‘CRASH! presents A Better Britain II: Britlins’
Scott King in conversation with Kirsten Cooke, 7 April 2017
KC: I’d like to start by asking you about the title of your co-authored project ‘CRASH!’ In my interview with Matt last week, he said the acronym meant ‘Creating Resistance to Society’s Haemorrhoids’, and that this was a spontaneous construction of yours. Do you think it’s still an adequate description of the name?
SK: A lot of our starting points are pub related, because we used to meet at my old studio in Kings Cross, near the Rough Trade building, and we’d immediately go to the pub. We always said that the project was ‘pub ideas made real’. The upside is that you realise some works, but the downside is the acronym, ‘Creating Resistance to Society’s Haemorrhoids’. I remember thinking that this was a bit vulgar at the time, but we still wanted to test it out. Our first issue called ‘Death to the New’ was printed in April 1997. I’d just left i-D magazine, and I was looking to explore punk and Situationist ideas. I had an idea to create a magazine that was like an old-fashioned pamphlet, not punk, but pre-punk, a contemporary version of a 1960s protest or single issue leaflet. I wanted to use different writers and I received some submissions but it was all a bit too wet really. And I knew Matt already through a mutual friend. We had all the same interests in music, etc., and he just wrote in a really bitter way, which I loved. Our first issue was very much driven by Matt’s writing, which was about the new lad culture and the stupidity of Loaded magazine (launched in 1994), as well as the antics of Danny Baker and Chris Evans (the comedian and radio DJ duo). I’m not sure we highlighted how misogynistic it was, we were more latched onto its moronic nature. It was not that long after the football Premier League came into place, there was Blur and Oasis, as well as the yBas alongside a rise of cod thuggery – a machismo-cum-hooligan stance. Not that Damon Albarn really portrayed himself in this way, but there seemed to be an interest in dressing up in someone else’s skin, in which working class culture was appropriated, and this included football. Even though the first issue of CRASH! was published at the end of the 1990s, I still think it tapped into that earlier moment.
KC: Yes, the 1998 World Cup, Vindaloo and Fat Les – a middle class appropriation of working class culture. Can you tell me more about your relationship with this moment?
SK: Well, I read an interview about drumming between Nick Sanderson (Earl Brutus) and William Reid (The Jesus and Mary Chain), and William said, ‘those guys nicked your fucking act’, meaning Vindaloo sounds just like Earl Brutus. There was a regular recycling of past culture within lad and ladette posturing, which was possibly construed as a way to throw off the shackles of political correctness. If you look back ten years previously, you see the promotion of a strict moral consciousness and so the subsequent hooligan stance was a reaction to that, but it also became an excuse to behave badly. So, it all felt very fake, like Brit Pop, a counterfeit authenticity that tapped into previous cultures and sold them on. I wasn’t in the yBa scene, so I’m not sure what they got up to, but it was interesting, because art was suddenly in the tabloids. Pre-yBa, British artists like Tony Cragg were lucky to get an interview in The Guardian, and you suddenly had Indie Pop and Tracey Emin’s bed, as well as Damien Hirst’s shark getting into the tabloids and putting the British art scene back on the map.
KC: It’s interesting to think how different yours and Matt’s pub culture was to the yBas.
SK: There wasn’t an ‘outsider-ness’ to our position, it was more a ‘not invited-ness’. Even at i-D, when I had access to all sorts of opportunities, I didn’t use or abuse it. I went to gigs etc., but I didn’t really join in with the media culture, and I think Matt felt the same about not joining in. We felt that there wasn’t a critical voice in pop anymore. In the 1980s, there was an academic platform, but then in the 1990s, the music criticism just wasn’t there. There was this general lack within the music culture of that time. I remember feeling very old, but obviously looking back we were very young. CRASH! started out as our version of being a pop group, and as Matt liked to say, we were a band for people that daren’t get on stage. We didn’t want CRASH! to be a student, faux-punk, outsider rag. I wanted it to look beautiful, to have a strong idea of what design was about. Matt’s critical language coincided with this approach. This was all, with the intention of enabling the magazine and project to enter into mainstream debates. There are always risks with this approach, like the Manic Street Preachers fantasy of creating the best-selling album ever and then immediately breaking up. We quite liked the idea of entering the mainstream rather than taking the cool Indie left-field stance. So, we were happy when we were invited to do this, like when The Independent asked us to submit some pages. For us, this was the mass media (although a small branch of it) and much bigger than making a fanzine.
