Artist Paul Buchanan was born in Glasgow and is currently living and working in the Netherlands. His work aims to explore the boundaries of the social, political and economic structures that contain us. He has a unique way of working with people and places, using responses and reactions to his work in order to shape their development. Paul Buchanan: "A lot of the time, people don’t know that they’re participating in my projects. It’s tricky making a piece of work and expecting people to participate. I suppose the way I work is to leave it open for people to participate in their own terms."
Artist Paul Buchanan was born in Glasgow and is currently living and working in the Netherlands. His work aims to explore the boundaries of the social, political and economic structures that contain us. He has a unique way of working with people and places, using responses and reactions to his work in order to shape their development.
Etienne Verbist: Who are you and why do you do this work?
Paul Buchanan: I’m a 46 year-old Glaswegian living and working in the Netherlands. I make artwork because I see it as a way of understanding and playing with order and disorder. I’m interested in using the city or environment as an interface to help understand and reflect on the conditioning of democratic urban life.
Mother, Installation at Daesen Arts Festival, South Korea 2015
EVB: What’s your goal?
PB: My goal is to find out what I’m good at and reach my potential as an artist. I believe that there is a certain kind of alchemy in creating art. Its being somehow aware of that alchemy and the strive to make it happen that drives me to do what I do.
EVB: What’s the impact of your work?
PB: I believe my work will only really impact me and those closest to me. I see my work as a personal thing. It’s not something I feel I have to do. I’m not looking to gain appreciation or recognition. The older I get the more inwards I’m getting about what I do. As a younger artist I wanted to get more shows, more write ups etc. Now I think I’m more content to just develop myself as an artist. In making this mental switch I now make work more intuitively. It’s become less about what a certain curator responds to or what I think people will like.
EVB: What are your thoughts on the fine art market?
PB: Honestly, the Fine Art Market is a mystery to me…
EVB: What is your dream project?
PB: Every project I do is my dream project - no matter how big or small. I have found that being able to find the time, to develop skills, to create something - that is all that matters.
EVB: What role does the artist have in society?
PB: I find this question really interesting. What is the status of an artist and what role do they play? Personally, I don’t buy into the mystique around art and artists. I think the Art world has damaged itself by creating an elitist persona. It excludes a lot of people, talent and potential. Artists can take on many roles. Art can be seen, created or manifested anywhere. At the moment I particularly like the artist Mark McGowan. He goes by the name “the artist taxi driver” and he is a performance artist and political protester. Artists like this have really helped to engage with political debate on a whole new level. They offer an alternative to what the mainstream media are offering with regards to Brexit etc. He basically drives a taxi and interviews various people throughout the day. He uploads the videos to social media. I like the simplistic way he uses his way of life to make art.
Lemons. Lemons – Still from Video Installation, Bonnenfanten Museum, Roermond, 2012
There are no more war heroes. Performance Art, Gallery Camping, Bivio, Rijeka 2015
Paper Plane. Sculpture / Performance, Jaarbersplien Utrecht, 2010
EVB: Have you had any memorable responses to your projects?
PB: I often work with lots of different community groups. Over the years I’ve had some amazing experiences and been able to work with people I would probably never have met if I wasn’t doing this work. A few years ago I was doing a lot of work with youth groups in some of the poorest areas of Glasgow. Most of these young people had severe behavioral problems and were inevitably getting involved with a lot of anti-social activities. What I found really rewarding was that simply by treating these young people with respect and offering them a chance to express themselves through different workshops and activities, you could witness unbelievable changes. These young people began to see that they had talent and they were valued by others. They began to value themselves too. During one of these projects we got funding to renovate a semi-derelict house on their estate. There was a feeling that something needed to be done about this house or it would end up being vandalized. I wanted to get the kids into the house and to work as a team to renovate it. I wanted them to learn valuable DIY skills whilst also building a sense of ownership. We painted the entire house, fixed the windows and doors, installed a new kitchen and bathroom and even planted new gardens at the back and front. The kids were really proud of the project. Their parents and guardians would stop by and see that they were really engaging in a positive community project, probably for the first time. There was an amazing effect on the entire family. They saw their kids in a different light and they were really proud of them. Once the house was finished it was used as a community drop in center. People used it for a variety of purposes – and they looked after it as a community too. That project really changed the way I approach my work. I saw that being an artist and making art could be as simple and ordinary as creating a community.
