First published: FORTH, October 15, 2015
There’s kind of a contemporary nostalgia about that concept of archaic Britain. It’s referenced a lot in the popular culture that’s been generated here, I’m thinking of the past decade in particular. Do you have a feeling you live in the wrong era? No, not particularly. I think the present time is perfectly fine. Any point in human history would be equally shit, barbaric and strange. People romanticize the past too much. In fact I think we probably live in the least violent age of existence. And certainly I wouldn’t want to have been born three hundred years ago.
Going back to your name – you’re not bothered by what some might perceive as its ‘femininity’? No, I am completely content. Believe me there are more than enough elements to my persona that are masculine. I don’t need more elements. Being both on the one hand extremely strong and unpredictable but at the same time potentially ambiguous in my gender or sexuality creates a really delicious confusion. To me it’s very powerful, because if you can leave someone con-fused then you’ve disarmed them.
Speaking of arms … knife throwing. You told me you’ve been practicing it for several years. I find it interesting that the skill you’ve chosen to pursue also kind of harkens back to the same pre-modern era as your name. I mean you could have chosen a weapon of the machine age to play with, say like William Burroughs and his pistols. Would you agree your name and your knives refer to the same ideas? After all there’s something very elemental about knife throwing. Like fire or sex or … it has a very distinctive energy. It’s an extension of the self into space. It’s inherently penetrative, it’s precise, it’s meditative. But it’s not actually something that I focus on in the sense you describe – it’s more an extension of my interest in martial arts as a whole. I’ve been interested in martial arts since the age of six, when I went to my first Judo class. That was a very emotional experience and its been a psy-chological obsession ever since. I’ve engaged in many different forms of martial arts, which have involved different weapon disciplines, like sword fighting, throwing knives …
A “psychological obsession”? So I’m getting the distinct feeling your attachment to martial arts practice is probably a bit unique in its nature. The knife is quite a phallic symbol, a representa-tion of masculinity … Yes I see where you’re coming from, but at the same time I mostly practice with swords. They are wooden for obvious reasons but actually I enjoy the warmth of wood over steel. I also like empty-handed forms (what I mean by that is, combat without weapons). What I’m getting at is that the sensuality of fighting you’ve identified is very real, but it extends beyond the weapon. That’s something very interesting to me. Fighting of any kind (in the disciplined manner that I’m talking about) extends the possible intensities of interaction that you can have with other people, even beyond sex. See normally the only time you’d have someone pinned down to the floor, leaning on them with your full weight, is when you are fucking, but if you fight people you do that as well.
You have quite a distinctive look, I really can’t keep away from the subject… Yeah, absolutely. Everything I’ve done in this respect is not out of a desire to be spoken about but it’s very important that everything can be spoken about. Because speaking is one of the most important things that a person can do. For me developing sophistication with language, being able to talk very clearly, openly and interestingly about anything that is to do with you is key. People who say, “Oh, I don’t want to talk about that” … I find it pathetic.
Would you mind talking me through your tattoos? Oh yeah for me tattoos are something that I find very easy to talk about. Now, the scissors [indicates a line-art style tattoo on his right forearm] largely comes from the fact that I spent a long time in the tailoring industry. I worked for tailors in the London trade. I was the representative for a textiles mill, so I sold cloth by the meter to tailors on Savile Row and I developed a lifetime love and fascination for the industry. The scissors are on my right forearm. It’s my right hand that I cut with. So there is ergonomic significance to that position.
I always knew from a very early point that I wanted tattoos to look like diagrams. Not stylized in the way you often see them. Like tools … you know in a shed? You know, the ‘tool shed’? On the walls they have outlines where the tools should be replaced, there’s this strict organization of the objects to be returned to a certain location.
And this knife [indicates another line-art style tattoo on his left forearm], this is a French folding knife. This is a general working knife – a very iconic design, lots of people would grow up with one of these on their belt. They would use it to open a tin, cut some rope, to cut some cheese – you know, it would be the knife you’d carry with you at all times. The knife is ultimately about one’s relationship with survival, with self-sufficiency.
Which one came first? The scissors. And then I wanted to create continuity, as continuity for me is very important. It’s very interesting to do things that are unusual but to do them in an extremely organized way. So there’s strength to the organization. Yeah, there is something very exciting about seeing some-one do something very weird but doing it in an extremely logical way. It develops this momen-tum that becomes … I don’t know how to explain it … it takes something that is unsettling but gives it a sense of order, so you get two quite opposed emotional reactions.
