Interview by Cyrus Bozorgmehr (Sirius 23) from Spiral Tribe for LSD Magazine Issue 6 ‘Stand and Deliver’ Published on 11th January 2011
Well it’s not often that we find ourselves at a loss for words here at LSD, but having read the interview that Elate – Jon Hammer sent back to us, apart from getting straight on the blower and asking him to write for LSD, we gorged ourselves on the stunning intellectual breadth, conceptual range and lyrical wonder of his sparkling mind.
Tracing a primal path between the organic and the magical, his canvasses plunge us into the fault lines between the utopian and the dystopian and hurl us out into a molten core of shimmering imagination where genesis and apocalypse close the circle of archetypal consciousness. A pure old school graffiti writer, Elate has lived witness to the artistic evolution of daubing punk slogans in ’82 to the renegade rush of bombing trains, then the explosive colour and sizzling letters of the street into the concept projects of breathtaking pieces of collaborative creativity like Mutate Britain and Arcadia.
Instinctively poetic, searingly perceptive, profoundly positive and inspirationally open hearted, his art and his words hold an enchanted mirror to the ebbs and flows of decades of underground subculture and beyond into the bewitching landscapes of the collective consciousness and the ideas, emotions, complexities, corruption and towering innocence that defines the hidden Hades of the soul and the trickling mysteries of the unchained mind. Seriously though – just fucking read this. – his first ever interview:
Can you tell us a little about your early life and your initial drive into art?
I was born in 1970, on the enchanted day of the enchanted month, according to the ‘Old Religion’, or so I’m told.
I’ve always been captivated by colour, patterns, reflections and how things are affected by light and shade. My earliest memory is lying in my cot, rubbing my eyes to marvel at the crazy patterns which I could generate.
When I got my own room I stared at the artexed ceiling above my bed to make vividly animated landscapes and characters, which kept me awestruck, as did my kaleidoscope, much as kids these days play video games.
As I grew a little older I was similarly transported by viewing slides through our antique microscope.
I could already read and write when I started school so I drew, in full perspective, in an attempt to ease the boredom and was brutally attacked by a teacher for my efforts. At this point I first realised that making art would not necessarily be easy.
I came from a poor but cultured family, our working class background was lit up with amazing colour prints and books on art and music everywhere. We only had a black and white TV but Heironymous Bosch’s visions hung in almost every room which I lost myself in continually. There was always a fresh supply of paper and art materials to hand.
My aunt was an amateur archaeologist, armchair historian and expert on the classics, and took me round museums, castles and churches regularly from the age of three. I loved the sacred architecture, staring at stained glass and into the cabinets. She told me what the things were and where they came from, how they were made and how they found their way to the museum and this fired my enthusiasm for art and history.
How did early experiences of sub culture and counter culture impact themselves on your developing identity?
In the early 70s the consciousness revolution that happened in the 60s, had spread from the hippy underground into broader society.
My parents were clearly affected by that ethic and the self sufficiency and whole-food thing, there would always seem to be Bob Dylan and blues playing, vegetables growing, joss sticks burning and yoga going on.
I remember hearing Dylan and blues songs as a very young child and making visual narratives in my head so I guess that stretched my imagination quite a lot.
We lived in Norfolk back then. A lot of the people who were involved in the London hippy scene in the 60s moved out to the West Country and East Anglia to pursue dreams of pastoral living and put on festivals.
One I remember very well was Barsham Faire in ‘74 and ‘75; a medieval folk festival with entertainers, and puppeteers, horses and dogs everywhere.
I remember seeing adults, playing totally innocently just like us kids, banging drums and playing flutes and singing and dancing and basking in the sun in wonderful costumes, it was like being transported into a golden age, very beautiful times.
I felt at home instantly and understood what was going on. It gave me the idea that there was another way of living, a higher human purpose of imagination and fulfillment that was beyond the everyday capitalist conformity of living in a house and going to work or school.
Back in the real world I got more disillusioned with the iron fist of my teachers and became more aware of the rapid outbreak of punk from the ‘shock-horror stories’ on the news and from playground rumours.
After feeling completely powerless at the hands of authority it was as if aliens had suddenly landed in our midst, and they were on our side.
The significance of their presence in society was something we instantly understood, and as we got older and became brave enough to stand up to the teachers we found that punk was there for us too, it became a symbol that there really was another way of living that us kids could actually do ourselves, whether our parents liked it or not. Back then punk really adversely affected them, threatening the whole fabric of society.
