PROFILE | Conall McAteer
Questioning the monetary value of art and creating work that is both accessible yet challenging, Conall McAteer made a great impression on us at Future Map this year. We sat down with him to discuss his multi-discplinary practice and creative inspirations.
There is a collaborative quality to your work, in the sense that it often appears to encourage audience interaction. Is this social aspect important to you? Why?
As an artist I’m interested in the potential of certain sites away from the gallery space and exploring how people can directly or indirectly engage with the work I make. I feel much of my work is inherently collaborative. This might be reflected in its display, the comment it makes or its element of interactivity. Some of my most recent projects have been initiated as a result of conversations and research with a range of collaborators, from contractors and architects to craft-based artists: marquetarians, stained glass artists and tattooists.
As for why, sometimes the way in which a work is received is almost as valuable as the form of the work itself. Personally, the importance of audience interaction is paramount in greater and lesser extents from project to project. The work could come about via a direct poetic collaboration, as in White Moon / Strong Wolf, made public via a freely downloadable eBook. Crate, for example, encourages the viewer to engage physically with the work - in its materiality and scale - whereas a work like Not For Love Nor Money enables people to use their smartphone to discover a curation of the world’s most expensive artworks hidden beneath a uniform matrix barcode.
You seem to enjoy questioning the monetary value of art, “Not For Love Nor Money” being a perfect example. Do you believe in making art more accessible?
I think art and money are often intertwined in ways that are unproductive and diminishing. It was definitely one of the aspects I was trying to put across with Not For Love Nor Money. There is something in employing QR codes printed using self adhesive vinyl - a matrix barcode and material widely used in products and consumer advertising - to curate a freely-accessible exhibition of sixty of the most expensive, heavily insured and highly guarded artworks to date. Combining that with the context in which the work is sited, it was meant to be a playful questioning of the monetary value of art and the siting of artworks in commercial and corporate spaces. Speaking of accessibility, Not For Love Nor Money worked on an important principle for me in that it could be appreciated on an aesthetic level regardless of its conceptual notion. The conceptual reasoning should add to a work rather than define it.
I think art should and can be more accessible (particularly with regards to the much maligned ‘art-speak’) but there is a fine line. It’s paramount that art should always be able to challenge and engage the viewer rather than be forced to dumb down to become palatable for any given audience. ‘Community based’ practices can be (sometimes rightly) given a bad name as some commissions by local councils achieve notoriety for the wrong reasons. I remember seeing a work where an artist had sculpted super-sized yellow post-it notes which had public concerns scrawled on them. You wonder why. Very often if a new residential complex is being built the contractors will be required to commission a ‘work of art’ by definition of a cultural quota. More often than not being realised in the form of some monolithic structure. Bad public art can be divisive and even worse; uninteresting, when it can and should be the most exciting way to discover art detached from the gallery space.
‘Holier Than Thou’ overlaps images of religious iconography taken in the context where photography is forbidden. It works successfully as a critique of art production and commercialism, and it seemed fitting for it to be shown at London Art Fair. Is the context of where you exhibit your pieces important to you?
When I’m making work I’ll often have a strong idea of the context I feel it is suited for. This is most paramount if you’re making work outside of the gallery space. The opportunity to exhibit at London Art Fair came about after I was selected for 2013’s Catlin Guide. I spoke to Justin Hammond (curator of the Catlin Guide) and told him I had an idea for something I felt could really work in the context.
It’s impossible to be blinkered to the commercial nature of a site such as the London Art Fair: the seemingly endless re-imitations and re-workings of past aesthetic qualities to appease an art market. Rather than be limited by this I saw it as a great opportunity to make a work which critiqued these ideals of commercialism and (mass) art production with something pieced together from freely available, re-appropriated, candid images. On the flip side of the same coin, showing a work in an un-suitable or ill-thought out context can be restrictive, particularly if it undermines its conceptual notion.
Could you describe your creative process to us? What happens in between the initial idea and the finished piece?
Very often I’ll have an initial idea, visual or a concept that I’m intrigued by. It might come from something seemingly as menial as an advert on the train, a turn of phrase in a novel or an article in a magazine. Making is an important part of my practice and I often find in realising an idea in physical form in the studio that it leads onto the work I really wanted to make. In this sense it’s more of an evolving process where one thing leads to another.
In some cases an idea for a project might be seeded from something as nonchalant as a conversation. White Moon / Strong Wolf came about after a night out with friends. The phrase ‘I am not a Muggle’ was banded about after seeing a wooly hat which resembled the Sorting Hat from Harry Potter. Myself and my friend Latifa (a journalist previously working in Istanbul) set out to write a piece of competitive prose under the same title. The work quickly grew and in the end we produced a collection over a period of 12 weeks which was turned into a publication.
You work using a diverse range of materials. Do feel that this versatility is beneficial when creating work?
Definitely. I feel the romantic ideal of the painter tirelessly working at the easel day after day is becoming less and less common. Personally I believe certain projects and works will have their own intended outcome. Sometimes this may be obvious and other times to bring about an idea you have to experiment with a few different methods until you find the solution that resonates best.
To not be limited by one particular medium can be extremely empowering but it is also integral - in my opinion - for the outcome to be professionally realised. If I’m looking to explore a medium where I may have a limited experience I’ll often look to friends and other artists who may specialise in that field. Sometimes it can be great to collaborate with a film-maker or a designer. Not just for their practical experience of working with Final Cut or InDesign but often for something different they can bring to the project and the creative process.
What are you working on at the moment? Is it true that you are building a dating website?
I’m lucky enough to have a studio in Vyner Street as the result of a year long residency, so for the moment I’m in the studio developing works to be exhibited within the gallery environment, whilst continuing to instigate the site-specific proposals and commissions that equally interest me as an artist. Also in the coming weeks I will be completing work on Q&A: a self-initiated intervention and publication project in collaboration with the residents of council estates in Barking and Dagenham.
With regards to the dating website your sources are correct. It’s actually a project I’ve been sitting on for over a year, working through various specifics in terms of its reception to the public. So I can’t tell you too much. But before the lawyers from the seemingly endless variants of Match.com / Lovestruck (etc) start knocking on my door it should be noted that you will be unable to ever meet your soulmate through my website. It’ll be all the better for it however. Right now I’m in the process of developing the design but I’m excited at the potential of launching the work by the latest at the end of the current year. So stay tuned.