AN INTERVIEW WITH SIMON FORD
"What we found was that the traditional idea of the artist as a specialist producer was being mutated and what we termed a new type of entity -- a culturepreneur -- was emerging: an artist that still created artš but also sold information and a variety of services to clients such as advertisers, corporations, universities and market research companies."
Richard Marshall interviews Simon Ford
COPYRIGHT © 2002, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
SF: I first came across the Situationist International when I bought a second-hand copy of the journals in Totnes, which was the great centre of alternative and hippy culture where I lived then. That was in the mid-eighties when I was about 17. I think the appeal for me was an obvious shared dissatisfaction with the ways things were. I was looking for something that was going to make a difference and give me a thrill even if it failed to change anything. As long as I can remember I've always been interested in obscure subjects, but it wasn't until I went to Exeter to do a fine arts degree that I began to connect up with various networks and really begin to learn about things like occulture or critical theorists like Deleuze and Guattari. After I finished the degree I needed to earn some money so I started working in the library at the art college. After a year there I did a MA in Information Management at Newcastle-upon-Tyne then came to work at the National Art Library in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
I was really excited about finally getting to London. My Dad and my grandparents on his side lived in Edmonton in North London, so, in a way, I felt I was coming home. When I came to London I was finally able to start meeting people I admired, like Stewart Home and Stefan Szczelkun of Working Press. I first contacted Stewart when I was researching my SI bibliography. At that time he was still on art strike and living in a tower block in Poplar. Later in January 1993 I was able, through my position at the V&A, to organise his first public appearance after the years of inactivity. So during this time I was working on the book that was eventually published by AK Press as The Realisation and Suppression of the Situationist International: An Annotated Bibliography, 1972 -1992. A nice snappy title.
3AM: It couldn't fail!
SF: Yeh, it had a nice gold cover as well. It served a purpose, though. At that time it was still an emerging topic and if you look at the book closely it provides quite a good case study of how an underground movement becomes an established academic subject.
3AM: What are your feelings about the Situationists?
SF: I was immediately attracted to them. They had flaws and weaknesses but as an avant-garde group they made all the right moves. I've always been interested in what constitutes avant-gardism and this was actually my first idea for a PhD subject, even though it turned into something else completely.
3AM: Did you ever meet Debord or any of those guys?
SF: No. I never learnt French at school and the focus of the bibliography was the English language publications since the group disbanded in 1972, so I never got round to researching the French scene or the original documents. The bibliography really got me interested in this idea of avant-gardism and I thought I should look at it more closely. I looked around and thought 'Where would be the most difficult place to research this topic?' and it was quite obviously the Courtauld Institute of Art. At the time it had quite a conservative reputation, but as it turned out I was really well-supported all the way through. The subject changed from the concept of avant-gardism in general to COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle in particular. Here you had a UK-based example of an avant-garde group that developed out of the late sixties underground and then became instrumental in developing new cultural paradigms in the late-seventies.
3AM: And this is covered in the book Wreckers Of Civilisation.
SF: Yes, what happened was quite early on I decided to write a book at the same time as the PhD dissertation, both using the same research. I didn't want to write say 100,000 words and then just get three copies bound up and put in a library somewhere.
3AM: Were the band members happy with your project?
SF: Yes, I think so. I think they thought it was about the right time for them to talk about this period in their lives. The interesting thing about the four main characters involved, Genesis P-Orridge, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Chris Carter and Peter Christopherson, is that they've continued to develop and produce innovative work. They were all keen to make clearer what went on and who did what, where, when, why, and how, that kind of thing. I think I got their trust because I was open about my motives and I had no strong agenda to push. I was also an outsider, without any affiliations to any particular member of the group. I think that comes through in the book -- I don't have a particularly upfront authorial voice. I was much more interested in listening to them talking about what they thought they'd done. What I found was they were incredibly open and honest people. What they said they did, no matter how weird and wacky it sounded, they actually did it.
3AM: So what happened after the book?
SF: Well, I'd really gone as far as I wanted to go with that particular narrative. The book ends with the disbanding of TG and I didn't want to look at later projects such as Psychic TV, for instance, or Coil or Chris and Cosey. In my eyes they were very different projects, the motivation wasn't there for me any longer. Anyway from 1996 onwards I've been more interested in the contemporary art scene and the yBas in particular. In fact I actually coined the term 'yBa' in an article for Art Monthly in 1996 ('Myth Making', Art Monthly, March 1996). I was very interested in how the art world interacts with the business world and the larger economy. The last few articles have been co-written with Anthony Davies (our latest is available here). We were particularly interested in how the new economy was affecting the way artists operated. What we found was that the traditional idea of the artist as a specialist producer was being mutated and what we termed a new type of entity -- a culturepreneur -- was emerging: an artist that still created 'art' but also sold information and a variety of services to clients such as advertisers, corporations, universities and market research companies. Alongside these texts I was contributing editor of a book entitled Information Sources in Art, Art History and Design for K.G. Saur. That was the culmination, I guess, of my involvement in the library world. For the last couple of years I've been working on a book on Mark E. Smith and The Fall. That's pretty advanced but it's really a massive project, covering the last 25 years.
3AM: There's still an appeal with the idea of the avant-garde. Is there still a scene?
SF: I've been thinking about that a lot recently. I'm a bit worried I've dropped out of the loop lately. I sometimes think there isn't much going on now, but historically you know there's always something going on, it's just you don't see it. It's about whether you're tuned in. I've just started working with Mute magazine and that's really got me excited about what's happening in areas of digital culture. I'm not technologically advanced at all but it's incredibly interesting how artists and activists are developing these media for political and social ends. I think today's avant-garde is working somewhere in this area. The difficult task, though, is locating the cutting edge. Where is it and who, or what, even, is operating there?
3AM: The yBas and modern art in general are very popular now.
SF: Yes, some artists have been able to make that crossover on to the celebrity circuit but nobody really takes their work that seriously these days. The Tate Modern draws in the crowds, but again, that's no indication of the quality of its exhibitions. I really think we're coming to the end of that boom time for the arts. The next few years will see many changes and hopefully a return to more challenging and interesting work. Much of the hype surrounding the yBas was linked to the promotion of London as a global player in the financial services industry and it's funny that at the end of the nineties Anthony and I saw the Millennium Bridge as a metaphor of this link, between the Tate Modern and the City of London. I think now you can update that bridge as a metaphor. If you remember when it first opened it wobbled so much it had to be closed down again. When it finally opened, two years late and millions of pounds over budget, it was rather sheepishly launched without fanfare on a wet Friday morning. I think that's the new metaphor, about how nothing works, it's all behind schedule, and over budget; the whole culture is bankrupt and wobbling. What really needs to happen is for artists to look at sustainable economies based on collaborative networks and peer-to-peer communication models, rather than begging for thousands of pounds from corporations that basically just disappears into fancy catalogues and grand opening parties. It's obvious that the work that attracts this type of sponsorship will never be critical in any effective way. It's an old problem but I think artists loose everything when they get into bed with marketing people.