Stop making sense

Neil Cooper discusses art, performance and control with Martin Creed

August 16, 2017

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Martin Creed’s Words and Music is a late night show taking place at the Festival Theatre Studio as part of Edinburgh International Festival. On showings so far, Creed’s performance resembles a cross between Billy Connolly, Albert Einstein and a friendly Mark E Smith. In June this year, Creed came to Edinburgh to look at the space he was due to appear in, and took part in an interview with Neil Cooper for the Herald. Below is the full transcript of their conversation. Creed is probably best known for winning the 2001 Turner Prize with Work No 227: The lights going on and off, in which a light went on and off at five second intervals in an empty room. This provoked a mixture of controversy, ridicule and acclaim, with one visitor to the exhibition throwing eggs in the work’s empty room. Creed has confounded and amused ever since, with each piece of work meticulously catalogued and numbered. This has been the case whether making permanent installations, such as Work No 1059, in which he restored the Scotsman Steps in Edinburgh with 104 different types of marble, or performing and writing a series of minimalist songs.

At the heart of all of Creed’s work is an obsessively structured sense of symmetry that seems to question the work even as it is being made. He has collaborated with Rambert Dance Company on a piece which included Creed’s films of people vomiting. His Work No 1197: All the bells in the country rung as quickly and as loudly as possible for three minutes, opened the 2012 London Olympics. Creed has exhibited widely across the world, and has released several albums of music. Ploughing a wilfully individual furrow, he has repeatedly stated that he doesn’t regard himself as an artist. The first major retrospective of Creed’s work, What’s the point of it? took place at the Hayward Gallery, London in 2014. In 2017, he released a digital single, posing the eternal existential question What The Fuck Am I Doing? The conversation took place in the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh with Creed dressed like a Victorian hipster, his acquired sing-song Glasgow accent sounding consistently surprised by whatever came out his mouth.

NEIL COOPER: How are things going with the show?

MARTIN CREED: Well! Uh, I don’t know. I don’t really know, ‘cos part of the point of it is to try and think out loud, and therefore, preparing…not necessarily to…Whenever I’ve done things like talks and things where I’ve prepared stuff beforehand, it always, you know, I usually feel that as soon as I get up there it all doesn’t feel relevant… and it’s the same as well for exhibiting works in galleries, I find as well. You just can’t imagine what the front-line is like unless you’re on the front-line. Therefore…so the…the thing I’m doing…I’m bringing songs that are pre-written, you know (LAUGHS), and I suppose I’m bringing ideas that I’ve been working on to talk about as well, but it’s not a show in the sense of erm…

NC: It sounds like you’re kind of deliberately flying blind here. You’ve got songs, and you’ve got ideas that pre-exist, but there’s no clear structure at the moment…?

MC: Aye. Yeah. And in a way, the point of it isn’t clear either. There’s not a …. If there is any point to it, it’s to try and find out…it’s a matter of trying to get through the day, basically. Trying to live your life, and that’s true if you’re…and the other idea behind is is that onstage and offstage are not the same thing. There is no offstage, or to put it another way, there is no onstage. It’s not like now we’re doing it and then we’re not….

NC: You’re onstage throughout…?

MC: No, what I mean is, there’s no … I am onstage throughout… what I mean is, metaphorically, there’s no on and off stage. Onstage is the same as offstage, you know. So when I’m onstage, I might be just as disorganised as I am when I’m offstage, or whatever.

NC: Why did you want to do something like this? A late night cabaret, for want of a better word?

MC: I’ve been trying to work on words, and trying to find…to work on talking as much as working on other….I try to work on the noises I make in my life just as much as I try and work on the movements I make…And er…It’s part of…so, I’m just trying to work on my life, so to speak. I’m trying to live my life (LAUGHS), and that includes making noises, because I find myself here in this world, with other people, and I feel lonely and want to talk to them….And up until recently….I went to art school and studied visual art, so called art, whatever.

More or less, since art school…cos I was always thinking of maybe going to study music, but I didn’t, because I thought that at art school you could do anything you wanted, whereas at music school you had to basically do music. And that actually turned out to be true. The art school I went to, you could do anything, you know, people were doing weird performances and stuff…but after art school, then I tried to do music again, because I thought that if I just show work, it was like denying half, more than half of life.