When we saw the punks walking down the street the adults’ powerless anger and outrage made us warm towards that and copy parts of it so that you could cause a little bit of that outrage too, it was a way to take back power, of standing up for yourself and saying no, fuck you I’m different, even if it was just a badge or a safety pin, or the name of a band on your schoolbag it showed your mindset and loyalty and really pissed authority figures off.
It’s difficult to comprehend now just how shockingly different punk was, people were reacting like it was the end of society as we know it, punks were regarded with the sort of fear and loathing normally reserved for killers, as in effect they were, they were killing the broader conventions of polite society, behind which lurked all the bullshit.
To what degree were you shaped by authority and by resistance to it?
My first drive to make art was using food to make hand prints on the wall which didn’t go down particularly well, but it was rewarding to see how I could affect my surroundings so I kept doing it and as I got older I moved onto crayons and felt tipped pens.
I had to resist authority and still have to, to a certain extent, in order to be able to express myself without compromising my identity.
By ’79 I started buying punk records and collecting the ‘Graffiti’ books by Nigel Rees with my pocket money. I learnt about rebellion and politics, slogans and daubing and became fascinated by illicit mark making onto desks and school walls.
By 1980 how I dressed sometimes and the music I listened to meant I had to be prepared for discipline and ridicule but I took it in my stride. I had my mates and the music had a very important message and I felt right to be doing what we were doing.
As we grew older me and my pals got into the anarchist punk band Crass. Their stencil graffiti was all over the streets in the early 80s. It was really militant and uncompromising and I started buying their music and collecting their posters which folded out from record sleeves and covered my bedroom wall with a collage of protest art.
The backs of the posters were used to spread information about poverty, corruption, racism, sexism, the destruction of the environment, nuclear war, whatever was the subject of the record. After reading the text, listening to the songs and looking at the art, you could never watch the news in the same way again, they gave me the strength to reject the systems values and pursue my individuality.
In the early eighties all out nuclear war expected to break out at any minute. Crass imagery and music were as vital during this terrifying time as my teddy bear had been ten years before. I began painting their logos and slogans on the streets around 1982 often using their trademark stencil font.
I was into the Clash also. Futura 2000 was doing artwork for them from ’82, I remember copying his handstyles from the lyric sheet of Combat Rock LP and fusing the dynamic into my freehand slogans. I never realised the relevance until 84 when I saw Style Wars and got the book Subway Art, by this time we were living within easy reach of central London.
After a couple of years of experimenting by painting letters in underpasses and old warehouses I started on British Rail trains in 86 then the London Underground system by ‘87, writing various tags until I started writing Elate in late ‘87 which I loved writing and stuck with and bombed with all of my energy until ‘89.
I slowed down after getting caught in Hainault depot, by then acid house culture was quite literally kicking off every weekend in open defiance of the law; then in the nineties and new millennium the traveler squat parties and Reclaim the Streets protests certainly pushed the limits and gave lots of opportunity for painting.
The success of such events and balls required to pull it off certainly strengthened our unity and helped to define our attitude as individuals.
Was punk ultimately a purely destructive movement or did it leave a wider legacy?
Punk was destructive of the stagnation of once revolutionary movements like rock’n’roll and hippy which had become bloated, smug and commercialised. Alternative culture had been taken over by investors in suits and sold on the high street, effectively becoming a bolt on commodity, a fashion option.
Punk had to happen, there were too many disaffected people who were seething with anger at the way things were in music and art and fashion and politics, this had been bubbling under for years. When it gets like that something always happens, it’s like the tides and the moon, unstoppable. The more resistance is encountered to change the more radical and destructive the change is when it finally happens, the two are directly proportional.
The way to deal with it at that time was to ‘remix’ disposable consumer culture by tearing it up and pinning it back together, confronting a sleepwalking, TV doped nation with twisted totems of itself.
People walked down the street wearing carrier bags and bin liners, sink plugs and dismembered dolls, heavily tabooed imagery, rubber and bondage held together with safety pins and with coloured hair deliberately badly hacked and chopped, it standardised into the ‘mail-order’ look; Mohican and leather jacket stereotype, but the early look was nothing like that at all, and was actually violently surreal, in the same respect as Marcel Duchamp’s ‘object’s trouvé’ or found objects. Instead of placing them in a gallery as Duchamp did, early punks wore them and became a nihilist parody, totems of the world around them.
