Artist, John Akomfrah, in conversation with Skinder Hundal and Jenny Waldman

Artist, John Akomfrah, in conversation  with Skinder Hundal and Jenny Waldman


I welcome you to New Art Exchange for
this evening, which is a very special evening wherein we have John Akomfrah, and Jenny Waldman with
14-18 NOW and we’re here to talk about the film that we’re screening downstairs as an installation; ‘Mimesis: African Soldier’ which is part of the
14-18 NOW programme that commemorates 100 years of World War I. And so let me first start by introducing the panel. And the format of the evening is that Jenny Waldman will talk about 14-18 NOW as a programme give us some insights that lay out the context as to their involvement with the ‘Mimesis: African Soldier’ film downstairs but also the wider programme which was a significant programme engaging 25 million people over the four-year period from 2014 to 2018, so let me start by introducing
John Akomfrah. Now, he needs no introduction, actually, because he’s been
part of the family in this neck of the woods for many decades actually, and the last
time he screened ‘The Unfinished Conversation’; an incredible insight into Professor Stuart Hall with the three-screened installation in 2018, rather 2013, sorry, and that was in May 2013, and here we are six years forth. So John Akomfrah is a hugely respected artist and filmmaker whose works are
characterized by the investigations into memory, post-colonialism, temporality,
and often explore the experiences of migrant diasporas, globally. To quote The Guardian, “He has secured
a reputation as one of the UK’s most pioneering filmmakers whose poetic works have grappled with race, identity and post-colonial attitudes for over three decades. and post-colonial attitudes for over three decades. Please, big round for John. It’s always a delight to have John back, and bring some wisdom and poetics to the room. Alongside John is Jenny Waldman. Jenny Waldman is the director of 14-18 NOW, the UK’s first official World War Centenary programme, and was appointed to the role in 2013, and prior to that, she was the Creative Producer of London 2012 Festival for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. She’s also a board member of Barbican Center, and was the Director of Arts and Programming at Southbank Center; a Cultural Fellow of King’s College London, and both Jenny and John were awarded CBEs in honour of their work and commitment So I’m going to pass it over to the 14-18 NOW programme, to give us some insight into what it is and how it sits within the evening tonight. Okay, well thank you Skinder, and thanks for inviting me. So some of you will have had an opportunity to have a proper look at
John’s piece downstairs, this is just one still from it and here’s another it’s
the most extraordinary piece and I’m sure you will all have a great
opportunity to sit and look at the whole triptych for the length of it. It
formed part of 14-18 NOW which was a programme, as Skinder says, of arts
commissions looking at the centenary of the First World War. We were set up to be
the cultural program for the centenary; the first time our government has, in this
country, has ever thought of contemporary arts being part of a war commemoration
and we decided to go about it by working with arts organisations up and down
the country like the brilliant New Art Exchange, to commission artists John
and many others from both the UK and around the world who would be invited to
look afresh at the events of a war that some people may feel is quite distant,
it’s a hundred years ago, but still resonates very extraordinarily I think
in the world today and the impact of it really merits further exploration. One of
the things that that I did when I started in 2013 was a very quick Google
of how many countries were involved in the First World War and over 100 of
today’s countries in the world were involved directly in the First World War
and many others were involved through arms dealing, through finances and so on,
so it was genuinely the first global war and yet I think that many of us who are
either at school now or have been to school at any time in the last 50 years
are taught about it being a European war about the trench warfare and we get
taught it quite a lot in school both in primary and secondary school but an
awful lot of that history is hidden so one of the things that we did in 14-18
NOW is just look a little bit broader and invite some of the world’s best
artists including John to look themselves at the colonial aspects, at
the hidden histories of the First World War. I myself worked with a small team of
producers and curators; the curator on this project working with Skinder and
John was Tamsin Dillon who unfortunately can’t be here today but her expertise,
Skinder’s, and John and his team created the piece downstairs or helped nurture
John through creating the piece downstairs, and in addition to that I
hope some of you have seen Akram Khan’s ‘Xenos’: it’s continuing to tour, it’s
currently in Italy, it’ll come back to the UK.
