Simon Faithfull interview (1998)

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 2 October 2011
This interview was previously published in World Sculpture News, 5(3), 35-7 in 1999 with the title "Interrupted narratives".

Simon Faithfull interview

Is it a bird, a plane, or has an airborne circus come to town? Looking into the sky, some viewers in and around London have recently asked this as they examined things like an empty chair suspended from a weather balloon. Dubbed "Escape Vehicles", British artist Simon Faithfull’s series contemplates the psychology of escape, and the "heroic failures" one may make in the process. Born and raised in Oxfordshire, England, this 32-year-old London-based artist makes installations, Website designs, and films which often express futility, uncertainty, progress, and "sense and nonsense".

Actively involved in several projects, Simon Faithfull exhibited Hertford Union (1998) at London’s Chisenhale Gallery where visitors were greeted by a mechanism that brought dirty water from an adjacent canal into the pristine gallery space, in a futile attempt to clean it. A second version of this work will appear at Amsterdam’s De Veemvloer Gallery in October 1999.

For the Internet, Faithfull designed the 15-month-old Containership, a "vessel" for commissioned art works at [the c-ship website], funded by Tokyo’s Network Museum Project and the Arts Council of England. Currently, the "ship" is preparing for its "second launch", and it will soon feature a dysfunctional chat room by Susan Collins, while "on-line relationships" will be pursued by Anna Best, both London-based artists.

Whether looking into the air, the waterways, or the Internet sea, Simon Faithfull’s work may pop up playfully when you least expect it. And, at the same time, it raises uncomfortable questions about man’s condition that some people would prefer to forget.

R.J. Preece: How did you develop your ideas for the six “Escape Vehicles” series?

Simon Faithfull: I thought about what people do when they make something out of desperation. All of the vehicles are completely flawed, made of commonplace materials, and have that melancholy effect of failure implicit within them. Basically, the whole series imagines somebody trying to break free from an unspecified set of circumstances. They’re sort of escaping gravity— and they flee from something else as well. It’s like the moment in a B-movie when the main characters build mad vehicles for escape.

R.J. Preece: Do you see yourself as offering narratives that the viewer can construct and experience?

Simon Faithfull: There’s always an implied third person with the escape vehicles. It’s what I have in my mind when I make one. From that point of view, a narrative is running throughout the Vehicles series, and my other works as well. For example, when you come into the room, you see Escape Vehicle No. 3, and someone has fashioned this as an attempt, but it’s obviously incapable of carrying oneself. This particular vehicle was poised at the point of taking off. Any slight draft meant that it sort of roamed the room— like a lost spirit. When you walked past, it slightly turned and followed you.

The viewer is invited to see themselves in the work— or another occupant— like sitting in the chair of Escape Vehicle No. 5. The vehicles are patently incapable of what the title sets out. So there’s a sad melancholy of failure for not only the person you imagine sitting in it, but for the person who constructed the vehicle. Overall, they belong to a narrative, but you’re not necessarily given it.

R.J. Preece: Having received a BA in Theater Design from St. Martins and an MA in Fine Art from Reading University, do you see your work as incorporating the theatrical, having a sense of drama?

Simon Faithfull: Some of the things I do have a theatricality about them. Although theater design feels like such a different mindset, it’s difficult for me to draw parallels between the two. Because I’ve worked in the industry, "theatrical" for me means stock solutions— like in a soap opera. A lot of this design is about making a beautiful scene. You signify that you want a certain emotion.

Undoubtedly there is a theatrical side in the way I choose to employ things. For example, Hertford Union punctures the white cube and brings difficult, contagious substances into the pristine gallery space. It’s laid out like a diagram so that you can follow the path of the water. You can see the branching of the system into smaller and smaller units, through the filters, and all the way back to the canal. It’s a machine that explains exactly what it’s doing— a hobbyist, makeshift crusade against an impure awkward substance.

R.J. Preece: You are also involved in a very interesting Internet project, Containership, as a curator and site designer. Do you see connections between this work and your installations?

Simon Faithfull: Definitely. Yet, I operate in different ways as I’m the ship’s curator. With my Internet work, roles become blurred as I often approach artists who haven’t yet used the medium. It’s not like being a gallery curator, because I had to invent the space that the work was being put into. What attracted me to the Internet was the spatial aspects— the way that space becomes collapsed and the strange cross-wirings.

To put art in that context, I thought it needed a vessel, and that became Containership. I wanted to create a sense of place, and to implement the idea of a ship traveling around the world picking up things. When you click on a container, it brings you to someone’s work, and addresses the idea of a modular storage system.

R.J. Preece: You have created 20 anagram aliases. How did you go about creating them? They collaborate with you on projects— is that right?

Simon Faithfull: Yes, they do. I found an Internet program that calculated all of the viable anagrams for anything that you’d submit. Having a limited imagination, I typed in my name and it came back with around 20,000. Faced with that list, I thought it had to mean something. I discovered 20 names like Tim O’Sinful-Half and Tim Full-Fashion. To me, it was almost like astrology and it yearned to have meaning invested in it.

With the escape vehicles, I had started to think of a third person involved in the work. I think of the aliases’ work also as a series, and I’ve done three pieces with them— a piece at Lewisham Art House in London, an installation at the Whitechapel bookshop called A.K.A., and another in an open studio. The main thing they’ve done is publish a book, authored mostly by Linus Half-Motif and Naomi Flush-Flit. Because they are magnanimous people, they cited the rest of the group as well. I got credit for technical help.

R.J. Preece: Sometimes artists feel that they have to ascribe to a certain style. Do you see this as a reaction against that? Is this, in part, a rebellion against the art system— all 20 of you?

Simon Faithfull: [Laughs]. Until this question, I had never seen it as that. Pathologically, I can’t sign up to a Simon Faithfull style, so, in a sense, maybe. I think life is too interesting to do that. My work uses more of an "all-by-any-means-necessary" approach.

The aliases all have assigned personalities. Matt O’Full-Finish is a bit of a poet, and Thomas Fun-If-Ill is a muddle-headed academic. However, I do have big problems sticking to their definitions. In a way, it allows me the privilege of operating in different ways— and not being pinned down. They become a manifestation of the liberty that I take anyway, but within them I find it quite interesting— in a schizophrenic sense—to divide them up.

R.J. Preece: Is your work questioning the idea of progress— as with 56 Seconds?

Simon Faithfull: Yes. With that work, it’s a teetering edifice and references the instability of heavy elements like plutonium, and it addresses impermanence. It lived for 56 seconds and then crashed to the ground. Now it only lives anecdotally.

Inherent within my work, I approach a world of uncertainty and the shifting sands on which you build. That’s very different from a monolithic way of making art. Maybe the uncertainty questions progress, because, as we approach the third millennium, certainty only belongs to a madman.

I find myself operating a lot in the border region between sense and nonsense. I try to bring out interesting things about our "rational" world, and show overlaps into the absurd. My work— I hope— operates in that region, where you can’t necessarily get a handle on it. Because of that, it’s unsettling and questions the certainties around us.