Alan Butler: Can you hear me?
Rachael Gilbourne: Yes, [pause] I can. [pause]
R: So ... can ... everyone ... hear ... me?
R: And Alan?
Alan & Audience: Yes.
R: So, welcome everyone to TALK SHOW. This is Alan’s first show in Dublin, since his show in 2010 at Temple Bar Gallery. So, this evening we’re going to talk about Alan’s practice, the work’s he’s made before the show and then the works within the show itself. Oh, Alan, there was one question I wanted to ask you, just before I forget it, which may be a simple one, but I feel it may be important. I noticed that when looking at your work, you use capital letters in a lot of the titles of your works, as well as in the title of the show. Obviously this is a deliberate effect, but, I would just like to know the reasons behind it?
A: Well, I don’t have a straight rationale towards the use of capital letters. Sometimes it just happens out of sheer laziness and by saving the file name on the computer when caps lock is left on.
A: Yeah. There is actually nothing clever behind it; it’s more laziness and carelessness.
R: Can you say that again – someone was moving and I couldn’t hear it?
A: [Repeats above]. I like when things like that happen along the way. I suppose, the whole aim of it is to work rationally and not make any mistakes and we have this idea that when we use the computer that everything should be perfect. But, when I make mistakes like that, I often leave them in and sometimes I don’t correct them at all and that’s how it all comes about.
R: Ok, cool. I was trying to interpret it myself, I was thinking you may have been trying to shout all the titles really loudly, or somehow trying to explain that they were really profound.
A: Well, maybe there is a bit of that, because there is that whole thing of using capital letters on the internet for shouting or for placing emphasis on something.
R: I know you had been talking to me about the change between your show in theTemple Bar Gallery and now in the Green On Red Gallery, and you especially mentioned that you had taken a year away from exhibiting. Within that year, there were massive shifts politically around the world. Then, you came back to exhibiting your work, and from an observers outlook, you can notice a kind of different tone then what you had being doing previously.
A: So, yeah, for anyone who generally doesn’t know my work – my work has been quite ‘CAPS LOCK’ and clicky. I guess, I’ve always been interested in doing some work with the internet, where I would be producing work in physical space – making images and art objects real, that should normally only exist in the fantasy realm of MEME and internet culture and how the way people act online is completely different to the way they act in real life. I suppose, I found myself doing that, because, it was just fantasy and play. I think it wasn’t on purpose, that my work changed, but, I think the more the internet became a part of our lives, the less I could actually be as flip-pant and say “the internet is a fantasy realm”. The final nail in the coffin was rather, on the night in November, when Donald Trump became the President of the United States. When Donald Trump became president, well that’s kind of one of the stupid things that would have happened on a GIF I would have made, that’s not actually something that should happen in reality. I felt at that point the internet ceased to exist and that it just became the world we live in. If I then continue to produce internet-art about that shouty, fantasy world, I find it would be quite redundant - it would just be a documentary.
R: And the tweets that you made in relation to Donald Trump, did you start those in 2015 or was it 2016?
A: Ah, 2016, yeah. I thought it was just going to annoy everybody and it probably did (or still does), but I continued it anyway. Every morning at 9 o’ clock, my Twitter account tweets ‘Oh my god Donald Trump, what a crazy guy!’. Actually, the really interesting thing I have observed from this is, the mornings when I get a huge amount of likes from the people who are following me, it means that Donald Trump is after doing something. I was just doing it as a way of making fun of people on Twitter, and then, some-one wrote an article about it, claiming it was ‘art’ - I don’t know.
R: Well, then, it seems your practice is slightly more sombre in tone?
A: Yeah, well, just to finish that point on what happens on the internet, etc. For me, I was in this mindset that the world functioned in a particular way, then when Donald Trump became president, it was this smack in the face, that ‘oh I always thought Donal Trump lived in our world, but actually I live in his world’. But, I honestly think that didn't just happen over night. There have been things happening all along the way, like the Hilary Clinton ‘Pizzagate’ theory, with the guy who went in with an AR-15-style rifle into Comet Restaurant, planning to 'self-investigate' the conspiracy, that underage children were being harbored in the restaurant. After all of this, I felt the need to work in a more poetic world, because all that stupid GIF world has now become a reality.