It tells an extraordinarily powerful story of an Indian colonial soldier in
the First World War. William Kentridge’s piece, ‘The Head & the Load’ was his
exploration of Africa in the First World War and the colonial oppression
that led up to the First World War and continued throughout it and I think he
felt as well that it was a journey of exploration for him as a white South
African who had learnt history at university and again who just didn’t
know that story. Imran Qureshi, I think an artist that probably most of you are
well aware of, did the most beautiful piece– this is outside Bradford museums
but in addition to those very important pieces and many others, we invited
artists to look at other aspects of the First World War so this is Rachel
Whiteread’s very beautiful piece in Dalby forest that we commissioned with the
Forestry Commission, it’s called ‘Nissen Hut’ and it’s
a tribute of course to Peter Nissen, the colonel in 1916 who was asked to find a
quick way of creating weatherproof spaces for both for men and for goods
and created the Nissen Hut. These are some of our Dazzle Ship series.
This one is Peter Blake’s and Kiara Phillips’ with the Edinburgh Art Festival and
Tauba Auerbach’s in New York because the dazzle camouflage of the First World War
stretched over to New York and this is a piece that we did a series that we did
with Liverpool biennial and I hope that you’ve seen the Statue of Millicent
Fawcett in Parliament Square. We spread ourselves into looking at women’s roles
in the First World War and of course, finally the achievement of the ability to vote, but for some women, and the ability to stand for Parliament that was achieved
right at the end of the war in both February and then the right to stand for
Parliament in November of 2018 and that brings me on to another kind of
aspect of our work which was the large-scale participatory project. So
this is Artichoke’s procession in which we invited women and girls from around
the country to create extraordinary banners inspired by the suffrage
movement with the suffragettes and the suffragists and to walk in the colors of
the suffragettes in the four political capitals of our nations in London,
Edinburgh, Belfast, and Cardiff. And participatory in a different way, Jeremy
Deller’s piece that came to Leicester, I can’t now remember whether it came to
Nottingham as well, but definitely in Leicester. This was in about 96 different
places around the UK. Some 1,500 volunteers dressed in
authentic First World War uniform appearing unannounced on the 1st of July
2016 on the centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme. If you saw
any of them, they didn’t speak but they handed you a card and that card had the
name, rank, and regiment of a man who died on that very day a hundred years before. And another and final one that I’ll just sort of mention was Danny Boyle’s
beaches project that we did right at the end, having worked out how to do these
very large-scale pieces. We did this one on 32 beaches around the UK so with this,
with many projects in individual places, with projects right across the art
spectrum including the ‘Poppies’ tour, including Peter Jackson’s film ‘They
Shall Not Grow Old’, including very large-scale works that really kind of
resonated with participants but also on social media and media. We managed to
engage 35 million people in a real kind of reconsideration, I hope, of the First
World War and what that war did to both the individuals involved and also their
communities and diaspora and nations for the following hundred years. Thank you Jenny, for that insight into 14-18. Just a quick question before we go into the in-conversation here with John, how does something like such a major initiative come about? Who makes the decisions? It’s a bit random really, part of the challenge now is to really kind of embed the idea that contemporary artists should be at the
center of our national discourse so I think this particular program 14-18 NOW
came out, slightly bizarrely, came from the success of the London 2012 festival
which you’ll remember was another UK-wide much more celebratory festival,
really a sort of showcase of the arts in the UK and the success of that programme
in 2012 led the Government Department for Culture Media and Sport to think in
2013, when they were thinking about the First World War centenary, about whether
there should be an arts program and as I said before it had never happened before
so it was a pretty bold and brave step for them and the second really bold and
brave step was to create this program and then spin it off as completely
independent from government and that of course with our arms length principle in
this country is the kind of absolute essential so we were established and
