Q&A with Jamie Atherton of Failed States Journal

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Failed States imagines how a journal might function as a research method for the study of place through the bringing together of ideas, explorations and experiences. It considers how an artist might act as publisher, thereby operating outside of the gallery system and its model for the making and distribution of work. For each issue, contributors are asked to respond to a broad theme: a terrain considered to possess qualities of amorphousness, wildness, instability, collapse, liminality, peripherality and/or delineation.



There is a dichotomy at play in our current moment. On the one hand, travel is becoming more accessible due to often bafflingly low airfares and Airbnb rooms, and yet on the other hand, many countries are shutting doors, erecting walls and borders, and sorely limiting the mobility of its residents. In what ways do you think this polarity is reflected within contemporary art-making, especially where place, geographies, and communities comes into play, and how can artists tackle the inevitable complexities it presents?

I wonder how many people would renounce nationality — citizenship at the national level — in exchange for an internationality: the opportunity to be a global citizen. It sounds appealing to me personally, but at the same time, I’m aware that it would create the ultimate polarity, an ideological divide we’re already seeing become the new history, the “re-starting of history” you might say. As you point out, that dichotomy already exists and many of these in effect “global citizens” are artists — liberalism’s Household Cavalry. But as it stands — for those moving about the globe out of choice rather than necessity — this is a position of privilege: for artists (and writers, academics, etc), means become available because of who the other passengers are, and who is chartering the hot air balloon. One way of looking at it might be that some artists enjoy more freedom than most precisely because they are the vassals of the super-rich, their Passepartout, or perhaps cogs in multiple soft power strategies.

If this utopian idea of the true global citizen were realised, who would actually opt in, forsaking their national identity document for something universal?

A passport, however, is still required (or passports), and if this utopian idea of the true global citizen were realised, who would actually opt in, forsaking their national identity document for something universal? I’m there, sign me up, but why is it that I feel so little attachment to nationhood? Is it something to do with how certain narratives appeal — or don’t — that charges it with enormous, flagpole-in-the-front-yard-type value for some, and virtually none for others? Of course, the despair I feel at the looming theft of my EU citizenship reminds me that I’m not immune to this very human need to belong, but perhaps that’s more about being a part of a project than a territory or identity.

I realise I’ve avoided the question somewhat by not looking at the work artists are doing in response to this. And if it’s ok, I’m going to continue off-track because I’m reminded of the activity of one particular artist, not reacting to the zeitgeist you describe specifically, but — and I think this is relevant — to a monsterous manifestation of power thoroughly tangled up in the “artworld”: the image of Nan Goldin leading a crowd of protesters in throwing pill bottles into the temple moat in the Met’s Sackler Wing.

© Joseph Curran, PT Film

© Joseph Curran, PT Film

One of ICEVIEW’s most prominent themes is that of isolation. Do you think that experiencing isolation and solitude is conducive to creativity and artmaking, or does it hinder these processes?

I think isolation sounds like a lovely idea. I have numerous recurring fantasies about disappearing into wild, remote places — often, I find myself lost for extended periods in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland on Google Maps. But that’s about as far as I get — in reality I haven’t structured my life that way and I’m bound to a pretty rigid routine that keeps me tethered to London. My sister — who is an exquisite painter and much more canny about such things — would be the one to ask. She’s very good at finding residencies in beautiful, remote parts of Scandinavia, etc.

Even within the city I’m something of a hermit. Of course, London has much more to offer than I can ever receive — it’s overwhelming at times. Here, the impossibility of emptying your mind into the terrains of isolation is countered by stimulation, resources, archives, inspiration … a stampede of culture. So I work with what I’ve got and find quiet where I can — on muddy Thames beaches and empty suburban parks, for example.

The other thing the city provides artists with — which many will tell you is essential — is social networks. Unfortunately, I’m really bad at that. Making Failed States has been much more about email exchanges — which I enjoy — but I could do that from the youth hostel on Rannoch Moor.

What I couldn’t do there though is something like my performance work Possibilities for a Pleasant Outing that required an audience, but also an enormous amounts of research involving face-to-face interviews and access to archives, or weird nails that required participants as well as an audience. Perhaps the ideal would be to follow Thoreau into the woods — or Michael Taussig’s “forest encircling the city and the sown land” where wildness is “the spirit of the unknown and the disorderly” — and then return to the city, bringing some of the wood’s teachings — and no small dose of that wildness — with you.

Euan Macdonald,  Volcano ,   2008, single-channel projection (still), © the artist

Euan Macdonald, Volcano, 2008, single-channel projection (still), © the artist

Especially given the isolationist mentality of our political moment (i.e. Brexit, Trump’s wall, etc.), do you think it’s necessary to critically reconsider the implications of “creative isolation” in a world that so often pays little heed to its neighbors?

I find it hard to believe that artists will fall into line with such thinking (but then I found it hard to believe that this “political moment” would arrive). Just as artists have tended to populate the left of the spectrum, similarly, it’s feels obvious where we’ll congregate in relation to this new open/closed divide. It’s not really as simple as that of course: to favour an open world doesn’t mean we must stop thinking about, and responding critically to, neoliberal economic models. Remember, it wasn’t very long ago at all that challenging NAFTA, the WTO, etc. was seen predominantly as a leftist cause. Now, this morning as I write this, I hear on the World Service of the Republican US president condemning the WTO (and starting a trade war in the process).

Moving from institution to academy to residency does not make an open world. Those routes can become like walled freeways through blighted lands.

