Quaker activism, monarchy and British identity: BPF Trainee Curator Idil Bozkurt catches up with OPEN18 Moving Image artist Chris Alton
Posted 22 October
Please tell us about yourself. What’s your background?
Well, I was born in Croydon in 1991. I lived there for the first 7 or 8 years of my life before we moved to North Devon. There wasn't much going on there, but I got really into surfing and skating. Throughout my teenage years I skated all the time; took photos, made videos. It was a really creative and social hobby, which I'm trying to get back into now I'm a little older and the falls hurt more.
My Mum was a Quaker, so she'd take me to Quaker meetings. From around the age of 4 or 5, she took me to Quaker residential events each summer. Looking back, these were incredibly significant experiences. I'd spend a week learning about and getting involved with Quaker activism with regard to peace, equality, climate change, the arms trade and more.
What motivated you to take part in Brighton Photo Fringe 2018?
I think that I first saw the opportunity via ONCA; I also knew of their interest in works related to the environment, climate change, extinct species, and similar, so was keen for them to see the work and for it to potentially be seen it that context.
You will be exhibiting your moving image piece ‘Crudely Plucking the Strings’ at ONCA Gallery as an OPEN18 moving image artist. Can you tell us about the project? What is the idea behind the work?
Towards the end of 2017, I was invited by Spit & Sawdust, an artist-led space in Cardiff, to produce a work for their billboard. I decided to create a contemporary iteration of a 1607 woodcut, which shows the flooding of the Bristol Channel. The focal point of my woodcut was Hinkley Point C, the yet to be completed nuclear power station that's being built on the southern back of the channel.
This moving image work grew out of that same body of research and gave me a chance to build upon the themes that were already present in the billboard work: the interconnected nature of climate change, nuclear power and extreme weather; the fragility of human-made structures, as well as the fragility of this planet's climate.
The original woodcut came from the cover of a pamphlet, distributed by the church in the aftermath of the flood. These pamphlets contained texts about the horrific event, framing it as a Biblical reckoning. I wanted to take that format and rework it; the film is a contemporary flood myth, a kind of fable.
Considering the variety of themes that arise in your work, which ones occur/reoccur with the most frequency and why?
I think that critiques of British colonialism, or the ideologies that support/ed colonialism, occur most regularly. I've also made quite a bit of work about monarchy, British identity and the politics of architecture. If you were to boil it all down, the majority of my work is about power; imbalances, collusion, obfuscation. Most of the time, the artworks that I make are exercises in trying to understand and be understood, but also prototype other ways of being in the world. I think these interests stem from my Quaker upbringing. Quakers have a long history of activist agitation, coupled with the proposition of alternatives.
Has there been a work of art that has led to what you’re making now?
In the summer of 2012, I saw two exhibitions that had a pretty significant effect on me. Yael Bartana's trilogy of films, 'And Europe Will Be Stunned', which were screened at Hornsey Town Hall; and Jeremy Deller's 'Joy In People', which was at The Hayward Gallery. I actually saw the Deller exhibition by accident. A friend wanted to see 'Brain Activity' by David Shrigley, which was on at the same time. It was a bit of a 'buy one, get one free' scenario, so we ended up wandering around the Deller show too. I don't think I'd be making the work that I'm making today without seeing those shows; they were the first artworks that I'd seen where the artists were directly engaging with explicit social and political phenomena, whilst working across an array of media.
You started - what you call – a ‘multifaceted protest movement’ English Disco Lovers (EDL) in 2012. The EDL has established street-level protests, exhibitions and talks all the way through 2015. In what ways has your practice changed since this project?
I worked on 'English Disco Lovers (EDL)' for several years, so naturally it’s a pretty sprawling project. It strayed from its origins as an artwork, transitioned into activism, popular media and club nights, before oscillating back to the sphere of contemporary art practice. Although the club night series is ongoing in Brighton, Exeter, Manchester and other UK cities.
Since graduating from my BA in 2014, I've made a range of different projects and singular works, none of which have spread themselves quite so widely. I don't know if my practice has necessarily changed. I still begin with an idea; a web of associated socio-political phenomena. I still refuse to be tied down to a medium and continue to use joy, humour and satire throughout my work. I remain interested in notions of Britishness and how this is intrinsically tied to many deeply problematic things. I think it's more a question of scale, and of time. 'English Disco Lovers (EDL)' was a particularly 'effective' expression of an idea, which happened to appeal to many, many people. It may have sat more comfortably in non-art spheres than other work that I've made, but it hasn't been a conscious decision to not do this since the conclusion of 'English Disco Lovers (EDL)'.
Is there something you are currently working on, or excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I'll have a new work in 'Survey' at Jerwood Space, from October 3rd– December 16th. It's a banner, titled 'A Hollywood Film in which Climate Change is Averted'. I was interested in talking about how a cinema-scape dominated by apocalyptic depictions of climate change can curtail our ability to imagine its aversion. Popular media frames climate change as inevitable; what if it didn't? Would we be more optimistic? Would we feel we had more agency? Would we act?
I'm also at the beginning of two other separate, yet overlapping projects. One looks at contemporary gift giving by the UK monarchy to smooth the way for the arms trade; the other builds upon a family story, which is also related to conflict and gifts. It looks at the history of soldiers who have shot to wound, fired high and tampered with their own weapons, rather than kill those they were supposed to be fighting.
Where can people find out more about your work and upcoming projects?
I was recently interviewed by Harry Meadley for 'Ey Up', a biweekly podcast where Harry speaks to various artists about the formative experiences that led to them becoming artists, as well as covering their current practices'. If you're interested in hearing me talk about skateboarding, Quakerism and their influence on my practice, then it's worth checking out. Harry's also currently interviewing me for 'Young Artists in Conversation', so that should be available soon. That interview will focus more on my current practice and where it might be heading, as opposed to the early experiences that have informed it.
My website (www.chrisalton.com) is probably the best place to find out about any of my upcoming projects. I also have Instagram, Twitter and a mailing list, which I send out pretty infrequently. If people are particularly keen to hear more about my work, they'd be welcome to email me.
Chris Alton's moving image work is featured alongside the work of 11 other artists as part of the OPEN18 Moving Image showcase at ONCA Gallery, 14 St George’s Place
Brighton, BN1 4GB alongside the festival’s keynote solo exhibition, Sarah Howe's Consider Falling, 29 September–27 October, Wednesday - Saturday 12pm - 6pm, Sunday 12pm - 4pm
Idil Bozkurt is one of four Trainee Curators working with BPF this year to realise the festival. After her bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from Kocaeli University in Turkey, she travelled to the UK and completed her Masters in Film Studies at Sussex University. She is a visual artist and the founder of New Grounds collective.