KC: Well – like you said – you wanted to be accepted by the mainstream, perhaps to virally infect it, and didn’t the ‘Prada Meinhof’ go viral?
SK: Yes, I really liked that and I think Matt did too. If you come up with a good catchy phrase, like Prada Meinhof, then the slogan travels out of your hands. Michael Gove picked up on the phrase when he was a journalist, and used it for a piece he wrote in The Observer. This is what happens when you enter the mainstream media, you can’t control it and you can’t complain when people appropriate or nick a phrase or an image. We started to see images and commodities popping up in Shoreditch that were very CRASH!-like, it became hip, in a small way. It was all unintentional. The Prada Meinhof slogan was never intended to turn up on underpants for sale in Berlin, but this happened.
KC: The potential for elements of CRASH! to become popular seems crucial to illuminate political currents within the mainstream media, where contemporary attitudes are put on stage. Has this become an important part of the project?
SK: Yes, the idea that the vile crimes of Fred West, which is what the concept of ‘Westworld’ is built around, if given enough time or history will become entertainment, is not that implausible. In the same way that TV channels are filled with these ‘Born to Kill’ programmes, ‘Children That Kill’ or ‘Mothers That Kill’; this fascination is human and goes on and on. So, the concept of ‘Westworld’, was that a corrupt or desperate Gloucester councillor was wanting to exploit the recent history of the city in order to bring in tourism. Even though it seems unlikely, it isn’t that inaccurate. If you go to Berlin, there is a Stasi museum in the organisation’s old headquarters. The use of other people’s misery and the appropriation of recent history is so prevalent within our contemporary culture. Of course, we’re not endorsing the idea of a Fred West museum, but it is reflective of the current climate. ‘Britlins’ is similar to this idea, because it’s quite tricky to navigate. It is not meant to be this simple anti-Brexit, Guardian-reading project, it’s far more complex. It’s more about the exploitation of nostalgia, which has coerced a huge percentage of people who are part of the ageing working class to vote for Brexit. We’re not trying to take a high-minded position on the situation, but what we are trying to make apparent is that there are a few non-imaginary conglomerates, such as UKIP, which are exploiting a huge demographic of people who feel they have been left behind.
KC: This is what Trump is tapping into, and it looks like it may be deployed in France and Turkey to similar effect.
SK: Yes, cynical people are exploiting a collective misery – it’s a grand version of the Stasi museum, I guess. With ‘Britlins’, we are primarily tapping into the vehicle of nostalgia, which is very personal to me, because I have these great memories of Butlins in the late 1970s and early 1980s. A Russian academic Svetlana Boym wrote this brilliant book, The Future of Nostalgia (2001), which is about her early mental image of Russia and how it compared to the reality, when she returning to the country. Boym points out that nostalgia is always imagined and can be positive, but the negative form is a Disney-fied kind, which prevents you from looking towards the future. So, the idea of the ‘Britlins’ conglomerate is that they’re attempting to create false memories and a fake world from the Butlins that I knew personally as a child. ‘Britlins’ is a monoculture, a mono-class and a mono-ethnicity, and it’s that attitude, which we deploy as a template for how Britain might be redesigned. Of course, we’re not saying that this is what we think the UK should be like, we’re simply putting the UK through a ‘Britlins’ lens. It presents a difficult situation for us, because we are the authors of this project. If ‘Britlins’ becomes severed from its context, do we become the heads of a semi-Fascist seaside state in Britain? This is what I’m finding hard to traverse.
KC: In terms of tuning into the contemporary predicament it is pretty spot on, especially when Brexit was initially a theoretical or imagined situation.
SK: There were no plans for Brexit if it was successful, and this is what I’m trying to get across in the designs for ‘Britlins’. Brexit has the feel of having been scribbled onto the back of a fag packet in a pub, and this is what we are exploring. It’s not meant to work, it only needs to appear to work. It doesn’t matter if it’s flawed, as it is total artifice.
