Another Tyson Ear Bending Dave Beech talks to Keith Tyson

keith tyson

DB: I was thinking of giving this interview a title that ties in with the World Cup. A lot of the biggest companies in the world seem to think it's a good idea. Most of the time their products don't have anything to do with sport or health or excellence but they still announce themselves as 'The Official Lard of France '98' or 'The Official Undertakers of France '98'. Do you think your work has any connection at all with the World Cup?

KT: Probably. Because what I do includes everything. It's all-encompassing in some way. Eventually my potential body of work might include it. But I'm not going to sponsor it. If I did do something about the World Cup I'd probably run one, I wouldn't, sort of, put a sticker of it in. Instead of putting it into a conventional painting or something, what I tend to do is to take it on board and live it. So, if you take the example of chaos theory, instead of saying 'let's put a few dice in a painting and that's going to be about chaos theory', I'll say, 'OK let's assume that's itÕs true and let's go for it'.

DB: Conceptual art hammered the idea that art is primarily visual. Early on this meant that some artists got into things that are invisible, or made art that, instead of being a 'feast for the eyes' was a sort of F-Plan diet for the eyes. Some of them started to think about art from a philosophical point of view while others just made art out of this supposedly new resource called language. Then conceptual art became a visual style. There's some art around now which resembles this visual style but has got nothing to do with the idea that art is not primarily visual. It seems as if 'the visual' has got us over a barrel. Do you think it's impossible to resurrect the conceptualist understanding of art?

KT: I think I suffer to a certain extent from that phenomenon whereby if it doesn't look like conceptualism or it doesn't have the hallmarks of it, then it's not considered as such. Because art still tends to be primarily understood in terms of what the Americans call 'the eye' ('Oh he's got a great eye', or 'a collector's developed a great eye'). Mine tend to be manifestations as opposed to representations. It's about what brought them into being. It's usually about all the complex things that occur before the work exists. I've got nothing against the visual. I donÕt believe the art exists outside the object. The work's final manifestation is this object which is readable. So, do you think of yourself as a conceptual artist?


DB: But you are also an artist with an interest in the visual.

KT: Definitely. I don't see any contradiction either. That's the thing. I see myself as coming from conceptual predecessors such as Sol LeWitt saying the idea precedes the work. Then again, I don't see myself as political in the sense that conceptual art was about emancipating people from the formal aspect of the work. I'm not hardcore (like saying, 'I am only conceptual'). I'm as interested in a blob of paint as the next bod. But not in terms of 'oh, doesn't it go well with my sofa'.

Roy Bhaskar, the British philosopher, has argued that our thinking about reality has to DB: begin with 'non-identity' and end with 'open unfinished totality'. Most philosophical mistakes, he says, 'derive from taking an insufficiently non-anthropocentric, differentiated, stratified, dynamic, holistic or practical view of things'. Don't a lot of ideas about art make these mistakes? I mean, the idea that art is expressive, or art is visual, or art is whatever an artist says it is, or art is a commodity - aren't these daft simplifications of art? And if they are, don't we have to think about making art in ways that take account of this complexity?

KT: I haven't read him yet. But that sounds like a pretty accurate description of what I was trying to do with the Artmachine. Which was to de-anthropocentrise the notion of how art is. And also to make something that embraced complexity instead of trying to simplify it. I just canÕt believe that any one descriptive or philosophical or political model is complete. IÕm a great believer in incompleteness. IÕm absorbing that into the practice, so that when you look at the work you don't ask, 'what is the artist trying to say'.
The second part of the question. I do have a problem with that modernist legacy of trying to simplify your practice down to a single significant form or a single significant issue or way of thinking. Historically it has a place, but now I can't believe that any artist would still work through such an agenda and be painting five hundred identical yellow paintings. I think thatÕs an antiquated way of thinking about the work. You've been very secretive about the Artmachine, but as I understand it it's a means of churning out instructions for the artist to perform in order to make art. This is reminiscent of 'process art', except that here it is not a case of the artist sending instructions to a curator or collector or technician. In your case it is the artist who is receiving instructions, who is being treated as a sort of technician or labourer. Does the Artmachine really exist or is it a ruse for taking the heat off yourself when people ask you why you do such weird art? Is it just a way of reminding people about the so-called 'death of the author'?
The Artmachine came out of dealing with two specific theoretical concerns that I had, which were (i) death of the author, and (ii) chaos theory. I was trying to embody those two models when I was at college. Instead of trying to illustrate them I wanted to embody them like a science-fiction writer says, 'let's assume that this hypothesis is true, what follows'. So I developed this system. The question of whether is exists or not in the physical realm - which it does - is irrelevant to me. Even if, taking the doubters point of view, I'd invented a way of thinking - to make work that looks like a machine made it, because I'm going to do something similar to science-fiction, and put out the results from the hypotheses - then that, in and of itself, is a mechanism. It's like a Sol LeWitt mechanism. But it isn't just intellectual. I have it all written down on paper. It's a proper flow chart.
I think the need to resolve that question all the time comes from a history of doubt, starting with Warhol saying, 'I want to be a machine', and playing the art-game with Koons and whoever else. Actually, that's the thing I'm least interested in. It's great it's there, it brings another dimension to the work, but it's not at all the primary reason why I'm involved in doing this. I'm not interested in whether people believe me or not. I think the work stands for itself as an interesting philosophical dilemma when you approach it.

