Interview with Richard Wright and Graham Harwood of Mongrel
Mongrel is an internationally recognized artist group specializing in digital media, based out of Southend-on-Sea in the East of England. Mongrel’s art projects include the first on-line commission from the Tate Gallery London and work in the permanent collections of the Pompidou Centre Paris and the Centre for Media Arts in Karlsruhe (ZKM). Their works usually involve marginalized people who are on low incomes, socially excluded and cultural minorities. Through their art projects and international networks, Mongrel creates opportunities for them to help themselves and overcome educational, cultural, economical, and social boundaries.
I had a rare opportunity to interview Richard Wright and Graham Harwood of Mongrel when they visited San Jose as one of the presenters at FUSE:conversation, a lecture series by renowned artists hosted by the CADRE Institute at San Jose State University and the Montalvo Arts Center in cooperation with the ZeroOne 2008 Biennale.
This interview took place on October 25, 2007 at Montalvo Arts Center, Saratoga, California. It focuses on their personal experiences and approaches toward working on digital media projects with marginal community groups while they observe the use of digital media technologies being repurposed by these groups.
For more information about Mongrel, visit their web site at http://mongrel.org.uk/.
Richard and Graham in front of the rehabilitated Fox California Theatre in San Jose
Yumika Tanaka: You have worked on numerous projects involving different social groups, marginal groups, local communities, organizations and institutions internationally. Can you tell us how you usually make decisions as to which group, organization, or institution to work with?
Graham Harwood: It’s an interesting question. Normally what Mongrel does is work with people we know on a day to day basis, it’s very rare that we work with an organization or institution per se. Normally someone knows someone somewhere who is interested in doing a project and we just follow it up. Recently we were asked to work with a group of Irish and Gypsy Travelers, who we had no direct contact with and it proved difficult to build up trust.
YT: Although there are Irish and Gypsy Travelers live in the United States, it seems more common to see them in the U.K. or Europe. Can you tell us more about the project you did with them and the difficulties you mentioned with the project?
Richard Wright: The traveler's project was commissioned by WYSING Arts Centre in Cambridge. And that came out of recognition of the fact that the traveler community or communities are the largest ethnic minority in the Eastern region of England, yet almost completely invisible in cultural and social life. This group came originally from India maybe 500 or 600 years ago, across Europe, Eastern Europe, Hungary and eventually to England and beyond, and have always lived apart, in groups of caravans often parked on illegal sites. Because there is nowhere else for them to settle they keep to their own traditions and family connections and are not really accepted by the settled community. People complain that they don’t pay taxes (although they usually do as much as anyone else) or they leave litter around or things like that. There has been lots of effort in recent years to try to find ways to reach these groups. What we found to begin with was that trying to work through official organizations in order to reach them was very difficult. Local councils and local authorities that have traveler educational teams or arts teams are very nervous about allowing anyone else access to the travelers that they are trying to build relationships with. So we’d propose projects and get into discussion and the last minute it would be cancelled or rejected. So in the end we had to try to find ways to contact the travelers and engage them directly. So we ended up reverting to more tactical forms of media arts, giving away mobile phones for free, trying to set up projects with the traveler’s radio programs, setting up installations in traveler’s fairs. And that approach became necessary because of lack of development and restrictions that official organizations are working under and the extreme sensitivity that they had to allowing anyone else to work with their groups.
GH: Basically there was no best way to start because we didn’t know anyone in the traveler community. We can only get going with a group once we find a shared interest. That’s how we get our inspiration. Traditionally what happens with artists is they come up with some kind of avant-garde idea and take those avant-garde ideas out into the community. What we do is work with communities to find out what’s avant-garde about that community and put that back in our own work. So we work in exactly the reverse order of most artists working with communities.
YT: It must be very challenging - there is no easy way to reach these groups which makes your projects difficult to develop. Can you talk more about the traveler communities especially in regard to how digital technologies/media are used in their communities?
