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Jake Chapman: Atrocity Exhibition

Revisit visionary writer and cultural theorist Mark Fisher’s discussion with Jake Chapman for our 2011 cover story about the student protests

RIP Mark Fisher (1968–2017). We at Dazed were saddened to hear of the death of the writer and cultural theorist Mark Fisher. He was a uniquely powerful and original voice, whether giving a talk, blogging under his k-punk alias, or as an author – his 2009 book Capitalist Realism in particular was a huge influence on many critics, artists and musicians.Mark also contributed a number of brilliant articles to Dazed over the years, and we were thrilled whenever he did. That included straight-up music interviews with the likes of John Foxx, Junior Boys, and Mark Stewart of The Pop Group, but also more theoretical musings about what a world post capitalism might look like, written on the one-year anniversary of Occupy, his insights into Actress’s Ghettoville, and an assessment of the legacy of maverick philosopher Nick Land and the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit – the renegade 90s research collective that included the likes of Steve Goodman (Kode9), critic Kodwo Eshun, and Fisher himself. He was generous and warm in personal encounters, whether casually enthusing about jungle at a book launch, or carrying out a great interview with artist Jake Chapman, which we republish here, for our 2011 cover story about the student protests, with a small group of us packed into his office at Goldsmiths (where he lectured on Visual Cultures). – Rod Stanley, former Dazed & Confused editor

We are all having to adjust to living in revolutionary times again. This time last year, it looked like business as usual: the neoliberal order was not only going to survive the bank crises, it was going to use them as an opportunity to intensify its control of culture and society. The UK’s coalition government has certainly acted as if this is the case, hoping to complete the programme of privatisation begun by the Thatcher administrations of the 1980s. However, the government has found itself facing the kind of militancy that many believed had been definitively defeated long ago. The artist Jake Chapman was inspired by the student protests that erupted at the end of 2011, and angered by the government and media response to them.

With its gleeful immersion in obscenity and its ambivalent playing with signifiers of atrocity and death, the work of Chapman and his brother Dinos has seemed to be nihilistic rather than political. But the brothers have decided to intervene in the current political situation in a direct way with a campaign intended to assist students who have been punished for taking part in the protests. Back in February I met with Chapman, his nephew Eugene (a student at Goldsmiths, University of London), Joana Oliveira Pinto from the National Campaign Against Fees And Cuts, and Dazed editor Rod Stanley to discuss the campaign and the broader political and cultural situation in which it aims to intervene. We spoke in mid-February, at a time when UK militancy had subsided a little, but revolution was spreading like an epidemic through the Middle East. I began by asking Jake what the campaign was, and why he had put it together.

Jake Chapman: The campaign is a suggestion for an auction entitled Can’t Pay Your Fees? We’ll Pay Your Fines. We had this idea in response to the student protests. We were encouraged by the overnight politicisation of students and decided we wanted to go some way to support them, or at least offer a gesture of support and two fingers to the coalition.

Mark Fisher:
Can you say more about what the proceeds of this auction will go towards?

Jake Chapman: My first thought was to set up the auction. To try and get artists and people involved who would then donate things which would produce some money, and set up a committee of people who would then allocate funds, and approach student bodies to work out how we could distribute money. I can’t imagine we’re going to be able to generate enough money to pay people’s fees… but the idea of just intervening in the process by which these students have been left high and dry, the idea of trying to give some sort of financial backing to civil disobedience is an interesting idea anyway; to offer it the language of entrepreneurial capitalism.

“We are all having to adjust to living in revolutionary times again” – Mark Fisher

Mark Fisher: The background to the cuts is a narrative that claims we’re in a state of post-political capitalist administration that’s going to carry on forever, and which only nostalgics or people in states of denial will refuse to accept.

Jake Chapman: That is therefore responsible for extremities like terrorism, because there’s no ideological in-between.

Eugene: The violence is never more violent than can be handled – always within a boundary it never seems to break.

Joana Oliveira Pinto: But even if it were and if it did go beyond that (which it doesn’t, I agree with you totally), we have to put this in context. I remember after December 9, there were several stories on TV about how riot policemen had been attacked with billiard balls and balloons full of paint. It was ‘so outrageous’ how people were attacking riot police! But you have to think: police, an official arm of the state – this is their job – are being put forward with truncheons and hitting schoolchildren who are doing nothing but shouting… and the fact these kids throw a balloon full of paint is then ‘outrageous.’ Alfie Meadows, the boy who got hit in the head (by the police) and had to have emergency surgery, is an example of that.

Jake Chapman: The anger isn’t just to do with the immediate circumstances of the march, it’s a residual resentment. It’s to do with seeing some innocent man pushed over and killed at a demonstration, on film, and the police not being prosecuted. I had an idea that instead of burdening students with future debt, you could ask people to retrospectively pay for their state education. It’s never been put by any politician because it’s not a vote-grabber. Instead of having 16-year-olds marching on Westminster, you’d have a load of 50-year-olds saying, ‘I don’t want to pay back my state-funded education.’

