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Negating the Canvas: A Conversation with Mark Leckey

"It's like you deny the existence of God in order to affirm God, right? And that's kind of what I practice. I deny the existence of art in order to make art."

My first encounter with Mark's work was his 2019 Tate Britain exhibition, O' Magic Power of Bleakness, where a full-scale replica of a section of the M53, a motorway flyover close to his childhood home was installed in the bowels of Tate's stone fortress, standing on the former site of Millbank prison, in which Leckey unleashed a shadow-play of memory, technology, and nightmare around the space – always traversing a coil of sonic landscapes and virtual realms – I sat wide-eyed and let this pixelated Plato's cave nestle itself into my vibrating organs.

For me, nostalgia has always been quite abstract. I was born in 1999, and so I've often been afflicted by nostalgia for times and places I've not been. The same year I was born, Mark released his pioneering work, Fiorucci made me Hardcore, a digital palimpsest made up of images that would permeate every open crevice of subculture that came after it. Those images are remnants now ghosted into afterimages that feel like they belong to my childhood, my own coming of age – as much as to the people in the actual footage – and of an England I never knew, moving to the country when I was 14, where I was present in an eery Northern limbo, not there for its worst days, or its great.

My nostalgia had been hijacked, and my worldview derailed, the same way that our own memories are now pixelated and stored in a cloud, brains rewired so that dopamine is as necessary as air. Feeling all of this, I got the opportunity to sit down with Mark in the hopes of finding the end of the rabbit hole I was tumbling down; along the way, discussing art, the internet, and Adam Sandler's The Wedding Singer.


The Big Ship: There's a lot of talk around you and your work post-1999 about always looking forward and sort of tracking the effect it had on culture, but I first want to start with what happened before because so much of your work taps into some vibrations of nostalgia. I am wondering what it was that led you to start creating in the first place. I know first-hand that doesn't always feel very possible, growing up in the north of England, especially.

Mark Leckey: Every artist of my generation and, maybe a generation or two after, basically talks about how there were the affordances that were there to enable you to follow a kind of creative path. I left school when I was fifteen, I left really young... I was just lost. There was no opportunities for me where I was from. I grew up in Ellesmere Port, so I wasn't in Liverpool where maybe I'd have found my feet more in some kind of alternative culture, but I was just a scally from the burbs. It was hard to imagine some kind of horizon beyond that. I mean, I could through music. I was into music, and I knew that it was a kind of crucible of interest in music. And that's why I wanted to go really more than anything else. I tried to have a band and that, but that never got off the ground. So I thought I'd go to art school and I'd meet people who I could be in a band with.

And that was in Newcastle?

That's in Newcastle, so that's 1987, I think I go- '86 or '87.

And that was when you decided that you would be an artist, or try and be an artist beyond that?

Even when I went to art school, I was still very suspicious about art school and in fact, suspicious about university life altogether. Being a little scall, one of your favourite occupations was baiting students, you know what I mean? I hated students. And then suddenly there, I was in the midst of them, so I was very suspicious in my first year and I thought which is a classic fallacy to go in and think that you're going to make political art. I wanted to be a muralist in the style of Diego Rivera. I was looking at artists at that time, like Peter Housen, very kind of muscular [art], I guess in some way kind of coming out of sort of union politics. I was trying to think of making monumental figuration like that, or doing caricatures in the same vein. I remember that what got me into Newcastle was I did a grotesque sort of Otto Dix caricature of the Orange March, the Orange Men.

That's the kind of thing I was making. And I got to art school and realised I could isolate myself and carry on making that work, but if I wanted to be part of the wider curriculum, I'd have to change my ways, which I did. And just opened myself up basically. And stopped hating students, and became a student. I went over to the other side. It did feel very like that. Which has since come back to slightly haunt me because I think you have to go through this process of giving things up in order to become this 'other', to become something else that's more comfortable in that environment. Because otherwise, you're just walking around with a huge chip and a sneer on your shoulder. Well, I was at least. Other students from my background are much more balanced. But for me, it was always one or the other. I couldn't be both.

Yeah, I think I get what you mean. I'm from Newcastle and then made the jump to going to art school down here in London and I definitely felt that sometimes there is quite a disconnect there.

