CAN (Circular Arts Network) – In the studio with David Batchelor
CAN (Circular Arts Network) is a tool for sharing surplus or used materials, exchanging skills/labour and coordinating transport. The aims of CAN are to help to reduce waste within the arts sector, encourage sustainable practices within the arts, and to address some of the economic and practical challenges for people working in the arts. The platform has been developed by Sculpture Placement Group working in partnership with SCAN (Scottish Contemporary Art Network).
To help understand the benefits of the project, we have spoken with various artists whose work aligns with the aims of CAN and sought to explore the arts through reuse, repurposing, collective practise, ecology and innovative models of sustainability.
This interview between artists Kate V Robertson and David Bachelor explores David’s practise of using materials found in his searches around the streets of London, his commitment to examining colour and the latent histories of the object. Kate is one of the leading forces behind Sculpture Placement Group and CAN, her work as an artist explores ideas of instability, dysfunction, waste and decay, particularly in relation to how we experience these sensations in urban environments.
Kate V Robertson: Would you like to start by telling me about the sorts of materials you use in your sculptures?
David Batchelor: I began using found materials from the streets in the very early 1990s, and in the first instance they were industrial warehouse dollies, which I used to support panels of vivid colour, and from the warehouse dollies I started using recycled light boxes, the ones that would be restaurant signs or exists signs or advertisement of one kind or another, which used to come in these steel or aluminium rectangles that would be attached to the side of a building, and they would often get recycled by these salvage companies all over East London, so I would either find them or buy them from these second hand places then adapt them for these rather large towers of vivid coloured light. All of the objects I use are vehicles for colour essentially, ways of supporting or presenting often very vivid, sometimes illuminated colour. Scrap plastics of one kind or another, often that had been laser cut so were already in various shapes and forms, a lot of leftovers from the studio which are slightly different maybe from going out into the streets and finding things, like old spray paint cans I’ve made into sculptures and the tops of tins of enamel paint, so in a way theres always stuff thats nominally waste and thats always worth looking at in my experience.
KVR: Is your use of waste or leftovers is that an economical decision or are you drawn to the colour? Why not use new materials, whats the motivation there?
DB: Given Ive been doing this lark for 30 odd years now, obviously your ideas and motivations change over time. Originally it is cheaper, much cheaper, so it was an economic decision, but its also something about – things that already been used, and that have been marked by use, have a kind of history and personality almost that new things don’t have, also you have to kind of adjust to them, they precede you, and precede your work, so theres always a job of saying “what will this allow me to do” And “what will this enable me to do”, so theres a sense which you are giving those objects a certain amount of respect. Also, anything is better than the blank canvas, if somethings already got a form or a character, then its already begun, and you can work with it, or at least thats how I’ve found it. There are ecological questions about it, although I have to say that when I first began making these works that wasn’t at the front of my mind, but it was always there, its an unavoidable issue and its become more unavoidable in ore recent years.
KVR: To what extent does the gathering of those materials become part of the process?
DB: I think it is my hunter gatherer phase, I would get quite obsessed with finding the right thing. When it was the dollies, whenever I was out on the street shopping or anything I always had an eye out, and if I found one when I was out to dinner, dinner had to be delayed, and I realised you could get slightly manic about these things. When it was the lightboxes I was looking at them enviously on the sides of buildings, so you had to check yourself at times, but it is part of the pleasure of it, because you never know when your going to find something and you never know what shape or form its going to take, and you never quite know if you can use it in the end, you get it back to the studio and sometimes they just don’t work – it keeps you on your toes.
KVR: I know what you mean, I pick up a lot of rubbish as part of my practice! I get a bit of a kick out of that. Its the joy of finding just the right thing.
DB: Another material I found myself using quite a lot of was electrical flex. Which always has a coloured plastic surface, and actually that began because I ’d been making these light boxes that had these cables attached to the back of them, these tall towers, and installed some in a show at Tate, and they all failed the PAT tests, so Tate being Tate packaged all the cabling up in these archival boxes and sent them back to me on an air conditioned truck, heaps of it! And I thought well I’ve got to do something with it, so I started wrapping them up in these industrial sized version of elastic band balls, then I had a big roll of black flex, then of white flex and I thought, I could do more of this, and at some point, probably quite a bit later Bloomberg got in touch with me and said they were planning to do a project getting artists and designers to use their waste materials, and sort of a bit of a greenwash on what they do, so I said “you don’t happen to have any of this coloured electrical flex” and this is the company that produces enormous quantities of computing material, and a truck turned up with three tonnes of the stuff on the back of it, some of which became these various balls of flex that became a piece I called “Dog Days” which I showed in Edinburgh at Ingleby and elsewhere. So I’d walk past a dump and see all this coloured flex, but theres so much of this stuff if you need it…
KVR: At some point you have to stop yourself
DB: Thankfully you get bored of that particular preoccupation at a certain point, but then theres always another one that just takes over.
