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NUKA NAYU IN CONVERSATION WITH SAM COTTINGTON

Sam: The first thing I'd be interested in talking to you about is creativity! I feel like you are one of the most creative people I know. I think creativity is something artists talk about less these days, partly because all artists are expected to be academics of their own work, partly because creativity has been co-opted to mean almost anything. Businesses are encouraged to think ‘creatively,’ City planners use art and ‘creativity’ as a cover for gentrification. In your work (and your everyday life) I think you are very creative. I think of creativity as a combination of resourcefulness and experimentation. I find artists that are creative and experimental to be the ones that really inspire me to make my own work. 

Nayu: Thank you so much, what I see in your work is very much the kind of creativity to which you are referring here, you are creative in many ways! I think I became more creative by surrounding myself with people like you. I think that this issue goes to clothes too, real creativity is often framed as craftiness and therefore considered a lower class contender when regarding high fashion. At the same time you are absolutely right about how capitalism exploits and twists creativity, from controlled notions of originality to the need for creativity to inhabit dominant ideologies as a whole. Finding creativity in life is really important for me though, I think that is in fact the only way out of the system.

Your creativity is displayed well in the fact that you really boost up what can be done with your medium. Your work is like a DIY pleasure to me, and it is very genuine. The process of understanding and feeling your work is foremost a playful one, it is a juicy collage. I think the fragmentation and temporality in collage can enable you to re-navigate, reveal and restructure gentrifications through the language you chose to use. I wonder when you started to work with collage? What’s your process & method? 

 

It’s good when its good, 2018, (documentary film), kiss goodbye, SET Bermondsey

Sam: Thank you! I definitely use collage as a way to reinterpret, or cut up the world or its images/ material into something. I like collecting, repurposing, finding something, and imagining something different or new or personal with something that the viewer has a relation to as well before seeing my work. Like an art film that has the perfect pop song, or a sculpture that includes something found on the street that is just miraculous and terrific. It’s just more interesting to me than an artist with a very disciplined visual language or imaginative world that has no connection to the everyday.

I like what you said about restructuring or re-navigating gentrification. In my work I like to use materials and techniques that are to hand in order to create work that is afforded by the situation I’m in. This is one way I research. For example when I wanted to make a film about the gentrification of this gay bar I worked at (its’s good when it’s good), the form was afforded by my experience working there. Hidden cameras so my manager didn’t find out, brief collage snapshots of moments when I could grab the opportunity. Similarly when working with found objects and images, you can see culture reflected in your work, just by seeing what culture has afforded you. What images reoccur? What is the affect and temporality of these recurring images? It’s one way to have some purchase over all the emotions that make up a situation, and I find it useful as a way to make visible what gentrification looks and feels like, as gentrification happens through displacement of communities, and the privatisation of public space, but also in the cultural changes in habits and expectations. I get this idea from Sarah Schulman’s ‘gentrification of the mind,’ which is probably the piece of writing that’s most informed my work. Making art is a way of tuning into culture, trying to perceive the imaginative ground that has or is being lost.

One example that springs to mind is that when I grew up; the idea of paying for university was as insane an idea as paying for the NHS, but in a relatively short amount of time so much imaginative ground has been lost by the tory government's foreclosing of imaginative space for ‘common sense’ and ‘brutal honesty’ which is just used as a cover for asymmetric cruelty.

I’ve collaged pretty much my whole life. I always enjoyed art and working on projects but I found drawing too stressful, I was always terrified I was going to ruin what I’d done so I’d stop before I really did anything great. I’ve never been very disciplined or focused with art because I was scared of failing at it, but I made very good birthday cards and sketchbooks and kept a scrap book of pictures of Lady Gaga in secondary school. Collage has always been my biggest urge. Even if I stopped making art tomorrow I would keep making my scrap books because they’re just something that keep me going. I think it’s a hoarder tendency partly, I worry about forgetting something so I like to keep a visual diary to kind of reassure myself and have a more conscious and reliable external memory. My Mum and Grandma both have hoarding tendencies so I think it's a way we manage our anxieties. For me it’s a concrete way of feeling my life is my own, and that I have thoughts and feelings and I’m not completely ground down by the slog of everyday life. I can look back over my scrapbooks and sketchbooks and all these thoughts and feelings come back to me. They keep me inspired. I always encourage artists to keep scrap books.

