Bruce Asbestos began life as Bruce Ayling, and formed half of Ayling & Conroy with Hannah Conroy. His own artwork spans figurative painting, performance and experiments with social media, while his involvement in curating includes MyHouse Gallery, the early days of the MOOT collective and, since 2008, Trade Gallery, based at One Thoresby Street.
The subject of this issue of NVA is ‘internets’, which I’m taking to mean many different kinds of network and digital media, and it does seem aspects of your work have always had an interest in the ideas the internet raises, going back to the days of your Ayling & Conroy collaborations with Hannah Conroy.
With Ayling & Conroy, both Hannah and I were obsessed with making work designed to be reproduced and photographed. When a Chinese magazine finally took one of these images and reproduced it we felt the completion of that work was the moment it was published rather than the moment it was finished in the sense of being made. I suppose that interest does carry over to the internet because the path of those works wasn’t to exist as physical paintings – though they did exist as physical paintings – but to find their way to various forms of reproduction and it was those kinds of ideas we were trying to work through. But it goes back further than that. I’ve had a project this year where I’m tweeting lines from the slightly mundane journals I kept as a teenager, thePizza Years Diaries, and I find notes there planning future online domains. Also, on my foundation course, I built a website and I remember thinking it was something quite big because having your own website was quite an unusual thing at that point.
What year would that have been?
This was around 1998 or 1999.
Yes, that would have been ahead of the curve of most home internet access. I think a few people I knew were just starting to get 56k dial-up home connections at that point.
Yeah, it was all on dial-up. Just saying ‘dial-up’ now makes me feel a hundred years old!
What were you using the internet for at that stage?
I don’t know. I think it was expected that at foundation level that you’d try everything, on that Bauhaus model. You’d work in painting, you’d work in fashion, you’d do design and photography and sculpture, and the internet was just another option. When I’m making work now, I enjoy that freedom to move between different mediums and approaches. And there was definitely something appealing in the idea that you could work on something and then put it out there right away, so that was probably a factor.
Fast forwarding a bit, that has to be relevant to the way teenagers and early twenty-somethings are using platforms like Tumblr, putting stuff up there that is often very raw, the kind of diary work you might have done in an earlier time without showing it to anyone. Perhaps that speed is also a closing of the gap between artist and audience?
Yes, it’s an interesting area. I’ve been looking at people like Steve Roggenbuck and Daniel Alexander, who’s a mate of his, and how they’ve progressed just by making all the time, constantly posting new work, and taking their audience along with them through all the mistakes and wrong turns. There isn’t that ‘Beatles moment’ where the artists go off to Hamburg, then return fully formed. They make all their mistakes in public and the more they produce, the more mistakes they make, the closer the audience feels to the work. The whole path of development is completely public.
In your own case, you’ve said you think of the range of things you do as parts of something that’s less like a body of work in a traditional sense, and more the idea of Bruce Asbestos as a brand. There are films, paintings, performances, teenage diaries, curating Trade Gallery…but no formula like ‘Bruce Asbestos is a painter’ or ‘Bruce Asbestos works with Social Media’ that really applies.
The strange thing when I make paintings is that people apply ideas about painting, and the history of painting, to what I’m doing in a way that I’m not really comfortable with. I’m not massively interested in the history of painting, but whenever I show paintings, which for me is a way of making images, assumptions attach to the work and it’s as if I’ve run through a bush and come out with twigs and leaves stuck to my hair and clothes. The conversation can close in around you and it’s not the medium itself that interests me.
Miner Pie Wallpaper. Social Media Takeaway
Maybe a bigger question about things like the Pizza Years Diaries tweets or the Social Media Takeaway series might be to ask if it’s important to you that they are seen as art?
That’s an interesting question and I don’t know. Sometimes I don’t think it is important. I recently launched an online shop selling my paintings and that’s exciting because it moves the ball a bit and opens up a few possibilities about earning a living, or at least having a bit more surplus cash to reinvest in some new work. So I don’t mind if someone comes to that site, buys a painting, and doesn’t care that it’s an artwork. I’m also aware that while I do want to be open, and operate across different genres and boundaries, sometimes that can just be confusing and muddled. There’s always a tension there. With Mark McGowan’s work, there are parts of it that are definitely art and other elements that are probably not art, and he can flip what he does between the two. Even so, there’s a big section of his audience that isn’t looking at his work as art and simply identifies with his political views.
