"There Needs To Be More Emojis In Art Criticism:" A conversation with Luke Turner
The British artist – one third of LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner – on art, memes, and empathy.
Luke Turner is a British artist best known for his work with collaborators Nastja Rönkkö and Shia LaBeouf. The trio have been producing work together since 2014, with pieces such as "#AllMyMovies" and "#Introductions" generating huge amounts of press, social media conversation, GIFs, and memes.
Born in Manchester, Turner left school at 15 and found himself at the forefront of an emerging internet technology: Flash. “I had one of the very first Flash sites," he says, laughing. "It became massive, had 100,000 visitors a day at one stage.
“I saw the potential of it, like many others. You don’t have to be a programming genius to work it out, and you can visually build a world and make the internet almost like interactive television, rather than a static teletext page.”
Before long he was building Flash websites for major brands like MTV and Intel. He went on to study fine art at Central St Martins in London, where he first met Rönkkö, and followed that with a photography MA at the Royal College of Art.
Much of the work he does now, he says, has origins in his early projects, the early web-communities he was part of when learning Flash, and his art college portraiture.
"My work has always been about presence, I think," he says. "Presence and affect. When I went to art college I got very into photography and the idea of the image. At that time, Thomas Ruff was doing these huge passport photo–like portraits, trying to get some kind of ultimate objectivity. As a reaction against that I started off doing these very intimate portraits with a large-format camera, very close up, total subjectivity, trying to get some kind of intimacy through that, which you can see feeding back in a lot of our work today. '#AllMyMovies', for example, is kind of an elongated portrait."
After the RCA, Turner and Rönkkö began collaborating, and in 2011 he wrote "The Metamodernist Manifesto", laying the foundations for the work they're producing today. The manifesto can make for a weighty read, but at its core metamodernism is about collapsing distance, rejecting the cool detachment of postmodernism and instead embracing emotion.
“Our work became more and more about empathy," Turner says, "and just trying to get at something tactile, but using technology to do that. Because I think the internet is a perversely tactile medium in a lot of ways. I mean, really, it has the power to hit you."
In early 2014 Turner was contacted by actor Shia LaBeouf, who'd read the manifesto and was a fan of his work. "Instantly I saw that we shared a huge amount, had a lot in common," Turner says. "His mode of being is very, very similar to Nastja’s, so I thought they’d really hit it off. Nastja had been doing performances at museums and festivals all around the world and had a huge amount of experience. So it worked very well, the three of us.
"Our collaborations are much more prolific now with three of us. Three is a magic number for collaborating, because with three people you’re constantly moving forward, the ideas come almost immediately. I think we really lucked out with the chemistry."
I met Turner for lunch at an Italian café in London’s Swiss Cottage area to talk about his work. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Let's start with metamodernism – it's not a term I was familiar with before your work.
Luke Turner: I think it’s just articulating what our generation intuitively understands, the cultural mode we’re existing in – that purely irony and deconstruction are no longer useful in moving forward. That’s really what metamodernism describes. I would argue it’s the dominant mode in which artists of our generation are working today. There’s still a whole load of the old guard of postmodern artists, the Damien Hirsts and Jeff Koons of this world, and we’re like the end of that. You can’t go beyond that. It’s not interesting any more.
Was postmodernism killed by Hirst's $200 million Sotheby's auction?
LT: I don’t think that killed it. Perhaps that was a fitting end to work that had become purely about the market. I think all art becomes problematic when it becomes about money. There’s so many artists doing things that have nothing to do with money, and they’re the artists I tend to find interesting. You know, I kind of switch off as soon as the conversation becomes about “they sold it for a million dollars” or whatever. It’s so boring.
Is the lack of commodity around your work is important?
LT: It’s vital.
Does it perhaps confuse a general public that is used to art as a commodity, as something you buy and put on a wall?
