Interview by Bob Bicknell-Knight
Originally published in the second issue of the isthisit? magazine in August 2017
Natalie Lambert (b.1984) lives and works in London, UK. Pantomime politics have shown that an individual and collective sense of agency can be easily massaged and manipulated algorithmically. Paradoxically, in our increasingly interconnected world, we are more atomised – more disconnected from one another – than ever before. Reality is increasingly abstracted and occluded in a ‘post-truth’ paradigm, in which the subject is kept in a constant state of distraction, assaulted by stimuli but not equipped with the informational cognitive frame to decode it effectively. I wish to address such uncomfortable truths in my work, to explore the roles we play as both individuals and collectives, in the systems we inhabit and operate within, to highlight contradictions in our belief systems and provoke the unravelling of truth. To destabilise the technologies we have integrated into our everyday lives by playfully manipulating the ‘promiscuous circulation of images’ in continual, disposable circulation. I occupy a role situated on the boarder of architect / curator / facilitator within my practice, establishing a framework of constraints and then observing, mapping and charting the patterns of agency which emerge from within it. I wish to explore the fertile creative territory that exists on the boundary of these multifaceted disciplines through an interdisciplinary and socially engaged practice.
In this interview artist Natalie Lambert talks to artist and curator Bob Bicknell-Knight about the power of meme, the LD50 gallery controversy, reactionary content and the #pizzagate movement.
Bob Bicknell-Knight: So, I thought we'd begin by talking about what themes you’re currently exploring in your practice and then move on to talking about your current projects and how they relate to the broad themes of memes and internet appropriation.
Natalie Lambert: Recently, I’ve been investigating the monopoly the mainstream media has on controlling the narrative frame of cultural and political discourse. In the pre-Internet era the structure of control was much more obvious and linear – the news, for example, took place during set time slots on a handful of channels, rather than being this on going, rolling thing with innumerable updates, constructed across a plurality of different media platforms. But I’m also interested in the points at which this form of control breaks down and degenerates into something other. I’m fascinated by the interrelationship between censorship, conspiracies and the new ‘post-truth’ digital media landscape we inhabit. We are asphyxiated by the onslaught of informational content – power lies with those institutions that can frame and curate our collective subconscious response to it.
In terms of my own practice, a central concern is the ‘act of display’, its meta-political context and the mutability of signs. I am interested in meta-level issues surrounding acts of appropriation in the age of Internet culture. Signs are vulnerable to acts of ‘hostile aesthetic takeover’ witnessed in the sub-cultural hijacking of previously innocuous cartoon characters Pepe the frog and Trash Doves. Such appropriations result in a battle for the soul of the sign, which is transformed into a cypher for alternately humorous and malevolent intentions, the oscillations of which are amplified through viral replication and hyperstitional invocations of ‘meme magic’. Sometimes the sign falls back into its default state and the transgression is rendered temporary. In other instances the sign is permanently marked by the encounter, transformed into something Other by the power of collective will and viral association.
B: How is this interest in the post-truth cultural landscape manifesting in the work you’re currently making?
N: I’ve been exploring ‘frieze framing’ moments in mimetic replication through the physical manifestation and calcification of content, conjured out of the liminal-flux of the digital-ether. Trash Doves is an evolving project with multiple outcomes/outputs. It originated with a friend telling me his girlfriend, Syd Weiler, had recently launched some Facebook stickers, to – within a few weeks – the image getting re-appropriated by the Alt-right (one meme replacing the Nazi eagle with Trash Dove, for example) and Weiler being sent death threats. Weiler’s lawyers fought the misappropriation of Trash Doves across the web, which rendered the inappropriate memes censored/redacted on various articles about the meme. I was so intrigued by this scenario I felt compelled to make work inspired by it. I started working on a collection of Internet sourced, ‘calcified’ novelty items featuring the redacted images – creating a consumerist shrine to the insanity.
Another piece that I recently finished was Excerpt from 71822666 LD50 and was exhibited in relation to many of the concerns I’ve mentioned, but took on an additional potency due to its proximal relationship to debates about censorship which were engulfing the contemporary art world at the time. The object was a laser cut crystal, which featured a group of Pepe’s extracting the heart of another Pepe. The initial focus of the protest against LD50 gallery centred on a series of live-streamed talks featuring Alt-right and Neoreactionary speakers, which took place over the summer, and not the ‘physical’ exhibition 71822666, which the artefact I excerpted was taken from. It was a small detail in a much larger diagrammatic-installation, which featured appropriated signs and signifiers that charted examples of the aesthetics of the Alt-right and meme culture. The context of the protest against LD50 is significant to the methodology of the piece – to render the redacted object visible. It was to be presented as a pivot on which two ideologically opposed art world positions balance: One is that art should be able to provide a window onto the world, however challenging some people might find the view. The other is the rhetoric of No Platform, which is becoming increasingly mainstream and seeks to enforce the equation Hate Speech > Free Speech.
