Interviews with Spartacus Chetwynd

Interviews with Spartacus Chetwynd have, for the most part, focused on the style of her work, which is a large part of its attraction. Carnivalesque, at once amateur and professional, her performances involve troupes large enough to create a circus atmosphere but small enough for them to be intimate. There are extravagant sets and costumes, and an endlessly inventive humour. My intention in interviewing her was not to discuss this style, or even the performances themselves, but instead to focus on the underpinnings of Chetwynd’s work, which are her sources: literary, historical and political texts. She always makes these sources clear through pamphlets and other statements, and they are vital to her work. Chetwynd is a great reader, and is driven by sociopolitical ideas.

In her work, theatrical action and literary and socio-political reference points form a unity. It is not a sequence of incoherent actions redeemed by energy and stagecraft; it is a coherent and, in many ways, traditional wedding of apparently frivolous performance and pure social idealism. A related and important focus is the performance troupe itself–and hence, the collective–as a social idea. The “silliness” of her performances isn’t to everyone’s taste; but others, like me, like it both as a style and as a way of approaching what otherwise might seem hopelessly dry. (Debt, for example, is a recurring theme in her work.)

Writing in Frieze magazine, Tom Morton says that in Chetwynd’s performances “the epic and the everyday speak through each other in accents of giggled hope.” He cites Jarry and Brecht and says, “it’s the very sincerity of the artist’s approach that makes her work sing.” Of her literary source material–her “sacred texts”–he says, “she allows us to feel their promise and problems anew.” The interview that follows discusses what these “sacred texts” mean to the artist, and looks at the thought beneath the surface of her work. In the emails we exchanged between my home in London and hers on a disused farm in the Netherlands, we discussed money, socialism, shared houses, self-discipline, social responsibility, the monarchy, her parents–and the making of her work.

DAVID LILLINGTON Delmore Schwartz said that “money is spiritual.”

SPARTACUS CHETWYND I think money is a tool, though it is psychological and can reflect and reveal a person’s background and weaknesses/inclinations. I think money is simply an enabling, functional, tangible way to problem-solve how to deal with “exchange” and that, like “literacy,” it all depends on how it is manipulated or controlled. I don’t have anything against money as it is. And usually it is very beautifully designed!

DL I thought you might be a good person to say something about the difference between British socialism, as it was, and what seems to be the idea of socialism many Americans have, that it is a political evil akin to … well, some Americans use the word “socialism” the way I might use the word “fascism.”

SC I think you will appreciate this link to Arnold Schwarzenegger speaking about Milton Friedman’s Freedom to Choose. (2) It is the first time I have come across the word socialism being used in such a strong way. He talks about his upbringing as if it were in the DDR, not Austria. I am very curious about this. I have just returned from a trip to Malta. I was there to do a collaborative show with Jessie Flood-Paddock at MCAF [Malta Contemporary Art Foundation]. We were looking into “how things are made” and, as everything is so entangled, we researched right-wing politics and the ideas of Milton Friedman, Adam Smith and Arnold Schwarzenegger. I am confused as to whether self-discipline is compatible with socialism. I have self-discipline and “drive and follow-through.” I have my own motor pushing me to ask questions and analyze. But does that mean I would not be capable of belonging to a socialist group? I have lived in many shared houses. I am the one who mends the toilet ballcock, unblocks the sink and washing machine and puts the rubbish out. I set the mousetraps and deal with the half-dead mice that are still holding onto their peanut butter delight. I bother to pay bills and I am interested in living in credit without debt. If the microcosm of a shared house can reflect society, I have realized that there are reasons why society forces people to do things. I would say most people I have lived with do not have a sense of social responsibility–not to the same extent that I have, at least. This always seems to come as a surprise!