LT: I don’t think the general public are confused about our work when they come to our shows. They may be confused about our work when they read uninformed critics who are confused by that system because they are, as art critics, complicit with that market. So then they’re confused when they’re not handed a press release from a gallery, because we have no gallery.
There's no price list.
LT: Right. For example, Jerry Saltz said that what we were doing was “not even art”. Another article quoted a ridiculous Jonathan Jones line as the opening quote, that “real artists don’t wear paper bags on their head". What a ridiculous thing. And then this writer said Jonathan Jones is border-policing art. And that’s not the critic’s role. And you know, there’s a huge history of artists wearing masks. It’s a completely absurd statement. The idea that – in 2016 – that anyone whose profession is to write about art would say something is, quote, “not even art” is… Maybe if you’ve caused that then maybe you’re doing something right.
Is it fear?
LT: Oh, absolutely. Every time one of these so-called art-worlders say something like that they neglect to mention, recognise, or even probably don’t know – because they haven’t done any research – that this is the work of three artists. So whenever they’re dismissive, they’re dismissive of the idea of an “actor” crossing over. They don’t realise that the authorship of this work is three artists, two of whom have been practising and exhibiting for a combined total of two decades.
What does it take for an actor practising art to be taken seriously? Say, you weren’t involved, if Shia’s intent is the same without you, there’s no difference. It’s about him as a person.
LT: Absolutely, I agree with that. The thing I thought they would get is that this is not just something isolated, out of context, but exists in the much wider context of mine and Nastja’s work, as well as Shia’s huge body of work – he’s been in the arts since he was a kid. One thing that an artist should have is life experience. And when I first met Shia, three years ago, he had more experience of the world, and of the structures of the media, and also the creative process, then anyone I’d ever met. It was a conscious decision by Shia to throw himself into this – he’d been attempting to steer his career towards this path for many years anyway. So it’s very odd.
If you’d been the one wearing the paper bag, would the phrase “it’s not even art” have been mentioned?
LT: No. If at my degree show I’d have put a paper bag on my head it wouldn’t come up as an issue. I think UK art colleges are more open. From a little bit of experience in the States it seems like there’s a huge number of "avant-garde" artists there, and there’s also a lot of very conservative teaching and conservative critics. One thing that’s been so surprising is quite how conservative the art press is.
So they’re policing what art is.
LT: I had one of the most influential curators say to me that she had a problem with our practice because it was the three of us, and if it was just me and Nastja, and we were using Shia as an actor, then that would be totally fine. And we were just like, how can you say that? That’s astonishing. To remove his agency, completely, because he doesn’t play the game of schmoozing at these art private views.
So it’s the idea that you’re doing something that doesn’t require that?
LT: It doesn’t require that. And at the same time it’s much bigger than that. Which I think irks them about us.
With "#AllMyMovies", for example, you’re in a public space without any help or publicity from anyone in the art world.
LT: We did that with New Hive, and they’re “our people”, they’re our generation. They’re this platform for artists and poets to make and exhibit work and they do a lot of exhibits, online and IRL, and they’re just cool people. This is my experience of artists, and that seems much more relevant.
More relevant than going and doing it at MoMA or somewhere similar?
LT: Not to dismiss anyone, we’ve done stuff at museums as well. But what we’ve realised is that a space is only as valuable as the audience that goes there. And you have different crowds at different spaces. So these spaces are very important to us. Our performance at FACT [in Liverpool] broke all attendance records because it’s a small gallery, and 3,000 people came through the doors over those three days. The type of people that came are the type of people you see in normal life [laughs], which really strikes you when that happens. You realise, Oh, hang on, when I normally go to an art private view or a talk it’s a certain demographic – people aren’t going because they feel it’s impenetrable. The visibility of our practice enables anyone to feel they can engage with art and not feel out of place.
What strikes me about your work is that it's a mirror. In "#AllMyMovies" for example, you’re sitting there experiencing emotions just because you’re watching another human experiencing emotions.
