Artist, radical, visionary: Francis Thordurn takes on the artworld, TFL, and East Dulwich’s eco-posers and shares his Peckham-inspired solutions to the global economic crisis.
Your work might be described as a combination of sculpture, performance and social sculpture?
I’m interested in value systems not recognised in mainstream culture, in alternatives to the conceptual idea of money. Where I’m coming from money’s not the be all and end all. It would change everything if people realise it’s not that important. The mainstream economy makes it difficult for people to live in a different way. It’s a ludicrous ideal – but I’ll give it a crack while we’re in Peckham. There’s not a lot of cash flowing around here but there’s a lot of other stuff going on. It proves the possibilities to live without the need for making some serious dosh.
I build huge man-powered vehicles that I parade through the street in unannounced guerilla events. I use transport as a symbol for alternative economy. If you’re going to have ten men dragging a thing down the road, spend ten months, ten hours a day, six days a week making it, it’s either a labour of love or slavery. I often use humour as a way of love or slaver. I often use humour as a way to soften the edges of something which is quite politically or social active. I think counterculture should be more part of the mainstream so that people would be more aware of it. The only way to have more cultural diversity is to keep offering alternatives to existing cultural models.
The main tools I’m using are spectacle and the body. I’m not really a sculptor, deep down I’m into action. The stuff that got me going when I got started in art was body art and shock art, Marina Abramovic and Viennese Actionism. That time has come and gone, but those things coaxed me into seeing the body and seeing people for what they are. Sculpture came in as a way to heighten the spectacle: the more ludicrous, large, and impressive you can make the sculpture, the more you pull people in to the work. My sculptures have a DIY appeal: I like how you can get into something and see how you can make it happen with the tools you’ve got at hand. I see it as kind of Neanderthal aesthetic: raw men, raw sculpture, nothing is defined and every effort has gone into making it as monumental and spectacular as possible. The best moments are when people are shouting at you in the street; I see my work as tools to provoke social interaction.
You don’t only make Alternative Transport Networks (ATNs) – what are the other art projects you’re involved in?
Aside from my vehicle project I have a project called Scapegoat which is stripped down to body and action. I also run the Bun House Project Space with photographer Craig Dow to challenge some of the elitist systems within the art world. We’ve set up a community interest company called Field which facilitates emerging artists. We run artists’ residencies and off-site exhibitions. We’ve done projects with Hannah Barry Gallery, Catalyst Arts in Belfast and Generator Projects in Dundee – where we’re bringing 12 Scottish artists to London for a residency in April. We’re really focussing on emerging artists working in similar vein, artists working with traditional material values in a contemporary context, like littlewhitehead and Joel Gray. Field’s half-way between an art organisation and a collective of young, emerging talent. We use the formalised structure of Field to get ideas realised and funded. We’ve got about 25 artists at present and growing, it’s a snowballing group of young, unrecognised artists who have aspirations to work together as opposed to with the system of galleries.
Is there a danger that your spontaneous parades could be perceived as neo-hippie entertainment rather than art?
I despise the ideas of ‘East Dulwich’ [Peckham’s yuppie neighbour]: the lifestyle fashion that’s associated with ‘ecological’ art, hitting certain boxes and being reactionary with it. There’s definitely buzzwords and fashionable ways of living that tread a fine line between what’s feasible and accessible. But the idea that you should be making responsible choices is important. I’m interested in that line between ‘East Dulwich’ and ‘Peckham’, between ‘socially responsible’ fashion and bare necessity – how that difference can be made smaller rather than wider through channels of social action.
I see the art world as a way to make things that could be art but don’t necessarily have to be art. The raw entertainment value I put into the stuff I make is like carnival. It’s not defining it, it’s done through context: I contextualise it as an artist. I try my best to make something that has a social/political grounding or push. In that sense I believe it is art. Contemporary art should be politically engaged and should question things and point people to what your stance is. What’s the point of being in the public domain if you don’t have a stance? In the commercial art world some people manage a stance incredibly well while being in the business, but with a lot of the shows I go to some of the simple obligations we have as artists gets taken over by business and ideas of commodity. My work has utopian or pure ideas behind it which are opposed to some of the shitty nature of what art has become.
Is it possible for artists to operate outside of the art market?
I’ve never sold work and I’m not into commissions – the independence of the artwork is really important but it’s very difficult to operate without means of economy. I’ve been able to work in Area 10 [Pechkam based artist run studios and gallery] for free, and sourcing materials is easily done. But since Area 10 has been shut down (probably to make way for a Tesco) I no longer have that freedom. It can really put a damper on those pure ideas. But I’m sure there is a way, it’s just about creating an alternative economy. Self-sufficiency is important to what I’m doing, I want to retain integrity and wouldn’t want to debase my work any more than it has been which negates any other positions in the work. The only time there’s been any formal invitations to my performances when they’ve been commissioned and I don’t think that works at all with guerilla art they market it as guerilla activity but it’s fake.
This kind of institutional critique seems to have almost disappeared since the art of the ’60s and ’70s. Do you think artists have been gradually relinquishing the power they fought for in the art system?
It starts from the bottom, which means the education system. When I was in art school tutors didn’t talk much about the politics in art. A lot of weight is given to industry. I remember only having one tutor who was pushing ideas of politics or revolutionising social opinions. If you put it in really simple terms, the general opinion of artists is that political art is clichéd and not cool. What’s cool is making objects and being part of a scene. Many artists have debased the idea that you should be trying to do something. Joseph Beuys was challenging systems back in the ’60s, and his art was harnessed and turned into the same animal that he was opposing. Maybe people don’t feel it’s possible to struggle against the big machine. You hit a point where you can’t work outside of the systems, and I don’t know how I will deal with that. Perhaps the only way is to work with a pureness of concept or ambition or whatever for what you’re doing. You have to keep challenging things which aren’t working out for you.