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Talking politics, posters and techno with Wolfgang Tillmans

As the dust settles on Britain’s decision to leave the EU, Jefferson Hack talks to an artist who campaigned tirelessly for a cause that he believes in

TextDazed DigitalIllustrationMax Rawlins

It’s done. 52 per cent of the country decided – Britain is leaving the EU. Given the endless whirlpool that is our 24/7 news cycle, Brexit almost seems like a distant memory. But the reality is that this has only just begun, something evident in the uncertainty that’s been spread in the aftermath of the vote – whether that’s a rise in racist hate crimes, a plummeting pound or the upheaval of an entire government. Through his writing, posters and t-shirts, Wolfgang Tillmans pushed tirelessly to swing opinion and encourage Britain to #voteremain. It was not to be. Here, with Jefferson Hack, he reflects on a rising right-wing force, his own origins as an artist working in and with pop culture and how to make activism cool.

First of all, I want to acknowledge the incredible work that you did in raising awareness for the Remain cause; I didn't expect that Wolfgang Tillmans would end up becoming such a powerful political activist and campaigner. I just want to congratulate you because I know it was a lot of work…

Wolfgang Tillmans: I'm not doing it for anybody, nor for myself. I have done this entirely and exclusively with the outcome in mind, that’s all I cared about. Of course the EU is not without flaws but, when you look at the simple, fundamental message that [the Leave campaign] has sent, it is a message of division, of the end of an era. I didn't want that era – one which I feel so much a part of – to end. Over the past thirty years, I never took for granted that we were together in Europe. The first story for that I did for i-D Magazine in 1991 with Matthew Colin was called ‘Techno is the sound of Europe’, and it was about the techno scenes of Ghent, Belgium, London and Frankfurt. That was the spirit of the time and I can't believe that, 25 years later, this has happened.

There have always been political undercurrents to your work, and that story is a great example of where you've used art to express something that is in the politics of youth culture. A search for freedom, identity, unity, finding a system outside of the system. How do the posters for the EU referendum differ to that?

Wolfgang Tillmans: On the one hand, this is the first time that I actually campaigned, that I really got hands-on political, so it definitely feels like a first. On the other, in terms of my art, the work that I did on HIV in 2006, with London’s HIV-iBase and Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa, and of course the Truth Study Centre installations, they're all about politics. In 1999, I published a book called Soldiers – The Nineties, which is only about photographs of soldiers, asking the questions: Why are we looking at them? And why are we being fed photographs of soldiers doing nothing? But I also never thought that it was a contradiction to be interested in music and clubbing and clothes and at the same time see how that all of that is connected to society and politics.

When did you first release the posters, and what was the initial idea behind them?

Wolfgang Tillmans: They were released on the 23rd of April and the whole idea was that they would work on three levels: that they would work as a downloadable PDF that you could print yourself, as social media images that you could post, and as hard-copy A1 sized proper posters. The fourth element came later, which was the t-shirts, something that I hadn't initially planned.

You’ve talked about how difficult it was for the posters to get traction. What was your experience like, can you describe it to me?

Wolfgang Tillmans: There was a huge response to the online part of the campaign, but take up on the physical posters was slow. What I experienced was that online posts get snowed under in no time, a poster in a corner shop stays up for weeks – we didn’t get far enough with that. People didn’t really seem to relate to the urgency that I felt about this, they didn’t seem to think that the campaign might need them to get involved. I think that there was complacency, a general assumption that this might not happen, this will not happen.

I think that young people can feel excluded from politics because of a lack of authentic leaders. The PR, the spin, the inauthenticity has made them detached from it all. Also, the atomised individual that's now a pop culture norm is very much thinking, ‘I'll find my own way out of this, I don't need to belong to a community or to society, I can hustle my way into my own place of freedom or independence.’

Wolfgang Tillmans: You are right. But I always thought that, if something has happened in history, it can happen again and that one should never take any of the freedoms that earlier generations have fought for for granted. One almost owes it to them not to. In western society, you have conservative forces that say things like, ‘yeah but the gays, they should really shut up now that they have everything, don't they have everything? Why are they still going on about equality?’ And that's dangerous because anybody with teenage children can tell you that homophobia has to be unlearned in every generation, one individual at a time. The same goes with racism. You need to take responsibility if you want your lifestyle preserved. Maybe this is the wake-up call.

