David Blandy is a Brighton-based artist whose work in video, performance, installation, comic books and video games has seen him interrogate the self as constructed through our engagement with culture in its myriad forms. Blandy has created numerous recurring characters, such as the ‘Barefoot Lone Pilgrim’ and the ‘White and Black Minstrel’ which have been rendered in moving image and as action figures, comic book characters and fighters in arcade games. Through these alter-egos – constructed as composites of the artist’s personality traits and characters from the popular culture with which he identifies – Blandy seeks to explore the self as an anthropological subject.
This interview discusses his most recent project, ANJIN 1600 alongside previous works Child of The Atom, The Search for Mingering Mike, hollow bones and from the underground, as well as the artist’s enduring love for the Wu Tang Clan, soul music and anime. ANJIN 1600: Episode 1 is the first installment in what Blandy hopes will be a multi- part series reimagining English navigator William Adam’s sixteenth century journey to Japan as a 1980’s-styled anime space opera. This episode was produced with support from Phoenix Gallery, Animate Projects and Arts Council, England.
Tim Dixon Part of me approaches this hesitantly in case there are important references I’m missing. Do you want people to understand the references or do you like to hide your sources?
David Blandy For me the sources are an interesting extra layer; if you know the whole story of The Fist of the North Star you’ll get another angle on Child of The Atom, but I try and include as much of the original source stuff in the actual work itself, so you don’t have to have seen it. When you watch Child of The Atom you have an idea of what anime is even if you’ve never seen anime before. I think that’s the same with Anjin – there’s a lot of references to a few different ‘Space Operas’ – the one that I ended up abusing most thoroughly is the most obscure of those really, Odin: Photon Space Sailer Starlight. None of the anime fans I mention it to I mention it to has heard of it. A guy who I met through a fighting game forum, NeoEmpire, told me about it. He’s this guy who’s really heavily into ‘80s anime and ‘80s VHS’s and is also a musician. As a result of our conversations he got really excited about the project and we ended up collaborating on it. He composed the final soundtrack for Anjin using the synths and sound effects of the era and he really wanted to be very specific: “So do you want it late ‘80s, like ‘88? Or is it more like ’84? Is it more Saturday morning cartoon series, like Ulysses 31 or Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors, or more kind of Space Battleship Yamoto?” He ended up doing this Jayce and The Wheeled Warriors styled intro.
TD Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors I remember, another reference, Ulysses 31, I don’t really, maybe I’m just a little young for it, I think I just missed that. Is there a generational aspect to your work? Do you think you’re speaking more to people of your own generation or do you think the work still resonates across the board?
DB With this piece I hoped to create something that was almost like a found object, this series that you maybe stumble across on YouTube or at a car boot sale on VHS and think “this looks kind of cool, kind of funny,” and you put it on and try and make sense of this thing. That’s my experience forever of Ulysses 31: They’re sort of Greek, but they look a bit Japanese and there’s this French design thing. It’s a real mash-up in the original sense of the word, and I wanted that same sense of being unsure of what is genuine… In Ulysses 31 you get these vast tracts that have nothing to do with Homer’s Odyssey whatsoever – it’s just like, “Hey lets make a cool Japanese action-adventure-space episode” – then there’s other episodes which clearly do. So you go, “Right, that’s supposed to be the Cyclops, but where did all these guys who are praising the Cyclops come from!?” They took such amazing liberties with it…. I thought that I should play on my fascination with Japan and use a Japanese cultural artefact as a way to communicate that fascination. And then I was thinking about this story which is all about the quest, and self-transformation, and loss and finding of self – the William Adams story; His journey to try and find Japan, essentially to make a shed-load of cash as an economic colonialist… But in fact the English and Dutch traders took all the wrong commodities and they made no money. Three of the ships sank on the way there, almost all his crew died. It was a litany of disasters and he ended up being effectively marooned in Japan and kind of trapped by Shogun himself, which was part of the reason he survived. He was taken on by the Shogun as his translator, and as a fount of knowledge on how to create warships – they had very functional boats but nothing that would really work as a round-the-world trading vessel or a warship… I guess it’s about loss. About losing yourself in pop culture, in games or anime or during a film, separating yourself from the world for a period.
