‘CRASH! presents A Better Britain II: Britlins’
Matt Worley in conversation with Kirsten Cooke, 30 March 2017
KC: I’d like to start by asking about the title of your co-authored project CRASH!. The title is an acronym for ‘Creating Resistance to Society’s Haemorrhoids’ (if I’m correct), but it could also allude to the exhibition ‘Crashed Cars’ (1970) and the subsequent novel ‘Crash’ (1973) by J G Ballard, as well as the onomatopoeic term used in Marvel Comics, which was later appropriated by Pop Art: do any or all of these references inform the approach and aesthetic of your project?
MW: I think Scott made up that name on the spot actually. But, yes, some of the references do connect to our project. I think when we started CRASH! referred back to Wyndham Lewis’ BLAST! from WW1 and the Vorticist movement. Lewis created a newspaper, which featured these ‘state of the nation’ diatribes and this was in our minds because the design of CRASH! is an equivalent to what Dada might have done, as it was cut up and the language was assertive. The confrontational nature of the title BLAST! was complimented by our title CRASH! and our magazine came from a similar position, not necessarily politically – as Lewis had some funny ideas – but we also looked to put a ‘spanner in the works’, and asked questions about society. In terms of Ballard, I understood his writings to be picturing dystopian visions of the near future, and CRASH! is definitely a play on this, as we’re sort of ‘party poopers’ – suggesting that things aren’t as good as you’re led to think they are…
KC: Are your statements deployed as blunt instruments whose aim is to satirise contemporary culture?
MW: Yes, absolutely, well Scott and I are from a generation of people who grew up through/just after punk. What we really liked about punk, or the people informed by it, is that they were saying things directly. We try to be funny, but also forthright in what we think, so there is this bluntness, which is again complemented by the name we use. I said party poopers, but perhaps we are actually ‘gate crashing’ the party. We were in the middle of Brit Pop as well, which I didn’t really get, as it was this type of faux celebration – so we were ‘crashing’ that and, at the time, we felt we were really rubbing against the grain.
KC: CRASH! is the overarching term for your project, which spans many forms (a website, exhibitions, maps and banners, etc.), but it first launched as a magazine. CRASH!’s first issue was released in 1997, and acted as a critique of the prominent lad culture of the time. Are the concerns that you started with still prevalent within the trajectory of the project?
MW: Yes, I think so, the umbrella term is really important – the idea was that we wouldn’t have to work in a single medium. We started out by making a simple fold-out poster/magazine, but we never wanted to be restricted to that form. CRASH! is a term for whatever Scott and I do together; whether it is a book, a poster, or a magazine. We once did a seminar with a college in High Wycombe, where the students worked with us, and that was also a CRASH! project, for example. The concerns come from a similar place, but we tend to address the issues and effects of media construction, because what is believed to be important at the time, or how life should be, are always filtered through a media lens that makes them appear like simulations. I always feel that anything I watch or see doesn’t fit with how I view the world. So, CRASH! is basically an excuse for us to moan about how we don’t like the way things are presented.
KC: And perhaps that is why the medium flexibility of CRASH! is so important, so that it can adjust to the way you see things without enacting as an ideal simulation.
MW: I guess with our first project, which addressed Loaded culture, which just seemed rather prattish, it seemed right to create a magazine that folded out into a football pitch with two teams: one side was filled with the people we liked (lots of them) and the other of those that we didn’t like (not many of them). I went to see football in the 1980s and was told I was an idiot. Then, all of a sudden, all the people you went to the football to avoid – your Damon Albarn and David Baddiel types – all started going and ruining it, so it fitted the medium.
KC: Failure and punk seem to occur frequently as themes within CRASH! – are they related and if so how is this explored within the project?
