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Something To Hold Onto: An Interview With Martin Creed
Robert Barry , December 6th, 2015 17:04

With the release of a new double A-side single, 'Let Them In' / 'Border Control', Martin Creed sits down to discuss borders real and metaphorical

Martin Creed, Work No. 1020, 2009, Courtesy the artist and Gavin Brown's enterprise, Copyright the artist

Talk about the Turner Prize with anyone even mildly sceptical about contemporary art and sooner or later someone is bound to bring up that thing where the lights gets switched on and off. When Martin Creed’s Work No.227, the lights going on and off, consisting of an empty room alternating between darkness and illumination every five seconds, won the prize in 2001, the Telegraph decided enough was enough, accusing the judging panel of being a “self-selecting cabal” who had here “plumbed new depths” proving the whole thing should be “put out of its misery.”

But for me, the piece always seemed as elegantly musical as a George Brecht event score or one of La Monte Young’s Compositions 1960. Even his tendency to number his works – whether the self-explanatory, Work No.79, Some Blu-Tack kneaded, rolled into a ball, and depressed against a wall or his more recent proposal for the Olympics ceremony, Work No.1197, All The Bells, which would have seen all the bells in the country rung loudly for three minutes – recall Young’s numbered 1960 Fluxus pieces or even the tendency of musicians to refer to their tracks as “numbers”.

So Creed’s increasing prominence as a songwriter and performer over the last few years, with records out on Moshi Moshi and projects with the Vinyl Factory, felt like a natural extension of an inherent musicality in his work from the beginning.

Last week, on his own Telephone Records, Creed released the double A-side, ‘Let Them In’ / ‘Border Control’ as a pair of free downloads, two tracks, he tells me, composed because he “was watching TV in the summer and I just think it’s an outrage that we’re not more helpful to the people who are coming to Europe.”

As we sit down across a table in London’s Barbican Centre, Creed strikes me as oddly like a figure from some bleak 1970s sitcom. His upper lip is framed by drooping moustaches and, aside from a lilac tea-cosy hat, he is dressed entirely in beige. He takes soya milk in his tea, carefully wiping his hands with an anti-bacterial napkin before lifting the cardboard cup, as if fearful of unseen microbes. But in his manner and speech, he’s closer to the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a Richard Beckinsale character, eager to embrace life and wrestling with its contradictions, than some closed-off and paranoid Leonard Rossiter creation.

“I hate borders,” he says. “I always hate going through passport control and I think that drawing lines in the world goes against life. Because I think the world as I experience it doesn’t have borders in it. It’s just feelings and thoughts.

“Making a song is totally artificial,” he continues “One of the great difficulties, I think, of making a song is that you’re basically putting up borders, you’re deciding on a bit of time and saying that everything before and after that isn’t part of the thing. And I think that the refugee crisis and the people hitting the borders of Europe is a perfect example of how bad borders can be. It makes me think that my little worries about my songs or my paintings are insignificant compared to the kind of borders that they’re dealing with.

“It’s just fucking stupid basically. If you keep your doors closed and lock yourself up and don’t let any air in – I know this because I do it in my flat – it smells after a while. You’re going to run out of air and you’re going to die. The world is changing. It’s a Biblical type of event, this, with all these people moving, and I just think we have to go with it and we’ll benefit from it. Even though I totally understand – I think borders make people feel safe, just like I feel safe in my flat with the door closed.

We live in funny times. For a while it seemed like borders were coming down, with the Berlin Wall and the Schengen Zone, but now it feels like the borders are being re-erected. I just read in the paper today, that in Sweden they wanted to close down the bridge linking Malmö to Copenhagen. Then there’s all this talk of Britain leaving the EU or Greece leaving the EU.

“Even Scotland becoming independent potentially. Yeah, I think it’s basically an insoluble problem. Because, I mean obviously, I don’t leave my door open of my flat. I lock my door because I’m scared somebody is going to steal something. So if I think about it like that, then why not control your country borders?

“I feel quite confused about it, except that it seems obvious that if people are dying on your doorstep and running away from terrible shit, then you’ve just got to try and help them and not be fucking mean about it.

What is it about songs that makes them an appropriate vehicle for protest?

“Maybe because it’s a way of talking. It’s a way of using words, and effectively shouting. People when they protest often shout, and people when they sing usually raise their voice. Often a song is a pared down form of words, like a chant. So you’re trying to simplify it to the basics and then you’re saying it loudly, and often rhythmically, because that then puts it across better. Because if you talk unrhythmically then it tends to just mix with the rhythms of the world which are kind of all mixed up so it doesn’t stand out.

It became almost a cliché in music journalism in the last few years to complain that nobody writes protest songs like Billy Bragg used to do or whatever.

“I grew up with Billy Bragg. I was a big fan. I saw him at a CND rally in Barrow-in-Furness in the early 80s. But I feel like all the best songs probably are protest songs – even if they’re on a more personal level.”

In a way, even ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’ is a kind of protest song.

“Aye, yeah.”

I thought it was interesting what you were saying a minute ago about how a song kind of erects borders between itself and the world. It made me think of John Cage and how 4'33” suggests a rather more permeable barrier between itself and all the other sounds around it.

“The exact problem with music is that you have to put up these borders, but John Cage tried to put borders up that would still let what was inside not be constricted and be just whatever it is.”