So that’s what I think got me into doing these talks with songs, and that then ended up with doing things with dancers or people running and that, which were in galleries…so doing this now here isn’t really different from the things I’ve been working on, but it is true that I’ve never really done a cabaret slot thing. I tend to do….(LAUGHS), and I’m worried about that, because I tend to do earlier evening things, so the time of day makes a big difference. There might be more drink flowing later on, possibly, but the time of it , that wasn’t decided by me. The festival said that if it was earlier, it might clash with more shows,…

NC: I saw the dance thing you did at the Traverse in 2012. You’ve also done gigs with a band. The context of doing a dance thing in a theatre and gigs in little venues, compared to doing a late night cabaret at Edinburgh International Festival, that’s quite a different thing…

MC: Aye, it is. And that’s an element of it that’s quite new. But I did do it New York last year. I did all these cabaret performances…Well, they were called cabaret performances, because it was in a…it was the same thing with talking and songs, but I did actually have a band with me, although I talked quite a bit as well…Cos one of the things I find when I’m with a band is that the talking side…it’s almost rude to be on stage with people who might be waiting to…so that’s the thing about this. In a way this show isn’t that different from the ballet. I mean, it is different, but it comes from that. But if you’re onstage with other people, I feel I want to be doing stuff with the other people, and if I’m not doing that…you can’t be having everything at once…

NC: And I suppose with the band onstage, it looks like a music show with talking, but if it’s just you without a safety net, you can do what you want…

MC: Aye, you can basically chop and change, and if you suddenly stop playing a song halfway through and think, shit, fuck… that you can do that….There’s obviously a danger in that, that I (LAUGHS)…The danger is that you basically….cos I think other people help you in life to…just not go up your own arse. But then, hopefully the people, if there are people coming, and we’re all in a room together, then I’m not on my own…

But … there is the thing as well, if you don’t prepare too much, then the danger of that is…that is why for me it’s a matter of trying to prepare half of it, and leave half of it unprepared, because if you don’t prepare very much, then there’s a danger of getting involved in some kind of enormous…you can get fixated on something, and I feel like I lose track. I feel like I repeat myself a lot if I get fixated on a thing, and then if you’re scared, you might get even more fixated on something, and then you can end up being quite self indulgent as well.

NC: So a loose kind of structure…? You’ve got songs to fall back on, and whatever you want to talk about…

MC: Aye…

NC: There’s so much structure in a lot of your work in terms of your made pieces; the numbering, the ups, the downs, the shapes…Even the songs, the way they’re structured…

MC: Aye…

NC: I’m thinking here of Let Them In and Border Control. The paring down of the words on those…so controlled. There’s some kind of control freakery there. So, to go into something like this, and leave yourself without a safety net, is it different?

MC: (LAUGHS) I agree with you about that, but I think that’s what’s wrong with my work. I look at it and it’s too controlled, and that’s what I’m always fighting against, the tendency to try and control everything, and I’ll end up with everything just all being neat and clean and nice, nice colours in a little box, or the song equivalent of that, and you pare it down and pare it down till you’re in danger of it being too controlled, and that you take the life out of it, thereby…

But I think that the thing about it is… I try and control things because I’m scared of losing control, and if I think about that, I think what I need to do is get the fact that I’m scared into the…so people going to see the bit where I’m controlling things, but they get to see the bit where I’m scared, and where I try and talk about that, or include that in the work somehow, so it’s just the nice bit, the tip of the iceberg, but you show the whole thing, so doing the live shows…and I think that’s also the reason why I’ve got into making films and things and videos, to try and show things happening, rather than just the bit left over at the end…

NC: Rather than the finished product…?

MC: …So you can show the trying, or the struggle or whatever….cos like, that film I made of people being sick, in a way, that film came from wanting to control things, and thinking of the exact opposite of that, and thinking that people vomiting is the exact opposite of people being in control, and trying to make a film of that. But then, in a way, because that’s such gross-out material, perhaps that over-shadows that element of that is not to do with that, because in a way those are portraits of people who are out of control, but if you’re just appalled by the vomiting, you can’t really look at it.

NC: Are you making chaos out of order, then?

MC: (LAUGHS) – Well, I dunno, I just think I’m trying to fight against my inclination to try and control things and kill things. I want to feel better, so I feel safer if things are under control, but the,n that’ll lead to killing things, but I think that is a microcosm of life, so doing a show like this…everything’s a microcosm of life…what we’re doing now, or having a coffee with a friend….but doing a show like I’m doing here it’s one hour, so it’s a little microcosm of life. Getting through the show is like getting through the day, or whatever, and so to me that’s what it’s about. Aye.

NC: When you did it in New York, how did it change from night to night? Did you build in structures as you went? Did you build in structures as you went?

