The artist Gavin Turk on creating an atypical exhibition that explores the landscape of collective trauma
One artist you might not readily associate with sombre, reflective and meditative works is the celebrated Gavin Turk, the handlebar moustachioed once-upon-a-time YBA whose name has become synonymous with quite literally turning trash, and, more recently, his own human effluence, into art. In fact, over the last thirty years you could say the now middle-aged Turk has deftly positioned himself as this gilded isle’s arch art prankster, engaging his audience in multiple wry, witty and self-referential takedowns of the establishment that are generally somewhat funnier than any similarly tongue-in-cheek offerings by those one might consider his peers. It’s interesting then that his current show at Ben Brown Fine Arts is indeed sombre, reflective and meditative, and, dare I say, even a bit of a downer, evoking a mood that seems to have more to do with a sincere consideration of fleeting mortality than it does with prodding sacred cows. Conceived during the isolation of the global pandemic, Turk’s Kerze is collection of paintings that pay homage to the masterful Gerhard Richter’s iconic burning candles from the 1980s, one of which famously adorned the seminal and excellent album Daydream Nation by art-punk legends Sonic Youth. And, while Turk has a laser-sharp penchant for sassy appropriation, his reimagined paintings of the very same candles extinguished and smoking feel less like an art in-joke than they do a heartfelt exercise in memento-mori from an artist entering the later stages of life. In fact, given the period in which the work was produced, one can’t help but think this exhibition explores a strange kind of mourning for a chapter of our collective history that was comparably extinguished, and, as such, it contains not one discernible iota of Turk’s trademark jocularity. With all of this in mind, we caught up with the artist to ask him wherefore the sudden seriousness, and find out why he was inspired to paint a portrait of isolation in his darkest work to date.
This show took me back to my teenage years listening to Sonic Youth in my bedroom. Was Daydream Nation an album that was particularly important to you as a kid?
Well, the record was released in 1988, when you had this kind of economy of the music and the image coming together, and, for me, it was always a really interesting juxtaposition between this quiet, sombre painting of a candle, with a very pared down murky background, and this layered American art punk. The image stuck in my head, and I actually went on from that image to find out about Richter. I went to his show at the ICA in the same year, which was a series of paintings of those members of Baader Meinhoff who committed suicide, or died in prison. It was a black-and-white and slightly blurred photo-realism that fed into my preoccupation with surrealism and modernism – looking at appropriation, and this idea of authenticity that plays out through quite specifically or graphically quoting someone else’s work. I mean, you are always in a quotation as an artist, and you are always, in a way, revealing or not revealing your sources – you’re always painting a self-portrait in a referential stream. I do think there’s a strong sense that you can’t quite see these paintings as straightforwardly as you would the Richter paintings – there’s a kind of a smoke screen, in that they have this debt, but there are no exact copies. They’re also not as well painted as his works, because I’m not really a painter. I learned a lot making them, and my respect for his paintings grew tremendously.
They seem quite a departure for you. There’s a very sombre, almost intense sadness and loneliness about them…
Yeah. When I started getting a few paintings up on the wall at the studio, I do remember feeling that it was quite sad. I kind of thought it was going to be more humorous when I began, in that unexpected way that the uncanny can kind of make you laugh, but it’s not. I suppose I’m experimenting with a different kind of exhibition. The last time I showed in this space, I had about 50 different works exhibited that were all totally different to one another, and it was very complicated as a show. This show is totally the opposite. What we’ve got here is almost the repetition of one idea, and the process seemed to be about almost continually returning to the same place. Maybe it actually reflects the whole lockdown experience – almost a portrait of the lockdown. It was a disturbing period, when I think everyone really had to get on with themselves, and it was probably the first time that I’ve actually had a lot of time to myself. I’ve always worked with assistants and people in the studio, and there’s always been a sea of people around. But the main bulk of this work was done very much in that period when I was alone.
Do you think there was a kind of mass collective sadness, or mourning for a cancelled future at that time?
I think there was, probably, and the show probably taps into that. Normally, there’s some sort of humour in my work, and the humour in these is quite hard to find. I sort of found this word pathos when describing these paintings, which actually means a sort of sadness – so, maybe it’s partly about exploring that state of pathos. It also comes back very much to thinking about smoke. I’ve made lots of work about smoke over the years, and smoke, for me, is a sort of metaphor for something unwanted – the flame is about now, and it’s about being able to see, kind of like the sun, or a kind of energy, whereas the smoke is an afterthought and an after effect; something you don’t want in your lungs. When you think of the candles as a metaphor, it’s obviously a powerful thing because a candle is kind of like a clock, and it is definitely a sort of metaphysical structure – it creates shadows, and it disappears, becoming the air around us. I think, in that sense, the show does have this idea of being a metaphor for a kind of arrested moment with the snuffing out the candle – and this idea of the smoke being caught on canvas sort of reinforces ephemerality.
