YVONNE CARMICHAEL [on] ANDY ABBOTT

{Since 2006 Yvonne and Andy have lived together in Saltaire, West Yorkshire, UK. Andy is an artist, musician, writer and organizer. Yvonne asked Andy some questions about his artwork and interests.}

Yvonne Carmichael: We first met during Situation Leeds: Art in the Public Realm ’05 festival, you had spent three months cutting out card bricks to make a replica of the Electric Press Chimney in Leeds. Did you enjoy the process? And what you do you think looking back at that piece of work now?

Andy Abbott: Looking back on that A Half Scale Card Maquette… project it was a strange time for me. I think I’d found motivation to do art, and had a lot more spare time than I ever had. I was in the last year of Uni, I’d quit my (part time) job working in a call centre to spend more time on studying. I didn’t have a lot of commitments; I was swimming a lot in between getting really boozed and playing music. I think that project helped give me some structure. I treated it like a warehouse job where I was in the studio at a certain time each day to do a shift, trying to better yesterday’s target. Then I’d have lunch, go for a swim, come back and do an afternoon session. I made 8000-odd bricks (boxes) in those months.

My thinking behind the project was that this action reduced the art process (which is often seen as opaque, over-intellectualized and elitist; a bit ‘emperors new clothes’) down to time and graft, in the hope that would somehow democratize it. I thought that people would be inspired by my willingness to use my time ‘productively’ in concrete labour, rather than consumptively, and maybe think about being artists themselves in their spare time. In actuality people saw the finished thing and said ‘Wow, I could never be bothered to do that.’

A Half Scale Card Maquette at Situation Leeds 2005

A Half Scale Card Maquette at Situation Leeds {2005} Andy Abbott

Half Scale Card Maquette

A Half Scale Card Maquette. Andy Abbott.

Half Scale Card Maquette

A Half Scale Card Maquette. Andy Abbott. 

YC: A Serious Waste of Time was an exhibition in an empty commercial space in Leeds, that showed a combination of your works all focusing on activities you have undertaken in your spare-time. How did you go about putting this exhibition together?

AA: I started those projects as a bit of a reaction to some of the more ’socially-engaged’, participatory and collaborative projects I did following things like the chimney project. I’d started doing projects like the Festival of Pastimes, the Your Arms project we did together, and Black Dogs stuff, where I was acting more like a facilitator or curator than an artist. So at the time I wanted to do some more ‘indulgent’, representational, self-contained art, and my PhD allowed me – even encouraged me – to do that. So I began a project about traveling back to the village that I was born in by cycling up and down a bit of canal (Homeward Unbound), another work about swimming at Shipley Pool, a linked project about the DIY punk scene family tree, and then a less resolved project about the Bell Pits on Baildon Moor and heavy metal.

They all shared some similarities in content and form and made what I considered to be a coherent exhibition; they were all quite autobiographical and most used diagrams, maps and music to get the point across. I called the exhibition A Serious Waste of Time to push forward the ‘hobbyist’ aspect of all the projects but looking back on it that was a tenuous thread between them all. I was doing those activities for a PhD which was as much ‘work’ as it was ‘play’, but I like the conversations that arise from that slippage.

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A Serious Waste of Time Exhibition. Andy Abbott.

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A Serious Waste of Time Exhibition ‘Homeward Unbound’. Andy Abbott.

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A Serious Waste of Time Exhibition. Andy Abbott.

YC: Which piece of work or projects that you have undertaken have been the most successful and why?

AA: It depends on how you judge success. The longest running, most consistent, ‘projects’ I’ve done have been That Fucking Tank and Black Dogs, in as much as they keep on going and growing. In terms of a single art project, the one I’ve been asked or commissioned to do the most is the Festival of Pastimes. When I do talks and presentations it seems like some of the earlier projects I did, like the chimney piece, communicate what I was interested in more clearly than my recent work, but I don’t think that means they are more successful. I liked the response I got to the Erewyrehve project I did in Istanbul last year with PiST, and I’m looking forward to continuing to work on that. I think that’s the one I’d judge most personally fulfilling as it sparked a lot of interesting conversations, it is really open-ended and fed a lot of other work, and it looked good as an exhibition too!

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Festival of Pastimes – Leeds. Andy Abbott.

7. Erewyrehve exhibition - PiST Istanbul

Erewyrehve exhibition – PiST Istanbul. Andy Abbott.

8. Erewyrehve - PiST Istanbul

Erewyrehve – PiST Istanbul. Andy Abbott.

9. Erewyreve Exhibition PiST Istanbul

Erewyreve Exhibition PiST Istanbul. Andy Abbott.

YC: Your portfolio of writing includes a range of formats from press releases, web copy, essay, articles and academic papers. I like your style of writing and that it is accessible but covers complex stuff at the same time. What would your tips be on how to write about art?

AA: I guess I’ve always tried to be ‘honest’ with my writing and not use words or terms I don’t really know the meaning of, although I’m sure there are plenty of times I’ve succumbed to the art-talk pressure and you do have to use some specialized terminology at times. I prefer reading something by someone that’s in their own voice rather than relying on cliches and trendy jargon though. At the same time I think you’ve got to give the reader some credit for knowing roughly what you’re on about, or assume they’ll be able to look up words or terms they’re not familiar with. I think the call for ‘plain English’ in art is a tricky one because whilst its good to call out bullshit when you see it, audiences/readers should embrace being challenged too.

YC: You have written a lot about value of punk, DIY and organized activity and its political potential. What are the key things around this you think are important for an audience to know in relation to this when experiencing your work.

