Moon Child

Mark Leckey interviewed by Jennifer Thatcher

Jennifer Thatcher: Your latest video, Dream English Kid 1964 - 1999 AD, premiered at the BFI London Film Festival in October and was also showing at Cabinet Gallery. Can you tell me about the title? It’s a change from the one you gave an earlier trailer, n Pleasure Bent. I am also interested in the specific dates – will there be a sequel?

Mark Leckey: Dream English Kid comes from a children’s programme on YouTube that I was watching with my daughter April, and it’s called something like Dream English. You know in the 1990s when you used to get those Japanese translations of English phrases that were slightly off? It puts a bit of distance. It is my dream, but it’s not. The syntax isn’t right and that is the same analogy as the video. And the dates? 1964 is when I was born and there are a couple of reasons to end it in 1999. One, it’s the end of the millennium. There was a very particular type of pop culture that existed between the postwar period and the end of the 20th century. And then, things changed for me personally after 1999. That was when I started making art. I made Fiorrucci Makes Me Hardcore in 1999. In a way, the new video is like the non-dancing bit of Fiorrucci: it is everything else that was going on at that time. And also, on another level, it just gets too close then to be able to untangle whatever was going on for me in the early 2000s. I don’t know how to depict marriage and kids. I kind of want to but I don’t know how to do that. That’s the in-family joke: that I’ll make something about April and my wife Lizzie and me.

JT: And why did you include the ‘AD’?

ML: To make it feel more archaeological – it is an artefact.

JT: The video is bookended by images of the moon, which is one of several motifs that appear throughout.

ML: I was born in June, so I’m Cancer, a moon child. I was also born in the moon age, the Space Age. And the other thing is, I wanted the shots of the moon to be from the periods that they depict in the video. So the first moon you see is from 1966, shot on film, and at the end there is a VHS moon, and then at the very end there is an ASCII moon. They all have a different texture because of what they were recorded on. So, it is not just the moon, it is the recorded moon.

JT: Your use of a countdown at the end gives the work an apocalyptic feel. In retrospect, it is amazing the fear that we were made to feel in anticipation of the Y2K bug.

ML: It is all about fear, that video – fear being fed to you. I’m resentful about the kind of trauma that as a kid you suffered because of the fear of nuclear war. TV programmes like Threads or The War Game: in depicting nightmarish scenarios, they gave you nightmares. And I don’t know if they were entirely justified. So it is something about that apocalyptic bent that gets amplified by media.

JT: It is a very dark film, considering that it is autobiographical – there is not much let-up. There is a scene with a boy kicking leaves that seems more light-hearted.

ML: Well, that’s a clip from a film about autism. He’s autistic.

JT: There is also a striking animation sequence about an autistic boy.

ML: Taken from a 1950s study of an autistic boy by the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, who wrote a lot about autism and is now maligned because he came up with this theory of the ‘refrigerator mother’ – the idea that autism is caused by a cold, indifferent mother. Anyway, he studied this boy he called ‘Joey the Mechanical Boy’ who believed he was a machine and that he had to surround himself with automative devices to keep himself alive. I was fascinated by that, and by the idea of the boy as a kind of cyborg. That’s the thinking approach. The non-thinking approach is that everybody is on the autistic spectrum in some way. There was a theory that it was to do with an ‘extreme male brain’ – it’s a very masculine tendency to pattern and to order.

JT: Is that something you recognise in yourself?

ML: Yes. Throughout the video, apart from the moon, there are a lot of grids, these patterns that are the way that images are produced through pixels and line scans. A trait of autism is to be obsessed by patterns to the detriment of everything else because essentially it is about an inability to deal with oversensorial input. So you focus on something particular to cancel out the noise. It leads to obsessive, narrow interests – such that I have. That marries up with the fetishism aspect that I have as well. So when you get that cross detail of a pair of fishnet tights in the video, that to me represents a cross between autism and fetishism. Those traits I find are amplified by technology. I might not have those traits inherently but they seem to be a kind of underlying structure to technology. Does that make sense?

