L-13 Light Industrial Workshop - Interview
Founded by artist Steve Lowe, the L-13 Light Industrial Workshop is a creative platform, spiritual home and technical epicentre for a small group of artists including Jamie Reid, Billy Childish and Harry Adams. Based in Clerkenwell, the workshop develops projects both ambitious and diminutive, publishes books, makes prints and other artwork editions, converts artistic visions to reality and works with other galleries and organisations that exhibit and support L-13 artists.
Artist Michael Lacey interviews Steve about the L-13's history, their relationships with the orthodox art world and advice for young artists.
Q: Can you tell us a little about the L-13 Light Industrial Workshop - its history and output?
A: It’s very difficult to say just a little about The L-13 Light Industrial Workshop and Private Ladies and Gentlemen’s Club for Art Leisure and the Disruptive Betterment for Culture. Our first incarnation was as the aquarium - that opened in a small space in Bloomsbury in 2003. One of our first shows was an exhibition about the Situationists, accompanied by a month-long programme of associated events. Previous to that I had been dealing in rare books with a focus on counter-culture, and previous to that I’d left my MA in Fine Art a month before completion, citing my hatred of art and artists as the reason. I was then in rock bands for years and carried on making music pretty much up to the point that I started painting as Harry Adams with my long-time collaborator Adam Wood. Our last incarnation as a band was STOT21stCplanB and that spilled over into us making visual work again.
The genesis of L-13 was through a negation of mainstream art and culture rather than a willingness to celebrate or take part in it. My interest in alternative positions and an independent DIY work ethic has defined what we do as a creative platform. This attitude led to an exhibition with Billy Childish, who I admired for his defiant position on the margins of culture, and then, following a group exhibition of art against war, I ended up working with Jimmy Cauty and Jamie Reid – all highly influential artists pretty much untouched by the orthodox art world.
Q: Jimmy Cauty's ongoing Afermath Delocation Principle (A.D.P) visited Liverpool last year and has since embarked on a world tour. What was the genesis of this ambitious project like?
The genesis of the ADP Riot Tour was very typical of how things work at L-13, the main aim being to not put obstacles in the way of things happening and just allowing a project to develop in a very natural way. In 2011 Jimmy made a series of smaller pieces called A Riot in a Jam Jar. These were 1:87 scale models of a riotous nature (based on both real and imagined events) that were housed in upturned jam jars. At the end of 2012 I suggested to Jimmy that we revisit the idea and do another exhibition, but he wasn’t that keen, saying he’d prefer to make a larger piece. Originally this was going to be in a huge jam jar, but we quickly realised that didn’t make sense, so decided Jimmy should just start work on a larger model and we’d worry about presentation devices at a later date.
Jimmy went away to do a costing and his original estimate was about £10K. I said that was fine as long as we could pay for everything over a couple of months, so he went off and started on what was to become the ADP. A little while later he told me he had revised his plans and it was all going to be a bit more expensive, about £25K. So I said fine, I’d put £5K per month in his account to cover the costs. This soon went up to £8K per month, and 9 months and near £80,000 later, we had a totally mind blowing, sprawling post-apocalyptic model landscape that broke down into 4-foot sections and could be transported in crates.
We showed it for a couple of weeks in an archway in East London in 2013, and then it went to the Netherlands where it toured for most of 2014 before going into storage back here. At this point it was problematic to show as it was so big and a slightly awkward shape. It also had to be reassembled each time. Shifting 23 4-foot crates around was not fun, but we lived with it.
Then in 2015, Bansky showed the model at Dismaland which really put it on the map. While it was there they had to put a fence around it to stop people nicking pieces off it, so when we then showed it in London afterwards Jimmy did the same. Except this time he put up boards with peep holes in and realised he could direct the viewers gaze and change the viewing experience quite considerably. This in itself was a big success, but through that someone came up with the idea of putting the whole model in a shipping container and having the peep holes in the sides of that instead. I’d been talking to Jimmy about doing something with shipping containers since 2004 so was very excited by this idea.
We bought a 40ft container and Jimmy started work on the conversion. He managed to reformat the entire model (which included chopping off about 8 inches down one side to fit in the container) and within a couple of months we had a self-contained, weather proof, vandal proof artwork that could travel anywhere a container lorry could get to. During the conversion period we’d started organising the tour. Jimmy decided it should only visit sites where there had been a riot so we put out a call for willing helpers and hosts. Within no time at all we had a long list of potential sites and hosts, and between 23rd April and Christmas Day 2016 we toured it to about 45 riot sites around the country where it was always a huge hit and brought joy to many thousands of people.
Q: While L-13 is firmly "not a gallery", in its first incarnation as The Aquarium you did stage exhibitions. What was it you disliked about being called a gallery, and why did you stop putting on shows?