LT: It becomes about empathy.
I'll admit to some cynicism when I first clicked the link, like, what’s this going to be? and the second I watched it I was like, THIS IS INCREDIBLE!
LT: A lot of our pieces, when you put down on paper what you’re doing, it sounds very silly. I think also with these durational works any cynicism evaporates because it’s not like you’re doing it for half an hour, you’re doing it for three days. It breaks you down emotionally, and it breaks you down physically. A real emotional journal becomes unavoidable.
That emotional hook is built into all your work – there’s always a story.
LT: Yeah, and that was almost a kind of dirty word when Nastja and I were doing our undergraduate: emotion, and the idea of emotion and beauty in art. I think there’s been a widespread rejection of the idea that art shouldn’t be about those things, and there’s a huge amount of work centred around empathy these days. There’s a real hunger for it amongst the wider public.
The audiences at your performances tend to be just as interesting as the work itself, but we don't see much of them. The queue for the lift, for example.
LT: We leave that to them. You look at the hashtag on Instagram and you get glimpses into that. You can also go back and look at the comments thread for "#AllMyMovies", it's all archived, and see a real community building, these people just talking to each other while they’re watching. They stick at it for hours and hours and they become this mini-community. Ultimately, it doesn’t become about the films. It’s really quite moving when the stream finishes and they’re all saying their goodbyes, like, “This was a really lovely corner of the internet, we should do this more often.” I love the idea that you can spontaneously create these kind of communities, and there was nothing spiteful, there was nothing rude, people were just enjoying being connected. People want to feel a part of something. One of my favourite things that happened during "#AllMyMovies" – we didn’t have any audio because you don’t have to worry about rights, but it also removes that sort of intimacy and intensity if you can hear what’s going on – and someone got the DVDs, lined them up, and started an audio stream, and that had thousands of people listening to it while they were watching ours.
It’s also interesting that there always seem to be people who want to make it about them. The guy sitting next to Shia during "#AllMyMovies", for example, leaning into shot.
LT: But people see right through that. People who are engaged with the work become very protective of the space we’ve created. Like, between the films Shia would go for a toilet break, and if ever anyone tried to sit in the seat in front of the camera – this little box this lens through which you’ve got 5 million people – they’d say, “No, you can’t sit there, that’s Shia’s seat.” And we didn’t arrange that, that’s self-regulating.
And if he’d have come back in and someone was in his seat?
LT: I think it happened once or twice. Maybe once. And it’s a normal cinema, like, “Excuse me, that’s my seat.” There’s no catastrophe.
He wouldn’t have just sat in another seat.
LT: No no, that’s his seat. [laughs]
You said "#IAmSorry" came together quickly – is it always that quick?
LT: The "#Introductions" piece we did at St Martins was relatively quick. I think they invited us two, three months before. "#AllMyMovies", for example, was about 18 months after the original idea. "#TouchMySoul" was a year in the planning. We’re doing a project in the near future which we’ve been talking about doing almost two years. It’s finding the right time and thinking through every permutation of, how is the best way to do this. What is the best time to do this.
Does it work the other way around, that you’re invited to a space and then think of the idea?
LT: It works both ways. For example at FACT, or when we did "#AllMyMovies" with NewHive, or the "#Metamarathon", these are contexts that you also get normal artist's funding for. You can’t just magic these things out of thin air. You end up applying for grants, and you make things work as best you can. That’s also why you kind of sit on ideas until you find the right context. You don’t want to sell out at all, but you don’t want to be treated different to any artist. It’s also why everything we do is very DIY. We don’t have massive budgets. There’s nothing to be gained in that. And we’re not selling anything. And it’s always important, if possible, that the institutions make it free for everyone to attend. That’s not always possible in some places but we try and do that.
If you were selling something, would funding be easier?