There was a show called Pop Life at Tate a few years ago and in the last room was a gallery of work by Takashi Murakami, which was a row of trainers, a pop video, some paintings and sculptures, most of which could easily have been from a luxury goods shop. I wondered at the time in what sense Murakami’s work was art, or whether it differed from what any high end international branding agency might do?
I was in Japan around 2003, when Murakami was probably at the height of his fame and influence. And I really disliked his work for all the reasons you’ve just mentioned. Then it slowly dawned on me that I’d been wrong-footed into taking a very conservative position about what art could be, and gradually I started to see how Murakami’s was a magical position to be in: to be an artist and have that kind of reach and weightlessness. But there has to be something in you that really wants to do those things if they’re to have any integrity. I’ve tried making work that I imagined might enable me to work the way he does and it’s some of the worst stuff I’ve ever made. It just doesn’t feel right, so I end up doing performances at Reactor Towers, or making paintings of bears, and other things that aren’t about making massive sculptures, or massive paintings, which I’ve learned isn’t for me.
Strangely, those odd marginal things can often be the things that open the doors. Your paintings of bears seemed to be ridiculously popular.
Yes, they were, and I could have kept making them and sold them many times over. But I also didn’t want to end up as ‘the bear-paintings man’ so I moved towards Social Media Takeaway to balance it out. When you find that balance, I think that’s when you’ve started to get it right. You can do different things and it’s still OK and fits together on some level. I paint honestly, within my limitations, and I think of what Matisse said, that he wanted his paintings to be like a comfortable armchair. I want my paintings to be enjoyable, to give pleasure to people. There is a need to paint because it makes money – though not much – and because doing it helps to balance out the Social Media Takeaway kinds of things I do, but the paintings themselves are never ironic or cynical.
Where does Trade Gallery’s programme fit in? I was thinking about the programme as having a core interest in film and video, from Artur Żmijewski to Joseph Beuys,but there have also been Sarah Doyle’s drawings, Yelena Popova’s videos alongside the paintings of Grandad Hill, so there’s a similar mix at Trade as tends to be seen in your own work.
Someone mentioned that to me and I hadn’t thought of it explicitly, but yes, the Trade programme has been a way of keeping an eye on what other things are going on. Recent programming has been very interested in performance made for film, so there has been Stuart Sherman, Mark McGowan, Pil & Galia’s Terminal and Rachel Maclean coming up. All these works seem quite key in terms of where things are now, for me, and they aren’t seen much in the kind of context Trade offers, so part of it is just about me being in a position where I can just think ‘these things are interesting’ and show them.
And returning to the internet, the idea of performance made for film does link to Social Media Takeaway, recent Trade shows like Mark McGowan’s, and a lot of other online material. How fundamentally do you think the internet is changing things?
I think the internet has gone through some funny stages, so early on there was a kind of euphoria surrounding it and a lot of the art that was made was about celebrating the technology. I think we’re past that now, and the art is no longer about the technology itself, it’s about what you can do with it, which I think is where the Steve Roggenbuck style of working comes from. It’s about what these networks mean in people’s lives, how it changes the way social groups connect and form, and how these new social spaces can work. I was thinking last night about this: ‘what do I know about the internet?’. And the answer is maybe not that much, sort of ‘everything and nothing’. A year ago I had never heard of Steve Roggenbuck and now I do know about him and think other people should because what he’s doing is interesting. But there are probably another ten artists I don’t know yet, who might all have been working and doing interesting things for ten years already, and in another year I might know about them, too. I checked out the websites of Pyramidd.Biz and Bubblebyte, who both did Trade website take-overs a year or two ago, and both have already altered the way they work. It changes very, very fast.
Maybe that speed of change means that all any of us know about the internet is ‘everything and nothing’. Or maybe ‘everything and nothing’ is what the internet really consists of?
I think it has permanently changed the way people archive and access information, but it has also become more mundane. I remember when I first saw broadband it seemed impossible and now, obviously, I take it for granted, like most of us do. As an artist, I’m aware of the opportunities it offers and wonder sometimes why they aren’t used more. I think there are complications about value that affect the ways many artists choose to put work out there.
