in conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist
HUO: What are you working on right now?*
RM: The artwork I am working on right now is a new commission from Somerset House Studios called Follow the Light of the Suns. It consists of old vitrines filled with badges that the audience can performatively take away with them. I haven’t used badges in my work before, but I am definitely interested in collecting them. Different people can wear the same one and yet it can mean different things: I’m obsessed with any kind of subcultural object that can be used and acquire different meanings. The other project I am working on is for the exhibition Beano: The Art of Breaking The Rules. Somerset House is organizing a show, curated by Andy Holden, celebrating 80 years of Beano, a very British comic which was very popular in the postwar period. I didn’t read it myself, but my parents and my granddad did. The characters all wear black and red clothes because they were the only colors they could print back in those days. I was really interested in the most well known character in the comic, Dennis the Menace, because the black and red striped clothes he wears are really similar to the Pan-African flag, which also has green in it. In the Pan-African flag red represents blood, black represents the skin and green represents the land. I was really interested in the idea that Dennis could wear this blood-redness and the color of the skin without landlords, as an example of what black Britishness is. You have this skin and this violence, but there is nowhere to put it. For the same commission, I’ve also created a character called Moonstomp, who takes his name from the song Skinhead Moonstomp by Symrip.
HUO: So that’s a new character you are bringing in?
RM: Yes. I am going to show his outfit.
HUO: And that’s going to be in the exhibition about Beano?
RM: Yes. I am very excited about that because I often use clothes, but this is the first time I’ve used them as a way to really build up a character. I can show you the sketches for Moonstomp, this little skinhead. The song Skinhead Moonstomp is about putting on an outfit to dance to the moon. It is about black and white, working-class Brits coming together, dressing up and finding their space. Moonstomp is the guy who’s going to be dancing, but all that is shown of him is his outfit. The work will be finalized this week. There’s just been a lot going on. I recently won a grant to make a film. I’ve been wanting to make a film about my dad for a long time.
HUO: In the Arcadia Missa exhibition you present photography and a sound piece. I loved the show!
RM: Thank you. In that exhibition, there are these characters which come up throughout, and my dad is one of them. I’ve always wanted to make this film or explore my dad’s experience. He was born in 1962, to my granddad who came to St. Lucia in 1958. His mother was a 19-year old Irish Catholic white woman called Patricia. She gave birth to him out of wedlock, so therefore had to leave and go back to Ireland. My dad is a very poorly man, he suffers from alcoholism.
HUO: So that’s all a real story?
RM: Yes. Patricia, my dad’s mum, had him here in England. And then she went back to Ireland, where my granddad couldn’t marry her because he was black and the priest was racist. These are things that I’m just learning about. I wanted to make a film about my dad and his parents. I interviewed my granddad and my auntie, my dad and my mom.
HUO: As I can see in the book for the Arcadia Missa exhibition, you also do a lot of handwriting.
RM: Yes, I do a lot of writing, always handwriting.
HUO: So you’re basically writing poems?
RM: Yes. Always.
HUO: And what inspires your poetry?
RM: I love bell hooks. I love any kind of academic who writes from an emotional starting point. I’ve always struggled with academia, and I find that being emotional in my understanding of theory is helpful.
HUO: And you’ve clearly read Glitch Feminism. A Manifesto by Legacy Russel.
RM: Sure. I always say that the overarching theme of my work is this idea of rudeness, the ‘rude boy.’ And it’s similar to glitch, because it’s about this interrupting and existing in between, and evoking some kind of reaction to your existence. The show at Arcadia Missa was kind of scary, because I had never shown my 35-millimeter pictures before. And it wasn’t even my decision to make the book. They said: “We have seen that you have these pictures. Can we make a book?” And then, when we were doing the book, we decided to do a show.
HUO: So did the book come first?
RM: Yes, it came first. It was a really interesting experience, because all of the pictures were taken at a time when I haven’t been thinking about controlling my practice, it was never about them being shown. I’m trying to carry some of that energy on in my new work, because they were quite well received.
HUO: Who are the photographers who inspire you?
RM: This picture here is from a show that I did at VITRINE gallery, Born British, Die British. The guy who took it is Derek Ridgers, a photographer who has always been interested in subcultural movements. He was never a skinhead, but he was just there. I’ve became obsessed with his photographic work: he and Gavin Watson are largely responsible for showing the skinheads in all their multiplicity.
HUO: So he was not a skinhead but a friend of the skinheads?
RM: He was of a similar age, and just found them interesting as a photographer at the time. I asked him to take that picture of me so I could insert myself into this narrative because there’s some gorgeous pictures of tattoos of racist skins that he’s taken. To have him taking this photograph of me, for me meant like, “Fuck you!”
HUO: So, he would be a photography inspiration?
RM: Yes, and Gavin Watson, obviously. A lot of the pictures that anyone knows or sees of skinheads were taken by Derek Ridgers and Gavin Watson. I also looked a lot at Nan Goldin. And inspiration-wise, it’s mostly just any image from Postwar Britain to early ’80s Britain. I am very interested in that era.