MW: I’m interested in both of those things, but more so in a process of making rather than any finished product. So why I liked punk and, post-punk, was that it was just important that you did something, and the end product (whether it was good or bad) didn’t matter as much. It’s the whole punk emphasis on DIY culture, in which you produce rather than consume: you act, rather than being acted upon. Whether it fails or not doesn’t really matter and, in fact, this is one of our (mine and Scott’s) perennial conversations; how much we like people who are glorious failures, or appear to be glorious failures. We’d rather have a conversation about Tony Hancock than Gary Barlow, because Hancock is a far more interesting character. These types of characters’ foibles and their failures is what makes them interesting.
KC: If these characters’ foibles show a deep if not slightly embarrassing investment in a project, does this also perhaps reveal a different motivation other than simply playing the system?
MW: Yes, well Scott really likes those characters that appear to be ‘howling at the moon’. Like Kevin Rowland (Ian Curtis is another one), people that do what they do, not for fame and fortune, but because they’re completely driven by some other reason, and manage to find a space to do this. Kevin Rowland carries on making brilliant records, but otherwise you’d worry he’d be standing on a street corner somewhere. These people are interesting because they manoeuvre into our very slick media world and they stick out like a sore thumb. It’s the odd bods that seem so insightful.
KC: CRASH! taps into the narration and distortion of history and can be understood as mapping the way in which certain images are used to replace present or past situations or places: for example, you proposed a theme park called Westworld (based on the serial killer Fred West) to rebrand Gloucester. Is this propositional format an integral part of the project?
MW: Yes, believe it or not, I’m a professional historian, but often we make stuff up to deliberately reflect how the news works. Fake news is so prevalent now. I get annoyed when I watch the TV or listen to the radio, because people make claims that are based on no substance whatsoever. Westworld plays on this a little. Its proposition was a response to the tabloids’ fascination with (and faux repulsion for) horrific news items. Tabloids always make money out of this dynamic and we just took it to an absurd level. You’ve got Jack the Ripper museums in London, so in one hundred years’ time you may have a Fred West museum in Gloucester – it’s not beyond the realm of fantasy, unfortunately.
KC: I think you said in a previous interview that Westworld highlights the dynamics at play within these media constructs because it asks us to go there, play at being a killer and experience the dark side of society, in order for us not to do this in reality. So, it constructs a complex relationship to history and what we are meant to learn from it.
MW: These things always send out mixed signals. In terms of the Ripper museum in London, they brought in money by claiming it would be a museum for women, and they turned it into a museum about Jack the Ripper. It’s pretty revolting stuff. I liked the programme ‘Nathan Barley’ because it tapped into the ways in which everything becomes a surface that is just rated ‘cool’ or not, aside from its content. Partly what Scott and I want to do is to put the substance back into these surfaces, because they have meanings and affects: they’re not just signs floating around. We’re anti-Postmodern I guess.
KC: Are you trying to stop a seamless surface flow of capital, or neo-liberalism, by re-loading it to give it some traction?
MW: Yeah, we’d like to fill culture up with the things we like. The first Dexys’ Midnight Runners album on repeat, forever…
KC: It seems pertinent to point out that there are many British traits within CRASH!’s work, from the premise to realise ‘pub ideas’ to your deployment of satire. Is it important that your practice speaks to a specific context?
MW: The ‘British’ aspect of the project is important, although I know these terms are contested and rightly so. However, CRASH! is simply our take on who we are and where we come from. A sense of place is only a bad thing if it means you think you’re inherently better than someone else. Scott’s from Goole and I’m from Norwich. We both grew up and left to explore different careers, but we still reflect on the environments and the people we were around. Scott and I had a shared interest in culture and we liked sitting and talking in the pub – as you stay longer you have more ridiculous ideas. CRASH! simply explores what would happen if you came out of the pub and actually pursued some of the ideas you’d talked about. We wanted to find out what would happen if we published them, slightly tidied up. I get annoyed if people try to define British-ness as this single entity, and it’s not a situation you should run away from.
KC: We keep on mentioning Scott, for obvious reasons, because CRASH! is a co-authored project. How did this relationship originally come about?
