To start off this interview, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
My work intervenes in consumer culture. I use farce and absurdity to puncture the shiny surface of capitalism. In my early twenties, I lived in New York – writing commercials for Coke, Samsung and Heineken. I was trained in the dark art of consumer seduction and the manipulation of desire. So my practice appropriates the language and strategies of commercial media but inverts them to explore capitalism’s profound contradictions. I think of my work as the bastard child of commodity fetishism.
How would you define your art in three words?
Your latest show titled The Never Never, created in collaboration with Nova Melancholia and curated by Evelyn Simons, is comprised of a short film, a series of photographs, paintings, sculptures and performance. Why did you choose to work with so many mediums and how did you decide on these ones specifically?
The Never Never is an exhibition that behaves like a brand campaign. Borrowing the language of marketing communications mimics the way corporations use an array of forms to promote their ludicrous strategies. Commercials, billboards, slogans, website, graphic design and social media: the show operates across a constellation of media. This is integral to the work, which explores the production of contemporary myths – luxury brands, fake news, and national stereotypes. It uses the language of commerce to reflect on the warped ideology that lurks behind the bright patina of consumer society.
At its core, the exhibition hinges around twenty-two nonsense commercials. I shot these in Greece with a commercial crew – cinematographer, producers, stylists, electrician, grip, gaffer – the same professionals that create many of the glossy TV commercials in Athens. As with many of my works, this project trespasses into the mechanisms of the dominant culture. Like a wrong-headed interloper, it mobilises the apparatus of power against itself.
One of the key elements of this exhibition is the deconstruction of a Porsche 911, which can be seen worn by Athenian performers. Out of all the models, why did you choose to work with a 911?
The 911 is perhaps the most mythical sports car in the world. It’s iconic for the silhouette, trademark chassis and circular headlights. But I find luxury cars pretty boring. What interests me is their linguistic function. In a sense, the Porsche 911 is less a car and more a signifier of status. It’s a piece of language. For the past 60,000 years, human beings have used objects in this way – to signify our status within the social order. We use beads, jewels, statues and yachts to do this; to associate ourselves with the myths carried in those objects. In some ways, this makes sense. After all, to ‘consume’ something is to physically ingest that thing: to fuse you (the subject) with it (the object). The Never Never performs that idea. It creates an absurd fusion between the Greeks (the subjects) and Porsche (the object).
This idea was triggered by a piece of fake news my Dad told me: “Do you know, there are more Porsches in Athens than anywhere else in Europe?” This circulated through right-wing media around the time of the Greek debt crisis. Typical of the lazy discourse that wafts through our mass media, it’s a xenophobic stereotype of Athenians. It suggests they evade tax and buy flashy cars. I wondered what would happen if Greeks were to perform this stereotype – to become a human/Porsche hybrid. The result is a monster – like a chimaera from Greek mythology. For the Ancient Greeks, monsters performed an important social function: they gave form to the cultural fears of the time. In a similar way, I wanted to give form to the fake news that poisons our own public discourse. I wanted to create a contemporary Greek myth.
As you mentioned, The Never Never explores many themes relating to fake news, capitalism and national stereotypes, especially surrounding the Greek debt crisis. However, this show will only land in Athens next year, first travelling all across Europe, from Hamburg to Luxembourg. Why was it important for this piece to travel?
Because it’s rooted in performance. Throughout history, live performance has been inextricably wedded to travel: to the idea of the itinerant performance troupe that moves from one town to the next, evolving their show around the specificities of the local context. With this in mind, we think of The Never Never as a travelling caravan. Each chapter of the project functions as a site-specific response to the situation of the institutional host.
For example, the first chapter landed in Hamburg, Germany’s capital of advertising. So in that city of myth production, the artwork became indistinguishable from its publicity. The gallery was transformed by an installation that fused contemporary art, luxury retail and museology. For the second chapter, the work responds to Luxembourg, one of the smallest countries in Europe but the second richest in the world. So in this tiny hub of global banking, the work explores distortions of scale. And when the work travels to Athens, it will of course evolve once more.
What are some of the takeaways you hope people have after visiting the show?
I’d like people to think about the unravelling of our myths. As culture is engulfed by fake news, public discourse is being poisoned by uncertainty, and dark fascistic politics. I’d like people to think about the link between these things: What has happened to truth? How is this impacting the social glue? Is there a relationship between capitalism, disinformation and xenophobia? The title nods to these ideas. On the one hand, The Never Never is slang for debt; it refers to the apparently never-ending number of payments on a loan. It also references Neverland; a place of childish fantasy – and the home of Peter Pan. I’d like visitors to think about the junction of these two ideas. About our addiction to a financial system based on endless deferral. And about our willingness to participate in myths, ideology and childish delusions. In short, I’d like this work to open up some of the questions we’re grappling with as a species: the illusion of progress, the vanishing promise of neoliberalism, and the vacuity of truth.
