Steven Warwick and I sat down for a conversation in Chelsea before his reading of “Fear Indexing the X-Files” at Printed Matter, co-written by Nora Khan. Steven recently opened a show, Elevate to Mezzanine (E-M) at Issue Project Room and taking place at Secret Project Robot with DeForrest Brown Jr. Part art installation, part club, part conceptual department store, the show includes a custom sound design piece, stage and set, many paintings and a performance. In this show, Warwick performed selections of Nadir, his recent mixtape while team members in E-M uniforms passed out a Look Book/ Journal with images and short texts about modern intimacy or rather the lack of, related to the installation.. The work explores precarity in multiple dimensions, the pressures and disenfranchisement of wage labor and millennial culture.
Brett: What is the origin of your practice?
Steven: I was always interested in art. As a teenager, I thought of making it. When I was about 17, I got into film heavily. I wanted to be a filmmaker. I was studying film in the film program at art school. Then, they closed the faculty and tried to merge us into fine art. I was really annoyed at that. I went to an art school nearby and then I was just in fine arts, suddenly.
I'd done a semester of film, so I knew how to make film. I knew how to technically cut film or do Super 8 or 16mm. They had a Steenbeck at the school. I just started to make films, really. The school was quite an old-school polytechnic, where they would just be like, don't paint. Victor Burgin used to teach there – people like that. You had that kind of influence hanging over there.
"I make paintings or sculptures more as props, so they interact with each other. It's very important for me to have bodies in space interacting with the objects and soundtrack"
BW: Was there a certain group of filmmakers who inspired you?
SW: Rainer Werner Fassbinder was one filmmaker I was into when I was 17. It was mainly the German filmmakers who inspired me. I'm kind of a bit over them now. It's very much a product of its time, and I respect that, but I don't think those films could really be made now, on many levels. I'm the kind of guy who just really likes to research things. If I'm into one person, I'll find out their influences and just go off. I grew up in a small town, even though my family is from London. For me, I was bored out of my mind. I would just go for it. I have a strong passion for finding out things. I want to connect the dots.
BW: How did film influence how think about space?
SW: I still think in terms of a filmmaker. I still have scenes or a stage. It's very important. I make paintings or sculptures more as props, so they interact with each other. It's very important for me to have bodies in space interacting with the objects and soundtrack. On the stage, it was very important to me that there was a strong visual element of someone reclining on the bed, reading – these kinds of things. They're all kind of referential, or inter-referential, I guess. Then you've got the projections on the back. It's one of these very flat images, like you could be in a store.
BW: One of ideas that most interested me was how the work traversed across what appeared to be architectural consumer space to dance space to art space and back again. One could read it as all those things.
SW: I guess it's all dictated as public space, but not really public – but bodies inhabit them and have some kind of financial, monetary value to them.
BW: They're all spaces where we consume things.
SW: They're spaces where you consume. If you think in terms of posing, as well – like posing in the club, which I think is very important. It's related to cruising or voguing, this thing of giving off codes. That's what I like about fashion. For me, it's like watching "The Simpsons" or something. A child could watch it, or an adult could watch it, and there are more levels.
I spend a lot of time watching things without the framework. You can enjoy it and have a sense of what it is, but if you also know the extra parts, it doesn't hurt. It's okay to know what the rules are so you can play with them. Whilst I feel it's important, especially now more than ever, to create spaces where people can feel comfortable, and that is something I try to do, I am skeptical when people talk about [queer] space or safe spaces, as I'm not sure they exist after the Pulse shootings. I'm a very critical person who happens to be gay. It doesn't explicitly form my work but it does subtly inhabit it. I'm hyper aware of the contradiction of a very rigid system of a supposedly queer concept, and how that can get hijacked. That's why I really like to have this vagueness as i guess i find that more to the point of this concept.
“I feel neoliberalism is kind of dying, now. Sadly, it's being replaced by neo-fascism, which is very scary. Also, what I find interesting is that with regard to this cycle going so fast now”
BW: Some of the other areas that seem to be underpinning your work are cybernetics, yes?
SW: Yes, Cybernetics like Alan Turing, or something. It's like the Internet, where people can come together. Some people present these spaces as alien or dangerous. Yeah, they're actually not dangerous. For some other people, they're actually a life-saver. Also, I really think that whole question has collapsed in terms of these ideas of art, anyway. In Germany, it's still quite strict with that high and low culture. It's painting, or it's club music as entertainment. I mean, it's influenced most modern art.
BW: Your soundtracks are so heavily bled. You're almost smashing those roles directly together play both artist and actor.
SW: Exactly. I'm acting when I'm performing, but I'm also in myself, so it's a bit schizophrenic.
BW: Are you interested in Manuel Delanda’s Assemblage Theory?