MW: Scott was living in Hull and knew a friend of mine, and we met through him. I moved to London, and Scott came to visit and saw my books and records, which he found interesting. When we met, we realised we had the same worldview and sense of humour. We liked and got annoyed by similar things. Scott had just given up his art director job at i-D magazine and wanted to do something more creative. My role in CRASH! was to put words to Scott’s images – and we naturally complement each other, our ideas are the same, but the words and images are produced separately.
KC: You come from quite distinct backgrounds yet have similar aims and methodologies. Historically there has been tension between text and image in art, and you push this through the project, was this an aim or a concern?
MW: Yes, Scott and I are very aware of this tension. We both ventured into the art world from different backgrounds. Although I don’t want to speak for Scott, I think that we feel like we don’t fit in a little, and that we might all of a sudden be called out in our respective disciplines. It’s that awkwardness, or the feeling of being like a fish out of water, which is very much a part of CRASH! For example, I start finding myself in these situations: producing an exhibition in Reading, or finding myself at the ICA in London. Similarly, when Scott designed the style magazine Sleazenation, he occasionally asked me to submit a text, and I would send in something that deliberately went against what the magazine was pertaining to be. Whether anyone noticed or not is another thing, probably not, but the fact that I was an academic submitting material for a style mag was interesting in my view. Again, it’s simply putting stuff in the wrong place.
KC: Placing things in a strange context or constructing projects with fantastic potential appear to be integral to CRASH! Are you trying to test what is actually possible, where the limits actually are, so to speak, in society, and within this context, is your project pertinent in relation to the recent Brexit vote and the election of Trump?
MW: We make things up that we think are somehow believable, so when people first encounter them, they’re not quite sure where we are coming from, and the intention is to make people stop and think a little bit. And we’re quite good at predicting the future. For example, we created one cartoon in which Geri left The Spice Girls, and a year later this actually happened. I think that the project we’re doing for Reading International is absurd, but plausible. Believably absurd; there is something in it that makes sense even though it’s ridiculous.
KC: That’s why I suggested that you test the limits of society because your projects often traverse that line of what is acceptable and what isn’t, so people have to stand there for a while and ask, is this serious? And, if so, how do I feel about it?
MW: You mentioned the election of Trump, which is interesting, because there was an episode of the cartoon The Simpsons years ago, in which they suggested Trump would become president. They got that right, didn’t they? And the reality of him getting into power is quite absurd, it’s like watching a cartoon car crash.
KC: Yes, it is almost something that CRASH! could have suggested: take someone from the slick realm of business and media, slot them into government and then just watch to see what problems unfold on the world stage.
MW: Exactly, now he’s all tangled up with political reality. Who knows how it’s going to turn out, it’s not likely to be pretty.
KC: Speaking of the success of certain of your predictions, your ‘Prada Meinhof’ slogan for the 1999 issue of CRASH! – which conflates high fashion with high politics – went viral, and through this, one could argue that your reference to the commodification of revolutionary rhetoric was further commodified. How do you feel about this co-option of your authorship, as well as the reach of the project?
MW: The fact that this slogan was popular reaffirms what we suggested by using the slogan. It completely left our hands, if you search for it now online, hardly any of the images refer back to us. It was translated into Greek and was picked up in Germany, for obvious reasons I guess. We were very aware that when you put something into a commercial or culturally modified space, it very quickly gets sucked in and goes off and does its own thing. We usually move onto something else and don’t worry too much about what happens. You make the work, it has its little moment, and then it disappears as far as we’re concerned.
KC: Well, I guess that’s the other aspect of CRASH! – you hit and run, you don’t wait around.
MW: Yes, it’s about making a little mess and then leaving.
KC: Do you think by refraining from pre-determining the reach of a project, you avoid commodifying it, before it enters the public realm?
MW: Like I said earlier, I’ve never really cared about the end product, I prefer the process of doing or making. We make a point and then what happens afterwards doesn’t really matter, because you can’t really control that cultural echo anyway. It may mean something different to Scott, because he makes his living as an artist, but I use CRASH! as a vehicle to say and do things I wouldn’t normally do.
