Alex Frost

Alex Frost In Dialogue with Steven Cox

Steven Cox: The artist John Latham cemented his influence as a seminal figure within British Conceptual Art in the late 1960’s through his work Still & Chew: Art and Culture 1966 – 1967. The creation of this work consisted of himself, along with students of St.Martins coming together in his home to chew and spit out each individual page of Clement Greenberg’s Art and Culture, 1961. The pulp was then doused with sulfuric acid and yeast then left to ferment, turning into a phial of brown liquid sludge that contained a ‘distilled’ essence of Greenberg. Through Latham’s work, he demonstrated that destruction is an equal and opposite process to creation. Still & Chew: Art and Culture 1966 – 1967, is now considered one of the most important Conceptual works of the 1960’s.

To begin, I would like to discuss your residency at Flat Time House (usually abbreviated to FTHo), which is the past home and studio of John Latham. I feel that there are fascinating overlaps between the work of yours and Latham, where you similarly explore destruction, deconstruction and the fusing or coupling of objects that explore unexpected relationships commenting on broader societal and cultural issues. Prior to your residency at FTHo how theoretically significant was the work of Latham in your approach to both creative thinking and the physical making of work?

Alex Frost: I knew a little about Latham’s work before starting the residency: his position as one of the early exponents of conceptual art and I had looked at his work with the Artist Placement Group (APG). I'd actually put one of his book collages in a show I curated in Glasgow in 2008. Obviously when I started the residency I learnt a lot more about him, his life, work and philosophy. Whilst being resident I ate, slept and worked in Flat Time House which still contains a lot of remnants from when Latham lived there (beyond the Latham archive that is kept in the house). After a while I felt I had to block out some of his influence so as to avoid being overwhelmed and I could start to develop my own ideas. I saw a lot of exhibitions go up over the time I lived there and saw the different ways that Latham's legacy was addressed. The situation would have been the same for any resident: a balance of taking on some influence, showing respect but also finding one's own perspective.

Significantly, the house is in Peckham which is often cited as a case study for council led gentrification. In the early 2000s grants were given to homeowners to make improvements to their property and some of the local artists were commissioned to make street improvements: Anthony Gormley (who'd had his studio in the area) made some bollards and a manhole cover (that got stolen soon after it was installed) and Tom Philips designed some of the lampposts on Bellenden Road and had a made a few mosaic murals. Latham's book sculpture (that pierces through the window on the front of the house) was loosely connected to this scheme although I get the impression he was quite sceptical about the councils motives. So I would say there are a range of ways that I was influenced by Latham but his home Flat Time House (FTHo) and its location were as important to me as his work and ideas.

SC: In advance of undertaking the residency at FTHo, were you aware of the closure of FTHo taking place on the 31 July 2016? By having already undertaken this residency, how detrimental do you feel the closure is for other artists? One less residency opportunity in London, what are your thoughts on this?

AF: No I didn't know about the closure of FTHo whilst I was resident. I left the house in March 2015 and the decision to close the house was made in August that year. I think it will be a terrible shame to see the house go. The house hosts a programme that has the Latham archive at its heart. The residencies give artists the opportunity to respond to both the archive and house. It's a non-prescriptive process. Good residencies in London are rarely open submission, especially like this one that is so well supported.

It's important that there are residency opportunities in London. In my experience many residencies offer an escape from urban life and that seems like a contradiction to the idea that many artists have been battling against for years - that they are part of society and not estranged from it. The rural retreats, that are still so common, are not appropriate for every project.

SC: It seems as if the success of the Bellenden Renewal Scheme, and connected gentrification of the Peckham area - organised by Southward Council to manage the development of Bellenden - was hugely accelerated by the commissioning of public artworks by local artists (Antony Gormley, John Latham, Tom Phillips, Zandra Rhodes, etc.).

As a consequence, do you feel that the artist’s involvement in the regeneration process has unexpectedly (after a period of time) contributed towards the marginalisation of artists within the Bellenden area? Ironically, FTHo has become a victim of the renewal schemes success…

AF: As I understand it there are a range of factors in the closing of Flat Time House so I don't think that a direct line can be drawn between the gentrification of the area and FTHo's closing.

I guess there are a number of factors in Peckham's gentrification. I doubt that it would have happened so quickly if it weren’t for the mania of the housing market together with an extreme lack of housing supply. It's also worth considering the impact of building the Tate Modern within the borough of Southwark. I have spent most of the past 20 years away from London so my understanding of the situation is from a distance but the timing of the Bellenden Renewal Scheme and its use or instrumentalising of local artists may have some connection to the Tate's move into the borough (The Tate Modern opened in May 2000). The impression I get is that this move brought with it a new sense of identity to Southwark and that identity was centred around marrying art and regeneration. It's an era that Robert Hewison talks about in his book Cultural Capital and is documented on the Southwark notes blog.