Is there an explicit spiritual or religious dimension at play here? Are there new concerns for you as you get older?
No. I’m not very religious. Actually, let’s re-answer that question. I’m irreligious. What I mean by that is that I respect other people having religions, and, in some ways, I feel almost envious that people do have their faith, and I appreciate that, but, for me, everything is very questionable. So, religion itself has to be questionable, and I’m not even necessarily talking about being agnostic. I do think there is something about quoting religious iconography in the show, and I’ve done that with other works in the past. I’ve made a bronze apple core, which obviously relates to the Adam and Eve story, and I’ve made a giant nail that sticks out in the pavement just behind St. Pauls – so, I’ve definitely created lots of quotes that explore ideas about art almost replacing religion, and the fact that the artist, at some point historically, was the person who made things that people would use in religion. I do think I’m probably acknowledging the function of the artist in religion in that way. It comes back to that referential stream – work always has to rub up against this unfinished program or project, which is called art.
It occurred to me that during the pandemic we became a kind of daydream nation, and I wonder if a function of art is to provide a space for daydreaming?
I like that. I’ll take it. I think that’s probably why I became an artist, because I couldn’t quite stop myself from being a bit daydreamy – and by that I mean running along with my own thoughts and ideas in my head in a slightly Don Quixote type way, in which, you know, I will see a scenario out in the world, which isn’t necessarily there, or which I know isn’t there, but somehow, it’s still there (laughs). I think that artists do have that ability to kind of see things differently, and I think that is a good thing. I mean, for me, art is about audience, and the fact there is a dialogue, or a discourse. And I’m hoping that there’s a bit of the unexpected in this show. I’m playing with certain kinds of preconceptions that people might have about my work, and maybe I’m putting my foot in the door to another kind of experience of my work. I mean, with any artist, people will go, like, I know what that guy does, he does bin bags and, you know, he makes bronze sculptures and fake Warhol pictures, or whatever… But when you pull all of that reputation apart, and you’re not trading on that, you just come back to the idea that you’re really trading on the works of art themselves. And, in actual fact, when you’re able to sort of spend time and look at each particular work in this show, and deal with it in and of its own – you can look at each one and see different things, and have different feelings about them.
What alternate worlds may be summoned from card reading? Gavin Turk invites artist and writer Jonathan Allen – who rediscovered mystic and artist Austin Osman Spare’s lost tarot deck – to discuss the history of cartomancy and how it might imaginatively model possible futures
Gavin Turk: Looking into the future and thinking about the role of artists, there’s a wonderful line from the British artist and mystic, Austin Osman Spare. He wrote that “Scientists will never solve or prove anything relating to foretelling the future; it is a work for ‘artists’. Science may subsequently prove more fully what the artists have already discovered.” In terms of “foretelling the future”, I wanted to ask you about a project that you’ve been involved with recently that was based around your discovery of a lost tarot deck made by Austin Spare, one that got you thinking about cartomancy as a tool for reimagining the future. I wonder if you could tell me how you found this amazing artefact.
Jonathan Allen: From time to time, I work as an associate curator at London’s Magic Circle Museum, which is connected to the well-known international organisation for theatrical conjurors and illusionists. The Magic Circle’s remit is to promote the conjuring arts but importantly that also includes exploring magic’s cultural history. As with all museums, the collection contains items that don’t strictly ‘belong’ to the official story of that institution, and at the Magic Circle that includes Austin Spare’s forgotten tarot deck. I stumbled across the cards one quiet April evening in 2013 as I was preparing material for a lecture. The cards were packed away in a cupboard surrounded on all sides by vitrines filled with magic props, and when I realised what I had in my hands, I couldn’t quite believe it. Over the next few years, I put together the book Lost Envoy, in which the cards were reproduced for the first time, and where lots of great people discuss the deck. Reactivating the cards was also very interesting for me as an artist, and resulted in several exhibitions and a short film called ‘Le Carte Parlanti’ (2017).