AA: Ha, well I often wrongly assume people know what the DIY ethos is, or what DIY even stands for. Over the last couple of years I’ve started to qualify it a bit more as the ‘not-for-profit underground/alternative scene’ or various other things. Someone did an interview with me a bit ago asking me about self-organization and I realized it’s a term I just stopped using because it doesn’t really say much about what I find interesting: the political or socially-transformative dimension of cultural activity motivated by love-not-money.

In terms of what an audience needs to know to experience my work: I guess someone who doesn’t know about – or acknowledge – the harmful effects of capitalism, and thinks there’s either no need or possibility for an alternative way of living together, is unlikely to identify with what I do. I believe that DIY activity is a site where new forms of engaging with the world and one another are experimented with, and that’s where its radical potential lies. If you don’t think social transformation is either necessary or possible then I guess that notion is not something you would agree with or be interested in. You’d also have to be an idiot or a helpless cynic though.

YC: Do you ever think about doing a project just to make loads of money?

AA: When I taught at art college I used to tell students ‘if you are in it to make loads of money then stop doing art and play the stock exchange instead, or go into banking or whatever, where you’re almost guaranteed to be more successful.’ I could have made a lot of money if I kept on being a sales person I think, because I was good at it, but that idea of sacrificing time for cash doesn’t appeal to me. I’d rather just enjoy the time we have. One piece of advise that’s stuck in my head from my parents is that I could get hit by a bus tomorrow and should act accordingly.

At the same time I guess I have a romantic idea that if you do something with as much fidelity and integrity as you can then somehow something will come out of it, and that might even generate money. You learn a lot more skills and competencies through doing things you enjoy rather than things you don’t. So far we keep on keeping on and I’m happy with that.

YC: Your artistic practice utilizes a broad range of medium including: video, sound, scores, diagrams, writing, publications, participatory events and photographs. Would you ever consider streamlining and focusing more closely on one approach or style?

AA: I always hated the way artists ‘specialize’ in one medium or theme, as it seemed to me to be a very cynical way of turning yourself and your practice into a marketable commodity – something that the Institutional Art World and its markets demand, rather than an organic or authentic process. I prefer artists and people who resist that easy reduction to a single type of work or a specific ‘issue’ or ‘theme’, even if they’re known for one or two things in particular. I guess Joseph Beuys and John Cage did that to an extent, and I like them for it.

At the moment though, I am really enjoying making music and animations, I am finding that those are appropriate ways to resolve some of my projects. I can see myself doing more of that. I think it’s good to keep the end result open and show fidelity to the process, reacting to interventions or happy accidents and letting them decide where a project goes, rather than having a fixed destination. That’s not good for art dealers or even funding applications but I think it makes for more vital art.

YC: Threadfest (May) and Recon (September) are both festivals you organize; how have you found putting these events together? What have been the least and more enjoyable bits? Do you see the co-ordination of these events as part of your practice?

AA: Yes, I’ve started to see those festivals as the current manifestation of my interest in events as art, even if the actual process of making them happen—which comprises in the main, lots of admin, funding applications, emails, contracts, spreadsheets, website updates, flyer distribution and so on—doesn’t feel like an artistic process a lot of the time. That’s definitely the bit that’s most like ‘work’ but in a sick way I kind of enjoy it…it’s like the office or ‘immaterial labor’ version of my chimney project.

The most enjoyable bit is definitely when the events actually happen and you see a lot of people brought together in one space, all having a shared collective experience which is ideally something unique to that context or situation. I do feel like those moments have some lasting effect on people as individuals and I try to organize these festivals in places where that is likely to resonate or have added meaning.

YC: What’s the best art event you have ever seen?

AA: As far as ‘proper’ art goes I really liked when we visited Manifesta 2008. It opened my eyes to a faction of the Art World that wasn’t just market-led, commodified nonsense and seemed to have some genuine intention behind it. I don’t think it’s had as much impact on me as being involved in Situation Leeds (2005), or even the first squat party I went to in Leeds, but that’s a different kind of process I suppose.

YC: What’s the best gig you have ever been to?

AA: There were a few gigs in the early 2000s that I saw in Leeds and Bradford that really opened my mind up to the idea that ‘the best’ music wasn’t necessarily going to be experienced in big spaces and was just as likely to be had in the top rooms of some dingy local pubs, houses or social centres. I saw bands like Sweep The Leg Johnny, Red Monkey, Bilge Pump, Black Heart Procession, Trans Am, Trail of Dead around then that were really inspiring. It was motivating because of the balance between them giving such spirited performances and at the same time it seeming so achievable to play the places they were playing.

YC: What’s the best meal you have ever eaten?

AA: Aside from the ones you’ve cooked me or we’ve eaten together I think the best meal I had was on the first European tour I did with Kill Yourself. We played at Metalkova in Ljubljana, Slovenia and were starving hungry when we arrived. The promoter, Ivo, then spent about three hours or more making us a gigantic meal that everyone involved in the collectively-run venue sat down to eat together. It was incredible; a venison stew with loads of salads and a vegan gnocchi dish if I remember right. I was almost crying. I don’t think it’s possible to enjoy a meal as much as that in a restaurant or even at home…there’s something about the collective experience (and the unassuming settings) that make it have much more impact, that and being very very hungry.

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS

ANDY ABBOTT:is an artist, musician and writer interested in the role of cultural activity in social change. His practice and research focuses on alternative forms of work, Do-it-Yourself culture, self-organization, participation, collaboration, counter-institutions, and post-capitalist subjectivity.

YVONNE CARMICHAEL: is an artist and independent curator living and working in Leeds and Bradford, UK.

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