It seems to me that artists are either seen as being useful because they have economic impact or because they have a social value. My own view is that to see culture either as an economic instrument or a social tool is just too narrow.

There is obviously an issue with the marginalisation of artists and their complicity in gentrification but in London more so than in other UK cities this has been amplified by the housing situation which creates the situation where artists move into an area to take advantage of cheap rent and are then moved on once they can no longer afford to stay in that area and the fact that this pattern keeps repeating gives the whole thing the air of parody.

SC: In general, to what extent do you feel artists have been marginalized or even exploited across London due to excessive gentrification occurring within the city? Is this an issue you believe will only get worse over time? Similarly, do you have any thoughts on this in relation to Brexit?

AF: I think gentrification has had a negative impact on a lot more people than just artists.

My own observation is that things are particularly tough for grassroots arts organisations and young artists in London. If you're thinking of setting up a gallery or studio then you'll have to factor in huge rents that can double at any moment. I don't think that the art market can be relied upon to pick up the slack as this approach only helps a limited range of outcomes. Ultimately, a better focus for public funding in the city could address this. I see a lot of artists and institutions that have benefited from being in the city and it would be nice to see them putting something back in at a grassroots level.

I guess the property owning mania that has gripped London over the past 30 years might slow down as a result of Brexit and this could possibly reduce rents but at what cost? ...fewer jobs or even more precarious jobs with fewer safeguards?

SC: Property Guardian was a term you adopted to compare yourself to that of a ‘guardian’ whilst being a short-term artist resident of FTHo. Though, when researching property guardianship I regularly encountered articles surrounding the horrific and unstable living conditions that companies such as Camelot, Ad Hoc, Dot Dot Dot and Live In Guardian put upon those willing to be licensees or ’guardians’. It seems like a very unglamorous and perhaps unfavourable position to put oneself in.

Do you feel that artist’s consciously choose to live within equally unsatisfactory conditions by signing up for what can potentially be overly glamorized artist residencies? Do you consider the artist residency as being an overly stylized period of creative squatting?

AF: The situation with property guardians is even stranger than the situation you describe. A lot of the property guardianship schemes that you mention are advertised as artist residencies so there is a direct link between the two. The perilous situation that property guardians in London find themselves in does seem to be more extreme here. It's disturbing that the organisations that run property guardianships were using the cultural capital of the artist residency as a justification for unfair work and tenancy situations. I see this situation as being one of the many ways that any chance of security or community (not just for artists) is undermined.

The situation for guardians/residents differs greatly to the original remit of Artist Placement Group (APG) which was set up by Barbera Steveni, and which Latham was involved in. APG did some very important work in advancing the role of the artist residency. It was not without controversy but APG's projects were well funded, were not prescriptive about outcomes and demanded a respect (through contracts) from the hosting organisation.

Like many artists, I have undertaken residencies as one of the many ways to survive and continue making art. Residencies do offer desirable cultural capital for the artist and institution and they come in all shapes and sizes. They vary in length, levels of support, and standard of accommodation or workspace. They vary so greatly that they shouldn't really all be called residencies.

So it seemed important to try and address the housing obsession in London. One way was to try and address the residency as a subject but it was complicated because the residency took so many forms one of which I was working from within...

SC: By living in London, how negatively does the issue of inflation directly affect you, and in what ways have you adjusted your work because of this? Has your output been compromised? To what extent has your environment dictated your work?

AF: My environment always affects my work and moving to London from Glasgow (which I did following the FTHo residency in April 2015) has definitely had an impact. I think there may have been a time when I found the idea of making permanent physically intimidating objects absurd but now that absurdity has turned into something much darker. The general shape of my work is always shifting. I'm interested in both the active form and its relationship to the object.  This can be seen in older work too but in more oblique ways.

This active form is addressed in Property Guardian through things like the plinth that is built in the shape of the house's footprint; the Peckham Art Press Release Archive (PAPR Archive) which, whilst in residence in FTHo, aimed to collate paper press releases from art events that had happened in Peckham since 2000 and included press releases from Lathams own archive; through objects that might be bought, borrowed, or left behind by previous residents (like the comb, hotel key card and book that were shown in the exhibition); all the objects in the show are also connected by a single title.

The residency at FTHo showed me that it was possible to still live and work in London (from the outside it seemed pretty impossible) and I was lucky enough to be awarded a live/work studio by Acme studios which has made my move from Glasgow a lot easier than it could have been. Sure, London's expensive but it's also where I grew up and where my family still live and if you’re interested in making work that addresses the city and want to be involved in the debate about cities then London is a great place to be!

SC: Within your exhibition Property Guardian, you explored the impermanence of an artist’s presence within the context of the artist residency. As you mentioned, you created a sculptural sand work that touches upon the nature of temporality by the material naturally disintegrating and losing both its structure and presence over a period of time. Not only does the works deterioration portray the passing of time, it also represents the inevitable and natural return of both the materials and environments primary state upon the departure of the artist.