That said, yes, more could be done: moving from institution to academy to residency does not make an open world. Those routes can become like walled freeways through blighted lands. The problem I often recognize is with this word “community”. Many will say they’re not working in isolation because they’re part of some community — possibly global — or other. But in my mind, “community” can’t imply inclusion without simultaneously activating its opposite.

If you really want to go out there and work in complete isolation though, I’m the last person who’d criticize; just envy. In my dreams, I’m Agnes Martin on her mesa.

Do you think that a liminal space, or peripheral geography depends on its physical distance from a perceived center to be considered as such? Or are there other forces at play in the construction of an intermediate? Of an in-between?

The next issue of Failed States is themed “suburb”, and in working on it these questions have been very much at the fore. One if the contributors is an artist, Daniel Callanan, who shoots analogue film (itself a liminal material, I think, as it exists between non-image and image) within a relatively small territory he’s defined for himself in SE London. Here he’s able to find incredibly remote-feeling places: pockets of woodland, wasteland etc. But there’s always this awareness of the vastness of a city humming with a collective belief in its centre-ness. Another series of photographs is by Sabelo Mlangeni from South Africa, a country where the geographies of periphery and centre are so complex, especially when considered across the country’s history.

Arguably the true centre now — in terms of economics and power — huge forces at play — is in fact a suburban landscape, by which I mean Silicon Valley. A state only reinforced by the emergence of a new iteration of the “company town”: Apple’s bullseye of a campus, Zuckerberg's “Zucktown”, etc. When I read about this I wondered if artists might be trucked in, along with the fully mature trees and water features, in an effort to create some simulacrum of a city centre. It would be a fitting irony perhaps, that having made San Francisco unaffordable for anyone not working in tech, and by extension destroying a lot of that city’s vibrancy, tech companies would attempt to rebuild a sort of privatised version of a cultural life from the ruins within their walled-off citadels.

I guess this sounds like a championing of the “centre”, albeit nostalgically. But I’m certainly excited by other possibilities. I think publishing is actually a great example of how that might work, in fact.

© Jay Simpson

© Jay Simpson

One of the common threads I’ve found between the themes of both issues of Failed States is that of distancing, or, the sense of removed-ness. What similarities do you see between the notion of an island and that of a suburb?

Yes, I have this tagline, “a journal of indeterminate geographies”, which is meant to imply that the focus of the journal will always be on terrains that I’ve described as possessing “qualities of amorphousness, wildness, instability, collapse, liminality, peripherality and/or delineation”. Islands are undoubtedly in this kind of flux. In Desert Islands, Gilles Deleuze writes that geographers describe two types of island: Continental islands which are “accidental, derived islands” and Oceanic islands which are “originary, essential”, and that this fact reminds us of the “profound opposition between the sea and the earth” and that one makes us think of the sea as being on top of the earth while the other describes the earth as continuing under the sea. And the two are constantly at odds, eroding and erupting. He goes on to say that:

“that an island is deserted must appear philosophically normal to us. Humans cannot live, nor live in security, unless they assume that the active struggle between earth and water is over, or at least contained … That England is populated will always come as a surprise.”

How much more removed could we be, removed from the reality of physical forces (and think about this in relation to climate change!), than in our occupation of such terrains? In Iceland, the earth must feel almost alive sometimes I imagine, and here in South East England the littoral zones are extremely vulnerable.

“Community” can’t imply inclusion without simultaneously activating its opposite.

Perhaps the same is true of suburbs, where the forces at play are economic and political, as well as environmental. A leafy small town becomes surrounded by choked freeways, a once affluent cul-de-sac sees property values fall, a trailer park turns into a smoldering lot overnight, a farming village becomes a slum (Lagos, I read the other day, is projected to have more residents than present day Britain by 2100). Deleuze has his tongue in his cheek I suspect, but perhaps the surprise is that anywhere is populated.

My otherhalf, Jeremy Atherton Lin, has been working on an extraordinarily brilliant account of growing up in suburban California, and it embodies removed-ness brilliantly, somehow portraying this sense of a populated place that is not immediately there. I hope everyone gets to read it someday, I think it will come to be understood as important.

© Monique Mouton

© Monique Mouton

Between a city and a village?

I grew up in a village and therefore have a very specific, personal relationship to that difference. Specific, but nonetheless not dissimilar to that of most queers enduring all the trials provincial life has to offer. The city was on the horizon, “which we can understand as futurity”, as José Esteban Muñoz said, so perhaps in that sense it always is. By which I mean you can certainly be removed, or at a remove, in the city. Olivia Laing, who contributes to Failed States, has written of the city as having a particular “flavour”of loneliness, and also framed loneliness itself as being a city, a “collective”.

Villages on the other hand are not meant to be lonely, but that is predicated on a sense of belonging, or a communally accepted “right” to be there. I like being in the country, but I’m always slightly on edge, more aware of my queer body in space, than when I’m in the city. I love when geography can help explain something and for me the village really helps in understanding how “gay” and “queer” work differently. This is within the context of a more progressive society in the current moment, very much so, but when I’m in the country these days I’m alert to the presence of “country gays”. It’s a new phenomenon, they are out and they are in: in the community (that word again). And what seems so apparent is assimilation at work — be it by choice or necessity. Despite the mainstreaming of the word, I think to be queer is to be unassimilated. Perhaps this too is a choice for some, but it’s a political one.


Jamie Atherton is an artist and the publisher and editor of Failed States, a journal of indeterminate geographies. He lives in London. 

All images published in this Q&A appear in Failed States issue no.1: islandFailed States issue no.2: suburb will be published in May 2018.

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