Mischief-maker: interview with Bernie Slater

Here is my interview with Bernie Slater, an Australian visual artist with a keen interest in the power of multiples, and the notion of printmaking as a democratic and accessible medium with the power to engender social change.

Visual Artist Bernie Slater
Bernie Slater. Photo by David Broker.

You started down the visual arts trail as a comics and zine-maker when you were in high school, inspired by punk rock, zines and self-publishing: so-called ‘alternative creative practises’. Tell us a bit about what attracted you initially to this form of expression?

Growing up as a punk rock kid, I remember a line from one of Jello Biafra’s (Dead Kennedys) spoken word CDs—he said ‘Don’t hate the media, become the media’. For me this was a revelatory comment. Punk rock showed me that it was okay to operate outside of and against the mainstream, and that resisting prescribed culture could be fun. The DIY ethic inherent in punk has been a huge inspiration for me, but the other important influence from that scene was political engagement, which if you looked in the right places, was both intelligent and cheeky.

Your engagement with younger artists extends beyond your teaching time at the Canberra Institute of Technology. You’ve spoken at various art education conferences and fringe arts festivals around themes relating to ‘Creativity and Mischief’. Can you explain a bit about this frame on creativity?

Mischief has some really fantastic benefits for any creative practice. By its very nature, it works against orthodoxy and opens up alternative or subversive ways of doing things. But a cheeky sense of humour also prevents us from taking ourselves too seriously and getting caught up in art wank or over intellectualising. When I talk at conferences or to my students at CIT, I refer to Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World, in which Hyde looks at the importance of mischievous trickster characters throughout mythology. The fact that these characters crop up in almost every culture’s mythology shows how important they are to humanity. Tricksters act as a force to challenge conventions, break stagnation, find creative solutions and of course to fail foolishly from time to time.

More TV, by Bernie Slater

More TV, by Bernie Slater

Mischief can also give us the courage to try things out that we might not have dared to otherwise—particularly through working anonymously or under a pseudonym. Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ particularly comes to mind—probably the most important artwork of the 20th century. Would he have taken the same risk if he was working under his own name?

Text and images work together in nearly all your work, which allows for viewer engagement on various levels. What’s your attraction to using text?

In some ways I like how text can be incredibly direct, like headlines and slogans and catchphrases. I’m fascinated (and often shocked) at the way advertisers use these little clusters of words to tug at our heartstrings or trigger our fears and desires. Sometimes it seems shamelessly cynical! I saw a little starburst of text in a catalogue recently that said, Pet food prices you’ll love talking about! Really?

Flag Waving by Bernie Slater

Flag Waving by Bernie Slater

But I like to try to twist that stuff around, or juxtapose it with imagery. For instance, using some shopping catalogue text “THIS CAN’T LAST” with imagery that suggests excess packaging and unsustainable resource use. Using text and image together also allows for the message to gradually unravel, or perhaps include multiple levels of gags.

A lot of the satirical leaflets I’ve done seem like they might be legit at first glance, but the text soon reveals the irony of the message. I’d also like to think that by the end of the text the viewer is in on the joke. Where I start by trying to fool them, I want to end it with giggles.

Much of your work is newsworthy, in the sense that you frequently make reference to the current political or cultural environments in Australia and neighbouring nations in South-East Asia—for example, your 2007 collaboration with Taring Padi Collective (Indonesia) and Gembel Collective (East Timor). How do you see art’s enduring value when it’s tied to a specific place and time? Do you worry that future viewers will need full contextual understanding in order to appreciate it?

Artists in a workshop

I lot of the work I make comes from a feeling of urgency around political and social issues, and naturally these works become outdated very quickly. This is where printmaking is a really handy way to get images and messages out to the public quickly and cheaply. Your point about future viewers losing context for understanding it is really important, it obviously won’t have that immediate visual impact that viewer get when they understand the context.

Although I think cultural works that are tied to a time and place can also enrich our historical understanding of that time, perhaps in a way that is different to a conventional understanding. I think Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’ series and the photomontages of Jonathon Heartfield are great examples of an alternative perspective on wartime. And of course there’s Anne Frank’s diary too.

You are, some might say, a little unorthodox in your methods. For example, you orchestrated a letter-box drop, ‘Stuff’ (now online), a couple of years ago, during which satirical pamphlets were distributed through inner-city suburbs of Canberra (Australia’s capital city and the home of its Parliament House). Where do you draw the line between art and activism? Is there a line?

Screenshot from stuffcatalogue.com by Bernie Slater

Screenshot from stuffcatalogue.com by Bernie Slater

I guess all artists want to provoke some kind of thought or emotional response in the viewer. With the Stuff catalogue, I thought, ‘What better way to engage people in discussions on consumerism and advertising than dropping a catalogue into their letterbox?’. It’s a bit like a wolf in sheep’s clothing … just when you expect to browse for this week’s bargains, along comes something with prices for stuff you can’t buy.

Shut Up poster by Bernie Slater

Shut Up poster by Bernie Slater

Whilst the Stuff Catalogue wasn’t overtly political, a lot of my work is very much activism. I don’t think of there being a line between the art and activism, more of an overlap. In 2006, I invited a bunch of people to make some posters protesting the new ‘Workchoices’ labour legislation and the Anti-Terror laws, which legislated against sedition. Some of us were artists, and some were just angry folk. We pasted the posters up around the Canberra CBD the week before the laws went through Parliament. I was actually a really lovely display of unity. Both art and activism can be really empowering. We were pleased that the posters prompted a lot of discussion, largely due to the public space. Although we always knew that the laws would pass no matter how many posters we made, that act of being heard was important.

Street Protest in Canberra. Image courtesy: Bernie Slater
Street Protest in Canberra. Image: Kim Hopper

In this digital age, one has to ask: is print a dying art?

I’m a little bit conflicted on this one … I actually really love digital technology. It opens up some fantastic avenues for communication, network building, sharing information as well as distribution of work. And I love that Photoshop is fast becoming the everyman’s tool for parody and satire. The digital environment has all these really important features of a healthy democratic environment. However, I wonder if the way that we create and curate our digital environments tends to lead us towards homogeny? If the stuff we like on Facebook or follow on Twitter all conforms to our worldview, how do we challenge ourselves?

Thinking about the poster project I mentioned before, its real impact was that it was in public space and that there were hundreds of posters. It changed the visual environment in a way that you couldn’t just scroll past like a Facebook post from your crazy uncle. Not to mention the visual impact of the printmaking process.

I love the expressive qualities of a Kathe Kollwitz woodcut or a beautifully drawn etching. These printmaking techniques have their own particular graphic qualities, and each artist harnesses those in a different way. Same goes for zines. I could make a blog much easier, but I like the fact that someone will hold a zine in their hand and flick through its pages, or find it randomly in a café or on someone else’s coffee table.

What’s next on the horizon for you?

In 2015 I’m installing an exhibition at Canberra Museum and Gallery that will be a kind of Anarchist Supermarket. It’ll build on some of the ideas from the Stuff catalogue. I’m planning these little kits that people can take away and create something for themselves, or give something positive back to the world. I won’t give too much away just yet, but it should be a really fun exhibition.

Other than that, as part of the Canberra Zine Emporium collective, I’m helping out with a celebration of DIY culture as part of the You Are Here festival 2014. It’ll be a day of workshops, talks and zine mayhem as well as participation from the local hackerspace, art community and musicians.

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