JT: On a basic level, that this technology is created by people with autistic traits?

ML: That’s my theory: that a lot of people on the spectrum write the code that then creates the algorithms that we learn by. So we are inadvertently absorbing autistic behaviours. There is a lot of thinking about autism now that the condition is not about being closed off from the world but rather about inhabiting the world in a different way, and that’s fascinating.

JT: In the video, there is an unsettling sequence set in a small, windowless room. Does that part represent a particular episode in London?

ML: That is to do with when I was squatting and taking a lot of drugs. All the way through the film there are these kinds of hermetic spaces or cells. I think that is a feedback reflection: that’s where I am when I am making this thing. In editing the video, it is just me and the computer. I go into my hutch.

JT: Another trope that comes up is the empty highway and the flyover.

ML: The whole film started off as an attempt to try to assemble my memoirs from all this stuff out in the world. So I started by trying to find for each period an instance that had lingered or even festered. That’s basically the motive to doing it: things that have been playing in my head, to manifest them in some way, to be able to look at them and see what they are. As if that could somehow transform them. But it can’t.

When I was a kid, about eight, we used to sit under the flyover and eat sweets and be a bit naughty. At one point, sitting under this flyover, I thought I saw a pixie. And I had this very vivid memory of a pixie underneath this bridge until I was about 19 and I had to go back and do English O Level. And I wrote a story about seeing this pixie and I realised as I was writing the story that up until that point I had believed it. But as I wrote it, it kind of fell apart; it became unbelievable.

Anyway, there was no way to introduce a pixie into the film. I couldn’t get it to sit right. But it did end up as a bridge, literally. And the bridge goes through transformations. It’s quite a crude narrative device: it starts off in the 1960s as this white heat of technology, this kind of clean, Brutalist concrete bridge, then it gets graffitied in the 1970s and becomes this recognisable dystopic image. In the 1980s, it is subjected to nuclear attack. And then in the 1990s it is repainted in this New Labour graphic design. I remember, in the 1990s, that through Britpop and young graphic design companies, Britain sort of rebranded itself. It’s that rebranded bridge of the 1990s.

JT: I was thinking of you in relation to Mark Fisher’s autobiographical book Ghosts of My Life. He has some interesting ideas about nostalgia, influenced by Jacques Derrida. For him, we are undergoing a formal nostalgia so that today’s pop culture references the past in terms of style but not substance. He thinks nothing has been as interesting culturally since that period from the 1960s to the 1990s.

ML: No, I don’t agree. There is a shift away from that drive towards authenticity, which I think that period was about. Now we’re in a period of understanding inauthenticity. That’s partly what the new video is about. They’re not authentic memories in the film. In order to get to something, you can’t approach it as if it is an authentic thing. You have to approach it through a cloak of inauthenticity. You have to enhance the artifice in order to generate a sensation that feels in some way genuine. For the period that we are talking about, the greatest artist would be someone like Patti Smith. Now, I don’t think Smith is authentic; I think it is still showbusiness, and she has a persona, it’s a kind of drag. But today we are fully mediated beings and we understand the world in a much more complex and unreal way. And I think that makes this period really interesting – we are in a whole different matrix.

JT: You were saying you have a knack for finding images.

ML: Well, I do have a knack. In music they call it crate-digging. I used to run a clothes shop. I used to go to charity shops. So I have that kind of knack – for shopping. I’m a good shopper and it’s the same thing. I think everyone can do it now. It used to be a preserve of the artist; artists used to have collections and objets trouvés. I only began to make art because I got access to editing. Before that, I went to art school. I tried to paint, I tried to sculpt – I couldn’t. It was only when I used video that I could make things.

JT: Were you ever tempted to look for actual images of yourself to use?