MC: Erm, aye, well, I tried to learn. The terrible thing happened…The first night, I felt on quite a high afterwards, and then the next night, I basically brought a lot of the same..I started talking abut the same thing that I started talking about the night before, and immediately I felt that it wasn’t alive, because I was just trying to repeat myself, and then I had to dig out of the hole. It’s terrible, that.

I find that, onstage, that, although I was saying that ideally it should be no different, but I feel like I can’t remember. I feel like a goldfish. You know, they say goldfish don’t have a memory… that you can’t remember what it’s like to be doing stuff like that in front of people. It’s just impossible to remember…if you can’t work on it in your little room, because you can’t remember what it’s really like, and every time you go up you remember what it’s like, and you think, oh, fuck, shit, yeah, it’s like that. So, of course, what I was working on wasn’t relevant, so then you have to work when you’re there to….

NC: That’s really pushing yourself on a personal level, isn’t it? It would be easy to go on with a loose script or crib sheet, and just do routines, as it were, that you’ve honed…

MC: Aye, except I just think I can’t do that, and I feel shit if I’m repeating myself. It doesn’t feel alive, and it’s not exciting. Or maybe I just think I’m not a good enough actor, for want of a better word, or way of putting it. On the other hand, I dunno. I’m starting to think that actors…I don’t know how they do it, but I don’t think that they maybe do it in the way that I think that they do it. It’s not that erm…Cos maybe what I’m talking about is not that different from the way actors try to be fresh every time…

NC: Being in the moment…?

MC: Aye. Exactly, aye.

NC: Where did the desire to do this come from? Was it about having a conversation with the audience? Or was it about wanting to communicate?

MC: I think it’s come from frustration, and not being happy with my work, thinking that although I might like some of the things I’ve done, maybe I’m just not really happy with them. Like I say, I felt like some works are just the bit left over at the end, rather than really showing the struggle or whatever. But it’s got something else to do with…I also think that in this kind of live situation, there’s a possibility to include a lot of….because I find my life and my work is a sort of soup. Everything’s joined together, and there are some things in the soup, floating around, but mostly a purée. But if you’re having an exhibition or making an album, then what you’re doing is picking things out of that soup and then displaying them, so these are selected from the soup, but there’s always something missing, and that’s the soup.

It’s always artificial that you’ve taken bits out, and that’s why the individual works are never good enough. But in a live show like this that it’s possibly more possible to show different bits and pieces – because there’s a screen as well, so I can show visual stuff. I’ll probably have access to the internet as well, so I can even show pictures of work of things that I’m working on – and then there’s the songs as well, so there’s the possibility as well to display the soup. And the point of that to me is that is more like life, so then I don’t feel that it’s fake, or some weird artificial tidied up version of life. To me that’s more exciting. I think one of the worst feelings in life I find is trying to keep up a false…a pretence about something.

NC: You’ve always had this ambivalent relationship with the use of the word ‘art’, even though you’re seen primarily within a visual art context.

MC: Aye.

NC: When did you start making things?

MC: Well, I got into what is called art when I was a teenager. I started reading books – I learned at school. I got taken to a lot of galleries when I was young as well, but it was always very mixed up with music as well, cos I grew up getting taught that art and music were the best things you could do, really, and composers and artists were revered in my house by my mum and dad…I was writing songs as a teenager, and I was doing art at school…but, yeah, to me, the point…of I don’t want to call it art, just because, calling something art separates it off from the rest of life, and gives it special value, and I don’t think it is different. Everything is equally valuable. It’s only valuable if a person values it, and that’s not decided by me or anyone else individually. Well, it is, but only for oneself.

So basically saying that something is art, or thinking that you’re making art just seems to me to be pompous, and that’s why I don’t want to call it that. On the other hand, I think that art galleries are great places, where people can do mad crazy things, and I think that’s really great in a world where most of the time everyone…it feels like they have to toe the line.

NC: But there’s a freedom…

MC: Aye…

NC: It’s just trying to connect everything up and not separate it, the same as with your performance by the sound of it…

MC: Aye…

NC: But it’s also potentially contrary, because you’re going to be on a stage, and the audience will be there, which is sort of separate, so I don’t know how you get round that…

MC: The only way I get round that is that I’m in a …. Theatres are just the same as galleries. When I talk about galleries I could equally talk about theatres, because a gallery just is a theatre. It’s just a different type of theatre, but with different lighting, and walking round instead of being seated, but the way I think of the gigs or the shows is that a load of people have come round, and we’re all in a room, and I’m showing them some of the things I’ve been working on, basically, or thinking about…

NC: Almost like a salon…

MC: Maybe, aye.

