Talking about ‘Err’

An interview with artist Jeremy Hutchison.

‘Err’ is an installation of deliberately broken prototypes conceived by Jeremy Hutchison. We caught up with him to discuss the project.

BST: How did the idea for Err come about?

JH:I came across an article about the Apple Macintosh factory in China. Consumer hunger for iPads had reached such an extent that factory employees were throwing themselves off the roof. Life on the assembly line had become devastating. One worker said ‘sometimes he would deliberately drop something on the ground so that he could have a few seconds of rest while picking it up.’

That’s an extraordinary idea. A deliberate error is completely illogical. Which is what makes it fundamentally human. So I wanted to know what would happen if you extended this human gesture, and inserted nonsense into the smooth logic of a hyper-efficient globalised machine. What if you commissioned workers to produce errors, intentionally? What is an intentional error?

What were the reactions from the manufacturers?

Well, there was a lot of feedback… a lot of confusion. The workers in the Indian comb factory fell about laughing when their boss asked them to make a dysfunctional comb: ‘everyone thought I have gone mad or mis-read your enquiry as everyone in the world strives to improve not to create error.’

But the confusion wasn’t limited to the factories: it continued through the customs ports. A factory in Pakistan agreed to make me an incorrect football. The patches were in the wrong places, the stitching was terrible, the bladder poured out. It was lovely.

But I got a frantic call in the middle of the night: my contact Waleed was at the customs port. The authorities had seized the ball. When he explained than an Englishman had ordered a ball with errors, all hell broke loose. They said it was illegal to fabricate incorrect products, and they would revoke his company’s trading licence. I explained that this product wasn’t incorrect since it was exactly what I’d ordered. And it wasn’t actually a football. Days passed: nothing. Lost in the bureaucracy of Pakistani customs, I eventually got through to the high commissioner in Islamabad.

She was very apologetic, and explained that 20kg of heroin had recently passed under the radar at Sialkot customs. So everyone was feeling a bit paranoid. She issued a document stating that ‘the sculpture/artwork looks like a football but in fact is not a football and primarily this object is not for using as a football but is an artwork.’ But it was too late: someone had destroyed the ball, and it disappeared without a trace. I never quite found out who.

But Waleed and I are still friends.

The project seems as much (if not more) about the personalities of the makers than the objects themselves. Did you keep in touch with any of them or have any of the makers actually seen the work?

Yes, absolutely. Waleed sends me photos of his baby son, Mohammed. The man who made the ladder endlessly asks when we can make another projects. The project was about identifying a curious, human element within a faceless industrial mechanism. Factories normally take orders of ten thousand – not one. And certainly not one with an error. So I guess it came down to finding people who were willing to engage with an absurd line of thinking – who wanted to see what would happen. I made lots of friends, and exchanged an awful lot of emoticons.

I sent all my contacts documentation of the installed work. But I never told them it was art: it was research. The word ‘art’ can be unhelpful: it seems to answer the question I’m trying to set up.

What was the fastest turnaround time? 

None of them took less than a month – some took almost four.

Which is your favourite piece and why?

Hmm.. maybe the teapot. Primarily because it came the closest to being a major disappointment. I’d communicated for months with the factory, waking up at 5am to talk over Skype. They’d assured me that Mr Luo (their factory worker) had really gone to town on it, and that I should expect something paradigm-shifting.

When it arrived, I was giddy with excitement. I was expecting the perfect conundrum. I tore open the box, and there it was: a normal teapot. Unblemished… flawless… immaculate.

I felt sick, then enraged. I took it to the sink… and found I couldn’t get the lid off. Which really cracked me up. I love the little teapot, it’s quietly terrifying: the most insidious of all the objects. It looks like something you know, but somehow it’s all wrong. Every time I’ve shown it in galleries, people always twiddle the lid, like they really want it to be stuck.

Has anyone expressed interest in either buying or reproducing commercially any of the items? Are you planning to develop the concept, maybe produce multiples?

