In Conversation with Franko B

• Miriam La Rosa (2015)

  1. I met Franko twice, for the purpose of an interview. The first time was in his studio, at the Toynbee Hall. He guided me down the stairs into a room filled with works, books and props from his earlier performances. I wandered around for a little, while he checked his mail and arranged some stuff. Right after the opening of his last exhibition WOOF WOOF I’M BACK!!! on the 6th of February, at the Mayor’s Parlour Gallery, my mind was full with questions I wanted to ask. However, Franko and I are both talkative kinds and we ended up chatting – in a schizophrenic English mixed with Italian – about life, politics, Italy, food, London, gossip, parties and love, for almost two hours. Now and then, we also discussed about art. “Art saved me”, he said, smiling. “It gave me a chance. I have fought the strongest battles of my life through art, and because of art. Now, though, I am starting to think that I cannot use it as an excuse anymore. I am on diet, I am training a lot and I have lost 3 kilos since the last time we met, did you notice?  It’s because of a performance I am going to do next July. And I feel good. But it shouldn’t be like that. I should do well for myself, by myself”.

  2. The second time was on Tuesday the 24th of February, at the café of the Young Vic, in Waterloo. I came prepared with a series of questions and my recorder. Yet, we lost the track of time again; but, between my coffee and Franko’s fruit salad, I discovered a lot.

Miriam: How does your most recent work, i.e. that shown in your last exhibition, relate to your earliest, more performative production?

Franko: I don’t know if it relates or if it has to relate. I don’t see it like that. I think that whatever I do, I do it because it’s necessary and I don’t try to create a coherent connection. The only coherent connection is, maybe, that it’s me doing it. But I never try to find a link. I think it’s an organic way, you know, without being too much preoccupied with what is consistent. This is a critique that I used to get when I was a student; the fact that I appeared to be excited about everything and all over the place. At the beginning, when I was a student at Chelsea, my tutors started to criticise me, saying: “Franko, you do paintings and you do well with painting, focus on that”.

M: Because you were trying, experimenting, with different mediums?

F: I was not trying. It just happened. I began as a ceramist, making ceramics. Later, I started drawing, all on my own. I went to the foundation course and there, for the first three months, I had to do everything. You know, I did everything and I really liked this, but then of course they said: “Now you have to decide, you have to specialise”. So, I decided to go for visual arts but I didn’t chose painting. They said to me: “You can’t do that, you have to apply for painting or sculpture, or printing”. At that time Chelsea, I think, was the best place for painting for undergraduate, because they had a very good tendency of allowing the students to experiment, to mix, and to work in a very open way. So, when I went for the interview they said to me: “Yes, we like the way you are. You are in. No problem”. The first year was OK but in the second year they told me: “Now, you have to think where you are going to do your MA and what kind of work you are making”. But I said: “I am not here for that”. I was a kind of a rebel and I moved away from painting because this would have implied I concentrated only on painting. I was also making videos and, and 16mm film so I moved to Alternative Learning Media where I was making films and performances for cameras. I did only one live performance at Chelsea, which was funny, and everybody remembers it, I think, just because I was running around naked and projected on to the audience an image of erect cocks and the audiences run a way, which I thought was hysterical. The alternative Learning Media, which I transferred to at Chelsea, was a department that was set up in the late 1960’s for failed painters (laughs). There I started to make films, performances with cameras, photography, and I was happy. When I finished, I did a media course and later joined the now defunct filmmaker co-op in Camden.

M: Then, how did you start doing live performance more consistently?

F: People started to hear about my short films and told me: “Why don’t you make it live?” And then it happened; I did a performance in a fetish / S&M gay and lesbian club. It wasn’t a typical performance in a gay club because, for them, I wasn’t sexy and either my performance. The usual act would be some muscle man in leather, being fist fucked or something like that. You know, it was interesting, it was a political and personal piece about the reality of seeing people solely die of AIDS, and I wanted to talk about the contradictions in the gay scene, with body building and that culture, in the early 1990’s. Everybody in that period was going to the gym to build up muscles and they needed this to look healthy, even if they weren’t. Yes, everybody went to the gym and I didn’t. I was making work about not going to the gym and using my body’s fluids and, you know, they were hypocrites because in the same club they were having unsafe sex. The image of me was like that of a monster. Usually, people that performed in this club, or people in the gay scene in general, were sexy, muscly and macho men with the typical role of the master or the submissive. My intervention was not like that; it had nothing to do with things such as a big penetration that I could take or give to some one. I came in a wheelchair pushed by a woman dressed up as a nurse and I had a oxygen mask and was waiving McDonald flags, blood bags attached to my body, which I then cut it and threw it at the audience, imagine that.

