A modest Proposal 2017

As a member of AltMFA, the artist/educational collective I belong to, I was given the opportunity to respond creatively to one or more lectures / workshops from the year of public events centred around the theme of ‘The Future’, organised by the group and generously funded by A-N.


The first one I chose to respond to was Nuno Coelho’s very interesting talk on ‘Art In the Age of Digital Reproduction’, held on the 10th April 2017 at Christie’s Education in London. Nuno is a design theorist, curator and lecturer at Central St.Martin’s College of Art and Design. The evening made an impression on me for taking a rather unexpected turn, when in the second half of the lecture the conversation veered onto the usefulness of artists and the potential for embracing ‘green’ communal solutions, and led to my penning of this dystopian tale.


Dear Artist of the Future,

I have faith you will somehow know I am talking to you, even if you were born after the First Digital Cleanse of 0.1 and Digital Unification Act of 0.2. and are unfamiliar with this term. If you have a feeling of rising discomfort at your ALPP (Assigned Life Plan Package, or whatever the equivalent is in your time), find yourself struggling to keep to the PNDDP (Personal Non-Deviant Day Plan) or even find your yearly PPDDP (Personal Planned Deviant Day Plan) leaving you feeling less than the detoxed and refreshed you were promised, then you are on the right track. If you have a secret wish you were able to change your designated Cypher, constantly fight the urge to disrupt something/anything in your carefully plotted existence, you are probably one of us.

How can I explain this to someone who has never known ‘art’? It was a far cry from the allowed PEMs (Personal Enhancement Modifications) of today. Try to call to mind the existence of something outside the range PEMs, the soothers we are allowed to put on our walls and in our public spaces, listen to and watch. Call to mind being able to use anything you liked, regardless of whether everyone agreed to its enhancing quotient. Now replace the expression ‘call to’ with ‘imagine’, a term that has been so frowned upon it has fallen into disuse. You can do this by filling the thought you have called to mind with as much detail and colour as you can, well beyond its literal meaning. Next extend that thought further and ‘imagine’ you could be the one – just you, not the Design Bureau – to produce these things. Then imagine you could use all of yourself in this process, even become the thing itself? If your pulse is racing and you are feeling a little breathless, there has to be some of what we used to call ‘the creative spark’ left in you, a residue not even the best ALPP could eradicate or control completely.

The world was rich, it was shoddy, it was exhausting, it was exhilarating, it was heart-warming, it was cruel. It was real. To give you a wide enough picture of this at this stage is an impossibility, especially in the near total absence of relics, documents and with you being a beginner at imagining. My hope is in that racing of the pulse, in that dormant curiosity, in the possibility of another future imperfect world. My hope lies with you. So it makes sense to start by correcting an untruth, a deliberate ‘deviation’, if you like. I will begin by explaining how this all came about and how it has nothing to do with what they told you of 0.0.

People like me, who remembered a time before 0.0 had to fight hard not to be viewed with suspicion, and to keep pretending what went before meant nothing to us. But here’s the thing; we do remember, even though we can no longer share. They will have taught you in ‘Understanding ALPP’ classes that the world was heading towards ultimate self-destruction. It was, but the world’s haters, who had caused so many of its problems, used this as an excuse to eradicate the world’s lovers. They pointed the finger at us for everything that was wrong, and the world’s confused and downtrodden believed them. Little by little they came for us all, and they came for artists last because they did not see us as a real threat. Sadly, we didn’t disappoint them. The final year before 0.0 (and before the world as we knew it was reset) was known as 2036, but what lead to that happened over a period of many years. So that you may understand how even small episodes can lead to world-changing events, I need to tell you about the evening of April the 10th 2017.

