Interview – James Johnson-Perkins – Belgrade Art Studio Online Residency

BRIGHTONION

Can you tell us a little about your art and your background?

I grew up in the UK, in the 1990’s surrounded by Brit. Art YBA’s, and a generation of Artist’s such as Damian Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin and Chris Ofili. Whom were exciting, but perhaps a little crass, and that’s why I think a lot of this work, but not all, seems quite hollow and baseless now? and somewhat swallowed up in Capitalist fervour? But I guess that was the point.

I moved to Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the UK and lived there in the 2000’s. This place had a great DIY ethic, and was less influenced by money (because there wasn’t any!), and this period had a very influential effect on my ideals and ideas. Because, I realised there was a different way to make and think about Art. Since 2011 I have lived abroad, in Oman, Russia and now China, which are all places that have all also affected me and my art practice in interesting and various ways.

What is more important for art, the idea or the execution?

The educator Johann Heinrich Pestalozzii stressed the importance of an all-round education – an education of the head, the heart and the hands, but which is led by the heart. I like this. I actually think Art should be driven also by these aspects, where, in this sense (Ideas) are the Head and (Execution) is the Hands. But also, Heart and has to be there too.

To be more specific about the different types of work I make: PRAXIS is all about play and is concerned with execution (hands), GIGATAGES are led more so by ideas (head). VIDEOSTALGIA is more driven by the heart…as these films are very instinctual, and my INTERMADES are led much more so, by the ideas (head).

What subject matters interest you?

Everything really. But I have a particular interested in Nostalgia. My own and that of others. My work also touches on major themes in the History of Art: Religion, Ethics, Politics and more recently in my new GIGATAGE work, I have also been looking at ideas surrounding Immigration and Refugees.

What are the stories behind Plaxis, Gigatage, Videostalgia, Intermades? 

PLAXIS artworks use PLAY mixed with PRAXIS to generate ideas, which incorporate: childhood toys, puzzles and games. These explore abstraction and historical symbolism and explore the artist’s relationship with childlike creativity. GIGATAGE works use Gigapan technology and Montage. Here I create landscapes of different modern and historical figures in renowned sites and civic squares. VIDEOSTALGIA works combine important and poignant places, with filmed performance to camera and nostalgic music. VIDEOSTALGIA works re-look at and reframe films and TV programs, which I personally find culturally valuable. INTERMADES use existing games and objects, which are brought to life through artscores. These involve an interaction or activity guided by the score and are usually made and acted out on by other people, not me.

Where does the process begin for you?

When I have free time. I begin by thinking to myself, what can I make today. Sometimes I like to comment on society in some way, and often I try to explore memories through a making process.

I don’t believe in the concept of free will. I’m a determinist. So, for me artworks present themselves, often in ways that are hard to comprehend. Also, I spin a lot of plates in my work. So, often as well, I return to old images, and work on some of these for many years. In fact, the work makes itself.

I’ve recently been watching a lot of music interviews, where iconic singer’s…Kurt Colbain, Michael Stipe, Bob Dylan… are saying that their songs often write themselves.  Also, these artists don’t always understand what their song’s mean, and so are understandably pretty confused when they have been ascribed to being Voices of their Generation!

How do you feel working with students? And living in China?

I love teaching Art, it’s a reciprocal process, where I am always learning too, so that’s really great. Chinese students are very hard working and polite. Living in China has been a rollercoaster ride, it’s a place of huge contrasts, and it’s still moving forward so quickly in so many ways. I often compare it to the Nineties Sci-Fi Film Dark City. In this film a man wakes up and can’t understand where he is because the architecture and everything has been altered, and continues to transform, throughout the film, ‘Strangers’ as they are called in this story, physically rearrange the city as well as change people’s identities and memories. It sometimes feels like this in China, because large parts of the city change dramatically every year, and this can be somewhat unsettling and disorientating, especially as I can’t understand Chinese characters, and signs.

Despite this, I quite like this fact at times as this ‘Strangeness’ is creatively stimulating, because I spent many years in the UK, where things were very different, and familiar. The UK is like the Utopian beach scene in ‘Dark City’ that the main character is always remembering, pining for and trying to return to. Sometimes I wish I had the stability of my old life back in England, but now during the pandemic, paradoxically the stability of Europe has somewhat switched with here, as it feels more stable in China, where for now they have the Cov-19 virus under control.

To what extent has your everyday life as an artist changed during pandemics?

Initially I returned to the UK during the Pandemic and I was there for 9 months in Lockdowns as well. I had just come from this place where the pandemic had started, so I knew in many ways what to expect, but unexpectedly during this first phase of the pandemic, I felt creatively stuck. I had recently been working on my INTERMADES. These works use artscore’s to create a game-like installations and they are all about people connecting, and very consciously Interacting. In, TWIST for example I am encouraging participants in enter into a giant Twister game, which fills a whole gallery space. So obviously, one of my intentions as an artist is create spaces where people are doing things together, and making connections with strangers. So, Lockdown and social distancing, really frightened me and shock me to a creative core. My art felt redundant and these specific INTERMADE works were particularly superfluous in a new (Kafkaesque) reality, where people couldn’t touch, or interact and this new relationship I had with my work, and how It related to society at large, was totally bewildering.

How do you feel about being involved in an online residency program? How important is to stay connected with the international art community?

During the summer of 2021, I had planned before to do an in person residency in Italy and so initially I felt upset not to be able to do this. Luckily, however I was invited instead to do this Online Belgrade Residency and offered this new and unexpected way to reach out and connect again with a small creative community, virtually. At first, I was worried that I wouldn’t fit in, however, I believe all us felt the same. Initially, there was a tentatively I saw in everyone and myself, as I guess we were/are all trying to understand this trauma that we had all been through, and were reaching out to others in the same place.

So, for me this process of connecting again was very cathartic and I see these Zoom meetings as a kind of Artist’s Anonymous. Personally, I’m trying to work out (as others are too) what it means to be an artist again and this process is interesting, scarey and demanding…

What are your thoughts about the theme ‘artist on standby’? Tell us a bit more about your project…

We are all beginning again to imagine an end of this Pandemic, so this residency with the theme Artist’s on Standby is very prescient. I have been thinking about artwork which is the opposite of an INTERMADE (Interactive Readymade), a NON-INTERMADE, something that one can’t interact with at all. Like an Artwork in a gallery in a crate, with a sign on it that reads ‘Removed from the exhibition’. This idea is also a response to this idea of ‘cancel culture’ and WOKISM/WOKENESS that has somehow now become all-pervasive.

I have also through the Belgrade Art Studio recently been put in touch with a local Historian, Milan Gulić whom I’m talking with about Operation Storm and the Refugee crisis, and I think this could be very creatively fruitful as well.

What do you want to achieve before things return to normal?

I am trying to use this time to understand more about myself and human nature, and I’ve also been doing a lot of writing relating to this. It’s been very interesting watching recent world politics and how different countries have been dealing with this pandemic crisis. It seems to me that politicians and scientists simply didn’t know what to do. It’s disappointing because some of the solutions, would have been more possible if people/politicians had worked together, rather than trying to politicise these situations in their own favour.

Any future plans/projects?

I have begun working with a Chinese artist called Teng Long, on a project called Ctrl+ in association with the Beijing 2102 Gallery (https://beijing2102.com), this is a large project where 50 Chinese artists have been matched up with international artists.  Also, I have just been shortlisted for the Alpine Fellowship prize, so I am very happy about that (https://alpinefellowship.com/visual-art-prize).