INTERVIEW WITH VANESSA BRANSON AND JON NASH
This interview was actually the first of the WE and the Arts series. I visited Vanessa Branson in London last September shortly after the idea for this edition of the magazine was born.we talked less about the MINDKISS Project and more on how the Internet is changing the Marrakech Biennale. Even so, the learning curve that Branson and Nash went through in this process is closely related to OUBEYs understanding of how art should reach out to the public and how art can be perceived in such a rich variety of ways.
So what is the Marrakech Biennale all about? Why did you initiate it? I think it’s the fourth edition in 2012?
VANESSA BRANSON: We started in 2004. I was sort of incandescent with frustration about all the anti-Islamic feeling emanating out of the Western world. I’ve a hotel in Marrakech and I’ve had very positive experience with Moroccan people and people from North Africa in general, and I wanted to sort of rectify the balance. I was also aware of the need for this part of the world to find a platform for expressing their views. So I started the Biennale. And, – you know I really believe this! – by using art to debate quite contingent ideas, you can really get to the nub of a point. We’re talking about women’s rights or some head-on issue – it can be a bit offensive. If you’re talking about somebody’s role in a movie or a book or indeed in an artwork, you can really, really get right into the subject. So in 2005 we held the first festival and it was just so exciting and we’re now on our fourth, our fourth event.
You said before that the next Marrakech Biennale will be also a kind of huge online event. Why are you doing this? Why are you moving on, why are you including the virtual world?
VANESSA BRANSON: Well, the virtual world has come to us – so it would be foolish not to include it. And the virtual world has made it possible for us to do this. I mean our curators are based in London, New York, Berlin; the exhibition, the main exhibition, is happening in Marrakech, so the website becomes a sort of extraordinary portal for people to investigate what we’re doing, exchange ideas, and debate. It’s a living event even before it’s happened. It has a life of its own and it’s very exciting.
So how has the Internet influenced your work as an artist and then your work as somebody who collects art and makes festivals?
JON NASH: It’s funny, I was born in ‘86 so I was kind of raised by the Internet. And for my generation the rules have changed, I can explore the world from my computer. I can have friends who earn thousands and thousands of pounds mining gold in computer games and then selling it to people. So the Internet has brought into play a whole new set of dynamics to explore – whether it’s making work through a street view or exploring digital painting software and seeing what I can get out of it. It also provides a platform for other artists who produce work and produce websites of artwork and get millions of hits a month, far in excess of what any show at MoMA would get. It’s my generation and the generation before me who spent most of their time trying to work out what the implications of the Internet are. It does seem to be something that’s more than just a new step in technology; it’s a lot more than television ever was. It brings into play a kind of feedback and it’s introducing new realities in a way that television and telephones and canvas painting and frescos and cave painting did. It seems to have gone into a new realm of development which is exciting. So it’s a good time to be alive.
VANESSA BRANSON: Well, I was born in 1959, so you know I’m always surprised by the Internet’s infinite capabilities. And just on a very prosaic level, we’d probably have 1,000 people coming to the opening event and we’ll be filming. We do literature, we’ve got some wonderful writers and filmmakers coming as well, so all the conversation-based and talk-based events will be filmed and go up on the website – it will be very information-rich as well as virtually very exciting. I’ll let you know but we’ll probably get 60,000 people walking through the exhibition over the three months that it’s up, and we will have many millions of visitors online. So, there’s a massive, massive audience.
How has this changed the relation to the audience – I mean hasn’t the Web completely changed it?
VANESSA BRANSON: Yes, well, that’s Jon’s thing. I mean it’s not my generation. I love being better in seeing things and I’m not … I don’t speak the language as well but spending time with younger artists who do, I can see that they have a very comfortable relationship with it.
JON NASH: Yes, it’s sort of two-fold: first there’s dissemination so there are tiny galleries in Mexico City that I look at on a regular basis. And the other dynamic is just recognizing that that’s the main platform and making work that’s tailored for it. So there are whole groups of artists that simply make work that looks good as jpegs, that take it and embrace it as a practice, as an operating mode. And I think that's really fascinating.
You said you had a conversation before I arrived to kind of prepare for this interview. What were the questions or the topics you put to the young artist and what did he ask you?
VANESSA BRANSON: Well, I want to say thank you for giving us this opportunity to do a bit more investigation into the creative world and this area. But you know, I’m just beginning to have my eyes opened to the infinite possibilities. And you know, whether artists are responding to the Internet or whether they’re actually using it as a tool to push their work further ... this is what we were talking about before you came. I don’t think we’ve even begun to investigate this and there’s still a long long way to go.
What are you learning from this – let’s call it “Old World” or “Older World”?
