John Walter is an artist whose practice includes drawings, paintings, performance, video, song, sculpture and architecture. He participated in the 2014 Whitstable Biennale with his work Turn My Oyster Up, a phrase translated as ‘make me smile’ taken from Polari, the 1950’s gay slang popularised by Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick in the BBC radio show Round the Horne. The installation featured a ‘slang bar’ in a beach hut with Walter performing as the host, serving gin cocktails and gypsy tarts – using the concept of hospitality as a device for engaging. Assistant curator Kate Phillimore interviews Walter to reflect on his Biennale commission and discuss how the project has informed his ambitious next project, Alien Sex Club.
Kate Phillimore: You initially responded to an open call for artist proposals for the Biennale. What was it about Whitstable or the Whitstable Biennale that caught your imagination?
John Walter: I’d known about the Biennale and I’d known that artists had done projects with the festival at a key moment in their careers. I’d followed what artists like Benedict Drew and Emma Hart had done and thought ‘oh I’d like to do that’. My parents also have a caravan in Seasalter, and I thought it would be great to do a project here because I know it and I’d have an audience of my own for it. And when it came to having an idea, I had a genuine idea, it wasn’t like I was shoving a round peg in a square hole.
You have done these bars before but how did this change, in regard to being in Whitstable and specifically in regard to being in this very small beach hut?
I’ve been making the bars since about 2011, Bar Zsa Zsa was the first one and they’re always different in terms of what they house, the character and the drink served. With Whitstable there was the scenario of the hut, which was not within a bigger building so visitors could come straight in. There was this thing about Whitstable and oysters, but I didn’t want to make anything that was wisp-y and seaside-y – that’s just not me. And Whitstable isn’t a carnival type place – it’s not Brighton – so finding this bit of text about Polari just opened it up completely to be located there, and then suddenly it was – I don’t know if you could call it site generated or something like that – it felt like I had something to work with that might engage people.
Could you say a little bit more about Polari and what that is?
I suppose at the time I was looking at slang and how people use slang online or in cruising, and the history of that. So Polari is a kind of lexicon of words that uses an English grammar that allowed men in the 50s (or the pre-liberation era) to signify among themselves that they were gay, by swapping key words. So you might say, ‘Look at the lallies on omi paloni’ or in other words, ‘Look at the legs on the gay guy over there’. So it’s got a rhythm to it. What’s interesting about it linguistically is that borrows from sailor slang, Italian, Romany, as well as carnival dialects and Yiddish and it mashes them all together, so it’s this sort of a mongrel which is already full of play – which is like my work I suppose: mongrel!
I was attracted to your proposal partly because it seemed to fit really well with an idea Matthew de Pulford (an artist, and curator at Limbo, in Margate) and I had been exploring of the Jester Curator, the idea of a figure in the art world who would play the fool, and use humour, music and baseness as a way to reveal universal truths, in a really fun way. The idea seems counter to what’s happening in the rest of the art world. Is this something that you have been thinking about or aware of when developing these settings and characters?
Totally, and I think about it as a form of drag, in the sense that my drag is an agenda disguise, it’s a performance of the comedic in order to soften the blow of the serious. I’m quite upfront that what I do is ridiculous, but then you can go the other way into it, and there’s another side to it that is serious. It’s got to be pleasurable and it’s got to be fun for people, otherwise what’s the draw?
I agree with you the jester, the darkness of clowns, the flip side of the tragedy and the comedy – all those things have always gone hand in hand, so I suppose I want my work in its ideal form to be so shrill that you would laugh and collapse at the same time – like Stendahl Syndrome! That kind of excess you can only get through the Carnivalesque – it’s all to do with Bakhtin and this idea of how you release these other energies and give people access to another part of their soul.
But at the same time it’s always regulated isn’t it? There’s some sort of control when it comes to the Carnivaleque, either by the church or the government that allows this one day of things flipping on their head, but then everything has to go back to normal.
Yes, and it was the same in Turn My Oyster Up, it was this zone spatially, and it had its own time slot, and it had its own rules and it didn’t deviate from that. I suppose that’s to do with play again – whether it’s a child or an artist – they have parameters and within those parameters you have a fictional world, and outside those parameters you don’t. That’s always interested me within painting, someone like Carroll Dunham talks about that, but for me the field of the canvas isn’t a big enough parameter so it has got to take on this other size. I wish that more people would be more genuinely carnivaleque in the art world. It does frustrate me when people mistake it for silliness.
I think that might have a lot to do with how the audience feels they are meant to respond to the work as well. Perhaps that is something that Whitstable was able to offer; because we are often working in unusual spaces, coming to the bar on the beach hut didn’t feel that strange. I think the success of your project had a lot to do with audience engagement. Your ability to bring such a varied audience into conversation was really amazing, and actually took so much work, but you made it look so effortless – you were there playing this role for six long days!
Yes, this is something I’ve thought a lot about, I’m trying to invent a way to remove myself from it, but you are right, it hinged on my mediation. When you read the blurb that was written, it’s got all those signature words like ‘participation’ or whatever that might scare people off, but then people would turn up and it wasn’t awkward at all – it was pleasurable, which people also get suspicious of! But I think the other thing is that it was tailored for a general public, so there was an art audience way of reading it, but also everyone that visited got something out of it.
