Francis Thorburn_Free Ride_2008
You have proclaimed yourself a Minister of Alternative Transport… What exactly is the ministry you created?
It’s some kind of new research body for the future of transport. Everything is experimentation leading to a discovery of revolution in transport. Two situations or thoughts gave me couple of ideas before I created the Alternative Transport Network (ATN). I heard on the radio about 5 year ago that helium will be finished like in 5 or 6 years. There will be no access to it anymore. Totally weird, but it shows something – like extreme consumption. So helium will be gone…
Do you think it is because of the amount of balloons in entertainment parks…?
Possibly… I wanted to make a project based on helium. We may be the last generation to experience balloons. I came up with an idea to make a huge balloon or a series of huge balloons that would be equal in mass to the body of an individual so you have to find out how much weight you have to volume so that you can have gravity close to 0. You could tie the balloon to your body and your weight becomes like 10 grams. The balloon would be equal in floating volume to your weight. So you could jump and go for 1 mile because you have no weight.
How high can you go?
It depends on how windy it would be. I never made that performance, but I did drawings of that. The idea was to travel the whole of England by jumping. Later, off course, that made me think about expendable resources like petrol and so on. I was engaged with another project at the time. It was a parody institution called the South London Institute of Common Sense and it was a parody university, which used performance lectures as modes of teaching. It was something in the middle between a lecture and a piece of art. It was totally unsuccessful because it was my first curatorial project actually, I was inviting artists to do something. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted.
Why did you want to experiment with an institution?
It was the beginning of my critique of institutionalization and the boundaries of what is acceptable and not acceptable within an institution. I was wondering how you could open the ideas of how an institution should be structured by thinking of new ways of doing it. But it was pointless. Fundamentally it was absurdity which was the mode of critique – to make it absurd is to highlight the point that it is not working properly. At that time I was finishing my university degree and it was a complete battle with institution to make my work possible because they had no space, resources and bureaucracy was a huge barrier to the process of creating an artwork or an idea. The energy was missing. The university in England is just a money making machine. So the project was inspired by my aggression toward this experience. That idea became really important to me metaphorically for the whole of society. After a couple of years of working around those things I began thinking about a revolution in society. About politics being the biggest bureaucratic system of control of people in the world…
So you became an anarchist?
Something like that. But a happy anarchist. I never wanted to cause chaos. I only wanted to bring about conversation through completely positive actions and experiences which are alternative. And this is when the idea of alternativity or alternative culture became really strong in the world. Everything that is alternative is opposed to mainstream and mainstream is completely in agreement with a system which controls the way we formulate our opinions in our life. So it was all about offering new alternatives, which are positive and humorous as well because I love comedic imagery. It brightens my life. Absurdity and humor. That was like the main tool in seduction of the public in these guerilla actions.
So the two mentioned actions became a background for your interest in transport as well as alternative institution and that’s why you became a Minister of Alternative Transport…
Yes, so I created the institution which is the Alternative Transport Network (ATN). And it is very directly parodying a system of Transport for London (TFL). It is the rival. This is how I imagined it. We could become alternative to transport in London.
The vehicles that you construct – what they require is physical strength. And we as society are not so strong.
There is the idea of human hamsters…I am playing with the idea of a man. I am challenging it because I do not know how identity of man fluctuated in the last 100 years. And that’s a very personal question.
You mean the identity of man in general or the identity of the working class man?
I think it's all about the identity of a man in general. It has this working class undertone about heavy work, but actually this is the thing about loss of labour in everyday life which is going on because of the technological advances. I am kind of reminiscing about physicality of a man in general. It goes much farther back in fact. I look back at times where you had to trust your physicality – pre-gun times. The idea of creating weapons to catch things to survive is coming up quite a lot in my thoughts in the last couple of years. But I did not move away from my vehicle project because it is not finished. So this man thing and power of man and masculinity and what do we do now as contemporary man if we are not wanting to be part of a system which can offer us a job in an office. How do you create your own job? And this is probably how this role playing of Minister of Alternative Transport came about.
Physical strength is a nature of a human being. It would be strange and dangerous to forget it and to become dependant on technology only. But on the other hand – technological progress is unstoppable.
Yes. So this is where the point of the critic is completely fallible. But the battle is totally romantic. It is like building this sculpture – I do it pretty much on my own (only with occasional assistance). It’s a kind of idealistic, utopian, romantic moment when I try to do something inspiring or at least to put a question. When I say it is fallible, it is also pointless. It is futile. And the futility is a reflection of about how I feel about the position of the world. Deep down I am totally cynical actually. I would like to challenge money. But it is impossible. How can you challenge such system? So you have to laugh about it.