So I would say a big reason I collage is because of anxiety. Collage is a style and approach that is easy on it. I don’t have to worry about something being perfect, I try and tell myself to just keep going, experiment more and if something doesn’t feel right, cut it up, keep working on it, the most important thing is to keep going and ignore the insecurity that tells you to stop.

Through working in this way, lots of interesting things emerge that I can dig deeper into, eg. Temporality, affect, image economies, gentrification, modernity, subjectivity, queerness blah blah blah. These are ways I contextualise what I do, I research these ideas by following my creative practice, but it starts with an impulse.

I also appreciate you pointing out that my work is DIY! I think having and contributing to a DIY culture is so important. If all artists went on strike, and worked within their means, were experimental and resourceful instead of aspiring to conventional expectations to constantly work and go into debt making professional or sellable work then the art world would be a much better place. I love art that says I did this and you could do it too. I always remember this thing from (gay activist) Cleve Jones’ memoir; in the 70's when what a public queer culture could be was being thought about and invented, he said that you weren’t expected to be good at making things, but you were expected to contribute to the invention of a new culture. I like to think of art in this way, as contributing to a culture. Valuing DIY forms of art as involving just as much (or even more) thought and aesthetic decision making (though perhaps lacking in money or the luxury of time) is one way to stop the over saturation of rich kid art.

We both went to the same art school, and I felt like there was a pressure there to contextualise your work before it was even made. I appreciate that artists work in different ways, and that it is rewarding to have a language to understand one’s art practice, but I sometimes felt that artists sealed off what their work could be before they started. I get the sense from your practice that you follow your experiments, your instincts, your creative impulses, and it makes for a practice that is passionate and challenging, when a lot of art can feel clinical. I find it inspiring to be around and I have seen your influence in my own work. To me, your work grows and sprawls outwards, until it eats everything. It involves film, performance, fashion, writing. It touches every part of your life. I’d be interested to know more about your practice. How do you balance instinct and ideas? How do you start a project? How do you finish one?

Nayu: When starting a project, I begin with a particular feeling and the ways in which I extract that feeling, and I expand from there. I feel like there is a calling to make art, so it feels like an obligation,  as much as I enjoy doing it. Instincts are sometimes from nightmares, daydream, I often have a desire to recreate/simulate a particular feeling, but as feelings are so tricky I tend to end up with more to do than I expect. I use everything I can to make an environment that a particular feeling can live within; often starting with a character, because these urges to make something come up usually while I am dressing up or imagining to dress up.  Really I make it up as I go along these days, I used to have a gigantic stack of notebook, and I’d plan things down to the individual stitches, you know, for contextualisation. I think it was to do with being in Goldsmiths, and back then I think I was living like a double agent that had an artistic life and a personal life. Things have changed over the years, and those two lives combined into one, I work in the same way I live my life, or there is barely any differentiation. I have shed a lot of the anxiety that used to accompany thinking about my work, and it actually allowed me to develop more characters and more methods within my practice. I often finish projects according to the deadline, I see most of my finished work as work in progress at the moment, I am still learning to find out when to stop and when to begin again or how to plan to see something to the end. 

How about yourself? What motivates you? Your work does make me ‘feel’ which really excites me, it allows me to feel things simply like a song can do; this is one of the things I seek when I look at art. Your work not only embodies fantasy but has real stories. Though you use everyday objects that are accessible and relatable, your narratives are specific toward culture. Your practice is a great example of artwork that represents the true essence of the community. The visuals of your work show our struggles, euphorias, pains, excitements, desires and frictions in non-chronological history and gently point back to the audience  to allow thinking surrounding personal diaries and nostalgia despite whether they are close to the community or not. How do you start and finish your work? Could you also tell me more about spontaneity in your making process? 

 

Armand hat, 2020, (collage sculpture), Hameau de la Reine

Sam: For me, my everyday art practice is about dreaming, and escaping the present. I think about my art whenever I can, whenever I have a spare moment, and it helps me live my life, and not feel trapped by the things I can’t control. Having an art practice makes me feel like my life is my own. In my current job working with children, I definitely find myself encouraging children to be creative- so that there's a place in their life where they can build self-esteem that doesn’t revolve around clearly defined successes and failures. For me an art practice is great because it's just a strange private thing, even if It involves theory or research, there's always an unknowability to an artist's practice. Things get trickier when you try to show work. Then you have different contexts and perspectives to take into account. And as you get older or do art in school or try to make a career, your practice is valued and compared to others. Maybe that's necessary sometimes, maybe not, but I think for me there has to be some pleasure or desire in making something, outside of the rules and habits of everyday life, and that's why I do it.

