Beagles & Ramsay were interviewed by Dean Kenning for the catalogue to accompany the exhibition ‘Poor Things’ at the Fruitmarket, Edinburgh 2023.
DK: The figures in your sculpture are made from cheap office furniture, as if some transformation or self-assembly has gone on. Can you say something about the politics of this piece?
B&R: There’s definitely the politics of the workplace going on, with hierarchies or tensions playing out between the four figures and some kind of struggle to achieve individual or collective agency. The work in Poor Things is a development from our previous solo show Circular Holding Pattern at Govan Project Space, which was related to issues around managerial culture and workplace politics. We’re interested in the continual rise of managerialism in pretty much every workplace, and the hypocrisy of these supposedly open, democratic, transparent models of management which are usually geared to top-down control to disempower workers. All that stuff is in there and hopefully there is a sense of the established order starting to fall apart, or something out of kilter.
The figures are made from used flat pack office furniture, they stand on a broken grid of dirty old carpet tiles – both are modular systems that have been messed up. We got the old carpet from some defunct businesses, and then each figure is made from mismatched melamine that we’ve recut to make a new modular system of flat pack bodies. They’re cheap, modular furniture gone wrong, and might look like distorted shop mannequins or even shooting range targets
The form of the figures is very important. In particular, the minimal form; how much you can reduce things down so they’re symbolic or allegorical but with a schematic or cartoonish rendering of the figure? Once again that’s a development of earlier work where we had stylised figures with cartoonish heads on top of mops or brooms that appeared both as sculptures and in digital video animations. In relation to this we were also interested in video gaming culture and how game designers develop fictional worlds. Specifically, we were thinking about the process of game development in the 1980’s where they might create stripped back, ‘minimal’ figures that were still capable of exercising a psychological, identificatory grip on the gamer.
We’re aiming to picture workplace culture with a distance from any naturalism or realism.
DK: Those figures look cut out. There’s a flatness. It reminds me of a Powerpoint and the flow-chart nature of how things connect in a very flat way. The show is called Poor Things, and these workers have been reduced to flat packs.
B&R: This goes on in managerial culture and the use of algorithms where on some level we’re all reduced to data. We’re trying to give these figures back some agency, activating them. They’re laced with potential, and although they seem a bit static, they might move, or advance or group together. As such it’s poised between passivity and action.
This ties into the flatness and the psychological grip or emotional grip. That tension, where you can push people’s emotional buttons, and you can make the figures emote on a certain level, so the viewer might feel a bit of sympathy for them or they maybe appear like they’re injured. It might be touching on an emotional level, but at the same time they are somewhat distant through the flatness of the form and materials used. So hopefully there are conflicting feelings which come out to the audience.
DK: Could you speak of the class dimension of the work and some of the things you’ve been talking about?
B&R: Certainly, in relation to hierarchies of work and tensions playing out between people on different rungs of the ladder within an organisation. Its hopefully possible for viewers to look at the four figures and imagine a class or workplace hierarchy playing out. With the rendering of the faces of the figures we were thinking a lot about that book The Managed Heart: The Commercialisation of Human Feeling by Arlie Russell Hochschild, which is about emotional labour. It was written a while ago, but we’ve all become emotional labourers – the pressure to act being upbeat and smiley at work is now universal. Breaking with the new workplace norm, the schematic faces of our characters have often got an open mouth, which might be despair, anger or shock. Class and labour is also referenced in our choice of materials. The literal way of using recycled ‘poor’ materials that might be scratched, damaged or discarded is important.
DK: It’s not a posh office is it? You imagine a call centre, open plan, you’ve no privacy, you’re being watched the whole time and having to keep it cheery.
B&R: We were reading Work Without The Worker by Phil Jones. It’s about robots and the automation of the workplace, but the horrific bits are the guys who sit in the office and supervise multiple different places where the robots are working, they’re sat there watching screens with their lanyards hanging round their necks.
DK: Is that a sci-fi dimension, where these things do start self assembling?
B&R: Yes, that’s quite strange, like the Lego factories being completely automated, running twenty-four hours a day. They’re perpetually making Lego, and occasionally somebody goes in to check it’s all OK. But going back to the gaming thing, that’s there in some of the design of the figures, like the legs; there’s a robotic dimension to the way they would scurry if they moved.
DK: The future is not how it was imagined. It’s not that we’ve become automated machines – it’s messy, it’s about relationships and emotions and that’s the horror of it.
B&R: Yes, this work is much more connected to that. The clear sense that there are still bodies involved, it’s not a remote, slick production. It’s much more about bodies in real spaces that are impacted by particular conditions.
DK: They’ve had the life sucked out of them, somehow. But is there a potential liberation going on with the lanyards or the scratched texts?
B&R: The details are important, they offer some of the most acute moments of resistance and resignation, such as the lanyards and the motifs that appear in the lanyards, There are also the scratched slogans on the surface of the figures, which are very small and you can easily miss. One of them is ‘Damn Your Spam’ which is taken from an obscure political slogan from the 1930s, or the more contemporary ‘Meal Deal’, which is etched into the surface of one figure, almost like a tattoo. You could take even just those two little slogans as examples of the flip sides of resistance and resignation, which is also there in the stickers on the surface of the figures. The discrepancies in the lanyards are important, they underscore the hierarchy between the different figures or characters.