I remember news clippings showing tribal make-up with a toilet seat around the neck, pink nylon frilly blouse held on with bog-chains wrapped tight cutting the flesh, a bloke in the Sunday Times holding a pitchfork pierced through his cheek teamed up with an old gardening jumper and even one bloke who’d walk down the streets with his baby’s dirty nappies pinned to his jacket and his granny’s best Sunday wig on, I remember looking at such pictures, and similar apparitions on the street and almost retching with an adrenalin mixture of disgust and thrilled excitement.
As Charles Dickens said: “Nature gives to every time and season some beauties of its own”.
Punk had to destroy something to create something new, something we now value as one of the most important cultural shifts in modern times, the old order was becoming boring to too many people in a society set against a background of strikes and power cuts with a soundtrack of Abba – something had to give. Punk inevitably became a victim of its own success – a commercial mainstream in its own right, but its’ message in its’ pure form is timeless and not for sale.
The clued up people in every ‘avant-garde’ bail out at a sellout then go on to make the next thing happen.
Even though I was still a kid it was all around me, freed by punk’s DIY ethic people bailed out in a myriad of directions, from anarcho protest to new romanticism, skinhead, rock against racism, reggae, politics, scrap sculpture and squatting, social work, glue, heroin, TV presenting, the list is endless, in this way punk left a truly diverse legacy which continues to this day.
How primal an instinct is it to paint our public spaces?
According to paleo-archeological records, we’ve been doing it since the prehistoric Stone Age, between 300,000 and 700,000 years ago, but in the last few hundred years it’s become tabooed unless you are a government body or capitalist business.
Can you describe the cultural shift around you when Hip Hop hit?
Hip-hop freed the spirit through expression rather than using expression to question the system; it felt like the next step. Self actualisation by painting your name, rapping, cutting up breaks and breakdancing became the protest. Writing your tag was writing ‘I am somebody’.
To what extent was graffiti tied to hip hop culture and to what extent was it an independent force?
Graffiti has always been independent but hip hop helped bring the New York train style to popular culture, as a cultural package and gave it a soundtrack, in a way they evolved hand-in-hand.
A lot of people who wrote back in the day came from punk, skinhead or heavy metal or comic collecting or just lads who liked having a laugh and breaking the law and had found a new way to do it, even people who just loved vandalising stuff and had moved on from phone boxes and bus shelters. Seeing their name rolling past in full colour meant smashing stuff up wasn’t too much fun anymore.
It’s important also, in my opinion, to realise the broader historical context of what we were doing. Encrypting and illuminating the letter form is an ancient art and goes all the way back to the monks of Lindisfarne who encrypted their gospels in an interpretation of the letter form that rejoiced at the spiritual truth they believed was in the texts.
Islamic scholars, forbidden to use pictorial representation encoded their message of the divine into their script and decorated their temples with it. By expressing fundamental concepts through repetitive geometric designs based on the letter form they were able to transcend everyday consciousness.
Through graffiti we still enjoy aesthetic encryption of letters. It’s now a global folk art that transcends race, creed, culture and language. American train graffiti that started in the early 70s was directly influenced by psychedelic art coming out of the San Francisco freak community. If you read Robert Crumb and Vaughn Bodé comics you will see forms that came out on the trains a few years later.
Mouse and Kelly, Hapshash the guys who did the concert posters encrypted the words, disguising letters in the flow of the shapes so people had to go right up close to them and figure out who was going to be playing, it’s been a theme of the underground throughout history, a secret society with its own language of forms inaccessible to non-initiates. These were ‘proto-wildstyle’, but even the pioneers themselves were influenced among other things, by the lettering on the Beatles album Rubber Soul from 1965 which is written in bubble letters.
It’s the first album to be recorded after John Lennon had started to take LSD; the letters would still stand up today as graffiti. They were designed to complement the distorted band portrait chosen by the Beatles after the projector screen slipped during a presentation.
If you look at the lettering on any Beatles covers before that it was all straight letters, John Lennon had unlocked something and that was reflected in their music and in turn their visuals also. Rubber Soul was the album that marked their musical turning point. So the illumination of the alphabet to express inner worlds has a life and historical context of its own but you can never discount where it came from and the energy of hip hop which allowed us to rediscover it.
It’s an interface for not only putting across your identity but putting across more abstract colour and form; ‘style’, in an entirely new way. In a way the letter, the actual word that you are writing can even cease to be as important, what is important is how you write it, communicating through von-verbal shapes and movement, how it makes the eye dance and how you touch the soul.
Even in a good tag or throw up I see that.
What was the rush of doing trains like back in the 80’s and how much did you feel part of a wider movement?
It started for me in ‘86 as a messenger boy in the City of London. I used the tube many times each day to deliver documents which gave me the opportunity to get my name up.