In the first ‘phase’ of tarot history, tarot cards do seem to relate to the kind of magic that ends in a ‘c’ as opposed to a ‘k’.
If by that you mean that tarot cards developed in a secular context, then yes. Although some people still think of tarot as coming from a long-lost mystical tradition, most of its iconography actually has its origins in the decadent Court of Milan in northern Italy sometime around the beginning of the 15th century. During that period, the cards were part of a skill-and-chance-based game that also functioned as an allegory for life. The well-known ‘Visconti’ decks contain narrative elements that are connected directly to the Visconti family, and so you can probably assume that as they played what was basically a recreational trick-taking card game, they were also thinking about their family’s legacy. It was only later, in the second half of the 18th century in France, and then again in the late-19th and early-20th centuries in Britain, that tarot cards really developed as a divinatory tool. Since theatrical magicians have conventionally been sceptical of many esoteric magical practices, it’s pretty remarkable that Spare’s deck – which is essentially a relic of the British occult revival – ended up in the collections of the Magic Circle. We think that Spare hand painted the cards around 1906; they were then donated to the collection in the mid-1940s, but because of the Magic Circle’s strict code of secrecy, the cards went underground. I always think that the deck therefore effectively ‘missed’ the 20th century, and its influence is only now starting to be felt, at a time when there’s a lot of speculation, and anxiety, about the future.
So an artefact that’s been dormant for over a hundred years, made by an outsider artist who very few people have really taken an interest in, begins to affect historical timelines and starts to reshape things. Histories aren’t fixed, as we know from the situation with other more public-facing artefacts like, say, the stolen Benin Bronzes, which are now gradually being returned, and as a result history is getting a rewrite. It also seems important to move forward together into the future, in ways that embody how we’d like it to be – for instance, articulated by more female voices, and recognising and learning from indigenous knowledge. The flexibility of history and the possibility of different futures is something that we seem to come back to with the idea of the tarot. Card reading is an interesting speculative process: You select a set of random cards in a non-conscious way, whereupon a series of images are laid out as a structurally significant spread; this then starts to guide a conversation, perhaps even a narrative. That narrative exists only because of the order in which the cards have fallen and their position in relation to one another. Accidental themes are captured, instilled, stopped, and given meaning.
I should say that Spare wasn’t really an “outsider” artist. He actually trained at the Royal College of Art, in London, where he was a close friend of the artist and suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst. In Lost Envoy, Sally O’Reilly imagines a conversation between the two of them in which Spare’s deck appears. But yes, in more general terms, tarot card reading is a very flexible and open way of structuring a conversation. I don’t really think of card reading as being about ‘predicting’ or ‘foretelling the future’, but more as a way of anchoring communication in the present and then exploring that moment’s various contingencies. A card reading invites its participants into a shared imaginative space where intermediary objects summon temporary alternate worlds. In the case of tarot cards, those worlds draw on an art-historically complex iconography, but Spare openly encouraged people to create their own imagery – hence it being “a work for artists” in the broadest sense.
Tarot readers sometimes get a bad rap for manipulating vulnerable people who pay them to read their cards. Our world feels pretty vulnerable at the moment, and there are certainly plenty of dodgy characters out there ready to tell us their warped stories about the future.
It’s fairly easy to dismiss the whole area of cartomancy on the basis that people only hear what they want to hear, and that tarot readers play into our confirmation biases and rely on responses that are so open-ended that they’re basically meaningless… the so-called ‘Barnum statements’. Bad-faith actors are certainly out there. But I think there’s a more generous and actually more challenging way to approach all of this. Emily E Auger has described tarot cards as “heterotopian”, that is they mark out a space that’s outside of all other spaces, where judgment is temporarily suspended and possibility can abound. In that way, card reading can certainly become a space for imaginatively and collectively modelling different possible futures, as contemporary decks like Suzanne Treister’s Hexen 2.0 Tarot, the Plastique Fantastique Tarot, Sophy Hollington and David Keenan’s Autonomic Tarot, and Katie Anderson’s Barrow Tarot all demonstrate. But to actually build a future, you have to engage the real world in very practical and unavoidably political ways. This comes up in O’Reilly’s imagined conversation between Spare and Pankhurst, where Pankhurst dresses Spare down for spending so much time mapping his inner world, while the suffragettes were being imprisoned for trying to reconstruct the social conditions around them.
Another way of looking at Spare’s deck is as a resonator that uses a given system and creates new stories and possibilities every time you look at it.