KVR: So, where did you get the lightboxes?
DB: Things have changes a lot over the years but there used to be these places near where I live and the studio that when a business closed they would get all the furniture and so on and they always sold from these railway arches in London and sometimes they had these lightboxes and I just used to buy them up, I found a few but mostly I had to buy them, they weren’t expensive and they would still have the signage on them so I’d take out that panel and I’d rewire them and put in a piece of coloured plexiglass so that they could glow, and I once even traded my old car for a whole load of lightboxes because times were tough and I had to finish a work and it had to be really tall and I’d ran out of light boxes!
KVR: Its so funny how your priorities change
DB: IT becomes everything, kind of all consuming, like if I don’t get this now someone else will use it, and you know, in reality, I don’t think anyone else is going to use that!
KVR: Do you ever paint things or do you always use the colour of the material?
DB: The found objects, the dollies or light boxes are often very neutral colours, they are metal or rusty, and thats quite useful for me to then put a very vivid colour within that, so essentially they are a support for the colours, so the more neutral they are in a way the better they are for me. I also paint, and make colour on flat surfaces and so on. In another class of objects are plastic bottles, that I get people to deliver to me or I use them up and clean them out and if you put a little LED light in each of these bottles it glows a beautiful colour often, and I make these sort of chandeliers using old plastic bottles, then I would go round supermarkets lusting after domestic bottles…
KVR: The things you find yourself being an expert in…
DB: And wondering why the most vivid coloured plastics are used for cleaning products, and then you notice that they change the design and shape of these bottles very regularly, I had thought they were sort of eternal, well to be honest I hadn’t really thought about it!
KVR: It’s hard not to read that piece without thinking about recycling or sustainability, was that part of the motivation for making the piece or was it just incidental.
DB: It was part of it, it wasn’t the entirety. Probably my first thought was “Oh theres some good colour” and thats what got me interested in that particular material, and then I had to think well how can I exploit this, and I didn’t want to buy all this stuff and tip it down the drain… but I often worked in big shared studios so its quite easy to get people to bring you their leftovers, but I had an idea of doing a project where it would be entirely made from visitors to a gallery or a museum, they would bring the empty bottle and I would literally have to make it out of what was gifted to the space, and I’d still like to do that at some point.
KVR: Yes I think thats a nice engagement tool actually, help getting people involved in gathering the materials, its another way in for people.
DB: Ive always been very fond of that type of art where the materials are really very ordinary and its no magic what I do, its very obvious, theres no slight of hand in it, its just very minor alteration of the object which makes that object suddenly very visible, whereas often its very invisible because of its so ubiquitous. I’m very attached to that way of working.
KVR: Yes you don’t seem to interfere too much with the things, they are either presented as they are or in groups…
DB: Absolutely, the more you mess with them the less interesting it generally gets, and I think thats a problem for the modern studio, you get all these raw materials coming in, and the more you work on them the less you gain. Ive often used this phrase by the painter Frank Stella that he wanted the paint to look as good as it did in the can, and the danger is that once you take it out of the can it gets less interesting, but that moment when you open a tin of paint and you’ve got that pure colour, it is magical and I never tire of that, but its incredibly hard to make something as vivid as that out of it.
KVR: All that latent potential as well, as soon as you do something to it your kind of pinning it down…
DB: The other thing is some objects are too intrinsically interesting to work with, I’ve seen things on my hunter gatherer phases where I’ve thought “I’ll have that” and it ends up in the corner of the studio not getting used because its somehow already complete, theres nothing you can contribute to it.
KVR: and it can be too easy cant it…
DB: Ive never wanted to just to present something I’ve found as a readymade, without doing anything too it, because its a relationship I’m looking for. But also sometimes I’ve had things in the studio literally for years not being able to use them and, for whatever reason, suddenly they make themselves available to whatever it is you are working on at that time. Consequently I almost never throw anything away, so thats a bane of the studio life, too much stuff. Storage is expensive. The best thing that happens is when you have to move studio and you have to be ruthless with what you’ve acquired – and made – and go through this really difficult process of looking at everything and going, you know, enormous potential or just junk? And no-one can make those decisions for you. Generally who I’ve had to chuck stuff out ive not regretted it, other stuff takes its place.
KVR: Do you find people collecting things for you?