then the Imperial War Museum offered to host us and they gave us amazing
research facilities for each of the artists to to work with their archive and
their historians but we were allowed to curate and work with arts organisations
on inviting artists to say in do whatever they wanted. And it was an incredible programme. Unimaginable scale, considering the artists you spoke about and the results and impact, and of course, the collective experience of the British public, to experience something from 100 years ago in the contemporary age. So hats off, for such an incredible programme. Congratulations. There are a few events still happening; Akram Khan’s dance is still touring so do engage with that. Of course we have ‘Mimesis: African Soldier’ and we have the artist. You have great pulling power because we’ve sold out here, and way beyond, we have a waiting list outside and a live broadcast, so wave to the cameras, and the world wide web. Well, John making a film like this
is definitely an epic journey and the subject matter it explores is often
washed away but apart from themes of lost history, although that’s an essential part of it, what guides you to create the content of the film? And what is it that you’re seeking? Thank you for inviting me by the way, and thank you all for coming. I’m going to try and think aloud about some of the implications of the work, because the reasons why you get into something are not always necessarily the ones you’re left with when you’re done. You end up in a very different place. It didn’t seem that way in the beginning but it became more and more important as we went on, for me to have this affective anchor of autobiography. Basically, my grandfather who was from the Gold Coast went to work in norther Nigeria, where he met and my grandma, and married, and had my mum and at some point she came to England, via a detour through Ghana. Now that’s a fairly basic west African tale; intermarriage between different tribes, but, in this instance the reasons why my grandpa moved here is intimately connected with the World War.
Because, he had taken a job which would normally be done by a white, European colonial officer, and the only reason is that was because there was a shortage and so in some very direct, causal way, I am here, because of the stupid war. And so at some point when one starts to make works it always is important to find the ways
in which you yourself are attached to it, and so I’m attached by reasons of birth, by reasons of history and that’s the animating device if you will. I mean, there’s a lot in that
film; it takes you on a journey and there is a lot, you know, when you watch it and
keep watching it and watch it again, there is there is lots to learn– what would you say was your biggest learning in making that film? When
you watch it again does anything surprise you,
did the process or anything surprise you? Yeah, I mean, you know these historical
and archival and research-laden project all crazy recirculating project always feel… well, let’s put it this way; they have a kind of three-act structure to them especially in terms of how they
feel to you, if you’re involved so I mean at the beginning, I always think we’re never gonna make sense of this. You’ve got 50 hours of
clips from all over the place none of it really amounts to more than an hour and
they’re all in different bits and you think this is never gonna work, so I’m always like that and at some point, you find a way of getting all
these fragments to believe that they can have a conversation and that’s usually
the second act that’s usually the beginning because everything all of us
bits of our kind, human beings, we all believe we’re unique… and fragments are very vocal, you know– “Oh I’m not talking to that first one, no I don’t talk to German footage, I’m an English piece of film!” And you have to find the device, it differs from project to project by which you persuade them to talk to each other I mean part of the reason why they, in
the end, agree is because I have to say to that material, “look listen” and there’s
something people always talk to me about hidden history then you have to ask them,
“since you exist as pieces of film with figures of color in it, how come you’ve been hidden?” And the reasons are fairly open you know, what they are when you understand it,
they’re not hidden because they’ve been literally locked;
there was something else standing where they would have been which basically
said to them, “okay I got this, I got this.” In other words, there’s a whole bunch of archival material from the war most of it is
frankly, white, because they were the majority, and the way whiteness functions in these spaces of authority
is to inadvertently exclude others by simply standing in the place of everything.