RW: They have a life style and society which is at the margins of what is accepted. A lot of our ideas about society are based on having a property, having an address, or even having a telephone number. You can’t be sure that travelers will have a landline and those kinds of communications, a letter box that you can post things to. A lot of things can break down if you think about how artists use mobile media, artists being able to go out somewhere and have a connection through which artistic content can be received or transmitted, when you try to do this in the context of the traveler community. It doesn’t have the same kind of meaning. For us, mobility is the way we travel between fixed points. In the traveling community, it’s not in terms of a series of fixed points so much. It’s traveling media rather than the sort of a mobility or motion between our fixed points of destination and reference. So it’s quite a different kind of idea, different perspective of media. It’s the same as what happens when we worked with the Congolese community on the “Social Telephony” project. Their use of mobile phones, which is in common with many central African people, is quite different for all sorts of reasons. Once again you have the idea that mobile communication makes you constantly accessible to information so it’s a conduit through which large and possibly inconvenient amounts of information can sort of flow through to you and make demands on you. And modern media becomes a question of whether you’re receiving too much information or whether you are too available or not, you are too accessible or too exposed. But for Congolese people, they have like two, three, four or more mobile phones each. But they don’t have this large number of mobile phones because they believe that they need to have more information. It’s because they have a different series of experiences in their social and political history that they’ve decided this is a good way for them to retain connections by having different mobile phones - have different activities and avoid official censorship or avoid the deteriorated media infrastructure in central Africa. So the terms of reference shift quite radically when you start to look at how different groups of people from other (different) countries, what sort of direction they are coming from.
YT: That’s interesting how digital media could mean to one culture but have a totally different meaning to another culture, therefore its purposes and usages are different to each culture. So how do you approach doing art projects with them initially?
GH: When we work with a group of people, we ask ourselves all kinds of questions about the space we are going to work in and the environment. Questions like why are we being offered this space, with this particular group of people? What can be gleaned of the power structures surrounding this interrelationship? What is the official and unofficial description of this space we find ourselves in? What are the personal and emotional associations that people in the area have with this space if any? What are the social, cultural, environmental, economic and political patterns that configure access to this space, media or building? Generally we try to interrogate the situation in a state of total curiosity and try to understand what the media ecology of the space and the group is. So when we made “Telephone Trottoire” with the Congolese, we heard they were doing Pavement Radio, this is where someone would talk to people on the corner passing on news. So the idea of a phone ringing people up and passing on the news fits that kind of cultural environment. We try to think about how to twist the media use we see, make it strange. If we can make it strange enough then it can become a place for experimentation and fun. Media use and abuse, is clearly culturally specific and what’s interesting about it in one cultural domain is not interesting in another. What works for Travelers, won’t necessary work with someone else.
YT: Your projects raise lots of important questions that deal with social, political and economic issues that exist in our society across the globe. What are you trying to achieve/communicate through your projects?
RW: I think one question is about marginality, which can come up when you are dealing with local authorities and social policy, perhaps in the context of publicly funded art projects, is the whole status and the marginality groups who are on the out skirts of the society. It’s often a feeling that one of the benefits of the public art for social policy makers is that it can reach marginal groups of people that aren't quite integrated into society and absorb them into the same kinds of structures and patterns of life that which the rest of us use and enjoy. So the part of perspective of certain official organizations towards marginality is to erase it through the arts which is quite a difficult position to put artists into. We often value difference as part of their outlook and also it causes a lot of problems for various sociologists and anthropologists who study such social groupings. So what we really would like to do is find ways for these marginal groups to connect back with other groups within more mainstream society and allow their particular perspectives to enrich the culture more generally, so they can become sort of more visible and more connected yet they can still retain that particular point of view. For instance without just having more people learning Microsoft Word and get jobs in data processing or something.
YT: Are your project proposals usually accepted?
GH: The people that we work with usually agreed to do the projects, but the people that funded it don't always agree with the outcome of the project. That’s a big difference. So the people that we work with usually all works really well and they are really happy, but then sometimes the outcome, like the project we did with the Natural Heritage exhibit show, many people really didn’t like it and didn’t want to put it up. It took seven years to exhibit it because people just found it too difficult. So you are asked, you’re given money, and you make it, but they don't like it, they don’t even like the outcome. And that can happen quite often.
YT: I am sure this is one of the most frustrating aspects when working on such challenging projects. Here is my last question. Can you tell us about the name “Mongrel” as your group?
RW: The term ‘Mongrel’ is used as a mixed race slur, an insult, a half breed, something like that as applied to human, but a mongrel dog is considered in very positive terms. A mongrel dog is usually a very happy, well adjusted animal, very energetic because it is more resistant to disease, it’s the result of the benefits of diversity. In the human world, it's often much more problematic although it’s easy to make the same kind of biological argument in its favor.
GH: One of Mongrel’s early slogans is "Mongrel - our power is multiplied”. In London at least 50% of children under five have at least one non-white parent.
RW: It’s about mixing at the level of values and life experiences as expressed in artistic and cultural terms or by signifying the way that works but not mixing in terms of just the eclectic mixing of Mexico ponchos and African masks or something like that. It’s MONGRELIZATION.
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