It’s not just a lifestyle that's being attacked and eroded, it's also our values and freedoms. We've seen the rise in hate crimes post-Brexit. We've seen the rise of the right-wing in Hungary and Poland. There are serious dark forces at work not only in the UK but of course globally, and no-one can be indifferent.

Wolfgang Tillmans: What do you do when, for instance, your nephew says that all refugees are rapists, or when your grandfather says something nationalist? To speak up in every single case is actually the most powerful thing that one can do. I read an interview with a sociologist on the Frankfurter Allgemeine site, and he was saying that there isn't an exclusive, right-wing pod where these thoughts come from, but they are right in the centre of society, they can sprout, and that's what happened in Britain. This is where maybe fashion comes into play, because I've always been interested in making politics fashionable, or keeping them attractive. Progressive ideas are not just politically correct, but they are actually the right thing, and they are fun, and they're good. Everything that we – at least I, personally – enjoy, in terms of being able to live my life as an openly gay man, relates to the dramatic shifts in fashion of the 60s of 70s, in the popular culture that took hold of the whole of society and moved the discourse all the way into the 90s. Then the 90s was this age of openness – and that has to do with culture being assimilated into pop culture.

Artists didn't get really involved in the EU dialogue in a hardcore way – and a lot of fashion stayed out of it. The last time we saw a fashion protest get a headline that I really remember being mindblowing was when Katharine Hamnett had those slogan t-shirts and met Maggie Thatcher, which was...

Wolfgang Tillmans: ‘58% Don't Want Pershing’. We have to get over the embarrassment of standing up for something. Because yes, it is time-consuming and a hassle to put up a poster, but actually the biggest inhibitor is the sense of embarrassment that one feels when one is actually standing up for something...


So how do you make activism cool?

Wolfgang Tillmans: I think that maybe the only thing that shakes people up is the realisation that things are not alright, and that if you don't do anything that there are literally dark forces that will. There are people that have ill wishes for others: Murdoch's Sun newspaper, on referendum day, came out with a cover that read ‘Independence Day: The Resurgence of Britain’, Then the next day, I landed in New York when the result had arrived, and the New York Post had on the cover 'Power to the People', a huge slogan, with two fists up, one painted with UK colours and one with the US colours. The cynicism of this billionaire to promote Brexit and Trump, and sell it to the people with a socialist slogan is so dark. A newsagent’s kiosk contains weapons-grade propaganda and people have to understand that it's happening all around them.

Many have noted that economically disadvantaged Brexiters may have shot themselves in the foot. The divide between rich and poor is extreme. I’m interested to know what happens to the anger when the failed are further failed; when the economically depressed who voted Brexit become even poorer. Where will that anger go?

Wolfgang Tillmans: I’ll tell you where that anger goes, it goes against Europe. That’s the dangerous thing; the people behind Brexit will never ever admit it was the wrong decision, so they will keep blaming Europe, saying that it was Europe that didn’t give them the right trade deals, that it was maybe Germany who did this or did that. That is where hatred and division will be sown, and that is exactly what the EU was founded to fight against, to tie people together rather than to keep them apart. It’s going to be a problematic future when people realise that Brexit may fail and blame Europe once again, because they won’t ever blame themselves.

“A newsagent’s kiosk contains weapons-grade propaganda and people have to understand that it's happening all around them” – Wolfgang Tillmans

There’s a white paper going through Parliament at the moment to take away the right to strike without cover from workers in the public services. There are junior doctors and teachers striking at the moment, and Parliament is trying to take away their right to do so.

Wolfgang Tillmans: And that right was, of course, enshrined in EU Law.

Absolutely, so you know that the right wing conspiracy is playing out in a very real way.

Wolfgang Tillmans: I want to go on record and say that maybe the economic picture will not be all black, because there are very smart people who want this to work out no matter whether they were a Remainer or a Brexiter, and they will possibly find a way to keep Britain competitive. George Osborne already mentioned creating the largest tax haven right on the doorstep of Europe… it may be that the south-east will become the Singapore of Europe, that it will become even more attractive to the super rich and to foreign investment.

