“Sometimes I think of it like sculpting with live reactions.” Paul Buchanan
Artist Paul Buchanan was born in Glasgow and is currently living and working in the Netherlands. His work aims to explore the boundaries of the social, political and economic structures that contain us. He has a unique way of working with people and places, using responses and reactions to his work in order to shape their development. Paul Buchanan: “A lot of the time, people don’t know that they’re participating in my projects. It’s tricky making a piece of work and expecting people to participate. I suppose the way I work is to leave it open for people to participate in their own terms.”
Artist Paul Buchanan was born in Glasgow and is currently living and working in the Netherlands. His work aims to explore the boundaries of the social, political and economic structures that contain us. He has a unique way of working with people and places, using responses and reactions to his work in order to shape their development.
Etienne Verbist: Who are you and why do you do this work?
Paul Buchanan: I’m a 46 year-old Glaswegian living and working in the Netherlands. I make artwork because I see it as a way of understanding and playing with order and disorder. I’m interested in using the city or environment as an interface to help understand and reflect on the conditioning of democratic urban life.
EVB: What’s your goal?
PB: My goal is to find out what I’m good at and reach my potential as an artist. I believe that there is a certain kind of alchemy in creating art. Its being somehow aware of that alchemy and the strive to make it happen that drives me to do what I do.
EVB: What’s the impact of your work?
PB: I believe my work will only really impact me and those closest to me. I see my work as a personal thing. It’s not something I feel I have to do. I’m not looking to gain appreciation or recognition. The older I get the more inwards I’m getting about what I do. As a younger artist I wanted to get more shows, more write ups etc. Now I think I’m more content to just develop myself as an artist. In making this mental switch I now make work more intuitively. It’s become less about what a certain curator responds to or what I think people will like.
EVB: What are your thoughts on the fine art market?
PB: Honestly, the Fine Art Market is a mystery to me…
EVB: What is your dream project?
PB: Every project I do is my dream project – no matter how big or small. I have found that being able to find the time, to develop skills, to create something – that is all that matters.
EVB: What role does the artist have in society?
PB: I find this question really interesting. What is the status of an artist and what role do they play? Personally, I don’t buy into the mystique around art and artists. I think the Art world has damaged itself by creating an elitist persona. It excludes a lot of people, talent and potential. Artists can take on many roles. Art can be seen, created or manifested anywhere. At the moment I particularly like the artist Mark McGowan. He goes by the name “the artist taxi driver” and he is a performance artist and political protester. Artists like this have really helped to engage with political debate on a whole new level. They offer an alternative to what the mainstream media are offering with regards to Brexit etc. He basically drives a taxi and interviews various people throughout the day. He uploads the videos to social media. I like the simplistic way he uses his way of life to make art.
Lemons. Lemons – Still from Video Installation, Bonnenfanten Museum, Roermond, 2012
There are no more war heroes. Performance Art, Gallery Camping, Bivio, Rijeka 2015
Paper Plane. Sculpture / Performance, Jaarbersplien Utrecht, 2010
EVB: Have you had any memorable responses to your projects?
PB: I often work with lots of different community groups. Over the years I’ve had some amazing experiences and been able to work with people I would probably never have met if I wasn’t doing this work. A few years ago I was doing a lot of work with youth groups in some of the poorest areas of Glasgow. Most of these young people had severe behavioral problems and were inevitably getting involved with a lot of anti-social activities. What I found really rewarding was that simply by treating these young people with respect and offering them a chance to express themselves through different workshops and activities, you could witness unbelievable changes. These young people began to see that they had talent and they were valued by others. They began to value themselves too. During one of these projects we got funding to renovate a semi-derelict house on their estate. There was a feeling that something needed to be done about this house or it would end up being vandalized. I wanted to get the kids into the house and to work as a team to renovate it. I wanted them to learn valuable DIY skills whilst also building a sense of ownership. We painted the entire house, fixed the windows and doors, installed a new kitchen and bathroom and even planted new gardens at the back and front. The kids were really proud of the project. Their parents and guardians would stop by and see that they were really engaging in a positive community project, probably for the first time. There was an amazing effect on the entire family. They saw their kids in a different light and they were really proud of them. Once the house was finished it was used as a community drop in center. People used it for a variety of purposes – and they looked after it as a community too. That project really changed the way I approach my work. I saw that being an artist and making art could be as simple and ordinary as creating a community.
