make sense at this particular moment because the Baltic region itself is a locus for global integration, identity renegotiation and economic restructuring because we now are faced with this new cold war,’ says Gregos. ‘Really they are at the forefront of this new debate about progressive liberal democracy however flawed it might be within Europe.’
Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art was at various venues around Riga in 2018.
This article first appeared on Culture Trip

Friday, 29 September 2017

Rachel Maclean Interview | Bon Magazine

Even if you knew her very well, you probably wouldn’t recognise Rachel Maclean once she dons the theatrical makeup and elaborate costumes of her vivid satirical multimedia works. Since graduating from the Painting BA at Edinburgh College of Art in 2009, she has made quite an impression with her visually stunning allegorical films, made using green-screen technology. With the aid of prosthetics and a fabulous wardrobe, Maclean populates her fantastical backdrops with a cast of exaggerated caricatures from all walks of society.

Exuberant and humorous, yet always with an ominous undertone, Maclean’s work both references and parodies many facets of popular culture. She draws on all manner of film genre, from Walt Disney to horror. Dialogue from Sex and the City is combined with lyrics from cheesy pop songs by bands like Black Eyed Peas. Emojis are incorporated into the titles of her work, and inspired her yellow, noseless characters in a recent series, We Want Data! She also makes use of various TV formats, from children’s programmes such as Teletubbies, to The X Factor.

In her most recent work, currently on show at Tate Britain, Maclean deploys mocking wit to confront our obsession with virtual vanity. “I’m curious about comedy as a space where interesting things can happen,” she says. “When I lived in Edinburgh I would see alternative comedy at the Fringe. Comedy is often the sharpest, most direct social satire and criticism, too.” Maclean certainly uses comedy in this way, to question our conceited and ultra-consumerist culture.

For all their bubblegum cuteness, Maclean’s films are also politically conscious. “I’m interested in contemporary politics,” she says. “The past three or four years have been a pretty interesting time to live through. There has been more discussion about politics with people my age than I’ve ever experienced in my life before.” Early works like The Lion And The Unicorn confronted the dilemmas of national identity. Made in 2012, during the lead-up to the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, it was inspired by the United Kingdom’s royal coat of arms. It was also the work that got Maclean nominated for the Film London Jarman Award in 2013 – an award she has been shortlisted for twice, most recently in 2016.

At just 29 she has been selected to represent Scotland at the 57th Venice Biennale. Eager to know how she’s going to approach probably her biggest career challenge yet, I spoke to her about the hush-hush new film commission that will transform a church in Cannaregio.

So you’ve just come back from Venice, where you were preparing for the Biennale?
Yes, I was there for ten days, wandering around, getting lost, and writing the script for the Biennale work. It was great to be in Venice when it was really cold and foggy and a little bit spooky; it felt completely different to the summertime, when it’s mad crowded with tourists. It was really good to think through ideas in the place that they are going to be shown.

What does it mean to be representing Scotland at the Venice Biennale?It’s really humbling, and a really exciting opportunity to make new work for a European, international audience. I guess it’s an odd time for Britain, and western politics more generally, so it’s both a scary and an interesting time to be making work dealing with the idea: what does it mean to represent a country? What does nationality mean when there is a resurgence of nationalism and protectionism? It’s interesting to be among all that in an artistic context.

How much of that will inspire the new work?I don’t want it to be specifically about Scotland or Britain, but the themes are to do with what’s happening now in America and Britain. So, looking at ideas of nationalism, post-truth and lies. And talking about sexism, and the rise in the legitimising of a certain kind of misogyny. I want to pool a lot of contemporary themes, but not make it feel it can only be understood if you’re Scottish or British.

Tell me about Chiesa di Santa Caterina, the venue you’ll be showing in.  It’s a decommissioned church – deconsecrated, that’s the word. It’s a really beautiful location, an historic Venetian church but rough round the edges, characterful. The past two exhibitions I’ve done have been in gallery spaces, where you can do whatever you want. But this time round, you’ve got the context first.

