2010

MOTHER TONGUE INTERVIEW GRAHAM FAGEN

Graham Fagen, born1966, is a Scottish artist, living and working in Glasgow. His work and research is largely concerned with an investigation of Scottish heritage, in particular the legacy of Scotland's national poet, Robert Burns. Previous projects, all inter-related, include Radio Roselle for Swansong [2002], Clean Hands Pure Heart Tramway Glasgow [2005] and Downpresser, GOMA Glasgow [2007].

MT
When you address the issue of “inherited” culture; in what ways do we inherit our cultural identity - is it taught to us, do we observe it?

GF
What I’m really interested in are things that I have been calling ‘cultural formers;’ things that form our culture, and that in turn form us. So for me, that was one of the reasons for addressing the use of language, cultural inheritance and legacy. Partially I wanted to address the cultural understanding between my own heritage - Robert Burns - and a new area of music that I was buying at the time, which was Jamaican reggae, which were polar opposites. What was interesting to me was how in my own cultural heritage the language was difficult and hard to understand - whereas a language that was someone else’s meant more to me and I understood more about it.

MT
Was your appropriation of music to facilitate a navigation of the cultural specificities of dialect and slang?

GF
In a work that I made for the Imperial War Museum in Kosovo, titled Theatre I got the “players” to make up their own language. The language was used almost as a rhythm to help narrate or guide the viewer in terms of what was actually being communicated between players. People would come to me after they had been to see the exhibition and say ‘that was really interesting how you used Serbian and Albanian to show the contrast’ so people understood something from this language that was not actually a language. One of the values of music is that there is some sort of universality of rhythm in a sense, of sound as an aesthetic.

MT
A subsequent project Downpresser at Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow, also involved taking your practice out with Scotland, as a means of exploring the mutual territory between two seemingly disparate regions. Is it only through outside analysis and reflection that we can see the true picture of cultural identity?

GF
For the Downpresser project at Gallery of Modern Art [Glasgow], I told them I would like to further examine the idea of asking people of Jamaican descent, and by that slave descent, to perform or to embrace a Burns song. Lots of poor people went to Jamaica to work on plantations that were owned by rich people from Scotland; the Empire was made through the slavery of African people. I felt the only way to test that idea properly would be to take that idea to Jamaica and see what kind of reaction we would get. But it was also an attempt to make people understand a bit more about - not just Burns at the time - but also our own Scottish history at that time.

I took the idea to Jamaica with Holger Malpauht, who does all my video work, and after a lot of very hard work - and a lot of frightening situations - we got a band together. The band appreciated the lyrics, and understood what I was trying to do with them. They ended up performing Slaves Lament in Negro, which is near to Savana Lamar, which was the very first port Burns would have sailed to if he had taken the first sailing on board The Nancy from Greenock: I took his idea to where he would have arrived had he gone to Jamaica.

MT
At what point did you invite the reggae artist Ghetto Priest to become involved with the I Murder Hate project? How did you introduce the band to Burns and how did they respond to it initially?

GF
The main organisation of who would perform was discussed and agreed upon between Adrian Sherwood [music producer] and myself. I first started to use Adrian’s recordings in Radio Roselle, and then worked with him again on a project for the Victoria and Albert Museum called Art Of The Garden. The curators gave ten artists, designers and architects a garden shed in the centre of the V&A. I called mine Blood Shed and made a pirate radio station that played four songs repeatedly; one Burns song and three Jamaican reggae songs, which were from Adrian’s label. When I talked to Adrian about the idea [for I Murder Hate], I described the sort of feel and sound I thought would be right for the song. This was based on both the way the song had been performed by Scottish players, but also thinking about the African/Caribbean influence that I wanted to be present in the song. I know a lot about Adrian’s singers and players as I have been buying their records since I was a young guy. It came down to two singers in the end; a guy called Little Roy or Ghetto Priest. We thought a lot about these two, and in the end we decided the energy that Ghetto Priest would bring to the performance - as a younger artist - would be more suitable to what we were trying to do.

MT
How much input did you have in composing the performance? Do you feel it was a very different process to making a visual artwork?

GF
On one level it is and on one level it isn’t. What we ended up with was something like a collage, with Auld Lang Syne at the start, Slaves Lament in the middle and Auld Lang Syne again at the end. If they guys were doing it they would never have squashed two bits of songs together in three segments, so that was really me thinking about what it would be like as an artwork; how it could be read and understood as an artwork.

“The creation of the work spans generations and geography, artistic media and cultures, songs of lament and dissent united to rewrite, reflect and reconnect. Graham Fagen has brought these different languages- musical, verbal, political- together, using one to articulate another, and finding intellectually what he understood instinctively as a teenager- that cultural identity is determined by the personal as well as the political, by chance as well as strategy and that music as a vehicle for both, transcends geographical and language barriers”.

- Lorraine Wilson, Curator of ‘Clean Hands Pure Heart,’ Tramway