Doug Fishbone on his Latest Exhibition, Leisure Land Golf

19 May 16 words: Shannon Challis-Smith

"It's golf, it's inherently fun. So even if we wanted to talk about some heavily political things, like we have, it always has a certain lightness of touch"

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photo: Ali Emm

Golf and art aren’t always seen as bedfellows. How did Leisure Land Golf come into being?
It kinda grew organically. Skinder Hundal, who’s the boss here at NAE, and John Ploughman who runs an organisation called Beacon – an art project in Lincolnshire – had been talking for quite a while about proposing a project from the East Midlands for Venice. The idea of making an artist miniature golf course is something I’ve worked with before, so they asked me if I’d like to develop something with them. I realise it sounds a bit strange but I have always loved mini golf; I played a lot as a kid, and it always struck me as something that would be fantastic for art because it’s very sculptural and people interact with it. I made a course a few years ago for a music festival, and it was great fun getting artists whose work I respected and who had a feel for sculpture to design things for it. It worked really well.

How do all of the holes of the course relate to each other?
We worked with a curatorial concept called The Leisure Principle, so the NAE and everyone working on it started to think about questions of leisure, tourism and globalisation as a framework. We asked the artists to think about those questions and respond however they wanted. The first art-based golf course I did, I didn’t try to bring a curatorial concept to it; I just asked artists to do whatever they wanted to. This time, we thought it would be an exciting way to challenge the artists but also to give it some kind of unity. Everybody responded in their own way to those themes, but not in a way we tried to control – it’s a broad enough set of questions that you don’t need to try and lean on anyone to go a certain way.

What are the differences and developments between the previous art golf course you were involved with and Leisure Land Golf?
One reason that I was excited to do it again was that this time round it was much more ambitious. It’s exciting because the idea of an artist mini golf course is endlessly refreshable, it’s only linked by having a platform. If you get a different group of artists and a different kind of animated concept, it totally changes –  so that was a very big difference from the first time. I’m the only artist to have appeared in both.

Also, we tried to work with a higher budget this time. The first course I did was very low budget, and I knew that if I were to put together another one, we needed to have a better budget to make it durable so that it could tour, and also to give everyone a little bit of a fee to honour their time. The higher budget and that it was in Venice allowed us to get some artists who were on our ‘list’ to participate; artists who might not have wanted to do the mini golf thing otherwise. I don’t mean to speak for them, but I’m assuming that because it was for Venice it was something that people could see would be a lot of fun.

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photo: Bartosz Kali

Did you get the artists who were on your ‘hit list’?
The show was put together by a group called EM15, which included NAE, One Thoresby Street and Quad in Derby. We had certain people we wanted to bring in, but we tried to think of a group of artists who would work well together and that would be an interesting mix from different aspects. In some cases, some people couldn’t do it because they were busy, but most people we asked were able to. You want people’s enthusiasm, and because we had a professional fabricator to make the designs, the artists didn’t have to worry about the feasibility. Even if you gave me 500 years I could never make anything that looked half as good as they made it.

Eyal Weizman, one of the artists, is actually an architect not an artist. I thought that an architect might take an interesting approach because they think spatially, they deal with model design, and because they’re not coming at it from an ‘artistic standpoint’, they might do something surprising. I think his hole is actually the only non-solvable mini golf hole in the history of the sport. It is based on a logical puzzle to try to cross a series of bridges without ever going back over your steps. If you follow his instructions – and most people cheat – you simply can’t solve the hole. Every other mini golf course, the idea is to get the ball in the hole.

The fun and humorous side of the course is obviously really important; why did you use it for this project’s subject matter?
I liked that because it’s golf, it’s inherently fun. So even if we wanted to talk about some heavily political things, like we have, it always has a certain lightness of touch. For instance, one of the pieces is about the epidemic in the US of police shooting young African American kids. There’s nothing funny about that and nobody’s trying to mock it. But, to be able to talk about those themes and questions without being really overbearing is a nice way to work. I personally think art can be fun: I don’t think it has to be, and it shouldn’t always be, but if it is fun in the right context, that’s useful. For this, it really worked. Here at NAE, there’re kids running around like nuts, and that’s nice.

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photo: Bartosz Kali

Why did you pick golf as the activity?
It works well as a group activity, while keeping an individual touch for each of the holes – the more we thought about it the more we thought, “Wow, this could be fun.” Venice is a central tourist destination, it seemed to be a very good place to do a leisure-driven project because it’s a city that’s suffering. People go there because it’s beautiful, but it’s sinking. It’s a bad combination, so we thought that allowed for us to really talk about things from an unexpected vantage point on an international stage. I have tried to think of other things like mini golf that would work well as a group activity but it’s really hard.