HUO: And for your writing?
RM: Well, as I said bell hooks, but also Patti Smith is a huge inspiration. And actually a lot of music. Maybe more reggae and ska music than poetry. Music is an important reference to most of my practice.
HUO: Please, tell me more about the film you are making.
RM: I was like, “I don’t want to make this film. I want to, but I don’t want to.” I suppose it is because of the anxiety of sitting down with my family, it’s a difficult story to tell. There are so many things that needed to be unearthed, that would happen during the process of making the film.
HUO: What’s the first film you made?
RM: I think the main film that people know me for is Brown Girl in the Art World III, which is the film of me dancing in front of a pub.
HUO: Can you tell us about the genesis of that work?
RM: I was in my second year at university when I made that. I was really stuck on this film called This All Belongs to You, in which I was dancing in a skinhead attire. And I became really obsessed with Arthur Jafa’s idea of ‘glamouring,’ you know, with people kind of moonwalking their way out of submission. I made this previous film and I thought: “Am I just babysitting the white gaze? Am I doing anything with this?” My whole year was just taken up with understanding what was going on. In the end I made Brown Girl in the Art World III, which was inspired by the whole discussion about what goes on when imaging the black female queer body and also, I suppose, the labor that goes into the understanding of imaging it. The dancing films came about because I’m obsessed with the film This is England: every time there’s a fight scene, they slow it down. And you get to see how clear all of the movements are but also how big they can be and what they actually mean. So that’s where dancing came in. I always say that it feels like my blackness and my whiteness are in a war with one another. And the only way that I feel like I can show that war is by dancing. My dance moves are always slowed down in order for me to understand what is going on with those movements, because they’re not rehearsed.
HUO: The book has a great title, Flags for countries that don’t exist but bodies that do.
RM: I love flags, and I use them a lot in my work. They are always supposed to represent more than one thing. I think the reason why I am obsessed with flags is that they have two sides, so there’s always this obsession with two sides of things. And it means that I can say two different things but have this meeting point in the middle, which I think is what being mixed is like. I installed a flag on top of a building on the occasion of the group show Arcadia in the frame of the yearly program of commissions Bold Tendencies. One side of it said “Dance with me” and the other side said “Let me lead.” The work’s title is no more quick, quick, slow, which is a quote from the book Britain’s ‘Brown Babies’, which was about how the black GIs came over from America and danced with white women. And the white women were like, “Finally, someone can move,” because they were so sick of the dance moves that their husbands had been doing with them. When whiteness and blackness come together, whiteness feels very much alive, but blackness perhaps does not. This flag I am showing you is the original flag that we hung for the whole summer, and when they decided it should be a permanent installation I produced another exemplar.
HUO: Hannah Black talks about the “anti-symbolic”. So, it is an anti-symbolic flag, an ambiguous flag…
RM: Absolutely. It’s interesting, because all of my work is a recycling of symbols that are not meant for me, but I take them up and turn them on their heads.
HUO: Let’s get back to your dad’s story and the film you are making. When your dad was a skinhead, that was prior to the skinhead idea being appropriated by the extreme right. When did that happened historically?
RM: It was pretty confusing. It was probably around mid ’70s.
HUO: Do we know what happened?
RM: All I can understand is that because there wasn’t, up until then, much evidence of the war, by the mid ’70s films started being released glorifying Hitler and Nazis and making them look very glamorous, like something that could be taken up and used in order to get rid of the shit that was going on in England. So that’s why it happened around the mid ’70s, because of television, and because the dissemination of information was easier and more accessible. It was a moment of crisis for the British Empire, from the economical, political and social point of view, with massive unemployment. All of this information about the war and fighting became very alluring. I would say that’s what happened. It’s just so hard to grasp, it was so gradual. Even my dad being in it, it was hard for him to understand when it happened. Just one day it was really unsafe for him to be part of that.
HUO: So he left the community?
RM: Yeah, I guess so. I mean, he enjoyed it. He loved that as a black guy he could be untouchable by hanging around with these racist white guys. The skinhead is just this very apt metaphor for everything that goes on.
HUO: Do you have any unrealized projects, like dreams, utopias, things that would be too expensive to be realized?
RM: Yes, this fucking film! The grant basically bought me the iMac to make it, but I’m very overwhelmed because in my head it was a film and now I’m realizing that it’s a show, that each interview should be by itself and not in the order I previously imagined. So this is the project that I feel overwhelmed by, and I need someone to come in and help me understand that, someone who is separate from my family. I’m very anxious to get back to working on it. The whole process is a research process.
HUO: Did you ever work in performance? Are you interested in performance?
RM: I’ve never done one. Although I understood the experience of getting a tattoo as a performance.
HUO: Tattoos seem to have a lot to do with writing, which is interesting.