Yes to both. At the end of this year, the project will regurgitate in a completely new form: as a luxury brand [Jeremy Hutchison's first solo show opens at Paradise Row Gallery on December 4th 2012]. The objects will be swamped by an immaculate, glossy surface – a world of panelled interiors, velvet cushions and vacant supermodels. This is obviously the wrong thing to do with this project. Which is why I’m interested in it.

The luxury market swims in an ether of dysfunctionality. It moves beyond reason, logic and resolution. It wanders away from sense in favour of the hermetic, unreadable poetry of capitalism. So this brand will celebrate this economy: pushing the levers of capitalism as far as they go, plunging absurdity into the marketplace. It’s the same idiotic logic that I performed on the factory floor, now performed in marketing communication. So I’m interested to see what will happen.

Are any of the items trademarked or patented and if so who owns the trademark – you or the manufacturer/maker? [we recognise that many are 'interventions' of generic items but we live in an era where people sell teapots as lampshades]

The short answer is no: none of these products are patented. But your question really points to the problematic question of authorship. The workers designed the objects, but under a premise that I designed. So who, ultimately, is the author? I’d prefer to leave that question hanging dangerously open; the unsettling questions are the ones I find most interesting. They are the reason I make art.

AliBaba has collapsed the manufacturing system – do you think this is a good or a bad thing?

I think it’s a magnificent thing for the global economy, and a magnificently bad thing for human consciousness.

I think that individual freedom is enhanced by an awareness of socio-economic constructions; of the mechanisms that govern our daily existence. In other words, if we know how things came into being, we can understand how things are. Its a question of visibility. So as these mechanisms become increasingly invisible, I think we understand less about them, and less about each other. So I designed this project to expose the industrial processes that AliBaba has made a business of hiding. I wanted to show where things come from. What factory workers think about. How they feel about eating, living and sleeping in their factories.

Ultimately, I wanted to expose the potential for chaos in global mass-production. We are designing increasingly efficient technologies to become more productive, better organised. To disguise errancy and confusion. But I feel like the human mind is incredibly chaotic – and beautifully so. So I like reminding myself that things don’t always fit into 1s and 0s. That reality in 2012 is temporary, fabricated, arbitrary. That it won’t always be like this. And that nothing, objectively, makes sense.

How has your background in commercial art (or advertising as it’s otherwise known ;-0) informed your work?

[Full disclosure: BST editors Anne-Fay and Darrell met Jeremy at ad agency HHCL where he was undertaking a WPP Fellowship.] To begin with, I learnt how contemporary myths are made. I learnt how to present arbitrary modes of rationality as if they made perfect sense. I learnt that so long as the logo is correctly placed, and the models are well-lit, then you can make just about anything sound convincing. Working in advertising was rather like working in the upper management of a well-run religion.

And advertising taught me a lot about humour. It understands that humour is the most disruptive tool in the box. There’s a line in Singing in the Rain: ‘Just slip on a banana peel / The world’s at your feet’. Basically, provided that you make people laugh, you can perform radical gestures and people will praise you for them. But if you protest in the streets with horns and banners, people will get scared and label you all sorts of bad things.

Can you tell us a bit about your next project?

Well, I’m currently examining one of the functions of an artwork. On a certain level, I think a work of art can be read as an advertising vehicle for the artist’s brand. Look at Damian Hirst’s diamond skull. Or Bas Jan Ader’s shipwreck. The success of an artwork could be judged by the myth it spins around its author. So I’ve outsourced my creative process to ad agencies (mythmakers) across the globe: W&K, BBH, Y&R, Start JG, Code&Logic. The agencies are generating the ideas, I’m executing the works. It’s an absurd premise – idiotic perhaps – but not cynical. You could say that everything we do advertises us: every action inspires some reaction. Anyway, it’s all in the pipeline…

Finally, are there any questions you wished we’d asked, and if so what are they? 

Well, you didn’t ask me about the exploitation that Err actually performs – people rarely do. Lurking in the depths of this project, buried beneath the humour, chaos and imagination, I think there’s something quite sinister going on. Its an extension of a very old colonial narrative: white British male brings freedom to less-privileged, less-educated people all over the world – but only on his terms… And that’s why I like the teapot with the lid stuck down. Because it says, quite clearly: fuck you.

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