Douglas Fishbone Performance  
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Author India Interviews the famous UK based American artist
Douglas Fishbone

 

 

  1. How was your experience of performing in New Delhi, India for the first time? How you compare your performance in other cities of the globe to this one?

 

I had an excellent experience performing in India. The audience responded well to the work, which was a relief, as I was unsure originally how it would be received . The humor in the performance, like all humor, relies a great deal on the context and familiarity with the references being raised. I tried to use a good number of Indian references to illustrate some of the points I was discussing, to make it a feel a bit less imported, which the audience enjoyed – especially my Bollywood references. Also, as I use a lot of political material, especially about the current conflict between the West and Islam, I was not sure if this would go over as well in terms of audience reaction. I had been warned that religion and politics were fairly touchy subjects to raise, but wanted to raise them in any case. As a general point, it is always interesting to see how audiences in different locations respond. Work that relies on humor always runs the risk of failing when presented outside its normal cultural context. In Milan, where I performed once, the audience was completely unresponsive – due perhaps to the language barrier, or perhaps differing attitudes to public behavior – by presenting the work in an art gallery setting, and using material that might be regarded as questionable or offensive, I put the audience in an odd position – they are never quite sure whether to laugh or not, whereas in a bar or comedy setting this confusion would not arise. However, if they get the spirit of the work, as they did in India, they seem to enjoy what I am doing and appreciate the broader points I am trying to makel.  If not, like in Milan, they remain silent and unamused. As a performer it is ultimately impossible to control.

 

  1. Would you call your art a way to protest against the social and political rules?

Up to a point, yes, though I regard what I am doing more as satire. I do not see myself as an activist in any real sense, nor do I think the art world is the best venue to conduct activism – the audiences tend to be either wealthy or politically quite liberal, so in either case, aiming to change attitudes would be fairly unproductive – it would fall on either deaf ears, or ears that already agree. That is not to disparage activism in any way as being an unworthy pursuit – merely to say that it is not my main aim, nor one I think well-suited to the art world. I like to use the platform I have to make people think about the familiar in an unexpected way. In its way, this has a very political potential – people’s conceptions and behaviors are, after all, what drive political events. I do like to ridicule contemporary values and political orders, as I think many of them are absurd and obscene. Though I would say I satirize them rather than protest them  as such.

 

  1. In your work you are using the projection of so many photos in a little span of time; you are creating some very interesting montages, keeping the temperament and tempo of your performance. Does it need a long time of practice, patience and preparation for a presentation?

This type of work is enormously time –consuming. The first step is to write a text that I am happy with, and then find images to illustrate. Sometimes I have images I want to use so I figure out a way to contextualize them in the narrative, so it can also work a bit backwards. In any case, it takes an enormous amount of research to find images which work well – I want them to make sense to what I am narrating, but also be interesting and engaging as a visual layer – perhaps to relate to other images in an unexpected and surprising way. So in a way there are two real streams in the work – one verbal, and one visual, yet they must support each other. Once the work is composed, I rehearse it to the point where I can deliver it without reading a script. In the performance in India, my slide-show used more than 600 images. So you can imagine that collecting images, making the editorial choices, practicing it with proper timing, and so on amounts to a huge amount of work. The trick is to make it seem effortless, which in most things usually requires great amounts of practice.

  1. You cover a number of topics, facts and people which you juxtapose, criticize in your own satirical way. Is there any particular pattern of thought you use to select and interrelate the topics?

 

I like to compose the work in the manner of a stand-up comedian, in which leaps can be made between subjects without any particular justification or narrative thread. I do try to keep things very organically related, but at the same time free enough so that the audience will consistently be surprised. I tend  to think in small observational units, like aphorisms, and link them together, often illustrating them with jokes or stories that are funny but make a broader philosophical point. I like to think of the work as mostly tangential, which comes back to the center on occasion to keep some basic structure or sense.