DB: You are the Artmachine's 'worker' or 'technician' but also its 'programmer'. Does this mean that you are both a slave to the machine and a godlike architect directing everything it does and can do? Is this a sort of self-exploitation, are you an artistic sadomasochist who ties himself up?

KT: Yes. But that notion of the slave or master - I don't see that it's a master-slave relationship in any way. I programme it, using language and making structures. And then it programmes me, 'cos I make the work with my own hands. Which forces me to reprogram the machine. But I'm not obeying some law. It's more of a research project which is fascinating to be involved in. And so, in that way, the whole state of the relationship between me and the machine is the work. There's no priority there. It's just a dynamic that I've set up and now is running its own course. And I think that's interesting in its own right. I'm neither.
One thing about enslaving that comes to mind is that as soon as you make something that in the first order appears to emancipate the artist - and we were talking about this the other day and the concept of irony - for a while it seems to be a really freedom-creating device, but very quickly it begins to eat itself away. And that's usually because to view it in terms of it being emancipated is just too simplistic. And you end up just churning them out. It's actually a lot more difficult to make my work than people assume it is. They think it's dead easy to produce a piece of shit, something thatÕs really disgusting, and put your signature to it. But you still have the same angst about putting that in a gallery. You worry that the viewer isn't going to take the conceptual leap to understand that it's a manifestation. That it's not, like, 'Keith thinks this is the way art should be'. I'm often called a 'turnip artist' or something, because the work can look rough. But there's a lot of nice things an' all.

DB:If the Artmachine had been programmed to be an artist it would be a Granma Moses type because it doesnÕt 'know' what art is. It would be an 'outsider-artist' because it hadn't been trained as an artist. And this would explain why it makes so many weird choices. The difference is that even Granma Moses knows what a painting is, whereas the Artmachine doesn't know anything. Is that it's beauty? Or, does the ArtmachineÕs lack of knowledge mean that it is merely a caricature of an artist? Is that itÕs beauty?

You're getting into A.I. [artificial intelligence] territory there. Because of the language and structure I use to programme it, when it makes a random decision between painting and sculpture it's made a difference and therefore characterised it. Because there's a history to painting and a set of materials. To a certain extent it does know what painting is. Maybe itÕs not self-conscious of what a painting is and its history, but it definitely makes a decision that it wants that field of history to be involved. What tends to happen a lot of the time, 'cos random variables get thrown-in in terms of distance and material or whatever, something can be stretched to the point where it's no longer recognisable. So, going back to the model of science-fiction, how far in the future can you write about before it becomes unrecognisable (because science-fiction is always about now, it's never about the future). And in that sense, when I've done a painting before, and perhaps the canvas is in Wales, the paint is in North Africa, and the idea of what the painting's about is in four people's heads in a cafe in Russia or something - that still constitutes a painting.
In that way there's something beautiful about the way it gets things wrong. But again, thatÕs a simplistic model of the avantgarde: the novelty of how it gets it wrong. Which, again, isn't what itÕs about. I keep saying what it's not about, and that's because I don't really know what it is about. But I think that's a healthy thing to be involved in.

DB: Has the role of the artist been made redundant in your practice? You don't use assistants. Is that a personal decision - you are a workaholic - or do you think you are the only person in the world who is in a position to carry out the Artmachine's instructions? And while you're at it, can you say whether it would be possible for someone else to programme it.

The role of the artist is definitely not redundant. I'm required to programme it and build them. And all my work comes down to the signature at the end of the day. Every Artmachine piece is unified by a certificate which is signed. The idea that they're made with my own hand - that decision was made because I thought if you just pick random things and you get other people to make them, that is the world. It's not anything else but the world. But this is much more to do with how far a single subject, using a non-subjective methodology, can be expanded. How far can my signature operate?
I remember walking round the Richter show and everyone talking about the stylistic diversity, and how wonderful it was. And I was really excited about that at the time. But, I thought, how far can just style be pushed. So all those things about it being made with my own hands - and to be fair, the one assistant I do have, whoÕs Nick, who's good at carpentry, won't do any of the actual form, he won't actually make the work - it's a research project on myself, I'm seeing what are my limits. But I'm viewing it as if I'm experimenting on a frog. So, no-one else could program it because it is the end result of the totality of the way in which I can use a randomising structure. Someone else could program their own machine, someone could just have a coin and toss it. Whatever. They wouldnÕt be able to program mine because my machine is my machine. You wouldnÕt ask if anyone be Picasso. They could mimic Picasso.