R: Yeah, it feels like you’ve stepped back slightly and taken the longer view. And I think before your work felt like it was stepping into this realm and being surrounded or being within the internet or within that ambient, but whereas now I think it’s more like taking a step back and using that language but not being completely embedded in it.
A: Yeah, it’s not as explicit in a way, like you know, I’m not using Hilary Clinton’s face in the exhibition - which I have in the passed. It’s not exactly quoting pop culture, but however there is pop culture in the show.
R: It feels like Deskscapes are symbolic of this shift into this peaceful poetic place. This is the first time I’ve seen your worked framed, and as well as the cyanotypes - they’re distinct works. Do you maybe want to talk about the making of them and what they reference?
A: They're abstractions of places; of the forms that are in the desktop wallpapers on MAC OSX operated system, and they're turned sideways, so if you just turn your head usually anti-clockwise, you’ll make out that these are actually land-scape shapes that make up the work. I was interested in using these in relation to the metaphor of the world we experience; the landscapes we experience; the landscapes which are mediated by screen based technology. But the other thing is, that the ambiguity of these which have formed part of our visual culture. If you own a MAC laptop, then you own these images. It’s just interesting because they probably are the most well known photographs of this century, or probably the most distributed photographs of maybe ever, next to Windows XP - that one had a background called Bliss, which were these fields in California. What I really like about the Mac OSX ones, is that they are from the Yosemite in California. Yosemite has been this place of pilgrimage for artists, I guess for a couple of hundred years now. One of the first black and white American landscape photographs was by Carlton Watkins, in the mid 19th century. Around the same time or a few years before, a painter, called Albert Bierstadt, began to loosely work around this idea of creating these big landscapes which were kind of romanticised, and what I find this interesting because the advent of photography was simultaneously beginning to suck up portraiture work around New York.
R: So this is kind of about freedom in a way - and a particular ideology.
A: Yeah, and I suppose it was always kind of represented as a place that wasn’t inhabited by people before, so it seemed very glam, and appealed to the rich. Also, the scale of these paintings, like Yosemite and El Captain, gave the first virtual reality experiences. I think they even ended up travelling as far as Hungary, for people to pay to see them, as for them it was the equivalent of travelling to West America. It’s a bit like the holiday on Star Trek - like that alternative space. Going to Star Trek 5, the film, I think it opens with Captain Kirk, climbing El Capitan and Spock comes along in his rocket boots and asks him about the climate, creating the metaphor that this was once the unknown exploration.
R: These landscapes, you know are primarily American, and the politics you seem to reference are American, so there seems to be a lot of American culture, politics, society, landscape, within your work. I think of that, and remember that you made your MA in Singapore. I’m wondering if that had a big influence?
A: Oh definitely, because Singapore is, and has been for a very long time, the way that America is going. It looks and feels like California, everything is in English. I have Singaporean friends who speak English in a Californian accent.
R: And it’s particularly Californian landscapes you're looking at as well in theseDeskscapes.
A: Yeah, but then that has a lot to do with the proximity to Hollywood and to the proximity to Silicon Valley. But, basically, Singapore is a benign fascist state, and it feels like that is the future of capitalism; like this hyper efficient business that people live in; a place for people to be contained; to be farmed; to work within the capitalist system. Also, Singapore’s role model would be Western, they would not be influenced by their oriental roots.
R: So, in a way its mimicking Western American culture, just as Deskscapes is mimicking landscape painting. This brings us to look at your new work in the Irish Museum of Modern Art As Above, So Below: Portals, Visions, Spirits & Mystics, that opens next week, ON EXACTITUDE IN SCIENCE. Do you want to tell us a bit about that?
