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Artists Tell Personal Stories with Grand Theft Auto V

2 February 17 words: Ali Emm

New Art Exchange’s latest exhibition, Untitled: Art on the Conditions of our Time, sees twelve artists exploring our present cultural condition, including identity shifts, social networks, activism, history and conflict. As part of their Finding Fanon series, artists Larry Achiampong and David Blandy have created a new film commission for the show, where they use Grand Theft Auto V as a platform to present people’s stories…

Despite both studying at The Slade School of Art – David graduated in 2003, Larry in 2008 – the two artists didn’t meet until 2013. Larry talks about their first encounter: “I’d been told about David’s work; about the similarities of interests in terms of popular culture – gaming, hip hop – but I’d never had a chance to meet him until he did a presentation of work at the Whitechapel Gallery. I went along to it and found the work really interesting.”

“It was a piece about my relationship to hip hop, especially the Wu-Tang Clan,” David explains. “I tried to remember as many lyrics as I could in Freud’s final consulting room in North London – bringing stories of urban street life to Freud and seeing what his psychic self might make of it. Larry came to me at the end and asked, ‘Have you ever thought about working with a producer?’ It happened really naturally. We started working as a musical duo – Larry making beats, while I rapped with stolen rhymes.”

Touring these performances around galleries, they sensed that the artistic content and bigger questions about appropriation might be getting lost in the mix. They began to consider new concepts, which led to a discussion about the three lost plays of Frantz Fanon – a psychiatrist, philosopher, humanist and revolutionary who focused on the psychopathology of colonisation, as well as the social and cultural consequences of decolonisation.

Larry had first read Frantz Fanon’s work as a student, discovering his book Black Skins, White Masks, in which Fanon studies the psychology of the racism and dehumanisation inherent in colonial domination. “It made such an impression on me as a black kid growing up in the underbelly, the underclass of working-class London. That feeling of going into a shop and having a security guard hawk you all the way through, that feeling like you’re some kind of problem. Fanon put some of these experiences so eloquently in the book. Until that point, there was so much anxiety for me that I was never able to put a finger on.”

That feeling of going into a shop and having a security guard hawk you all the way through, that feeling like you’re some kind of problem. Fanon put some of these experiences so eloquently in the book.

This was the seed for the Finding Fanon series – a collection of works based on the two artists imagining what those lost plays might have be about. “Fanon’s work was a huge revelation to me, and helped me guide my thinking towards my own practice. It was nice that we had this opportunity to directly consider Fanon’s ideas, but also in relation to our own friendship and professional relationship.”

The first Finding Fanon is a beautifully constructed and presented film, set at an undetermined point in the future and played out in a junkyard houseboat. In it, they discuss the politics of race, racism and post-colonialism, and how these societal issues affect their own relationship.

One line that really struck me from it was “How do you tell a story that doesn’t want to be told?” so I asked them if that’s something they’re attempting through this series. Larry, who penned the line, explained it is a question born from personal experiences: “For me, that came from so many situations where I’ve spoken to white people, or people from privileged backgrounds, about my experiences and they just don’t want to hear it. It’s almost like a hit to the gut for them and they feel they have to parry what’s been said instead of just listening. Listening is a really important part of what we need to experience as human beings – you need to listen and not assume what is taking place or going on.”

David believes that not wanting to talk about experiences comes from both sides, and stresses that the films they’ve made may appear like fiction, but are stories from real life. He talks about researching the first Finding Fanon film, and how they’d tried to speak to Larry’s uncle, who’d been interred in an asylum seeker’s detention centre when he came to England.

“He really didn’t want to tell that story, or criticise authority in any way,” says David. “It’s like to tell these stories is to upset the power relations in some way. Society is a construct. He wouldn’t come out and say, ‘These guys abused me’, which they basically had.”

“I remember going with my mum to… I know why they used the term ‘detention centres’, but they’re prisons. My mum is that person who says what’s on her mind, but she was devastated at the time, just crushed. And among the backdrop of today’s media, which still talks along the lines of migrants as all kinds of vermin, it made the situation we were exploring all the more urgent to discuss.”

The pair stress that they wanted to go as far as they could with the conversations they were having for the series because they feel that their approach, at least in the UK, is a first. “Ultimately, for us, the project is a coming together of minds that are excited, but also concerned, about the world we live in,” says Larry. The piece at New Art Exchange, Finding Fanon: Escape, based on the stories of women living Nottingham, reflect this very foundation, as David explains:

“There are three central films in the project, with a side story, the Gaiden project, which helps different communities to tell their own stories, and becomes a series of self portraits by the participants. For the episode Delete, we worked with paperless migrants in Oslo; for Control, PTSD-suffering veterans in the criminal justice system; and a women’s refugee group for Escape. The women’s stories aren’t necessarily about migration, but about their view on life, or a particular episode of their life.”

Larry is grateful for the time that the participants have put in: “We’ve done a lot of projects working with people from various backgrounds, and the thing we joke about is ‘Why the hell would someone want to take time out of their busy schedules to come and talk about art, or anything?’”