Will the venue influence the work in any way?  Yes it will. There is something grandiose and very dramatic about showing in a church; it lends a certain aura, which I’m keen to play with in the large-scale film.

You studied painting in Edinburgh. At what point did you transition into “painting” yourself to become the characters in your films?  When I was really, really wee I was obsessed with filming things on home video. Then I got into painting, just off the back of what you do at art college, and I was doing quite a lot of work that was almost like collage. I discovered that you can use green-screen and Final Cut software really easily, and that was exciting because it related directly to what I was doing with physical materials. Suddenly, instead of filming what seemed like banal reality, you could film something and then place it into any world you wanted, almost treating moving image like you would treat collage and painting.

Your films certainly splice together a variety of material and references. Why is that?  I like the references I use to come from a popular consciousness, so things are not too niche, so you recognise it and there is a level of accessibility. But I then twist it and make it a little bit darker and uncomfortable to watch.

There is definitely a fine line between the sinister and the grotesque, and the fantastical and the beautiful in your work.  I like playing with that, creating work that is alluring to look at, but at the same time really difficult and grotesque. I want to create the feeling of drawing you in and then pushing you out again.

In Eyes 2 Me you use a children’s TV programme format that culminates with the main character going on a killing spree.  Quite a lot of my work plays with voice as something that is powerful, and how you can be disempowered when voiceless. I was interested in that format within children’s television, like In The Night Garden, where creatures speak gobbledygook while a benign male voiceover explains what’s happening and tells them what to do. I wanted to play with that notion, of a character that’s cutesy but increasingly powerless, controlled by an omnipresent voice from above that tells her to do dark and sinister things.

I want to talk about the presentation of your female protagonists, who flit between different characteristics of childish, seductive and hideous.  My works consider the different experiences of gender and gender stereotypes. In Over the Rainbow, for example, I wanted a lot of my female characters to feel like they’re constantly switching. [I’m] taking that experience as a woman in culture of having to embody different roles simultaneously but not being allowed to let them mix, so not being allowed to be sexy and be a mother. In Feed Me I look at the uncomfortable bridging point between being a girl and being a woman, and how it’s taboo but also fetishised in culture.

Do you think as a culture we’ve become self-absorbed?  I think it’s become more acceptable to be entirely, shamelessly self-involved. I guess the selfie culture has something to do with it. There is something troubling about the X Factor culture of aspiration. It fits quite neatly into the “American dream” idea of society; if you try hard enough and want something bad enough, anyone can get it. It’s a dream that hides a huge amount of inequality and a lack of opportunity. There is something sinister in these programmes, the idea of fame for fame’s sake. It’s a little bit depressing.

Your exhibition Wot U :-) About, currently on show at Tate Britain, encompasses this obsession with screen-based culture.  I started making that body of work in early 2016, [while I was] on a residency at Artpace in Texas. I made We Want Data!, a series of six large-scale fabric prints featuring costumed characters, and then took those characters and made a single-screen 30-minute film called It’s What’s Inside That Counts. I was specifically focusing on our experience of identity on the internet, of social-media selfie culture, mixed with gender identity. I’ve not quite worked out how to explain exactly what it is yet. There are three main characters within it. There is a woman who is almost like a Kim Kardashian cyborg, who is hacked by this collective of grotesque Disneyesque rats that live underground and seems to be surviving on a kind of digital life support.

Who is the character that looks like a spiritual guru?  That’s Happy Man, a mindfulness guru for the tech industry. I was thinking about how mindfulness is appropriated and employed in business.

What was the inspiration behind We Want Data! I wanted the tapestry prints to feel like adverts and computer screens. The characters are either on their phones, or they have some sort of computer system built into them. I was looking at technologies like Apple Watch, these self-monitoring technologies. We’re already having a lot of data collected about us, just through using the internet, but now it’s about becoming your own data manager – for your step count, your weight and your heart rate. I find that a little scary. It’s this sense that anything can be turned into quantifiable data so emotions and health and experience of the world can be fed back to you in numbers.

