Fiona Banner: interview
Mistah Kurtz – He Not Dead
Fiona Banner in collaboration with Paolo Pellegrin in association with the Archive of Modern Conflict
5 June – 26 July 2014
by KATE TIERNAN
This new body of work at PEER is a collaboration between the artist Fiona Banner and the Magnum photographer Paolo Pellegrin, whom Banner commissioned to explore the City of London through the lens of conflict. She spoke to Kate Tiernan about the exhibition, which includes moving image, photographs, text and large graphite drawings.
The following is an edited extract of a longer interview.
Kate Tiernan: When did you first get inspired by conflict and, specifically, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad?
Fiona Banner: I think it’s to do with how we absorb history, and history now is something virtually immediate, everything is being translated so quickly. It began with how we receive information, how history is told, through what images and photo reportage, and what narratives we build in order to describe conflict to ourselves. I got interested, in that I understood things a lot through movies, but movies were very propagandist, particularised and polarised. What interested me was the desire we have to believe that – a mismatch between what you want to know and what you think you want to know: how we create mythologies, how we then submit to those mythologies, and then how we deceive ourselves into the fictionalisation of truth, I guess.
KT: In 2012, with David Kohn Architects, you designed a boat that won a competition hosted by Living Architecture, and that subsequently sat on top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre in London. The boat was based on the riverboat Conrad captained while travelling up the Congo, the journey that is echoed in Heart of Darkness. How do you see the boat you designed in relation to this exhibition at Peer?
FB: So, it was based on the boat Conrad went up the Congo in, that then informed his novel. It was already a kind of fact and a kind of fiction. When I was working on that project, I became really aware of the roof space of the Queen Elizabeth Hall as being between Westminster and East-minster: the Houses of Parliament to the left, and, to the right, St Paul’s and the City of London. I became aware of that, really, because of the film and live performance I made in that space: of Orson Welles’s Heart of Darkness, which had never been performed before. It took on significance within that context, as it is a parody of trade and corruption and colonialism. Our major trade is the financial industry, so it then became a lens for looking at the space of the City, the power structures. The show at Peer touches on all those things, but from the other side, so you do see the City of London, but from the low rise of Hoxton Street [where Peer is situated] and the majestic bright spires of corporate competitors. I’ve lived on the edge of the City for so long and never really been in any way involved. It’s always been this place I haven’t understood, the culture, rules and industry of it. There’s very little space in which, visually, the creative and corporate cultures crossover, although they do in some ways through the big corporate art collections. It was an opportunity to look and exploit my position as a total outsider, but with an intimate relationship to the boundaries of the City.
KT: How did the collaboration come about with the Archive of Modern Conflict?
FB: Peer introduced me to the Archive of Modern Conflict. The more time I spent there, the less I found what I was looking for. I kept trying to get a purchase on what I was looking at by finding things from around here, a world I knew and understood. The archive is defined by a fascination with the “other”. Most of the photographs are from very “other” places, and the traditional conflict zone is very different from London. Also, there is not a lot of stuff from now. I got involved in the idea and power of collecting; there is something very imperial about the act of collecting, particularly when it relates to owning the images of conflict.
I really honed my focus on looking for photographs of the City, and its costumes. There were lots of military costumes and ethnic costumes and I was thinking what is the costume of the “other” to me here and now, the costume of the City, of financial trade? Though the assumption was that I would select things from the archive, I realised I wanted to put something into the archive. I wanted to go into a space I was equally uncomfortable with, which is photography and, most significantly, conflict photography. I was clear that I wanted to work with a Magnum photographer – it’s shorthand for a certain kind of image-making in history. I then got in touch with Paolo Pellegrin, who was doing some really great work in the Congo, which fitted, so I worked very closely with him to take on various passages of Heart of Darkness. Asking him to shoot the City of London as a conflict zone, which it is visually the complete opposite of: the rupture, or the alarming loss of normality that would define a conflict image. A vast amount of money and planning is put into disallowing anything that might suggest breakdown. Giles Fraser, AKA The Loose Canon, also seemed like a great person to bring in, with his involvement with St Paul’s [Fraser is a former canon chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral. He resigned his post in protest at St Paul’s treatment of Occupy movement protesters; see below].
KT: Did you work with Pellegrin to edit the images down?
FB: He spent loads of time creating images and then totally left them with me, which was great, but with 60,000 photographs – and I am an anti-editor – so a very challenging process. I thought the excess of imagery was the most interesting aspect. The photos I selected for print are the ones I’m going to give to the archive. They will be archived under the title Heart of Darkness.
KT: Within the text that Fraser wrote for the exhibition, there is a section “Power is private … the uniform of pinstripe …” Swathes of pinstripe fabric drawings on the wall of the exhibition become tribal in a symbolism of power. What happens for you by placing the drawings on the wall as the stripes become like writing paper?