I like the idea of the deck being a kind of disruptive resonator. One of the most interesting and unprecedented things about Spare’s deck is that he drew and wrote across the vertical edges of the cards, so there’s information half on one card and half on another. When you put various cards together, they form visual links at their margins. But that doesn’t mean that they all fit together harmoniously like a jigsaw puzzle. Instead, when one of the visual devices links up, it means that other ones clash, and vice versa. The resulting array of connections and misconnections feels very contemporary to me, where some paths we take enable us to get to somewhere pretty easily, while at the same time other paths are blocked to us.
And when the deck got hidden, an experimental feature like that didn’t become mainstream within card reading circles. I really like the built-in chaos of that system: There are occasional wormholes, but if you go back and retrace your steps, you suddenly find the hole is taking you somewhere else. I think where we are at the moment can feel incredibly polarised; we’re often glued to our screens, our little wormholes. As the internet learns our online consumption habits and starts to limit our experiences, it’s a relief to see the systemic unpredictability of this artwork.
Yes, I agree. I reckon that Italo Calvino might have been interested in the deck if he’d seen it, given his love of tarot’s combinatory system and its potential for open story telling. I think that the deck is, as much as anything else, an early example of a combinatoric artwork. And although the deck’s disappearance meant that it didn’t have a historical influence at the time, the spirit of what Spare was doing manifested in other ways. The deck’s connecting devices have the feel of a surrealist game, like an infinite version of the exquisite cadaver, or something along those lines. A very memorable headline appeared in a London newspaper in 1938, which referred to Spare as “The Father of Surrealism – He’s a Cockney”.
(*laughs) Well, would you Adam and Eve it!
Lost Envoy: The Tarot Deck of Austin Osman Spare (2016), edited by Jonathan Allen, was published by Strange Attractor Press and distributed by MIT Press
This article is taken from Port issue 29. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here
Radically destroying debt, re-establishing social contracts, and placing value in the hands of communities: Gavin Turk talks to filmmaker Dan Edelstyn, artist Hilary Powell, and political economist Ann Pettifor about building a new economy based on promises and trust
Gavin Turk: Dan and Hilary, as we’re talking about the future I want to know about your new project. Before that though, let’s go back a little bit and talk about Bank Job, your recently completed project. Can you remember and share the time when you thought ‘We need to do this; we really need to make some work around the issue of debt?’
Dan Edelstyn: Bank Job came along after our first film that we made together, which was called Vodka Empire, where we tried to resurrect my great-grandfather’s vodka distillery in Ukraine – it all went terribly wrong on many levels, as it was probably destined to. We were left with the question, what do we want to do next? I furiously started reading books – George Orwell, Leo Tolstoy, John Berger, all sorts. It helped me to get an orientation on why I might write, make films, or do anything at all. Around that same period, a neighbour from across the street asked whether I’d heard about this group called Strike Debt (now Debt Collective) in America who have been buying up and abolishing student and medical debt. There was something about the coincidence between that moment and the kind of soul searching I’d been up to; the two things came together. So I started researching the group in New York, and I read the books that they were publishing. I began to have an eerie feeling of seeing through the illusion of money. I studied history at university, but this gave me a totally different perspective on contemporary history; I could see forces at play through the analysis that this group had put together which I was never previously aware of. It was like scales falling from my eyes around the morality of money and debt. I started to think as a filmmaker again: How could we use film to make this visible? I wanted to turn this abstract stuff into something with a concrete and compelling storyline. So we went to New York and met up with them. We still didn’t have anything like a film, but we knew we wanted to try and do the same in Britain – buy debt and destroy it. We needed to start in our home, and Creditocracy: And the Case for Debt Refusal by Andrew Ross was an inspiration in prompting us to ask the question, was Walthamstow – where we live – a creditocracy? We started to talk to people about debt, the dark twin of money. What really started to capture people’s imaginations was the idea of printing the money; it was a way of enabling us to raise the kind of sterling needed to buy the debt.
