Tom Morton Interview

A Bulletin (2010)

Tom Morton: ‘Imagine... every paranoid fantasy, every conspiracy theory, every
alleged cover-up and government deception, every crank story you’ve ever
heard... It’s all true’. This is a short description of the central premise of Grant
Morrison’s epic comic book series ‘The Invisibles’ (1994-2000), but it might
also go some way to describing one of the central concerns of your current
work. Is that fair?

Jon Fawcett: Lets just say I believe that an open door is far better than a closed
one. Infact I think it is important - someone whose door is closed can be
described as someone who is socially controlled: If reality is small and simple,
then the powerful are all powerful and satisfaction is gained from a limited
spectrum of socially and politically impotent activities. And if you look, there
is definitely a lot of very disturbing and very weird material out there. I am
interested in the reality - as opposed to the comedy - of this stuff. But I am
also fairly rational about it - I have definitely come across a few people who
have strayed quite clearly into the delusional. But I think even they have a
relevance - at least they show an attempt at exploratory thinking. Overall, if
someone speaks or writes convincingly, and their evidence appears sound,
I opt to believe them. But I also know how much can be fabricated - the next
level is to look at the motivations behind the various fictions woven around
us - are the conspiracy theorists’ fictions more believable, or those of the
anti-conspiracy-theorists/conspiracists?

TM: ‘The reality as opposed to the comedy of things’ - that’s an interesting
opposition. I’m not sure whether you mean comedy in the Classical Greek
sense, or the ‘Terry and June’ sense, or something else entirely...

JF: Just the ‘Terry and June’ sense! There have been a number of artists who
have engaged with conspiracy theory material in a light-heartedly critical
way. My own engagement with this material began as part of a broader
research agenda: If one were to expand notions of context to the point
where one were making art in terms of ‘the world’, one first has to answer
the question, “What is the world?”. I began by looking at business, politics
and law, and before I knew it I was swept away with the huge amount of
‘conspiracy’ related material out there. But I am not seeking to lay down an
agenda, rather to acknowledge a broader, non-institutional ‘wiki-reality’ -
none of us really KNOW very much; a lot of our knowledge is constructed,
and much of this construction has substantial institutional influence. The
question then is why, and more importantly, where to now?

TM: In your 2007 video work ‘Wheel’, three men carry, assemble and operate
a mysterious device in a number of locations in the Ecuadorian Andes. This
object (which you have also displayed in gallery spaces, along with its flight
cases) resembles a cross between a Philip King sculpture and one of the
robot overlords in the BBC’s dystopian children’s drama ‘The Tripods’ (1984-
5). The wheel’s function is never disclosed, rather like a dangling plot device
in ‘Lost’ (2004-2010). How central is this non-disclosure to the piece?
JF: Fundamental. Although I propose it is not as obtuse as it appears. There
are avenues, directions to travel down. There is information - it’s just not the
kind which offers instantaneous satisfaction. It is important that my work
takes someone somewhere - and then leaves them there. Then anything
they discover on their way ‘home’ is theirs, not mine.

TM: Your show at the A Foundation, ‘Hearts and Minds’, seems to take its
title from a bible quote: ‘And the peace of God, which passeth all human
understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Jesus Christ’
(Philipians, IV, 7). The phrase has also been used by a variety of Western
powers as a euphemism for bringing subjugated people onside (‘winning
hearts and minds’), notably in the Malayan Emergency, the Vietnam War,
and the current Iraq war. How do you intend this title to be read?

JF: I was not aware of the biblical reference. But I quite like it. ‘The peace of
God, which passeth all human understanding’ - nice. And it’s an interesting
connection with the phrase’s links with propaganda, which was my initial
reason for choosing it. As well as referencing the military connections
within my work, I wanted to add a small amount of self-awareness; an
acknowledgement of art’s location in the spectrum of media with the power
to persuade and influence.