FB: All of those things, really. I was interested in the lines, as I spend so much time writing, and image-making is a complex area for me, but one I sometimes find my self investigating. I thought: “What’s a way of deploying something formally that you might associate with text, but is also an image?” They are a stand-in for a verbal investigation, if you like. The straight lines of trust are associated with the establishment that has been flipped, as we don’t trust bankers anymore. Examining the joins and folds of pinstripes I saw that they clash, merge and contradict, with a strange, optical dazzling effect. It interested me formally and notionally as a metaphor. Ceremony, costume, adornment and sexuality are very present in the City – the bollards are based on a cannon with the cannonball stuck in the snout [the shaft of the bollard]. The reason all the strip bars are outside the City is that they service it, but are not sanctioned by the Corporation of London.
KT: Do you feel the financial crisis of 2008 revealed or reinforced the anonymity of power in the City?
FB: I think it shone a light on it. We are living in a city, in a time, country and culture, of extreme contrast in wealth. Perhaps that has polarised in London. The outdoor art you mentioned [public artwork owned by banks and corporations on display in foyers] is for anyone to see, but the art is emasculated to the extent that the incredible and vast Fulcrum by Richard Serra in Liverpool Street station has been so densely built around by un-giving corporate development that men now use it as a public urinal. Such huge public artworks become like territorial bollard art.
KT: How did you experience the Occupy London Stock Exchange (LSX) camp, which was a protest against the banking system and the government’s response to the financial crisis in 2011-12?
FB: The symbolism of Occupy being in front of St Paul’s was genius and very powerful. I wasn’t involved directly, but I spent a lot of time passing through the City at that time so I was very aware of it. What struck me was how Occupy itself ended up fracturing into power struggles and how the message drifted and became more convoluted. I think it got misunderstood as being a diatribe against the wealthy, but what the movement really had, in the best moment, was an opportunity to talk about the politics and power of the City.
KT: Do you think the heart of political darkness being represented through Occupy was intentionally or accidentally situated outside the heart of light and hope, which the church seeks to embody?
FB: The City has all these churches – there is a covenant so they’re protected – but that’s an old power base. I think it happened quite intuitively, it’s a great iconic site. There was this question over whether the church could offer sanctuary, being exempt from the laws of the Corporation of London, but the Corporation of London overpowered the church. I think there probably was some understanding of the symbolism of that. A building such as St Paul’s does speak of great power, the church used to be hugely powerful in this country, and the relationship between the church and the City of London is probably deeply complex because the church is meant to preach sharing and democracy. It could have been so much greater: the church wasted that opportunity.
KT: In Paternoster Square, there is Elisabeth Frink’s bronze sculpture Shepherd and Sheep, where they have a falconer scaring the pigeons away early in the morning. We see the hawk photographed in your film sitting on top of No 1 Poultry, which houses the Coq d’Argent restaurant.
FB: It added to the reading of a predatory hierarchical scenario controlling the environment, as simple savagery. Maybe we’re stuck with this primitive model.
KT: It doesn’t happen all across London, but only in power bases such as the City. It’s similar to the recent attempt to drive out homeless sleepers around new residential developments in the City by putting metal spikes in the floor, controlling the environment like the hawk.
FB: It’s unbelievable!
KT: When I look at Congo and London, I’m struck by the conceptual correlation between gentrification and genocide. I wonder if this is a contemporary form of displacement, obviously on a far different scale of brutality?
FB: My take on it was not so much that, but that we seem so, so far way from, let’s say, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, yet the City of London is completely implicated in the entire rare-mineral plundering. The wealth and trade of the City is disregarding yet exploitative of global politics in that way. Our requirements as a society obviously have a major impact; it’s relevant to look at that. Heart of Darkness is a way of doing that.
I don’t understand gentrification, it’s happening so rapidly, the constant replication of information has changed the way things happen and what people desire, need and expect. What I find interesting is that we try to talk about it and can’t – as artists we are part of it, whether willingly or wantingly, so we have been some sort of courier for gentrification. You have, in a way, ploughed that field and it’s an incredibly complicated thing to reflect on.
KT: In the text where Kurtz is saying, “The Horror, the Horror”, I wondered what your interpretation was of that moment within the body of the text and the exhibition?
FB: Everyone picks up on that moment and in a way made big by Marlon Brando [who played Colonel Kurtz in the film Apocalypse Now, and whose last words echo those of Kurtz in Conrad’s novel]. Why I like it is because it is sort of a moment beyond words, he crocks it out and repeats the word. It’s not even a sentence: it’s an inability to encapsulate everything in what we commonly understand as language. It’s to do with power and the total loss of it, his misuse of it. The horror of the whole colonial misuse of power, and our duality and our inability to be whole and our contradictions. It’s such an expression from within, an expression of failure and disappointment, and yet it has seeped into the vernacular and is a much-celebrated, much-impersonated phrase.