A: So, Koyaanisqatsi was a film made in 1983, by Godfrey Reggio. It’s a film that isn’t driven by a screenplay but it’s driven by a pictorial mode, its almost like a poetic documentary film. It’s just images of the planet earth at the end of the 20th century, with music by Philip Glass. Glass has created this incredible sound-track, which has been produced specifically for the film. It became this archetype of cinema in the late 20th century which didn’t have actors in it, but is still rather a very cinematic experience. The few times I have seen it in the cinema, the scale of it alone is breathtaking. There is a particular scene with a Boeing 747 going really close to the camera - the nose of the airplane - it’s like seeing an airplane on real scale. It’s almost referencing those first films with the trains coming towards the camera. But, I’m also interested that it has this kind of experience of the cinema - it’s something that happens to you. It’s a really visceral movie. It oscillates from being something very intense, to something much more slow. At a certain point there’s a layer of synthesisers orchestrated by real instruments, then the film culminates hyper capitalism and the automobile production industry in particular space travel. I’m really interested in how it represents, still I feel, where we are in terms of lifestyles and how we haven’t changed that significantly since 1983. I wanted to reuse this material and remake the film in all its entirety, the full 86 minutes, within the video gameGrand Theft Auto V. GTA V is not really aware of what it is; these are games that are re-immersive and that go anywhere and do anything; where you create your own narrative, that is not completely bound to this violence driven attitude of killing somebody and progressing to the next level. I have been making another series of work called Down and Out in Los Santos, a work where I use my characters and give them a phone camera, so that they can photograph the homeless population through the city in GTA V. These people seem to have no function in the game’s narrative. But, I find this really interesting, that, these homeless people, these kind of primitive artificial intelligence, who have been neglected and don’t serve any function to the game, can then bring these corporate reality spaces to produce work autonomously. I feel that Los Santos where Grand Theft Auto V is based, has those Singaporean characters in a way, like what we mentioned before. My thesis was, that if I could reproduce anything in the world, the greatest challenge for me was to make Koyaanisqatsi, shot for shot, frame for frame. Godfrey Reggio has been really nice and has us given the film to show side by side.
R: What did he say when you told him what you wanted to do?
A: Ah, he didn’t seem that surprised. I think that a lot of people have ripped off the style over the years, so I think he was happy that I asked for permission and that I had personally contacted him. But he seemed very suspicious that I wouldn’t be able to do it.
R: Yeah, well it did sound like a very grand ambition.
A: Yeah, I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to do it - that was a constant thought up until about last week, and this was about seventeen months into it. But right now, it’s done - and it works, so I’m pretty happy with it. I sent it to Reggio when I finished it, but he’s on holiday’s right now, hopefully when he get’s back I’ll have a chance to talk to him about it.
R: You mentioned a work called Down and Out in Los Santos, that’s a piece that exists on a website, and is then specifically disseminated through Instagram.
A: Yeah, at the moment there is about 1,200 photographs online. I upload two photo-graphs a day onto the website, and then I transfer those photographs onto Instagram. Again, my initial idea, was something very simple: is it possible for an autonomous and artistic experience to be brought into reality simulation? Then, when I began to put them up online, I started using these hashtags, that made me aware that most people on Instagram who like my account are not actually humans, but actually ‘bots’ attached to their Instagram accounts, which basically wait for you to put something with ‘#photography’ in it, and then their bot will come and ‘like’ your image automatically, in the hope that you’ll be flattered and like their account back. But actually the amount of these bots is incredible - it’s amazing! I was taking photographs of these homeless people, which were actually virtual bot-people themselves, and the first audience for this project were also bots! So when I had basically zero followers on Instagram, I think that’s when the project was most successful, and then humans started following me and ruined the project.
R: You were saying an influence for that work was Walker Evans, who was an American photographer of the Great Depression. And I was reading a little about him, and he was saying that his hope was to make images that were literative, authoritative and transcendent. I’m looking at your images, and you know you talked about wanting to make an authentic artistic image from them, but at the same time, within that, obviously it’s really dark material, like really depressing. But, when you’re on Instagram, it’s always really nice, you see all these images of flowers, and then out of nowhere you see thoseDown and Out in Los Santos images of prostitutes. Are you deliberatively trying to have something thats a bit more of a motive.