I came back to the office later and later as I went further afield. My smart appearance allowed me freedom from suspicion. I eventually got fired in early ‘87 as my performance plummeted the more I got up.
This didn’t go down well at home, so I hung out on the trains and slept wherever I could, just sneaking back for a bath, a hot meal and a kip every few days then straight back out before anyone came home. I soon got to know writers from all over the city from riding the line and hanging out at the writers’ bench and got taken along on missions all over the place and learned how to live on the street successfully.
It was definitely an amazing unrepeatable time with lots of great writers and good access all over the Underground network, the place was bombed, no CCTV anywhere. Bombed trains ran in service all the time for weeks on end without a buff, insides were caned on all lines especially the little Met, almost all the stations were battered with pieces on the platforms sometimes, tracksides was seen as a permanent reach, never buffed, there was live graffiti on almost every train on most lines by mid ‘88 which was amazing to see, especially if it was your name and you were hanging out watching the trains with writers and your name rolls by, that was when you felt like you were really a part of something.
I played a walk on part nothing more but am glad I was there to experience it first hand. What we did could never be repeated and I would never advise anyone to try, train systems are extremely dangerous and people who’ve worked there all their lives still get killed and all train systems today are infinitely more locked down with CCTV, razor wire, inf[r]ared, heavy sentences etc.
Did the Acid House movement usher in an age of unashamed love and unity?
Yes and no. Yes, in the that the few thousand people who were there in 88-89 there was an intense feeling of unity at the parties with total strangers hugging one another and giving each other massages, totally innocent. It was still very new and underground and very intense. The high volume of switched on people at the early raves made them quite different to the post ‘89 scene.
It was like going into a different universe, it was like you had a glimpse of the most ancient and mysterious secret of humanity that you cherished with all your heart, it wasn’t a thing you could ever put into words but only when you catch that ecstatic gleam in the eye of knowing, gnosis; hypnosis through dance.
We felt like aliens living in straight society after experiencing it; so yes, there was and everyone was really kind and nice to each other, there were always exceptions but for a very short time acid house did that, it enabled us to find an almost psychic common bond with complete strangers, some of us have still got it.
Acid house affected the outside the world more subtly, a lot of people went into other areas and took that love with them. It affected culture in a massive way, just as much as punk and the hippy movement.
It totally redefined popular culture and inspired people to great things. They set up other parties across the world or embracing the eastern mysticism, charity work, massage, music production, or for me visionary painting.
So it did usher in an age of very intense vibrant creative energy but in my opinion it wasn’t really an age of unashamed love and unity apart from a very small window of time and space at those early acid house parties.
To what degree did psychedelics confirm your early wanderings in the sacred geometry of nature?
I instantly recognised the patterns everywhere and looked into the lights and lasers and smoke it felt like ‘coming home’, like the bio-genetic archive of all life, deep in my DNA but everywhere in the universe all at once and with complete absence of objective time, that’s the only way I can describe it.
The patterns were the same species and shapes and colour and form as the patterns I saw when I pressed my eyes as a baby, saw in kaleidoscopes and the things I saw in microscopes and the patterns I saw in the trees in the woods in the winter, the patterns I saw in the churches where the vaulting reaches the apex of the roof or watching ‘fairy kingdoms’ as a child by the fireside, but amplified infinitely. The sounds of the music were the auditory equivalent of the shapes, which ceased to be separated by the senses, becoming a whole experience, ‘synesthesia’.
So it instantly felt familiar, it didn’t feel like it was alien or something was happening to me. I was pulling open a door in my mind that limited my consciousness of the framework of all life. It confirmed that in my early wanderings, there was a sacred geometry of nature, which I was able to tap into and I was able to unlock the mysteries of the universe without ever leaving the acid house party.
I’d like to point out that LSD is an illegal drug and it can be extremely dangerous. I am not advising anyone to take it, just talking about my personal experiences with it at a revolutionary point in history. A lot of people don’t find it so welcoming and try desperately to hold on to their ego, try to fight the trip and subsequently can have horrific experiences that can damage them forever.
How has the multi dimensionality of the psychedelic experience shaped your insights into form and colour?
It confirmed my intuitive understanding of the way perception works without ever needing to take it again. That one time would have been enough to provide me with insight for the rest of my life. It clarified my suspicions that the universe was much simpler at a fundamental level than all the science books and all the religion texts could ever tell you and it’s something that can never be explained, but once you’ve experienced it, always stays with you.