LT: It wouldn’t work at all. If you had to pay $10 to get into "#AllMyMovies" it would be something completely different. You’re introducing something cynical I think if as an artist you say, "I’m doing this and I want you to pay me $10 each to get in." Artists should definitely always be paid for their work, but I think it’s society as a whole that has an obligation to ensure that that happens.
A lot of your work has an endurance aspect – has there been anything one of you just wasn't prepared to do?
LT: The way our collaboration works, we all have the power of veto, essentially. We talk pretty much every day, so we’re constantly bouncing ideas off each other. We all trust each other’s intuition and judgment, and we all have ideas on a daily basis that we’re like, "No." It’s not like a democratic thing, like, if two of us want to do something. If one of us doesn’t think it’s a good idea, then we don’t do it. It’s not majority rule, it’s all or nothing. Because if anyone has any doubts about any idea then it’s probably shit. We all have experience, we’ve all made wrong moves in our lives. And three times the experience is obviously, you find yourself making a lot fewer mistakes than when you’re doing stuff on your own. That’s a huge benefit.
It’s also very experiential work, and you've been critical about the way certain corners of media have reported your works – can media ever fully capture what you’re doing?
LT: The work is very hard to document, yes. During "#IAmSorry" we had one journalist who went in and she was very open and very human in there, and was completely moved by the piece. She sent us an email that night, thanking us. And she was so insightful and so open to performance art so we thought maybe she’s the performance art critic for the New York Times or something, we couldn’t work it out. She hinted that we might be a bit surprised when the article comes out, but didn’t say what it was going to be. The next day the article came out and it was beautifully written, articulating how much she’d been moved by the work, and it was published on Perez Hilton. And that was really eye-opening. It was completely unexpected, and maybe showed some of my prejudices, made me reassess actually whose voice is important. I don’t really think the platform matters. Anyone’s voice is important if it’s able to articulate and engage honestly with the work.
The media you’re criticising is the one that turns up for half an hour, takes the picture, and forms an opinion without engaging with the work.
LT: Yes, but you also get that with art critics who feel maybe they want that critical distance, and it’s impossible to write about something which is about collapsing distance and raw emotion and engagement. I always refer people to a brilliant book by Jennifer Doyle called Hold It Against Me: On Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art, which really engages with this very subject. Art speak isn’t designed to talk about emotion. It’s impersonal, it’s art historical, designed to keep the general public out. This is a conversation to be understood by critics and curators and to impress the art market. It’s incredibly elitist.
Are they trying to be tastemakers rather than experiencing the work?
LT: They’re trying to legitimise doing the same old things. And sometimes what is needed as a culture is to step back and say we’ve become too detached. We’re all on the same level here, actually, so how does this work touch me? I might not be able to articulate how or why it touches me, but it does touch me, and it requires a whole different language. Maybe a simpler language. You know, I’m a huge fan of emojis. Some people say that’s the death of language, but it’s really enriched our communication because now we can communicate emotion in more nuanced ways. It’s an addition to language, not a replacement. Maybe there needs to be more emojis in art criticism. [laughs]
You talked about having a narrative in place for your work. Does that mean you know how it ends?
LT: Er, no. [laughs] It’s like life isn’t it. I’ve always viewed my art practice as an exploration: you know you’re exploring, you know what you want to explore, you have this long term plan, but things change along the way. Right from our very first show we discovered that it was about something bigger than us: it was about community. So, that has influenced where we’ve taken our practice and what we’ve been interested in exploring.
How has the perception of your work changed over the years?
LT: The longer we’ve been doing things, the more people are now going back and looking at our works from two and a half years ago and seeing, oh, actually this is what they were doing. I think the longer you stick at things the closer you get to people, or to more people reading what you’re doing in the way you intended. Intent, as we all know, is only one part of a work. And all sorts of interpretations and misinterpretations are welcome because it enriches the work. The work is about that, in a sense.
