Fables and Politics: The Fabulous Satire of Kevin Broughton & Fiona Birnie

Dave the party pooper

Kevin Broughton and Fiona Birnie, ‘Dave the party pooper’, 53.5 x 41cm, Oil collage & acrylic, 2013, courtesy the artists.

British artists Kevin Broughton & Fiona Birnie explore modern technology and the media in contemporary life and the role this plays in imagining identity and society. They use adapted found material to construct satirical images, objects and installations that question and comment on historical time: how it is we might imagine past, present and future realities.

Growing up in the late 1970’s with the Punk movement politicized us. It gave us a healthy disrespect for authority, an expectation to form our own views and the belief in having a go at anything we wanted whether we knew how to or not. Punk taught us to challenge accepted notions and to do things ourselves.

Your work is very interesting from the perspective of history and narrative. I am thinking of ‘BERLIN: The Forger’s Tale’ specifically. You based the work on a character called George Bruni. What drew you to the idea of forgery? 

Kevin Broughton: Seven years ago we had an idea for an online artwork taking the form of a fictional narrative that would develop through weekly updates mixing historical fact with contemporary people and events. We began the blog ‘searching for Georg’ which was to follow the discoveries we made while researching the life of a friend’s long lost uncle Georg Bruni. We found out that he was an infamous forger in Berlin between the wars.

Fiona Birnie: The Weimar period is of particular interest to us. We studied the works of Otto Dix, George Grosz, Max Beckmann and a lot of other artists that had experienced WW1 and then had used satire to question the reasons for war.

The idea was to combine our interest in history & contemporary culture while exploring the structures and forms used on the internet to communicate information. After beginning to work on the project we shelved it: it wasn’t working out in the way we had hoped it would. Then, three years ago we were passing the Crypt Gallery in Euston and popped in for a look and were both excited by the atmosphere of the place. We realised that it would be an ideal venue to stage a ‘museum style’ exhibition & we decided to resurrect Georg and tell his life story.

The idea of forgery acts as a metaphor for the Internet in a number of ways. Firstly, the fact that Georg is a forger relates to the idea of individuals creating their online personalities (hence Georg’s many masks which we exhibited in the shows).Secondly, we played with ideas of truth and authenticity producing a ‘museum style’ exhibition constructed from adapted photographs, remade paintings, sculptures and so forth. The idea was to replicate the physical experience of apparent ‘factual’ information produced on the net (we experimented with display posters, information boards, sequential narrative, photographs and historical artefacts).

Forgers Tale, crypt

Kevin Broughton and Fiona Birnie, ‘BERLIN: The Forgers Tale’, Installation shot, The Crypt Gallery, 2012, courtesy the artists.

We also played with the idea of contemporary film stars & celebrities. We adapted and re-imagined film posters. Johnny Depp took the role of Georg. The 1930 film, starring Lew Ayres, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ was transformed by us into ‘All Quiet in Western Culture’ starring Simon Cowell (a satirical reference to Cowells’ X-Factor destruction of originality and the death of cultural diversity). Fritz Lang’s 1931 film ‘M’, starring Peter Lorre as a child murderer, was adapted to star McDonald’s clown, a film about a paedophile forcing fat into children and promoting obesity. Our work is constantly referencing things that appear in the news. We make and adapt everything.

We were very irreverent with language. German & French was provided by Google translate (making it almost illegible to native speakers), and the running narrative was produced in less than 140 characters (the attention span for Twitter).

Forgers Tale, crypt 2

Kevin Broughton and Fiona Birnie, ‘BERLIN: The Forgers Tale’, Installation shot, The Crypt Gallery, 2012, courtesy the artists.

KB: We’d been collecting hundreds of German banknotes from that period, which we decided to draw on to create Georg’s diary. On the night of the Private View we wanted to give something away to the visitors, so we bought one hundred original 100 Deutschmark bank notes dated 1920 (circulating at the height of the notorious inflation) and screen printed ‘Because you’re worth it’ on each one. We literally gave money away.

In the second exhibition at WW Gallery we wanted to take Georg’s experience further with a total installation. Once again we made everything. We added many layers of truth and fiction to each object and thing adding many elements from historical events and contemporary culture. We wanted to place the viewer in an all- encompassing parallel world where everything could exist at the same time with only a tenuous narrative to hold the experience together. A live cabaret on alternating Saturdays (provided by great friends Sam Tring & Mark Scott-Wood) really brought it all alive and added an extra dimension to the experience.