If you imagine the journey to transcendence and enlightenment is like climbing a mountain and you know that you can never see the top or sometimes even the bottom because it’s always obscured by clouds and mist, well ‘the experience’ was like a wind came along and blew the clouds and mist away so all of a sudden I could see the top of the mountain and I could see where I was in relation to it and where the mountain was in relation to the rest of the world and where I’d come from; I could see my journey along it in minute detail and in relation to the landscape around, and not only from where I was ‘on the mountain’ but from everywhere all at once, ‘nonlocal’; and the path was clear to me and when the experience was finished the clouds came back over but not as impenetrable as before because I knew where everything was. Even if I couldn’t see it, I had that inner knowledge of the way of the universe. That’s stayed with me forever.
As an artist that is incredibly useful because it enables me now to relay a glimmer of ‘the experience’ to others without them having to fast or meditate or trip out; they can look at my paintings and with an open heart and unchained mind they can take a little bit of eternity away with them through safe means, through art.
I think that I had a pretty good intuition anyway but altered states enabled me to with Keen One clarify and it gave me confidence that my suspicion about the unseen order of things was correct. This goes far beyond ‘the experience’ into the broader human story. My work is in no way limited by that understanding or necessarily inspired by it, just informed. Many people who love my paintings have never experienced such altered states and probably would never want to; you don’t have to blow up a missile installation to appreciate a Bond movie.
Why did you feel that a fresh grounding in the history of art was important in the early 90’s?
The awakenings, movements and altered states that I experienced since birth, despite their distinct visual lexicons also had incredible similarities.
I decided that it was so fascinating that it required further investigation. I began to notice that a lot of the shapes and themes that I saw in different works in many genres I also saw in Neolithic cave paintings through to the Flemish masters, Art Deco, the Futurists, the Surrealists to Da-Da and Cubism and Art Nouveau to name but a few.
I began to notice that shapes that I was experiencing through graff and acid house, bio-morphic shapes, I noticed that they echoed what I saw in microscopes and kaleidoscopes, even in letters on the trains and hippy buses.
I wanted to know why those shapes have that peculiar resonance, why they kept recurring throughout history; why people had been painting the same species of colours, patterns and shapes on cave walls from the dawn of humanity that they were then painting in the early 20th century, in surrealist, futurist and cubist paintings, in art deco and in the ‘70s and ‘80s on graffiti trains and then in the late ‘80s on acid house backdrops and fractals. What did these shapes mean, what was the underlying resonance and what was its position in the history of art?
That was a big question in my head so I went to the library, and I got countless books out, I learned everything I could about every form of art, technique, history, philosophy, folklore, religion, psychology, information theory and much more, this reading continues to this day.
I gradually came to understand and get a feeling for the placement within human culture about what was happening then and what’s still happening now – through the hippy era, through punk and hip hop and protest and through the psychedelic culture and then onward into the information age we have been witness to an exponential growth of consciousness and cultural identity.
At the time much of it was regarded by the establishment as a threat and demonised as throwaway culture, smelly hippys or disgusting punks, nasty b-boys, mindless vandals, spaced out trance dancers, dirty squatters or a violent public nuisance, I believe[…]that these will be recognised, by some at least, to be as important in these ‘end times’ as the Renaissance was to the Middle Ages.
Do you feel that the movements you grew into in the 90’s were more holistic and fulfilling than the individual or crew based dynamics of straight up graff[?]
The traveller squat parties and protest raves like Reclaim the Streets had a much broader scope, whereas graffiti had always been more self-focussed. My involvement with these movements and this increase in my awareness made me really direct my creativity towards the spiritual inner journey, or the eco-awareness fight, so after that I think that to go back into bombing it wasn’t really what I was looking for.
I was still doing graffiti pieces occasionally and some of my work was very graffiti inspired, but I think it was a part of a much bigger movement. My work became an anonymous part of the event.
I eventually began working with light technicians and djs, messing around with UV paint and strobe lights and smokes and lasers.
I always continued to paint pieces but not as much and not on trains anymore as I didn’t want to get caught and not be able to do the other stuff I was doing so that kind of took a back seat.
How much does the organic world infuse your art?
To a very great extent, I am a great believer that the reason particular forms look beautiful is that they represent and echo shapes that are deep within us all.
Those patterns and shapes are actually ‘there’ beneath base level consciousness all the time, they manifest themselves through shapes in the natural world such as flowers and shapes in the scenery in the distance, very often nature viewed very close up or from afar you see those sorts of shapes. I always find that they have the most transporting quality.
