Interview with Fred Deakin

JH: This is Jo Hunter talking to Fred Deakin about being an artist. So Fred, why do you do art?

FD: I never really thought of myself as an artist to be honest with you. I guess when I was – well, this is kind of a brain dump – but when I was emerging into my teen years and discovering my identity, I was deeply drawn to the world of alternative culture and particularly music. I do remember going to this festival, this one-day mini festival when I must have been about 14 or 15. It wasn’t really a festival; it was more a little fair thing, in a place called Kensington Market, which is a famous place where the grooviness was in London. There was Camden and there was Kensington Market – those were the two places that you went to. There was a café upstairs; going into the space as a schoolboy (though obviously wasn’t in school uniform or anything) and thinking let’s check this out. It was post-punky and there bands playing and stuff. I went in there and it wasn’t very busy, there were some nice cool, older people who were organizing it, who in hindsight were probably in their early twenties or something! I think one of them saw me and thought “OK, let’s engage this person who’s bothered to come to this thing that we’ve done.” He said to me, “Hi I’m so-and-so, I’m photographer. Who are you and what do you do?” I thought, “What do you do? What do you mean? I’m a schoolboy! You mean I can do something?” The possibility of becoming one of these people that I worshipped really opened up something for me. I think I saw it as identity really, as being part of a community, and to be part of that community, you produce something. You had a point of view, an opinion, an aesthetic. You tried to make exciting things happen because that’s what we did. We weren’t passive. We weren’t consumers. It was all about DIY culture back then, about doing your own thing. There was always a very clear accessibility – you can do your own thing. I never really lost that. But I never really thought about it as art either, I thought of it as expression of identity and dialogue with my peers.

JH: What keeps motivating you to do it all the time still?

FD: Well I guess, having started, I find that if I don’t do it, I get kind of grumpy. I feel unfulfilled. I get depressed. I’m very lucky that I’m able to do it as part of my work, but if I couldn’t, I’d do it as a hobby. That would probably manifest itself more in the realm of music or curating music or creating packages to put my music into. As I say, I don’t really think of myself as an artist even now, more of a designer. Or a kind of musical artist I suppose I think of myself as sometimes. But yeah, if I don’t do it, something’s wrong. Now I’m self-aware enough to realize that. But there’s been points in my life when I’ve been really depressed and partly I think in hindsight, because I didn’t have a creative outlet. So that keeps me going.

JH: What do you think being an artist brings to the rest of your life? What do you get out of it?

FD: I get a sense of possibility I guess. The nice thing about art is that it always surprises you. Although you can bring systematic thinking to it and you can bring structure to it, at the heart of it is a leap into the unknown. It gives you boldness; it gives you courage I think. It gives you faith. You throw this time into a space and sometimes nothing happens and it’s awful and you despair. Then sometimes it does come back. And that’s a bit like life. I think we all have to get past the point where we go, “OK, what do I have to do to get this from my life?” And you realize that’s completely the wrong strategy for any aspect of life. But I see myself in hindsight, and I see people in their twenties and thirties going, “Just tell me what I’ve got to do to be happy and I will do it”. That’s not how life works and that’s not how art works. It’s a nice place to flex your leap-into-the-void muscle and enjoy that dialogue with the unknown.

JH: How do you reflect on your practice? Do you have a structured way of doing that?

FD: No, I just throw myself at it occasionally basically. To tell you the honest truth, I need a deadline. One of the things that got me producing stuff was doing events where there was a date where I would not even bother to look at the creative side but just get the schedule in place and then go “Oh my god, I’ve now got to do this” because that’s the only way I could push myself. If I’m given space, I’m very apt to just avoid it because I find it difficult. It’s painful; it’s exposing, and vulnerable. I have regular bouts of massive under-confidence and lack of self-belief. It’s much easier to check my email or watch a movie. So the easiest way for me to do it, is to commit without knowing what you’re committing to, then you have to do it otherwise you look like an idiot. I’m not very good at placing structures on my non-outwardly facing stuff.

JH: And once you’ve done it and jumped off the diving board – after the gig, or exhibition or whatever – do you ever look back at that and think, “Was that OK? How did it go?” Or do you just tend to move onto the next thing?

FD: No, I do look back on it. I’m incredibly hyper aware to how it’s been received and usually that’s the main criteria. Although, I’m also aware of what I think of it. I think it’s the reception rather than the process. I don’t necessarily go back and try and work out how I did it. Usually I’m in the zone or in some kind of fog or whatever but I’m not particularly self-aware at the time. I don’t necessarily go, “That was easy or that was hard”. What I do go is “how did it turn out? What was the end result? What are the numbers?” When I used to do clubs, at 5 in the morning you’d go home and count the money. You’d always count the money, it was a great club but how actually great was the club? Was it a great club and we made some money or was it a great club and we only just broke even? In which case it’s not such a good club. There is a ruthless commercial side to it as well. I think that’s part of it really. I think numbers are important. I made a couple of albums recently that didn’t do that well, didn’t reach that many numbers. They were great albums but I feel they were failures to be frank. The first one in particular was very well reviewed. But I need to connect with an audience for it to be valid.