Your work often questions accepted notions that are deeply ingrained in today’s society, such as authoritative power, consumerism or even Mark Zuckerberg. Where does this subversive take stem from? Why is it important for you to challenge these types of notions?
Probably because I was an obedient kid. Sometimes I think I became an artist because it gives me a licence to misbehave. To mess with language, reason and power. Power constructs humans. Like commodities on a production line, capitalist power mobilises its apparatus of data and surveillance to produce a set of subject positions – consumers, workers, Instagram users etc. It then activates media and advertising to persuade us to occupy these profiles, to keep us working, clicking and buying. For this to actually function, our obedience has to be invisible to us. It has to be normalised so that it feels less like conformity, and more like ‘common sense.’ But as the Global North is finally coming to understand, neoliberalism makes little sense. It’s a specific ideological construction that depends on racist practices of inclusion and exclusion, extraction and devastation. So to answer your question, I find it important to challenge dominant ideology because, at present, it’s killing us.
You have an absurdist approach when it comes to your art, yet still, deal with serious topics such as modern labour and neoliberalism. How do you find the balance between these two seemingly opposites?
I don’t need to balance the two, because I don’t see any opposition between them – I weaponise absurdity to political ends. For me, humour is the most powerful tool to address the things I care about. Humour breaks things apart. It liberates the mind from rationality. Our current global order is patently absurd – it’s determined by an imperialistic logic that is hell-bent on obliterating life on earth. So if I use humour, I do so as a tactic of critical resistance. I passionately believe that humour has the capacity to destabilise consensus – allowing us to radically reconsider what we call sense.
And to go a little deeper: why do we laugh? What does it actually mean? Theorists have been exploring this for over a century. In simple terms, we laugh when we encounter the limits of sense. So if you want to understand what conditions rationality is look at what makes you laugh. Look at the work of Jacques Tati, Andy Kaufman and Buster Keaton. To me, their work is beautiful because it points to the absurdity of capitalist modernity. They turn life upside-down, place it in crisis mode, and hold it up for critical analysis. Someday I’ll write a book on this subject – but it’ll probably be as funny as death.
You often ask for workers’ input into your art shows, ever since one of your first solo shows explored the dire working conditions in China where you asked factory workers to create a product with a ‘mistake’ that renders it useless. Why is that?
I’ve spent many years thinking about capitalist modes of production, and the way our economic system constructs human beings. Factories are the simplest example of this process. If you watch an assembly line, you’ll notice that it doesn’t only produce consumer objects; it also produces human bodies. Workers are manufactured on the assembly line. Their muscles evolve around the repetitive movements they are employed to perform. Many of my projects insert disorder and absurdity into factory procedures: role reversals, code-switches and intentional errors. In doing so, I’m looking for ways to reimagine these mechanised spaces.
To introduce a momentary slippage in the relentless logic of the production line. But while factory labour is the most visible expression of capitalist mechanisation, the same process is playing out in all of us – less visibly. The advent of social media and Big Tech has seen the full blossoming of Marxist alienation across every tier of society. Our labour, relationships and emotions are now organised by a corporate apparatus; our lives are choreographed by Silicon Valley. This is a deeply weird scenario, which has become terrifyingly normal.
Although you live and work in London, your shows have been exhibited all around the world, such as the Vestibular Dysfunction (2014) in Mexico City and Bodies That Matter (2013) in Istanbul. Does the reception of your art get affected by the country in which it resides?
I think so. Working in places like China, India, Palestine, Egypt, Senegal and Mexico, I try to use performance to subvert my own subject position, as a white European man. My own caucasian body becomes a tool to interrogate Western cultural imperialism and the logic that sustains this racist ideology. This often generates a humorous response; everyone likes seeing a white guy fall on his ass. But yes, the work always changes. Indeed I find it difficult to work within the void of a white cube. I’m more interested in the encounter between the work and the world. My practice always operates as a response to a set of specific material conditions: historic, economic, institutional and colonial. I think it’s a way of leaning against the edges.
If you could pick any gallery or space or city to showcase your work in, which would it be?
Hmm, that’s a tough one. I’d definitely like to go apeshit in The British Museum.
Lastly, what are some of the artistic goals you would like to achieve?
I’d like to be an artist-in-residence at Texaco. I’d like to direct a perfume commercial for Chanel. I’d like a nice gallery representation (hi, Sadie Coles!). I’d like to launch my insurrectionist corporate consultancy (I already have the business plan). Oh, and I’d quite like to have a jacuzzi with Mark Zuckerberg.