EVB: What do you dislike about the art world?
PB: I dislike the way the success of a piece of art is apparently measured be the amount of money it’s worth.
I’m a Snowman. Sculpture / Installation Maastricht, 2012
And The Waves fall. Dunbar Harbour, 2014
EVB: What role does arts funding have?
PB: Funding is particularly important for artists around the time they leave Art School. It helps them find a way to continue working. In the Netherlands there are fantastic opportunities for post-academic study at the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht, the Rijks Academy for Visual Arts or de Ateliers in Amsterdam. A lot of funds have been cut recently but when you compare it to the UK, you can see that it creates a lot more than spaces to work, it generates a wider culture. It resonates beyond the spaces themselves and influences many other creative industries and practices.
I think funding can mean different things to different artists. Many artists are very skilled at attaining funds for their projects. I’ve also been lucky enough to access funds to help me make certain things happen, or to allow me to travel, or buy materials etc. I also have an artist friend from Sarajevo who is very proud of the fact that he’s never asked for any state funding in order to make art.
EVB: What research do you do?
PB: Every project I work on needs a certain amount of research, whether it’s exploring the political, social or economic state of a place or site to provoke some kind of debate. I wouldn’t say I have a specific research trajectory, but doing my Masters I became aware of the importance of research within the arts. I gained a better understanding of how theory informs practice and practice informs theory and so on. I think research helps you in being able to present your work in a historical and contemporary sense.
EVB: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
PB: To follow my own intuition. Instead of making work you think people will like, I try to make work that I intuitively want to make - in any shape or form. That advice was given to me by Simon from tomato.uk. They are an amazing design / art collective and I met them during an interview in New York City when I had aspirations of being a designer. That was when I decided to start making art for myself.
EVB: Is there anything in your career that you would have done differently?
PB: I would believe in myself more. Also, I would try to get better organised when I was younger. I would try to think less about money and to be more confident. I think we’re all conditioned to have a job, so I grew up feeling really confused about what I would end up doing.
EVB: What’s the role of the people, the crowd in your project?
PB: Over the years people have played many different roles in my work. I’ve worked with many young people in Glasgow and beyond, and I’ve also been really interested in making work amongst people, within their communities. I want to find ways for people to participate and create art collectively. This can happen on many different levels, but the overall aim is the same – to explore boundaries. I’m also interested in using people who are unaware simply by trying to influence them or confront them in some way.
That’s Entertainment. Photo / Sculpture, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2012
EVB: How do people participate in your project?
PB: Each project I do differs from the last. That means the way I work with people also changes, although I believe the basic idea stays the same. I like to start with a basic idea for what I want to make, collect or say. I did a project in Addis Ababa. I was working with the local communities to explore their lack of dialogue with the Government and their development policies.
There was a presumed idea that the “Western” idea of development would be good for Addis Ababa, despite the fact that there had been no respect for or discussion with the indigenous population as to what they wanted or needed. I found the informal economy that existed there to be one of the most beautiful things I had ever experience. People were content with living ‘basic’ lives. It was very humbling to see.
The artwork was about connecting the past, present and future of the place. This was alluded to within the message on the laptop. I was somehow interested in the historical intervention from the ‘West’. I wanted to look at who had profited from it.
Whilst doing the project or intervention I wait for responses from the community and that begins to shape new ideas. For this particular performance piece I expected to be photographed or seen as an anomaly in the space, but the work eventually began to become more about a dialogue with the public. In this way, the shape of the projects alters and responds to the situations that arise at the time.
During that project I got a lot of comments along the lines of “you don’t understand our culture and our history”. I was like, ‘exactly’ – I’m here because I’m interested in exploring that perception. I’m here as a symbol of that. I was like a living metaphor of the ‘West’ and its idea of development. I was demonstrating that the community had a voice that was never heard. Subsequently, the small intervention in and amongst the people leads to more structured longer-term projects between myself and other artists in Addis Ababa.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2012
EVB: How are you connected with the people or the crowd?
PB: I become connected with the people or crowd by slowly understanding where the threshold or border is that I’m trying to cross and slowly playing with that. Eventually I move further and further beyond the physical or mental threshold that exists within a specific space or place. This also relates to the public. You see them looking for a threshold to investigate what you’re doing. In this way you can gain trust or perhaps provoke a more aggressive or confrontational response.