EVB: What do you dislike about the art world?
PB: I dislike the way the success of a piece of art is apparently measured be the amount of money it’s worth.
I’m a Snowman. Sculpture / Installation Maastricht, 2012
And The Waves fall. Dunbar Harbour, 2014
EVB: What role does arts funding have?
PB: Funding is particularly important for artists around the time they leave Art School. It helps them find a way to continue working. In the Netherlands there are fantastic opportunities for post-academic study at the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht, the Rijks Academy for Visual Arts or de Ateliers in Amsterdam. A lot of funds have been cut recently but when you compare it to the UK, you can see that it creates a lot more than spaces to work, it generates a wider culture. It resonates beyond the spaces themselves and influences many other creative industries and practices.
I think funding can mean different things to different artists. Many artists are very skilled at attaining funds for their projects. I’ve also been lucky enough to access funds to help me make certain things happen, or to allow me to travel, or buy materials etc. I also have an artist friend from Sarajevo who is very proud of the fact that he’s never asked for any state funding in order to make art.
EVB: What research do you do?
PB: Every project I work on needs a certain amount of research, whether it’s exploring the political, social or economic state of a place or site to provoke some kind of debate. I wouldn’t say I have a specific research trajectory, but doing my Masters I became aware of the importance of research within the arts. I gained a better understanding of how theory informs practice and practice informs theory and so on. I think research helps you in being able to present your work in a historical and contemporary sense.
EVB: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
PB: To follow my own intuition. Instead of making work you think people will like, I try to make work that I intuitively want to make – in any shape or form. That advice was given to me by Simon from tomato.uk. They are an amazing design / art collective and I met them during an interview in New York City when I had aspirations of being a designer. That was when I decided to start making art for myself.
EVB: Is there anything in your career that you would have done differently?
PB: I would believe in myself more. Also, I would try to get better organised when I was younger. I would try to think less about money and to be more confident. I think we’re all conditioned to have a job, so I grew up feeling really confused about what I would end up doing.
EVB: What’s the role of the people, the crowd in your project?
PB: Over the years people have played many different roles in my work. I’ve worked with many young people in Glasgow and beyond, and I’ve also been really interested in making work amongst people, within their communities. I want to find ways for people to participate and create art collectively. This can happen on many different levels, but the overall aim is the same – to explore boundaries. I’m also interested in using people who are unaware simply by trying to influence them or confront them in some way.
That’s Entertainment. Photo / Sculpture, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2012
EVB: How do people participate in your project?
PB: Each project I do differs from the last. That means the way I work with people also changes, although I believe the basic idea stays the same. I like to start with a basic idea for what I want to make, collect or say. I did a project in Addis Ababa. I was working with the local communities to explore their lack of dialogue with the Government and their development policies.
There was a presumed idea that the “Western” idea of development would be good for Addis Ababa, despite the fact that there had been no respect for or discussion with the indigenous population as to what they wanted or needed. I found the informal economy that existed there to be one of the most beautiful things I had ever experience. People were content with living ‘basic’ lives. It was very humbling to see.
The artwork was about connecting the past, present and future of the place. This was alluded to within the message on the laptop. I was somehow interested in the historical intervention from the ‘West’. I wanted to look at who had profited from it.
Whilst doing the project or intervention I wait for responses from the community and that begins to shape new ideas. For this particular performance piece I expected to be photographed or seen as an anomaly in the space, but the work eventually began to become more about a dialogue with the public. In this way, the shape of the projects alters and responds to the situations that arise at the time.
During that project I got a lot of comments along the lines of “you don’t understand our culture and our history”. I was like, ‘exactly’ – I’m here because I’m interested in exploring that perception. I’m here as a symbol of that. I was like a living metaphor of the ‘West’ and its idea of development. I was demonstrating that the community had a voice that was never heard. Subsequently, the small intervention in and amongst the people leads to more structured longer-term projects between myself and other artists in Addis Ababa.