Heather Ross: Originally released in 1993 (post Thatcher and a precursor to New Labour's message of 'Things Can Only Get Better') how does 2 Unlimited's song 'No Limit' operate in relation to the current post- Brexit political landscape?
Adam J B Walker: It’s interesting for me to hypothesise now how it might have operated then, if I’d been in any way politically engaged. As a 10 year old it was catchy and fun, with easily remembered lyrics and a great video set inside a pinball machine. I don’t know that it was anything more than that, to me.
But it’s stayed with me, and when I was trying to find a counterweight to the nihilistic impossibilities of the Negatory Manifesto it was the first thing that came to mind. It’s so laced with optimism, but ridiculously: the lyrics really are stupid. And it becomes this never-ending mantra: maybe if we all keep telling ourselves we’re free we will be?
I’m using the song in the aftermath of the financial crisis, austerity, 9/11 and countless subsequent wars, futile acknowledgement of the inevitability of climate change, and of course Brexit... It’s increasingly impossible to really believe in a modernist teleology towards an ever better world isn’t it? Part of the work is acknowledging that of course, and embracing subjectivity, humanity and absurdity - accepting that sometimes you can’t do anything about it so just have to find a way to ‘be’.
But back in 1993 I don’t know how many people really believed in the message it espoused. Maybe if you were one of ‘lucky ones’ making a fortune in the de-regulated city you could, but not so easily if your community had been ravaged by Thatcherism. That’s not to say it might not have been a ridiculous cathartic escape though.
With Brexit in mind I find it interesting that a different version of the song was released in the UK to the rest of the continent: in the UK the rap was replaced by the ‘Techno techno techno techno’ sample. Personally, I think the rap’s the best bit.
HR: How have you considered the theme 'No Limits' in relation to the virtual project space?
AJBW: This is the first fully virtual project I’ve worked on, so it’s been really interesting.
The No Limit youtube covers and Negatory Manifesto had come together for a work titled 'Let Me Hear You Say Yeah!' along with a laboriously hand-built stage onto which I invited a number of friends to do whatever they wanted, the only (ironic) caveat being they had to in some way respond to No Limit.
I’m interested in blurring the boundaries between works and documentation, in emphasising a discursive progression from one to the next, and opening up the possibilities, rather than trying to contain things and pin them down. So this is documentation of that work, but it’s also not; it’s also a new work in itself. It’s not limited to one or the other but simultaneously both and neither.
An important part of 'Let Me Hear You Say Yeah!' was the giving over of control. I didn’t know what was going to happen when someone occupied the stage. There was definitely something masochistic about it, trying to erase myself as the only way of living up to the Negatory Manifesto.
And yet there was still an element of control that was impossible to fully get rid of: people would ask me if what they were doing was okay, whether it was time to come off, or similar. Responsibility, authorship, power, agency, chance... The transferral to the virtual space excited me as it created new possibilities for bringing the audience into those relationships. They have all the control, but at the same time they don’t really have any.
There’s also something about distance and mediation that interests me. There are a few points in the shots of the monitor on the empty stage where you see a screen on stage during one of 2 Unlimited’s live performances. So that’s an image in a screen on stage, which is in the screen of the Youtube window, which has then been opened up on my laptop screen, which is then being shown on the monitor, which is now being seen through the viewer’s computer screen. So in that sense there’s a huge distance opened up, but then at the same time the work’s right there in an an intimate, private encounter with the viewer. The randomness and chance of the way they experience the work hopefully serves to highlight that - every visit is likely to be unique. Time, space, presence, variance: all the limits are removed in the virtual encounter.
HR: What methods/ways of working do you employ to negotiate an ethical exchange between artist, performer and public?
AJBW: This is an area that both interests and matters to me a lot. Debord argued for a blurring of the boundary and a playful approach to ethics and aesthetics, subverting their binary positioning rather than privileging either one, and that’s the approach I try to take.
That making available of all the email correspondence is echoed in making visible all of the setting up, preparation, etc as well as any ‘performance’ itself. There’s an honesty and openness, and vulnerability, in what’s presented to the audience. Rather than giving them a spectacle based on pretence, all the (sometimes mundane) work that might not always be acknowledged is foregrounded.
