Interview with Helen Marriage

David Micklem: We’re interviewing Helen Marriage. I’d like to ask you… what makes an artist?

Helen Marriage: Let me tell you a story, I’ll tell you what doesn’t make an artist. I think they’re very special and particular people and I know that’s not the current thinking that everyone is creative and I think everyone is creative but not everyone is an artist. So I was standing next to a fountain, which was one of those contemporary fountains with lots and lots of little jets and lots of LEDs and the fountain could be programmed in any way possible and I stood there with the designer and said, “Isn’t it fantastic that you could do something really beautiful here”. (This was in London). They said, “yeah you could; you could sequence it and you could create patterns and you know you could light up in different ways.” I thought yeah that would be nice. And then I was standing next to the same fountain sometime later with an artist and I said, “You could do something really interesting with this don’t you think?” He said, “Do you know what, where we’re standing all theses tube lines run underneath and it would be so extraordinary if as the trains went underneath the pattern of the train, the passage of the train was illuminated in the colour of that line…”. That to me is the difference between an artist and a designer or a creative person or a person who can see creative possibilities. The artist somehow takes you to a place that you yourself could never have got to.

DM: That’s a lovely definition. So related to that, how special are the arts to you running Artichoke?

HM: Kind of very special and not special at all. They’re the stuff that we live and breathe. If you work at Artichoke you know that this invasion of daily life with these extraordinary ideas elevates that said daily life to a place that is normal. There’s a video of one of our works in which an audience member says, “London should be like this every weekend”, and the truth is it really shouldn’t. Because what’s special in the world in which we work, what is special is that these moments are magic and so infrequent this transformation of the everyday into the extraordinary. These are rare things and for me that’s a really important. But they are both rare and every day, that’s the kind of contradiction. Rare in terms of the momentary nature, the ephemeral nature of them coming and going but every day in that they can co-exist happily with our daily routines and patterns. But we measure our lives by the magic moments not by the daily routines. We remember being in the school play, we remember giving our boyfriend our first handmade Valentine or we remember the moments; we don’t remember the kind of every day I don’t think.

DM: Do you think more people could be your definition of artist given the right encouragement and support, or are you going with the nature argument that people are either born artists?

HM: Most of the artists that I’ve worked with over a very long time are strange, mercurial creatures whose brains are patterned differently. I know that’s not what we’re encouraged to believe in this age of democratisation of culture. By that I don’t believe… I believe that there is creativity in everybody. Everyone can do extraordinary things, everyone can sing, everybody can pick up a pencil and create a pattern or a mark or something. But I think for me, the artists that I’ve come across are strange creatures who really don’t think in normal ways. It’s a bit like having a dyslexic child, they have other qualities, they might not be able to spell but they have other ways of seeing the world and artists are a breed apart I think.

DM: So given that, how do you respond to a proposition like 53 million artists?

HM:  I think it’s the most brilliant title. I would just question whether it’s true.

DM:  You think there are 53 million creative beings?

HM: I think 53 million individuals with extraordinary things to say and do. But I think that the artist is… I don’t by that mean somebody who earns their living by it, you can be an artist and still not earn a living but you have a particular approach to the world, which is not identical to anyone else. And your values perhaps are different and what you see is different. What you can see. So the guy who looked at the fountain in Kings Cross and said, “below ground is this patterning that we don’t get to see” – let me articulate that – is an artist. The guy who says, “oh the facility exists here to create patterns” – that’s a different approach.

DM: It’s a bit like Jean Luc and Francois within Royal de Luxe Two.

HM:  Geniuses.

DM:  But different, yet with brains wired differently.

HM:   Yes absolutely.

DM:   One clearly an artist and comes with all the difficulties and challenges of being that person and one a genius technician.

HM: Yes an engineer and all of that stuff. Or you know, like my very own beloved daughter aged nine coming out of a maths test and saying, “there was this really difficult question mummy”, and I said, “what was it?” She said, “seven squared”, and I sighed and thought about all the car journeys where I’d tested her on her tables and the square root of this and that etc. She said, “well, I know the answer’s 49 but I didn’t know what to say so I wrote ‘Heptagon’, which is a square with seven sides”, which is the answer of both of a genius and somebody who gets it wrong. Very often artists are people who get it wrong because they aren’t doing what anybody would think was following the right course, taking the right path. They’re doing it wrong not because out of perversity or a need to be obstructive, but because they can’t do anything else, they can only see this different way of working.

DM: Not withstanding your point about artists and the special nature of artists, what space do you think there is in this country for a movement whether it’s this movement or another that tries to mobilise creative potential?

HM: I think lots of things; I think the title is so great because it unlocks so much interesting conversation. I think that were we serious about unleashing individual creativity we would do extraordinary things. For instance, I mean I think your idea of people being given time to do something that… an activity that is ratified in a way, taken seriously you know, given some status, is really important.

I think that if we were really serious about this we would designate artists as key workers, we would provide them with low cost inner city housing as we would a nurse or a teacher because we would understand that what they contributed, not the instrumental things, not the better mental health happier murals on the wall, not that, but just by being there and doing what they do they change the world in which the rest of us live and we would be privileged to live in that new world.

But I think in terms of unlocking the creativity of the population of the UK, I think it’s about seriousness, it’s about thinking that this activity has status which currently I think it doesn’t unless you’re Monet and you’re dead and your paintings are selling for £20 million each. I mean imagine those artists in our world now. They would be obscure and toiling away, painting as they lost their eyesight, painting over the garden of lilies and people.

The value that we place on people is often retrospective and to do with the status that they’ve acquired because of the commodification of what they do. With the real force of an artist is the living energy that they produce and the difference that it makes. So even if, by my definition, you know they are a rarer breed but even if I, who am not artistic in the slightest…

DM:  Although you have just written a book.

HM:  Yeah well that’s cheating, that’s just practising. If I were to sit down and knit a patchwork quilt or something, that activity and that sense of achievement and that sense of discovery about something I was capable of that I didn’t know I could do, all of those things are hugely valuable and create confidence and all of that stuff which is part of what this process is, a liberation of the self.

DM:  Terrific. Helen Marriage, it’s been a delight talking to you this afternoon.

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