ML: I always look for myself on the internet, that’s all I ever do. I love Googling myself.

JT: You didn’t want to use those images?

ML: There is nothing that goes back to that period. The idea of the video was to have all these surrogates that could take my place. I mean, I look like that kid dancing. There are other lookalikes within the video that stand in for me. There is a bit with the band Joy Division but it is taken from the 2007 film Control – everything is a substitute.

JT: I don’t think we have yet grasped the extent to which new technology has affected our memories and the way we think. Your work spans both pre- and post-internet time periods. How do you think the idea of ‘self’ is changing today? I was reading a book by Jeremy Rifkin called the Age of Access in which he argues that access to services has overtaken ownership. In it, he talks about the postmodern self as one that constantly edits and updates itself, which he contrasts with the 19th-century idea of man as an island, unchanging.

ML: It is easier to say than to experience.

JT: You could say it manifests itself in the pressure we feel to better ourselves, whether through exercise or eating better, or improving our minds or by changing jobs.

ML: Let’s come at it another way. There was an idea at the beginning of Postmodernism that this self was fragmented and mutable, that you could be somehow disinterested in that self and analyse it or understand it critically. What I’m trying to do is find a way to feel more involved or within something, rather than trying to step back.

JT: Your work seems to be about experiencing the things that you are thinking about. So, for the performance of Mark Leckey in the Long Tail at the ICA in 2009, you did actually wear a long tail (Reviews AM324). You go right into the metaphor and inhabit it.

ML: Yes, it’s that. But I don’t know who I am as I do that. I can only understand myself as a series of impulses or drives or desires. I make work to understand those drives. That is how it starts out but it never gets resolved.

JT: Going back to in the Long Tail, what made you borrow that idea, which is essentially an economic theory about the internet. The author, Chris Anderson, had been at the ICA to talk about his book The Long Tail when it was first published in 2006.

ML: His theory has now been discounted, smashed to pieces by Amazon and Google and all the rest of it.

JT: His was a utopian idea that favoured niches over conventional mass markets. Was that what you were attracted to at the time?

ML: For me at the time – and still now – the internet felt wholly magical and I was trying to understand the material reality that was generating that magic, but also wanting to go with the magic as well. And what interested me about the idea of The Long Tail is that there was a sexual dimension to it. What the internet does is use pornography as an engine. This ‘long tail’ idea was about catering to niches, and then producing niches within those niches – perversions and peccadillos. Any whim could be not just met but amplified and extended. That was what I liked about the long tail thing: this weird economy of perversion.

JT: You use the term ‘bachelors’ a lot in relation to your work, with its Duchampian reference.

ML: Yes. You know I’m married, and I have to negotiate my marriage and my desire to enclose myself in Leckeyness, and to be in that bubble. I think always the thing with art is: what is the ignition for anything? Because the ultimate artwork for me is something like a perpetual motion machine: you just set it up and it runs on its own and takes you with it. It is the mechanical element: that somehow Marcel Duchamp’s bachelor machine is just feeding itself and repeating over and over again the same actions – but also that it grinds its own chocolate and is productive. And you can get really locked into that, but it comes with all sorts of problems and is essentially unhealthy. It is like the thing you were talking about before with the self that I couldn’t answer. All you’ve got is your pathologies. All you can do is uncover your pathologies and make them productive rather than debilitating.

JT: Can you tell me about 2010’s GreenScreenRefridgeratorAction as an example of how you deal with our relationship to machines – the beauty of machinery, but also how we exploit machines and are exploited by them?

ML: It is back to that sensation of things appearing magical – like your phone. I remember one of the first experiences I had like that: Lizzie was in a wood in Sri Lanka and I was in Epping Forest. Now this seems mundane but we were in these geologically riven places and we were having this conversation. And that was astounding. Just to think of the satellites that were in place making that happen. But at the same time it was impossible not to think of it as magic, which brings a whole other set of questions.