Do you take any measure to make sure your data is not collected, so companies don’t earn money from your information?  No, but I probably should. It’s that idea that Facebook isn’t the product – you’re the product and Facebook is then selling [you] on. Companies like Facebook and Google have done a really good job of marketing themselves in this kind of “Aren’t we nice, aren’t we cool?” way to create the illusion of them facilitating your desires. Whereas there is this whole dark underbelly, which few people have the time and inclination to actually pick apart.

Aside from politics, popular culture, TV and technology, what else inspires your work?  I like my work to go back and forth between contemporary references and more deeply engrained national narratives. For example, in my film Feed Me I was considering the treatment of the Jimmy Savile paedophilia scandal that was in the news for a long time, but it also relates to fairy tales and the idea of the bogeyman or the child-eating ogre: a more historical fear of male sexuality.

What is it about the fairy tale narrative that interests you?  Fairy tales are malleable, they’re always morphing, adapting to have different outcomes, and altering to fit different moments in time. I quite like it to feel that my work, at some level, is continuing that tradition.

You’ve recently started writing scripts. Why?  Previous work, like Please Sir and Over the Rainbow, used found audio clips taken from TV, film and the internet, which I cut up into a script and then mimed to camera. Feed Me was the first film I wrote a properlength script for. I wanted more control over the structure and where the narrative was going, but trying to maintain the odd feeling you get from the channel-changing structure when you cut audio together from different sources.

Is it an intense experience to both direct and act in your films?  The film shoots are usually only about four to five days but they’re pretty intense, and I usually get very little sleep. There is something odd that happens when you wear a costume – you become the character. It’s much easier to behave in the way the character looks. A part of it feels natural the minute you’re in costume.

What is it about Glasgow that makes you want to live and work there, over, say, London, Berlin or New York?  First of all, there is a good community of artists, and it’s cheap. Also, at the moment, quite a lot of people are moving here. Scotland generally is good at supporting artists straight out of college. I was lucky to get a lot of opportunities to just try stuff out and show in artist-run galleries. You can get through your career for quite a long time without necessarily [showing in] a commercial gallery or seeing your work as something that needs to be sold.

You studied in Boston for a time. How did you find it? It was the first time I had lived outside the UK for a significant amount of time, and it was fascinating being exposed to American culture. There were things that I didn’t really expect to be different that were. When you do a group critique session in Scotland, you underplay everything. If you said “I made this work and I think it’s great” people would think you’re a dick. It’s all about modesty. Whereas in America, first of all you say how great what you’ve done is, and then work from there, which I hadn’t experienced before – the ability to be publicly confident, which is harder to get away with in Scotland.

Do you think that has had an impact on your practice?  Maybe, although I think I’m still stuck with that quite Scottish way of not being too positive. 

© Freire Barnes

Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of Bon

Monday, 23 January 2017

Sam McKnight Video Interview | Culture Trip

I spoke with international hairstylist, Sam McKnight at his Somerset House exhibition, Hair about working with Vogue, styling Princes Diana's hair and why the 70s were the most stylish decade.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Joanna Vasconcelos Interview | Baku

Read my interview with Portuguese artist Joanna Vasconcelos for Baku Winter 2015/2016 issue here.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Susan Hiller Interview | Time Out

Portrait: © Freire Barnes

I had the pleasure of visiting the influential American artist, Susan Hiller in her North London studio to talk about her first show at Lisson Gallery. Read the full interview here.

The show is an overview of your career but it shouldn’t be referred to as a retrospective?

‘It’s not a retrospective. There is a difference to being retrospective and looking back and a retrospective, which traditionally takes a form of chronological presentation of work to show development or lack of it. The reason I don’t think of it as a retrospective is things have been juxtaposed for reasons other than chronology.’