 

  1. Do you think you are criticizing individuals, societies or this phase of civilization?

I am certainly critical of many things – both in terms of individual and group behavior. For instance, I am very critical of contemporary Western consumer society, which I see as behind many of the world’s ills. It is not just a structural problem which can be blamed on corporate greed or on corrupt politicians, but falls to individuals making decision about what to consume, how and why. As India becomes mores prosperous, no doubt many of the same debates will become more highlighted – how do we act as individuals amidst a society with a great deal of problems. Should we try to help others, or focus our activities in a private, ultimately gluttonous direction. These are big choices, personally and more generally. The current problems with obesity are a good example. As India becomes wealthier, its rate of obesity is bound to soar. This is a very strange response to prosperity in my opinion – the West is literally eating itself to death. This is an individual as well as collective choice. Granted it is more complicated than that – in poor communities in the US there are often many fewer options about where to eat and what to buy, which affects public health, but the general level of personal greed is quite alarming to me as a Westerner.

  1. What kind of reaction you have received from your spectators or the organizers arranging your show.

 

The organizers at KHOJ seemed very pleased with the performance. It is an unfamiliar style of performance in India, as I developed it in the UK using a largely American comic sensibility. The organizers thought people responded well, and were pleased with it. I also had many nice comments from people after the show telling me they thought it was interesting and engaging, which is my hope. I saw one or two negative comments on the web, and I imagine any number of people may have thought it was irritating or disappointing in some way. That is fine – the risk one takes in making work in public.

  1. You are very famous for making a sculpture of 30,000 bananas in Trafalgar square. Can you please elaborate the story and the idea behind it? What reaction of people you received after this banana work?

I used to live in Ecuador, and one day walking down the street while in Cuenca, a city in the Ecuadorean mountains, I saw an enormous pile of green bananas at a roadside market. It was one of the most visually striking things I had ever seen, and I thought if something like that appeared in a completely unexpected location, as opposed to a fruit and vegetable market, it would be a stunning visual gesture. I pitched the idea to the fellow in charge of the cultural program at the Federal Bank of Ecuador and he liked the idea, and ultimately let me present it in the courtyard of the bank. This was a fairly bold thing for him to agreee, as allowing a gringo, as they call people from the US, to do something with bananas in the federal bank has a great deal of powerful symbolism which could push people the wrong way. The country is heavily reliant on natural resources for its economic activity and is labeled a “banana republic” by some – being one of the world’s leading producers, and a fairly corrupt and unstable nation. The idea was to build a big pile of bananas in the public space and then offer them free to the audience to take away, in a sense inviting the group to become a collective sculptor taking apart the pile of bananas until nothing remained. The color and texture of the bananas was very striking, and the collective activity allowed it to become a metaphor for a number of things – art making as a shared activity between artist and viewers, the experience of viewing art as an alternate form of consumption, and so forth. The symbolism of the banana – as an economic object – and its political implications were quite strong. Building a pile of them in the plaza of the federal bank – a natural source of wealth which could rot within days – raised a number of interesting questions about the contemporary political and banking system in Ecuador, which was collapsing at the time, leading to the massive devaluation of the currency, bank failures, and so on. The financial system was literally rotting at the time,  so the metaphor had an added dimension. The shared relational aspect of having people involved pointed to questions of personal responsibility in broader large-scale processes. Or lack there-of, as many poor Ecuadoreans are shafted by the system, and not responsible for it.

The project was very well-received and I since went on it to present it 5 more time around the world in different countries. The most recent staging was in Trafalgar Square in London in 2004.

  1. Please focus on the motivation working behind your choosing this medium and form of art. What similarity you find in the banana work and the performance you do on stage?

 

The motivation, as with the performance and much of my work was to take something familiar and re-focus attention on it, asking the audience to consider it in ways they might not normally. In the performance work I do this by using photographic images from the internet which I weave in to complex narratives, but which ultimately relies on the familiar – the everyday image. The banana is a very familiar object – in the US it is the most popular fruit bought in the market. In other places it has a very different set of associations. In Poland for instance, where I also did the project, bananas were very difficult to obtain during the Cold War, and only the most privileged were able to eat them. They were a symbol of luxury and were rare. It is interesting to me that the same object can be viewed so differently from one context tot he next. However, I was interested in making a project that spoke about globalization and the economic dynamic between developing nations which export their wealth in the form of natural resources, and the developed world, which consumes and controls these resources, generally on terms in their own favor. How does the bananas tie in to this? By building a big silent and strange pile of them in the middle of a public space and giving them away, one can ask some of these questions. On the one hand the piece remains strange – sitting there as it does until it quickly vanishes – and many people must have though it was an inscrutable thing, or some kind of stunt. The metaphor of sharing and group consumption, the association with piles of gold, and loot in general, allowed for some interesting conceptual possibilities without being too overt. I never like to lead the audience’s response, saying this means so and so. Then they either agree with you or not but the mystery and potential are hampered. As a general operation, I wanted to make the everyday a bit mysterious and reveal some of the broader issues at play in day to day processes.