KC: Yes, and does this even matter in the post-truth landscape – if that is what we find ourselves in – because no one would believe in a thoroughly thought-through or well-designed plan anyway? In fact, might we be more suspicious of it if were fully formed?
SK: If you’re in the media enough, then it is true. ‘Britlins’ is simultaneously a simple and broad concept, which is hard to navigate. I was thinking of presenting it as a draft for the ‘Britlins Annual Report’, so that it can be revised and scribbled on – almost juxtaposing the corporate presentation versus the realisation and revision of such projects, opening up graphic language to be wilfully wrong or fallible.
KC: This sounds more generous than the Brexit vote, because you’re disclosing the script of the project and allowing for revision. Or does ‘Britlins’ just appear to be more open?
SK: I guess it just has an extra layer of misdirection, because it exploits the idea of transparency and nods to our culture of disclosure. We’re actually becoming quite cynical of transparency too, because we’re not quite sure if disclosure is staged. For example, we could open each section in the ‘Britlins’ paper with a found story from a local newspaper or news. It’s this notion of localising everything to make it appear relevant to you and your situation: the horror on your doorstep. It’s actually hard to find a story, where there isn’t something too comical occurring. You find lots of stories along the lines of ‘New Girl Guides Memorial Garden has been smashed by vandals’, or ‘policemen, PC Roach has been assaulted by a man called Dave Fish’. It’s already comical within the context of a local newspaper and then when it is taken out of this landscape, re-presented as some kind of art, in a semi-academic and semi-critical context, it looks like you’re making these stories up. So, the question is, how do you maintain an element of truth without it appearing as a farce? It’s difficult. When you take a look at what Butlins were doing in the 1970s on a Friday, you’d see that they were holding a ‘knobbly knees contest’. If you then insert the ‘horseshoe throwing contest’, which also happened, it looks like you’re making it up. 1970s Butlins was such a weird world, the world of David Peace and his ‘Yorkshire Noir’. In the post-Jimmy Saville era, we can see the problems very clearly and it’s too late. But of course, it wasn’t all deviance and corruption, for most people it was a world of comparative innocence.
KC: It’s difficult, because you’re questioning the mechanisms of nostalgia and the poetics and politics they give rise to. You may have been able to leave your back door open in the 1970s, but Jimmy Saville might have popped in.
SK: I think that sums it up. This is why I like Svetlana Boym so much, and in particular her quote, ‘modern nostalgia is the mourning of the possibility of a mythical return, to the loss of an enchanted world with clear borders and values; it could be a secular expression of a spiritual longing, a nostalgia for an absolute – a home that is both physical and spiritual, the endemic unity of time and space before entry into history.’ Boym suggests that nostalgia is totally subjective and in Brexit we are seeing it being presented as an objective reality. A very easy example is ‘the summer job’. 1986 was the worst summer of my life, because I was working a rubbish job, but when you look back at that time you remember it being fantastic. This highlights the danger of nostalgia, because it illustrates the emptying out of reality. A few people (CEOs or government officials) use this tendency to apply rose tinted glasses as a weapon.
KC: Yes, it’s the inability, on our political leaders’ behalf, to imagine or present a positive future that leads people to deploy a protest vote.
SK: This ties into what we were discussing earlier, about the 1990s and the rise of the wannabe football hooligan. It’s all about wanting to be part of a tribe. Once a label has been placed on that tribe like ‘Brit Pop’, then it becomes validated. These respective tribes are then governed through an identification of an aesthetic, a lifestyle or a look as a form of membership. So, if you want to look like a skinhead from the 1970s, for example, you can find a place for yourself. Lost souls can, at any stage in their lives, join a clan, whether it be a football club or a musical movement. Male librarians are very good at these fetishistic interactions. Record collecting and the exchange of information, for example. ‘Britlins’ is about this shared longing for an imaginary past. How often do we go to the pub with our friends and we all end up saying, ‘do you remember…’? I went to interview Paul Weller a few years ago, just because he was my hero as a kid, although he hasn’t been for the last twenty-odd years, so I didn’t know how to conduct myself, because I hadn’t listened to anything since The Jam. I decided I’d bring my two school-mates with me – they are still obsessive Paul Weller fans – and let them ask the questions. To meet him was scary, but for them it was mind-blowing. I wrote the article as a comedy. In it, I stated that we used to sit in one of these lad’s bedrooms playing Jam records from beginning to end, in the order Paul Weller had instructed us to. This exaggerated version of the past immediately became true, because one of my friends on reading the piece said, ‘yes, we used to do that. We did do it!’ This story became a part of our remembered history. So, you have this shared past, and you edit it together in the pub, shaping it with rose-tinted nostalgia. I think this is really what we’re trying to get across with the ‘Britlins’ project, and of course, this is also exactly what UKIP does. Their propaganda is cultivated from a similar nostalgic impulse; this imagined England that never was.