You originally studied anthropology. How and why did you become an artist?
‘I always wanted to be an artist, but by the time I was a teenager I became aware there were no women artists: none. Later, when I discovered some, they were always denigrated:“She’s the wife of so and so”. So unconsciously I was separated from my ambition to be an artist. At secondary school I found a little booklet called “Anthropology as a career for women” by Margaret Mead. Honestly no one had ever expressed anything interesting as a career to me as a woman. You could be a secretary, a teacher but an anthropologist? I didn’t even know what that was, it was so exotic and interesting. Then I went to a very prestigious and academic New England women’s college. They didn’t teach anthropology, but they had a very good art department. American universities don’t produce specialists, so I took a variety of subjects. I got out of college with this very broad background and no sense of vocation, so I went to New York for a year and took courses in life drawing, film and photography as well as anthropology courses in linguistics and archaeology. Because of this deeply internalised sense that as a woman I could not be an artist I went to postgraduate university and did anthropology. It was during a lecture I was giving on African art that I thought: this is ridiculous. I am not going to be an anthropologist. What can I say? It took me a long time.’

Initially you started to paint?
‘Yes. I had a couple of exhibitions but at the same time I was also interested in working in a different way which was with groups of people to do performative experiments, I suppose. I did pieces like dream mapping and street ceremonies, which were a subversive kind of performance because they didn’t have an audience, they only had participants. Then at a certain point I saw there was a dualism between art and anthropology, a dualism between the painting practice and the time-based practice and so I developed installations as a reconciliation of those two poles.’

Monday, 12 October 2015

Patrik Staff Interview | Bon Magazine

Patrick Staff is the poster boy for an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) generation that will not conform to or be confined by stereotypes. Splitting his time between London and Los Angeles, the twenty-seven year old artist’s interdisciplinary practice questions the categorisations of marginalised groups by an austere political system. Yet behind all the hype and the heavy sub text, you’ll find Staff mining labour politics, the queer body, social attitudes and how counter-cultures are shaped with the most effervescent attitude. Goldsmiths educated and shrewdly knowledgeable in everything from contemporary dance to Crip theory (about how bodies, pleasures, and identities are represented in relation to disability and queerness), Staff isn’t just another pretty art boy.
We meet in London’s east end, ironically at the Proud Archivist to talk about ‘The Foundation’, Staff’s most ambitious and complex work to date. Currently kipping in Dalston after being acrimoniously evicted from his studio due to London’s encroaching gentrification, Staff exudes the Californian calm of his new home town against the hubbub of Haggerston Riviera: ‘When you’re an artist in London you make sacrifices for the dialogue and the sparkiness. LA for me is queerer, it’s easier, and the quality of life is better. You chill a lot more.’

With Staff strategically positioning his practice, it was only a matter of time before influential curators and non-profit gallery directors would come calling. Staff has subsequently fostered productive working relationships with the likes of Catherine Wood (Contemporary art and performance curator, Tate) who included his multi-dimensional work ‘Chewing Gum for the Social Body’ in Tate Modern’s 2012 Tanks series ‘Art in Action’. While Emily Pethick (Director, The Showroom) showcased ‘Scaffold See Scaffold’ a workshop led project that foregrounded the body as the vehicle to construct diverse identities. And then there’s Polly Staple (Director, Chisenhale) who recently co-commissioned and exhibited ‘The Foundation’ which has firmly cemented Staff’s rising stardom.

Shown within a darkened gallery that is only illuminated by a film projection, ‘The Foundation’ is an immersive and multifaceted installation. Insulation material is strewn across the floor, rolled in some areas to create potential seating. A rigging of scaff-like poles creates a support for the projection screen. These industrious materials are echoed in the film sequences of choreographed scenes between Staff and an older actor set within a minimally constructed set. And then there is the footage shot, sometimes on Staff’s iPhone, at the late Tom of Finland’s former home in LA. But this isn’t your regular artist’s home preserved for weekend tourism, it has become a dedicated foundation to the Finnish artist’s (aka Touko Laaksonen) homoerotic art where a gay commune live, work and play. Tight-framed interior shots of the house are interspersed with convivial clips of Bears hanging out. The bathroom is surveyed with the sink, some soap, an obligatory gay Grecian statue and a giant dildo. Domestic rooms have been converted into makeshift offices where correspondence is taking place. At one point someone, wearing archival gloves, opens the drawers of a plan chest to reveal the abundance of Tom’s creativity. Drawing after drawing of his archetypal buff, overtly male characters in lewd, explicit acts are pulled out.