 I’m interested in artist's practices because I feel like so often the emphasis is on the finished work, when really, that's just the tip of the iceberg. The majority of an artist's life and time is spent dreaming, experimenting or practicing. dreaming of things they hope to do or things they may never be able to do.

 How would you describe your practice? How does your art relate to your life?

I was reading the introduction to Jack Halberstam’s new book on wildness recently. It reminded me of your work. Your work feels wild, it doesn’t focus on a particular discipline, it involves characters and performances that are alarming, seductive, perverse, strange, and they’re located within sets, stages and films without steady ground or clear narrative. I see a sense of pleasure in your work, that is hard to pin down as it isn’t simply erotic or aesthetic. The pleasure is in imagining and experimenting- carving out space, time and subjectivities with different rules.

Nayu: I think we work in a similar way, ideas around artmaking virtually never stop in my brain, I think that is a way of survival for this world. I am really interested in creating stimulation in my work, and I guess that is sort of a pleasure. I think it is more about having/reaching a pinnacle immediately, maybe it is like an emotional rapture that I am looking for, one that completes and incompletes the desire. I am looking for a stimulation that is ancient but also new. 

 

Armand hat, 2020, (collage sculpture), Hameau de la Reine

Sam: There’s a relationship between queerness and age in wildness. Halberstam talks about the queerness and wildness of children in their book, unpacking the children’s story book ‘where the wild things are’ as a descent into wild unruly desires, away from safety, categorisation, adulthood, normality. Do you relate to that impulse? Do you ever think about your age while you make your work? Whether you are or are not acting your age? I’m interested in how age is socially constructed, and how queers relate to it. 

Nayu: I think there are a lot of politics to do with age in the artworld, that there is certain exposure you can have according to your age, I think ageism discourages artists, I have thought about it more recently after realising that soon I am too old to apply for certain opportunities, while having only really gotten into my practice quite late on. Just like Max in that book, I would like to carry on being wild, failing, and falling over. I feel that a barrier in the way of creativity is that artists are expected to have their own aesthetic and their own established methods when they are at a certain age, or even at a certain point within their practice, it is an enemy to growth. I think it is important to keep on changing yourself, or that is just the way I would like to work, but if you can live your life like David Bowie, why would you stop at ziggy stardust? 

How about you? I know you were sort of a mature student as you re-started to study at Goldsmiths after being at Camberwell. How did you feel about age there?   

 

Do what you can’t, 2019, (film)

Sam: In that situation I felt great but it’s because I was pretty much clueless about what life was like for an artist! being a little older I was just raring to go and had a slightly clearer idea of what I wanted to work on than a lot of students, so I had a lot of confidence, but I lost it all after graduating. They don’t talk about what a nightmare it is leaving school, and having to realise that nobody cares if you were a clever clogs during crits or made a fabulous video installation, you really have to grow up and join real life; that’s how it felt for me anyway. I had to rethink everything I was doing because I realised that my art practice had to benefit me because the reality of most artists in the world is that art is a hobby. of all the artists in the world, it's a very tiny percentage who can live off it, or who are given spaces to show it. The rest have jobs and make art when they can, just because we want to. I had to prioritise my own pleasure, because whatever academic or art historical significance I might see in my work, the world might not.

I think for these reasons age is something I can think about when I’m making work. Age is a social construct that is clearly understood through its stereotypical representations, but like gender, is actually felt and experienced differently depending on gender, location, race, economic situation. Like gender, we’ve seen huge cultural changes in age through economic and technological change. Cultural markers of adulthood and gender such as marriage, stable employment, and secure housing are no longer attainable for most people. This is one kind of queerness I think about a lot in my own work as shifts in subjectivity are registered as empowering or disempowering; considered normal or weird; and i see it in my day to day practice, as I find myself making the same collages and scrapbooks I made when I was younger, still obsessively dreaming.

Nayu: I so commend you not being afraid to show ‘shame’ in your work, when I first met you, you weren’t afraid of using the word ‘faggot,’ thats like 7 years ago, at that time I was also shocked cos I barely heard queer people using that term, some people who I was with had a huge problem with you too, I remember, and now it’s common. I think it is to do with those people, including you, who reclaim the term, I think queer was obviously the predecessor for that, and we can all agree that is certainly empowering.