It just says, “I got this, I can do this.” So part of what you have to do is to get material
which is “hidden” to value and valourize its own legitimacy, its own authority. And it does that, not on its own, cause it doesn’t mean anything on its own, it can only work if it starts to talk other material and so, gently, I have to
say to each clip, “yes I know you don’t like that one but it would be great if you agreed to talk for just a moment.” So it’s a wager, if you can agree to talk, then I can talk to that guy over there who is also agreeing not to join you, to maybe…” So it’s basically a way of getting all of them to give you a kind of temporary contract
of civility; to just get them to talk to each other. Once they begin, they
start to enjoy and then you start enjoying, before you know it you have a piece. What an incredible term; a temporary contract of civility. They have to agree not to kill each other, quite literally. On the archive, let’s explore this a little bit, and then we’ll come to the process of making. On the archive, you represent a whole range of series or moments of history which is incredible, I mean you know, a hundred years of footage or footage from a hundred years ago and seeing it and
seeing how soldiers, because you talk about a particular prism that’s a very white perspective or a European perspective. Let’s expand on that, what did you discover and how did you get this archive, where is it from, because it seems to be scattered across various sources. The archive exists in the form that it does because of the team which is incredibly experienced. So whether it’s David Lawson or Lina Gopaul or Ashitey Akomfrah they just cast their net wide and in fact, most of the project is in the researching and we don’t… sometimes things are just there but what the simple reasons why they are hidden from you. There’s not much
point for instance, and this sounds obvious but, you know sometimes it takes a while to
deduce the obvious; there’s no point in going to the Library of Congress for
instance and saying, “show me what you have of Nigerians or Ghanaians.” These
are categories that didn’t exist, or “give us anything you might have on Ugandan armies.” they might have Bambara you know, or Hindu armies or Ibo, you don’t have Ugandan or Ghanaian. Initially you just dial down the ambitions and look for categories, groups,
identities, which have quite literally disappeared in the maelstrom of modernity, wiped off and resurrect those. And in the process of resurrecting them, they literally hail into being, bringing all these tentacles into the mix. And via that process, things begin to show up. They don’t necessarily show up all together so if you see any sequence in ‘African Soldier’ of archival material, nine out of ten, if it lasts for a minute,
it would have come from ten different sources. So nothing there comes from one
place, you have to literally piece things together, and that’s why the cordiality, this contract of civility is also because
when they arrive they don’t look the same; they’re different quality, etc. So you’re persuading people to share things who have very little in common, persuading people to share things and you have
to almost accept that these differences are not technical ones but differences of ontology, of being, because when something is coming from a German Museum, it has been imbued with a certain German way of doing things so it’s not just a piece of relic, it’s a
kind of embodiment of a certain way of seeing the world’s lens in it, framing
etc etc It has, for want of a better word, being, ontology and you’re trying to persuade these different being to to converse. Quick question: because the archive represents a particular view, a prism like you said, it might have a Germanic way of seeing history. But also historically, colonial empires had racial divisions in terms of how and whom they recruited, so for example among Indian soldiers, they looked to the Punjab or the Gurkhas, so in the archive this is a kind of labeling of the individuals. What can you tell us about this, what did
you find or observe that was interesting? Well, there’s a really
interesting library and one of the things they did is to record the voices of hundreds of men, usually prisoners, and the questions were basically simple. Who you are, Hindu etc; recite your alphabet; sing us your favorite
folk song; so on the surface there’s this polyphony of voices, different languages. But on the battlefield that make no difference, if you were a wog, you were a wog. And so these decorative differences where ones that we needed as a way of
excavating but they couldn’t be the animating features of the piece. It became evident really quickly, that whether you are Sikh or Muslim or Ibo it mattered in terms of the reception of the piece that you got. There’s a kind of poetic relation that
most of these figures from the colonial world had with this monolith called the
war machine and it’s a relation of disenchantment.
