RETURN YOUR CONSUMPTION: AN INTERVIEW WITH PHILIP RYDER/ 2003
"We are calling out for immediate participants in a global mass attack against the feeders of our consumer culture. For far too long shops and advertising agencies have been force feeding us with their products and information. We've been hearing, seeing, drinking, and eating what they've been producing and we can't swallow another bite." Philip Ryder
There is a suspicion that interventions by artists that purport to be politically motivated are in fact ego driven, with perhaps more of an interest in personal notoriety than in the efficacy of the act itself. Perhaps this due to the fact that those of us who go through the art school system are taught as individuals pursuing a personal 'vision', or in some cases, celebrity status. Last year, in an attempt to try and prove or disprove this theory, I conducted an interview with Philip Ryder, an artist who critiques consumerism through direct actions, such as ingesting emetic substances and subsequently vomiting in branches of McDonalds. Working beyond the walls of the theatre or gallery, Ryder's work represents a blurring between conceptions of art and activism, as well as questioning the artist as individual agent, with an emphasis on collective executions of such actions. Paradoxically, it could be argued that it is the increased possibilities for mass communication in a globalised world that can widen this form of group participation. But ultimately, the discussion comes back to the question of singular responsibility with Ryder suggesting he wants to bring his collaborators to the realisation that "they are fully capable to rid themselves of one of our civilisations biggest impairments…the belief that an individual can't change the world for the better." But do these forms of personalised 'return' represent the limit of the 'mass global attack' which Ryder calls for, or is this merely a starting point for something far more subversive and widespread? The interview explored questions of performance, activism, criminality, compromise, and the rise of an increasingly corporate art world. We began by talking about an installation piece that Ryder had recently shown at the South Bank Centre, where this interview was conducted:
THE ARTIST AS CONSUMER
Philip Ryder: We had an electrical fan plugged into the mains, and the cable of it runs at the bottom of a guillotine, powerful enough to cut off your head. The only thing that's stopping the blade from falling and chopping the cable of the fan is a block of ice, and this fan is trying to stop this block of ice from melting. The piece was repeated quite a few times, so I ended up with a fan with a really short cable. I was doing it un-funded before, so I returned it to the shop, with a shorter cable, and I realised you could do this again and again. So we just did it 37 times over 6 months…just buy and return, buy and return. Then we got a commission, and we had this process where we got loads of people buying a product and then returning it.
Robin Deacon: In terms of involving other people in your work…do you feel like that's an opportunity for you to take a back seat, for you to be a director in a way?
PR: It changes from project to project...a lot of it is down to e-mailing, getting people in from a distance. An example is when I wanted to do the puking piece…we had 8 or 9 of people to look like shoppers, go into McDonalds, and suddenly, one person pukes, then another person pukes, then another, and we just empty half the shop. So to get to do that, I had to contact round about 3000 people, through the website, etc. That was one of the first things that really started to annoy me…you'd get all these people saying 'yeah, yeah, that's a brilliant idea', you'd get e-mails from Australia, China, America, all these places. But when it comes to the day, there's practically nobody there. From the 8 people…I'm only still working with about 3. That's 1 in every 1000.
RD: What do you think peoples motives are for wanting to do the puking piece? Do think there's a sense of people wanting to be involved in something that they wouldn't necessarily do themselves without somebody prompting them, and making it legitimate because other people are doing it?
PR: A permission given, permission taken relationship is only useful in the minds of people involved to do the first step, to contact me…out of the familiarity of the employer-employee relationship, they have the tools to create and partake independently from the consent of a 'leader'. But it changed from person to person - some people, they're not too sure about it - but once they do it, they love it.
CAREERISM AND COMPROMISE
RD: One of the pitfalls for an artist like yourself is that to be a 'successful' artist is to be careerist. But what is the definition of success? For example, to be part of a show at the Tate would be many artists idea of the pinnacle of success, and many of these higher profile art institutions are sponsored by big corporations and multinationals. So critiquing the actions of big business might seem like a bad 'career move'. So in your case, would the notion of success that I've outlined be a form of failure?
PR: Success and career to me have nothing to do with true art. As far as my activities go, art world success is a by-product of operating within this system, not an aim. I had a show here at the South Bank, but I didn't use that opportunity to say anything political, but then, from doing that, I managed to discover all the alleyways round here, the backstage areas…so I used that knowledge a few months later on, when there was a BP conference here.