DB: Yes sometimes, I’m not that keen on that to be honest, one of the other projects I’ve done which is slightly different but closely related is taking photographs of these found monochromes, these blank panels of white rectangles, which I call found monochromes, they are found in exactly the same way as the dollies and lightboxes, wandering round the streets, wondering whether you’re going to turn a corner and find one, you cant plan it or do it on google maps, you’ve got to go out there, and sometimes I get quite preoccupied with that, I’ll see this beautiful found monochrome and I wont have my camera, the problem is it usually gets filled in it gets tagged or something. Sometimes people have sent them to me and I kind of cant use them, because I think it is quite autobiographical, quite personal oddly, its a kind of map of where I’ve been and I also take them in a very particular way on a film camera, principally because when I started taking these kind of photographs thats all there was, the olden days in the mid nineties, so yeah I dont often get gifted stuff I can use except the plastic bottles.
KVR: Are the monochromes ongoing? And the plastic bottles? Do these projects ever finish?
DB: Mostly they don’t finish, or if they do they just sort of die with a whimper. They fade I guess is what tends to happen. The found monochromes which I have been now taking for 23 odd years, some years I have a big push on them or get very preoccupied with them and I’ll find 50 or 60 in a year which is a very good return, other years I’ll find 2. I showed them all in 2015 at the Whitechapel and that got me back into the project and I had quite a surge but im aware theres been a bit of a tailing off since then, but all it takes is to see a couple of good ones and I’m back in the zone. Im grateful that when I started taking them you didn’t have iphones, because then they Ould have just become very flimsy project. They are actually all on slide film they have a kind of physicality I a way. They often come about when I’m travelling these days, when you are in a different country you are looking in different ways, you probably have more time to drift. Its great, I found one in Tehran, which was great, so it depends on what you are doing and where you are.
KVR: Can you tell me about the Unplugged piece and how you sourced the materials in that.
DB: I became the most sought after guy in the pound shops of East London, I became hot property! Whole families would come out and welcome me, what I noticed was pound shops which you have anywhere, wherever you are, theres some great ones in Glasgow, on the Trongate I seem to remember, what I noticed is that a lot these incredibly cheap, very disposable plastic objects are often very vividly coloured.The vivid colour is almost a symbol of people who consume when they cant afford it – its the lowest level of consumption you can do, its quite bleak, but the colour is almost always a component of this very low level consumption and I just thought Ok well I better make something out of this. So I’d go into the pound shops on Bethnal Green Road and elsewhere and I’d end up buying like £60 worth of stuff, thats when they began to like me! And then you’d start noticing patterns of certain kind of objects were available and also almost everything was made in China, all these very cheap plastic objects, so I just began to accumulate them, I mean thats what I guess I generally do, I accumulated lightboxes and dollies and they pile up in the studio and then you have to figure out I can do with them. The dollies lay on the ground and supported these coloured panels and the lightboxes I tended to stack up on top of one another, the pound shop objects, these cheap plastic knives, forks, pegs, brushes, whatevers, I ended up attaching them to pillars of Dexian? This perforated steel so they just became these rather flimsy pillars of colour. And I began to do them for a show in the Talbot Rice Galleries in Edinburgh and once I realised I had quite a big gallery to fill I then had to lean in to it, and then I went a bit crazy about which is the best pound shop in London.
KVR: Am I right in thinking some of them weren’t plastic objects, were some of them made out of the bracket material?
DB: Yes this Dexian shelving which is a sort of redundant light industrial shelving system, I’ve always loved that material and I ended up getting a lot of that from the same kind of places I got the light boxes from, and I probably just had a lot of them lying around the studio and began to attach these plastic objects to them, and then I found I had lots of offcuts of this dexian and I started to stick them on. I guess I looked at the pillars before I attached the plastic and thought well maybe the dexian needs its own time in the limelight. What I also discovered with the plastic ones is that the plastic fades and cracks and basically disintegrates fairly quickly so there are archiving issues with these things generally.
KVR: How long do they last generally?
DB: If they are in any kind of bright light they fade really quickly, within a year the really vivid colours are gone, and then if you take them off they disintegrate, they really are so cheap. Most of them ended up getting destroyed.
KVR: Do you find that difficult when things get destroyed or is it just part of it?
DB: Oh its part of the deal, if you are going to use these materials you have to accept what they are, you’ve got to work with them and not against them. The only problem on the rare occasion id sell one you’d get a call saying its broken, then its practical problem that not much fun, but for the most part I just learned that they dont last. The plastic bottles for the chandeliers what I learned was that if you drill holes in the bottom the air can circulate and the heat doesn’t build up so much.