The ‘not being a gallery’ started off from a genuine sense of embarrassment along the lines of “what would my mates think if they knew I was running a gallery!’ When I was at art school I was interested in subverting or even destroying the gallery system, not adding to it, so it was quite an inbuilt aversion for me. After that it became more playful and a question of not being defined by simplistic characterisations. Our website still starts with a list of denials about what we are and do. Quite early on I also knew that we had to be involved in making work as well as exhibiting it, and that is still the driving force, along with a great belief in collaborative enterprise. As most of us have been in bands we understand the dynamics of group efforts and the various ego issues and hierarchies involved.
So, yes we ran a programme of exhibitions from 2003 until 2013. Sometimes 4 or 5 Billy Childish shows in one year! We were never short of ideas or things we wanted to show, and each exhibition was also accompanied by the publication of print editions, books, pamphlets, records or other multiples. These are the things that we made money from so we weren’t worried about the exhibitions themselves being in any way compromised by the need to be commercial. We stopped doing exhibitions because the making and doing became more important than showing, and more and more we were finding it was better to exhibit with galleries that wanted to do that. The exhibition space at L-13 is now the Harry Adams painting studio, which is a much better use of space.
Q: What are the reasons for your distaste with the 'orthodox' art world?
From a young age I wanted to be either an artist or work with animals. As a teen I found that making art better suited my rebellious nature - particularly after discovering Dada - so art won out. My parents like “art” and classical music and considered themselves cultured people. They did not like or understand - and actively opposed - the culture I was immersing myself in, and I thought their viewpoint was oppressive, elitist and boring.
Back then I thought it was my job, and the job of all artists, to oppose my parents and destroy the conservative culture that they represented. When I got to art school I found that not many students and none of the tutors wanted to join me in fighting my parents, so I think that was the beginning of the disappointment that later led to a strong distaste for the art world as a whole. I went into art school as a painter, but quickly found the other painters too stifling and rarified in their concerns – I just didn’t want to be associated with their world. I started doing noise based performance with my friend Adam (who I continue to work with), but also made books, multiples, and immersive installations that took the form of sensory environments. Everybody hated the noise performances, but the books and installations always went down well with the tutors (when they weren’t too loud and intrusive), and my parents could just not understand why I’d stopped painting. I did well at college despite the noise stuff, and went on to do an MA at the University of Ulster. It was whilst I was there that my dissatisfaction with what I was doing grew. I just found it all so lame and ineffective - and the ponderous tutorials and crits were so so tedious. I began to form the opinion that the only people who were interested in Art were those with a vested interest in it. To me it seemed to have nothing to do with the radical and energised creative force for good that I imagined art should be. Everyone just seemed timid and fawning – happy to fulfil what they thought was required of them.
At this point me and Adam had also started a more regular (but still confrontational) band called Buxom with a fearsome female singer. This, I thought, was a much better proposition than lame, boring “fine art”, so I spent a lot of the course working on music rather than anything visual. This didn’t go down too well with the University so I was given an ultimatum to either knuckle down and do some proper work or leave. I quite happily left and spent the next 15 or so years working hard with the band under various guises and had no desire to involve myself with “art” at all. I did make some paintings at some point, just for pleasure, but the artspeak part of my brain started getting involved so I had to stop. Even when I started the aquarium I had no intention of returning to the art world. I still saw what I was doing as a point of opposition not inclusion. Even now I view the art world as a highly immoral institution, dominated and promoted by power, money and self-serving cowardly stupidity. The only difference now is that I can separate that distaste from the more noble and authentic desire humans have to be creative, and commune through that creativity. i.e just because the art world is shit and will make bastards of us all, it doesn’t mean we can’t make art.
I’m also working on an idea that the only way to survive as an artist within the art world is to take on (at best) an amoral stance. To be able to not care about the tawdry mechanics and the drive conformity and timidity in art, exploit the idiocy of it all, and revel in your own creative buzz. Or at worst you can just be plain immoral, join in with the idiocy and think it’s all fucking great… which it most certainly isn’t.
Q: L-13's output seems to feature a lot of outspoken political commentary alongside work that's more pastoral and romantic. Has the political content increased in recent years, as a reaction to what's been happening in the country?
The political commentary is pretty much limited to polemic and iconoclastic blasts. We’re all politically conscientious but refuse to be drawn into reasonable debate. We find “art” that does that too tedious. I always say that L-13 was born on the eve of the Iraq War and one of our first shows was in support of Stop the War coalition, so we’ve always had a political charge to what we do. With a Tory government, then Brexit, then May, then Trump… we’ve been handed a creative gift. I’d rather not have had it though. We’ve kind of over-cooked the Billy Childish ‘Cunt’ poster idea, but I have no doubt we’ll need to make more - whether we like it or not.
Harry Adams is a collaborative pseudonym for work you produce with Adam Wood. How does this collaboration take place - do you occupy similar roles in producing the work, or do you have seperate strengths?