 

  1. Your work shows some pornographic pictures. Don’t you think these are narrowing the number of your spectators or opening way to criticize your work?

The work I presented in India used many fewer obscene images than the original version, which has an extreme introduction that tells a classic joke using very filthy images. I removed this from the Indian version on concerns over obscenity, so the version you saw actually was far more moderate than the original. That being said, the last performance I did, which discussed Communism, used no obscenity at all. I do not always use it, by any means. Obscenity is a difficult thing – it can be used sparingly as a bit of a shock tactic, and a way to manipulate the audience, which I like to do – but one has to be careful. It quickly burns itself out. That is why in the original version of the performance I did in New Delhi, the first joke is extremely obscene and then there is nothing really pornographic after that at all. It recedes into the visual memory in a way. This is part of my critique of Western media culture. We are getting to a point of visual overload where things don’t really matter that much – people are manipulated visually and cannot keep track of all the images with which they are bombarded. We see millions of ads every year – it is unprecedented in history and the effects on the brain will hopefully not be too drastic. However, as a satirist using the internet to critique contemporary culture, I see obscenity as a fairly central part of Western visual culture – at least on the web. I think our society is constantly pushing the boundaries of what is obscene and I would not be surprised If in a few decades ads use hard core porn in a mainstream context as it becomes more and more difficult to generate attention for a given product or visual strategy. This is on e of the things I play at – sometime juxtaposing my on logo next to extreme images, making that very point about subliminal association and audience manipulation. There are far more extreme things on the internet than I ever use in my work, and I don’t think anything I do is that bad. Besides, web savvy children will no doubt have seen much worse than I have.  In any case, I think Western society is obscene in many ways, and using its own imagery to critique it – all found right on the internet - is a valid proposition. If audiences are shocked by a few naughty pictures, they are probably missing my broader critique of society and media saturation to begin with, so I am not too bothered. Using questionable material is bound to offend some. The point is I am not interested in doing it in a merely infantile way – within the context of the work, it makes sense as a strategy.

 

  1. Can you please tell Author India something about your family, up bringing and the background of conceptualization and evolution of your art form?

I was raised in New York City. My Father was a doctor, originally from England, who immigrated to the US in the 50s. My Mother was a nurse when they met. Neither of them had any particular interest in the arts when I was growing up, at least not to the point where it influenced me. I never did much in the way of art as a child either. I played the guitar when I was younger, and studied music in university, but did nothing in the way of visual art until my mid-20’s. The work that I am doing cam e to me much later in life than is common with many artists, who usually study for  BA degrees in art and are often involved from a young age. My school when I was young had a dreadful art program and my interest was never stimulated. It was a bit of a fluke that I became an artist. I was working the music business, for Paavrotti’s agent in New York, as I thought I might get into the business, having done a BA degree in music. I took a weekend class in animation as I had always been interested in it, and it led me into unforeseen territory – building models to animate led me to making sculptures, which led me to investigate different materials and processes. Eventually, after a number of twists and turns professionally, including a job as a financial advisor. I gradually become obsessed enough by art to pursue it more fully. I decided to get an M A degree at that point as I had never done any formal study and moved to London to study. I have been there ever since developing my work.

  1. What future form of your art you envisage?

 

I have been doing more and more live performance, and will be presenting a new piece at a music festival in August. For this piece I will be adding a whole audio landscape to the piece, working with a sound engineer. I feel the work pulling a bit more in a mainstream theatrical direction, which excites me. I am also currently developing a feature film project in London which uses elements of my performance work. It even has a scene which is essentially a Bollywood musical number, so if it progresses perhaps I will come to Mumbai to make part of it. In any case, I am not very hung up on remaining in the fine art world, and would be happy to investigate unexpected directions, as my work seems to lend itself to different opportunities – like this upcoming music festival, which is a rare thing to be able to get involved in as a visual artist. I am interested in making work that addresses important concerns in an engaging way, and if that leads me more into a theatrical or mainstream direction, I welcome the chance to experiment there. I am continuing to make more traditional art work in a sense – video, print, installation – that remains within the art world, as well.