The film draws on all of Staff’s prior experiences of working with minority groups and using bodily gestures as a form of expression. Most importantly this is not a documentary about Tom and the foundation. His legacy and diligent followers is merely a prism through which Staff is able to contemplate gender identity and queer intergenerational relationships. It also offers him the chance to work within the parameters of an exhibition and within a gallery context.

You might expect Staff to rest on his laurels whilst ‘The Foundation’ travels to the other commissioning sites: Spike Island, Bristol; Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane; and Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver: ‘In some way I guess I could put my feet up and let it tour until the end of 2016. But I think like lots of artists my self worth is slightly at its peak in the middle of a project.’ So he’s already planning his next collaborative project that explores the hormonal properties of plants.

Why do you think people are starting to take notice of you?
‘I guess I wandered into the Tom of Finland zeitgeist, his work is having this renaissance and people are excited which is funny because my work isn’t really about Tom of Finland.’

So how did making ‘The Foundation’ come about?

‘When I was in LA for a small exhibition in 2012, a friend said I should visit the Tom of Finland foundation and check out the archive because I was making works about collectives and alternative living. I went because it seemed anachronistic that the foundation was in LA are not in Finland.’

Were you a fan of his work?
‘I knew it although it's not one of my references. I totally thought it would be a regular archive; white gloves, a receptionist, you need an appointment. Actually it was when I turned up that I realised it was this crazy three-storey house where you couldn’t tell who was living there and who was working there. This guy welcomed me at the gates and asked if I wanted some ice tea because “It's really hot.” I was given a tour of the house, and the kitchens and bedrooms were given as much importance as the archive. I was shown the dungeon with all its chains, slings and harnesses.’

Was that Tom’s dungeon?
‘It’s the house’s dungeon and the garden has shackles in it. The house has a urinal that when you piss in it, it runs out to a shower in the garden, which they had rigged up themselves. They were like: “The urinal isn’t working right now but we’ll fix it soon.”’

So did you have an idea of what you wanted to make?
‘It was only really once I began working away from the foundation that I began to understand what I wanted to get out of it. It’s a complete artwork in itself. I was interested in the history of Bob Miezer and Robert Mapplethorpe pushing to legitimise Tom’s work and how that relates to my practice and what responsibility I have to these historical materials. Also how the house started as a commune and at some point formalised itself into an organisation and what it entails when the commune members convert to employees. That was the stuff that got me hooked and got me really like: “Fuck I need to work with these guys somehow.” ‘

‘The Foundation’ might not be about Tom but it really emphasises a queer legacy; both his and more generally.
‘Tom was a very real person to the guys at the foundation, yet to me and to many others, Tom is just this spectre that is never quite there. That's where this intergenerational thing gets really complicated. Prior to the project I had been having conversations with older gay male artists who had been belabouring this idea: “Well you need to carry the torch, you have an obligation to our generation. Men of my age all died. You need to carry on the legacy.” Within the queer community we talk a lot about our chosen family with many people getting pushed out of the normal familial structures, we start to reconstitute things and establish a family that exists in its own way. So I have really been dealing with this and asking myself: “If I am a child of this older generation what responsibility do I have?”’

And do you feel responsible?
‘I've always really taken pride in the fact that my community is diverse, it’s sexually and gender diverse, there’s a range of sexualities, races and ages. Yet any community is dealing with how do we look after ourselves. Do we shut the gates and preserve what we have and protect ourselves from the outside world? And how do we remain open and how do we change? That seemed like a really underlying question at the foundation.’

So what did you want to achieve in the choreographed scenes with the actor?
‘The guy that I cast is totally familiar with the world of Tom of Finland, he's a real ‘top daddy’ type and he carries that in his body. I wanted to look at how the archive played out through gesture and the way that the body moves? How does that information and knowledge circulate through the materials in the archive, to the space itself and to the bodies that inhabit it? That sort of plays out through lots of different projects I've done but it comes most to a head in this work.’