So the vehicles you are making, you’ve been making for how long…?
For 5 years…
And you make them out of recycled materials?
It is a combination of bought and recycled material. I have set up some kind of relationship with British network rail – the national rail and they give me endless supply of these huge wooden wheels. This is mutually beneficial relationship. They don’t want them, I take them. And they have hundreds of them. So every time I need to make a piece I take one. They have metal ones, wooden ones…
So Minister of Alternative Transport gets endless supply of spools from the National Rail…
Then I find a lot of material because I work for a gallery as art handler fabricator making stuff for them. Building things. At the end of an exhibition I can take all the stuff that is left over.
So it is kind of recycled art?
Yeah. (laughter). But the recycled stuff is not a conceptual point. It is a point of necessity because I don’t sell artworks. It is made from aesthetic point of view as well. It just happened like that because I do not have any money to buy materials. And for example I never paid for a studio because it is impossible. I went and created relationship with property owners. So this is rather like non-monetary system. No money involved. For the last 1 and half a year I’ve been working with the biggest property developer in London and they just give me huge empty space. When somebody wants to buy it, they’ll give me another one.
You are making interesting deals...
Yes. And it is working. It is a funny story because I was working in a huge warehouse that was owned by the city. The area got cool because there was a lot of artistic activity and music going on and all of sudden the recession came and government told the local councils: “You have to create money for your own budget.” which means selling or renting properties and creating money for a local budgets. So they sold the warehouse that we were in to a developer and knocked it down completely. I was stuck with those huge vehicles. And they gave me 24 h notice to get out. I had 5 vehicles at that time. I went back to my university that I graduated from and asked them: Help me. Can I bring my work to you and have it in your car park until I find something? Finally they said yes.I was trying to negotiate with different properties to find a new place. Eventually the Workspace Group, the property developer agreed. And it is totally working the bureaucratic and system that was set up by the government. We found a way for them to save money by me being inside the building. For free. So I pay nothing and they pay nothing. You have “business rates”. Every company has to pay tax on a building weather it is empty or not. But if they give it to someone charitably, they do not pay. We worked it out. And now I know I have a secure position with these guys, because I am helping them. They have huge spaces. I was in one space for 8 months. Now I am in another space for 8 months. But every time they promise me they will find me a new building in London. So I just have to be able to move my vehicles to the next place.
Let’s talk about your vehicles. Most of them are made for city transport.
It’s localized. The things are dysfunctional. Most of them do not take passengers. They only take people to power them. There is only one passenger and that’s the person steering. The rest of the people are either acceleration or breaks because I do not know how to make breaks. So everything is done by men. Did you see the Mobile Picnic Pavilion I made? It had no breaks – just one emergency break. It was 4 tons. And it took 20 people to hold it back when you were going down the hill…
It is interesting to know such things… For example how much adult male strength is needed for stopping 4 tons weight on wheels… Now we know, it takes 20 people. And to pull it up?
The same amount – but everybody was dead…(smile)
And to pull it on a flat surface?
12 people, but it is difficult to stop it with 12 people. I really struggled with that piece because it needed so many people.
The pavilion was the only one with combination of men and women. It is not conceptual. It is entirely aesthetic. It is something that visually causes no confusion. Like the underwear, just black pants… It’s more coherent, all men in the same outfit. And I even went to the point on my last piece where I had only men with beards. An then on a previous one (what was the title of that piece?) – skinny guys. I was trying to specify the aesthetics even more so as you have this uniformity.
The vehicles you make are visually epic…
Epic, but also kind of pathetic… We are skinny artists with no muscles. Completely pathetic men, wearing stupid little pants like 7 years old boys.
I’m not sure if I perceive this that way. I remember another project of yourscalled the DRAG. You were pulling a stone from the seashore to the town…
It was a process based project. A collaboration with another artists and a friend of mine, Joel Gray. Earlier I was talking about Aztecs pulling stones. They were doing it with logs. Putting the tree under…I made the PLANK piece with their system – using barrels instead of logs. I was talking with Joel about the idea of pulling. We wanted to make a sculpture and a drawing. We decided to do the project in South of England in Folkstone – where White Cliffs of Dover are. Beautiful white cliffs. We decided to make a project taking a stone directly from a cliff, pulling it out and dragging it. And this was a chalk stone. So while dragging it we made a line. It was leaving 50-60 cm mark from the position we took it from, to the position where we took it to.