SW: The assemblage theory, yeah. It's interesting and a bit more druggy, but at the same time, it's nice. It seems a bit more instinctual. That's something interesting with [Dan Graham] and stuff, this idea of the collective ritual. I'm also really fascinated with the idea of the outdoors, that going back to nature. It's of course a really urban concept. It's a fantasy. I remember I went to this car design school in Pasadena where they were designing electric cars. There was one person whose job was just interaction. I said, "Oh, so I guess you're into [Bruno Latour], eh?" "Yes." I got it. It was cool to watch it from that perspective. Then said, “let's design an electric car for the outdoors”. I thought this is just a BMW but for people who don't want to be baby boomers. I shut my mouth, but I was watching the whole thing.
BW: Could you talk about the Casio you use for a moment in the context of the mediums in which you work in?
SW: It was starting to build up nostalgia, and that wasn't really my interest so I stopped using it in performances. I'm against nostalgia. I'm interested in how an object triggers memory, but that's different. People were like, oh, it makes me feel so comfortable because it makes me think of my childhood. I am more interested in how psychoanalytic film can create this kind of environment and memory. I'm also interested in people like Edward Bernays and his work on propaganda. I'm very aware of how language is used to persuade people, and that scares me. I have to know about it in order to combat it, I guess.
BW: How you define what you do as an artist?
SW: I just say I do everything. If I have to write a bio, I'll be like artist, musician, and writer, in that order. I just say I do everything.
BW: Could you talk a little bit about ["Fear Indexing the X-Files?"] Did you go back and watch them all?
SW: Yeah, I watched them all. I guess I'm always interested in cataloging. I also like Henrik Olesen or Arnold Dreyblatt. All of their work deals with archiving, memory, and history. I was interested in how ideology inhabits a space. That's what happens in shopping, but it also happens in television. Also, the '90s were presented as this kind of [middle] space, but actually it was just the advent of neoliberalism and was between the Cold War and the War on Terror.
Aliens have a different semiotic. Before they were a metaphor for communism. Now they're just an alien. They've been shredded of political ideology. As I was watching as an adult, I was interested in looking back on how I would watch this differently. I had a huge appetite as a child. I was thinking, how much did this thing influence my upbringing? It's more about your growing up and how that absorbs into you.
It was made by Fox. As was pointed out in the book, there are some quite right-wing elements in there. With a fresh set of eyes and ears, you think oh, damn, but when you're a kid, you don't really think about it. Also, you're just too young. You don't get it.
It's this idea of a club space being dangerous because of AIDS. It's just this whole hysteria. Also, what's interesting is there's this huge distrust of the government and the idea of the conspiracy theory being sent from the lunatic fringe to the mainstream. That's come back. "The X-Files" coincided with the rise of the Internet and how people started to engage with the Internet and process that. That was the first TV show with an Internet-based fan base. They'd go to chat rooms. Chris Carter would linger, lurking in it to try to influence people. He was quite an evil genius, but quite cool.
Because of the collapse of this communist narrative and before the War on Terror, it was then, who's your enemy? Oh, it's your fellow citizen, or aliens. The phrase is "trust no one." The country's ideology is about the individual. It's always about how we keep this country going. Oh, we'll pit everyone against each other. It's not even capitalism; it's just the new ideology. It's the Panopticon.
I feel neoliberalism is kind of dying, now. Sadly, it's being replaced by neo-fascism, which is very scary. Also, what I find interesting is that with regard to this cycle going so fast now. Think about it: The acceleration up until 2012 was [very quaint]. Even something as scary as the American or British election results, or the referendum results – there's no plan. There's no ideology anymore. It's going to collapse.
It's kind of interesting in a really dark kind of way. There's some kind of hope. Capitalism is going to fall apart. I just hope everyone is still alive, because it's absolutely terrifying. I just feel the world is just speeding up so much now. I don't think sometimes that we're going to make it through this year. It gives me some hope, in that these people clearly have no clue. Theresa May does not have a mandate on anything anymore. Trump's poll rating is very low.
I'm interested in what happens next. I guess that's what keeps me hopeful about it. I see it in terms of the EU or something. It's a peace-time project. The idea of the second world war and that it could come back – well, actually it has come back. We have to deal with it. It's real. We have to be really real and pragmatic about this. We can't be scared. We can't fear. It's boring. We have to deal with it. I feel people are dealing with it. That's the more interesting part.
Steven Warwick is a British artist, musician and writer residing in Berlin. His practice includes durational performance installations, plays and films using the construction of situations and language. He also makes music as Heatsick and under his own name – the latest release, Nadir, appeared recently on PAN. Warwick has exhibited work at SMK Copenhagen, the Modern Institute Glasgow, ICA London, Balice Hertling NYC, Exile Galerie Berlin, Kinderhook & Caracas, Kurator CH, New Theater Berlin, Schinkel Pavillon and was artist in residence at Villa Aurora, Los Angeles 2015. His writing has appeared in Texte Zur Kunst, Urbanomic, Arte East and Electronic Beats.
Check out his recently released mixtape here (Nadir).