  1. Your work is a postmodern one. Do you think postmodernist art is the right way to criticize and suggest changes to society? 

 

I find that my way of thinking and composing work are well-suited to the post-modern aesthetic. It allows a great way to illustrate the points I want to make – in fact, I cannot imagine a better time to be doing the work I am doing, In term of availability of imagery, free on the internet, I find this a completely radical moment visually speaking. In the old days you were not surrounded by imagery in the same way – to see an image you might have needed to go to a place of worship, or the house of a wealthy individual, or a library. Now you can find an image of anything absolutely free within seconds on the web. It is really astonishing in a lot of ways. I can come up with an idea, find images to illustrate it, and add it into my performance within minutes, as I did in India, when I decided to add an image of Lakshmi, the girl born with many extra limbs, to my slideshow. It allows me to respond immediately to almost anything and incorporate it into my work using its own visual language – using images from the news media, for instance, which I can then put my own spin on depending on how I contextualize. Making sense of the huge range of images and bits if information that swirl around, or trying to, which is my project, is perfectly suited to a form of visual collage that is certainly post-modern, or perhaps post-post –modern. The lack of broader narrative, or perhaps better described as the lack of faith in a broader narrative, as my work consistently breaks down on itself, is very PM indeed.

 

  1. In which ideal form you want to see the contemporary and future human society?

That is a bit too broad for me to tackle, I am afraid. I see myself as suggesting questions and poking holes in generally accepted values and behaviors, but I would not for a second say I have the answers to any of the questions I raise. I am an American artist living in London and my understanding of the world is what it is. I also have a very cynical sense of history, in that I do not know if or where things have ever been better than they are today. My recent exploration of Communism in Europe for a recent performance was very eye-opening in that regard. All that utopian vision simply fell apart under the weight of corruption and incompetence and hypocrisy which seem to characterize people as political animals regardless of the political system involved. Besides, even as far back as the Greeks and Romans, authors were talking about human society was on the verge of collapse and things were much better in the old days and had degenerated since then. If they were already at that point in 300 BCE you can imagine what they might have thought of contemporary society?" So I guess I have a fairly cynical view of people and history, as I am not sure there was ever a time when things were better than they are now. By many metrics I am sure things are better – advances in science and health care and food production ar e undeniable, democratic ways of living in certain places have brought improvements, and so on.

That being said, I would like to see the greed and violence that define the contemporary moment subside, and see people behaving more simply and more thoughfully. I personally have the sense that the sun is setting on the US, and that we are on the verge of being relegated to the back bench, as happened with England after WW2. Perhaps this is a good thing.  I advocate a simpler way of living that requires much less in he way of material goods, greater attention to the life of the mind and spirit. Slowing down and trying to re-think all the nonsense. We have managed to drive the earth to near extinction within only about 150 years of the discovery of oil as a fuel. This is simply untenable in broader terms, and only bound to get worse as India and China assume a dominant role in the world economy.

 

  1. Do you consider your work to be influenced by other contemporary artists?

I am very interested by stand-up comedy in particular and some performance artists. I am especially influenced by Spalding Gray, a brilliant American theatrical artist  who  developed a style of story-telling which is to my mind extremely compelling – merely sitting at a table and delivering a monologue. This has been the basis of my performative work, though I add the visual component of the stream of images sourced from the web. I am drawn to the work of comedians like George Carlin, who just passed away, and Steven Wright, who use comedy as a means to a broader end – a subtle and sophisticated critique of society that is funny, and thought-provoking – even literary to a degree. I am coming to see my observational way of story-telling as more and more like comedy, and I like to think of myself as the Jerry Seinfeld of the art world. Perhaps the poor man’s Jerry Seinfeld. His marriage of the everyday with the more thought-provoking is deeply successful to me. I am less influenced by artists working in the more traditional art world. There are a few great artists who work with humor in a way that is very powerful and engaging, and of whom I am a great fan. In particular Maurizio Cattelan and Wim Delvoye.

  1. In your work you are mentioning some names and facts which are from real world and you are criticizing the society as well. Do you consider yourself an activist? If so, do you think artists and activists can really repair the global sociopolitical irrationalities by their work?