In terms of disseminating the work or holding conversations, I’ve built up a skill, and this is to do with the drag as well, where I’m quite good at luring out of people what they want to talk about and then guiding it (and I don’t always get it right) – do they want me to talk for a while or do they have something to say? Often you would just introduce people in a room together and that would ignite something, and create random connections between people, so it’s really like being a publican. It’s like being in Eastenders and running the Queen Vic!
As part of your programme for the Biennale you handed over the stage for an evening performance where you invited Sue Hewlett and Max Leonard Hitchings to perform. I was wondering if you could speak a bit about collaboration, and working with other artists.
That was a great way of extending the logic of what I did in that both of them brought this other version of the Carnivalesque. I loved both of their performances for different reasons. Max’s was so dissonant, yet all of his imagery was to do with the occult and Alistair Crowley and tarot: all things I’m interested in but spun in a very different way. It was something you’d expect in a dark club in London, not on a sunny beachfront in Whitstable. And then I think it was good that we had Sue as well because they were so opposite, her project was so comedic and got people to move physically from the shore to the beach. I think for them it was a great chance to test something out in a different way.
How did the Whitstable commission inform your upcoming project, Alien Sex Club?
The Whitstable commission directly feeds into the new project, Alien Sex Club, in that I’m considering systems of thinking and people like Humberto Maturana are talking about these kinds of autopoietic networks where language orients our behaviour. Within the context of HIV the way that we cruise verbally can affect the risks we take; so the slang we use on Grindr would have a direct relationship to the risk we put ourselves at of STDS, therefore if you could intervene in that language you could also potentially intervene with the rates of HIV transmission. That’s a kind of leap, but that’s the sort of thinking I’m pursuing on a bigger scale in the whole project.
You are doing a PhD in Architecture, but you have a practice as an artist and you are researching HIV and AIDS as part of your practice. Could talk about how these are all connected?
I’m definitely not an architect – we can all agree on that – but things overtime required a more spatial logic. Alien Sex Club is a test site for some spatial thinking about the difference between a maze and a labyrinth and the PhD currently hinges on the idea of a cruise maze, which is more of a cultural metaphor. I believe the maze is a risk taking space because of all the choices and opportunities to hide and dwell, linger in different spaces and different atmospheres, so I’m exploring if you could intervene in that space in the same way you could with language.
The labyrinth is a related spatial typology to a maze, but distinctly different and it has this other history to do with meditation and trance in a very different way to a maze. I’ve found this key reference weirdly to do with Kent. Not far from Whitstable is this site called Julliberry’s Grave which is a Neolithic burial mound, where ancestors would walk on top of the graves of the dead. So there’s an idea that I’m extrapolating on that when you are walking the labyrinth you are incanting your ancestors, and within the context of HIV that becomes quite poetic, but also potentially useful because one of the problems with gay men is that they are not genetically related to their ancestors, it’s a cultural passing on of knowledge rather than a genetic one, and in remembering the AIDS dead that have gone before us, a sort of Julliberry’s Grave within Alien Sex Club is something that’s evolving as a key idea. This maze, or labyrinth, houses a survey of HIV now, and that’s distinctly different from how it was in the 80s. You can’t look at the aspects of HIV in isolation – whereas in the 80s there was no treatment and there were complications from all of the associated diseases that you were vulnerable to. Now there’s antiretroviral therapy and there’s a big shift in HIV transmission. I’m calling it a syndemic, which is a multiple pandemic, so you’ve got Chemsex, barebacking, condom fatigue, homophobia, etc. You’ve got a cluster of things that are feeding each other and you can’t see them in isolation you’ve got to show how they are joined, and you’ve got to invent a maze type network that can cluster these different elements together.
Would you describe your work as political then?
There was something on the radio the other day about artists in another country where there was a lot of political discontent, and the artists were having to be very political, driving ahead a message that maybe TV or other media wouldn’t take. We maybe don’t need to do that as much here, but I think that artists are innately political. We (artists) are choosing to put our voices, our interests in front of other people and are taking responsibility to elaborate on that as little or as much as you like. I see what I’m doing as a form of activism, I’m not claiming it’s some grand form of activism, or even activism in the 80s sense – that’s also something I’m trying to work out. I’m trying to use what I do to present people with the problems I think need discussing, and then I’m also trying to build a context for that discussion. That’s why I’m doing a PhD, because nobody is necessarily asking me to do this, but I’m saying this is important, and that’s political. I do think that my practice is an equal mix of art, architecture, HIV and activism. My project is somewhere in the middle of all these things and useful to all of them and useless to all of them!
Has Turn My Oyster Up made you think about your upcoming work any differently?
Turn My Oyster Up was a huge success for me – it was my biggest success in a sense because it got a large audience, got a few write-ups and it was very public. But it was exhausting! Each day was totally different. I suppose in evaluating it, I did consider ‘is there a way to train other people to do this?’ But at the same time maybe the success was down to me being there everyday – so is it just that I need to become more resilient as a performer? I did realise how reliant it was on the fiction, and me and even if you slightly removed that people didn’t understand what was going on. That really unnerved me. People treat you differently when you are in drag – which is a key element for dislodging people, getting them to behave differently, it’s sort of encouraging them to be different people. When the beach hut was turned into an ‘actual bar’ rather than a performance space, during the performance with Sue and Max, it wasn’t so successful. But that was a lesson learned. In general seeing people respond to it that well confirmed that I was doing something right.
Photograph: Bernard G Mills.