And on the way out was loosing weight…?
Yes. Thankfully. It took us 5 hours to make a half hour journey. First one was about 600-700 kg. 8 guys were pulling it. But the resistance of the surface was adding a lot of weight.
Then you are not so pathetic…
Totally pathetic. We were moving hundred meters an hour… We were like: “Ok, one two three….” then 5 meters forward and a stop and again… We were totally dead until it got smaller. After 3 hours we could drag if for 50 meters…And we were rotating the stone. We were dragging it across the cliff area – so the texture of one side represents the part of a journey. Then we turned it when we got to the road… Later we turned it again. So in the end we have three sided sculpture that is less than 40 kilos.
The idea behind the pulling was…
Three stage process, performance of pulling which was the process of making the drawing and sculpture. In the end we got a ritualized object. The drawing is a memory and sculpture is magic created by the rutal and history of the action. It looks like an artifact. We made a second one with 25 men and over a tone stone. It was much bigger.
If you think about sculpture in general. How do you perceive that? What is a sculpture for you?
The sculpture is a byproduct of the performance. They are produced in order to make a performance. But in relation to contemporary art world or particularly art market – I like the idea of sculpture being something that you cannot have. It is not valuable. It’s too big and transient. Making such things oppose the market. It is not something havable, they are junk. And it is even ludicrous to make something for so long – like in Wroclaw I worked 6 weeks and the performance lasted 2 hours. Then it was shown in front of the gallery for 3 weeks and it was taken apart. It costs a lot of money, time, energy, but not even big institutions can deal with it in the long term. The piece I am doing in CSW Castle may also be destroyed because of the size and it does not have an inherent value. Its value is in the performative part. It is totally scary for an institution to think about having to keep that.
You often work in Poland?
I spent a lot of time here. I’m doing some curatorial project in London. I was running a gallery there for 3,5 years. I was here 4 years ago to assist Stach Szabłowski in his exhibition Establishment. In the show I met lots of great young Polish artists. I was working with them or usually helping with their works… I also worked with Olaf Brzeski. He is a good friend of mine. We showed his works in the gallery in London 2,5 years ago and last year in South of England. So mostly it’s been curatorial work, exchanges between Poland and England. We had a plan – to make a residency exchange. I would organize big space for artists to come to England and vice versa but we did not get any money.
You mentioned you worked in Wroclaw for the festival called “Out of something”… You used Mały Fiat 126p to create your vehicle…
I tried to think of using something that would open up a certain door. Something generally known to all Polish. I was wondering how my work would work in Poland. Fiat was a tool to open some doors. It kind of did, but it totally did not.
Totally different than in England. Different reactions. I got lots of responses, but they were much more conservative. It is interactive in London. When I’ve done stuff in other places like Scotland, Portugal – there’s been direct intervention from the public, people were shouting at you like: “What are you doing?” “Why are you doing it?” They were beeping the horns… In Poland it was silence. It was positive, but conservative. No one wanted to put themselves in the front to ask what’s going on. And we went down the main street straight into the city…
People were taking photographs, but keeping their distance. Apart from the people that were the gallery audience who were very active. But the main target of my performances are people who don’t expect to see such thing at the time. I was confused about how I do respond to that. Normally you create a relationship. I was trying to work out how I feel after not being able to build a relationship with the members of the public that I am so used to building. To be honest the sculpture was more successful than the performance.
Now I am trying to do something that is more about the action. Go deeper into the spectacle.
When I look at your art I can see in your work some connotation to ritual and religion.
Yeah. I am thinking about the loss of religion in society. I have this second body of works that is using movement like vehicles, but it is not vehicles.
The works give connotation with Christianity…
Totally. My father is a vicar…??
Protestant or catholic one?
Protestant. I would not be allowed to say that if he was a catholic. I would be illegitimate.
We Polish people would not be so shocked anymore… We are already familiar with such situations and got used to them…
Well… I got married in Poland and after the wedding we heard a rumour that the priest has 2 children. I found it hilarious…So I was brought up with rituals all the time around me. I am not Christian. But I am interested in a role of a body that is like the church or the church that gives ethical and moral guidance and creates community. Not in a propaganda way. The church at the moment is totally polluted. But in general it is about the ideals, the beginning of religion. What are rituals? What is the purpose of rituals? It is kind of about being together. To understand and have people around you who agree with you.