KC: I guess this probably helps when throwing a curve ball into a situation.
MW: When we created the Prada Meinhof magazine, the text that went with it dealt with the ongoing commodification of radical arguments (symbols and signifiers). This was also a critique of the art world at the time, that seemed to be celebrating itself and not engaging with bigger things. The exhibition got criticised for its critical stance, but that was in the late 1990s. After 9/11, everyone started to make political art.
KC: A consistent thread within CRASH! is a critique of culture, regeneration and gentrification. Could you speak a little about how the ‘Britlins’ project responds to being situated in the recently developed Thames Tower site?
MW: An implicit implication in ‘Britlins’, is that gentrification pleases some people, but upsets an awful lot of others. It has contributed to a lot of the rancour that exists at the moment, and it might even feed into why people vote in certain ways. Gentrification can bulldoze areas and break up communities; it kills certain cultures and replaces them with more facile versions. I’m not saying that all interventions are bad, but I think it’s more complicated than simply saying ‘let’s put a yachting arena there, it will be brilliant’. Or, ‘open a pop-up cake shop there and it will be wonderful’. It’s all inevitably bound up with taste and with making money, which facilitates various forms of class-cleansing.
KC: Do you think that the cultural obsession with architecture is quite shoddy?
MW: Yes, and of course, the bottom line is that grand ideas always get scaled back. The reality of those smoothly designed shopping centres in the 1960s was horrible and cheap high-rise flats were meant to be cities in the sky. They’re presented as futuristic utopian wonders, but they always decay and fail.
KC: Does that link to ‘Britlins’?
MW: Yes. With ‘Britlins’, we want to ask questions such as: ‘Why are there no utopias anymore?’ ‘Why don’t people paint any visions of a bright new tomorrow?’ ‘Where has our New Jerusalem gone?’ There’s no vision, and as a result people start to look back. It’s easier to imagine a past that is tangible on a personal level, where life was somehow better. This had a big part to play in the whole Brexit result and it’s a failure on all sides. If there’s no future, then why carry on? To look back is not necessarily a good or bad thing, but it is very much part of today’s mind set. To just carry on as we are would be woeful. Austerity, hipsters, cuts, ageing into dementia. Look at Greece – what do they have to look forward to? They’ve basically been told that, for the next three to four generations, the country will just keep bouncing along the bottom. Why should people accept that? When there is no future, you look back to look forward.
KC: Correct me if I’m wrong here, but is ‘Britlins’ a holiday camp-cum-correctional facility after Brexit?
MW: Yes, kind of. When looking back, you realise that there are things that would be great in the present – football matches, for instance. But in reality, you can’t go back and trying to do so would be horrendous. So, ‘Britlins’ imagines a dystopian vision where people are forced into controlled situations in which they travel backwards rather than forwards.
KC: The election of Trump was, within the very logic of its campaign, looking towards the past. He wants to make ‘America Great Again’ and in turn Brexit campaigners wanted to sever Britain from Europe in a return to an imagined ideal of a past Britain.
MW: Yes, we’re hearing a lot of ‘we just want a better Britain’ or ‘we just want Britain to be great again’ and you can also see this in America, ‘make America great again’. We’ve now got an ageing population that feels wistful for their past, and at the same time, younger people that are meant to be showing us bright new tomorrows have nothing to offer. The way forward begins to look mundane for some and grim for others. You can see this in the referendum campaign because the debate from either side was at such a low level; it was just one position trying to out-scare the other. They’re not saying that things will improve, but that if you go that way then things will be worse. And what kind of a world is that? Politics is failing, neo-liberalism has failed, and it’s going to be an interesting time ahead.
KC: Thinking about what we’ve just been saying but applying it to the context of Reading, do you think ‘Britlins’ speaks to Reading as a place or is it a more general response?
MW: I hope that anyone anywhere could look at ‘Britlins’ and get it, not just in Reading. Hopefully, people will realise that it is a part of the situation we’re all in, but it’s not aimed specifically at Reading. That said, the fact that Reading has a shiny new train station/shopping centre, but the actual train service is woeful should strike a chord.
