S Mark Gubb lives and works in Cardiff. Born and raised near Margate, Kent, he works across a range of media incorporating sculpture, video, sound, installation and performance. His work has been widely exhibited in solo and group exhibitions including Turner Contemporary (Margate), Dublin Contemporary, Aspex Gallery (Portsmouth), Postmasters Gallery (NYC), Matthew Bown Gallery (Berlin), Mostyn (Llandudno), Ceri Hand Gallery (Liverpool), Castlefield Gallery (Manchester), ICA (London) and PS1 MoMA (NYC).
It all began with Richard Burton was originally a talk and slideshow commissioned by Beagles & Ramsay, and was developed as a work for a coach tour for Whitstable Biennale 2014.
Mira Kuure: How did the commission for the Whitstable Biennale 2014 originally come about?
S Mark Gubb: The commission really came about through the back door. The Collaborative Research Group [i] were already working with the Biennale and approached me about the possibility of the commission. I had recently been working on the editorial board of a project Toby Huddlestone (founder of the Collaborative Research Group) was delivering in Cardiff and I think it was in the course of those conversations that I told Toby about this work I had made for a publication, that I had then adapted as a kind-of performance lecture. Being based in Ramsgate, it pricked Toby’s interests and he asked me if I would consider adapting it again for the Biennale. I was, of course, very happy to do that.
You’re originally from North Kent but have since moved to Cardiff, where you currently live and work. In It all began with Richard Burton you take your audience on a bus tour of past experiences and stories in Kent. How did it feel to return back to your roots, so to say, as you created the text for the bus tour?
I really enjoyed the whole experience. In many ways, it made proper sense of the original idea, as the geography of those little moments and facts are incredibly important. I can be quite a nostalgic person and when I visit Kent to catch up with friends and family, I often find myself reminiscing with people or giving new friends little off-the-cuff guided tours of all this stuff. The idea that a bus full of people would want to hand over two hours of their lives to listen to me waffle on about all these funny little coincidences did carry a certain level of pressure with it, but then you just have to think, ‘they signed up for it, so they must be up for it’. What was interesting was expanding the experience to engage people over a two-hour time-slot. When I give the lecture with images, it takes about ten minutes, but obviously the nature of a bus tour means there are going to be long gaps at certain points, between one point of interest and another. So I came up with the idea of making videos to show on the in-coach TV that backed up or revealed further stuff I was talking about. I think it worked well.
The adaptation of the work you did for Whitstable Biennale is itself very interesting; taking a group of people on a coach tour is not something that one frequently comes across in the art world. Was this way of presentation/performance inspired by those ‘off-the-cuff guided tours’ you mentioned?
Absolutely, and if I’m totally honest it was the vision of Toby Huddlestone who turned round to me one day and said, ‘You know that lecture you give… how do you fancy trying to develop it in to an actual coach tour?’ So while what was experienced on the bus was all my own work, I can’t take the credit for having spotted the coach tour as a potential form for it in the first place. That’s actually a good example of one way I enjoy working with different curators – when the conversation is on that creative level, collaborative almost.
You talked about engaging people in this tour and how the actual lecture stretched from ten minutes to the two hours of the coach tour. How did you feel this presence of the passengers, or ‘tourists’, contributed to the work itself? It’s evident that the experience is completely different from listening to the tape and watching the slideshow, and of course performance works are greatly dependent on the participants.
Yes, they really are, and the presence and experience of the passengers was at the forefront of my mind throughout. I was really aware that if I didn’t deal with it properly it could be boring, and the last thing I wanted to do was rob anybody of two hours of their weekend. So that’s partly where the idea for playing the videos came in, to extend the engagement of the viewers in to those potentially long gaps when nothing else would be happening. I also found myself ad-libbing a bit as we went round – highlighting the post office in Margate where the name ‘S Mark Gubb’ was born, and pointing out Sandy Toksvig’s house on Herne Bay seafront. In many ways I treated it like one of those journeys with a friend, but it just so happened I was on a coach with fifty people rather than one person in a car. People really seemed to take the whole experience in the spirit it was intended, which made my experience of the whole thing much easier and more enjoyable too.
As already mentioned, you left Kent years ago and have lived elsewhere ever since. Do you think time has affected the way you look at your hometown and the whole county? Do you feel distance has given you something that you were able to put into this work and that is therefore conveyed in/ through it?
I don’t think there’s anything in the work that the years away have allowed to happen, other than the very practical instance of finding a signed Mike and Bernie Winters album in a charity shop whilst I was living in Nottingham. Mostly I could have put this tour together twenty years ago when I still lived there, but I guess the geographical and historical distance I have from the area makes it interesting, to me, in a slightly different way. I still return to the area a lot, as my family still live there and I have a lot of friends there, so although I moved away, on some level I don’t feel like I’ve ever left. It was such a formative part of my life, socially, culturally etc., that I don’t think I’ve ever found anywhere since that I’ve felt so at home and so connected to. I think most people could say that, not necessarily about the place where they grew up, but that place where you really become a version of the person you are for the rest of your life. For some people this happens in their teens, as it did for me, but for others that moment comes about later in life and I think, geographically and emotionally, that’s the place where part of you then belongs forever. Also, that distance from Herne Bay, Margate and Kent has only made me fonder of the place. It’s an amazing part of the UK and I’ve been blown away by what has happened there, artistically speaking, over the last ten years or more. I moved away in the mid-90s as I was tired of having to go to London all the time for the culture I wanted to access, but that’s all right there now, spread across the area.