 

It’s good when its good, 2018, (documentary film), kiss goodbye

Sam: Omg yes I remember! I miss partying with you! I appreciate that in that conversation, some people had just had painful experiences with that word, which is legit. It’s no fun insisting on using a word around someone if it just reminds someone of an awful time they had growing up. But I also think using these words is just fun. Words like these make great punch lines for queer people, and I think queer people should indulge in bold, dark conversations that involve a mixture of emotions. I appreciate that for some people, avoiding that word is the only way they can make themselves feel present and comfortable and ready to have fun, but I think if you can (and I encourage people to push themselves in this regard) you should feel entitled to say intense and funny things. Just for the pleasure of it. I can think of lots of times you have literally blown me away by saying something wild and hilarious and mixed in with all those emotions was something sad and difficult maybe but I don't think that life would be any more bearable or enjoyable if we just avoided difficult feelings. In fact in my experience, guarding and protecting those feelings can stop you from building up social bonds around shared experiences of pain. When a queer person uses the word faggot it makes me laugh because we get to play at the power dynamics that we’re subjected to in every other area of our lives. When someone calls me a faggot in the street its awkward and embarrassing, but when your with a friend, or in a gay bar or with a total stranger calling yourself or someone else a total faggot, you can laugh because you all share the context for the joke, you all know the feeling. I think it’s possible to make people with sensitivities comfortable, whilst also affording space for people with the same sensitivities to negotiate pain in bolder ways. The reality is we all want to laugh but have all had moments where the joke just isn’t funny, it’s painful, it depends on a million different reasons, the joke doesn’t always land for everyone, but this friction is ok, it’s just something that we negotiate in the pursuit of pleasure. I personally think that’s what a gay bar is for.

Furthermore, I like how you mentioned the word queer. all words used to connote gender and sexuality are subject to change, I don’t think there are good and bad ones, they all emerge from a pretty nightmarish situation for queer people that meant gender and sexuality were intensely policed. For me fag is another word for gay or queer, only it has all the intensity of hurt, angry queers living and dead who decided to use it just to fuck with people, make each other laugh, take the sting out of it or use its sting to make a joke. plus straight cis people can’t say it which is fun too!

 

Untitled (i was invisible to myself), 2019, (collage installation)

Nayu:  Could you tell me more about the subject of shame in relation to your recent work  ‘London T (writing design screen printed on to tshirts) 2019, Artists self publish fair, ICA’?

Sam: London T started as something I wrote on the way to school one day. I liked how it compressed a lot into a really small space, and then by printing it on a t-shirt it was this kind of confession/ ramble/ over-share by the wearer. The writing is a lot to do with those times when you’re about to break the social script, and you’re between desperately trying to fall in line with appropriate behaviour, whilst also being compelled to follow urges that usurp inherited rules of behaviour. Basically in London there are no public toilets because of anti-homelessness measures and budget cuts for councils from the Tories. So everyday millions of people are in this situation where they’re about to piss themselves, which would be humiliating and appalling, but there are no toilets anywhere? So what are we supposed to do?

But still the shame is internalised and the pressure is on your own bladder to control it rather than focused on the fact that public space is purposefully being made to be uninhabitable for most people in London. The piece is just one of those times where you’re confronted with the emotions you’ve inherited and the city, which doesn’t care about you, and it reminded me of this experience I had when I worked at the hoist in Vauxhall (a gay sex club that’s closed down now). I like collaging these situations together, and how the writing piece has its own temporality that’s between the present and the past, which gentrification always bulldozes in favour of the future. In the situation at the hoist, the script I had for feeling was kind of flipped, because I had to respect someone’s desire to feel shame, and in doing that had to figure out how I would take part, whether I would be caring, even if it wouldn’t be received that way. Using these two situations involving piss was a way to see how feeling is felt and interpreted, and it afforded some space for complexity, and agency through misinterpretation. With that piece shame is there regardless of how we respond, but there is freedom to do things with shame, to direct it towards something, to reinterpret it as a kind of pleasure.

 The hoist is gone now so it’s nice to have a way to remember it too.

 

Nayu: Your work strikes me as a soft archive, I wonder what archiving means to you? When did you start to archive? I haven't watched your documentary ‘it’s good when it’s good’ 2018 yet which I am truly excited to watch, and had no idea about - where can we watch this?  Could you tell me more about this work in particular and how it affected your practice?

 

Sam: By collaging, collecting, and recreating historical material, I try to explore the way history, and political movements are remembered, stored, and interpreted through the present and the process of archiving that enframe them. By documenting and collecting, connections emerge or fall apart. Things are remembered and forgotten.