I find that a lot of great art uses those shapes that are in fact, nature’s own, the shapes that nature finds successful in her building of animals and bones and tissue, in honeycombs and trees and horizons and the magnifications under electron microscopes, nature has a very set and repetitive, but very beautiful intrinsically wonderful way of doing things, when I am working up an outline or when I am putting together a sketch for an oil painting, I am very aware that those are playing a part in my composition.
After reading several books about sacred geometry, the Fibonacci sequence and the golden section, which describe the mathematics of beauty and growth in nature, I looked back upon several previous works and realised that the harmonic dimensions in the work conformed perfectly to these algorithms without my even being aware of their existence. I’d done it that way intuitively; reading about it after was like seeing a map of somewhere I knew intimately for the first time.
To what degree are your processes intuitive and to what degree are they structured?
It’s a sliding scale between the two according to the work, some of my paintings are completely based around intuitive techniques that involve splashing paint and other ‘automatic techniques’ and sometimes my paintings are very structured using geometry and outlines and are very measured and planned; some of my paintings are a meeting between the two, incorporating a random automatic technique within a framework that is meticulously painted and even mathematically and geometrically worked out.
It helps to have structured skill sets that will enable you to get out those intuitive insights, to be able to paint effortlessly takes years and years of practice until it becomes second nature, even mixing oils to the exact colour instantly without thinking so you don’t lose your rhythm; then even very accomplished techniques can become a part of the automatic process.
Does analysis accentuate art or subvert it?
It can do either, it is dependent on who is analysing it and what they are trying to achieve by analysing it.
The internet has given a powerful new tool for self aggrandisement to those so inclined.
Anyone can give themselves power over those artists who choose to relinquish it by starting a blog, no matter how devoid of artistic talent, credibility, personality, or knowledge of the scene. It’s one way to have people regard you as an expert, to have artists befriending you, lavish you with attention, valuable gifts and treat you with importance.
The only thing you have to do is choose a name, and blog blog blog, hey presto, instant status in the art world and instant power over artists. Art dealers whose shows you favour will treat you only slightly less warmly than their clients. That, any free gifts, grandiose prestige and access to ‘elite’ gatherings, I’m sorry to say, seems to be the prime motivation for many, (but by no means all of them) Which is a truly fucking sorry state of affairs.
You might have a blogger who is particularly loyal to one artist’s ‘camp’, or crew, he might deliberately not cover artists who threaten the existing hierarchy, while giving an impression that his blog is a comprehensive reflection of the scene, or he may analyse his friends’ work in a way that is unrealistic, a ‘puff piece’. This subverts art as it draws attention away from it and causes people to distrust art analysis generally.
Any decent critic or blogger may look at art and not tell you what is the “right” or “wrong” way to perceive it, but may give clues or pointers into that artist’s influences to help people make up their own minds and discover meaning for themselves. That may enable an epiphany that the viewer himself might not have been able to arrive at on his or her own.
All too often these days however there is no richer meaning there to allude to.
Critics and publishers have always been a link between the artist and the art viewer and I think that if it’s unaffected by any allegiance other than to the reader, and any motivation other than to the furtherance of art, then it can allow people to discover greatness and enhance its’ appreciation in a way that they wouldn’t have been able to without some help, so it can do both.
How much do you feel part of a timeless folk culture[?]
Completely. To aid an inner journey with archetypes colour and form is something that’s been a constant throughout the history of humankind.
There have been carvings on caves and ritual theatrics and shamanism since the dawn of man. The ‘old religions’ enable man to experience the divine first-hand, without an intermediary so the message is pure, as soon as you try to define it, to put it into words you’ve lost the meaning.
Under the comparatively recent rule of the male ‘dominator’ religions we have forgotten that old female/intuitive culture; we have put our ‘unity consciousness’ and so our planetary awareness to bed with dire results to the planet.
We lost touch with the ritual theatrics and shamanic pyrotechnics of nature and I believe that is a very important part of human culture and I believe that is something that needs to be protected, cherished and fought for.
You painted the backgrounds for Arcadia at Glastonbury this year, 2010– can you describe the communal atmosphere in the creative process across such a range of skills and talents?
I’d heard of Arcadia through working with Joe Rush and the Mutoid Waste Company. Pip is Joe’s brother and I’d seen some of his smoking trees and lampposts at the MuTate Britain show. After watching videos of Arcadia’s previous performances and when Pip saw pictures of my work we discussed how some of our imagery and forms are uncannily similar. This was a good sign that we were ‘barking up the same tree’.
I had done quite a lot of preparatory work with Pip beforehand. We also found we had many similar influences and insights and based one of the designs around carvings on an Aztec temple, but in metal, and modified on Pip’s suggestion to the ‘exhaust pipes’ you could see on the entrance arch.