JH: That’s interesting because my next question was about how important other people are in your practice, whether they’re a collaborator or whether they’re an audience.

FD: They’re both huge I would say. I like collaborating, although sometimes I think it’s partly because I don’t want to reveal myself fully, to be honest with you. But I like the instant impetus that collaboration brings. If you’re working with other people, you have to get on with it. Because I find if I’m on my own, again I’ll be checking my email or go on discogs and buy myself some records and kid myself I’m doing some work and I’m not. Collaboration is very important but I think audience is the most important thing. There’s a teenage art school debate where if you make a great painting and then you burn it, is it still a great painting? I say no, but it’s not quite as simple as that. Having learnt my craft to a certain extent through running clubs and having had some great ideas for clubs; in many ways a club is worse than a gig because if there’s three people at a gig, it can still be a good gig. If there’s three people at a club, it is a shit club. That is the end of it – there is no vibe, there is no nothing. It doesn’t matter how good your DJ set is, it is shit. For me, I’ve got quite a well-developed commercial sense. I’ve got quite a lot of empathy for my audience. The whole point is to blow people’s minds. I want the people who I’m aiming this piece of art at, to totally connect with it and have a great time. If they don’t, that’s my failure. I think that’s also why I’m quite a digital person. I think digital has put the user much more in the driver seat. It’s meant you have to put the user first – you’ve always got to put the user experience first. That is one of the mantras of digital creative design. I think that’s not always been the case in arts. If I’m honest, one of the reasons I don’t call myself an artist is because I struggle with the whole fine arts sensibility of not necessarily opening to an audience. I accept conceptually, philosophically, it’s very important to play with this stuff blah, blah, blah. But ultimately, if I walk into a room and don’t feel connected with, I don’t really want to hang around and see what’s going on. For me, it’s about grabbing the audience immediately and taking them through something and really looking after them and making them feel loved and wanted. You can shock them, you can surprise them and all that sort of stuff but ultimately you do have to gain their trust and engage them, and their opinion is the most important one.

JH: When you collaborate with others, does that change your creative practice?

FD: Usually I learn a lot. I like it because it takes me places I couldn’t go on my own. I think it usually empowers me, because as I say I feel less vulnerable and I feel like the whole is greater than the sum of the parts usually. I think it’s healthy and it’s human as well. I don’t really believe in the lone genius. I don’t think anybody really does it on their own. I mean there’s Picasso, but Damien Hirst is the classic example – he didn’t do it on his own. He markets it as a solo enterprise. Beyonce doesn’t do it on her own either. At this stage of my career, it’s quite difficult because I’ve got a reputation now and if I collaborate with someone with less of a reputation then that’s always difficult. If I work with someone with a similar reputation to me, then they’ve always got some agenda as well. So I think it was a lot easier when I was starting out to collaborate. But on the whole, my instinct is to collaborate rather than not to.

JH: What advice would you give to someone just starting out or to someone to keep their creative practice going?

FD: I’d say you need to commit somehow, you need to find a way in which you’re definitely going to be producing stuff of some kind. As I said for me, it was originally about having a schedule and a deadline and timetabling events so I knew I had to produce stuff. There’s the classic phrase: if you do something when you feel like doing it, that’s a hobby. If you do something daily or in a fixed schedule even when you don’t feel like doing it, that’s a practice. So there’s a difference between the hobbyist and the practitioner. If you want to be an artist, you need to commit to doing your art on a regular basis. Says he who has been failing recently! I read a recent author – a female author, one of the big giants of female literature that I can’t remember the name of – who was asked about her creative practice. She said, “I write everyday without hope or despair.” I really heard that. What I heard it saying was: when I do something that I think is half-good, I get all excited and when I do something that I think is half-bad, I just go “I’m shit and I’m terrible and I’ll never be able to work again.” And both of those actually distract you from getting on with it. So you need to keep a lid on your ego. Just because you made it, it doesn’t mean that it’s shit. Just because you made it, it doesn’t mean that it’s great. You’ve got to let go of that personal thing and accept your brain will try and distract you by either getting all excited or getting all depressed. Know that will happen and move beyond it.

JH: Great, thank you very much Fred Deakin.

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One thought on “Interview with Fred Deakin

  1. Pingback: Fear and Creativity – Laura Speers

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