Disenchantment, it’s important to realize is the feeling one has after love. It’s the
feeling that comes when one starts to fall out of love with something. Both literally and metaphorically. Which means that these figures arrive in a state of love. They’re not naïve– “oh great, we’re going to die”– but they took the affinity with this place incredibly seriously. They took the affinity to the crown very seriously. Jenny was showing us a letter, a remarkable document [Jenny: that’s downstairs in the exhibition on the first floor] that substantiates this. So we have to take it seriously, because that’s where they arrive. For many of those communities, these were deals to be struck politically, whereby soldiers are sold dreams of equality: if you contribute to the Empire, you will be treated equally. You know, the First World War is really important for the nationalisms that will become such a major feature for people of colour in the 20th century because if you take for instance, Garvey– Garvey was the biggest pan-African leader, the pre-eminent pan-African
leader, from Jamaica moved to New York at the turn of the last century. The biggest battalion branches of the UNIA the United
Negro Improvement Association were all in New York. And if you look at the film, the biggest Italian black soldiers, of African origin seen in ‘Mimesis’ were marching in New York, they’re black Americans, essentially. Many of those men who came back from the war joined the UNIA because what follows the disenchantment– “okay I thought you loved
me but really you don’t, so I’m gonna walk off somewhere else”– what follows the disenchantment is the resolution to do something for yourself
so the call for autonomy which begins the rise of black nationalism, of pan-Africanism, is a direct consequence of the First World War. So it’s really important for that reason. And one of the reasons why it felt necessary to do it is just look at what might have
been the conditions of their decision, why people might’ve come back from war and said, I’m done with this. ‘Mimesis’ has a reflective melancholic pleasure of some sort, certainly a revisionist exploration of a history that isn’t spoken about regularly enough and you use a series of words that set the scene, in the beginning ‘disenchantment’ is one of
them, first word. Disillusion, distress, disgust, discouragement– these dis-sing
words cause anguish, regret for, anger and upset for others. When we uncover such histories through an artistis
prism how does this subjective reflection of such instances beyond the
facts share informal documentation, so in a
sense, you as an artist revising the history for the prism of a subjective
truth, how does that lure us into a new knowledge or dimension, that goes beyond
these kind of facts? Well I mean, that’s a really difficult question to answer, Skinder, but I’ll give it a go. I made a film once with an Italian historian called Carlo Ginzburg and Carlo and I worked
on a film called ‘The Cheese and the Worms’ which is about a 15 century peasant in the
Friulian mountains who was basically taken to Venice, and burnt at the stake by the Inquisition and Carlo’s book was in part the result of him going into the
library of the Vatican and the Doge’s library in Venice, finding the
court records, the Inquisition records and as he uncovered them, he realized what he was in fact stumbling upon, was the
voice of this man, Menocchio, a nobody peasant, but what he had to say was
really important, because he became a kind of gateway for Karlo, and for
understanding how he made a transition in Europe but across the planet I
suppose, from a sort of agnostic pagan world into the Christian world.
And Menocchio basically said he didn’t believe; this is why he was tried and
sentenced, he didn’t believe there was God; we emerged spontaneously from
putrefaction, like worms from cheese which is why the book is called that. And I asked him at the end, why he was doing this, and he said we have an obligation to the dead. And it’s not a pious obligation this obligation that involves recognizing the extent to which they animate things in our present, you know, and make sense of things in our present. So I’m not interested in the First World
War just because it’s something in the past. I think there are connections with the present worth exploring. And you can sense that’s happening when the Wagnerian project marrying with the archive, other elements begin to suggest that you might be on the road, you know. At some
point as I said that there is this feeling then that you’re never going to arrive
in the space of recognition or a space of certainty but at some point– and
there are different reasons why they are happening for different projects- at some point you
always make the transition to the second act, where you feel welcomed not
embraced, just welcomed into the fold by the material and at that point the
conversation becomes really interesting because I can’t win every battle. I
go into these projects and there are things I want to do, the things I want the material to