Does your intent matter? Or is the idea of “The Death of the Author” at play, that any intent an artist gives a piece is replaced by that of the audience?
LT: I would say that’s the ultimate postmodern worldview. In a metamodern world, I compare the author to Schrödinger's cat, you know [laughs], simultaneously dead and alive. I think both are important.
Donald Barthelme said that collage is the only true art form of the 20th century. Is that something we're moving away from?
LT: I would say that is the postmodern outlook. I’m very against the idea of appropriation as your practice. I think that’s massively wrong, I think artists like Kenneth Goldsmith, the idea of the “uncreative genius", is not only boring, it can be quite offensive. Certainly he got into a lot trouble, rightly so, for a massively racist piece where he appropriated the autopsy report of Michael Brown, and not just appropriated, but remixed it in a way that ends on details of his genitalia. It was one of the most offensive works of art I’ve ever seen. The arrogance of that, as an artist, as a poet, that I can do this because I’m this “uncreative genius”. The Richard Princes of this world, whose completely arrogant appropriations of Instagrams sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds in galleries, are regressive. They’re trying to do these works using 21st-century media but clearly don’t get the internet. It’s just wrong. Our generation is rejecting that type of art.
And yet appropriation is still a big part of social media.
LT: The internet is wonderful. Memes are wonderful. It’s about appropriation but then generating something else. It’s a very creative act. The "Just Do It" video – some of those videos people made from that are incredibly creative and masterful. Whereas nothing that Richard Prince has ever done is. His work is massively unaffecting and boring and outdated and regressive. This is how I met Shia, because he was going down that path, he had people like Kenneth Goldsmith trying to lure him into that postmodern world, and he never really bought into at all but didn’t really know where else to go. I had been quite vocal speaking out against that type of work, I’m completely the polar opposite. I think that’s why my work resonated with Shia, because it was actually an escape from that, a desire to do something meaningful and actually make art rather than just play the art game.
Where does it become dishonest? If someone tries to sell that work as their own?
LT: It’s not about being dishonest – I don’t think Richard Prince is dishonest. He’s overtly appropriating stuff and saying "this is all of culture, it’s mine to pillage", and then putting it on a wall and selling it in a blue-chip gallery for an exorbitant fee. It is art, but it’s terrible, terrible art. It’s boring. It’s wilfully boring. One of the accounts he appropriated in his Instagram series started selling the picture he’d appropriated, exactly the same, blown up on a canvas, for charity, for $50 or something, as opposed to $50,000. I’d much rather have the $50 version. It was doing some social good, but also because it was far richer artwork, in taking that back, reclaiming the narrative away from these egotistical, selfish appropriation artists, and back into a social cause, which is what the 21st century is about, the fact that we’re all in it together. It’s not about the idea that someone is more important that someone else.
On that note, some of the interpretations of the "Just Do It" video have been incredible. Do you have a favourite?
LT: I have a favourite that came up very early on, which wasn’t even green-screened, nothing was projected – the voice had been replaced. Someone had just recorded this really mellow, folk, singer-songwriter track, and it’s really beautiful, really tender, and really quiet – you have to put your volume right up. It’s the complete opposite of the original. I don’t think it spread very far, it’s only got like 1,000 views or something, probably because it’s so quiet, but I found it really tender. And the Songify one, of course.
Is that what makes it exciting, seeing the way people interpret your work?
LT: I also find it exciting and rewarding that you get all these YouTube tutorials of how to make a green-screen video using ours as the example. I think that’s the greatest thing about the internet, that it triggers people to learn how to do things.
And art is facilitating that.
LT: Absolutely. That’s how I got into the internet, years ago, it was my way in, the joy of learning how to create. It feels like it’s come full circle and I find that really rewarding.
Finally, we've talked a lot about the culture moving beyond certain types of art – at what point does the work you’re doing become outdated?
LT: I always think if you’re doing something for the right reasons, then hopefully there’s longevity in that.