TD When he says goodbye to Albion at the start, I wondered if that reflected the fact you seem to relate more to imported Japanese culture than you do to British pop culture.
DB Maybe I do. I think it’s that confusion – why do I think about Monkey from my childhood more than Rent-a-ghost? Which I watched, but I didn’t love. It didn’t hit a chord with me in the same way – maybe it wasn’t trying to tell a spiritual tale through hijinks and ridiculous martial arts!
TD You seem to be casting yourself as the Adam/Anjin character…
DB There’s a kind of Blandyism to it, yes (laughs).
TD I wondered if you were slightly moving away from the alter-ego idea which was so strong in your earlier work? In this it’s not so explicit, more implied.
DB It’s not so explicit, and I’m kind of happy with that but at the same I do like that idea of a performance in anime space. How can that make sense? To take live performance and that idea of performance to camera, performance to video, and then put it in this very contrived, artful space. Can it be read as performance?
TD I think about The Search For Mingering Mike in which you literally put yourself into the found footage, the Sun Ra film.
DB Yes, Space is the Place. There are parallels. In some ways that piece was a glorious failure really – it’s a piece that doesn’t quite hold together. There’s aspects of it which I quite liked: It had a kookiness to it, and it was very faithful to the idea of ‘outsider’ art and me trying to make something almost YouTube video-ish, which is kind of like the modern ‘outsider’ art.
TD I was wondering about the early works– from the underground and hollow bones – which had that straight-to-camera lip-sync performance. That was before YouTube, no?
DB Yeah, that was 2001.
TD And YouTube launched in 2005
DB Yeah I guess it shows that when people are given a video camera that’s one of the first things they do! (laughs). From the underground and hollow bones were the initial parts of that series, hollow bones is more overtly political and it was really a response to my own response to that track. I was looking for beats, I was making a lot of sample music at the time, and I felt a nervousness about buying it that I hadn’t felt since I bought Michael Jackson’s Bad on cassette when I was 10! That feeling people that would think I was a bit weird buying [Syl Johnson’s] Is It Because I’m Black but the cashier doesn’t care, they’ve seen it all before, they probably don’t even make a connection, but that anxiety about it; What does it mean? And then you listen to lyrics and the song and just love it, but wonder ‘why am I loving this?’ and what does that mean about me? Why was there that connection? Maybe the why is the mystery that keeps me coming back to it? It’s irresolvable. Why do you pick up on certain things? I’m really into Soul Music, that’s my thing, could it have been anything? Could it have been country? I’ve listened to a lot of country music, I just don’t like it very much. Jonny Cash I can abide… Why is it that certain genres, certain places, have a pull on you that is sort of indefinable? It becomes very woolly but I guess it’s like any belief system, but it’s a self-made belief system.
TD I wanted to ask you about the recurring theme of the soul in your work. There’s soul music which runs through, then there’s the soul in eastern philosophy that comes through in the pop culture and then there’s a kind of skeptical Western take that we may bring to that.
DB The whole soul thing is a way of discussing identity and self-hood and how much of yourself you’ve left to find scattered amongst all the soul collections of the world? Is it all out there? Or is it all in here? Does the ‘I’ exist at all? I come from the Lacanian side of psychoanalytic theory; of seeing certain parallels to eastern traditions, say Buddhism, where the self is an illusion. There’s this feedback that happens with eastern traditions, kung fu, and then kung fu film, then hip hop and suddenly all these things start playing together… The Wu-Tang is all about multiplicity of identity, each member has multiple identities and if you sing along to one track you’re singing along to multiple ‘I’s. You know, like: “I rip it hardcore like porno-flick bitches.” Because there are 4 members which talk in that song, with each ‘I’ you become a different person when you sing along. 4 different subject-identities… And then there’s the reader-as-author as well, me listening to the Wu-Tang Clan is quite different from what Inspector Deck would have thought when he wrote that line. Who knows what the Inspector Deck thinks? (laughs) Each person invents their own iconography of what they listen to in some way, even with the very heavy branding of someone like the Wu Tang Clan there’s still that imagery in your head that is completely idiosyncratic… Those pieces came at the end of a research process where I was thinking about the ‘original voice’ and what is our original voice, and what is an authentic voice? The lip-syncing came out of that series of explorations. I was going to sample my own voice, but then I wondered, what am I going to say? I thought, why don’t I work with something that has a voice already? It ended up being Boogie Down Productions’ Poetry that I first worked with. Partly because I was very conscious that part of my project has always been taking things from popular culture and putting it into the gallery and thinking, what does this mean in an art space? So putting KRS-One in the gallery, when he’s saying “hip-hop is poetry” seemed to make sense.