Hilary Powell: What had been a lone endeavour of Dan as ‘The Debtonator’, in a kind of superhero genre, gradually took on more of the characteristics of a classic heist. On a family road trip, talking through the project it became the Bank Job, and from there things took off. Deciding that we’d buy up the debt by giving ourselves the power of a central bank to literally make money and print our own banknotes became a way of engaging people in this whole process. We were told we should get permission and that we could be shut down – but we figured that we were a rebel bank, and we weren’t printing out sterling, so we decided to proceed with our printing and not worry too much about legality. Once we got a physical space for this it all started to happen quickly. We occupied – via a Welsh coworking cooperative, strangely – a former bank on Walthamstow High Street, and it became a community endeavour, employing and training local people, on the London living wage, to learn and share the traditional print techniques we were using to make our cash. It snowballed as more and more people got involved, and the idea of a community heist taking on the power of finance became contagious. The aim was to print and exchange or sell enough of our Hoe Street Central Bank (HSCB) money to be able to: a) buy up £1.2m of local debt (with £20,000), and b) to share the rest (£20,000) between the local organisations who featured on the notes – a primary school, youth project, foodbank, and homeless kitchen. We wanted it to be both direct mutual aid and something that contributed to actually beginning to change the system through education and exposure, and play around with ideas of value: the value of art, of how we value each other, money, our communities…
Gavin Turk: Creating a currency creates a community. If I look at the system of the Brixton pound, a community got created through this. When we look at a community that gets built on the absence of money, on debt, that debt becomes almost a prison in a way. Debt puts people in that system into a place where they have to behave in a certain way; they’re enslaved by it. It also does make a few people rich. What really is debt?
Ann Pettifor: My work started from the point of view of sovereign debt. I was working on the debt of the poorest countries and a global campaign – Jubilee 2000 – aimed at cancelling the debts of the poorest countries. At the end of the campaign I wanted to understand why low-income countries had built up debt. Everybody said it was because of the oil price rise in 1973. I didn’t believe the story I was hearing, so I moved to the New Economics Foundation and started to research the origins of the debt crisis. I realised that central to understanding it all is to understand the nature of money.
Money is basically a social technology. Printed money is the tangible technology of our social arrangement to fulfil obligations. Credit is based on the Latin for ‘I believe’… ‘I believe you will fulfil your obligation to repay.’ Our social arrangement, the thing that we call money, is based on an obligation that if not met, ultimately becomes a debt. David Graeber, in his wonderful book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, argues that societies had credit systems way back then. To simplify: the credit system involves, for example, a village with a hairdresser on the one hand, able to cut hair, and a thatcher on the other. They need each other’s services. If one provides a service to the other, there is an obligation to repay or reciprocate. In the village, a chief or high priest or whoever’s the boss, oversees obligations and upholds standards of measurement (for example the standard length of a cloth or size of a beer) and resolves conflicts between those exchanging (transacting) services. The hairdresser says to the thatcher, I’ll cut your hair, but afterwards, please thatch my roof in exchange. The chief oversees this and says to the thatcher, “Okay, she’s cut your hair. Here’s the promise that you’ve made – and I’m here to uphold that promise.” In the meantime, the hairdresser cuts the butcher’s, the carpenter’s hair, and so on. The role of the chief is to say, these promises were made, please fulfil them. And that’s how the credit-based monetary system originates – with the head of the village acting as the ‘central banker’.
What happens when a new tribe turns up at the village and seeks to undertake transactions? They might say, “Look, we’ve got animal skins, and we’d like to exchange these for your corn.” Because they are strangers and not answerable to the village’s ‘governance’ system, villagers are unsure how to trust them as there’s no chief to oversee and negotiate this exchange. So they revert to barter – the exchange of one commodity for another. David Graeber argues our credit-based monetary system is not barter. Barter was a system that operated in places where there was no trust and no management of trust.
Neo-liberals, conservatives, and classical economists call money, barter, based on a commodity like gold. But for 5,000 years money has been based on promises: ‘the promise to pay’ and the enforcement of that promise, trust. So that’s why all money is debt, because the use of the credit money system assumes the making of an obligation which has to be upheld. Five thousand years ago people were doing this, and the chief had the role of standardising – putting a measurement system in place for balancing exchanges or transactions. That setting of a standard for exchanges became the currency.