The idea of redaction was also a prominent theme in the Denialism show I curated earlier this year. I looped and redacted the infamous fight scene in John Carpenter’s They Live, which was displayed alongside a censored copy of the childrens story I Don’t Believe in Dragons. Both appropriated fragments interrogate our perception and experience of uncovering truths, but are deemed innocuous instead of informative. It sat on a desk littered with censored images from the Internet, creating a suffocating and frustrating space of non-information.
Natalie Lambert, Excerpt from 71822666 LD50, 2017.
Courtesy of the artist.
B: I'd like to discuss your position on the LD50 protest, as your work seems to be discussing the current climate of politically correct culture, arguing that as artists we should be able to explore all areas of society, maybe to better understand what's happening beyond our peripheral vision? Or in this case, to better understand the mainframe of the internet. I feel like this is what the LD50 talks and seminars were attempting to do in a way. What do you think about this? Was displaying the Pepe icon a form of critique, as the beginning of a dialogue, or something else entirely?
N: It was definitely a critique. I wanted to open up dialogue with my peers – who for the most part weren't aware of LD50 gallery or the protests surrounding it – and the institution, St Martins, we were all part of.
It also functioned as a provocation. At the time LD50 was near the apex of its toxicity in terms of how eager various parts of the arts establishment were to attack it. I was struck by how little support there was for its right to creative freedom – to explore this kind of subject matter without being verbally and physically assaulted.
As I previously mentioned, the protests against LD50 initially centred on the programme of talks it hosted over the summer, not the aesthetics of its later 71822666 exhibition which mapped Alt-right imagery and signifiers. However, by the time I came to exhibit Excerpt from 71822666 LD50 at the interim exhibition any sense of nuance in terms of why something was problematic had been lost and anything related to the space or its programme was considered deeply suspect and problematic.
So, the outcome – censorship – was neither a surprise nor intentional. I wanted to explore how charged/loaded an object (separated from its original context) could become – the crystal was less than 1% of total content of the exhibition at LD50 but even at this proof it was considered too toxic to be displayed in public. Also, I was shocked by how cannibalistic the left had become, and the Pepe image in the crystal perfectly articulated my feelings at the time.
I didn't personally feel shocked or threatened by the talks or exhibition at LD50. I thought the content was interesting and – even if aspects of it could be considered problematic – it was better to discuss and interrogate it than to pretend these things don’t exist. I also don't think censorship is the answer – suppression is never absolute and ends up creating a climate for dangerous ideas to flourish and evolve. I was intrigued to watch violence erupt in London’s contemporary art scene. It felt immature, ignorant and irrational. I was ashamed to be a visual artist in this abusive culture. Undoubtedly, the reaction to LD50 was also a retrospective reaction to Trump being elected as president and starting to enact some of his policies, such as the travel ban. LD50 arguably became a scapegoat for a feeling of threat and resentment for certain people on the Left as well as an easy target to potentially further their careers by attacking it.
Natalie Lambert, Work produced during The Sketchup Residency
Courtesy of the artist.
B: So your initial goal for the work was to provoke, and having the work censored by the curator was when the work was finished in a way? When discussing this type of content the word ‘toxicity’ seems to come up a lot, prominent on sites like 4chan and reddit, what are your thoughts on using the term in the context of contemporary art?
N: The initial goal wasn't simply to provoke, but to show the unshowable object; which was, of course, a provocation to the extent that powerful interests within the contemporary art community and culture media had already designated anything associated with LD50 toxic. I hadn't actually expected the object to be censored - it seemed ridiculous and uncritical that an arts education institution would exhibit such intellectual timidity.
The censoring of this work didn't finish things, it just started/opened up a whole new conversation - what kind of art is and isn't supported in the educational institution? What are the silent terms and conditions of me making work in this institution? The tutors felt the work was interesting, but that it would be perfect in a private gallery, not a show related to CSM. When we are told we are free to explore our practice, push it's boundaries and test limitations, I now understand this is actually a very small window to operate within.
Toxicity: I believe art can/should be asking difficult questions, so labelling something too "toxic" feels patronising to it's audience. How can art be toxic when it's open to endless interpretations? Should we be making work with the understanding it must be "safe"? How limiting. Art shouldn't just be family friendly, sanitised, conscripted.