JT: A kind of spiritual dimension?

ML: On one side there is that, yes, but on the other side there is the idea that it is a completely cynical exercise in what they call ‘black boxing’. Everything is hidden, obscured, and that is what produces this magical effect. I’m between the two poles. The gallery is a very awkward space to ask these questions – a 19th-century environment in which you are trying to place these questions of dematerialisation and image production. But the gallery is a place where things can happen in a ritualistic way. You can make objects that people can gather around. So the GreenScreenRefridgeratorAction was a ritual because it begins with a performance when I’m in the green screen with the fridge, and I’m puffing this coolant that is running through the fridge’s system because it gets you high a little bit. I had read about shamans in South America: if they want to take sap from a plant, they don’t just snap the tree and extract the sap, they mimic the plant, they dress like the plant and they rub themselves in oils and then they sing to the plant in order for the plant to give up its essence. And that magical aspect of technology throws you back to those more aboriginal rituals or animistic ways of thinking. That was what it was about: to be like the fridge.

JT: Did it work in the moment?

ML: Yes. It was exciting. I recently read someone defining ecstasy: to be beside yourself and at the same time to look at yourself and experience yourself taking pleasure. There was a moment of ecstasy with the fridge.

JT: I want to ask about your interest in galleries and display in relation to the Hayward touring show that you curated in 2013, ‘The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things’ (Reviews AM370). I saw the version at the De La Warr Pavilion and my daughter thought we were in a shop. She really wanted to touch the objects, they looked so tempting. You know: gallery, no touch; shop, touch.

ML: I have never heard anyone say that but I like that idea. That is more my experience of display than it is in museums. I think that was what was so wrong with that show, that you couldn’t touch it. The objects were all on loan from museums and galleries, and I couldn’t touch them either. For example, there was a Richard Hamilton computer and that was just ridiculous – I wasn’t allowed near it. I found that really frustrating. It led to me making copies of those things so that I could not only touch them but now they are mine. They are fetishistic objects and, as with any fetishistic object, the drive is to be able to touch and stroke and fondle.

JT: Are you interested in the new theories about object-oriented ontology?

ML: I don’t understand them. When I made the fridge, I did read some of that stuff. But what I was more interested in was magic and animism and autism. This was my problem with college because to understand object-oriented ontology you need to have read Immanuel Kant. I went to art school, I didn’t do philosophy. I still think it is a crazy idea that art students should try to make work and at the same time understand philosophy at that depth.

JT: Tell me about your blow-up Felix the Cat at Frieze London – do you see him as your avatar?

ML: Exactly, he’s an avatar. To be honest, at Frieze, Galerie Buchholz asked, ‘Can we show the cat?’, and I was so surprised that I said yes. Usually Buchholz is quite tasteful and discreet. And then when I first got in there, I was like, ‘oh shit’. I immediately thought of people going, ‘this is how dumb Frieze is – it’s just a giant, blow-up cat’. And then I also thought, it’s an Instagram. I was a little bit embarrassed. But it is like having your avatar there representing you in the hope that people take an interest in what you do. I have a fascination with Felix because, as well as being my avatar, he is an avatar of the electronic image. I saw some references to him and people were filling in that history that he was the first image ever broadcast – that’s enough, I was satisfied.

JT: He is just an inflatable?

ML: Yes, it is like literally you are inflating something out of its own scale. Also, that is how he looms for me as a figure. I have this line that sounds a bit too clever but he is as real to me as God and John Lennon.

Mark Leckey’s Dream English Kid 1964 - 1999 AD was at Cabinet, London 16 October to 28 November 2015. He will collaborated with Richard Prince at The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh 26 March to 26 April 2016 and will be participating in the Liverpool Biennial, 9 July to 16 October 2016.

Jennifer Thatcher is a freelance critic and lecturer.

First published in Art Monthly 392: Dec-Jan 15-16.

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