RM: I like that it reflects the way that I write, which is in quite short, small moments. Tattoos do the same thing, I suppose.
HUO: So these are like haikus. Tattoo haikus.
RM: Exactly! I overexaggerated it as a performance in the sense that I’ve got it tattooed, and my body will continue to change with that tattoo, in the same way that the political climate does. And that meaning will change throughout my life. But in terms of audience and performance, I’ve never done that. I think I’m very interested in the thing in between the performance and the audience, which is the camera or the screen. I can imagine I could be performing. Right now if I got approached to do a performance, then I would definitely figure one out. I mean, there’s always room for more.
HUO: Often something can start as performance and then can become a work or vice versa.
RM: The dancing videos are interesting because I’m not showing a real version of what’s going on, they’re slowed down. I’m only dancing for three minutes. But in order to show the drama, or the violence of movement, I go crazy for three minutes, and it’s really hard work. And no one understands that kind of weird moment that’s going on. They just see this kind of seamless movement.
HUO: Would you say that the photographs are performance? I feel that some are like performances. There are lots of performative moments in them.
RM: I assume you can’t deny it. As soon as a camera is put on a body, then it suggests that that body is performing in some kind of way. So yes, I would say so.
HUO: Last night I was reading Paul Gilroy’s After Empire. Melancholia or Convivial Culture? I think it’s a book one has to read and reread.
RM: Yes, absolutely. It’s a book that keeps on giving. I think with identity, my identity, I’m just constantly trying to recognize moments where myself or my community are disrupting by accident, just by existing we are spitting in the emperor’s face. It’s not supposed to be violent disruption, it’s supposed to be like we’re doing it by accident, just by being born. I’m very interested in re-imagining the violence of the skinhead culture, of any subculture, as something that’s happening by accident. In my work I use dance as a way to talk about violence.
HUO: When you photograph do you do it like a daily practice or a weekly practice? Or are there moments in which you do a lot of pictures and then not? I was wondering that in the exhibition, if it’s a project or if it’s just something you always do.
RM: I am always taking pictures, but I definitely have moments where I pick up the camera more times than not. I mean, the book contains photos taken from the moment that I literally started using a camera.
HUO: And you don’t use a phone, you use a camera?
RM: Yeah. This one and another one.
HUO: But is there a physical film inside or is it a digital camera?
RM: Yes, a physical film.
HUO: Well, I haven’t seen a physical camera in ages. It is such a strange experience to see it and hear the sound. The other day I did an interview with Richard Long. And he said, “This is a bad line. You have to call back.” I rang him back and he said: “No, I’m not comfortable. We need a better line. This is not a landline.” And I said “Richard, I didn’t have a landline in ten years.” That’s the story of extinct technology. The sound of this camera, I haven’t heard it in a long time. Do you remember, I don’t know when it was (it must be in the ’90s), when one would go on the internet, the modem would make that sound.
RM: I remember getting a computer for the first time at home. And I think we didn’t even have internet at the time. And I was like, what is the point of this computer?
HUO: There’s a great sentence, I think it’s Hannah Black’s. It says: “The dreamlessness of the surroundings intensifies the inner dream.” I was thinking that about your show: the dreamlessness of your show provokes people to dream.
RM: I honestly had no idea what this show or this book were until Hannah wrote the text. And all she had was the pictures, she was one of the first people to see them.
HUO: Have you known each other for a while?
RM: No, I don’t know her. I only met her through doing this. She works with Arcadia Missa, she’s black and British and her work has this lovely academic side. The reason why we go to academia or theory, most of the time, is from an emotion and I think that Hannah gets that perfectly.
HUO: Thank you so much. It was a great studio visit. I’ve told everyone to go and see your show. I was so excited. * The conversation took place in 2021.
RM: I was sad when it was over. But it was one of those lovely things of having the book—that it continues.
BEYOND #2 from Film and Video Umbrella, https://www.fvu.co.uk/projects/beyond-1.
flags for countries that don’t exist but for bodies that do, Arcadia Missa Gallery, London, 22 July – 4 September 2021.
Rene Matić, Destination/Departure, 2020, blueback photographic print mounted on MDF. Photographed by Derek Ridgers, 152 × 101 × 1 cm.
Born British, Die British, VITRINE gallery, London, 11 October 2020 – 17 January 2021.
in conversation with
Hans Ulrich Obrist
Courtesy: the artist and Arcadia Missa, London
Portrait by Owen Harvey
The Generational Issue
RENE MATIĆ (b. 1997, Peterborough, UK) lives and works in London. Their work brings together themes of post-blackness, glitch feminism and subcultural theory in a meeting place they describe as rude(ness) – to interrupt and exist in/between. @rene.matic
HANS ULRICH OBRIST (b. 1968, Zurich) is Artistic Director of the Serpentine Galleries, London. Prior to this, he was the Curator of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Since his first show World Soup (The Kitchen Show) in 1991, he has curated more than three hundred shows. @hansulrichobrist