 

I started thinking about archiving in my work after reading Time Binds by Elizabeth Freeman. They use the term chrononormativity to talk about how archives misrepresent queer ways of living through normative habits of framing and interpreting historical material. This encouraged me to think about what feeling or knowledge could be afforded by experimenting with collage and archiving as a form that represents the past, in order to dig new futures from it.

 

‘it’s good when its good’ is a DIY documentary made whilst working at a London gay bar. In the film I trouble promotional images that make invisible the complex moods of the people who work for gay buisnesses, and explore the tensions that occur at queer spaces between different generations and workers/ employers. When looking through LGBT archives I saw a lot of documentation of club culture, but I felt there was a gap in documentation of the experience of the people who worked for them. This archival habit misrepresents a lot of this history as simply positive, and contributes to the ongoing sublimation of work from the public political momentums of gay activism. I felt like I saw this habit performed by contemporary gay artists as well, whose work explored night life as a ‘queer utopia,’ yet weren’t engaging with the affects of the workers who made these spaces possible. The bar was sinking into the past and the managers took out their insecurities on us bartenders. Authenticity vs social media marketing. Dive bar legacy vs. Appeals to younger markets. The place was stuck, and there was a real language barrier between me and the club owners, regarding how the internet worked, that made our inter-generational communication fraught.

The link to the piece is in my instagram bio! y35dqaddy !

 

Untitled (i was invisible to myself), 2019, (collage installation)

Nayu: I am fascinated by your historical knowledge of art as well as your awareness and flexibility when it comes to online presence, internet archiving, meme culture. I’ve been entertained a lot by your contributions to online platforms, could you tell me more about how you navigate yourself through the online world? How do you relate the online world to that which is within the queer space? And how are you using this relation in and out of the art practice?  How do you use your internet persona?

Sam: I’ve thought about this a lot since being in lockdown most of last year. I use social media for pleasure, even though it’s getting harder and harder to eek fun out of these days due to conservative algorithms and policing of queer content. The reality now is that I go on social media because I’m lonely, because I want to feel social. I share pictures and videos because that is the sociality that social media affords me. I wish I could talk on the phone more, or zoom with people, but I find it stressful and tiring. Being isolated most of this year has made talking and being around people quickly overstimulating for me. Sharing images and videos, commenting on other peoples is the most comfortable way i’ve found to socialise online, because it involves indirect communication, it doesn’t require me to bring too much of myself to it, it’s about jokes and ‘stuff’, there’s less of a pressure to be a fully functioning person. I just chat and joke and share memes like most people, I try to promote myself as little as possible and unfollow any account that builds too much of an aspirational persona or represents their life as something covetable. It doesn’t make me feel good. I just share things I really like, I guess more like how Tumblr used to be. I don’t believe in any utopian possibilities of the platforms I use, I think they’re gross and miserable and cruel, but I don’t feel like we have many other avenues of sociality at our disposal at the moment. Like I said about using the word ‘fag’, I think queer social pleasure is often difficult, involving a mixture of emotions that can have painful effects, but I think affording this complexity and nuance is important when trying to find some pleasure online. But I don’t think we should pretend we're really having fun online anymore.

There was a time when I was trying to make what I posted online into some kind of art practice or portfolio, but now I just try to post the most gorgeous, funny, sexy and or iconic things possible. I use it to research images because the ingredients that make an image work are pretty ephemeral, so collecting them to look back on within one frame is one way to look at them. The context of instagram/ the internet means that certain images have a greater impact or value in that context. So much of culture is affected by the way we look at the world through social media, so that context for images is a strange and alienating space to try and perceive, but it’s interesting, even if it's miserable. I take part in it, as a way to think about it, just like everyone does really, but I hope it’s not always like this. I grew up online and feel kind of cheated about how much of myself I shared online because I felt I had to, because I wanted a full 'social life’. Talking politically or intimately online was exactly what these platforms wanted from me. They made money off me, normalised alienating and solipsistic ways of talking and thinking, and what did I get from it?

Whatever was fun or weird about the internet feels pretty much gentrified and gone, and it feels like things are only gonna get worse for queers and sex workers. But like I said we’re all alone and anxious and miserable, and are in need of far reaching senses of sociality and community (even if what we’re stuck with is pseudo social/ pseudo communal). I dream of a future without the internet to be honest. But giving it up completely doesn’t help me cast my social net as wide as possible- which a lot of queers crave I think.