Conversation between Fam and Franko B

• Francesca Alfano Miglietti (2010)

Fam: You often say that we need to be pure. What do you mean by this?

Franko B: To be pure means to have faith in yourself and your instinct. Not to be ashamed, to be honest, to love.

At college and in your first exhibitions, you began with objects. When and why did you choose to practice performance art?

Even at Art College I was doing performances but they weren’t for an audience, at least at the beginning. I was taking photographs and filming because I couldn’t paint them. It’s impossible to paint a picture of something you have in your head or your heart. You can try and try again... I just can’t do it... but I like these failures, it doesn’t bother me if I fail and it’s important that it happens.

What did the Institute of Contemporary Arts mean to you?

In my opinion the ICA was a very important arts centre, from when it started in the seventies and for the most part of the nineties. The ICA was open to everyone and was alternative and transgressive to such an extent that politicians wanted to cut funding or even close it down. Now it’s no longer the same... the funding is now more than a million pounds a year and the programme of performance art has been eliminated. Politicians now choose the ICA for their parties. It’s a real shame because in the nineties it was one of the most interesting arts centres in the world, in particular for its performance art under the direction of Lois Keidan, who is now director and founder of the Live Art Agency here in London.

Which of your performances means the most to you?

I’m not attached to any performance in particular... they have all been necessary.

What did the invitation to exhibit at the Tate Modern represent for you?

The invite from the Tate Modern in London was an important turning point, and for me of equal importance was the invite to be on the 1995 Rapture programme at the ICA. But I also think it’s important not to let yourself be intimidated by these institutions... especially by places like the Tate Modern where I was invited in 2003. It took Lois Keidan, curator of the event entitled Live Culture, 18 months of preparation. The programme included four days of meetings with experts, curators, critics and the invited artists who had to talk and present their work in different ways, from conference to video. Only four artists did live performances. My performance, I Miss You, was chosen to be the grand finale of this event... The performance was held in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern, which, in my opinion is the most beautiful exhibition space of the whole museum.

What brought about your Black period?

The desire to keep going despite everything that happens in your life. I started to paint on canvas again after a break of nearly 16 years, from when I was in my second year at the Chelsea School of Art and Design. Galleria Pack in Milan had invited me for my first one man show in their gallery and with the support of Giampaolo Abbondio I decided to use painting and the two dimensional canvas. I then decided to use one colour at a time and stopped at black. Now, after five years, with the sewings I have decided to use red.

How did the need for your “sewings” arise?

I’m not so sure I had a particular need to sew. What happened was that a student, Andi Walker, of the textile department of the Royal College of London, contacted me at the end of 2008 and asked if I wanted to collaborate with him. From this collaboration I began to think of these works. I really like the fragility of sewing and the beauty of the structure. I like this way of drawing, of creating images... for me it’s just another art form and I find it very poetic. Sewing is usually considered a handicraft but for me it’s something more and I don’t really care if it is seen in this way. The intention is more important than the technique. In these most recent works, and in many of my previous ones, I keep returning to everyday images from the media. Some of the images come from the international press, some are of soft porn I find on the internet and others come from my own private life, like those of Tom with our dog Rothko. I often say to my students that language is not something we invent but something we take possession of and in doing this the language, for a fleeting moment, is ours. Only for a brief moment because the moment it is expressed it belongs to someone else. It is never yours... and if it was it would die.

Why have you chosen to put animals in your latest installations?

It was quite by chance that I started seeing these stuffed animals at Old Spitalfields antique market which is held every Thursday in London and is near one of my studios. I started bringing them home one by one as initially I wanted to give them a home where they could be loved. Then, instead, I decided to give them a new life by painting them black.

Why black?

Black is the most complex and emotional of all colours and is made up of all the other colours. At least I can see them...

What do animals mean to you?

For me they represent the balance of life.

And what do humans mean to you?

Humans are animals with an ego and Gucci glasses

Why the flowers and the birds ?

And why not ? Because I love them.

What is love for you?

I can’t describe it but I’d die for it.

This exhibition at the PAC is a return visit for you. What does it mean for you to have an exhibition in this gallery?

In the physical sense it is a bit of a return, in the sense that I exhibited 11 years ago in the Rosso Vivo show that you organised. I’m really happy to be a guest now with my own one man show. I really like this museum, also because it is still an open wound for the city after the explosion that destroyed it 17 years ago. I like it that this museum, with its still open wound, is such a lively centre of contemporary art.

