Full interview cited in the article “Politika: Art & Local Power in Manchester, UK”
INTERVIEWED ON 19 September 2014 BY Felicity Clarke
TRANSCRIBED ON 22 September 2014 BY Felicity Clarke
Ben Parry and Peter McNaughey are UK-based artists who work individually and together to explore the relation of art to urbanism and cultural hijack.
Felicity: Can you tell us a bit about the work you’re exhibiting here today at Politika?
Ben: It’s a project which we wanted to bring to focus some various statues across London by knitting balaclavas, bespoke balaclavas for various statues, but we wanted to engage the knitting community or others who were knitting normal wear, scarves, clothes, hats, to bring them into this work. So we did a call out to a series of, we can specify they were pensioners and they came into the exhibition space.
Peter: The kind of hallowed halls of the Architects Association in Bedford Square. It’s a very prestigious of architecture, private school of architecture who bizarrely invited us for the first time to work together on the show Culture Hijack. We were both curators of the show and then collated the book Culture Hijack which I continued. We then made a show based on that and they effectively hosted it. It’s a private school. Architects come from all over the world to come to it, and I couldn’t underscore enough how it is when you step through the doors of the building you are amongst the architecture elite across, certainly the Western world. We liked the idea of puncturing the kind of, the formality of that space and the protocols of that space by bringing in a number of aged knitters to knit balaclavas for statues which were nominated by them and by us and other members of the community.
Ben: And the one that’s on show here which is the largest one we did, a meter by a meter, this giant statue of Karl Marx’s head in Highgate Cemetary.
Peter: What you’re actually looking at is a one to one scale print, that’s exactly the size.
Ben: That’s how big the balaclava is. So it’s the notion around getting them involved in the knitting in a kind of cliched way how that generation of people who’ve retired and are no longer active let’s say on the front line of protest movements, but how an older generation could be active not just in the dialogue but be physically useful to the concepts of resistance, revolution, protest..
Peter: And celebration, because what we play with within the work that there are both heroes and villains in that nominated list, but they all get the same treatment. They basically all get crowned with balaclavas.
Felicity: Why a balaclava?
Peter: We have to take this back a wee bit historically, because now obviously a balaclava, the last 18 months we’ve had very right wing pro-Russian incursions into the Ukraine with balaclava-ed men. We’ve had beheadings of kind of.. We’ve had a whole set of associations, so we have to backtrack to a cuddly..
Ben: There have colourful alliterations like Pussy Riot. All the ones we did were black.
Peter: So I guess we thought balaclava is freedom fighter, terrorist, mugger, robber. You know it can be in Pussy Riot’s case former. It’s a kind of object that means different things to different people and we really liked the idea of problematizing civic statuary. There’s Winston Churchill chatting to your man downtown off Coin Square in London. Who is he in conversation with?
Ben: It’s Winston Churchill with Roosevelt.
Peter: You put a balaclava on them, to us they read in a particular way and the conversation they’re having is something contextualized in a particular way. Also, we chose Karl Marx. It’s off the record, but we chose Karl Marx as a great hero, but in a funny sort of way the balaclava functions in a way that makes the face less visible and more anonymous so ironically makes it focussed and brings it to life, so what was the one we did at the Houses of Parliament?
Ben: Emmeline Pankhurst
Peter: And when we did her everyone started looking at her and it was really brilliant to kind of her reclaim her as a bit of a folk hero and a bit edgy in terms of a sort of her acts of resistance. It was quite funny, but we were also slightly different by the ladies that we were working with, because they began to take more and more control of the project, and they really took ownership over it and ultimately we ended up with quite a list. We had the bespoke knitted balaclavas and we had a list of people to do and we had to go out and do it.
Felicity: How many did you do?
Ben: Near to twenty. It’s ongoing.
Peter: They completely outknitted us. By the time we were finished they kept adding their balaclavas onto the wall of the Architects Association. And the wall became almost invisible. They were so fast. So we would go out.
Ben: Those were knitted between, for example, a leader would knit that on the London Underground on the journey between North London and, you know they were knitting those in..
Peter: It was a type of doubling. Having them there in that space sort of punctured the space and then what they were doing in that space appeared to be kind of very benign and warm and welcoming, but when you looked at it close up you realised that it was actually quite subversive. But in addition, it was really a lovely byproduct of the work is that you get these conversations that begin to happen between these amazingly knowledgeable who carry all sorts of interesting experiences and history, and the young Turks of architecture who are populating that building, many of whom at degree show time and presentation time, running about at high levels of stress and anxiety and you know, there was a type of storytelling that went on that was really a ban upon all that situation.
Ben: The storytelling was part of the, because we set them up around the fireplace so they were in big armchairs and very genteel with china teacups by the fire and it was way of introducing the storytelling which then became a big thing for the students because they were then, they’d serve as agony aunts and the students would come and talk about their problems.