FB: In ‘The Forgers Tale – A quest for Fame and Fortune’ at the WW Gallery we created an installation which filled the space of the gallery and led the viewer through several rooms. The viewer entered into a 1930s Collector’s study then through to recreations of part of the Nazi party’s ‘The Degenerate Art Exhibition’ (Munich, 1937) and the First International Dada Fair (Berlin, 1920). We produced a ‘mash-up’ combing the 1937 exhibition and the 1920 at fair. This was a reference to the current practice of communicating every experience with our mobile phones (something we are totally addicted to), questioning where the viewer’s true experience lies. One of the things we adapted in our installation at the WW gallery was a German Telefon box (with a recorded message taped from Google translate).  The installation led finally onto the stage of a Weimar Cabaret. One of my favourite pieces was a version we did of George Grosz’s collage ‘Remember Uncle August, the Unhappy inventor’ (1919) which we transformed into ‘Dave the Party Pooper’ using the face of David Cameron.

regenerate room final

Kevin Broughton and Fiona Birnie, ‘BERLIN: The Forgers Tale’, installation shot at the WW gallery, 2013, courtesy the artists.

You draw in this work on a particular time in history, the first decades of the twentieth century and Weimar Germany, which you bring into a dialogue with the present. What underpins this interest?

KB: We are both interested in history, and the first half of the Twentieth Century was a time of enormous change, extreme views and two catastrophic world wars. The art of that period provides us with a template for our own artistic practice. I don’t hold the view that the artists from that period started with the idea of becoming great modern masters: just looking at their early work shows a mischievous sensibility testing the establishment to see what they can get away with.

FB: We feel there are issues that run parallel: between the past, the first part of the twentieth century leading up to WWII, and the present: global recession, economic downturn, dictatorships & unstable futures. Of course the recession of the 1930s doesn’t compare with the one we have lived through now but the media were making these connections

KB: The energy and imagination of this period is unequalled: The question ‘what is art?’ was constantly challenged, and in Germany it was all stopped so abruptly. We love the art from this period for its directness, imagination and the sense that anything is possible.

FB: The artists we admired had their work confiscated and put into the Degenerate art show. Goering had been sold a forgery; many of the elements used in the show were based on facts. Also we’d been following the ongoing and very interesting Gurtlitt case:   the discovery of a hoard of stolen/confiscated paintings in Cornelius Gurlitt’s Munich apartment (although many world famous museums and collectors knew all about them) and the V&A have only recently published the full list of degenerate art.

Dada (black & white room)

Kevin Broughton and Fiona Birnie, ‘BERLIN: The Forgers Tale’, installation shot at the WW gallery, 2013, courtesy the artists.

You have previously also told me about the influence of Punk which you grew up with?

KB: Growing up in the late 1970’s with the Punk movement politicized us. It gave us a healthy disrespect for authority, an expectation to form our own views and the belief in having a go at anything we wanted whether we knew how to or not. Punk taught us to challenge accepted notions and to do things ourselves.

FB: Also Punk embraced a lot of the attitude and artistic style from the Dadaists.

You are deliberately mischievous and irreverent with history, the borderlines between fact and fiction are obscured in your work. You disrupt the idea of a grand narrative, the assumption that there is such a thing as an authoritative, objective account of events. Your working methods and your research process encapsulate this. You have spoken to me before about your relationship to Internet research. The installation for ‘The Forger’s Tale’ at Sluice Art Fair (2013) was very dense suggesting the labyrinthine process of Internet Research. What is interesting for you about how images circulate across virtual worlds?

KB: Society’s reliance on technology and the Internet in particular grows stronger. It is changing our behaviour, attention span and sense of ourselves. If people want the answer to a question they generally ‘Google it’, making the Internet the great authoritative voice, and people generally go with whichever answer suits their argument. This lack of personal research to discover a truth leads to contradictory truths, chaos & anarchy which is the space we thrive in. The communal open nature of the Internet blurs the distinction between fact and fiction and produces a parallel world where time, meaning & truth become flexible, leaving the traditional mode of our stable, rigid analogue view of human history to enter the fluid jelly-like world of fragmented information overload.

The problem with the web is also what we enjoy about it: there is too much information to take in. Without a focused, authoritative, guiding voice we can choose what to believe in, map our reality with fragments of information badly forced together to inform our world. It’s impossible to truly experience history in the sense that we can never divorce ourselves from our own time and personal experience, knowledge, morals etc. The many ‘reality’ TV shows out there have shown us this. We insert elements of current experience into our work to both question our belief in the systems and structures society has created to communicate information but also to ‘buffer’ the viewer from an alien sensibility making it more approachable and engaging.

You also work across medium: collage, printmaking, drawing, painting, installation. Tell me a bit about your relationship to medium. You seem to think about your work in terms of installation. How you exhibit it is spatial, atmospheric and affective. It is also very dense.

KB: Our work has developed into two distinct forms: site-specific immersive installation projects such as ’BERLIN: The Forgers Tale’, and more recently individual paintings, sculptures etc. In the installations we create or adapt everything within an environment. Each item is loaded with layers of reference and meaning providing a labyrinthine metaphor of internet searching & computer gaming. A variety of mediums and styles add texture to the environment creating a reality which aids the narrative, also the ideas dictate the most suitable/practical material to explore them.