Like the waste basket story from your school you mentioned when we first met – do you mind telling that? Oh yes. I had a teacher at school. He was cool. I didn’t have anything against him personally but ultimately he represented the school. And I (to say the least) had a conceptual problem with the school. There was something about the prison-like quality of the environment that I thought one had every right to take offense at. Every little gesture possible, under any circumstances, to work against that establishment apparatus was something I took delight in. Intellectually stimu-lating, emotionally satisfying, therapeutic. Anyway so this one particular teacher – I walked into his class and picked up the waste paper basket and I would turn it upside down on my head, empty the entire contents of the bin on my head – you know empty food wrappers, banana skins, the works. Just cover myself all over in rubbish, then I put the bin down and walked out. I did this once a week at the very least – and that was the only interaction I had with that teacher!
Oh you didn’t actually take any classes of his? No! I’d walk into his class, put the bin on my head, empty it onto myself and then just walk out. [Laughs] Ok so you do it once, it’s just a stunt at best. But then you keep doing it. Why? I did it to show him that there was a pattern. That I’d be back. And I did that all over the place, these absurd gestures, but systematically. I think absurdity is a very, very important reaction to what I consider fascism in any scenario.
Do you still do that? No, not so much.
What are you involved in now? At the moment I write. Short poetry. And I am interested in things surrounding vocalization which is an extension of my passion for psychotherapy. I am interested in something called ‘automatic speaking’, which is to speak in pure free association and leave the words uncensored in a con-tinuous flow so the ideas are not inhibited and free from any fears or anxieties.
I have a collaborative project called Dead Drop. A friend of mine is a musician and last time we performed publicly was winter last year. We did it in a hotel, a very inauspicious location. Just off High Street Kensington, which itself is quite a prestigious area of London but this building was very incongruous for the area and largely the rooms are hired out by prostitutes for ‘trade pur-poses’, so it’s very grimy. So the hotel was being used for an exhibition of work by some artists, mostly etchings and paintings, all arranged in different rooms. My friend and I, we performed a spoken word piece, purely improvised. I used a microphone that was attached to a number of voice effect pedals that generated reverb and delay to give my voice different kind of spatial qualities. And so I talked completely freely, about anything, from dreams I had had to certain memories. I continued until the language begins to deteriorate and I say things that are non-sense, almost completely meaningless.
So you’re using the performance to articulate subconscious material, which is somewhat of a high-wire act. How do you go into that space? It’s not exactly like you can flick a switch and all that is there. And to prepare a performance like that completely defeats the point of it … Oh for me it’s incredibly easy. In the same way that one person might have a head for numbers, and for them it’s almost impossible to imagine why somebody can’t do algebra. It’s not neces-sarily a ‘skill’ – it’s almost a predisposition, a physical possibility, which has always been inside them.
For me speaking completely freely, very personally, creatively, imaginatively, and without much in the way of hesitation or preparation has always been something I’ve been able to do. I free-associate like none else I’ve ever met and I do it without practice or training. For me, it’s a pleasure to be let off the leash, to be able to just create as I go along. I’m speaking, and as I speak I’m not thinking about the words. I have this drive, this feeling this is pushing something and I simply let my mouth go as if it’s a flag flapping in the wind.
The point is that the person who is competent or capable in those situations is someone who knows that they can trust their mouth, that when it comes to the moment they are going to be able to say something interesting quickly and effortlessly. They don’t have to think about it, they know that they are going to be able to do it. I could walk into a room full of people and perform a six hour spoken word piece. Everyone can fucking go home before I am finished. I could outlast anybody. In fact that performance in Kensington was six hours, and had been intended to be twelve hours long!
You talked about innate abilities – which people would normally associate with intellectual or technical gifts. You mentioned algebra, but drawing or musical ability or a knack for languages are other obvious examples. Do you believe you were born a performance artist? Is it something you can locate in that preternatural place we’re talking about? Or would you regard it as a skill that you’ve honed through various situations or by means of the training you’ve undertaken? Performance is something that I have a born ability to do. And that by the way is why I chose never to study performance formally, because I didn’t want to disrupt my natural approach. I can’t really address your specific question beyond that, because like I said I never want to be in a situation where that natural ability is called into question. But then while I’ve never had a for-mal education as a performer, I’ve been vigorously educated in various other areas of the arts. And I developed my natural interest and capacity to perform via what I think are the most im-portant mediums possible – social survival, getting attention from family, being funny at school, controlling situations in workplace.
What seduces you about spoken performance? Such intimate, direct interaction provides an artist with a lot to draw from. It can be almost ritualistic. My favorite things to do in the world are fucking, fighting and talking. Anything that is primary, where the canvas is removed and you are interacting directly with another person. I am not in-terested in things necessarily being recorded. I am not necessarily interested in having prestige, or something to hang on the wall, or generating things that someone can buy. I am very, very happy to make things that are fleeting and ephemeral, which may not even be known about, which can’t be bought.