A: Yeah, well I guess what would have made Walker Evans photographs of coal miners very powerful, was the empathy. Initially, people made images in an attempt to capture beauty, but what I found with Walker Evans is that, he was trying to capture the banality of the everyday. So for me, even though these homeless people are banal, they are a necessary part of the game. So it’s exactly that when I use #photography, #artphotography, #portraits, #documentary, I’m treating this as reality; I’m treating this as that unfortunate place where Donald Trump has taken over. One of my initial aims was to hopefully annoy photographers, but it didn’t really annoy photographers in the end - I actually think photographers are quite interested that I am trying to penetrate the Instagram feed. A lot of the time people will do a double-take and ask me questions like, ‘Oh that person is really upset, why would you photograph them?’, hinting at the idea of exploitation - and then to retract the comment when they realise its just an image from a video game, but that’s when I think its more interesting, when it’s not the art educated audience who connect with the work.
R: Looking at your work, and considering the process that you go into to make theseDeskscapes and similarly, with the works that went before them, and then following withON EXACTITUDE IN SCIENCE; they are all really laborious and solitary. I think in particular, there is a connection to video games and this stereotypical young guy who’s spending hours and hours playing video games alone in his room - it’s like the process of making your work becomes this type of activity. From my perspective, it must be an important part to how you make the work, as it seems to reoccur even in different mediums you use.
R: Is it that those sort of repetitive things bring you to a meditative state or is that even part of it or what’s your thinking behind it?
A: Yeah, I guess the word process is key, as I think of these as more procedural works rather than paintings. They’re almost like an equation in a way but, I don’t know how the answer is going to turn out. When these Deskscapes were finished, people would come to my studio and see them and ask me where I got them printed, and I would have to tell them every time, ‘No, these are done by hand’, even though they are manually ‘painted’ in the same way a printer would work, as the process is continually going from left to right, line by line. Some of them take 70 hours, some of them take 150 hours and it’s a solitary process. But it’s this procedural approach to producing the work that I like. I like to think of that in the same way that how can everything else in the digital mediated reality exist - it’s like tweets on your timeline, each one is just followed by another, so the conversation mutates as it goes on.
R: And does it not drive you mental - this image of you completely isolated?
A: No, no, no.
R: But you must enjoy it, right?
A: Yeah, I love it - in terms of the repetition I really love it. I’ve seen Koyaanisqatsi about 1,000 times now - well, not in full sittings, but more so repeating individual shots again and again, trying to find a cross over location in Grand Theft Auto V that matches it. And, I think, how can I see this film so many times and still absolutely love it? This is very similar for the technique of creating these Deskscapes, a particular way in which I’ve been working for the last decade now - and I’m not bored of it. But, it is time to think about other things in the show as well, as people often say to me that I must have a lot of time, while making these works, to think.
R: Speaking of time and time to think, Who Built the Moon, which is sitting in front of you now, and which also is the title of a book.
A: The work I’m sitting in right now is called Moonlighting, which insinuates, that ‘other job’. So, if you look for me online, it looks like I have this ‘other job’, as you’ll see that there is a book called Who Built the Moon, written also by an Alan Butler, and its about how the moon is actually a manmade object; that its not a natural occurrence of nature. Basically, he thinks that because the ratio between the moon and the sun is so perfect, that there is no possibility that it could be a total random event of nature.
R: So this kind of conspiracy theory, and belief and truth, and what you see and what you hear, is really important in your work. This just brings me to think about what someone said while we were setting up, that we could have pre-recorded this talk, and just played it for the audience. I think this is kind of funny right now, because who can say if this is recorded or if this is live?
A: Yeah, well, it could be recorded. I could be in the gallery right now.
R: Mind you, I could tell you what time it is right now - it’s coming up to 8. Have you still got oxygen in your tent?
A: Yeah, but it’s hot.
R: Do you think you need some fresh air?
A: I think so.
R: Okay, cool - it’s times to let ourselves out.