TD Do you think there’s a still a conflict there; the popular versus the high brow?
DB The boundaries are obviously far more blurred but there is a sense in which, for example a David Hockney exhibition will be seen as more important than Mingering Mike’s book and it might just be to do with cultural investment: the number of people who say “This is an important thing. This is interesting.” I always hated the music everyone liked, I only liked the music that very small numbers of people liked. You attach yourself to these other communities… In a way it’s a search for authenticity. It’s trying to find something that’s not commercially driven or driven by the needs of certain factors. It’s much more about trying to create something for the love of it. There’s a lot of creative expression that comes out of obsession. Like the fighting game competition at the ICA Choose Your Character, 2010, trying to bottle that passion. That’s something that I want to try and evolve in my practice, the more event-driven element.
TD The references you make can be quite niche, quite geeky, I wondered if there’s an element of your work which is saying that these things deserve your attention? That you want to be advocate for the things you’re appropriating?
DB Absolutely! I always see myself as being like Bruce Lee’s finger in emotional content, no more than that really (laughs)… I know I turn up a lot in my work but really it’s just as a vehicle to point to something else and say, “This is interesting!” or to create something new. All the stuff that made me who I am isn’t celebrated as art or philosophical thought. It’s how philosophy comes into everyday life and it’s through culture.
TD The first I saw of your work was the comic book from your show at Cell Project Space in 2006. I remember seeing your character reading the lyrics to KRS-One and finding that exciting. I guess that was how I came to this kind of artwork: I was already interested in hip-hop and rave music and the appropriative practices of sampling there, and I came to appropriative artwork through that music. I wondered if that was the same for you?
DB It was absolutely the same. I’m a music-maker first rather than an artist. My father is an artist, so it’s not like that option was never open to me, but for many years I was in a band and that was the centre of my creative life. I was making paintings, but the music was what I felt excited about. We started doing a lot of sampling and that was how I got into all the soul music and listening to a lot of Wu-Tang. That really pure form of sound-collage: this beat plus that sample and this film and bosh, next track! Really simple and raw, but at the same time a very organic kind of work. Really punk rock; low production value. Producers these days complain about the bass levels on those tracks, but I love that raw griminess and hissyness. It was literally thinking about that that I came to nicking bits from computer games.
TD Do you situate your work in terms of moving image history, in particular in relation to found-footage filmmaking?
DB A really formative moment for me was going to see the British Art Show around 1994, in Liverpool, it had Douglas Gordon’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in it. Though the installation didn’t do much for me, that idea of using found film and almost exhibiting it ‘as is’ did. I remember thinking, “Oh, that’s kind of allowed in an art context.” Seeing that as an 18/19 year-old, I made the link with the hip-hop I was listening to and realised that that kind of collage was possible.
TD In terms of the history of appropriation in artists’ film and video, it was very much against Hollywood at first sometimes even about exposing something in it – a hidden meaning, a system or something unintentionally signaled. Increasingly the role of the fan has come in, with someone like Douglas Gordon it’s more about the relationship he had with those films. He talks about watching them on VHS at home, pausing them, playing them in slow motion, and it becomes about a personal connection, less about the cinematic, more about a one-to-one relationship with these things.
DB The things I include are things that I love and I find it easier to use things that I think are just great! If you want to find the original things, then great! Like Nirvana telling people to go and listen to the Melvins; Saying, we’re just light stuff go and listen to Sonic Youth.