The real anger should be channelled towards corporate culture and corporate greed, and there’s a similar sort of situation in America. It’s people blaming immigration for their problems, when really the problem is that there’s no tax being paid by the biggest corporations. That’s not what’s on the front page of the Daily Mail or The Sun.

Wolfgang Tillmans: Well, how do you see the role of fashion and high fashion within that? I could, of course, be asked the same as an artist selling art to people…

I think that the biggest issue that fashion faces is in manufacturing. Fashion has to take a look at itself and its reliance on cheap overseas labour, take responsibility to make sure that the production of clothing is not at the cost of human lives and livelihoods. The Bangladesh disaster was a watershed moment, but a lot more needs to be done. One of the solutions is not actually sustainability, which is a nothing word, but innovation in the ecology of fashion…

Wolfgang Tillmans: Maybe one should use the phrase emotional sustainability because what I find is really unsustainable today is how everybody wants to shine for themselves and there is no sense of solidarity or community. I think that is a place where fashion can also look and ask, what is all this self-perfection about, and why are young people today so obsessed with it?

Dazed has always challenged those mainstream beauty myths and embraced a community of outsiders who feel excluded from that reality, and also tried to fight against the commercial, codified and very reductive beauty ideals. I just had a flashback to you and your youth, when you maybe felt a strong part of a community. What was happening in the UK at that time?

Wolfgang Tillmans: Acid house and techno. Fashion changed in ’87 and ’88, when there was suddenly a complete collapse in the dominant style, which was power dressing. That was towards the late 80s, when everything was all about money and greed and the me me me, and that was symbolised by power dressing and the knowledge that you would only get into certain clubs if you dressed posh.

And after that came grunge.....

Wolfgang Tillmans: Yes, and the arrival of ecstasy, a drug that gives you a heightened sense of community and warmth and empathy. Then, there was no need to differentiate yourself through expensive clothes; suddenly everyone was fine with just a pair of jeans and a t-shirt and that felt liberating and exciting. In America, a parallel developed under the banner of grunge, which was seeing the beauty in what was available and what you could find in a thrift store or army surplus store. Of course, that is very much at odds with the needs of the fashion industry because, although there was still a great love for clothes, like it did matter what t-shirt you were wearing, but not whether it was expensive or not.

“In America, a parallel developed under the banner of grunge, which was seeing the beauty in what was available and what you could find in a thrift store or army surplus store...there was still a great love for clothes, like it did matter what t-shirt you were wearing, but not whether it was expensive or not.” – Wolfgang Tillmans

The idea that Joseph Beuys promotes, of going from a competitive culture to a compassionate culture, really echoes for me what you were talking about when it came to acid house and ecstasy and the feelings of warmth and empathy that both the drug but also that lifestyle gave you. It just took away all of those boundaries of class, of division, of ethnicity or gender. I wonder how that can come about again in culture. Do you see compassion and empathy anywhere in culture today?

Wolfgang Tillmans: Here is a good point to come back to the start of our conversation. There are different interests at work in society, and there are plenty of people who don’t actually want there to be solidarity and peace. There are people who profit from the absence of those things, there are people who profit from young people being unhappy in their bodies and, at the same time, there are people who profit from having children eat more sugar. One has to be more aware that we're living in a society where there are divisive individuals at work, and we have to be aware that they exist, and name them.

I wanted to ask you as we kind of wrap up for a message of hope of positivity. What is the message you want to give the youth, the inheritors of Brexit and the ones who are the future of our times?

Wolfgang Tillmans: I would say to get involved in something communal: once a week, go to a political meeting, see what needs doing in your community or join a party. At first it seems a bit embarrassing, but it is the only way that the freedom that you enjoy today, which was won 90 or 70, 50 or 30 years ago, will remain. There is no big solution. The only solution is people literally getting involved – not just talking about it or posting about it – but getting involved face to face, going to meetings, getting involved in local politics, supporting human rights organisations like Amnesty, it’s slow and usually not  a grand or glamorous stance, but we have to hope that real time spent will yield real change.

This year, Wolfgang Tillmans took up his passion for music and released his first EP, on vinyl and digital, the 2016 / 1986 EP. Listen here on Spotify.