Yeah, I think it's very common. There was much more people from working-class backgrounds doing art when I went there. But not that many, so you did feel slightly cut off from everyone else. Everyone else seemed much more comfortable with it. If they come from a background where they knew about art, they knew about literature, they didn't have to make any real transition in that sense, or it didn't seem that they did. But for me, I didn't have books at home. It's like suddenly you're plunged into this entirely different worldview, you know?

I was going to ask if you had like a cultural childhood, because it feels like you're filtering a lot of your big ideas in your work through your childhood, and I'm curious as to why you're constantly pulled back to that part of your life.

I think mostly because of what I'm saying, really. I think it's a sort of unresolved or a slightly unresolved conflict within myself. No, I don't like that phrase. Unresolved parts of myself, I guess. It becomes a resistance to a sort of discourse that I found in art that felt very remote and distant, so this led to a sort of return to something that I knew I'd experienced as a way of disengaging with that. I didn't want to make work and, to be honest, I couldn't make work that required any kind of distance or analysis or critical rigour. I could only make work out of some kind of spoiled romanticism. I don't know why I used that word. Like marred, not a true romanticism, but one that's gone to kind of waste.

I've heard you talk about nostalgia like it's almost some kind of demon, something to be exorcised. I don't know if you still feel that way or if it's something you're trying to purge or recapture because it teeters sometimes on anxiety-like.

I'm kind of out of my nostalgic phase. I mean, I still carry it. I was reading something about nostalgia the other day, and they were talking about the mark of nostalgia is disappearance. And so going back to your first question, when I left school, all the kind of structure, which was basically the industry of that area had gone. Really rapidly. So, you come of age with this sense of things just recently disappeared and it induces this very nostalgic culture. At the age of sixteen, I understood nostalgia, because it was all around me, because the great days had gone. Or, not even necessarily the great days, but just the possibilities had gone, and any kind of chance of making a life for yourself are pretty much gone as well. It was very depressed. And melancholic. So it was in me, nostalgia. It was inculcated in me from then. And then, when I made Fiorucci [made me Hardcore], I thought, well that's where that's coming from. It's just coming from a kind of Merseyside nostalgia. But then I started to realise, or started to believe that the nostalgia is kind of algorithmic, and is what has been algorithmically produced. It becomes kind of engineered. Because it's useful, profit, it's useful to think of the future. It's a kind of barrier to thinking optimistically about the future. It's like Trump weaponised nostalgia, right? Brexit, even closer to home is basically like the politics of nostalgia, it's like you can't not be nostalgic now. It's been systematised, especially in the UK, because that disappearance that I was talking about also then applies to the rest of the country. That we're no longer what we once were, which is a common refrain. That kind of nostalgia is now sort of baked in. Oh, I hate that phrase. I can't believe I used that phrase. [laughs]. So, when I'm making work about nostalgia, it's not that I'm making work because I feel nostalgic. That's the structure of feelings that I feel embedded in. It's not my fault. [laughs].

I'm not trying to accuse anyone of anything.

No, but I do get accused of nostalgia. There's a friend of mine who does accuse me of having a very kind of white nostalgia. That nostalgia is in itself a kind of whiteness, right? Which I understand completely. So, you're not the first to bring it up. It’s definitely there in the work. I think if I just made work in a kind of expressive way, that would probably be the ground of what I'd make. I slip into it very easily, partly because of everything I've said, but also I think it's very easy to make nostalgic work. There's lots of devices you can use that nostalgia works very well. It's very manipulative.

It's very seductive.

That's the word I was looking for. Thank you. Exactly.

Okay, so talking a little bit more about recent work, Carry Me into The Wilderness

Yeah, that's not nostalgic.

No, but sees enlightenment, to me, quite overwhelmingly and almost destructively.


So are you generally drawn more to the dark or the light, especially, as you said, moving into a new phase of your work?