Yes I see there’s a kind of atavistic line of thought running through all this. Like the Greeks nev-er bothered (if that’s the word) to write things down, the Homeric odes for example, for thou-sands of years before they adopted written traditions. That culture of oral performance in a modern context makes for very much ‘one-off’ experiences, don’t you think? Which are your fa-vorite situations under which to perform? Performance situations – that would be one on one. In fact, frankly what we are doing right now I think in many ways would be my favorite kind of performance. A conversation with just one other person. I’m turned on by the phenomenal nature of what you mentioned, the oral culture – noth-ing is written so nothing exists, so to speak, after the performance – yet at the same time the performance exists forever, because the audience, even if it is a single person (in fact especially if it is a single person) carries away with them a residue of the performance.
I am an empathetic creature. I am a social chameleon of sorts. I have a very strong specific identity but at the same time I am like liquid in so many situations. My second favorite social sit-uation is where there is an extremely large audience, like being in the street. I agree completely with what you say about the street. I’ve always been a bit of a Forrest Gump in this sense – walking is my meditation, and London is particularly good for it. Probably the best city in the world from my experience. I walk for miles and miles and miles … I love walking through crowded train stations, I love walk-ing down busy streets. This is where much of my attention goes – how to dress, how to hold my-self, how to interact with strangers… and the possibilities! I mean, walking in the street – any-thing could happen! You could get hit by a bus, you could see someone experience a heart at-tack right in front of you … it’s where all theatre in its true sense, its human sense, takes place. It’s just in the street.
The street is a form, the purest form perhaps, of the immediate, unique performance that you are interested in creating? Absolutely. It’s pure storytelling. A walk is a story in its purest form and, in this sense, I don’t want to read a book, I’d much rather go for a walk. I want the story to be happening to me in the flesh and actually be moving through it, existing within it. I think it’s about stripping everything down to basic elements – talking, walking, avoiding wherever possible unnecessary equipment. [Pauses] Hmmm, unnecessary … for example, exercise – I have no interest in equipment at all. For me this is all about body weight. Get down on the floor and do press-ups. It’s all about pure interaction with yourself.
I noticed a Houdini book next to what looks like your reading armchair. Is he one of your influ-ences? I’ve always been particularly fascinated with him. A man who completely understood and mastered artifice and illusion, yet was completely taken in with spirit mediums and so forth. Currently I am obsessing over him. I’m reading about him and I plan to have a tattoo. A very, very large tattoo across my back and down the insides of my arms, and the outsides of my thighs – an entire piece based on the style of drawing that he did for his escapology routines.
A tattoo about escapology routines? Yes. This isn’t about escaping from a box or a jacket but about escaping from a flesh. For me everything comes back to the corporeal as prison. I want to create this network of interlinking instructions that describe a fantastical perhaps but at the very least hopeful vision of how to es-cape from the body.
What other influences can you name? Marlon Brando was an enormous influence for me. There were periods of time when I was very interested in representations of masculinity. I grew up without a father figure, so masculinity be-came something that I fetishized and idealized. I found my paternal role models within films, and specifically his films.
I’m a major fan myself. The internal contradictions are utterly compelling. The ‘ultimate man’ on screen, yet in his own life quite forlorn and needy … Yes you see that exact inconsistency reproduced in him physically. He had this over sexualized physicality but paired with an incredibly nasally, whiny voice – which connoted the fact that he was ultimately a brat. He hardly had a strong father figure himself. Also he had problems with authority and was quite effeminate. Also Scorsese. I watched Taxi Driver almost every evening for a year once. I think I was 13 years old.
And beyond films (to cut out of that thread)? What are your other inspirations? I’d say William Burroughs is an important writer for me. I’ve just finished Junkie, which is very beautiful. You see generally inspiration is something I find in very repetitive activities. I will find an actor, director, writer I like and for an entire period of my life I will obsess over them.
Does it extend to your artistic obsessions as well? You showed me some of your ceramic and glass works but it seems you stopped using these forms some years ago … I do lots of things very intensely, as if I’ll do them forever but at some point I may drop them. But then at some point I may pick them up again. Glass was something I did in this very intense way. I was spending a lot of time with it. I was spending a minimum of sixty man-hours on each object that I was creating. Then one morning I woke up and didn’t want to do it anymore.
Have you ever exhibited your work? Yeah, absolutely. I exhibited a large ceramic sculpture in the Freud museum, in North London. It was on Anna Freud’s psychoanalytic couch, where she pioneered psychoanalysis to children. The ceramic sculpture was the size of a 7-year-old child – it looked as if it was white sheet cov-ering a child. White, very pale, earthenware unglazed ceramic.
Where can we see your current work? Largely that’s not something I am particularly preoccupied with. I could very easily allow years to pass without anyone seeing what I’ve done.
This article first published by FORTH