The idea of standing up for your beliefs is really confusing. I watched the film A Man for All Seasons (1966; about Thomas More) six times. I still do not understand it. I read Thomas More’s Utopia (1516)–which is brilliant–because I wanted to understand the film. I think the film is too difficult to understand for a contemporary person. Thomas More wrote Utopia and then died over the issue of loyalty to an organized religion. He chose to stand by the authority he believed in, as if authority was the most important thing. I think this is what I am beginning to understand. It’s similar to the dreaded “neo-cons” as represented in Adam Curtis’ The Power of Nightmares (2004)–the idea that people have no self-discipline and this is why it is justified to impose leadership. But I want to be part of an acephalous society that is made up of freethinking people who have the social contract within reach.

British socialism? Totally fascinating. The difference between nostalgia for George Orwell or H.G. Wells, and the use of “socialism” as a dirty word. You should read George Orwell’s essay on Dickens.

DL The Fall of Man (2006) was an in-the-round theatrical spectacle that included a number of clearly defined characters–devils and God, for example–an elaborate, if slightly flimsy-looking, stage set and evidently scripted actions, combined with a certain amount of organized mayhem. Your pamphlet for the Fall of Man performance alludes to Marx and to Milton’s defense of the “free commonwealth.” Is the structure of the piece based on Marx and on Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667)?

SC The Fall of Man was all about Milton and Marx, yes. It was meant to be a puppet show that depicted Marx’s description of “a communist working day,” from the section of The German Ideology (1845) on the division of labour. This is part of the passage I quoted in The Fall of Man pamphlet:

He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not mean to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

As for Paradise Lost, it is amazing to realize that nearly all the images I have of what can be thought of as Heaven and Hell come from Milton and not the Bible. It is strange to realize that Milton is the source of nearly all our cultural imagery for Eden! Then there’s the brilliant way Milton analyzes ambition through the story of Satan falling from grace, only really through a desire to be closer to the one he admires. The vast smoking landscape when the warrior angels first gather their wits–I love the cleverness of its proximity to English Civil War politics. The words are so satisfying it is as if you can eat them. I put Paradise Lost and The Ideal Communist Work Day together because they are so perfect in being “out of reach.” Since it was for a puppet and mime show, the narrative needed to be easily recognizable and simple.

DL So what kind of sympathies do you have toward socialism?

SC I am not socialist. I vote Green. I loved Marxism when I first came across Marx and Engels when I was 16. I have always liked the theory of economic determinism, the logic of it, the mechanism–as an approach at least. I love the writing of this romantic visionary, his spellbinding words. I am not at all sure I am socialist as it is the dream of communism that I long for; it is the out-of-reach illusion that tickles across my skin. I am attempting to recreate the moment of social contract and union that a voluntary society enters into. But, thankfully, I am not attempting a Jim Jones “People’s Temple,” merely offering a union that lasts as long as a 20-minute performance.

DL Do you want to comment on your parents’ politics?

SC My parents’ politics are completely devastating! They are meritocrats. They are royalist. Recently I went to the Queen’s Birthday Parade with my Dad. I was curious to see the soldiers’ formations when they marched in patterns. It did not occur to me until I was there in the crowd that everyone would be “right wing,” and not only “right wing” but royalist! I thought the audience would be made up of a mixture of curious onlookers and loyal supporters. I also noticed that many, if not all the men over a certain age had dyed hair! There was no grey hair, apart from my Dad–and I am sure my Dad would love to dye his hair if he could afford to buy the dye.

DL Would you abolish the monarchy?

SC I would have no hesitation. There has been a social revolution, and the Royalty that exists now is pointless. Maybe if Edward VIII had not abdicated it could all be more interesting. I think King Ludwig of Bavaria was a very interesting king!

I asked my parents about this and they had an interesting answer. They said that the “word-spinner politicians” are not effective as the only source of leadership and that a special group, royalty, who are nurtured to think differently from birth–nurtured to think not of themselves but of the “nation”–are an advantage, as they are more likely to sidestep the temptations of the usual self-serving power-hungry politician. “Royalty” have the weight/trauma of their childhood brain-washing to contend with.