How important do you think it is for people to interact with the course and play golf, rather than just walk around and view it?
It just makes it more fun – it’s not designed to just be looked at in an abstract, sculptural way. Some of the work you really need to get involved with, it’s designed to be interactive and I think that’s what makes it. In some cases there’s a feeling that the actual interaction plays into the concept; like Ellie Harrison’s piece, you have to hit a ball from a part that’s meant to look like France onto the UK. It’s all about refugees. Another example is the work of John Akomfrah: I’m a white American, so if I’m sitting there playing John’s piece looking at this black figure, who’s got his hands up and he’s on his knees, that is creating something due to my identity and the character’s identity. That wouldn’t really happen if I wasn’t playing. So, in many cases, it’s necessary. If people don’t want to play, that’s fine, but it’s fun to.

Why did you choose the Costa Concordia tragedy for your piece?
Initially I wanted to use a gigantic inflatable Chinese army tank, which I tried to buy from China and it all went drastically wrong. I thought it would be interesting because alongside global leisure, consumption and globalisation, China is a place that manufactures so much of what we unthinkingly buy in the west, which fuels the competition and the threat that many people think – real or imagined – is coming our way from China. When it arrived, however, it turned out to be nothing like what I had wanted, so I went with plan B, which was ultimately a better idea.

I had been thinking a lot about the Costa Concordia as a symbol. When I first saw those images of the boat pitched to its side, I simply couldn’t believe it was a real photograph. It was so stunning as an image and it stayed with me. I read more and more about the disaster and it seemed a really good metaphor for the state of the world. Everything about that tragedy was completely avoidable and the result of idiocy – the captain was trying to impress his girlfriend on the deck so he drove the boat close to the rocks in order to do a drive-by salute to the people on the island, and he crashed. Then, when he was meant to be helping, he jumped into a lifeboat and his excuse was that he fell into it. It is a symbol of rotten management, greed and self-centeredness, which is more acute in Venice because a lot of the environmental difficulties that are threatening the lagoon are a result of the cruise industry. These tremendous boats come in, they’re dredging up the lagoon and really destroying the ecosystem, so I thought it was an interesting angle to think about the negative aspects of tourism. The cruise industry is so ugly. It encapsulates the contradictions of capitalism.

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photo: Bartosz Kali

People died in the Costa Concordia tragedy – do you think some people will be offended?
I like to think not. You never know though, it was a risk. I was hopeful that I could use that symbol without it ridiculing. There may be people who were offended but that wasn’t my goal. If somebody knows someone who died or was injured in the tragedy, they’re not gonna find any humour, and rightly so.

We had it out the front while we were installing it in Venice, and all these people were coming across the bridge from this neighbourhood, so I started to get a sense of people’s responses. I was really worried that if people found it very offensive that it was a mistake: mainly mistaken by them and a mistake by me to have done it. But, everyone stopped and had a laugh with it – it really worked because people got that it was meant to be tongue-in-cheek. They’re all infuriated by Captain Schettino because I still don’t think he’s been brought to justice; people think he’s a shithead. From what I could learn, with my non-existent Italian, people were coming by and they were gesturing and laughing about Schettino, like “That bastard!”

How important is it to continue addressing issues such as the ones in Leisure Land Golf in art forms of a similar nature?
That’s a big question that I am on the fence about. I teach, and as part of that I talk about the idea of politically-aimed art with students quite a bit – whether it’s an effective venue to discuss politics. I don’t know the answer. It seems like a useful thing to do, but at the end of the day, if someone wants to make real change, I think you have to be an activist or a politician – and not a corrupt one. It’s important to approach issues that are worth thinking about, and to me that’s one of the most central aims of art. If that can be done with a light touch in a way that doesn’t preach and asks questions in an interesting and intriguing way – that’s a real great potential of art. There’s limitations, though, and sometimes people import too much possibility into what it means to talk about politics in art.

If that wasn’t a neutral answer, I don’t know what is. People can be a little bit too pompous about their own work – certainly in the art world – because they think that if they’re talking about it, they’re somehow worthy. There are people that know a lot more about these things and are doing real, tangible things about them. An art world thing is a different animal, it is meant to do something different – if you conflate them, I think that’s a mistake.

Will you be making any more golfing or sporting activities any time soon?
I’ve been trying to think of other things that would work as well as a group platform. I love the idea of being able to do something that’s refreshable and portable, and that people get right away. I have been looking at things like amusement parks, which excite me a lot, and 3D or 4D interactive things. Those need quite a bit of money obviously, but I think when you get outside of the strictly ‘art’ kind of world, a lot of interesting technologies and forms exist that can then be brought in. You know, using infrastructures like mini golf, which isn’t intended to be art, as such. I’d love to do golf again, maybe not right away, but with a different group of artists and a different conceptual angle, it would be really fun to try again. The sky’s the limit, it just has to be interesting, for the right reason, and it has to be the right opportunity.

Leisure Land Gold, New Art Exchange, runs until Sunday 19 June, free entry, £2/£1.50pp to play, family rates available.

New Art Exchange website
East Midlands 15 website

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