I would say I'm probably more drawn to the light, but I am full of anxiety. I have friends who I would definitely describe as drawn to the dark, and I feel I can differentiate myself from them. I found later in life, there's a kind of for want of a better word  a sort of spiritualism that I'm seeking. And that work is very much about that. The initial recording is me having this moment where I feel the spirit or the divine. I'm hesitant around these words, but let's call it a divine spirit, a sort of imminence, an imminent spirit gorblimey where everything becomes just alive and everything becomes profound and it's like an ecstatic moment. I'm both there and not there. I'm taken out of myself, in that sense of being unconscious of yourself. Which is very different from my normal state where I'm overly conscious of what I say and what I do and what I think. So just to be taken out of yourself in that moment is wonderful. So, I tried to make a work about that. Just to see where it led me and I think as I was making the work, I tried to maintain that.

I think there's a real interesting mix of occult and magic, real ancient transcendental ideas, but also new technologies. And, I guess, that you're exploring that there's the potential for one to spring to the other?

I think the technology kind of brings that about. Carry Me is about being in your body, experiencing this state of grace in nature, even though it's in Alexandra Park in London in the city, I'm out in the greenery and the sun peeks through the trees and I feel, like I say, ecstatic and it pervades, it's coming both in my mind and pervades my whole body. Me as a being is feeling that, in a kind of material sense, but then it's when I try to make the work about it, you're trying to understand what this kind of spiritual dimension would be, the analogy becomes more about the sort of immaterial realm of online existence or inhabiting this online space, and that work is about moving back and forth between that.

I guess what I'm trying to get at is I'm trying to understand where I am, where my existence is. I guess there's a sense at that moment when we're transitioning into this other kind of immaterial realm in Carry Me into The Wilderness, it's both blissful and terrifying, which is how I feel kind of in both states. This ecstatic moment is also kind of terrifying. It's overwhelming because it's too great. And that seems transferable to me with how I feel online. That too is kind of overwhelming, too great, and full of potential, but also full of darkness and danger, and it’s destructive. I tried to make something where I'm not thinking. It wasn't like, 'Oh, this, this is the idea. This is what I'm going to make,' I'd just recorded myself at the moment of having this kind of experience and then I tried to make a kind of song from that. And then it was the music more that led me to the visuals.

And I'd been reading a lot about iconography at that time, and looking at icons. I love iconography, and I particularly like the historical moment where it transitions into representational painting, just before the Renaissance. So, Giotto, Fra Angelico, where it's still quite flat, but it's not Gothic, and it's not entirely Byzantine. And I was very taken by some of what I'd read, which said that when you look at these icons, you're not looking at a picture, you're not looking at an image. Because images at that time were still suspect. In the way that Islam still refuses images, the early Christian church believed that all images were graven images. So, any kind of realistic depiction is idolatry. And they kind of got around that by not being realistic, but also by saying that these icons weren't pictures in themselves, they weren't images, they were windows onto heaven. It's a direct channel to heaven, you're looking through. So, you're kind of peering into heaven through these frames. I was just really excited about that. Trying to make a work where you're not thinking about representation. You're not thinking about, in any real way, the meaning of what you're trying to do, but just trying to access something, access a kind of a state. That's what I was trying to do in that video.

Do you have any anticipations of how that's going to play out for future generations? There's a continuing blurring of the real and the digital and, I mean, you've used Snapchats in your videos, like In this lingering Twilight Sparkle. That's a Snapchat video from a guy running through a bus stop in Cardiff, which I remember being shared around years ago, and then seeing that remixed and transformed into this quite spiritual video, I wonder if Snapchat, or social media, is art?

That's all I do think about. There was some conversation the other day on Twitter, where it started off with someone talking about a film with Adam Sandler, The Wedding Singer. Do you remember the film?


And saying that The Wedding Singer is set in the 1980s, although it's made at the end of the '90s, right? And in The Wedding Singer, everyone's got like big '80s shoulder pads and big hair. It's almost a caricature of the eighties, but it's very recognisably the eighties. And they were basically saying, how would you make a film like that, in 2020, set in, with the equivalent distance of time, 2005? 2005 to 2023, the differences aren't that great. That was the point. This idea that culture is kind of slightly stagnated. It's a sort of Mark Fisher idea. That is, how Mark Fisher has been received anyway, I don't think it is his fault, but this kind of idea that nothing new has happened in the 21st century. And then someone wrote back and said, you know, yeah, but the differences between 2008 and now are enormous. As great as the Industrial Revolution in some sense. Just in terms of 2008 being the introduction of the iPhone and the difference in our reality, between then and now, because of that device is phenomenal. So, forget about The Wedding Singer and those differences.