KVR: Is there any distinction for you in terms of whether you’ve bought the materials or picked them up over time, is there any sort of attachment or weighting to these or is it all just the raw materials of your work?
DB: Things like the dollies or the found monochromes which were the probably the first serious attempt to find things in the street over a long period of time, they probably mean the most to me, partly because they set me on a way thats become my standard way of working now so they sort of emotionally and psychologically important to me, and the found monochromes I’m very fond of because they dont really exist anymore, they are very temporary, very futile, fugitive things in the city, and each one of them is utterly insignificant, but when you put 500 of them together they acquire a kind of herd presence, and that I really enjoy. The pound shop stuff I look back on fondly but not tragically.
KVR: And what about the concrete plinths what started that?
DB: Wait there! This is the first one. Number one. 2012. I’d been going round the streets as I do and one thing I noticed that you see in every city, when people want to deter burglars and vandals, they stick broken glass on low rise walls, and its pretty aggressive stuff, its not pretty, and I just thought maybe this is a way I can use coloured glass and just support it by sticking it in concrete, and I thought maybe it can refer to the city, the street, the vernacular of everyday life in the city, and it was a way of supporting vivid colour, without being too pretty maybe, theres a bit of aggression in it. So I’ve done lots of these ones with glass, and the concrete which is a beautiful material and very much a material of the city and I realised that the concrete is a neutral base like I was talking about with the dollies and lightboxes, its obviously a grey material, its just a brilliant material for supporting colour. So I did the glass, and I still do the glass ones occasionally, and I found it can support offcuts of acrylic, or these tops of tins of paints, odd rulers, almost anything, and some just very random found objects, if in doubt, stick it in concrete. Again thats been ongoing now for quite a long time and a lot of the work in the Ingleby show was of these small objects imbedded in concrete and I’ve been making these bigger ones since then, they are now 1.5m tall, the problems that are attached to that is they get extremely heavy, and I’ve never made heavy sculpture. Its usually like flat pack sculpture like the dollies or light boxes you can take it all apart and put it into boxes but a single solid indivisible lump of a sculpture is something I’ve never made and they bring all sorts of issues with them. Its a bloody nuisance. I certainly haven’t been making any during lockdown, I mean why would I? What I’ve found very engaging during lockdown is to work on very 2 dimensional stuff, firstly on paper and now on panels.
KVR: Any thoughts on sustainability issues, you mentioned earlier it was economically motivated, and I’m sure thats changed, have you had to question your choice of material or the ethics of buying plastics or whatever?
DB: Yes is the simple answer. Clearly in recent years the issues of using plastic has become very prominent and rightly, and I do use quite a bit of it and buy some of it from suppliers but the only thing I do make sure of is that whatever plastic I buy, none of it leaves the studio as waste. It seems to me the problem with plastic is not the material itself. Which can be fantastically useful and I would say indispensable in some respects, the problem is how we dispose of them and when they become waste. If you can use waste plastics and take them out of that cycle, which I do sometimes, obviously is a minor help, but also simply to not let any of it leave the studio as waste, it may not be enough, but at least its something. So all the offcuts I get from the acrylic place, none of it gets chucked. For me in the end, all my work is about colour and has been for 30 odd years now and boy do plastics have good colours. So its a tension without a doubt, and it will remain that. Im not going to say you shouldn’t use plastics, that would be absurd and impossible, but I’m not going to say my work is so important that I don’ t care about the issues. I will survive within some of these contradictions somehow I guess.
KVR: Well we have to dont we! From what I can see artists are very economical and dont produce a lot of waste and will reuse things, and are quite respectful of materials out of necessity as well as out of conscience.
DB: I agree and in the greater scheme of things if we want to be careful about our environment the odd plastic bottle here or there is a lot less important than say, international travel. Covid has made that seem must more of an urgent question, oddly, because we realise we dont have to do it nearly as much as we imagined, and thats got to be a good thing.
KVR: There has and thats a relief on the one hand theres a bit of respite from all that travel but I kind of worry that am I always going to be producing online exhibitions from now on?
DB: This is the problem, I really despair of online exhibitions, they are nothing really, art of any kind requires a direct encounter, whether its theatre or the visual arts, theres no substitute for that in the end. How the art market is going to deal with that I dont know. Theres been a lot of benefits to this strange period and the sense of calmness thats been evident in some cities and the attention to other people, to kindness in a way, my fear is that when business as usual wants to get its act back together again its going to push this stuff aside in seconds in its rush to get back to as it was, and I’ll be very sad if thats what happens, but well we’ll see, I’m not terribly optimistic about human behaviour.