In Conversation with Robert Good

Robert Good is an artist and the chairperson of Art Language Location; a contemporary and performance art festival based in and around Cambridge, UK. A few months ago I visited him at his home to see where and how he produces his text-based pieces. This blog post contextualises the photographs I took with a brief conversation on Robert's art and his ways of making it.

JM: To start: I notice that collecting seems to be a common theme in your work and in the process behind it. Could you elaborate on this?

RG: I think for me it is all about trying to make sense of things and collecting is perhaps a good strategy here. Not so much the accumulation of stuff for its own sake (tho I am interested in that aspect as well) but maybe more because multiples of anything provide the chance to compare and contrast and so maybe to thereby arrive at some tentative answers. Or maybe 'answers' is too strong a word; 'pointers' might be better. 

So, is there something you find those pointers frequently allude to?

Well often I’m looking for rhythms, cadences, patterns and so on in the subject matter that I’m exploring and hoping that if I present back some aspect of the material in these terms then insights or pointers towards an understanding will emerge from the configurations created. So for example with my Pelican portraits I’m hoping that the repetition of an authorial image and a descriptive word taken from their biography provides a starting point for thinking about those authors and their endeavours. The artwork thus frames the debate so to speak and becomes a catalyst for a conversation about what is being presented. But beyond that, the trail runs cold: each conversation is different, each conclusion is different, and each response is different to every other. Perhaps that’s why I’m wary of thinking in terms of ‘answers’!

That makes sense. It seems to me like you have found a clever balance between appropriation, originality, humour and aesthetics. How did you come around to working in this way, and to working specifically with text - was there a time when you experimented with other ways of making art and being an artist?

Well thanks, I think you are spot on - those four elements that you identify in my work are all central to what I am trying to do. ‘Clever’ is ok too (thank you!), and in fact that is also a very astute word to choose, because I do try to be careful that my work doesn’t sometimes tip over into ‘clever clever’, which is not so good.

As to how I came to this point in my work, well as with most artists (I suspect) it has been a long process of excavation and discovery (I am trying very hard not to use the word ‘journey’). But two moments spring to mind. The first is when I used to be a painter and painted in a flat, bright, cartoon style. One day I remember thinking ‘this painting won’t be complete without some words in it’. I have no idea where that thought came from, but it seemed important, and I decided to follow it further. The second was at the start of my MFA studies at ARU [Anglia Ruskin University] when I was asked why I chose to paint. I loved painting but it made me realise that everything is a potential material: there is so much stuff around us just waiting to be turned into an artwork that suddenly paint just didn’t seem so exciting any more. Then the problem became what to choose out of all this stuff, and I gradually came to realise that problems with words and knowledge was what I really wanted to grapple with.

It is interesting how you describe them as ‘problems’.

Well for me, words are problematic! They are the best we have but not enough, and that is both their power and my frustration. So by putting them into new contexts I try to examine their meanings and potentiality.

A lot of the pieces you showed me also seek to re-contextualise words and phrases, or as in the case of your collection of the ‘Anxiety and Neurosis’ Pelican book, entire published works. I think that is where a lot of the humour comes in.

I’m glad it made you smile: humour is like a divining rod - if we laugh, we are doing so because of some underlying discomfort, and that is frequently enlightening. That is where the bodies are buried.

My one hundred or so copies (so far) of 'Anxiety and Neurosis' enable me to examine one aspect of accumulation as a strategy: is collecting just a safety net, a comfort zone against a deeper disquiet?

Another good example of this would be your collection of definitions of art trawled from the internet. ‘Art’ seems like a great choice of word, particularly as its meaning, or more specifically what constitutes art, is so often argued about and so open to individual interpretation. Would you mind sharing a bit more about this project, what you intend to do with it, and what you have learned about the meaning of art after reading all those definitions?

Yes so far I have around 3,000 definitions gathered from the internet. I’ve been listening in on conversations as people discuss what art is, can be and should be and I’ve been using automated searches to report back to me as well. The project originated from my frustrations with art theorists trying to tell me what art can and cannot be - surely the tail wagging the dog! The more I read, the more confused I became. I’m amazed at how passionate people are, as if ‘art’ is some sacred term that must be protected at all costs. So I am collating the definitions for a new Dictionary of Art which I hope to publish next year if I can find a publisher (‘art’ is the one term you will not find in dictionaries of art).

Thanks to my designer Jane Glennie it will look and feel just like a normal dictionary, but there will be only one term, ‘art', defined and redefined on page after page. Each definition has to fight it out with every other. Some are serious, some are scurrilous, many are amusing, and I’ve learned that art is all of these things combined. So it has been a very uplifting project, because it turns out that art is not one thing or the other, this or that, but everything together, a glorious cacophony of thoughts, ideas, techniques, approaches and discussions. And, whatever the theorists may try to tell us, that has got to be good, surely?

I think it could be quite liberating to realise that if art is so many things to so many people, it can be almost whatever you want it to be. I also sometimes wonder about the link between art and psychology, or perhaps even psychoanalysis. Often performance or participatory art pieces/events can feel a bit like strange psychological experiments where nobody really knows who or what is being put to test. Maybe that’s why a lot of people shy away from performance art?

Yes I think people can be disconcerted by experimental art because they feel that they ‘don’t get it’ whilst everyone else does. But the key is to not think of it as a test with a right and wrong answer, but as a spectacle to be experienced. Then you take away from it whatever you want (which may still sometimes be nothing!!).

Changing the subject slightly, I wanted to ask about how you work as an artist outside of London. Obviously there is a lot going on elsewhere in the UK, and you have also played your own part in making contemporary and performance art happen in Cambridge with Art Language Location (ALL). Do you think art is spreading out and becoming a less centralised thing, or has it always been like that?

This is a big topic! Yes ALL was definitely for me a means of connecting with the wider art world and making something happen in Cambridge rather than feeling that I was somehow ‘in the wrong place’. It has proved to be a wonderful way for me to meet fellow artists and to feel connected. So the bright lights of London can be very alluring but in fact in many ways it is probably quite healthy to not be making art there.

That’s a relief, and maybe I'd say it’s increasingly necessary. A lot of people believe it’s not possible to make a living as an artist (perhaps rightly, in most cases), and I’m interested in how some people make it work. Could you offer any advice to arts graduates who want to keep the ball rolling after they leave university, and on how to make it sustainable?

The best bit of advice I had was from a tutor who said that the only connection between art and money is that if you haven’t got any money then it becomes difficult to make art. Beyond that, everyone has to find their own relationship between the two. So for some people, selling their art and ‘making it pay’ is important; others have a day job to make ends meet. There are so many different ways in which people have approached this problem but the most important thing is to create an environment in which you can make your art on your own terms.

‘Being an artist’ and ‘making a living’ are not the same thing. ‘Being an artist’ is a state of mind and an approach to the world around us; once this is foremost, then everything else becomes secondary: still important (of course) but perhaps somehow less intimidating? 

The analogy with football always works: the chances of becoming a professional footballer are very small but technically you don’t have to be paid in order to play football. Whether that makes you want to pursue it or not (and how you pursue it) is entirely up to you.

Thanks Robert. I think that’s a great point to end on.

Thanks so much for including me in your project!

For more on Robert's work, see his website, and if you are in Cambridge this October, be sure to look out for Art Language Location artworks, performances and events around the city.