But from there I started thinking there's a different sense of time that's developed. I remember, as we transitioned into the 21st century, thinking, oh, you know, what's going to happen next? What kind of musical form, what kind of art form, where's culture going to go? And then it didn't seem to respond in the same way that it had previously, back from the 50s to the 60s, to the 70s, 80s, 90s. But then I've realised, we're in a different century. Time moves differently now. I think that kind of idea of progression through decades was very particular to the end of the 20th century anyway. I think it was some kind of weird psychic countdown or something. And since then, with the internet, things aren't just moving forward. They're moving sideways or horizontally as well. It's like everything's sort of distributed, which again, lends itself to nostalgia. Because things from the past are there in the same sense that things from now. Everything's available in that way. So, time moves differently. I like this idea. I haven't come up with this, I don't know where I got this from, but that time has been converted into space. So, it's more, spatial now than it's some kind of telos, some kind of linear progression. So that puts us in a very different space. Me, still as an artist, I'm trying to make something that feels new. Is that the right response anymore? Is that what's needed? Is that what's demanded? I don't know.

Whenever I have strong feelings, or strong desires, about anything, I've learned to become much more suspicious of them. And this kind of spiritualism I'm talking about, one of my suspicions of that is that, is a kind of spirituality an effect of being online? Does it bring about an idea of thinking in this kind of immaterial way? One of the reasons to make Carry Me, as well, is that I feel that works from the Middle Ages seem, in some ways more useful now than works from the 20th century, from the modern age. There's some kind of equivalence there. Or sympathy. They seem more sympathetic now. I was first taken by those images because they seem so strange and so almost non-human. They seem so unrelatable. But now I look at them and think, oh, yeah, that seems, that seems a way you could describe the world now. Looking at a 12th-century icon painting.

I wanted to ask about music specifically, and how you think your art and music work relate to each other or feed into your practice. You mentioned a band earlier. I'm a big fan of your NTS show. You know I've seen you DJ and your work with Hyperdub, so I'm wondering how those two feed into each other?

So, I made the bus stop piece, [In this lingering Twilight Sparkle.], at the end of the pandemic. And during the pandemic, all I was doing creatively was the NTS show. I really kind of lent into that. That was my only outlet. And at the same time, art just seemed really hopeless. It just felt hopeless in terms of its response or its inability to respond. And then just institutionally it felt hopeless. The more I thought about art, the more it just depressed me. So, I'd do the NTS show to kind of chase away the blues.

And then I got asked to make something for Art Night by Helen Nisbet. And I was like, I don't want to make art. It's not what I feel like doing at all at the moment. But I like making video. Can I just not think of it as art then? Can I just think of it as more like a music video, or music and video? And I'd already used soundtrack from that bus stop TikTok. I just put the video back to it and then just started playing with that. And it just gave me license to make something, because I wasn't thinking about what it particularly meant and how it would be received and where it was positioned. I guess I am because, in a lot of ways it's like I need some sort of dialectical tension. Like I talked earlier, about the kind of class conflict being at art school and by extension art that's been useful to me. It's like trying to resolve that produces a kind of energy. And the same with music and art. There's an irresolvable tension between the two, for me. There's things that music can do that art only ever fails to disappoint me on, just in terms of the amount of people that can reach, the diversity of people who make it, the kind of freedoms it has. One of the big things I always think about is that music can be both local, it could be grassroots, and it can be experimental and esoteric. It can do both of those at the same time. Which art really flounders on. You can only have local or experimental art. The two kind of cancel each other out. They certainly can't share a space, but music can. Things that seem exclusively in the art world can sit side by side with each other or even be contained within the same person in music.