M: How did the audience react?

F: Some people in a good way; they said it was the best performance of the night. Others instead wrote in the gay press that it was unethical, unsafe. Which I find ironical as many people in the club where having unprotected sex.

M: What is your relationship with pain? Because you have been engaging with very “painful” performances, in a sense. From which perspective do you look at it; challenge, enjoyment or what else?

F: No. I don’t enjoy pain, I don’t like pain, but I believe that if I have to do something and it involves pain, I cannot fake it. I cannot pretend it’s not real. If I am cutting myself, it’s going to hurt, but I don’t enjoy that feeling. The important thing for me, it’s the image. I am an image-maker and if an image requires that I will have to get cut, I will get cut. Otherwise, I’ll go to theatre. I didn’t chose, in fact, to do theatre or to become an actor, you know, I am an artist. That is the difference; I am not interested in interpreting, non sono un interprete. But I am creating an image and this image has to be honest. It’s different when you work in a way where you tell stories. I don’t tell stories. I am not a storyteller. So, I always create images and these images, once they leave me, I don’t own what they mean to people. I am not a control freak and I am not interested in my works being seen as pure propaganda, it’s not; art is the reason why they exist.

M: The 1980’s were the years when the term Live Art started to be used in parallel to, or somehow in contrast with, Performance Art. How did you feel about it? Have you ever felt the pressure of this sort of label? Or you did not care about it?

F: It’s bullshit. There was performance and then two very important people, that were working on the programme of the ICA, basically left before it became very commercial. So the performance space became a space people could hire for any type of events. That ICA, the one of the last 15years, before the politicians wanted to close it down because it was really experimental, I performed there. The visual art department at the ICA, with performance and theatre, was really underground. Then a new director came in, to make the ICA more accessible to the local community, which was that of conservative and business boys, you know, look at where it is located. They spent a lot of money in the restaurant. If you were an artist, and working, you could not afford to eat there. If you had a lunch meeting, there were only city boys. You have to imagine that when David Cameron got elected as a leader of the conservative party, his party, his acceptance speech, was in the theatre of the ICA; in the same theatre where “scandalous” performances had happened, decades and years before. So, for them, to go there and make their acceptance party meant that the ICA was no longer seen as an underground place run by fucked up feminists and it never looked back, really. I cannot do performances there anymore. If I go to the ICA now, and say: ‘Hi! I am Franko B, you might know my work’ and they would say ‘Yes, the guy that bled here 20 years ago. Oh, yes, you did such an iconic performance, but sorry we are not interested’. If a producer, or any one representing me, would go there they would tell him/her that my work does not conform to their current curatorial policy. Possibly, the only way I could work there is if I said: ‘Look, I have got 20,000 / 50.000 pounds, I hire your space’. They will probably take the cash and say yes, as a private hire. This is happening more and more to me. Even if I go to Tate now, they won’t even engage with me to know exactly what I’m proposing and yet my work was there and again they say it was such an iconic piece that they would not let me do anything else again.  You imagine, it is like they would say to Tracy Emin or Damien Hirst: ‘You have already presented works here, don’t bother us’. At the end, I don’t need them but this is the paradox of my success; these venues, which have a particular identity, do not want to be associated with an artist like me. ICA was very important to me because of what it meant in the 1970’s, 1980’s and in the early 1990’s, but now a prostitute has more dignity than the ICA and Tate Modern and other so called public art institutions. A prostitute is more honest and clean that these organisations. For them it’s important only what they can get out of it, who is in front of or behind you. Unless you are someone represented by a power-gallery like Gagosian, Lisson Gallery, White Cube or Victoria Miro, to give an example, you don’t have a chance. I am an independent artist and that is the beauty of being independent; that I am free because I am not attached to bourgeois ideas of what an artist should be or what a successful artist is. For me, being a successful artist does not mean to have a good number of assistants and a huge studio, for me a successful artist is someone that makes the work that wants and needs to be made. I do not measure success through petty bourgeois ideas. That’s maybe Tracey Emin’s idea of what a successful artist is, not mine. Money is not art.

M: Now, since you mention Tracey Emin, how do you position yourself in relation to the YBAs? You belong to the same generation and, if we look at your last exhibition, for instance, you have used embroidery, i.e. wool stitched into paper, neon: all materials and mediums that are used by the YBAs, as well.