B: I guess it’s good to realise that the seemingly utopian university that encourages art making in all its forms is in reality just another institution, afraid of back lash and fuelled by monetary values… I definitely feel like art can be toxic, but labelling it ‘too toxic’ does definitely feel patronising, making an assumption that the viewer wouldn’t be able to handle it and, in your case, randomly vandalising other artwork in the show, provoked by the toxicity of the gallery. The image of Pepe has definitely become toxic, but I see the alt-right connotations as just another variation in the cycle of emotions or beliefs that have been assigned to the frog because of its mass circulation on the internet. What do you think about images being adopted by groups with certain ideologies, should we attempt to stop the circulation or try to combat these forced implications in some way?
Natalie Lambert, Article 50, 2017.
Glass, 51.9% Leave: Turpentine, Leather, Gin & Tonic, 48.1% Remain: Glue, Leather, Fig Leaf.
Courtesy of the artist.
N: Memetics functions via viral contagion. Quarantine is no longer possible in the post-Internet era - there are too many ways to anonymously route around the official organs of information and construct alternative narratives (from Wikileaks to ‘fake news’, for example). Of course there will always be a temptation for those in power to suppress information that challenges or threatens the status quo. The real question is whether we are best served by the suppression of information or not, and who should control the narrative frame and what is labelled ‘toxic'.
Contemporary art is significant not only for its capacity to reflect and process wider cultural discourse, but its ability to contribute to and further that discourse. We need to leave some space for art to challenge – or at least poke fun at – consensus reality. So, if we can’t prevent the cultural highjacking and reappropriation of images, what can we do? American artist Daniel Keller suggests that it might be possible to ‘reverse engineer’ the tactics of Alt-right meme culture and repurpose them for more positive metapolitical ends. This is an angle I am keen to explore in my practice.
B: It’s a shame to give up on these symbols so easily, sacrificing the likes of Pepe and Trash Dove to the alt-right, without any real backlash from the left. What happens when they decide to appropriate more than just (to some) irrelevant memes? Are you working on anything at the moment that’s attempting to repurpose and reclaim a ‘toxic’ idea?
N: The Streisand effect, a phenomenon greatly facilitated by the Internet, concerns how any attempt to hide, censor, or remove information frequently has the unintended consequence of further publicising the information. Furthermore, even if the information itself is bogus, the very act of trying to suppress it, can lend it an air of legitimacy or danger it may otherwise not poses.
In place of trying to hide, censor or suppress ‘toxic’ ideas and content I propose debate, which is how I am exploring the issue in my own practice by acting as a facilitator to the conversations I believe we should be having. In fact, the conversation you and I are having right now is an example of this. So my own approach is more multi-perspectival. I’m not approaching the problem as anything as linear as trying to directly re-appropriate images for the Left myself. I think there are problems associated with both left wing and right wing ideologies, and the polarisation of positions on either side has come to occlude reasoned thinking. Indeed, having my work censored by CSM only highlighted how difficult it is to open up debate at the moment, and dangerous debate is considered to be, in an institutional context which effectively already has an officially sanctioned position on the issue that cannot be challenged.
Aside from the calcified meme-objects and frieze-framing moments of mimetic replication (Trash Doves and Excerpt from 71822666 LD50), I've been developing some work around the Pizzagate conspiracy. I'm interested in the parallels between ‘fact’, which is really just what we call the officially sanctioned narrative, and fiction ('fake news') in the media, and how easy it is for alternative realities to be created/spread. Pizzagate is a curated braindump; a redacted (black) pizzabox containing tweets, emails, links, leaks, documents, photographs, code keys and memes printed onto transparent paper which allows for the information to bleed into each other. I resisted the temptation to map it on a wall, instead inviting the viewer to sift sort explore and make connections (or not). Pizzagate is a metaphor, a fantastical narrative of the (real) corruption of elites. It’s intended to be both appealing and repulsive, a liminal space which incorporates a flux of fact, fabrication, fantasy, and perverted invention.
On a lighter note, I’m also currently working on a limited edition perfume called ‘Article 50’.
Natalie Lambert, The Younger The Better (AKA The Institution), 2017.
Castration pliers, aluminium stand and castration rings.
Courtesy of the artist.
Bob Bicknell-Knight is a London based artist and curator working in installation, sculpture, moving image, net art and other digital mediums. Online and offline surveillance accompanied by the consumer capitalist culture within today’s society are the main issues surrounding his work in association with current and future utopian environments, the continued automation of our daily lives in relation to the internet of things and the various cultures associated with online communities. Recent curated shows include The Museum Has Abandoned Us at State of the Art in Berlin, The Choice of a New Generation at The Muse Gallery in London.