do but there’s a kind of willfulness that stops things happening. Very basic things– look, there’s a shot of guys marching and it lasts 12 seconds. And I need 15. I can slow it down but then you can see my hand, so there are battles I can win and ones I can’t, so then you have to make this pact, with that material, to explore an alternative, which is both satisfactory to you and it. And that’s also why I talk about ontologies because this willfulness is built into the material. They don’t say at some point, “oh well, actually you want 15, don’t you, I’ll give you 15.” No. This is their DNA. Sounds as if it’s living material. It is. That’s what I’m saying. There’s a lot of philosophical foundation to all this. Do you ever think, how the devil am I going to condense all this information, and make this film? When does that moment arrive? You talk about material that has this dialogue with you and there’s a lot of material, you’ve got 73-odd minutes downstairs, You’ve gone through a treacherous amount. I mean yes, there’s about 20% there. It’s not true there is a shortage, there is of course relative shortage, but at any point, the multi-screen projects have a
voracious-ness. So one feels compelled to feed them, as much as possible. And then at some point you have to start pulling it back. I know you don’t want a 3 hour film, you would’ve killed me. Well it’s 73 minutes multiplied by 3. Which brings me onto the aesthetic signature here, around the three-pronged approach, the triptych film. What does that give you as a filmmaker as an artist that’s additional to the single screen? I mean there’s a sort of, what we call the Aristotelian certainty about the single screen A single screen, yeah, it’s got to be in because A goes to B and B goes to C, there’s a ‘story’ Many of us who turned to multi-screen work, have doubts about this Aristotelian narcissism. I want to work more now with projects in which the humility of my approach in the beginning is mirrored by the form and so
I want projects in which different elements talk to each other and make wagers and gambles, make pleas for space and time because that’s the essence of
the demos, that’s the essence of the right thing to do when you are in the other
walks of life, that’s the right thing to do listen to others; be kind, be
considerate and so on. Well,part of the structure of the multi-screen work is trying to find a form in which disparate elements can coexist, can have conversation, however elliptical, however discordant
and however unruly. They’ve agreed to sit together in some forced unity for
a bit and that’s a good thing, it suggests multiplicity, it suggests the
hybrid, it suggests in different vantage points of view by which the real could be approached, because the real isn’t much when it’s a simple thing. Just in its simplicity, watching a three-split screen is three factorial in that moment in time so that’s what the experience there’s prisms of interpretation, the
stratification of maths it goes deep of course because there’s layers of emotion
watching the screen downstairs as you preparing today and making sure that
everything’s ticking in the right order. Looking at the screen’s magnificence of color and width and breadth that it gives you as an audience member. And how you can observe the emotion very
singularly and on a multiple level, I think what intrigues me is the process of making such a film. Without
getting into the trade secrets, John, how you go about it, just maybe share some insights into
your process of making such an extraordinary film, what it takes from you,
what state of mind do you have to get into to take on such a big subject, who’s in the team, how
do you select locations etc You have several actors featuring. How do they get involved? Costumes, and I’ve got to ask, where that dead horse comes. All these things intrigue me on a pragmatic level, as much the philosophical foundation. They all start from from that ‘philosophical thing’ an almost slavish attachment to the modernist project and in this case a kind of cubist version of that, specifically what that means practically… for instance I know that we need we need these conduits through
which the past can pass through into the present beyond the archive, they are like spirit mediums that need these intermediaries. So I knew that we needed figures but I I don’t want them to speak
because then they take the place of the past which is not the game, the
game is to literally be possessed and go into some kind of trance in which the
past comes into being so the most difficult bit, which is the bit I have with pretty
much everything, is persuading them that they could do less
and more at the same time, you really don’t need to speak. You try saying that to actors! They believe they’re only alive when they speak! So it’s a wager; partly what that involves
is being committed to theatrical principles, the work of Grotowski, physical theatre, essentially, so you get them with all that, and they’re like, wtf do we do with all of this? We’re actors! I then have to essentially hand over quite a bit of what they do
to them, okay you tell me how you come to me, and then I’ll just tell you whether it’s right or wrong and bit by bit that’s how we arrive, so we arrive together in the same space and I
have some ideas obviously about how they I have ideas about how they should move in it but not more than that. And we basically devise the sequence together. And who designs the costume design, and you have a costume designer and the team researches?