DL I like how you involve your assistants, create a gang, team, troupe. What is your approach to getting expenses or payment for them?

SC I always share my artist fees. I also buy equipment for friends I work with within the budget and I have made an effort to share the income. For example, for The Walk to Dover (2005) edition made by Studio Voltaire, my 50 percent went to the friends who were in the project. In Europe, the performances are treated differently and the performers are given a fee; and for the next gig, through Frieze Projects, the performers are also given a fee.

Here is a long-winded answer about reciprocity and exchange that is not money: Jean Rouche’s The Mad Priests (1954) includes a cathartic self-invented ritual in the clearing in the forest. The cycle of the film shows people at work: on the roads, as a guard, in the salt mines. The film shows them after the ritual, again at work, only this time smiling broadly into the camera. I took the film literally and started to make more elaborate “fancy dress” parties and spent a long time preparing sketches to happen at the parties. I wanted to make my own cathartic, self-invented relief.

DL What are your thoughts on Christianity, and especially on its idea of grace as an undeserved love, generosity and forgiveness?

SC I was brought up Catholic; I am not able to change this. I have had Communion but I was not accepted at Confirmation because I did not accept homosexuality to be wrong. I was asked to leave the class.

DL Your Mum is Luciana Arrighi, the set designer, “Oscar winning,” etc. She must have been an influence?

SC I am very proud of my Mum. I think her most brilliant work is the most recent one: The Gathering Storm (2002), about Churchill before World War II. She has a BAFTA for her work on that film so I am not alone in thinking it excellent! And, yes, I have been brought up watching films and analyzing them and I love literature through being read to all my years of growing up. Yes, my meritocrat parents are dominating influences …

DL What does–or did–your Dad do?

SC Army–Para, then … an advertising company called Chetwynds in the 6os and then Boeing sales consultant. Took doctors to Afghanistan as a pathfinder until recently … aged 75.

DL In “Self-Reliance,” Emerson writes, “society never advances … isolation must precede true society,” while George Orwell, in the essay you sent, writes “progress is not an illusion, it happens.” And though Orwell qualifies this with ” … but it is slow and invariably disappointing,” it shows a difference in attitude.

SC “But it is slow and invariably disappointing” Yes, and this is hilarious–such a beautifully delivered understatement.

DL Orwell calls Dickens “Rococo” and “burlesque,” and says you might as well complain that a wedding cake is too ornate. Presumably the combination of Rococo/burlesque and social conscience–Orwell said, “he is in revolt against authority”–is what attracted you to Dickens?

SC I was hopelessly drawn to reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez when I was studying the history of Latin America at UCL [University College London] during my Anthropology and History BA. And I recognized that I have a weakness for magic realism–as if the heavy info is what you really want but the sugar and acid visual wit is the best mechanism for getting as much heavy info in as possible.

DL There’s something else “un-Protest-ant” about your work–the belief in theatre, the extravagance, the belief in art.

SC I like this analysis. I have an ability to believe in theatre–when I saw Summer-folk (1903) I though the people were still in character and real at the interval, I could not stop them from acting–in my head–at the interval. Suspension of disbelief is almost always ready to trip into action like a fuse in a house that always goes the minute you put the kettle on. I think I have much more interest and respect for literature and comedy than for contemporary art … but, yes, I do believe in art!

DL I have to come back to this point about shared houses and your “I am confused as to whether self-discipline is compatible with socialism.” Maybe it’s anarchism that’s more in question–though you’ve said in an interview you are not an anarchist. Maybe it’s a mistake to connect the shared house experience and socialism, which concerns itself with government and social structures. The answer could be in the Orwell essay you sent me, in his criticisms of Dickens:

It seems that in every attack Dickens makes upon society he is always pointing to a change of spirit rather than a change of structure. … Dickens was unable to imagine a better school than Doctor Strong’s, or, in real life, than Eton. … At the back of Dickens’ mind there is usually a half-belief that the whole apparatus of government is unnecessary.