Whitstable Biennale attracts a wide audience, both from the UK and international. It’s evident that experiencing the work will be different for a viewer who grew up, and perhaps still lives in Kent, in comparison to someone who comes from further afield. How, if at all, does this affect you as an artist – do you take such things into consideration when working?
That’s a really good question and actually feels quite pertinent to a lot of the work I make, as I’m often referencing things that may be very peculiar or particular to a place, or sub-culture, such as comedy or music. It’s something I have thought about quite a lot and still wrestle with on some level. Specific to this work I honestly don’t think it matters. Most of the things I mention on the tour are so particular to my history of growing up in the area – even though many of them are things which are nothing to do with me, they’ve mostly got a little twist as to how they have become specifically relevant to me, elevating them beyond simply being an interesting thing that happened in the area. So if you know the area, you may know a bunch of the things I’m highlighting, but then I hope I’m making them interesting in a different way by weaving them in to my personal narrative. Equally, if you don’t know the area, or me, they’re still an interesting bunch of little events and anecdotes, so whilst those experiences are quite different, they’re hopefully equally relevant and interesting. That said, I’m pretty sure that someone visiting from abroad would have little knowledge of who Mike and Bernie Winters are, for example, but everyone was given a copy of the lecture on DVD, so they have the information in their hands to go and research a bit further should they wish. One thing art surely does is introduce people from all over the world to each others cultures and histories, no matter how important or otherwise.
What was the relevance of the different stories to you? You must have a wide selection of these anecdotes from when you still lived here – how did you choose which ones to use?
It was all pretty much a stream of consciousness when I first wrote it for the Uncle Chop Chop publication [i]. I literally started with the line, ‘It all began with Richard Burton…’ and it flowed from there. At some point I became aware that there was something of a geographical tour of the North Kent coast shaping up, so I guess the different towns I’d engaged with the most then became the foundations for placing the stories on top of. For example, I never really spent any time in Whitstable when I lived in the area, as my schooling and social life took me the other way from Herne Bay down to Thanet, so it never felt relevant to mention Peter Cushing, even though it’s obviously very interesting that he used to live in the area. Then when it came to developing the work into the coach tour, I just had to rearrange the original text a bit so it made practical sense for driving a route. I do like how time and distance can add additional relevance too. For example, when I first wrote that text, I was living in Nottingham and have since moved to Wales, which adds another personal layer of relevance to the Richard Burton thing as he’s something of a god in this country. My father and all his family are actually from South Wales, and it was only after the tour that he turned round to me and said, ‘Did I ever tell you about the time Richard Burton turned up at the farm stores…?’ My Great Uncle used to have a farm and, as it turned out, employed Richard Burton’s cousin. So, once, when he was visiting the area he popped in to see his cousin at my Uncle’s store. That’s a brilliant story in itself, obviously not so relevant to a tour of Kent, but a perfect example of what I love so much about opening up these types of conversations. Everyone has an interesting story they don’t often tell, even sometimes people you’ve known your whole life.
What did this Whitstable Biennale project give to you, and what did you gain from transferring the original work to Kent?
There are professional and personal responses to that question. Professionally speaking, I was extremely proud to be part of the Whitstable Biennale. Irrespective of my connection to the area, as an artist, it’s something you want to be part of. It’s very well respected in my professional sphere and so to be part of it is a great thing. It also gave me the opportunity to develop a new performance work, which is something I seem to do about every three years or so, so it was a great opportunity in that sense too. As a work it’s something I’m really proud of. Then, speaking personally, it was a real buzz to return to my old stomping ground and do what I do for a living. Essentially, I moved away to become an artist, so to be able to return and do that, where I’m from, was a real pleasure.
Will we be seeing another work by you here in Whitstable, or Kent, in the future?
I’d love to do something else down there and am always open for invitations…
Mira Kuure received a First Class Honours in BA History & Philosophy of Art, University of Kent, and is now studying for an MA at Glasgow University. She was an intern at Whitstable Biennale 2014-15.
[i] Collaborative Research Group was an internship and education programme, conceived as both an alternative and complementary to post-graduate and research-based education. A collaboration between University of the Creative Arts (UCA) at Canterbury and Crate Studios & Project Space in Margate, it was led by artist and curator Toby Huddlestone and included six arts practitioners. See www.collaborativeresearchgroup.co.uk for more information.
[ii] Uncle Chop Chop is a journal of arts and sciences created by Beagles & Ramsay, see www.unclechopchop.com