Yeah I mean almost all the pieces which have a sort of
‘period feel’ were designed by our main costume
designer who is Jackie Vernon so Jackie Vernon is a costume designer we work with, to do the research, obviously and throw options and we decide I mean this
was made a little bit more complicated in the sense if I wanted a sort of
United States of Africa army, I wanted people come from all over you know and
we weren’t particularly bothered about whether they’re German, I just need all
the great armies that you know trying to put it you know so when you look at them
the group, in this group there’s an American Canadian and a Brit. And because I know they were there, we hadn’t made it up, it’s not a fiction, there were African soldiers in these armies. Other elements of the film which were super intriguing were sounds and songs you used And the final song was so piercing, African female voice, how is that selected, it sounds like an epic, I’m sure there’s an album here. Well David is the musicologist who did the research, I mean David Lawson, one of the producers, researched this for about a year. And I got presented with hundreds of tracks, and I do the same thing with them as I do the archival material, just literally ask them to not be overly narcissistic, to
agree to this contract of civility, so if they’re agreeing to be friends, none of them are what you hear. They’ve been broken up rearranged, sometimes repeated, put in
places don’t exist, you know and that’s what I mean by the contracts, if they
start saying, “oh well this is shocking, outrageous, I’m not doing this,” then they’re out. Adaptability. And flexibility. I’m really interested in folk forms, now for some reason, I’m not completely sure why, but I think it has something to do with
time and timelessness and the proximity of that material to periods that I’m interested in. So for instance, the woman singing at the end is inadvertently one of these conduits
because it’s a folk form which means I’m listening to the voice that a Senegalese
soldier would have heard. It’s that simple. There’s a way in which they they they
create these weird portals, rips in the fabric of time by making connections
that I hope just you know it’s like this weird thing you know you’re trying
different voices– which is what led me to the voices I was telling you about from
the library– try to make just… it felt like a documentary and by that I mean it
felt like a recreation of the class we constructed upon you and that’s not we’re not trying to take the place of the archive, so the present
fragments exist because I need a way of initiating with conversation
between the present and the past so the present material is almost entirely
there to be possessed by the past. That’s why it’s not there to replace the past. Every time you heard a voice, you thought, hm not quite right. Basically anything that tries to turn the archival material in
this particular instance the official ‘footage’ into illustration or
supplement, it felt wrong, it felt not the right way to go. Because it’s a commemorative piece, I didn’t want to do what I normally don’t like the archive to do, which is for it to say “I’m the only thing that can speak” It isn’t because most of the time it’s not saying something you can understand. Most of the time it talks crap. Part of the bending to some of the demands of the present, involves me agreeing and accepting that I’m not going to stand there and say that the only way you’ll understand is if you look at the stuff I shot or; that’s not the point. Hence a kind of subjective prism. Offering a particular angle. And that has a value, talking of, let me ask 14-18 NOW. As a team, what did you observe? What did you learn from your audience and as a consequence of this incredible epic? Well I think every time I see the film
or listen to John talking about it I just learn more and I think to distill that because obviously you learn a lot about how an
artist works and how an artist kind of perceives the world and looks at the
past but I think that one of the things that listening to John now has just
reminded me is that what contemporary artists do is they can look both to the
past the present in the future, and actually John’s and I think artists
mostly are talking to an audience today and looking ahead;
that’s what contemporary art does, it helps us try to imagine a future,
helps us try and understand where we are in this world, but using the past,
using archive, using heritage, using history to do that actually gives
us a threeway perspective into past present and future and I think where we
grapple with… there was one point where I was thinking about the 2018
programme just after the referendum and thinking everything I see on the front
page of my newspaper has an absolute root in the First World War.