NC: Maybe that’s too formal a word…

MC: Aye, but like the way people would come round to your house, and then there might be some people singing some songs, or whatever. But rather than it being like…cos one of the problems I find with erm…I don’t know if I’m talking about the problems all the time, but I feel that problems are the only thing, but I fell like it’s hard to talk about the, you know….

NC: Because the things that have been solved, you don’t need to talk about…

MC: I know (LAUGHS) – It’s almost like if you were to talk about an orgasm, for example. It’s like, that’s great, but where do you…(LAUGHS)…..Anyway, aye, so….I can’t remember what I was saying…

NC: We’d just been talking about your show maybe being a bit like a salon, and you were talking about various problems, but I’m not sure where you were going with that…

MC: No, neither am I, actually…

NC: But that…Doesn’t that tie in somehow with everything else you’re doing anyway, where you never seem to quite know where you’re going with things…?

MC: Aye…No…Exactly…(LAUGHS)

NC: Which is why, when a lot of the stuff does end up so structured, it’s quite contrary again…But then, you’ve got the steps over the road, where there’s no separation between art and life, is there? Where people walk on it…

MC: No, it’s just a street…

NC: So is this a sort of performative manifestation of that, where it’s out there, and…?

MC: Yeah, probably, aye, but the steps are a good example of quite a strict, grid-like structure, which is the actual increments of the steps, and then within that there’s the marble, it’s like a whole world. It’s like trying to get everything in there. It’s like the soup. You want to try and get everything in there using every marble you can possibly find. The marble itself is messy, in the sense that it’s a free flowing design that has been created over time and has ended up like that over time, but it’s not a…the steps are a combination of the fixed structure within which…if there’s a framework, then life can be…it’s a safe place to be chaotic. I think that’s the thing about…

The theatres and galleries and places where…cos there’s a framework, and it’s like a safe place where you can hopefully enjoy either the difficulty of life, or the kind of crazy mixed-upness of a life, because, when you’re actually living a life outside of the theatre, that mixed up difficulty might be to do with not being able to earn enough money to pay the rent or whatever…Now that sounds like an argument for the difference between theatres and ….but if the grid or the structure can provide a safe place to enjoy the chaos, then that’s helpful…

I was thinking of that idea to do with…like having a framework…It’s like having a fence with a rigid structure in front of a garden that’s got wild animals in it, the fence basically allows you to enjoy the …and you’re not in danger from it. Maybe it’s something like that, the whole thing, but, er…

NC: What else are you working on just now?

MC: I’m just working on this…I’m working on some new songs, and an idea for a film that may be sort of like a musical. I’m working on some other ideas, but one of the things about this is it’s a chance to work on ideas as well, that might end up different…

NC: So it’s kind of like a show and tell, work-in-progress, conversation, cabaret…

MC: Aye…It’s definitely more of a work-in-progress type thing, I’d say, than…It’s definitely not a display of what I’ve achieved…(BIG LAUGHS)

NC: What do you think you HAVE achieved?

MC: Well, I don’t know. That’s the point. I don’t think I’ve achieved anything…The idea of achievement just seems really pompous, anyway. Basically, if you think you’ve achieved something, you’re a dick. (LAUGHS) Because it means you haven’t.

NC: So, it’s constantly trying to achieve something, and then,…failing? Or?

MC: Yeah, cos I think the thing I’m constantly trying to do is to feel better. Every day, you wake up, and you think, oh, fuck. To fight… The difficulty of life is…is..it seems really big, and I know that different people might feel that in different ways…and also there are different levels of difficulty…because if you’re in danger of being shot in a war zone, or if you’re house is gonna burn down, then that’s a different level of difficulty than…I dunno, I can’t think if an example…

NC: I get what you mean…But is that what drives you, then? Trying to get through the day, or trying to make some kind of order out of the day, or just trying to do something…?

MC: Aye, but like I say, to try and feel better, and so, if its exciting to listen to music, it might lead you to try making music…

NC: Tell me about the idea of the musical, then…?