How have people responded to ‘The Foundation’?
‘It really varies between who watches it, amongst my peers people respond to the gender politics. There are certain other ephemeral elements to the work that people have responded to a lot. The clouds at the end get a really mixed and strong response. I’ve been surprised and amazed by how complex a reading it gets. The guys at the foundation got the most poetic and questioning about.’

Why is collaborating so important?
‘Originally it was a reaction to leaving Goldsmiths and suddenly being out in the art world. It was about being rebellious. It’s a lot more acceptable now, but then it wasn't the thing to do; authorship was golden and agency was key. I think it was also a certain reaction to feeling as if I had to produce a commodity even though I've never really dealt with the commercial art world. The first serious video work I made was with fifteen other people and I would doggedly argue that the work existed as raw footage on everyone’s own hard drives; the edit I might show is just one edit of many others. Stuart Comer, when he was at Tate Modern, asked me: “How do expect an archive or museum to be able to contain this work if it's spread between fifteen different people?” and I thought, “Huh, that’s the institution’s problem.” I’m not going to tow the line in that way.’

Collective authorship factors in many of your works. You worked with Olivia Plender on ‘Life in the Woods’ that took you around the UK devising strategies for alternative living.
‘Olivia and I were both really interested in reinvigorating people’s interest in intentional communities and back to the land way of living particularly post financial crisis. This was combined with an interest in queerness and queer paganism and various environmental ideas: rambling, the implications of trespassing on land, what's the history of the commons and how does that affect how we see public space, new forms of activism and a queer identity that is constituted outside of cities. We spent a year travelling around the country meeting crazy people and different communities. It was trying to figure out how we live now, how our identity and subjectivity is constructed.’

There are multiple levels to you work. There’s the research, the active engagement, the performative aspect, the documentation. How much do you consider all of those things?
‘It’s really changed the longer I've worked and varies from project to project and with the group of people that I work with. I used to be interested in the set of conditions that led to the production of the work. Then I started to really feel the limitations of that. What originally felt pertinent and liberating – what really matters is what’s happening in this room right now and something will come out of it but let's not think about it – shifted. I guess now I want to do something a little bit more expansive.’

Is that why you work in a variety of formats including choreography and dance, because that allows elasticity?
‘I think I get most drawn to the mediums that you can inherently push the limits with. For me I get the most tension out of choreography and dance and a certain amount of film and video.’

You reference the choreographic work of Siobhan Davies and Rudolf Laban but there is also a feel of Yvonne Rainer?
‘Yes completely, I think of Yvonne pushing mattresses in her ‘Parts of Some Sextets’ in relation to the installation of ‘The Foundation’. Steve Paxton is also really big for me in how he developed contact improvisation and just let this choreography travel out into the world. It's viral and rhizomatic. That relates to how I approach workshop methodologies. Post-modern dance is totally important to me. I think choreographically although dancers I work with are like: “You don't know anything.” But then I'm like: “You guys know fuck all about art!” But then I’m a punk and an anarchist and I don't need to know anything.’

Malleability is a word that is used a lot in relation to your work
‘For me it’s powerful to make everything malleable and to keep massaging a set of conditions until you can reformulate them, which is not to say that is always easy. It all comes back to that question of strength, this current government asks nothing more than for us to be infinitely flexible, and so does inflexibility become more powerful? Or does inflexibility render you a non-citizen? How can you be flexible without being manipulated? I don’t really know I just keep poking at thee questions from multiple points.’

I wanted to ask about the quote on your website: Every cocksucker is well aware that he same man who out on his badge to arrest him probably gets his blowjobs at a different truck stop.
‘It’s a Patrick Califia quote, who is a queer writer. I suppose it’s a little petulant, an antiauthoritarian thing and a little bit of… [Staff finds it hard to put into words]. I still get people that want to be able to Google me and to get a very concise summing up of what I do blah, blah, blah. And there is still a part of me that is resistant to that.  I’m not a brand, my work is not instantly recognisable and there is a little bit of me that is: “Come and fucking deal with it. Come and talk to me. Turn up and be in the room.” The quote is a good way of dealing with the art world.’ 

© Freire Barnes

Originally published inAutumn/Winter 2015 issue of Bon