Today in Britain we all share a currency, pounds sterling; but when we cross the border to a foreign country, we have to use an alternative currency. The power of the chief has been usurped, and power over our monetary system now rests in financial markets based in places such as Wall Street. To oversimplify, our monetary system reliant on promises to pay and millions of daily transactions are no longer managed by our local ‘chief’, but have been captured. Today the system is effectively managed by the one per cent. Our obligations are captured in the form of bonds, which themselves are bought and sold so that these social obligations are now commodified and transformed into an asset. Our social relationships have been commodified, and a few have become rich on it…
Gavin Turk: I’ve got this nagging thought in my head: I took £200 out of the hole-in-the-wall around the corner from my house at the beginning of the year and only yesterday spent the last pound – the only actual physical money I’ve had this year. I’m doing all my transactions down a wire, which is also charging me a little every time I spend any money…
Ann Pettifor: Cash is so subversive to today’s monetary system because it can’t be traced. If, in a coffee shop, you wave a card over a machine, this is a promise to pay the coffee shop, but it also becomes a bit of data that can be sold on. It’s extraordinary the degree of control, and the rates of return, that the one per cent demand.
I’m passionate about the question of what rates of interest are charged on these intangible, social obligations – a promise to pay. For example, imagine a young person living in council accommodation somewhere in the east end of London, who works, precariously, for Deliveroo. If that person applies for a loan, the bank might be happy with her application and promises to pay, but because her loan is risky, offers her a mortgage with an interest rate of eight per cent. Her income doesn’t rise by eight per cent every year, but the interest on her mortgage does. So she uses the loan to buy a tiny flat in east London and then obviously ends up defaulting on it. High rates are a major cause of financial or economic failure, which is why they should be regulated. Under the ‘free market’ monetary system, they are not regulated. Hence the inevitability of financial crises.
Let’s say we have a complete collapse of the whole thing, because of a climate breakdown. The whole system blows up and everything is destroyed. There are only a few people left. What could we do? We could, say, begin again. We will have lost the system governed by the invisible hand of ‘markets’ – the one per cent – and will be free of all of that. We could begin to build a new world and a new community, based on promises and trust. We could begin to transact our services, “I’ll care for you or I’ll sing for you, or I’ll paint for you.” And we could then begin to build up a system of trust once more. The question would then become, whom do we want to be in charge of all this? How do we want to manage this?
Gavin Turk: The relationship between art and money is mysterious. How do we put a price on a painting? How do we put a price on creativity, whatever that is? Not that I don’t know what creativity is, but the moment I try to commodify it, it goes weird. Dan and Hilary, I know when the Bank Job project got to the point where you actually had to do the deal and buy the debt, it became a little problematic. Can you expand on that?
Dan Edelstyn: In America, they had a couple of debt buyers who went into Occupy and collaborated with the Strike Debt (now the Debt Collective); whereas in Britain, there were no debt buyers who were on the same page in the beginning. We were going into a world where we had no contacts and were trying to persuade people to help us. We did eventually find a good guy in the Midlands, called Roland, who had been buying debt for 20 years and wanted to make amends in some way. The reason we could buy £1.2m of predatory catalogue and credit card debt was because of the way the secondary debt markets work. Debt is bought and sold as a commodity. The older it gets, the lower its grade. As a form of local ‘bailout of the people by the people’ we wanted to focus on local debt; in what was essentially a matter of interrogating spreadsheets we honed in on this high-interest debt from the surrounding postcodes of E17, Walthamstow, London. This process was fraught with difficulties, and it was never intended as a scalable solution to the debt crisis, but a way of exposing in a dramatic way the injustices of the secondary debt markets, and in turn, the wider financial system that forces people into debt. Our act of debt cancellation was one spark in a movement to both illuminate and counter these unjust systems. This was done through collective action and in this case art – not just in bringing a community together in the printing of the banknotes but the staging of an explosion of this debt in a transit van in front of the towers of finance of Canary Wharf. This action was called Big Bang 2.
Ann Pettifor: Can I illustrate that with the work I was doing on an international level? Like many other low-income countries, Peru had outstanding debts – for example, foreign obligations. A New York company called Elliott Management started what’s often called a ‘vulture fund’. That fund deliberately sets out to buy the ‘distressed’ debt of poor countries when the value of that debt has fallen, because non-payment is expected.