JON NASH: Well, we were talking about this before and whether you can put it in terms of early developments like going from painting on a ceiling in Venice to painting on canvas. I think a lot of things haven’t changed, so a lot of things you can view in those terms. I mean the references are still there, for example, so I’ve made work that strongly references American romantic painting. Or you can see lots of examples of abstract paintings from the 80s and America coming through or a lot of digital painting. A lot of it is a complete overhaul of traditional models – how you get work out there and how you make work. A lot of it is kind of mind-blowing: artists building their own social networks and sort of manipulating characters within this. It’s a leap but then that’s just a reflection of the leap in the technology.
How is the online and offline world reflected? Is it reflected in your work as an artist or is there purely this underlying presence? Do you take something out into the offline world?
JON NASH: I think it’s harder and harder to draw a line between them. I take great pleasure in pulling things between the two.
VANESSA BRANSON: Tell Ulrike about your project in Marrakech.
JON NASH: The project for the Marrakech manual comes from an Internet phenomenon that I stumbled across in Marrakech – well, actually on YouTube – which shows Moroccan guys filming themselves doing burn-outs or drifting cars in circles and uploading these with certain key words. This is an example of virtual space allowing something to happen that can’t really happen. And then you end up with these sub-cultural groupings under suggested video tabs of key words like, “Drift” or “Tuning” that bring these groups together. And these sit alongside more official, traditional footage of camels and sand dunes, and my intention was to first recognize this but also take it offline and bring it into the exhibition space and create a similar flattering contrast. You have the pallets where it’s being shown traditionally and then you have this youth-driven sub-cultural phenomenon. So that’s been really exciting to explore, and my intention is to produce a huge amount of video and participate in that ... steal that aura. So there’s a lot of feedback and imitation. Often these videos are just imitating the film Fast and Furious and this is where the unique feedback quality is at a bit today. Particularly in that you cannot only just get information, you can contribute back and that keeps it going. And you end up with these weird, sometimes dark and horrific but also fantastic situations. And it’s been fantastic to work on this.
The last question, Vanessa, is for you: You were saying that you don’t have that much experience with the Internet, that it’s not your generation’s thing. Now, you’re including and embracing this virtual world in the next Marrakech Biennale. What are the biggest challenges for you in doing so?
VANESSA BRANSON: I don’t see it so much as a challenge. I’ve just got to surrender to it.
JON NASH: It’s an exciting new dimension.
VANESSA BRANSON: Embrace it, yes, and learn. I mean no, I find it exciting as a possibility but my primary aim is to make a really interesting, stimulating event in real-time. And it’s up to Jon and my colleagues to spin it off into virtual space.
Interview by Ulrike Reinhard
VANESSA BRANSON is President and Founder of the Marrakech Biennale – North Africa’s only trilingual arts festival – covering visual art, literature and film programs and featuring acclaimed international and Moroccan artists.
Prior to this, from 1999 to 2004, she was co-founding curator with Prue O’Day of The Wonderful Fund Collection. The idea was that ownership would be shared but that the purchasing would be done by Branson and O’Day. Over the next five years, the pair visited artists’ studios, galleries, degree shows and art fairs in Britain, America and Europe looking for as broad a spectrum of work as possible. Their collection was then exhibited at the first Marrakech Biennale at the Museum of Marrakech.
Active as an entrepreneur, she founded the Vanessa Devereux Gallery (1986–91) in London, where she showed a number of emerging artists including William Kentridge’s UK debut exhibition. In 2002, along with her business partner Howell James CBE, she developed an ancient crumbling palace in the centre of Marrakech into a beautiful boutique hotel – the Riad El Fenn.
With her partner she owns and runs Eilean Shona a tidal island on the west coast of Scotland at the entrance to Loch Moidart where J M Barrie wrote the screenplay for Peter Pan. She is a trustee of the British Moroccan Society and Virgin Unite, and a member of the board of trustees of the Global Diversity Foundation.
JON NASH was born in 1986. He lives and works in London.
He studied at The Arts Institute at Bournemouth from 2006 to 2007 followed by the London College of Communication from 2007 to 2010. In 2008 he curated the exhibition Turning Around in a Circle at Coleman Road in South East London. The artist run space which ran from 2008 to 2009 showed the work of local and international artists and gained private funding. Since graduating Nash has continued to exhibit in London. His work has featured in group shows including Between The Eyes at Coleman Road, Practice at Southwark Art Space and Television at French Riviera. His recent solo show at French Riviera titled You know you’re not the first included sculpture, painting and photography. Nash’s work has been published in the Financial Times, iD magazine and the Sunday Times among others. His work will be included in the 4th Marrakech Biennale.