Recently I read something interesting. According to transpersonal psychology that examine spiritual aspects as a part of human nature therefore needed for basic health – certain behaviors that are considered destructive by western science like cutting or starving yourself, in other cultures, especially tribal ones are considered necessary rituals for the transformational processes and are supported by communities as necessary actions in order to get mature, develop identity and so on… Like these are ways to meet death, descend to hell – in order to be able to transform… But as in western cultures there is no social support for individual transformation, passing through different stages… In the contrary, identity problems or transformations are considered as abnormality and illness…
Yes. People are stuck in between, they are told they are crazy – so for them it is impossible to find spirituality, get mature, find their way. They start to think that they are crazy… Self-condemnation…
You think it would be important to create such supportive structures…?
Yes. Or at least recognizing the qualities which are important within the ideas of religion and trying to reinvent them again. To bring them back together without the stigmatization of an institution. The performances I do are operating this way as rituals of togetherness. But it is also more abstract than that. It is about critiquing the loss of belief. Not only religious beliefs… But values in general like honesty and truth…
In this way it’s looking primarily at England. I could say in comparison to Poland which is on paper 90% catholic – it is aggressive, anarchic and unstable. Just on a basic understanding level between people. Let’s take f.e the so called “dress” guys here – I love them. They are so friendly. You can find middle ground with these guys. But I feel totally unsafe in parts of UK with some people like f.e. chives or just people with money, rich “good citizens”. I feel totally unsafe. I would not trust them. But I want to trust. I miss the idea that you could put faith in a fellow person blindly. It is totally romantic. So there was this naivety in my head. I was frustrated with the sickness of society. And also I feel I know where the blame lies. Right on the top, not right at the bottom. I’m talking about government, structures, and political power – they play a huge part in an attitude and values of mainstream society. And that’s a global thing as well. We are having this now – this global community, which begins to homogenize and agree on everything. But it is on governmental level. It’s all about money. That’s the value. It is sick to not try to search for something different and not recognize that this is a problem.
Fundamentally the fact that people are not respecting each other – it is because of the position they’ve been put in by institutions or governments. People with money rely on people who have no money. And sell them shit because they are not thinking and the guys at the top are taking advantage. Another problem in the UK is f.e. family problem. It used to be that the church and governments would encourage the family structure though social propaganda, but due to the slow shift of values the campagnes have decreased massively. As a result there has been a breakdown in family structure and this causes some kind of social imbalance. It is such a big topic. And we should address it. In the past it would have been the leader of the country or church that would seriously address issues like this.. I do not know if we need a big hero to change all people’s mind, maybe just a lot of individuals that work within the masses trying to change the way that people can think and that’s a way to change mass ideals. Although it is impossible to think now how you could realistically create something new to regain things which we are loosing now. If people are more spiritually in tune or in touch with a genuine value system, that can change your response to life and people. Although my work is not nessesarily a spiritual experience it acts as an unexpected and positive interruption to those who encounter it. So in that sense I consider my vehicles really useful things. A positive interruption can change something in people heads without them realizing it. You go through London with the vehicles and if you take a main road in centre – thousands of people see them. I really think if they are not asking a question – they positively respond to it. We never had anybody respond negatively. It is always positive or inquisitive,
What kind of a project you are doing here in CSW castle…?
I am making a voyage from the castle to Wisła and across the Wisła to Praga – using man powered amphibian land and water vehicle. It will be pulled by 8 or 10 guys. I do not know how many would be able to get in the water without it sinking – if that does not sink straight away. And we invite participation from general public to process with the vehicle and guys operating it.
Why did you decide to cross Wisła?
It is a romantic idea to cross the river. It is about spectacle, romanticism, trying to do something that seems impossible. With regard to this sculpture I am trying to make it as heavy as it can be. It is a huge piece of metal. I want to make it seem impossible and spectacular. To entertain in some way. To do something that looks like it should be not done. It is also about building something alone – with huge amount of work… And in the end you are just crossing the river…
How do you know it is going to swim?
I was working intuitively and somebody made calculations… So it should swim if I did not do any holes in the barrels, because I am welding the metal. In fact, I know that i made a few holes. So it is possible to fail because of my ability in building. You can see when there is a hole because while you are welding the chemicals from the barrel burn and you can see a flame… So I think I made about 10 holes… Maybe more… They are tiny little ones. But I do not know exactly where they are… I think we will get to the other side…. Or maybe it will start to sink which could be absolutely fantastc...
Francis Thorburn interview with Paulina Jeziorek, for 'Notes' Publication (issue no. 79, September 2012). This interview was originally published in Polish.
Francis Thorburn interview with Paulina Jeziorek, for 'Notes' Publication (issue no. 79, September 2012). This interview was originally published in Polish.