F: Yes, but I have used these materials and so many others before them and at the same time, if not before, it’s just a coincidence. My only relationship with the YBAs is that we are contemporaries. I went to school with some of them, some others were acquaintances; we were friendly and went to the same pub. I often met them at the big shows I used to go and I don’t go to anymore. I am 55 now and I don’t need to be seen to be remembered. If you want to remember me you will, I don’t need to be in some tacky photos on the back page of magazines like Art Review, or in some Louise Vuitton events, to be remembered. I do not have this preoccupation and it feels good. It’s my strategy, to be free. In a way, I am not criticising these people; we just have different ideas. I don’t position myself within this current; in terms of the art system I am insignificant.

M: Well, I would not say so…

F: No, I am talking about the art system, not art history. That is different. Il sistema dell’arte, dove che cosa funziona é il valore economico, the brick of the artist, where the artist is just like a building, a property, and people look at what they are worth. I have chosen a road; I have made some decisions and I live with them. Not all of them are right, obviously, but they are honest. And I am “happy” as much I can be; I am in a position where there is enough happening, so that I can make a living in a very simple and basic way. Now, I do not take drugs, I do not drink, I eat properly, I am vegan, I do not live an extravagant life, I go to the gym and I can pay my rent. You know, for me the luxury now is that I can afford a personal trainer and when I won’t anymore, I will adjust this.

M: Talking about the relationship with your own body, it has been your canvas for a long time and I do understand that it still is, right?

F: Yes, and my body is not just the physical one but also the cerebral part; you cannot disconnect the two. It’s like those men that blame their cocks for the stupid things they do… pff… You know, I don’t do that, I don’t blame my body…

M: So, has this relationship changed over the course of the years? Would you say that it has evolved, for instance?

F: I think that now this relationship is stronger, more consolidated. In a way, for me, using the body in my work is like using what you own; it’s the most democratic way of working. I am not good at directing and making other people do things, because I feel that I should do them myself and that would become something else, like theatre or some kind of weird form. Take, for instance, Santiago Sierra, paying somebody to get tattoos for the same price as a fuck. I could not do that. I can see what he is showing and the point of it, but for me it’s still an invasion, an abuse. But then, you know, I think there is a difference, getting tattoos for the same price as a fuck. Fucks can come and go, the tattoo you have it there forever. You can remove it, but it’s going to cost you more than what you paid to get it. Also, as an artist, I could not work with animals, for instance, I could not work with other bodies. You have to follow your heart and use your head. There has to be a balance between the two.

M: So this brings us back to the discussion on Live Art and Performance Art. In the former the artist is always the doer. In this respect, would you say that you are a Live Art artist rather than a Performance artist?

F: No, it does not matter what you call it, you can call it what you want. I am an artist that happens to use performance as his main vehicle or, perhaps, I happened to. I am not just a performance artist, or a Live Art artist only. I would rather say that I am a visual artist that uses different strategies. I think this Live Art thing has become too much of a ghetto, where you have to behave in a certain way, otherwise you can’t make it. Kind of marginalising. If you look at Performance Art, one of the earliest references is the Russian vanguard and the Italian Futurists; two different currents that were performing, a bit like a niche. But then it expanded and, think of the Bauhaus, for instance, it comprehended so many different things. Why close stuff in a box? Artists benefit from creating environments where anything can happen and there is contamination involved. As an artist, a diversity of things can inspire me. That’s why one of my last works says Fuck Live Art, and Fuck Dead Art, which is anything that gets murdered by a certain agenda that is irrelevant for the work, by marginalisation… There is a wonderful quote from William Burroughs giving advice to young writers: protect your name; don’t sell your name for some money. If you have to prostitute yourself for some money, don’t do it with your real self, with your work. Don’t sell what is really important for you, because people do not forget. Do not make art to please someone else, make it to please yourself and you will surely please many others then, as well.

  1. “Build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises, don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful — be concerned with doing good work and make the right choices and protect your work. And if you build a good name, eventually, that name will be its own currency.”

  2. – William Burroughs

Miriam La Rosa (Palermo, 1988) is an independent curator, museologist and writer based in London. In 2010 she graduated in Art History at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Brescia (Italy), and in 2013 she completed a Master in Museology at the Reinwardt Academy in Amsterdam (Netherlands). Between May 2012 and July 2013 Miriam did research and curatorial internships at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven and at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. In May 2014 she co-founded amaCollective: a curatorial collaboration exploring the notion of Dialogue through performance and performativity. Currently, she is enrolled in the MA Curating the Contemporary at the Whitechapel Gallery and London Metropolitan University.


Published in Curating the Contemporary ( April 2015)

© 2015 Franko B and the contributors