The title of the work looks like a ChatGPT poem, and we’ve often written long titles like this before. We repeatedly use slogans and texts, then rework them and put them back together in different ways.
DK: What I’ve always liked about your work is the humour and the stupidity in it. How does that function in terms of social commentary, or in terms of taste?
B&R: Pierre Bourdieu was an early influence on us due to his examination of the ideological dimensions of aesthetics and judgments of taste. And that really got conjoined with seeing the work of Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley, Martin Kippenberger, and Bank in the 1990s. What was important in that work was a foregrounding of the class dynamics within aesthetics. Was it McCarthy who said something about how he wanted to make people feel uncomfortable by bringing to the surface all the stuff that they want to push away? And Bank did that with Zombie Golf, which was a really important show for us. Bank were also happy to appear foolish which was important in the context of the kind of work that was dominant at the time. There was a prescribed tone about how you might deal with politics and ‘popular culture’, specifically a notion of ‘proper’ critical distance. Of course, one problem you face if you make apparently less serious work is to not be taken seriously. However, being foolish and stupid, like McCarthy and Bank, really resonated at that time because a lot of work which was typically presented as intellectual and sophisticated often seemed banal and stupid to us. We found that problematic. The essay that you wrote Dean about Mark McGowan resonated with us in relation to Mark Wallinger. The prescriptive ways and the correct ‘tone’ you’re supposed to adopt to be a political artist, which weren’t actually that political. McGowan was interesting because he avoided some of those traps.
If our work in Poor Things is funny in some way, then perhaps it’s the kind of laughter that can get stuck in your throat. Often our use of humour and questioning hierarchies of taste comes out of a suspicion of and an undercutting of certain approaches to making art or being an artist. Those that tend to towards pomposity or posturing as a serious artist, which can be a façade to mask a lack of depth. In fact, we do like lots of serious artwork, music and cinema, but we can’t take certain types of work seriously. As Terry Atkinson said, “I can’t take your seriousness seriously”, when certain kinds of artwork tip over into a heavy breathing earnestness, which can be a performed seriousness. It’s often aesthetic good behaviour as well, because it cosies up to the authority of established good taste and approved behaviours. A certain mode of earnestness, of studied seriousness in art practice can be a well-considered career move, which can be often come from behaviours learnt at art school.
DK: There’s an entitled confidence or arrogance that goes with that, in the sense that you stick something in the gallery that’s completely uninteresting but don’t feel embarrassed. Whereas if the work is entertaining and funny, there’s a generosity, you’re giving the audience something.
B&R: That’s important. We’re interested in that aspect of a generosity and a desire to engage with the viewer.
The point you’re making is about feeling at home, or feeling at ease within the spaces of contemporary art. One of the interesting things which can come from artists from less privileged backgrounds is a sense of unease, and perhaps a need to disrupt certain kinds of spaces, often by offering the viewer a kind of ‘mongrel’ form of entertainment!
DK: John, that piece that you wrote in Variant magazine, in 2010 [‘In a class of their own’] was about comprehensiveness as key to art school pedagogy. Having people from different backgrounds brings a necessary energy.
B&R: Culture and class are key dynamics, but we’re not going to advocate for a romanticised kind of working class authenticity. It’s good if you come from that background to be opened up to people with radically different sensibilities and histories. That was our experience of higher education in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was a comprehensive mix of people, maybe not in terms of sexuality or gender, but pretty diverse in terms of class background. We mixed with a range of people, so there was a level of antagonism which was productive. But what was crucially different then was we felt like we belonged. Being there wasn’t a gift, we had a right to be there. I think that’s different now for working class students. Imposter syndrome is a big thing and those students feel stigmatised, or very conscious of being the odd ones out.
DK: Earlier you mentioned authenticity. There have always been signifiers of class in your work but it’s never about authenticity. It seems more about the way working-class culture or popular culture gets mediated and fed back to us. Whereas authenticity is more to do with identity politics.
B&R: One of the first realisations we had when we started collaborating was that we both liked the Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell film Performance because of the central theme of performing identities or roles, and also because it oscillates between working class culture and bohemia. In the film there’s a clash between those worlds, but neither one is particularly secure – the film didn’t privilege one voice over the other. That kind of fluidity in Performance was important, as it seemed to open up possibilities, rather than locking them down. The jargon of authenticity that took root around bands like Oasis in 90’s was always problematic, because it seemed to advocate a rigid class based identity and lumpen masculinity. Conversely, for us seeing Leigh Bowery in I Am Curious, Orange by Michael Clark and The Fall had a far more profound impact in its staging of liberation.
DK: What could be done to enable more working class artists?
B&R: The whole philanthropic enterprise and model of supporting artists has to be questioned. The prize giving culture seems at odds with the rhetoric about being progressive and inclusive. The hard politics that maintains and reproduces those philanthropic structures is politically conservative.
DK: The real decisions get made amongst friends in back rooms.
B&R: It’s cultural nepotism. So just as there needs to be a far more vocal, explicit political support in the artworld for the removal of a fee-based model of education funding (with the return of maintenance grants for those who need them), so the artworld needs to embrace a return to a transparent, democratic, publicly funded model of supporting and managing culture. As long as that’s not being discussed, we find a lot of the rhetoric around inclusivity and diversity quite hollow.