Back then there were many squabbles as to what art ‘was’ and who could legitimately be considered an ‘artist’. It all seems rather pointless now, especially as it left us distracted and exposed. It had been a really turbulent couple of years, our directorates (or ‘governments’, as they were known) had stepped up their aggression by cutting ties with other lands and expelling individuals born outside our own. We protested, sometimes vociferously, but as a group were not effective and undoubtedly underestimated the potential outcomes. On the evening of that 10th of April a number of us were listening to Nuno Coelho – an academic from one of our revered institutions of the time– speak knowledgeably about past visions of the future, a fascinating talk the irony of which is not lost on me now. We were debating all of this when, by way of provocation, Nuno turned to us and said ‘what use are you artists, anyway?’ He then proceeded to extoll the virtues of a green artists’ commune he had been to and suggested we should all get more involved in protecting the planet, so that we might continue to have one.

It is my belief on that very night a dangerous idea was born. Not long after it, an anonymous paper was published twisting those two concepts and marrying them in such a way as to lay the seeds of our destruction. We had failed to notice the presence of the author of that paper, someone who might have had what we would have termed far-right affiliations, and who was silently using our ideas against us. The title of his work was the self-effacingly:

‘A Modest Proposal for 2017’.

The original paper has not survived. We saw no reason to preserve it, dismissing it as an exercise in nonsense. It started from the premise that artists were, ultimately, of no real use to ‘Society’ but that the effects of eliminating us from the planet in one fell swoop would be counter-productive, that it would damage a collective psyche that had grown to rely on the presence of art through centuries of custom and culture. A happier, more care-free world, delivered of all the futile soul-searching and time-wasting of art and artists would be the ultimate goal, but it would have to be taken in stages. If not possible to eliminate, why not find a way of making these leeches productive, in the interim? From memory, these were the basic suggestions:

– That camps with the appearance of giant playgrounds would be created, so that artists, who never really grow up, would be keen to sign up for them. That eventually, artist who didn’t voluntarily sign up, would be further ‘incentivised’ into taking part.
– That once inside, artists would be unwilling (or unable) to leave.
– That 1) every idea would be farmed and put to a better, more constructive use than the artist could ever intend 2) every bit of thinking and physical energy produced would be harnessed and stored as a power source 3) once dead, artists who had by that point been properly fed and sufficiently distracted into forgoing all familial ties, would be used as compost.

It was accompanied by a visual example of the inside of one of the artists’ barracks/living quarters, almost as badly drafted as my own version from memory, which you see here. Suggestions derived from televisual boot camps and children’s playgrounds of the time, as well as fixed notions of what artists did and didn’t do and how they got their inspiration, were all thrown into the mix to produce this hideous architecture. I think you can see why we laughed hysterically and instantly forgot about it….

My mind often goes back to that night, now, and wishes we had taken it more seriously. Because they did come for us, every last one of us, but that is a story for another day.

Notes for a collaboration

My time at the Preet Nagar Residency (North India), this February, provided me with much needed space to reflect on my approach to the work I do, both in terms of process and of subject matter. My conversations with the wonderful young filmmaker and artist Ratika Singh, led to the suggestion of a possible future collaboration around the theme of ‘dreams and nightmares’, as well as to an afternoon of improvisational installation-making centred on this same theme plus another of interest to me, that of the insanity of killing one another over allegiances to flags and creeds.

I had never really imagined myself doing collaborative pieces before, so this was a welcome departure. A cocktail of sympathetic hearts and minds, with different mediums and approaches, had ignited something. To let suggestions emerge so as to construct something immediately on site – as opposed to taking that inspiration back to the studio and working in detail on something for later installation – also felt fresh.

The inspiration for the two subjects – Ratika’s Dream and Death by Cloth – came from experiences belonging to Ratika and her family, some of which include tragic circumstances. These experiences retold and shared I interpreted in my own way, mingling them with my own emotions and thoughts. In a sense I appropriated and fashioned them into a moment on a grey afternoon which belongs to the realm of the dark fairy tale and to an abstraction of violence. I did this, I hope, without ever losing respect for the reality of the terrible life stories which generated them. I believe in the power of a symbolic telling, in its ability to narrate something which is sometimes hard to hear, and to do so in a way that will keep it floating in your consciousness for a very long time. The work in these photographs has not yet acquired these properties, it would be arrogant to imply it. They are quick sketches, simple notations. Notations in that spirit.

Installation by Debora Mo – Photos R.Singh (Copyright © 2016 Ratika Singh)

February 2015