The poor country is indebted because of economic needs, such as buying computers, so has to borrow hard (foreign) currency in order to pay for imports. They sell their copper, or whatever they can, to obtain dollar bills, and use their commodities (assets) as collateral to borrow foreign currency. And then suddenly the price of the asset against which they have borrowed, such as copper, collapses. They earn less foreign income and can’t repay the borrowing. It is at this point that Elliott Management steps in and buys the debt Peru owes, and waits. In the meantime pressure groups lobby for unjust and immoral world debt to be cancelled, and call on the official creditors, the IMF, the world bank, and Britain and Germany, and the United States and Japan – to cancel the poor country’s debt. It works and some debt gets cancelled. Once more the country’s ‘books’ are restored to balance, and they raise more hard currency. It is at that point that Elliott Management demands repayment in full of the old debts. Having originally paid, for example, 10 cents in the dollar for the debt, the company demands repayment of 100 cents in the dollar. If Peru (or Argentina or Haiti) refuses, the American company can take the sovereign debtor to an American court. Judges in New York bow to the interests of a Wall Street corporate and argue that Elliott’s repayment must take precedence over other repayments. If the sovereign offers only 10 cents in the dollar as repayment, US courts have the power to penalise that sovereign debtor. This is achieved by using the IMF to block the sovereign’s access to foreign currency. That is the fate of many poor, sovereign debtor countries. It’s an issue that is difficult to explain because it’s hard to understand and talk about the international financial system.
Gavin Turk: Dan and Hilary, weren’t you trying to get a licence for buying debt?
Dan Edelstyn: So many communities all around the country got in touch and wanted to do the same thing – branches of HSCB popped up all over the country. The barrier was the fact that we didn’t have financial conduct authority regulation, but also the feeling that possibly we don’t need to replicate it in the same way – maybe it’s done its job, and it’s travelling out into the world in a film and book and sparking new ideas and action in different ways.
What was evident in the project was the power of collective action, and it is the power we’re now focusing on in a project about energy – electrical, community, and artistic. Inspired directly by Ann’s work on the Green New Deal, we are setting out to build a cooperative power station across the rooftops of Walthamstow. This again takes us on a big learning curve, and we’re working through it all and seeing if there is an opportunity to weave debt cancellation into this one, in relation to fuel poverty and debt. We’ll be printing a new currency – the Green Backs – inspired by the original US greenbacks, as another variation on sovereign money creation backing this grassroots Green New Deal. So Hoe Street Central Bank lives on, playing with, subverting, and creating other financial instruments that work for the people not against them. Even on a national scale, mass debt cancellation would never be a complete solution, but it would press the reset button, alongside a raft of other measures urgently needed to tackle the deep inequities involved in the climate crisis. If the government are not acting fast enough, how might we be able to do a project that can make some impact, starting from our house and radiating outwards? Again there will be a film, but the whole process is a kind of gesamtkunstwerk involving mass participation and art production.
Gavin Turk: This sounds like perfect material for the next project, a film about local green ambitions with world implications, benefitting from all that learning of the financial system you’ve been doing. Ann, are you working on a new project?
Ann Pettifor: I’m writing about how the world’s central bankers provide bailouts and finance for institutions such as Wall Street (at very low rates of interest), but do not ensure that finance is available at low rates for the real economy, the climate, or to end austerity. It’s about how the civil servants at the US Federal Reserve, the world’s central banks, have become servants to Wall Street; whereas societies need them to act in the service of the real economy – just as the chiefs in villages once acted as servants to their community by upholding standards, managing interest rates, and regulating transactions and obligations.
The latest podcast from Port, featuring the award-winning artist and milliner
Gavin Turk is an award-winning artist who first came to prominence as part of the YBAs in the early 90s. He’s pioneered many forms of contemporary British sculpture now taken for granted, including painted bronze, waxwork and the use of rubbish. His installations and sculptures deal with issues of authorship, authenticity and identity, often incorporating images of himself, as well as iconic figures taken from popular culture and art history.
Stephen Jones is widely considered to be one of the world’s most radical and important milliners working today. Since opening his first millinery salon in Covent Garden, in 1980, he has made hats for the likes of Princess Diana and Mick Jagger, collaborating with designers such as Vivienne Westwood and Claude Montana, through to his current work with Thom Browne and Christian Dior.
Together with host Tom Bolger, they discuss the myths around art, craft and audience, as well as how to remain curious.
Upcoming episodes can be listened to on our Spotify, so stay tuned.
Work, viewership and art today: in the studio with the influential Young British Artist
Gavin Turk was never awarded his postgraduate degree from the Royal College of Art. Presenting only one, controversial, work for his graduate exhibition, Cave – his whitewashed studio, empty but for a blue English Heritage plaque stating ‘Gavin Turk worked here, 1989–1991’ – he drew the ire of his tutors, but established himself as an artist who confronts fundamental questions of authorship and artistic identity with an incisive irreverence and wit.
Exhibited as part of Charles Saatchi’s notorious 1997 exhibition Sensation, alongside other Young British Artists, like Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread, Turk’s eclectic body of work has come to include repurposed artworks, realistic bronze sculptures of Styrofoam cups and bin bags, and the use of rubbish as readymades.