Peter: We are both I would say at the playful end of the spectrum of the work in Politika, so our practice, I’d have to say, it shares a degree of whimsy and a degree of playfulness and curiosity. On occasion like anybody else we have the capacity to raise ourselves to a more activist stance. When something makes you mad , you know I’m wearing my Yes independence vote, which is probably a whole other conversation, but it was really interesting in the Culture Hijack show, as the curators of that show we wanted to break together the hard end of activism and the softer end of the playful interventionist and the work with the balaclava kind of sits somewhere in between because of course it’s not really quite so funny when you begin to reflect on civic statuary, which we counted. How does somebody get to be a civic statue in London? What’s the power brokering behind that? Who gets to be on a plinth? Who gets to be a bronze on a horse? And mainly it unravels the machinations of power of most cities, and as you say Emmeline Pankhurst, our, what’s he called? The cordwinder your dad really likes? One of our very favourite statues in London is a really down to earth statue of a shoemaker..
Ben: .. sitting on a little stool, just making shoes.
Felicity: When was it made?
Peter: The cordwinder was in the 194Os probably. Again we’ll clarify tonight, under the influence of alcohol, we’ll not be beholden to any facts, but if you want to factcheck anything with us.
Felicity: I’ll take your email afterwards if that’s ok. But going back to the theme of the exhibition, what do you make of the programme they’ve put together? How did you get involved? Via Cultural Hijack?
Ben: Via Cultural Hijack. Upper Space were in that exhibition, and the idea of Cultural Hijack was that it wasn’t just a show but served as platform of coming together of likeminded people and ideas and we had a weekend conference, inteventions, at the kind of the end of the monthlong programme. Intending from that exhibition, build a network, a platform where some of these ideas could sprout some seeds. In a way I think this is part of that anticipated network.
Peter: It’s a really sister show. The curators here have different resource and shared resource, and it’s a lovely idea in this field that that kind of copyleft with regard to the sharing of materials.. We’ve just been discussing. There are artists in this show that were in Cultural Hijack and were just discussing the next show that we do goes to Prague we’re going to pinch some things from this show. There’s a lovely type of borrowing.
I think it’s one of the most bizarre things within the art world that the vitality and urgency that is contained within contemporary art could ever be copyrighted by individual artists or curators or others who seek to control the spread of ideas. That to me seems like absolutely antithetical to the core urges to make the work in the first place.
Ben: In this current moment…
Felicity: One more question and then I’ll let you take me over to see Jan, or I’ll go over and say you sent me. So the name of the exhibition is Politika and there are a lot of ideas about power and space and the possibilities for people taking back power. Obviously today and yesterday are very big days in British political history with the referendum you mentioned earlier. Following the result this morning, what are your hopes for this conversation and discussion and hopefully realization of the difference balances of power going forward from today?
Peter: The last thing you said was?
Felicity: The realization of different structures and balance of power within the UK.
Peter: I liked that you’ve picked that. I think that’s exactly it. The thing that’s so exciting and I’ve never lived through and coming from Northern Ireland, I lived through the Northern Irish peace agreement in 1998 and that was quite a thing to live through, but the intensity of the discussion in Scotland has been incredible. Generally I’d have to say it’s been quite a joyful process of politicisation of people, all across the spectrum and the thing that you just said there hit the nail on the head because it’s about the generation of all sorts of different models which are sometimes complementary, sometimes contradictory, sometimes hierarchically stacked so one would be a subset of the other and sometimes sister and brother.
The idea of all these differents sorts of processes coming to the fore at the same time is for me absolutely a radical idea of politics and I think that what we saw this morning that the scottish elections will lead to a revolution in politics in the UK. We’ll see more devolution and different models beginning to come through that and I’m really excited about the idea of rise zones and networks rather than hierarchies. So we had a classic family tree structure with a very tiny minority of very rich empowered people at the top ruling all our lives. Now we’ve got an idea of through organizations like yourselves, social media and digital oriented media who work in a different way and create all sorts of different possibilities.
And I’d like to say in relation to Cultural Hijack, which was the sister work which preceded this show, I think it’s the same here as well: we really wanted to bring together the whimsical together with the hardcore in terms of intervention to sort of say what can you learn from each other. Don’t dismiss the whimsical. Don’t dismiss the hardcore, because in the traditional art world, activism is seen to be passe and uninteresting. Political art. Likewise in the political art spectrum, the nuance of the art gallery and museum is passe and whimsical and uninteresting, and we think the missing link is to say you’ve a huge amount to share with each other. The tactics of the dandy have a huge amount to offer the people organizing and politicising their own communities. And that I think is an absolutely uncharted field and maybe that’s some of the territory you yourselves may try to map and connect.