There are so many different people doing their own creative things on a build of that scale that a lot of the time you have to actually switch off from what everyone else is doing and concentrate on your own task otherwise you wouldn’t really be able to focus, it was a bit like an ant colony, it’d sometimes look to the untrained observer like loads of people running in utter chaos but each person has a very highly specific role within the ‘organism’ and goal and job to do and a target to reach, but it’s also great to snap out of that for a while and really appreciate other peoples roles and skills; or to drop everything and lend a hand
to whatever needs shifting.
A lot of the ideas me and Pip brainstormed beforehand, but they all came together onsite so really all the ideas were collaborations between myself and Pip put together with what scrap or surfaces were available.
But yeah, it was a great atmosphere, very driven and militant people who put on a wicked show, I think you have to be militant if you are going to put on a performance at that level; but you know in a high octane environment you’ve got a large amount of intense pressure and very creative people working to a deadline in one space; no one is ever going to get on with everyone all the time, I would never want or expect to, but by and large Arcadia are a nice crew who are smashing it and it was good fun to work with them.
To what extent was your painting a breathing part of that awesome scrap organism?
Completely, I gladly surrendered my ego and any personal agenda to paint something that was sympathetic, something that enhanced their vibe.
I certainly had a lot of great visual material to work with; and surreal industrial decay is a style I’ve painted for many years, but in an arena like that you can’t have a painting that stands out or attracts your attention too much because there is so much going on around you.
You don’t want to compete with that; what you really need is something that helps to bring it all together, and help conduct the eye in its’ journey around the spectacle.
I did actually draw a lot from my experience of painting trains because the art is never static, it’s funky, its trains clattering into the station with people on them and there is a lot of movement and the trains are rocking from side to side, screeching out of the tunnel with the sparks and smell of the electricity and the brakes.
When you see the graffiti on the train the letters have to rock and it moves because your eye is always in movement, the same as when you do graffiti on tracksides, when you go past it on the train you’re seeing it moving and all the objects are in motion so it’s fast, it’s funky, it’s got movement and you learn from that how to make artwork funky, with movement, even when you’re not painting a train, even on the street even because the street’s got movement too, building have got energy too. I really don’t see that in a lot of the graffiti or street art these days, which has very little funk, soul or rhythm, it just sits there, static in its own space.
When an Arcadia spectacular is in progress your eye is drawn from event to event to event from the guys fighting with lightning bolts to the lasers to the strobes and scans, to the emcees, the girls on the trapezes to the performance artists with flame throwers to the flame throwers on the top of the rig and the fireworks and smoking trees and back to the lasers and because of that your eye is darting around the whole time a little bit like when you play pinball and the ball goes to the top of the machine and gets stuck between the mushrooms and it pings around really fast.
The sort of path the pinball takes is pretty much the path your eye takes when you are watching the Arcadia spectacular and so what my job was, was to bring something cohesive that would help to guide the eye in its’ dance around the arena.
What was really important to me was to do something that didn’t scream out as a piece of art in its own right, it was exactly what your question asked, a living, breathing part of the whole spectacular that transcends any ego or agenda in favour of the Arcadia vision.
What is the relationship between underground and overground in your eyes?
The ‘overground’, by which I mean the brand name galleries and artists often view the underground as somewhere to rip ideas, sentiments and attitudes off. Then they view us as the enemy when we stand up for ourselves, draw attention to their tactics, question their authority or do something amazing or beautiful, thus by our very existence we challenge what they’re doing. Despite this they are very aware that they need to be seen as ‘the underground’, and ‘outsiders’ to the mainstream press, to look cool to the consumer.
To quote Fuel- Cold Crush Dukes: “we have our story of modern culture and the ‘brand name’ artists have theirs, however the two are completely contradictory”
A phoney smoke and mirrors illusion doesn’t look nearly so convincing when it’s viewed next to the real thing so for the ‘urban art establishment’ to look ‘underground’ ‘happening’ and ‘fresh’ they have to try to keep the real underground talent out of view wherever possible, or bring in the occasional element of it for some badly needed‘reflected glory’ when their popularity plummets and they run out of ideas, always making sure it’s PRed in such a way to keep their dominance intact.
The stencils and prints of anti capitalism and non compliance that they sell enable consumers to feel that they are ostensibly part of an underground by buying an artwork that depicts a challenge to the establishment.