You have often stated that we are not owners of our bodies but that our body is something which has almost been lent to us. Perhaps the most difficult part of your performances comes from this awareness of having a body that, in certain conditions, anyone can do what they want with. But in your latest performances the action has become more clean cut, with less choreography and less “scenery”. It’s become increasingly like a picture, a live picture.
Can you explain this?

For more than one reason. One has to do with the language that is used: I thought that there were too many words and there is no need for lots of words to make oneself understood. I think that the more you say with a language the more complicated it becomes to make yourself understood. I believe the less words you use the more you say. The objective is to try and be as pure as possible; being an artist has nothing to do with being clever even if many artists try to be. I try to be as direct as possible. Instead with language things don’t turn out like this: you can immediately understand or not understand something, or it seems as if you haven’t understood but thinking about it afterwards everything becomes clear... it’s like when something touches and surprises you but you are not able to describe the feeling. Maybe it’s better this way as we spend too much time in trying to find a meaning. The real problem is if a work of art touches you or not... I don’t think an artist should be clever... the artist must be sensitive, in my performances. I’ve never wanted to be clever because in a performance one has the responsibility to be as pure as possible. The responsibility of art is not to say “I agree with you”, it’s not a formula... and it’s not universal. Language is. I believe it is even arrogant to impose a language or to say to someone “you don’t understand”. It would be offensive because it would mean the artist is putting himself on a pedestal, thinking himself above his audience. But above all it is not this so much but the possibility to choose, instead many artists are dictators...

Your capacity to enter into the private life of others is very noticeable in your performances; in your performances one doesn’t think generically of pain but of your own pain. It’s as if the public forms a strong and emotional relationship with you.

I think you must take responsibility for this, for having these emotions; I’m no more than a pretext, an element, a piece of the puzzle, perhaps only a link. Everything in a performance is very emotional and it’s really difficult to explain why... it’s all very serious. It is not an experiment or a game I’m playing with someone as it would be too easy to play with people’s emotions and feelings. I’m practically living an emotion myself; at times it has nothing to do with this or that person. It is the situation I have created and that what is happening, often without control, is not planned. There are things that five years, a month or a day later you think “yes, perhaps it’s this, it’s for this reason”... For me power, this kind of power has to do with the power we have over ourselves, the “power of being”. To feel that you can say something important for yourself, while society tries to control you; at times I feel I have power, but over myself.

You have a big and very mixed following: the public of counter cultures next to a sophisticated and intellectual public. What kind

of relationship do you create with your public? Do you feel that all the people that come to see you, and really want to understand, communicate with you?

This is really important for me and makes me feel happy and content, because I think we are doing something... it has something to do with being honest and I think people know when you are being honest. It may be a bit naïve to think like this because to be honest with ourselves and our emotions in this society is a taboo. What happens between me and

the public is a relationship, a rapport that grows, even if at times they are frightened by what you are doing. But if you put yourself on a pedestal then people are frightened by what you do and respect you only for this reason and keep their distance. I don’t want to be respected through fear
or because people think I’m special... At times I think I’m very lucky and that love helps a lot, without love there is nothing: I think that some people come to see you because they think you are extreme, but perhaps one day they will understand or perhaps not, it doesn’t matter. For me what matters for an artist is love and I’m not talking about love for a person...

When did you introduce objects into your performances?

There have always been objects in my performances, some made by me and others like the hot water bottle, domestic or medical objects that I use as part of the performance; anyway I have been making things since art college where I studied painting and sculpture and other related activities.

You have emphasised more than once the whole question of language. One of the problems of contemporary art is also the use of an old language, for example when people think of performance art they immediately think of the performances of the sixties and look for links with those situations that are sometimes there and sometimes not. This necessity you have for purity, to use language less could even be a need regarding an inability to define?

This is certainly a point worth considering: those people in the art world that always think of things referring to the past, to the sixties and other periods. These people aren’t honest because they are referring to easy models without trying to understand the new contexts in which things are created. It’s necessary to put things in context but usually they try to define and label new phenomenon and then snub them as already “seen”...

It made me laugh in London in 1996 when they talked about the contemporary scene of the time referring to events that occurred in Vienna at the end of the sixties, in a completely different socio - political context to the one of the time. In the eighties and in the early nineties it was really really hard, very different from the work of the Viennese, of the work of Scharzkogler or of Günter Brus, above all because the world around us was so very different. In Vienna, at that time, the trauma of the Second World War was still felt, even if had ended 28 years before, and was relatively fresh in the memory. Then there were the years of unrest with 1968 in Paris, Vietnam and all the rest. Now the context is completely changed and it seems to me that we’re surrounded by a very reactionary climate. It is not enough to define formal differences or groups as if the world of art is separate from the real world that we all live in. The human race is pretty much the same as it has always been and I don’t think we are any more special than what came before. Our needs are the same and there have always been, and still are, masters and slaves; technology has always been the same – the invention of the wheel was technology and it was said it would change the world and now we have the computer and the Internet.