MC: Well, in a way it’s similar to the way I’m thinking…I’ve been making these kind of music videos, but I’ve never…but going right back to when I did the ballet, I’ve never been happy with documentation…I didn’t do that many performances of the ballet, although we did it again last year. I worked on it a bit more. We did it in Japan…But I’ve never been happy with…Documentation of live shows is difficult, because you just can’t communicate the live thing…It’s like the soup thing, to put the songs I’ve been working on into the soup of a film that might have a story, or what have you,. That’s the…in a way to try and not show the bits isolated…

NC:…Find a loose narrative…

MC: Aye, although I don’t wanna clamp on a narrative. I don’t wanna over-weigh some heavy handed… I’ve got some ideas I’m working on, not that different from the cabaret, which are songs inside a bigger thins, but it’s different from trying to make a film from a live show…Everything you do, I feel it has to be that in itself. You can’t make…It has to…If you do a film of a live show, then it has to be a film. You can’t just think it’s a…It’s like when you’re writing about things. You can’t get away from the fact that you’re writing creatively about… It’s not like a transparent window into a…

NC: Do you know the work of Spalding Gray at all? He was an actor with The Wooster Group, but he also did these big solo monologues, that were scripted, but which still sounded fresh. I don’t think any of it was improvised. Jonathan Demme made a great film of one of them called Swimming to Cambodia, which was just Spalding Gray sitting at a desk talking, but it worked. That’s different from what you’re doing, I know…

MC: I’m a really big fan of Stop Making Sense. That’s a really good example of a live show…Obviously that was designed to be a film, even though it’s a…That’s super…Was it before Stop Making Sense….?

NC: Is Stop Making Sense an example of the sort of show you aspire to, bringing all these different things on and wearing a big suit?

MC: (LAUGHS) I have been working on some clothes, actually. I dunno if there’s going to be any clothing going on. There might be. But not a big suit. Just a normal size suit.

NC: What are you up to beyond Words and Music, or is that quite enough for now?

MC: It is enough, because within this I’m working on loads of different ideas, but there’s a few…I’m working on new songs…I’ve got a few exhibitions, but that’s next year. One in Miami, and one probably in Sydney…and then a few invitations for commissions and things like that, but that’\s more like ongoing longer term.

NC: Will what goes on in Sydney and Miami be new work?

MC: Probably, aye. The invitation’s just come in, so I don’t really know yet…Last year I did loads of exhibitions and the album, and what for me was a reasonable number of gigs as well, and this year I’ve been trying to….I just felt like I got all mixed up doing that, I was just working so crazily on these things that I felt I got wires crossed, so I’ve been trying to get back to the coalface. (LAUGHS) So I’ve been working at home a lot for the last few months, and working on…

NC: And now here you are, back at the coalface with this big soup…

MC: Aye…The thing is, though, for example, these exhibitions that are coming up, I don’t wanna….I’m worried about work. I think part of the work comes from having made a certain amount of work that has been bought by people, and the longer in life you go on, the more things you’ve done, so the more things you have to take responsibility for having done, and that feels like the ship gets bigger and bigger. And I feel like its harder and harder…and obviously ships have a big turning circle…and its harder and harder in your life to change direction of the ship, partly because it got bigger and bigger very very gradually, so the direction and movement, you just kind of end up like this, and then you have to try and accept it.

But if you think, the decisions you made to get where you are, there’s thousands and millions of them. You can’t undo one and then fix it if you’re worried about something, so I dunno, I don’t want to trust….I’ve got these exhibitions coming up, but…over the years I’ve developed certain ways of working, and I don’t wanna trust that, basically. I don’t want to trust .. like I’ve worked something out and that’s how I’ll do it…I’m trying to think how to approach these shows.

NC: Is that a fear of success?

MC: Aye, definitely. I think so. Well, it could be something like that. It depends what you call success. (LAUGHS)

NC: You won’t define it as art. You won’t define it as success or achievement. So…

MC: It’s definitely to do with what might be called success by a lot of people. So, for example, I earn enough money now to support…I earn a good living, and so, but when I was first working and I was just out of art school, I had no money and I was on the dole. Luckily my parent helped me. They’d sometimes send me a postal order for forty quid down and I literally had no money. And that’s when I made some of these works like the crumpled ball of paper and things that were made with no money…

So the fight against killing things is more difficult in a way if you’ve got money, because if you want to feel better, you can use that money to buy comfort, and you can buy a nice car or a nice sofa to sit on or a nice TV to watch, so you can make a comfort….and if you have money you might think it’s a kind of control, and then you might get into a bad situation where you think you actually are in control of your life, which you’re not really, because you’re just part of a bigger world. So that road that leads to death, if you try and control things, then you kill them, and that is a road that’s much easier to take if you’ve got money. Definitely.

NC: You don’t want to do that by the sound of it….

MC: No, I really don’t want to do it. But on the other hand, money can give you a great amount of freedom, but basically, if money was more distributed around, everyone would be better off. Because I think the rich people all really suffer from having money, but most of them wouldn’t voluntarily want It to give up their money (LAUGHS) even though I’m pretty sure they all know they would actually prefer to have less money.

Martin Creed’s Words and Music, The Studio, Edinburgh International Festival, until August 27th, 10.30pm.

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