I suppose there’s still a tension between preserving the value of a piece of work, for the agency or institution commissioning it, or the collector buying it, and the potential of reaching a wider audience.
For me, I feel I have to almost ignore those questions. I want what I do to be visible, and that’s very important to me, so I have to find a way to work around those issues of art’s economics, getting a balance between earning a living and making my work accessible. Not accessible in a patronising way, accessible because it’s in a place where it can be found. It goes back to the idea of a Flat Culture, which is just a way of recreating my own experience with books borrowed from libraries – masses of them – and absorbing all of this information because it was within reach.
Could you explain a bit about the Flat Culture concept?
Flat Culture is the idea that there are lots of different ways you can make work, and lots of ways you can distribute work. So you can do shows in galleries but there are also websites both you as an artist and your potential audiences can access. Flat Culture is about trying to come to terms with the implications of that. It was the result of wanting to be in a more open arena and thinking about the way someone like Takashi Murakami blurs the lines between very commercial work and things made for galleries, moving between different contexts, from painting and sculpture to Hollywood film and product design. I’m asking myself what it means to be able to do all of those things, but I didn’t want to write a PhD about it, I wanted to try and become it, in the real world. I could have pursued it as a nice, neatly packaged academic exercise, but I wanted to try and realise it in some way, in public, which is probably where the Social Media Takeaway stuff has come from.
One thing ‘Flat Culture’ brings to mind is the idea of cultural levelling. But that idea of levelling the hierarchies of high art and trash, and both with that ‘middlebrow’ zone between them, might have nothing to do with ‘Flat Culture’ as you’re describing it.
There are still hierarchies, I think. With Social Media Takeaway, my initial aim was to reach a thousand followers on YouTube, which relates to the idea of becoming a kind of very minor internet celebrity and exploring what that means. But perhaps the age of someone uploading films onto YouTube from a home camera, building up a following and becoming a minor celebrity is already gone. It’s now all about high production values, so the game has changed. There’s money coming into play and that brings with it increasing moves towards professionalization, and because of that some of the romance is going out of it. As an observer I get a sense that it’s developing away from its earlier model, where anyone could have a go and maybe succeed, very fast.
Would this affect a decision to take Trade Gallery online at some point, or is it important that it exists both online and in a physical space?
One of things about Trade’s programme, which means it probably wouldn’t work the same way if it was just an online space, is the live element. In the current Pil & Galia Kollectiv show, there are four live events during the run. I’m interested in events that have to be experienced live and how the live relates to the second-hand documentation, so from that point of view it’s important that Trade has a physical space. With Mark McGowan, it was also very important that the work came offline, because it made you see it in a different way, and in the next show, with Rachel Maclean, she is an artist who has a great website, but with edits rather than full-length versions of her films, leaving space for the different experience of seeing her work offered by a venue like Trade. I think there’s more I could do with interviews and online research space, but that’s something for Trade a year or two down the line, I think.
You seem enthusiastic but slightly ambivalent about the effect of the internet.
Perhaps. For me, there’s a social mobility about the internet that’s definitely very important. It makes it possible to reach far more people with my work than I could if I were only using physical spaces, or meeting people I know in my day to day life, and that opens up possibilities I’d never have heard about or found without it. Just setting up my shop online, and being able to sell my own work directly to people who I might or might not already know, is an amazing thing to be able to do. I know some artists have issues with the idea of selling their own work online, because it’s not entirely respectable, but I think if Andy Warhol were around today he’d absolutely be doing that.
There are also opportunities that I assume come from the fact that a programme like Trade’s, or the work you’re doing yourself, can be seen by people anywhere in the world in a way that wouldn’t have been possible before, unless you were being written about in magazines like Artforum.
That’s true. But the thing about it is that we’ve swapped a situation where there were very few ways to distribute work or ways to get information for a situation where we have an almost impossible amount of work and information available to us. Until recently, the desirable thing was knowledge, being able to find and having information. Now it’s the ability to very quickly process and sift information. I’m not sure we’re anywhere close to working out the implications of that yet.