TM: So you locate art in the same spectrum as tabloids, Fox News, and
Hollywood blockbusters, rather than in opposition to such things?
JF: If one is in opposition, one is automatically on the same spectrum. Dion
Fortune, the early 20th century British occultist, would say that if one were
engaged in a magical battle - and perhaps media is a kind of magic - then
in order to win, one must transcend the level that one is being attacked on. I
once asked Jacques Rancière a question related to conspiracy theories. His
position was similar to Fortune’s...

TM: On the night of your A Foundation opening, in place of an invigilator, a
real-life mercenary will stand guard outside the building’s entrance, wearing
body armour and brandishing a replica machine gun. This action mirrors the
outsourcing of security provision by the US Government in Iraq to private
contractors such as Blackwater (now Xe), who infamously fired on Iraqi
protestors outside the Coalition Provisional Authority in Al Najaf in 2004.
The work’s humour turns on overreaction (Liverpool’s not that tough a city!),
but it also has a darker side, which almost anticipates the future presence
of guns-for-hire on the streets of our home towns. Is this work a speculative
fiction?

JF: For me the mercenary’s presence has two functions: Firstly to offer a
certain approach to the way the works in the show are met, and secondly
to establish a more concrete connection with a real, global context. My
research into military and intelligence activity, and conspiracy theory has
been pretty well digested and I want to make a more direct link with it. Each
work in the show has a story behind it, creating and forming part of a larger
reality. While operating as art, it is also something else, and I want that
something else to be situated within a broader set of contexts.

TM: ‘Array’ (2010) is a device designed to accumulate ‘orgone’
(a putative form of bio-energy), of the type developed by the
psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957). What first struck me
about the piece is its level of finish - almost as if, having concluded
work on the I-Pad, Jonathan Ive of Apple became obsessed with
post-war fringe science... It’s interesting to see you fold what was
in the 40s and 50s considered a dangerous idea (the FDA barred
Reich from transporting orgone devices across state lines) into the
language of contemporary consumer fetish objects. How does
this tessellate with the fact that, in terms of processing power, the
piece is to period orgone devices what a contemporary laptop is
to a digital watch? Perhaps before that, it would be useful if you
could you describe what ‘orgonite’, the main component of ‘Array’,
actually is?

JF: Orgonite is a development from Reich’s ‘Orgone Accumulator’,
adding quartz crystals and using metal particles as opposed to
sheets (and first made by Don and Carol Croft in 2000). It converts
negative energy into positive energy and radiates it outward. There
is a ‘gifting’ culture around Orgonite - people hide or bury it around
the place to help improve the atmosphere of an area, including
converting the ‘negative energy’ put out by mobile phone masts.
While basic Orgonite consists of a quartz crystal embedded in a
matrix of metal and resin, the Orgonite I have developed for ‘Array’,
in collaboration with a professional Orgonite maker, is ramped
up to the nth degree: Each piece contains a network of eighteen
quartz crystals, each one surrounded with an expanding coil of
titanium wire. There are chalk particles dispersed throughout it
and on the back is a layer of mirror panels. And all of that is in just
one panel - there are fifteen panels in the show. So the effect of
the Orgonite is massively, massively increased, as well as directed
forward. Everyone that I have described this to in the world of
Orgonite/crystals/energy has been left speechless. I am not sure
why I decided to amp it up like this - I guess it just seems like there
are places to go with this material/world. Perhaps it is a reflection
of another dynamic I am pursuing within art-making generally - to
surpass the intelligently interesting, and move into the over-intense;
and so to open up multiple realities through an object. As well as the
vaguely Apple-related styling, the form of ‘Array’ is also informed by
panels of reactive tank armour. The connection between the shape
and ‘styling’ of ‘Array’, and the myth/material behind it is simply an
attempt to resolve two seemingly opposing worlds - low-economy
art and new age products (the standard form of Orgonite is from a
cup-cake mould) and high-economy military/consumer products.
As well as problematising this assumed differential, I also want to
propose a connection which is either little used or little discussed.