I've been obsessed with this guy called Axxturel, that I've played on NTS before. It's mind-boggling just in terms of its experimentation, sonics and meaning. That's some 20-year-old kid, he's part of the local hip hop scene but he's able to do that through music in a way that is as experimental and as difficult as anything you'd hear by paying attention to The Wire's top 10 LPs, you know, right? That's not to snub The Wire. But if you apply that to the art world, that's very, very, very rare, if at all, to find that. I love music. I've always loved music. I first came to culture through music, and I'm kind of self-taught through music. I'm reading this book [No Machos Or Pop Stars by Gavin Butt] at the moment, which is about the period of art schools in the seventies and eighties, and it focuses on Leeds University. It allows you to understand that art students at that period are learning about art history, they're learning about contemporary art history, so they're learning about Dada, Duchamp, Viennese Actionists, extreme transgressive performance, and all the rest of it. And they are then channelling that back into music. And that's when I received it. So, they'd be a generation before me, but I'd be going into a record shop when I was 14, or 15 and picking up record sleeves that have been influenced by that history. And then, in turn, that's how I learned about it. I learned about Viennese Actionists in a roundabout way through Throbbing Gristle. So, music basically schooled me.

And then, getting back to this kind of class antagonism. I came to music because music was everywhere when I was growing up. You start going to discos when you're 11 and I'd heard Kraftwerk when I was like 13 in a disco, right? You are experiencing that at a very young age. And it was part of the culture, along with the humour. And then, like I say, you come to art school, and you have to renegotiate that or dismiss a lot of it or, or kind of become forgetful about it. So, one of the ways of kind of returning it is through music. I just feel more comfortable with music. When I first came to it, art excited me. I was very excited about art for a long time. And I dove deep into it. I read as much as I could and tried to understand as much as I could about the field of art and it just got to a point where I was like, I'm not sure if I actually did. It's like when I first entered into it, and I was quite doubtful and suspicious, and then I found myself in this loop where at the end I'd return to pretty much the same doubts and suspicions I had when I was in my twenties, you know what I mean? I think art says a lot, but it doesn't do. That's the other thing that always slightly irritates me, is that art still carries this idea that it's in advance of the rest of culture and it's like, no, it's not. I don't feel like that at all. Music is in advance of the rest of culture, but I don't feel like that with art at all. I got a bit disgruntled with it, but every time I get to the point where I get too disgruntled, I'll see something that reminds me why I do like it. There'll be a good show or something.

Are you still seeing a lot of art then?

I don't see a lot. I have gone off it quite a lot. It's weird, to be honest, I go out and see shows and they look very much like what people were doing when I went to art school. It's like art's caught up now in this kind of retro-mania. I remember that from 30 years ago. I remember people doing exactly the same. Especially with painting, I find it really retrogressive. I had a great appetite for it at one stage. I'd go and see anything, but now I don't. Maybe that's just getting older.

I was thinking this the other day, talking about this book set in Leeds University, at that time difficult art was always talked of as being challenging, right? And that's what you set out to do. That's what a lot of artists set out to do was to challenge, challenge the establishment, challenge notions of art. And now I find it's like art's challenging itself. That's the challenge. I mean, in some ways. No, that doesn't make sense, because art has always challenged itself.

You mean in a way that's become really insular, that it's not really talking about anything outside of its own existence?

I just think it's very difficult. I think the politics of it are necessary and correct, but it's not actually that conducive to making work. I think the political arguments within it have to go on beyond or outside making work. It's like you can't concurrently make the two. Although that for me was always the kind of tradition. You could make institutional critique, but now the idea of institutional critique just seems kind of impossible, in any real sense, because the politics are just there at the forefront, and get resolved more efficiently that way anyway. By demands and institutions being forced into political actions. By other means, not through arts questioning or critique. Maybe these two things are kind of like go hand in hand. Maybe this is like just a new form of art, but it feels like it's quite difficult to make art at the moment. Maybe for some people it's not, maybe it's just difficult for me to make art at the moment and I'm universalising it and I should stop. [laughs].

When I think a lot of your work from the '90s that was dealing with music, and especially electronic music, like Fiorucci, I find it really prophetic. It feels like it's like mined from internet archives before that ever existed. And so now watching that on YouTube, it's not institutionalised. It doesn't feel like I'm watching anything except an extension of just this music loop that I've got going on already on my laptop. And that has seeped into musicians working now. An immediate example is Slauson Malone. I've seen you perform and interact with Slauson, and I think Slauson Malone is one of the best artists, not musicians, working right now. But there's also a lineage.