KC: Yes, this constant revision and remodelling of past events is interesting, because it’s mixed up with the question, ‘who are you to say that I didn’t experience the same event in a different way?’
SK: Yes, it becomes a new truth. So, that festival you went to in 1993 was probably really dire at the time, but when it becomes a pub anecdote, the event is enhanced. Nostalgia becomes a glue for your friendship. That’s the point, so the construction of nostalgia is integral to one’s sense of community. There are some ridiculous propositions in ‘Britlins’, and some of them go too far towards Mail on Sunday territory. Certain sections focus on a postcard idea of Britain: the Norfolk Broads and the steam engine, not so much Butlins, more diesel and popcorn and minor-league gentrification. The middle-class view of England and the Cotswolds. ‘Britlins’ tries to convey this complex mixture.
KC: Your reference to gentrification reminds me that ‘Britlins’ is exhibited in Thames Tower – a very recently redeveloped 1970s office block situated next to Reading railway station.
SK: It’s a bit ironic really – it’s not like we weren’t immediately aware of this fact, which is why on initially visiting the site, we suggested putting the work in the storage room, where the workers’ boots were. I know Matt’s main bugbear is that this type of redevelopment promotes the compressing of work and leisure into one seamless entity. ‘You can work and chill in the computer lounge.’ This of course means that there’s no time outside of work. We do touch on the work versus leisure in ‘Britlins’. 1970s Butlins, although presented as a space outside of day-to-day life, was actually like a military camp in its rigid control of time, with announcements that signalled when to get up, when to eat, and when to go to the next activity.
KC: Is this a part of nostalgia? Work becomes reframed as leisure?
SK: One of Butlins’ many slogans was, ‘a week’s holiday for a week’s pay’ and this was part of its mechanics; anyone with a job could afford to go there for a week. A lot of the camps were opened in the 1930s, like the big one in Filey, but when it came to 1939 they were immediately acquisitioned by the RAF. Butlins received a lot of money from the RAF for closing the camps and allowing them to turn them into bases and Butlins kept some of the machinery left behind by the RAF. For example, the Puffing Billy trains, which took people around the camp, are the same vehicles the RAF used to load bombers. So, this quite sinister fact is covered up by a jovial looking steam engine. My dad hated Butlins. He’s more of a fly fishing kind of bloke, but my mum loved an egg and spoon race, so he’d drop us off at the gates. My dad would always say, ‘it’s like a prisoner of war camp’ and of course you are penned in. Butlins’ military ethos is a great cliché, that the camps were like internment or military camps, but as we’ve already discussed, there was an obvious reason for that – they had been.
KC: All your needs are going to be catered for, but you are obliged to stay, perhaps like a Fordist workers’ community?
SK: Yes, it’s Fordist Fun! They had alarms, for example, the ‘wakey, wakey campers’ morning call at around 8am. And they closed all the bars and entertainment at 11pm, to discourage young men and women from staying up late. So, 1970s Butlins was run on UKIP, old-English morals.
KC: Is this organisation of time going to be reflected in the exhibition space. Or to put it another way, are you going to dictate or choreograph ‘Britlins’ viewers?
SK: I think that when you enter Thames Tower, you might immediately think that you have to place work on the windows, or create an installation. So, you have this choice of whether to engage with the space, or to use the space as a background to the project. In our case, it’s about making our work and ignoring Thames Tower’s architecture in the context of ‘Britlins’, but also its internal spatial qualities, and this is important, because the project could exist anywhere. And I think that people entering the space will see that we understand the irony of the context and what is happening across Britain.