Later in life, Cage would say he no longer needed 4'33'' because that way of attuning himself to the sounds of the world was just his way of being in the world all the time.

“The other thing about protest songs, I feel like one only does things usually because of a difficulty because when you’re feeling alright, you don’t try and do anything about it. So the reason to write a song is usually because of a problem. For me, at least, it’s usually because of problems that I do things. I work because I want to feel better.”

A lot of your numbered works feel like an attempt to bracket off some everyday activity, like taking a shit [in the film,Work No.660].

“Yeah, that’s right. I do think about it like that. Because it’s just a way of amplifying a small thing. When you put something in an art gallery, you are basically amplifying it, because it’s like a stage, with the lights and everything.”

The situation makes people stop and look at it and think about it on its own.

“And I think that’s what a song does. The music around the words often is setting the words up. If the music is bombastic and the words are everyday, the one thing is like a frame around the other.”

Is there much of a difference between the way you would start work on a new song and the way you would start a work for a gallery?

“Not really. A lot of things start in my notebooks. I write down little ideas, and that is usually words or it could be a diagram but the diagram could be a diagram of a rhythm. A lot of songs are ideas that are put into practice in the song. The song ‘Thinking / Not Thinking’. So there’s one chord which is for ‘thinking’ and another chord for ‘not thinking’.

“A lot of the songs are ideas like that. Other songs just come from walking along and having a phrase that keeps coming back, like a chant or a mantra. That used to happen a lot when I was a kid. Just walking along and saying something again and again and again and again. Some of these new songs I’m working on are just these things that I used to say to myself as a kid.”

Like what sort of thing?

“One of them’s called ‘Do You Know What I Mean?’. I used to walk along saying that: ‘Do you know what I mean? Do you know what I mean?’ I remember the exact rhythm and the tune.

“I feel like everything is lost all the time. If I have an idea, I’m scared that I’m going to lose it. All the time. So a good work is something to hold onto for that moment.”

But also a way of making something transient into something permanent. Fixing it into a thing.

“Exactly, aye.”

Some of those ideas you were talking about sound almost like Oulipo type restrictions. If George Perec had a band… But often with your work, I think, you seem to start with an idea that could be quite abstruse but it gets communicated in a way that is very direct, so it can connect with people in this very direct fashion.

“Well, I want to try to be direct. But I think sometimes these ideas are helpful but they’re not enough. I feel like there is always a danger to get too drawn in, to think that these ideas you’ve got are enough. Because they’re not. What’s exciting is basically the stuff that you can’t understand, which is a mystery. I don’t know how you can work on a mystery.

“I feel like it’s a constant fight against oneself. Trying to work with ideas off the instrument and then to put those ideas into operation on the instrument, ideas which might be totally against the nature of the instrument, that way you might come up with something that is more surprising rather than just the usual strumming of a chord of C or whatever – which I like to do, but that’s the route of least resistance.”

What are the differences between the way your work is received in the art world and the music world?

“Well, it’s definitely different. One difference, if I’m playing live, is that I am there. when you’re actually playing a song in front of people, then you find out if you actually like the song or not, whether it’s actually worth doing.”

Through the way the audience responds to it?

“A mixture of that and how you actually feel doing it. It’s like when you do a speech. I do a lot of talks but whenever I’ve tried to write out a speech and to look ahead and work out what I’m going to say, when I get up there, it nearly always is not relevant. I just think you can’t see into the future. You can try to imagine it but you often find when you get there that it’s not how you imagined it.

“One of the things I’ve been trying to work on lately, in all strands of work, is trying to make a quicker route from just a little stupid idea to an actual thing that’s out there. Rather than trying to hone it down too much, because I feel like I have honed things down too much in the past and killed it.”

What kind of tactics have you found for doing that?

“I used to work a lot with scores but these new songs, I’m not doing that. I’m trying to work without necessarily having an idea in mind of what it’s going to end up like. And the same with my paintings and all of that work. I’ve been doing shows where I do all the paintings in the gallery in the few days before the show. That’s an approach that is very much taken from music.

“Some of these are quite big paintings that I do with other people and those other people become the equivalent of a band of musicians. It’s like going into the studio with a band: You’ve got three days to make it. It’s a lot less boring to do shows like that. It’s a lot more exciting.”

You mentioned earlier going on a CND march in the early 80s. Did you go on a lot of marches when you were young?

“I did, yeah. I was very into CND. And there were a lot of marches at that time. Then I didn’t for years and years and years. And the first march I went to for a long time was that refugee one in London [on Saturday 12 September]”

What made you stay away from marches for such a long time?

“I just got all in my own little world, doing my little work. Like I say, I’ve just felt like I’ve been wanking away, doing all my work. Art galleries, they’re very separated from the world. That’s the thing, if you do a gig in a pub, you don’t feel separated from the world because there’s drunk people careering around and spilling drinks over your guitar and stuff like that. But if you do work in art galleries, it’s a very protected, artificial environment, where everything is treated very preciously.

“I think there’s loads of great things in art galleries but it can feel very separated. I don’t want to blame art galleries. I just feel like there’s always a danger of kind of going off on one. You can build things up around you. I feel like the fight for refugees is a fight within myself as well, to let in other people, not just close myself off from the world.”

Martin Creed’s 'Let Them In' / 'Border Control' is available now for free from Telephone Records