A great deal of it has been about allowing the stories, that aren’t allowed to be said, to be given that urgency and agency.

He goes on to explain how the process of collecting the stories worked: “We decided we only needed an hour or two where we could really allow the participants to not only understand the story we’ve been talking about, but to give them the space to build their own stories, and to consider the messages they want to convey. We merely refined what it was they’d said or recorded so it played well as an artwork.”

I asked him what kind of stories we can expect in Escape. “It comes back to the point I was making earlier about listening,” says Larry. “A great deal of it has been about allowing the stories, that aren’t allowed to be said, to be given that urgency and agency.”

“There’s a human rights lawyer who talks about coming from Zimbabwe and finding her calling in life,” David explains. “It’s the first story that was very directly about God – myself and Larry have some issues with organised religion, but it’s their story so you can’t censor that. There’s a tale of experiencing female genital mutilation, which is quite intense. It’s portraits of moments; memories. On the scale of the installation, these small moments become very intense, large. Kind of like monuments.”

The stories are visually expressed through characters built in Grand Theft Auto V by the two artists. “It feels like there are a lack of limits, but when you get underneath the hood of the game, it’s a selection of stories about white, middle-class men’s perceptions of American culture,” says Larry. “The only thing they probably get right is the soundtrack.”

Larry also struggled when making their avatars. “I found I was able to make David’s character really easily. You have the short-haired version of David, and the long-haired version. I could find those hairstyles fine, but I couldn’t find a variation of lock hairstyles, interlocking. It was basic dreads that were dusty, shabby and thick, which is what we ended up choosing in the end. There are issues with the selections you can make for female characters, it has to be very particular. That also became a conversation because it was very frustrating, which leant itself to what we were thinking about and the script for Finding Fanon 2.

The music in the series is as important to the pieces as the visuals, to some degree. Larry did the scores for the first two pieces, and for the third they both collaborated. “We started talking about our favourite sci-fi and the past versions of dystopian futures in films and video games – John Carpenter films, Blade Runner, Super Metroid – and how they have these enveloping but also restrictive atmospheres. We wanted to bring in those references through the soundtrack.”

Larry and David had jamming sessions, using the conversations they’d had with participants as a starting point. David told me, “The way we go about making films is often quite musical; thinking about the edits in terms of phrasing. It’s more about creating these atmospheres that don’t necessarily follow a direct narrative. Larry agrees, It’s a component that needs balance; the sound needs to have its presence, but it needs to draw back at points to allow the visual to push through.”

David explains further: “Essentially, we create incredibly elaborate frames for the speech. The script is central to all these pieces, and it’s about how we can let it speak as powerfully as it can.”

The use of the virtual world in their piece resonates with today’s world, where issues are discussed online with immediacy. Larry told me, “It makes me think about the importance of current movements like Black Lives Matter. Without technology, we’d have situations of brutality and injustice, like with Rodney King or Stephen Lawrence, and nobody is really listening. Printed media takes time to make its way out, even if the writing is good or important. With the internet, if something’s happening, you can say it almost instantly, create a movement, rally people together and get them fired up. That's a really big thing for us. Not just in terms of what we’re producing, but with people whom we’ve built relationships.”

...suddenly you’re in this intense, multicultural community

David agrees that the internet brings people together. “There are communities of people that have similar interests but may not have met otherwise. Like the arcade communities in the eighties – you go to play Street Fighter II, but you’re meeting a guy from Bethnal Green, another guy from somewhere else and suddenly you’re in this intense, multicultural community.

“It had a meaning, making friendships across these so-called barriers. That kind of coming together is something the mask of the virtual allows as well. Plus, the digital realm allows more conversations with people that wouldn’t necessarily come into the gallery space.”

They also see the irony in the use of coltan – a metallic ore that is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo – in electronic devices. There are humanitarian issues around the mining and sale of it, which they address in Finding Fanon 1. “We talk about how we’re being lit by these minerals because that’s what powers these screens,” explains David.

“In some ways, it’s an unresolvable dichotomy that we need these devices to exist in contemporary society, yet we are very aware of the history of all their elements. It’s a poison in your pocket that you can’t help but caress.” Larry agrees: “The history of colonisation hasn’t gone, there are just different words to replace it. Globalisation is definitely one of them. And we try to be aware of the folly of that through the text.”

Larry and David’s work feels fresh and not just a critique of history’s mistakes, raising important questions and themes that need to be talked about to enable us to move forward as a society. David sums up the series: “The films are representative of a journey. We reflect on our past familial stories: Larry’s uncle’s history of detention; my grandfather’s history of being someone who taught crop growing in Kenya, to reinforce the colonial situation. Through to the present, Finding Falon 2 is us entering the virtual realm and thinking about ourselves as digital avatars. The third part is thinking about the future, in the sense of our families, and what’s going to happen – what is our legacy? Maybe we haven’t seen the answer, but could they? There’s still a question mark at the end.”

Untitled: Art on the Conditions of our Time runs at New Art Exchange until Sunday 19 March.

New Art Exchange website

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