I don’t know; more or less the fact is that people must label things to protect themselves. People are frightened; it’s ignorance, which is nothing new and plays a large part... the strange thing is that first they say to you “that was done in the sixties”, but I think this is said in ignorance; they criticise and judge through ignorance. They say you are extreme; okay, if you want to say I’m extreme it doesn’t bother me. Then when they can no longer find anything extreme they say you’re irrelevant. But the fact is that these people use art like a “racing stable” and if you are not a horse in their stables they try and bring you down.

For me people need something surreal to calm them down, they need banal distractions to make stories out of nothing, People are frightened and need to keep things at a distance and differentiate: this is acceptable and this is unacceptable, this is good... this is sugar and this is salt: a sugary art and a salty art. It’s only a word. It’s just a bad use of language but those who use it know perfectly well what they’re doing.

You also maintain that style is like a dictatorship, is that true?

Yes, it’s absurd! Like those artists that were thrown out of the Surrealist group because they were no longer surrealists, or Dada, or Blaue Reiter, or expressionists. It is ridiculous to think of a conceptual artist. It’s like saying that Paladino can’t present a glass as a piece of real art as people think it’s stealing. It’s still the ghetto of art, the ghetto of form and the ghetto of language. If you work in a certain way you die with that way. People talk about and describe a figurative work: we are all figurative, but what does it mean!? A glass is not figurative? A glass of water on a wall is a concept and two children with a ball aren’t? Do you see how absurd definitions are? This is expressionism and this is modern art and this is something else. Duchamp and the urinal have been seen as very surrealist, but toilets have always existed ! Damien Hirst has created a bar in London that is designed like a chemist (also very expensive) and it is considered post modern; in the toilets you can find medical objects that you can see through glass; the plates you eat from are like those used during an operation. Okay, it’s a concept, but how can you say that it is modern or not?

It is not easy to explain, but for example, I’m an artist that has worked with blood, with the body but also with other forms: with crosses, other objects and animals but also with painted canvases and now “sewings”... A lot of people criticise me, saying that I’ve become “very conventional”... But what does that mean? That I’m a different artist? I think an artist must be able to do what they feel like doing, to do everything; my philosophy is that the object does not identify; ...if I say that this shoe is the body of something, is the base of something, maybe you don’t see it, maybe for you it is a car. So if I paint it I’m an “expressionist “and if I present it I’m “conceptual”, all this for me is totally absurd. There is this ghetto in the art world which says that if you are “expressionist” you must only be that; I think we are all very “expressionist”... where does the work come from? The work comes from your body, let’s say your head or your heart and your head is part of your body; also someone who presents a bottle of water as an art object... where does it come from? who made it and what does it symbolise? Who thought of it? It comes from you and it is your way of using language. For me an artist is an artist and if he limits himself he is no longer one. The world is full of people that have the same needs but who are not worried about belonging to a club. I think the best artists are those who have no fear, have nothing to lose and do not want to follow the crowd: someone who is not interested in being accepted by one group or another. All the components put together appear very complicated but are in reality very simple, because we tend to complicate things a little. For this reason people think that with technology things will be better, that we will be more autonomous but perhaps this theory is not solid... today I’m saying these things and possibly tomorrow I will have changed my mind.

Why have you chosen to use the cross in many of your works?

The cross has always been for me a symbol of the body, my body. First it was red with the body and the blood. Then I thought about it in a different way with different colours, in a way that is more a conceptual work; people think of colours, of form, this obsession with form but instead for me it is the colour that I’m using that is important. For me the cross is reassuring, like a home and part of my family. When you see a cross you may think of the Swiss Red Cross... but for me it is a symbol, that for personal reasons, means protection. Like a child who loves firemen, or anything to do with firemen; like someone who likes black and wears
black: I have my reasons for liking the red cross, maybe a bit of an obsession, but lots of people have obsessions and this is mine. From birth you are bombarded with what is right and what is wrong, a criteria to which you must adapt otherwise you are mad or mediocre. I much prefer to be mad rather than mediocre...

Why does the heart often appear in your works?

It’s a simple and universal symbol. The pump of life.

You still love?

Yes. And what about you?

More and more.


published in I Still Love

[24 Ore Cultura] (2010)

© 2015 Franko B and the contributors