KC: So, is interacting with that space is going to be interesting?
SK: It would be very easy to create a thematic show, which could become quite one-dimensional, so what we’re considering is presenting our project on the central wall, which is constructed around the lift section in the space. On this wall, we’ll hang a series of posters and maps; a poster campaign for ‘Britlins’. The project is focused on branding, based this on the old-fashioned Butlins logo. This is important, because a company like ‘Britlins’ would pay for an advertising campaign. ‘Britlins’ would propose the compression of work and leisure that we talked about earlier, so the camps will offer work places that double up as fun slides, and these will be shown in the posters. There will be New Town maps, which are actually old Butlins sites, which will be renamed, based on Anglo-Saxon Gods. A canal system from the Norfolk broads that reaches across the UK and a national steam railway will also be proposed. So, travel as leisure, which becomes an industry. It is a slapstick world, so there’s a balancing act to keep the tone straight. In the publication, there is also a teenagers’ magazine cartoon-strip, which is based on the relationship between a couple in the 1970s. The female character represents Britain and the male represents Europe. He is a ghostly character from the past, the ‘bad guy’. The final character is the honest new boyfriend, who represents ‘Britlins’. It’s very simple and influenced by pop, attractive and streamlined. Of course, all of these plans are fascistic, presented as inclusive and fun, in an attempt to attract the public.
KC: Do you think that we’re too familiar with this corporate language and find it cosy and reliable?
SK: I guess we’re trying to explore how corporate language is political. ‘Britlins’ is a collection of corporate fragments, because it is plugged into a larger context of globalisation. We’ve deliberately only provided a sketch for ‘Britlins’, because we don’t want to claim that the project maps the whole global context. The branding is largely taken from the 1970s, because it relates to mine and Matt’s childhood nostalgia. Our personal memories are an important reference point, because branding ultimately simplifies a very complex situation, it allows us to identify with elements that are imagined. Adidas are very good at this. However, ‘Britlins’ branding is not simply copied and pasted from the 1970s; it is not a pastiche, we deploy a retro-nostalgic attitude and try to represent it as a convincing brand for today.
KC: As a teenager in the late 1990s to 2000s, I felt that I’d just missed out on the amazing bands and fashion movements of the 1960s to early 1990s, that we only got the re-staged, diet coke version.
SK: I remember thinking along very similar lines as a twelve-year-old wannabe mod in the early 1980s, because The Who had their moment in the 1960s. Not everyone feels this way, some people are very good at being contemporary. However, there is a large percentage of the population that do feel this fondness for the past, where the music was better, politics was more representative of society, or immigration was at a lower rate. So, this sentiment of a better past is there, and this can be tapped into by certain parties and companies. ‘Britlins’ is about making physical this ephemeral nostalgia – one of the attractive elements of memory is that, when you try to look straight at it, it dissolves and disappears.
KC: So, does ‘Britlins’ attempt to give traction to an ephemeral concept of society, so that we can focus on it?
SK: Yes, you need to enter into this possibility and recognise that ‘Britlins’ is present but also a fantasy.
KC: And what is this fantasy?
SK: It’s the UK, post-gentrification. What comes after the hipsters? What comes after the million different versions of coffee? I went back to Doncaster recently, and this great big lad offered me a Peruvian blend at Starbucks. Twenty years earlier he might have been a miner, but he was serving me coffee, which is a horrible irony. This is of course the bottom end of the hipster lifestyle, the desire for artisan, exotic or ‘locally sourced’ foods. ‘Britlins’ looks beyond this, to the past to locate a new post-hipster image, based on a pre-central heating early 1970s lifestyle. This is a world somewhere between the second world war and today. We were growing up with the incredible possibilities of the space age and technology, which of course never happened, but the potential was there and so was a future. Concorde ended, and now we email from one continent to the next, but we are physically trapped.
KC: The rise of technology has meant that most of us are restricted.
SK: Previously, there was a world outside the one you lived in and a world to aim for, now that we can access everything, the world has shrunk. You see the same brands, globalisation has removed locality and the distinctness of cultures.