You know, and Slauson also paints. But I think he can express himself more through music. This is one of the conversations I have with other people. Is art the best place to be creative now? Is it the best environment to make art: the art world? I don't know if it is anymore. Everything just feels very tight and fraught. And if I try and break them down, I think, well, yeah, all of those things are necessary. This is not an accusation in any way. I think changes need to happen. But also I'm talking economically  not just politically but about economics, and politics with a smaller p and a larger P.

What does that look like for you moving forward? Are you focusing more on music, making music, more art, more video?

I don't know. For example, I've got a gallery show next year. And I honestly don't know what to do in a gallery anymore. In some ways, it seems like a very inhospitable space to make art. It just seems quite cold now to me. Whatever warmth I thought a gallery once had, it's sort of evaporated. Now it just feels quite frigid. And so, what do I do then? How do I make art if that's how I feel about the spaces I'm meant to exhibit in? But like I say, if I didn't think like that, then that's when I know it'd be over. If I didn't care, you know? I need some kind of antagonism within myself, some kind of mistrust. That's always what's kind of allowed me to make work, like you talked before about Fiorucci and it not being institutional, that was because I went to art school, and then I left saying I'm not going to be an artist. I was like, I can't make art. I didn't make anything when I was there. I came out of it and I felt like I was incapable of being an artist, intellectually. Just not up to par, not up to scratch. So, I didn't make any work for 10 years. And then someone commissioned me to make Fiorucci, but they commissioned me in a very loose way to make something with video. And it went through all these different iterations to get there. It came about because I understood that the only way I could make anything is if I made it from my own experience, and not through thinking about making art. And that just gave me the freedom to do what I wanted. It didn't have to be critical in any way, it didn't have to be analytical. It was just like I could make something that was just much more emotionally responsive, or just trying to understand my own psyche as I processed all these images. It's always been useful for me to like, not make art, even though I make art. It's like some kind of, what do they call it? Apophatic theology? It's like you deny the existence of God in order to affirm God, right? And that's kind of what I practice. I deny the existence of art in order to make art. It seems the only way to do it.

If you just accept it, then art takes you. It's like people coming into college or into university, they don't really know what to do, and then it's like art within the institutions  is a virus and it's looking for these bodies to host it. They make art with a capital A. Do you know what I mean? They make gallery-ready art because that's what's in the atmosphere. You can easily make art like that without really having to think that hard about it because art will make itself once it finds a body. It's self-replicating. This is what's kind of funny to me about when people talk about AI stuff. They're going, yeah, but it's just going to scrape what's already out there, but it's like, that's what it does anyway. Most of the time it's just scraping away and you're just there to kind of pay the bills or whatever. And that includes me as well. I have to resist that.

It's hard to know if you mean that positively as if like the artist is the medium between something bigger or if it's like the artist is the host body for art, like a parasite?

It's more like a parasite. [laughs]. I just think it's quite parasitical. Because art's overwhelming. You go to art school, and it induces so much anxiety in everyone. And so, if you allow yourself to be the host, then you're in this kind of state, but at least you're making work, at least you're doing what you're supposed to be doing while you're on the course. So, you kind of welcome the parasite. It's like you allow it to do the work. It's obviously not all people, but I think most people go through something like that and then a lot of people find a way to resist it. But it's just something you have to watch out for.

How did you resist it?

I think it was easier for me to resist it because I was always suspicious of it. so that allowed me to be more resistant to it. I'd built up immunity. [laughs]. I always looked at it like a Scouse. And sometimes I think, oh, maybe too much, I was maybe too sceptical in some ways. I went to see the Lutz Bacher show at Raven Row, that was an incredible show that I couldn't make because of these kind of inherent suspicions. That's how I feel when I look at it. So, I couldn't allow myself to make that. But then my response to it is like, wow, that's, that's great. That's doing something that I just can't even get near achieving.

Which is what you hope for. That's the point, isn't it?

Yes, that is the point. But I don't know if maybe I've kind of blocked that in some way.


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