Whilst I was in Sarajevo in 2014 I found myself in the middle of a full-blown riot. It started when the government had not paid wages to workers for more than 6 months. The riot took place right outside the gallery I was making a show in. I found the energy and spectacle of the whole thing unlike anything else I had encountered. I really wanted to use some of this collective disorder in the work I was making. Whilst I was amongst the crowd taking pictures there was a lot of aggression towards anyone documenting what was happening. They didn’t want their identities shown. I found I had to hustle, engage and form a kind of bargain with them to be able to somehow use the experience. Rather than be the outsider observing what was going on, I had to become part of it in a way. It was almost like being part of the crowd allowed you to access it. Eventually I made a piece of work out of the car parts the crowd had used to set the building alight.
From This Place. Installation / Sculpture, Sarajevo, 2014
Riot. Sarajevo, 2014
EVB: The crowd economy creates meaningful experiences and shared values. How does this play into your work?
PB: I think it can take a long time after a work is complete to fully understand its value or impact. Sometimes you can re-evaluate what you’re doing or look at it from a different perspective and see it with new eyes. An example of this was a project I did in Newcastle, UK. The project was basically projecting visual ideas into a redundant space, a run down housing estate in Newcastle, England. The local council had boarded up many old, traditional houses and were promising the community there would be regeneration and that the local houses and public spaces would be developed. Despite several signs around the area promoting this, it never happened. More concerning was the fact that the common ground within the community had been blocked off to discourage people using it. The idea was to project visual ideas into the center of these spaces as a way for the community to imagine future possibilities and uses for the space. We felt that if we could demonstrate what could happen in these places we could stimulate change and raise questions as to whose responsibility it was to invest in the place – the community or the local government. Perhaps both? The aim was to start the thought process – to create tangible visions of ways to initiate change.
Whilst doing that project, many people from the adjacent houses came to speak to me. I was also warned by police that the area I was working in was quite dangerous. I was already aware of that. It was part of the reason I wanted to do the project. At one point two young men approached me with air rifles and head torches. They asked me what I was up to. I explained that I was doing a project to stimulate the local authority or community into developing the spaces. I told them I wanted to provoke a debate. After some discussion I asked what they were up to. They told me they were going to hunt rabbits in the fields 100 meters from where we were standing in order to feed their families. This was the inner city of Newcastle in 2015. I found this really disturbing. People were resorting to hunting to survive. As an artist, it is often about putting yourself into a situation where you are open to any kind of response. Not everyone will understand what you are trying to do. I see this as an essential part of what I do. You have to become part of the crowd to be accepted. Quickly more people gathered around and were asking lots of questions and getting very territorial. It was a tough area, so I didn’t want to be seen as some kind of naïve crusader. One of the men’s head torches stopped working, so I offered him one that I had in my car. It felt like buying protection. Suddenly he ‘trusted’ me and started helping to position the projector. More importantly, he helped to organize the crowd, so we could get on with what we were doing and encourage other people to get involved. It was only after this encounter and after looking at the documentation of the work that the audio recording of that discussion became almost more interesting that our initial idea. Hunting rabbits within the city center of Newcastle to feed his family…..
Saltwell Road. Projection, Saltwell Rd, Newcastle, UK, 2012
EVB: It feels as though co-creating and participation are emphasized in the crowd economy. Communities take an active stake in crafting positive futures.
PB: I think this is very true. For me, the best example of this was the punk movement. I could kind of relate to it. It mobilized a whole generation to do things for themselves and create their own ‘thing’. I think it’s important to be involved with whatever community you’re connected to simply because we all co-exist. It’s important to work in whatever shape or form you need to in order to get the best of a shared space.
Technology helps a lot, but I also think it pacifies a lot of people too. I remember being in NYC when the Occupy movement happened. You would see a small crowd listening to one person speak. The whole crowd repeated word for word what that person was saying, then another person would continue the discussion and the crowd would amplify and project the next voice. In doing so, that one persons voice became so much more powerful.
EVB: How do you use the crowd?
PB: I use the idea of a crowd or an individual’s response almost as a way to shape a work or to help the work reflect on itself. I often aim to source interesting actions and fold them into the work, whilst creating kind of balance. Sometimes I think of it like sculpting with live reactions.