 

As I mentioned before, I do not see myself as an activist, but rather a satirist. I have great respect for people engaged in political activism, who work in real and direct ways to effect change, though I do not see myself as one of them. Mind you, it is not my intention to be one of them. I think there is a related role in the arts, and I like to think I am doing a small part in consciousness raising in my way, but I would not classify myself as an activist in any real way. I do not have any particular position to promote, and if anything I like to create confusion and doubt about our ways of living, rather than propose anything in particular as a remedy. I do not have the wisdom to do that first of all, to be sure  – for instance, while I am often talking about the crisis in the Middle East and the problems between the West and Islam, which trouble me, I have no concrete solutions to offer. Also, I am deeply doubtful about the art world as a venue for discussing and encouraging political change. In my experience, since I largely present my work in art situations – in galleries, or institutions – the audience is generally on the same page with me politically. So my left-wing spin on the world is to a large degree preaching to the choir. Alternately, many people who are involved in the art world as collectors are extremely wealthy and powerful, and cogs in the very machine that I criticize.  They engage in the art world as investors or in order to socialize in a particular realm, and I wonder how open they are to being convinced about the ills of the world. I try not to have overly high expectations or assumptions about what I do as an artist. I see myself as a sophisticated entertainer to some degree, whose work offers the audience a way to re-think what they are accustomed to and hopefully offer unexpected insights. This may have political ramifications if I do it well, inspiring people to think and act differently, but it is a slow and gradual process if anything. That is a very interesting thing to be able to be involved in, but I think it is a very different animal from activism.

 

  1. Your work can be mentioned as full of individuality. Do you feel you have the freedom to express your individual ideas to the fullest?

This is one of the great things about being an artist. One is free to address one’s own concerns. I can sit down and write about what I want, and I have tried to keep my conceptual and visual language free and open to everything. Sometimes I might use a piece of obscene material just as a challenge to the audience’s sensibilities and to test my nerve as a performer. Can I really say this in front of an audience? Other times, I try to raise sophisticated and subtle points that I have labored over for a while. The range is broad and I want the audience to feel they simply don’t know what’s coming. I can take my work in any direction and basically do whatever I want. My work is very individual in that I am trying to develop my own style of performance. As far as I know no-one else, in London at least, is doing what I am doing right now. I can never be sure if there isn’t someone somewhere doing the same that I do not know about, like the Borges story about the fellow who wrote Don Quixote completely independently  from and unaware of Cervantes, word for word ,exactly the same, by coincidence.  However, I am trying to do my own thing which is not determined by trends or the likelihood of it catching on economically. I just want to make the work that I am driven to make, by whatever demons determine the artistic process.

There are limits of course. One recent performance was censored over dirty images and I had to remove some of them. It did not alter the piece too much though. The more basic question of freedom as an artist is an economic one, If one is not independently wealthy, as I am not, how does one carry on doing work that has very little commercial potential, like my performing? The work that interests me the most has the least commercial potential. But if I cannot survive economically unless I make work that is more market friendly, and less to my personal taste, the notion of freedom is severely curtailed by necessity. That is one of the central challenges of being an artist. One is fee up to a point, then. In my case, I am trying to structure my activities so that I can continue to do the work I love while keeping the rent paid. It is a long-term struggle, but I think it is a good struggle.

 

  1. If you are given the ultimate freedom to express yourself through art works, which topic or idea you would take to present through your work.

I like to think I am working on the things I want to work on and  am only limited by more technical factors. Some of the ideas I have are too expensive to stage at this point. Others would be hard to find an appropriate venue for. The problem, or rather the challenge facing an idea-driven artist like me is being able to realise projects properly. I see this more to do with patience and long-term strategy, ultimately, because there are so many variables involved – financial interests, technical issues to be solved and so on. However, I am on the course I’d like to be on at the moment. I have one project I would like to do which involves the Chinese counterfeit industry, and would involved switching a number of paintings at the Tate in London with cheap Chinese knock-offs without telling the public. It would be an extraordinary thing to do, alerting the public to the enormous potential of cultural institutions to mislead us. A simple idea, but getting it realised would be a tremendous job due to the difficulties of working with institutions and so forth. I have a whole book of similar ideas, many of which I hope to be able to do in time. One needs to be patient in my line of work.

  1. Would you like to leave any message for your present and future spectators, contemporary art workers and to the readers of Author India?

 

I would like to thank everybody for their interest in my work, and wish them all the best in their lives and literary pursuits.

 

-- Interview by AuthorIndia Editor Anirban Dey

 

Douglas Fishbone