FB: At the heart of our work is the concept of collage – layers of meaning, pasted together, links, historical scraps/artefacts pieced together like an Internet search. We like using period materials always referring to history. The images we produced in Photoshop for ‘The Forger’s Tale’ were created from thousands of fragments of photographs lifted from the internet and blended together (‘Willkommen’ is a good example). We combined weeks of research into historical referencing, image searching & endless nights glued to a computer screen.

At this point, we should mention our unusual and total collaboration. We work on the same paintings, drawings, sculptures and so on. We constantly work over and re-edit each other’s work.

migration

Kevin Broughton and Fiona Birnie, ‘Migration’, 2014, courtesy the artists.

KB: The recent paintings and sculpture came about through our need to produce something that was more direct and immediate (we worked on ‘The Forgers Tale’ for more than two years). In an installation all the work becomes one and a lot of the detailed thoughts are lost in the process, we wanted to have a form for the constant supply of smaller, individual ideas to exist in their own right. All our work is generated through a kind of collage. We bring fragments of images, information, events, & pop culture surfed from the net together with history, current news & personal experience to form a composite ‘state of mind’ that pertains to and often contradicts contemporary social & political issues. Found/scrap material provides the support or structure, and the dark gallows humour disarms the viewer & questions value systems & structures.

We feel there are issues that run parallel: between the past, the first part of the twentieth century leading up to WWII, and the present: global recession, economic downturn, dictatorships & unstable futures. Of course the recession of the 1930s doesn’t compare with the one we have lived through now but the media were making these connections

I raise you

Kevin Broughton and Fiona Birnie, ‘Pink’, 2014, courtesy the artists.

last party on the Titanic

Kevin Broughton and Fiona Birnie, ‘Last Party on the Titanic’, installation shot, courtesy the artists.

Humour is an important part of who you are as artists. Political satire is a very important part of the recent painting and drawing installation ‘Last Party on the Titanic’, at your studio. You satirise a number of British figures in the public realm from politics to art. You also talk in a very satirical way about current events that have been in the media this year. You take on some difficult subjects but using the device of satirical humour. What interests you about satire which is very much a part of British visual culture and art (I am thinking here of Hogarth). How do you think about satire in your work and through the mediums you use?  It is interesting that you chose to work with painting recently and I was wondering what is interesting for you about this medium.

FB: The Titanic is used often as a metaphor for the end of the Edwardian age and the dangers of mankind’s blind faith in technology. It is also a symbol of a grand party gone heinously wrong. The term ‘last party on the titanic’ was used in a review of our show at The Crypt reflecting the effect of the work, we thought it apt to use it for that installation (due to the impending closure of the studio).

KB: Satire & black humour provides a way of tackling all subjects without becoming rigid and pompous with our opinions, and it allows us to laugh at ourselves (we are included in our vision of humanity). This allows for a greater truth and emphasizes our interest in the Kafkaesque tragic/comic state of humanity. Hogarth, Gillray, Scarfe are important influences on our work also Goya, Bacon, Picasso & Condo, but probably the strongest recent influence has been comedians.

pink

Kevin Broughton and Fiona Birnie, ‘Pink’, 2014, courtesy the artists.

FB: The contemporary observational comedy and surreal humour of comedians such as Sean Lock and Frankie Boyle have been a great influence on our work, especially recent pieces such as ‘Pink’.

KB: There is a strong satirical bent in British culture (probably the best product of British art) and I would say that it’s a defining attribute of the British character. It has been present as a driving creative force from Chaucer to Punk and presents a continual rebellion through intellect over violence. Humanity at large is like a lost child playing at being grown-up, Picasso taught us to embrace our inner child and enjoy it.

What are you busy with and thinking about now? What did you do for Sluice this year?

FB: With Sluice going to New York with ‘Exchange Rates’, we were asked by our friends The Frank Bobbins Institute to produce some small works (we produced four small paintings). They asked us to collaborate with them and a number of other artists in the show. We were really pleased to take part, as our experience of collaboration in the WW gallery show (the cabaret with Sam & Mark) brought the exhibition alive. The great thing about collaborating is that you don’t know what another person will bring to the work, whatever it is makes you think on your feet.

KB: In our most recent work, such as ‘Pink’ & ‘I Raise You’, we’ve been working in a way that’s very similar to the Photoshop images but more direct: painting is more immediate and tactile. We’ve also been producing sculptures in the same way, ‘We Salute You’, & ‘Migration’, it’s challenging but great fun, I think the humour shows in the final work.

What are your plans for 2015?

KB: We are putting together a book about ‘The Forgers Tale’ and intend to tour it. We are also planning to spend a couple of weeks in Paris working on something special.

We will be working on our next major installation ‘The Strange Museum’ (about the bizarre collection of Victorian entrepreneur Mr. Issac Arthur M. Strange), and continuing to produce more paintings, drawings, sculptures … (Under the working title of DICKWEED).

we salute you

Kevin Broughton and Fiona Birnie, ‘We Salute You’, 2014, courtesy the artists.

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