EVB: How do you interact?
PB: When making a work I try to find the most interesting entry point to the situation I’m working on or within. I like to find a threshold and play around with it. By doing this the work takes on many twists and turns. That’s the exciting thing about working this way. https://vimeo.com/47850673
Although all projects are different, the interaction is essentially the same. I try to create a space or way to find an opinion – it may be a story, or some kind of gesture. I see these as a type of raw material and I try to shape a work that reflects them.
Home. Projection, Dunbar, Scotland, 2012
EVB: How do you handle feedback?
PB: A lot of feedback can be aggressive or negative, but I find that gives you energy. You have to somehow use it to your advantage by including it within your work. Often, what I do somehow starts off as invisible and works its way into a space or a place. By the time I’ve finished it might take some time for the work to be ‘seen’ on any conscious level. I think you have to be quite selfish to be an artist. I don’t like to overthink what I do. I think it’s important to work intuitively and emotionally. When you overthink feedback you can get into the realms of designing an artwork rather than evolving something.
Then you get feedback from the ‘art world’. I’m too old to bother with that now.
EVB: How do you create the interaction?
PB: For me, the interaction is all about first observing a situation and looking for a way to access it. I think you also need to try and align certain elements to create a kind of chemistry or alchemy.
EVB: What are the results?
PB: I only usually begin to understand a work after it’s been documented. You begin to see it in new ways. Somehow you see it from different perspectives, which informs how you create and develop new works.
Drawing. Bak, Utrecht, 2015
EVB: How do you measure results?
PB: I quite often find that the small, incidental things bring a certain beauty to the work. When that happens you feel that what you have done is a small success. Often there is no immediate feedback. You might revisit a site or a place after you’ve made some work there and see that it seems to have been given a new life by the community. If that happens, you can see that it has ‘worked’ in another way. I also think the overall body of work you do serves as a measure of success in that you can see whether you are building on your previous works and creating something that has your signature. This piece lasted for about 8 years in Berlin. I used to visit it every year and watch its slow decline, but it was so nice to see such a fragile thing survive for so long.
Youtube. Mirrors on wall, Berlin, 2009
EVB: How do you measure the effect?
PB: From my perspective. I think I’ve benefited really well from being part of a global network of young, emerging artists. I find that lots of artists are using the opportunity to share and collaborate (both physically and virtually) to shape their work. I have met a lot of artists from places including Tiblisi who don’t have the same opportunities to travel, but in connecting with them I’ve found that they are able to get their work out to a wider audience through virtual collaborations. I suppose that you could measure the success of the crowd economy by how well people are able to form collaborations with artists and institutions globally.
Still Life. Installation, Tbilisi, 2015
EVB: Why should people participate in your project: The Buchanan?
PB: A lot of the time, people don’t know that they’re participating in my projects. It’s tricky making a piece of work and expecting people to participate. I suppose the way I work is to leave it open for people to participate in their own terms. If they feel comfortable, if they trust or want to help in a passive or practical way, it really depends on how you read the situation and respond to who is around to try and offer the public a sense of purpose so that they want to be involved. Also, if people want to destroy what I do - that is also fine. I just need to work out how it helps the artwork.
Untitled. Installation, Maehol Arts Festival, Korea, 2015
EVB: What social media do you use?
PB: I actually use very little at the moment. For the past year or so I have been working more in the studio. In doing so I’ve been working on new material and ideas, so I feel like I would like to develop that a bit more before I start publishing it. However, I think social media is a great way to find new sources and to observe interesting new artists. I do find it concerning how digital persona’s can be constructed so easily. I was initially involved with the Youtube Generation X project whilst working with young people in Glasgow, but I moved on from it when I went to the Netherlands. It was an amazing way for young people to deconstruct the idea of ‘pop stars’. The project offered young people a chance to meet and work with Scottish musicians and to hear how they found their way in the music industry. They could hear how these artists dealt with the same kind of problems they were dealing with. It offered young people a source they could identify with. They could channel their energy and celebrate being young.
EVB: Which segment of the crowd economy is your activity based on?
PB: I would say I am most involved in crowd currencies as I see all my projects depending on creating some kind of currency as a way to create a dialogue.
Vimeo : https://vimeo.com/47850673
Twitter : https://twitter.com/pauljbuch
Instagram : https://www.instagram.com/pauljbuch/
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