KC: As part of the project, are you making proposals for public art, or has that changed?
MW: I’m not sure we’re doing that now, but we did do something similar for a ‘Better Britain’, and ‘Britlins’ is a ‘Better Britain II’. In the first ‘Better Britain’, we responded to sculptures being erected in places to improve them. This is one of Scott’s biggest beefs: public art being used to encourage coffee shops to open, as if by doing that, everything will be better. It’s a sticking plaster, projects that hope that tourist attractions will regenerate places. It all seems so shallow.
KC: Yes, a band aid is a good way of putting it.
MW: Well, one thing that ‘Britlins’ responds to is this band aid culture, in the sense that, you know when you go to the seaside, there are often huge banks of flowers on the sea front? Well one of our proposals is that if you see anything you don’t like then just begin growing flowers over it. So, if you come across an ugly building, you grow begonias over it; find a rundown area, then plant some marigolds. It’s a ridiculous way to solve deep-seated problems: solving poverty by building a giant angel… with a slide on it.
KC: This also ties into the increasing privatisation of the public realm, for example, as companies continue to place obstacles in front of their businesses so that homeless people cannot sleep in front of their buildings.
MW: Yes, you can trace this back to the nineteenth century, from increased policing through to the commodification of space. From questions such as whether it’s okay to hang around on a street corner, to if you can play football in the road. Why can’t you play football in the road? This closing down of space – who can use it and how it can be used – is a result of a continued policing of the public realm. It’s a continuum through the past two hundred years – from owning land and property, to products and now space. We’ve come to the point where public benches are constructed so that you can only sit down on them comfortably for a minute. Those studs that stop homeless people sleeping in doorways are barbaric. ‘For who’s benefit?’ is the question…
KC: To finish, are there any unrealised projects that have sprung from your ‘pub ideas’?
MW: You’ve put me on the spot now. My favourite one was ‘Twenty-One Insults for the Twenty First Century’, which is fairly self-explanatory. We came up with the idea with a friend, who is sadly no longer with us, Nick Sanderson who was in the band Earl Brutus, but it never quite happened. I’d still like to make that.
KC: What type of insults would there be, or is it difficult to remember off the top of your head?
MC: There was one about Jeremy Clarkson’s arse, a ‘Clarkson’s Arse’, but I can’t remember what we applied it to.
KC: Jeremy Clarkson does appear to deploy an insult with the caveat of ‘it was only a joke’, which is also very much the Top Gear strategy.
MW: Yep, it’s all just a laugh. Of course, the issue with that, is that you know if you said something to him in this vein (about his mum or something crass) that he’d get angry. Or would he just take it as a joke?
KC: In terms of your productive pub conversations, do you tend to have a cache of these ‘pub ideas’ that you apply to a specific context when you encounter it?
MW: We have notepads between us both, sitting there. We were once interviewed for the ‘Museum of Unrealised Ideas’, which seemed perfect for us, because CRASH! could be all of those things we’d thought of but couldn’t do.
KC: Many CRASH! ideas that you’ve put out there are still unrealisable, because it would be difficult, or nigh on impossible, to realise the concept within reality.
MW: Yes, we’ve been accused of this before – and again it shows our age – because we are very interested in the Situationist approach of demanding the impossible. This all links into our critique of the media in The Society of the Spectacle. I still think that Guy Debord’s book is the most prophetic text in the last hundred years. So, us throwing up these ridiculous propositions is a deliberate strategy. And the fact that these ideas can’t be made just adds to the absurdity of each project.
KC: It’s interesting that your work plays with fiction and reality: it exists, but it can’t be realised.
MW: Yes, and historically speaking, you wonder if somewhere down the line, someone will think one of these projects has happened, when in fact it hasn’t.
KC: Perhaps your slogans will produce their own folklore?
MW: Yes, somebody might think that there was a Fred West museum, even if there wasn’t one.