DB: CouldnÕt I steal your flow charts, get a set of dice and do it myself? KT: Yeah, you could. You could steal the charts and the randomisers and do it yourself, but then what youÕve done is steal something that comes out of my approach to art-making. What have you done? Your work then isn't about the Artmachine, it's about appropriation and stealing. And that's what people don't get. You have to understand the context behind something. It's not enough to say, 'I'll make it from the machine, then it's an Artmachine work'. Because it still is embodied within why I wanted to make the machine. It's not that simple. I think that's an important point, you should write that one down.

DB: The Artmachine isn't a Spice Girls fan and can't be told what to do by a gallerist. So, is it the ultimate life insurance for the Romantic genius standing up against the world and making his own idiosyncratic way through it? Does the Artmachine protect you from what you want? And does it also protect you from being accused of indifference, because it is the machine, not you, that is culturally blind, emotionally cold and artistically incontinent?

KT: That idea that it emancipates me or sets up protective barriers - I don't know anyone who gets quite as hard a time about what they do. Some of the things that come back to me in terms of it being seen as cynical or seen as this and that and the other. That need to always posit it in a founding singularity and say thatÕs where it's coming from. It's expansive, it's a different, complex notion. I don't sit there defining its role and I donÕt sit there saying 'what is it about? whatÕs my role?'. It's a tool in an empirical practice. ItÕs very traditional in that it tries to reflect what it's like to be me at this time, in this place. And all the things I've said that I've got a polemic against, it's only because I don't think they're valid at this time, for what it's like to be at the end of the twentieth century, after weÕve had modernism, and we've had postmodernism, and we've had theoretical illustration, and all these things. Anyone who wants to pursue the modernist thing is sort of doing what you were saying: they're stealing. They're copying something. And it's not about that. That's about a Romantic nostalgia for a simpler way of thinking about it.
But I donÕt believe that art is actually an end-game thing. - that idea that we have to play-out the death of painting or the death of cinema or the death of whatever. I see it as open. Unlike philosophy, which has set up its own definitions and is always concerned with how it's defined and always trying to trip itself up in terms of looking for inconsistencies, art can be like empirical philosophy. I'm not claiming it's as rigorous as philosophy at all, but it can be that it's practice is contradiction tolerant. Philosophy can allow it as well but I think art is a lot looser and a lot less rigorous and allows some more creativity in the idea of how do I express the position of an individual. So that idea of a Romantic hero - I do think, 'yeah, I'm going to express my world vision'. Like van Gogh did, or anyone else. And I really do challenge anyone to say they're doing anything else. Because art is always about the pursuit of truth. We were discussing the other day about how some days I go home and watch Cornonation Street, not from an ironic position, not from a critical-theorist's position, but because I want to know whether Dierdre gets it over the head with a hammer. That is as much part of the true complexity and totality of what my reality is, as is the museum circuit or Saatchi's vision of how advertising influences us. And he's right, but only up until a point. That's only one facet of what constitutes an artist. And they do come through an education, an understanding of history, understanding politics, and all that. But none of them have a dominant form. So I'm just trying to define that pluralism.

DB: Talking of pluralism, I don't think IÕve seen anything so pluralistic as this 'panoramic drawing of the interior of a contradiction tolerant lens' that you're in the middle of making now.

KT: Well I'm glad you asked that, Dave! What I'm trying to do now is that instead of becoming the organ-grinder, which is just turning the handle and out come these things, it's no longer enough for me to say, 'isnÕt it interesting that you have this chaotic (itÕs not random and itÕs not subjective) problematic methodology of making work'. I want to make that in a much more (psuedo-) scientific, experimental practice. So, this thing that I'm doing now is called 'panoramic view of the interior of a contradiction tolerant lens'. It's a body of work which exists as a virtual exhibition, but I am realising it. And each piece is dealing with a single facet of reality. About fifty percent are randomly generated by the Artmachine, the other fifty are new works, projects and systems that fill in some missing facets to the lens. It's eternally incomplete. The lens contains many infinite recursive structures. My travels through the lens are centred around photography and video (in all their manifestations) but the outcomes of these pursuits arenÕt necessarily photographic.
What's important is that it does widen things. The very things that I was trying to emancipate myself from (such as the notion that the market will eat you alive, that you will always be brought down to: 'you will do this'), mean that I need to expand the practice so that I can continually reinvent myself. Many artists claim to do that, and very few survive the big jaws of the machine.

© Dave Beech1998 elogo