Through their purchase customers feel that they are challenging the establishment themselves, albeit safely; making them feel that they are “part of the solution” without them actually doing anything except enriching those whose main objective is to milk dissent and socio-ecological-awareness for every single last penny of hard currency.
This effectively neutralises energy that could otherwise have a useful purpose.
There has been an increasing demand for this as the Earth self destructs around us, and people wish to assert dissent safely. Hands over your ears, look at your print and sing “la la la la la la la” to drown out the news while increasing your ‘rebel’ status within your peer group. At least you’ll feel like you’re part of the solution.
Accurate historical and cultural awareness helps to give this phenomenon a much more informed context and appraisal.
Do supposedly free movements often corrupt themselves into dangerously closed mindsets?
Yes and the current ‘urban art’ scene, despite appearances is the perfect example. It is now an aggressive capitalist machine that employs the propaganda and censorship tactics of a dictatorship or corporation and has completely lost touch with the original message of what it was supposed to be about.
How do I know this? I’ve been the victim of a campaign of vicious harassment and intimidation to stop me from opening an independent gallery in Brick Lane, East London, the centre of the UK art scene showing visionary fine painting by oldskool train writers, as well as straight up graff and visionary art. That’s how I found out. I had a notice pinned to my wall saying ‘Art gallery not needed-London’ then a car was driven at me at top speed outside our intended gallery one night – that’s when I knew it was serious.
Countless other things have happened too, I’ve recorded every single event, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant. To their credit the Police are taking it very seriously and have been kind and supportive.
Loads of people are now.
In this age of corruption and decadence, outsider and street art is clung on to as one of the last vestiges of purity, it is vital that it remains peoples free will to paint, show and enjoy which art they so choose, and not be subject to censorship. However any integrity has been bankrupted by those at the top.
They have barged arrogantly into our precious subculture from their oases of privilege, taken our symbols of protest and hope for a better way and turned them into vacuous stock options.
They have turned the street, our ancestral theatre of dissent and expression, into an extension of their galleries and imposed their hierarchy on it. They have taken that tool of free speech, the web, and twisted it into their propaganda machine. They paint over our sacred relics to promote their products which actually ridicule the paying public for believing their hype, and now to top it all they see a spark of promise that burns at the heart of our culture and use hired thugs to try to put it out of the way so none can enjoy it and benefit from its’ light. I was really scared at first but after a while fear changes into something else entirely.
These actions remind me of the story of King Canute who was so removed from reality by his privileged upbringing and had become so vain and deluded by flattery from his courtiers that he really thought he could do anything. He thought that he could dictate the greater goings-on in the world and in an attempt to prove this he took his throne down to the seashore and he tried to command the sea not to come in. Of course the sea came in and he got his feet wet. The moral of the story is that no matter how rich you are and how many people tell you how great and powerful you are you cannot command over the natural world and you cannot have command over the moon and the stars and the tides and the seasons.
Art and the growth of art and the ebb and flow of cultural movements are just as much a part of the natural world as the tides and the wind, as are the evolution of human thought and expression.
No matter how that might not be ‘convenient’ for certain people that’s just the way it is, you cannot hold back art, you cannot hold back the sea.
Is art ever transcendental in itself or does all its power rest in the spirit of the viewer?
Certain things are transporting, because they ‘remind’ us unconsciously of that inner beauty buried deep inside, the ever changing kaleidoscope of energy at the base of all life; like glittering gems, the radiance in a spray of flowers, even the experience of the sun setting in the waves of an ocean.
The very reason these things drew esteem is, as Aldous Huxley states in ‘Heaven and Hell’, “…they remind our unconscious of what it enjoys at the minds antipodes, and…are so fascinating that we…become capable of experiencing consciously something of that which, unconsciously is always with us”.
These things have therefore, been highly prized by those who wish to imbue themselves with ‘other-worldly’ reverence; government, religion and business.
Gold, Vermillion and Ultramarine made churches and royalty transporting, bright colour being an overwhelming feature of the ‘other-world’ and giving the peasantry a rare glimpse toward ‘heaven’, but we are too used to bright colour now to be moved by it.
“Familiarity breeds indifference, we have seen too much pure bright colour in Woolworth’s to find it intrinsically transporting” Heaven and Hell- Aldous Huxley- 1956.
So for art or an artist to be continually transcendental it/he needs to be continually self renewing and have an intrinsic grounding in the absolute.
What are you working on at the moment – and ultimately – what is the dream?
I’m painting what may well be my best work yet, the revelation of the next level is the purest joy, the dream is still to come.
Keep an eye on my blog for all news.
Website and blog: www.jonhammer.com
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