Mark Fisher: Maybe we should put the devil’s advocate question: What’s the point in people getting all these degrees that have no direct input into the economic growth of the country?

Joana Oliveira Pinto: I would be terribly afraid of a society that confines to the boxes of jobs and professions that only create revenue and profit, instead of a society in which everybody contributes in an entirely different way.

Jake Chapman: But you can have both sides to that argument, because it’s not like you have to defend humanities as though they’re this rarefied thing that has to be nurtured, like a soft underbelly of a hard capitalist post-industrial society. They are absolutely within the realms of capitalism as well. You can have a hard-nosed business argument and say, actually for the past 20 years humanities and art have been the most profitable of this country! So the argument is bullshit anyway. These are things that are socially mobilising as well. That’s why I think they’re at the core of things being attacked. The genius thing in Tory thinking is the notion of science, business and industry as being the apex of all education. That everything else can wither away because it doesn’t have any affect. But these are the people that closed the mines and shut industry!

Joana Oliveira Pinto: I’m always afraid of undermining the argument for free education by putting any faculty under a profitable outlook. I understand that to have dialogue with it is probably helpful, because that’s the way they speak. One can always say universities themselves shouldn’t be profitable in a more literal sense, but the outcome of what they produce, yes, that should be a catalyst for productivity within society, absolutely.

Mark Fisher: One of the things they’ve done is try to co-opt this egalitarian rhetoric. They’re saying ‘Why should plumbers be paying for people to do French literature?’

Jake Chapman: This language of giving an individual the right to choose where they put their money is a consequence of the fact that everyone is molecularly fractured. It’s not that somehow people have lost their imperative to empathy and compassion, it’s just it’s been obliterated. We don’t know what social structure is, and the only thing we can understand is ‘me’, ‘myself’, my dignity, the money that I can have.

Mark Fisher: My friend Alex Williams has this concept of ‘negative solidarity’ that points to exactly what you have just described. It’s engendered through the media, very systematically. It’s not about, ‘We should all improve, we should all get the best that’s available, we should all deserve it.’ It’s about, ‘Oh, someone is getting more than me.’

Joana Oliveira Pinto: I heard some school students say, ‘Why should I then go to university when I can start off in a company straight after my A-levels? In three years I will probably be in the same position as if I’d done a degree, and without having to pay anything back.’ That’s what future students are looking at now. ‘What are my options?’

Eugene: It feels like the protests are a kind of role-play before we actually do anything.

Jake Chapman: I think it’s really easy to poke fun at the protests and say they’re not sophisticated and inauthentic, because they seem to retread and role-play. But I think it’s based upon some real things that are really happening. It’s not Mickey Mouse. It’s really serious and it’s not just about education. I really think the attack on the notion that universities are inefficient is an absurd attack. They were never supposed to be efficient, that was never part of what education set out to do.

“We don’t know what social structure is, and the only thing we can understand is ‘me’, ‘myself’, my dignity, the money that I can have” – Jake Chapman

Mark Fisher: What about the idea that free higher education was possible at a certain period of time because not that many students went? Now, lots more people are going which is a good thing, but it’s too expensive…

Jake Chapman: You could say the same thing about food, couldn’t you? It was really all right that there were loads of people around when there were big factories, but now those factories have gone and we’ve still got the same amount of people – should they be fed? (Laughs) Do they deserve food?

Joana Oliveira Pinto: We have a much more productive economy now than 20, 30 years ago. It’s really a question of where money is being allocated, rather than if there is any money at all. Or else we would not still be in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Jake Chapman: (Laughs) Well, I was just thinking about one of the problems about this sudden surge of militancy. It’s rehearsing something that’s very familiar, and involves some sort of sentimentality for positivity, and for some positive effect and social change. I’m pessimistic about things like that. I think the powers of darkness are too strong.

Rod Stanley: So, if you’re pessimistic about the future, Jake, why have you decided to start this project?

Jake Chapman: Because I’m not optimistic about the project. It doesn’t mean I think it’s a solution, I think it’s just that all one can do is produce interference, that’s all. I’m not governed by the notion of idealism. Quite the opposite.

“I would be terribly afraid of a society that confines to the boxes of jobs and professions that only create revenue and profit, instead of a society in which everybody contributes in an entirely different way” – Joana Oliveira Pinto

Rod Stanley: Joana, what do you think, going back to Jake’s project of bringing all these artists together to support the protests… Is it something that you welcome?

Joana Oliveira Pinto: I welcome anything really, so it’s great! Although Jake himself brought it up – the question of how a charity works. It’s encouraged by our neoliberal society because again, part of the role of the individual is to donate to charity instead of delegating that responsibility on to a bigger body, namely government and society as a whole.

Jake Chapman: I’m really hurt you’ve called it a charity. (Laughs) Is it too late to storm out?

Joana Oliveira Pinto: But I mean, I’m all for dissent. I believe we all have to go beyond singular actions. What we actually have to create is a really big, broad movement and a body that really brings down the government ultimately; that’s the only alternative.