I started collaborating with Adam at art college where we did horrendous noise performances that I described as Einsturzende Neubauten without the tunes. After that we were in more regular bands together before turning our hand to making visual work together in 2005, that led to the birth of the painter Harry Adams in 2007. I often liken our collaboration to the concept of a band where you have two songwriters. We both have our strengths and weaknesses, but it is a relatively equal and flexible working partnership. I suppose I have more of the gift of the gab and Adam is a pure creative force of nature, but we don’t assign any roles. We also don’t have to have both worked on a painting for it to be a Harry Adams. Sometimes they are by Adam, sometimes they are by me, sometimes both of us have worked on it. We have similar aesthetic and thematic concerns though and there is always plenty of discussion about what we’re doing. If you’re in the know you can tell who’s done what, but most people aren’t in the know. We also feed off what the other has done, so if Adam does something I like I’ll copy it or try to do something similar, and vice-versa.
Q: Do you have any intention of returning to making music?
Not really. Me and Adam mention it once in a while and wonder what we’d do if we did start again, but it gets no further than that. But I don’t really even listen to music any more. Looking back on it I think I was more interested in the idea of being in a band as a creative force rather than being interested in music itself. I’m also someone who gets very involved in what they’re doing, so the painting has totally taken over my creative drive.
Q: What are the advantages of collaborative working?
In another interview I said “because you’ve always got someone to remind you you’re not a fucking genius!”. And there is some truth to that. I’m not a big fan of the ‘lone genius working in isolation’ notion of the artist. I think it’s more fun and meaningful to work with other people. It means that no individual is totally in control and can lead to unexpected results. It also takes a bit of the pressure off the responsibility for the work which I think can be a real problem for the lone artist. Particularly painters.
Q: The work of Harry Adams has a unique flavour but bears some surface similarities with the work of Billy Childish - has your long association brought your practices closer together?
We started painting again because of Billy. I went into art college as a painter and watching Billy paint brought back the urge to do it again. With the actual paintings, any similarity is relatively superficial though. We both work within the tradition of figurative oil painting with a big nod to the modernists, but Billy is much more of a fundamentalist than we are, and I’m a lot more strategic. We mix and match a lot more in terms of materials, themes and references. That said we do nick loads of ideas off Billy, and we have watched a few Harry Adams-isms creep into his work. I think that’s inevitable though. All artists are thieves… or the best ones are!
Q: Speaking of materials, how did you come to use encaustic wax in your practice?
A: Impatience and laziness was the starting point. We wanted to work in oil paint and we wanted the paintings to be visceral and tactile, but as oil paint takes a long time to dry we looked at ways of speeding the process up. As a kid I really liked Jasper Johns’ flags where he used encaustic, so we started playing around with mixing oil paint in wax and using that on plaster covered boards that we could then scrape back, scratch and hack into. The wax also makes a great surface to paint onto and we like the association of encaustic with ancient art – the earliest known Egyptian paintings are made using wax as the pigment binder.
The process for us slowly refined itself as the paintings became more subtle and at some point Adam started pouring on the pure encaustic wax (beeswax melted together with damar resin with no pigment) as a base - sometimes over an initial charcoal drawing, sealing it into place with a translucent layer. We also sometimes use a cold wax paste that can be scraped on or painted with, but mostly these days we just use the encaustic as a base layer and use a variety of methods of painting on top, so rely less on the wax itself as an easy ‘effect’. If the oil paint is thinned with turps for example, it will melt the wax a bit to create a luscious matt texture, or we’ll use a glaze medium to give extra luster. We also recycle a lot of old paintings in which case we’ll roughly paint over the old painting then add a new layer or wax… and sometimes we’ll scrape the whole thing back through layers of wax and paint to see what’s there. Often, the prepared encaustic surfaces that we paint on are beautiful in their own right. Our joke is that we then go and ruin them by painting a picture on top!
Q: You say that L-13 try not to let money get in the way of doing what you want, and have become relatively expert at doing so. Can you offer any advice to young artists struggling with their finances?
A: For most of my adult life I had very little money, but I think things are tougher for young people now. Back when I left college rent in London was still low, it was still possible to find squats, and it was easier to be on the dole and have relative freedom. We made it a lifestyle choice to not have much money in order to have time to be creative, and I felt entitled in my right to do that. It was never easy, but that meant you had to show commitment to what you are doing and work the system as a means of survival. What I learned by doing that in many ways has lead to my relative success in later life. My advice to young people is to find the space to do what you love doing and don’t compromise for the sake of ease. Keep your head above the water and swim on.
Q: Are there any contemporary artists whose work you enjoy? Or any classics you always come back to?
I’m almost as bad as Billy Childish in this respect, and have (what I’d consider) a healthy disregard for other contemporary artists. I love all the artists I work with, but that doesn’t mean I have to like everything that they do. Most art disappoints me, but I really enjoy looking at early renaissance paintings and anything I can’t quite fathom in terms of the systems of belief that lead to its creation. I visited the Munch museum a few years ago anddecided that the paintings I liked best were the worst ones - the ones where I think he’s managed to get away with something. My daughter was with me at the time and after 5 minutes in the museum she said “Dad, I’m bored, can we go now?” I told her to go and find a painting she liked and then come and tell me why she liked it, just to keep her occupied. She replied “I’ve already seen them all and they’re all rubbish. They’re worse than your paintings!” Bless her!!