Throughout this exhibition you thoroughly explored this notion of temporality, particularly via addressing the dichotomy between the presence and absence of both past and present residents. Can you please discuss this particular work within the context of temporality, as well as highlight the works significance within the direct surroundings of the FTHo garden?

AF: The sand sculpture is one of a series that I've made since 2012. These sculptures disintegrate over time and generally depict very simple forms. They are made by piling up layers of compacted sand and water and often include additional invisible elements such as Oxytocin (the love hormone bought online as a cologne called 'liquid trust') or in the case of the FTHo sculpture: pet deterrent  - a chemical that keeps dogs and cats away. This addition of pet deterrent was one of the numerous references to pets in the exhibition (specifically the exotic pet- another form of resident).

The sand sculpture in Property Guardian was in the shape of a brick barbecue. I'd made some pewter sculptures using the houses own BBQ as a home foundry or mint. These pewter sculptures were casts of objects I'd found around the house like stacks of coins and keys. I liked the idea of making objects that used elements of the existing house (like the barbecue) as fabrication tools. The idea of making an additional (and useless) BBQ within the garden was one way of reinforcing the link. The simplicity and temporality of the tools and materials used for both the sand sculpture and the pewter casts suggests an absurd poetic which is also echoed in the disparate objects that make up the exhibition.

SC: I feel that within this exhibition you celebrated not only the legacy of Latham, but also that of past residents via the petrifying of found objects that were lost or left behind. I am curious to know in which way you personally left a permanent and physical trace within FTHo? Also, would you consider your time within the FTHo as being that of an archivist or commentator of past events?

AF: I would say my role has more in common with the archivist than the commentator. I'm not strictly an archivist but closer to an archivist than a commentator. Making art is a bit like some kind of reverse archaeology. Instead of digging things up you're effectively putting things in the ground to be discovered and to confuse people in the future.  I like to think that art can be a catalogue of our current condition.

SC: As well as Property Guardian being the title of your solo exhibition that succeeded your residency at FTHo, you also applied this title to all of your works within the exhibition. One particular work that captures my attention is a malformed ornamental sculpture that incorporated smashed ceramic fragments of kitsch toby jugs, ceramic breasts and phalluses, combined using grout and plaster. Is the interpretation of this work related to the breakdown and flawed manner of piecing back together a broken British middle class? Also, can you highlight your reasoning for giving the works within the exhibition one shared title?

AF: The works you refer to are 3D collages. I'm currently working on more of these ceramic amalgam sculptures. They are made from ceramic ornaments that I collect and then smash and reconfigure. Sure, they make reference to class and taste and the role of the object but I feel that I don't need to underline that fact. In the case of the works for Property Guardian I collected the ceramic elements locally so they could be seen as having some connection to the area. I'm not sure how I feel about metaphor as a way of revealing or interpreting art - if this is the role of art then I think Seinfeld does a better job.

All of the works in the show were called Property Guardian. Labelling everything in the show with the same title ties all the work together. I've done this a few times now.

SC: Throughout your oeuvre, it is interesting to see that a variety of your work is site specific. Whilst being based at FTHo, I can’t help but feel that it would have been interesting to see a new mosaic tile work that responded to the local mosaic works of Tom Phillips. Did you consider creating a mosaic work that directly responded to those situated in Bellenden? Or, would this relationship/connection between the work of yours and Phillips been too direct or conflicting?

AF: At the start of the residency the local artworks were a big part of my research. I was reluctant to be seen to be either destroying or adding to the existing street works and so I looked into a range of ways that I could 'sample' the street works on Bellenden Road. Tom Philip's mosaics were a little too close to home. I had recently made a series of rubbings of the 60+ mosaics I'd found around Easterhouse in Glasgow and had felt no need to exhaust my relationship to mosaics. I did do some experiments with Gormley's bollards though. I left clothes (that had been soaked in a very mild acid) wrapped around the bollards over night. In the morning I untied them and dried them out. The oxidised cast iron on the bollards reacted with the acid and left a rusty residue on the clothes and had made no discernible difference to the bollards themselves. The residency was a fairly productive time and by the time I'd got to the end of the residency I didn't feel these cloth samplings fitted in with the exhibition.

SC: Outwith the fascinating body of work that was completed during your residency at FTHo, which has clearly gripped my attention, can you tell me about your current day-to-day studio routine at Acme Studios, London? In contrast to FTHo, how is this residency altering your work? What are the key themes/issues you are now investigating? 

AF: I now effectively live in my studio and so there's an inevitable blurring of the line between my life and studio routine. My experience of residencies has made this an easy enough transition to make. I need to be more economical and disciplined with my time and space but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

I'm currently working on an exhibition at City and Guilds School of Art in Kennington. The work I'm making is about progress and development and points directly to the development of Elephant and Castle, which is close by. This work will be shown at the college in September 2016.

Alex Frost

Images courtesy of Alex Frost, Static Image, Flat Time House and Alan Dimmick.