RD: Isn't it worrying if you do your critique, and then get asked to come back? Biting the hand that feeds, and getting a pat on the head. Do you feel like you'd be compelled to turn down a show that was sponsored by somebody you considered to be incorrigible…what if it was BP?
PR: I think it would be a perfect opportunity. Lets say BP were sponsoring an art event, and there's two people, both of them doing a political act against BP. One person was allowed to enter because they were an artist, and could get inside doing something, and the other person has got a massive banner saying 'Down With BP', and they can't enter though the bloody door. Who do you think is going to make bigger trouble? I don't think that because I've entered through that door, that that has changed me as a person, and now I'm vulnerable to BP, thinking that they're angels. But now I can make some trouble on the inside. I have no issue with using the opponents power against themselves, just as a corporation is able to use me or any other individual for their personal gain.
RD: What about the film cliché of the policeman who goes undercover, to infiltrate the criminal organization, and then gets seduced by it. Do you feel vulnerable to that?
PR: The fact that you feel vulnerable would be a really good start. I think it makes you question the structure of the relationship. It doesn't really affect me that much - its just me saying, ok, I'll let myself go in to that whole world - I'll just do it and see what its like. I don't really feel a need to show in any museum. But for me, when I'm doing something underground or political, that's pretty good too.
RD: But the paradox is that as you become more successful, and independent as an artist and the result is that you can make money out of it, maybe give up your day job, when you start relying on the art work to pay the rent, you are in a compromised position.
PR: That's what I've been doing over the last six months. I've stopped doing any more art festivals…it took me three months to get rid of all my commitments.
RD: Was that a conscious decision?
PR: Very much. I do this a lot - I reach a point where I just want to jump off the cliff, and start from the beginning again.
ART AS TERRORISM
PR: Ever since the war happened (Afghanistan), that's really changed a lot, as far as art activism goes. Its really seriously changed my viewpoint, seeing how effective terrorism is, and how ineffective the art world is. Art is extremely powerful, but its not being used properly by the art world. So for me, next, is combining art thinking - with the way a terrorist organisation works. Not killing people, but like a small group of people, very tight knit, they've got a goal to succeed, they don't have much money or equipment, but the fact that the work is so small scale, they can't be found out by anyone.
RD: Talking about terrorism, and the connotations that has at the moment - you don't seem to view it as a pejorative term. In a context of a tabloid newspaper, a terrorist is somebody who will try and blow you up. You know that if you align yourself, even if its just use the word to describe what you do, there is a sensitivity to it which could be used against you.
PR: Using terror tactics to get what you want isn't limited to tabloid terrorists. Obviously, I don't agree with killing people, but I can see they've got something to say, and that's their means of functioning. To align myself with that word is to expand its meaning, dilute its political usefulness and an opportunity to discuss who really is a terrorist.
PROTEST AS FASHION STATEMENT
RD: I'm trying to work out what would be an acceptable level of acceptance of your work in the art world, thinking about the fact that anything can be made saleable. We talked before about the sense that Naomi Klein's No Logo…the 'No Logo' logo is becoming a logo. What are your thoughts on the anti-capitalist movement and its susceptibility to that?
PR: That its becoming like a gimmick? Yeah, there's evidence of this sort of fashion now…people who go to protests having this style of clothing. You definitely see it in magazines now. Its like, 'lets go to a protest and wear our protest style clothes, lets get our t-shirts torn, write on our t-shirts.'
RD: When I was at the protest, I was becoming aware of the signs and placards. People were almost using them to attract attention. It became more important for people to have some witty, amusing statement, rather than being there for a reason.
PR: I was curious about that. I went to one of the marches with a sign that said 'Keep Shopping'. And it was getting so much attention, people wanting to take photographs. And from that, getting so much attention, I've gone totally the opposite way now, operating tactically. And the things I'm doing now, I'm not even going to say to you…I don't even want to say…in my head, its an art piece, but to so many people, it would be considered a criminal act.
RD: But you can't talk about it?
Interview conducted 18th July 2003, London, with subsequent qualifications made through e-mail correspondence.