If you think about nationalism in the UK and even as you go back to Ireland and
the partition of Ireland and the First World War if you think about what’s
happening in the Middle East now that you know it’s absolutely about the First
World War that was going on for centuries before of course but
1917 was a crucial moment and that it’s very live today if you look at the
Balkans if you look at huge areas of the world but also women’s rights and
the metoo movement all of these things you can look back and by looking back
through the perceptions and intellectual ability of artists to
look in both of those directions you learn something new and what happens as
you learn it is at an emotional level as well as at an intellectual level so by
watching the film, while you’re watching the film you’re drawn into it you understand
more and then it also makes you think wow there’s a whole load of stuff I
don’t know I’m gonna go and find out more about this as well. So by grabbing
people through the arts we’re actually leading people to both appreciate
contemporary arts but also to look at their own heritage, their family, and
community’s heritage but also you know the world’s history and why the history
of the world is so pertinent today. The question for both of you then, and thank you for that, really brilliant response, about what 14-18 NOW wanted to and did achieve… we live in interesting times, difficult decisions to be made, shouting at each other in parliament, we have a populist Prime Minister with a privileged education
you see as your respective roles going What do you see as your respective roles, as art producers, as artists in the times
we’re in? Such an open question, guess what I’m homing in on is the point we talked about: the past present and future. Let’s start with John. Again, complicated. One of the things I learnt very early on in the Brexit debate was
that I’m living through it a moment when it’s clear that people have no problem with goods– they can come from anywhere Germany, cars, tomatoes, the more the merry bring from all over the world. What we
have a problem with is, people. We don’t want them to come from anywhere so there’s a very simple humanist project at the heart of and should be at the heart of all our practice. Just persuading people that people matter. Cars do too but people matter. I think the value is slightly skewed at the moment, you really feel it. A big part of the discussion was about borders, borders are for goods, but really are about people. We don’t have a problem with goods. Strange, a very bizarre moment. But I like what you said, people matter. Jenny, you reflections on your role? Well I think two reflections one–one on
history and one on art so if you go downstairs one floor to the beautiful
exhibition you’ll see in 52 images of the First World War a letter that I
think is written by a Muslim soldier to the king and it’s a plea to the king to
get involved because the language and discourse in the magazines at the time
was being too anti-Muslim and there were cartoons and comments that were
upsetting the Muslim community in the UK in 1916 and I stood there reading this
and thought well that could have been written last night because I don’t know
if anything’s changed much so that’s one reflection of why history matters so
much; to contextualizes what’s happening today but I think a more
positive reflection is that what artists, and John just has completely explained
this, what artists can do is they can be they can be a humanist project in
themselves, they can open up questions so, one of the things that I hope that we
were able to achieve with 14-18 NOW was that we removed the idea that there was
a narrative to be told about the First World War and instead we
brought in multiple narratives and we opened up a whole load of questions many
of which people knew about and others of which people had no idea about, myself
included, and all of those were asked, those questions were asked and areas were explored with humility and with courage and it enabled people to connect with
each other I think with other people. This notion about where we were in the
beginning of 2014 you might remember a lot of historians were writing books
about “maybe we should just come out and say we won the war and that’s a good
thing and the generals were right” and this notion there had to be a new
revisionist idea about history there you know “enough of all of this, 1965
lions led by donkeys, no we’re going to we’re going to tell the story a
different way” and all of that disappeared and the reason that it
disappeared was that brilliant artists like John said that’s actually not of
interest to anyone, what’s of interest to people is what happened to people, what
happened to people all over the world and let’s just have a look at a few
things and John’s film doesn’t tell us what to think ever no artist would
ever want to tell people what to think they just want people to start thinking
and that’s what they can do for us. Beyond the cars, something else matters which is weirdly connected to people. Environments do to, but not in the way we think about it. The Congo produces probably about a quarter of the oxygen in the world and we want the air, the oxygen but not the Congolese. Environments can be fluid, and we’re quite happy for them to be give people lectures about how the rainforest and the Amazon should be preserved, but that’s not because we want Brazilians to
come here. Part of what we have to do is to offer that
mixed economy in which the interchange interrelatedness of things, art and its
attendant practices needs to force us all the time to enter into the forest of
things and in that forest, things and objects, and people, mingle, like the kind of Breughel-like canvas, and we have to keep trying to do that. And the thing about a space like New Art Exchange based in the environment of Hyson Green, a contemporary art space that’s working internationally but has a very local feel that’s increasing in this focus, with community engagement. What do you think a space like New Art Exchange needs to be going forward? I think this is the heart of the Brexit project. Things need to have local dimension but if they stay purely local and they’re not cognizant not receptive not porous enough to take things from
elsewhere then they remain sort of nowhere, even to the people here I mean
it’s great when you go anywhere on the planet and you take your work to them, and they’re great to you, really great somehow you being there
valourizing them no I mean because this is better for it away you

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