Port went to Turk’s east London studio to meet the artist who continues to inform the direction of British contemporary art.
Why did you start making art?
Some people have a story, a narrative; they can remember a moment when everything became clear for them and they wanted to be an artist. I never really had that. I went to art school to figure out whether I would like making art or not, but I still haven’t worked it out; I’ve just got a much more sophisticated sense of not knowing the answer.
To what extent do you identify as a YBA?
I mean, the YBAs wasn’t an art movement like futurism or the surrealists. It was much more a movement created by the media, which my name was associated with. There were positive benefits to that; it worked as a form of marketing, but it provoked a lot of questions about the audience of the work: Who am I making the art for? How relevant is my work to the audience?
Do you feel you know your audience better now?
It’s hard to say. I make quite a diverse range of work, and I’m always surprised at how that which I find awkward or embarrassing does well, while the work that I know and have controlled, people don’t really like.
Do you mind that?
No, I try to be quite pragmatic. The audience will always bring their part of the deal into it. I don’t want to make art that is totally dogmatic. I’m not saying ‘Here’s the artwork, it equals this,’ and, of course, the time and the context changes. People today look at my work differently to how they did 20 years ago.
You came to prominence at a time of great energy and activity by young artists. How does that compare with the situation now?
I’m very nervous. There doesn’t seem to be much freedom for young artists to play and experiment. It costs so much money to study art today. The artists I meet who have just graduated want to know how to make money to pay their debts; they feel like they have to play the game, and it’s not helped by the galleries. Young artists either see artists who have sold out to some degree, and think it is success, or feel that if they’re creative and experiment they won’t be rewarded for it.
How important is your studio to the way you work?
My current studio in Canning Town, where I moved a few years ago, is surrounded by recycling plants, which is exciting for someone like me who is into recycling on lots of different levels. I spend a lot of time watching what people throw away. I want to look at the point at which something achieves value, and I think the easiest way is to look at the point that it achieves no value, when it’s just something someone wants to get rid of. With my studio, I’ve created a space that lets you take things apart, or go around the local area to collect rubbish and arrange it in cabinets, or archive ideas that you can return to later when they actually make sense.
Do you conceive new ideas in your studio?
I get asked to do the occasional public work and to be part of various gallery exhibitions or museums and institutions, which can have an effect on the work you’re going to make… how it’s going to go. And then I’ve got a backlog of work that I would still love to make. But I don’t really have ideas in my studio. They usually come to me when I’m doing something else, reading a book or riding my bike or half asleep. But, eventually, half-formed ideas will join up with each other to become something I can’t resist making. It’s this wonderful thing of being an artist: You’ve got be clever enough to have an idea and then stupid enough to actually make it.
The Spring/Summer 2018 issue of Port – featuring writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf and David Hallberg, the greatest male dancer of his generation – is out now
Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of the foremost intellectual voices in the United States today. The author of Half of a Yellow Sun, Purple Hibiscus and Americanah – as well as of one of the most-viewed Ted talks ever, sampled by Beyoncé, no less – Adichie transcends the barriers between literature, art and music. For the cover story of Port issue 22, she met Catherine Lacey in Washington DC to discuss her extraordinary books, the complexity of recent gender movements and to give a hint at a next big project.
Elsewhere in the magazine, we speak to 6a – the most exciting architecture practice in London; discuss Netflix and race with the director of Mudbound, Dee Rees; and travel to rural Netherlands to meet the pioneering Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf. Also featured: The photographer Christopher Payne visits one of the largest flag factories in the US, and we uncover the secrets and beauty of space with astronaut Nicole Stott.
In the fashion section, celebrated photographer Kalpesh Lathigra and Port‘s fashion director Dan May travel to Mumbai to shoot a 40-page story around the sprawling, seaside city; Scott Stephenson styles this season’s collections and Pari Dukovic shoots the greatest male dancer in the world, David Hallberg, wearing Saint Laurent.
Commentary pieces come courtesy of Will Self, Lisa Halliday and Jesse Ball, as well as Samuel Beckett‘s seminal Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit. Highlights from the Porter include Tilda Swinton remembering her friend John Berger; an interview with the British artist Gavin Turk; foraging with chef Nicholas Balfe; and ex-director of the Tate Modern, Vicente Todolí, on his passion for citrus fruits.