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Q&A with John Walter, headline artist at Look Again 2019

Tuesday 11 June 2019

John Walter
As we head towards the second weekend of Look Again 2019, John Walter answers some questions about his work, inspiration and what drives his creativity.


  1. Where and what did you study?

I studied at Chelsea College of Art, foundation course there in 1997/98, then onto Oxford to study Fine Art – a tiny course with just 60 people at the Ruskin School of Art. I then went to the Slade, followed by a long time out of education and didn’t think I would go back, but found myself doing a PhD at the University of Westminster in the Architecture Faculty. I’ve always studied Fine Art but I’ve always been taught by polymaths - so there was an encouragement to think laterally, and it was not a surprise that I went into something which was very cross-disciplinary.

  1. Can you tell us about your background, after education?

After education I hit a cliff edge and fell off. I’d gone right through the education system from Primary School to MA and was completely institutionalised. I went back to being a desk artist, a bedroom artist, working on A1 bits of paper. I didn’t have a studio for a very long time and then I slowly got some residencies and that enabled me to have a studio again and money to make the work but there wasn’t anywhere to show the work to begin with - no opportunities came. I left the Slade and literally no sales or exhibitions came out of it. I gradually realised that I would have to take responsibility for where the work lived… and that took a long time to work out. I think that was by diversifying what I did eventually, by making more than just painting. That opened me up to lots more opportunities, but also it built a context for the painting to go into. I had to work out an economy for the work, which was partly through working in arts education, running workshops for arts institutions and through artist residencies. I survived by having a low rent - for a long period in London I rented through an arts charity, what we would now call ‘art washing’, which is renting a flat which is ready for demolition or renovation, which would also act as my studio. It was good for a while.

  1. Can you tell us about your design/creative process and what it involves?

I think this changes every time you answer the question. So today, my best explanation for this is – I make diaries, which is the ground level of what I do. If something comes up in conversation which I think is novel, or funny, or interesting, I will note it down often verbally or visually. Something might capture my attention - a logo or an avatar - if I’m on a trip I might find a mascot, or at the moment I’m drawing a lot of paisley… I will draw and I will hybridise things and that’s the next phase. The way I think of myself is like a rare breeds farmer and I will take things and breed them together in new ways that are too obscure for anyone else to be bothered with and then I just invent this new bit of the world by doing that. It’s got a lot to do with appropriating language and then redeploying it to new contexts so that it changes its meaning and then, in turn, that generates new possibilities that I could not have foreseen. I’ve got too many ideas, it’s more about how do I streamline these… so that’s the creative work.

  1. Who inspires you and why?

I would generally say that my work doesn’t come from art, but the work clearly is artistic and grows out of other art. I don’t tend to look at that much art now, I get my kick elsewhere. At the moment what inspires me is cults, I’m very interested in Victorian cults. Words inspire me. The word ‘Marischal’ and spelling it that way is quite bizarre to me and that sort of triggers something in my brain that goes “what’s that about?” I suppose I want to discover what I don’t already know and how can I get access to that information - how can I acquire it? And that then leads me on a journey and I follow my nose… The work is research in that sense and it’s an excuse to do things. So If I want to make cookies, I would use the art as my excuse to make cookies – I would then discover something about recipes, or places. In the case of the Marischal College thing, I suddenly stumbled across this whole Fray Bentos thing and this typhoid outbreak.

I have this very Renaissance mind, where I leap between different things and make connections. I read a lot, I’m always trying to bring new things into my world that people might not associate with it, to make it new for myself and that might make it new for someone else.

  1. What has been your favourite project to work on and why?

The favourite project is the current project, because I’m not really interested in the old work. I’m currently drawing a lot in VR and it’s sort of addictive and infinite, and it poses a new set of problems and I get off on finding things difficult and then conquering them – I think that’s probably every artist’s thing.

The project we’ve just completed, CAPSID, in London and Manchester, which I worked on with Sally and Claire from Look Again, was extraordinarily successful and enjoyable…

But also, I like being on my own in the studio and I don’t get to do that as much as I want because the projects have got bigger and are more partnership-oriented but really, sitting and making a thing and looking into space and wondering is what drives me to do it. So, in all the projects, that’s the thing that I’m looking to create time for if I can. That’s where things can happen. There’s this moment of starting a project and not knowing where it is going, and there’s this moment of thinking they might be terrible and considering abandoning them, and then a moment of abandoning them and then returning to them and conquering them. And that’s quite an addictive cycle.

  1. What’s the best piece of advice you have been given? What advice would you give to aspiring/young designers/artists?

I don’t know whether I’ve been given any good advice – probably don’t do it in the first place!

Possibly to my detriment, I have been taught by egotists, by people that made the system. They worked within a system, but they also set up that system. Maybe I gravitated towards those types of people because of my personality type. The example, or advice, I was given was to work laterally, to diversify, to do everything, and take control.

My advice to young artists is: do not accept the system as it is presented to you; you have to take responsibility for inventing the world that your work lives in. You cannot assume that the art world, as it is given to you, or the world as it is given to you, is the container (the vessel) for the work you want to make. You not only have to make the work but you have to make its container too. That’s hugely difficult and not what people think they are signing up to. If you can get over that, and get into it, you can see it as an opportunity.

I’ve found places in the world where I can house my work, and they are not conventional places, they are other people’s interests, they’re other people’s enthusiasms. So I’ve got my enthusiasms, well, why do you care about my enthusiasms? That’s when we have to find a meeting point. Now, everyone assumes that that’s in a gallery, well that’s maybe only one possibility. You might want to work with a scientist, which might be a context for your work. You might want to do a thing in a beach hut. You might want to make an album. The more inventive you can be, it not only means the work gets into the world more, but it creates an economy for the work, and means you are resilient financially. If you only have one revenue stream, one route, and that goes down then the whole ship goes down. You have to work really hard, and that protects you.

  1. Can you us about your commission for Look Again?

The commission is called The Fourth Wall and it’s in Marischal College quad. It is a Virtual Reality 360° immersive video. What this project really does is it builds on all the work I’ve been doing with video and CAD to compress all my interests in painting and song and multifariousness into a new, fake architectural space.

We thought about many options before deciding on this and this VR has now become a melting pot for all these ideas, which would not be possible unless we had an infinite budget and five Marischal quads. It reflects loads of interests. It’s an alternate reality. It’s an alternate Marischal College at certain points. Hopefully it’s a big dash of colour in an otherwise granite setting. Your eyes will be bathed in light.

  1. How important are events like Look Again for society?

I think it’s absolutely vital. I come from England, where Arts Council funding has been increasingly cut, and maybe Scotland is catching up. I believe passionately that the public sector should pay for art because if business and special interest groups are the only supporters of art then art is subject to their bias. And it’s not to say there isn’t bias where public money is involved of course but that is maybe more balanced and maybe we get better art that is available to more people and reflects more voices. Arts funding should be increased across the board in the UK, and projects like Look Again are vital for allowing people to encounter things that they wouldn’t otherwise. Surely that’s what we want. I want to stumble across something I didn’t even know I was interested in and say YES, I’m really into this! That is how I got into art. I saw the Kitaj show at the Tate when I was about 14 and it changed my life and now I’m here. Art changes people’s lives in a very direct way. It shifts their perception of objects, of themselves, of the world, of other people, of places, of ideas, and it’s a process that needs to go on continually and it’s a process that connects to all disciplines and artistic disciplines, financial disciplines, it is a part of the world and if you don’t do it you upset the balance of things.


You can experience John Walter's 'The Fourth Wall' commission this weekend at Marischal Quad. For more information check out the Look Again website.

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