SC Maybe it’s better if I send you to look on the Internet at SLCC [South London Cultural Centre]. (6) We did run a really successful “happening and fun cultural centre” in our shared home. It was only a turning point–arguing over bills and housework–but we did get through it and made an amazing environment happen. It was experimental and you felt you could do anything you wanted, as we were not paying for the gallery space–it was the front room, and we six people all agreed to run it together. We all ate meals together and spent all the time planning and laughing about the events we put on … so not at all dysfunctional or selfish!

DL I’m really interested that you mention Adam Curtis. He did the television series The Trap (2007), in which he argues that we now have no government because government sold itself to big business.

SC I think Adam Curtis is really interesting. I saw The Power of Nightmares when it was on TV and it has influenced me. To the point, I would say, of giving me clarity of mind in our current situation, to be motivated and … assertive? It gave me confidence! I have just seen an-other series by him, The Century of the Self (2002), which traces the influence or Freud in public relations and advertising. It has answered a lot of the questions I have wondered about lately: individual “drive,” or sense of self within the manipulative world of marketing and business government, when democracy and capitalism seem inseparable but are not! It is really relevant. So as for my “I am confused as to whether self-discipline is compatible with socialism,” I think maybe it has totally answered this!

DL I remember attending your screening of The Walk to Dover film, at which you said, in response to a question about debt, “I’m convinced we can deal with it,” or similar. My memory may be unreliable but, at the time, your reply seemed to imply a solution based on personal, individual, attitudes and means–rather than any grander social and political solution. Maybe I have too much faith in laws and structures and idealistic politics.

SC Yes … I think if we all had to do a year of “technical skill conscription,” where we all were trained in first aid and money management, and were made to live away from “home”–maybe a few “off-the-grid” experiences, too–I feel everyone would be capable, enabled. But I am not in power, I have no natural authority. I am just beady-eyed awake and sharp to laugh and see a way to manoeuvre. I am not trying to impose what I see as interesting; I am just making it happen around me and seeing what happens, experimenting rather than inflicting. Adam Curtis’ Century of the Self explains this attitude as a contemporary condition–that through self-investigation the drive for political change has been diffused. Hm!

DL An aside: I notice Rabelais turns up in your work.

SC Yes, it’s [Mikhail] Bakhtin’s book on Rabelais. (7) I keep re-reading the intro for morale. I’m interested in his idea of the suppression of humour from high culture and the need to let it bubble up and out.

DL Your pieces The Walk to Dover (2005), Debt (2005), Debt Counselling (2006), Money (2009), A Tax Haven Run By Women (2010), and your recent work at Art Malta all deal with economic issues. Can you see a single subject that you keep coming back to?

SC I think it’s the idea of getting out of debt being a bit like getting to the Promised Land. Whether it’s Moses or Rudyard Kipling’s white seal leading the way … or Alvin Hall.

DL What do you think about bankers? Would you nationalize the banks?

SC Giotto was into money management–I don’t think it’s a bad thing to learn about money management. I like Alvin Hall a lot. I think it’s a little like the Marxist idea of the division of labour being at fault–and that if we were all trained to be able to be bankers then it would not be that banking had such superiority. What I mean is, we could not point the finger at bankers’ mismanagement.

DL Your final productions are quite different from the literary and socioeconomic research in its raw state. I think any artist who attempts anything that might be called political is really brave. But it seems that without some social idea behind your pieces you cannot work.

SC You are so right! I am totally morally driven. I am not sure if I hide that drive, or whether you don’t have to when you make anything that is “entertaining.” It is so readily taken as not being serious.

DL You’re using traditional carnivalesque methods for dealing with ethical issues. Can there be a problem about the gap between form and content, source and result?

SC The gap between the idea and the actual? I know the no-man’s land is the most exciting place. It’s like being a scout: you discover new materials and new ways to go forward you had never dreamed existed, a deserted landscape of applied physics, unknown crests and troughs.