TM: In our previous conversations, you used the term ‘anarchy of
materials’ in relation to your decision to use hi-tech, military grade
materials such as Kevlar in your work. Can you expand on this?


JF: Again this links with the idea of the open door. Such materials
and processes are fetishised to such an extent that we feel they
are beyond our ability; outside our economy. I want to operate on a
parallel with, if not beyond, the economies we normally associate
with such materials - such as the military and intelligence services
- and so the materials and technologies that I work with parallel or
surpass theirs. I guess there is an illustrative nature to my work
- I want to indicate a potential for empowerment, and so anarchy,
of materials and behaviours. And of course working with these
materials and technologies is also an acknowledgement of my
maleness - this stuff is COOL.

TM: You’re currently editing a new video piece, in which various
individuals engage in subtle, non-physical acts – episodes of
concentration in which they appear to will undisclosed things to
happen. Can you tell me more about this? I seem to remember you
once described them to me as ‘de-romanticised superheroes’.

JF: The film sits somewhere between documentation, portraiture
and diffuse fiction. More accurately, and in terms of both production
and viewing, the project operates in an area between and including
both fiction and reality. I propose that genres and paradigms
such as the thriller, the sci-fi, magic, etc. have been so heavily
romanticised that they have become completely disassociated
from reality. It is said that the Romans used theatre as a way to
subdue the people, as they lived the drama of life vicariously
through the spectacle. Adjust that structure to current times and
you of course get Hollywood. One of the dynamics within my work
involves an attempt to reclaim these disassociated territories, to
reconnect them with our everyday existence. The people in the film
are undertaking activities which could be considered to be subtly
superhuman, but are clearly not physically/visually impossible; not
big, bright or glossy. And this links back to your referencing of the
‘The Invisibles’ comic book. Comics of that period and earlier made
some quite expansive, quite political proposals, and one by one we
have seen Hollywood aestheticise and so vaporise almost all of the
content they once possessed. I just see some room, an exciting
area, which blends well researched reality with de-romanticised
fiction. This is what I am slowly exploring and articulating through
my work.


TM: It’s perhaps worth remarking that the huge popular surge in sci-
fi / fantasy - which kicked off around the time of the Millennium with
the first ‘Matrix’ movie and continues to this day – came at a time
when special effects finally became advanced enough to render
fantastical worlds convincingly. In a sense, CGI is much like Kevlar
– something we feel belongs to established power interests, rather
than to us. Can you imagine turning such technology to the ends
you’ve just described?


JF: It seems that one important part of the de-romanticisation of
fiction is its de-visualisation. So in many ways, my work is pretty
much oppositional to the use of CGI. Having said that, I have in fact
used it several times in my work already, including for a piece in
this show, ‘In Terms of Cognition, Pan-Dimnesionality is Not Best
Accessed Through Mathematics’ (2010), in which I collaborated
with Sam Burford, a CGI artist, and Metropolitan Works, a digital
manufacturing company, to realise the work. To quote Robert
DeNiro (aka ‘Sam’), in ‘Ronin’ (1998), “It’s a toolkit, you pick the tool
for the job”.


TM: Finally, returning to your earlier mention of Fortune, do you
consider art, and more specifically your practice, as a kind of
magic?


JF: If we de-romanticise magic, where are we and what does it
mean? There is a space there and at least one part of it can be filled
with current art activity. Art is definitely alchemical. It combines form,
material, colour, sound and language to create an effect which has
the potential to transcend thought - it sounds like magic to me! I
always think of the similarity between an an artist’s sketchbook and
a wizard’s book of spells, or the artist’s studio and the magician’s
study. And yes, of course, my work speaks to that reality. But this
is juxtaposed with a number of other concerns, so I don’t think it
is appropriate to define my work fully in this way. At the moment I
am exploring. While my work contacts, enters and forms magical
worlds, I think that there is a lot further to go in that direction.