HR: Can you discuss the personal and/or the historical/political influences that led to making the work 'Negatory Manifesto’?
AJBW: Well I’m a straight, white, educated, middle-class, cis, western man, and I’m hugely aware of all the ongoing implicit privilege each one of those identities continues to carry, and I feel really uncomfortable, guilty about that. I think if you really believe in equality, then it follows that if you’re in such a position then you should seek to undermine yourself (from a ‘rational’ self-interested perspective).
Negatory Manifesto comprises a series of statements that I believe, wish I believed, think I should believe, once believed or want others to think I believe, but it’s ultimately full of contradiction, and impossible to ‘live up to’. It seeks out a position of purity and non-complicity, but ends up in Nihilism. There’s a strong echo in its aesthetics and form of text-based conceptual work from the 60s and 70s, and I suppose (as someone who didn’t live through that period and only has any knowledge of it as retrospectively presented) I’m interested in the idea that maybe there was more of an acceptability back then in subscribing to grand utopian visions and ideas with a genuine hope in then, that things could really change.
The Lettrist Isidore Isou is also a key influence in the work. He conceived of art forms as following a cycle whereby once all the content that could be explored within a given form was used up, the form itself became its own subject. Negatory Manifesto is the end point of me reaching a nihilistic point in being unable to make any more work, but it in itself carries on in perpetuity, and becomes the work.
HR: Last year, Okwui Enwezor's curated programme at the Venice Biennale saw Marx's Das Kapital given centre stage as artists interrogated, through daily readings and performance, the position of art to investigate the economic and social conditions of labour. Do you consider this text to be relevant to your work? In what ways do you address the themes of class, labour and value in your artistic practice?
AJBW: Marxist theory has always been a significant influence. I hope that the interplay between laboriously built stage, bureaucratic administration and ‘artwork’ (including delegation to others) is an interesting exploration of labour and value.
Class is perhaps not so prominent in this work as it was in a previous one: Ladder Dance was a video that came out of a performance during a residency in Poznan, Poland last year where over the course of a week I repeatedly painted the same sections of museum wall in the colours schemes of the various shopping centres that litter the city (the highest per capita in Europe I was told). I’d had to visit several of them in a convoluted attempt to get the right Apple adaptor to connect my Macbook to the internet where I was staying (which says something none too subtle, but honest, about complicity). Whereas the performance was primarily about my labour and the cultural capital inscribed in the ‘artist’ identity which (even if only in self-delusion) gave purpose to purposeless activity, the resulting video, because I’d left the camera running the whole time, captured this fascinating interplay of identities based in class, nationality and occupation. There was a security guard I built up a relationship with through my constant presence there, despite our lack of any shared language, and you see him keep coming and watching me and then there’s a great moment where he teaches me how to paint properly. And there are a whole cast of other artists, curators, media and technicians who feature, and it’s fascinating how it’s immediately clear who is who through the way they dress, act and interact.
While I grew up in a very middle-class family, my grandparents, and parents’ upbringing were working class. I think there’s something about trying to reconnect with that, to acknowledge and celebrate that (as well probably as an element of guilt), in the emphasis in labour and physical work in many of my works. It’s a masochistic catharsis, but it is also a genuine hope I might help in some small way to making society more equal via contribution to the critical discourse.
I think also that the stage occupations and No Limits Youtube covers have a relationship to Marx’s concept of alienation. The approach towards Nihilism that Negatory Manifesto goes on is in many ways an ascetic self-inflicted echo of alienation, so the stupidity, absurdity and humanity in these parts of the work is a much needed release valve and attempt to reconnect. Sometimes its important to have fun.
HR: Having just graduated from the MA programme at Chelsea College of Art, what's next?
AJBW: Trying not to let my lack of plans worry me too much.
Adam J B Walker is an artist based in South-East London.
Heather Ross is is an artist based in London and Lecturer in Fine Art at The University of Central Lancashire, Preston