Blast Theory: Eamon and Ulrike Compliant at the Venice Biannale

Interview by Josie Demuth

Brighton based art collective Blast Theory are at the 53rd Venice Biennale and they'd better make sure they didn't forget to pack their 20 pairs of sunglasses, 20 mobile phones or flat-packed interrogation unit!  The vibrant award winning threesome, who first formed in 1995, have brought us a number of bold and stimulating interactive projects over the last eighteen years. This has included; 'Stampede' - a promenade piece looking at crowds and rioting; 'Chemical Wedding' - the industrial 80s rave highlighting AIDS and the game, installation and performance' Desert Rain' which was recently listed in The Guardian as one of the top nine productions to transform theatre.

 Their latest venture 'Ulrike and Eamon Compliant' centres around two of the most extreme but intriguing political figures of the last century; Eamon Collins, (formerly of the IRA's Nutting squad who was to betray his IRA colleagues to authorities and was later murdered) and the 'celebrity terrorist' Ulrike Meinhof, (German extreme left wing militant, former journalist and co-founder of the infamous Red Army Faction). The Biennale extravaganza involves the participant receiving a number of phone calls on their mobile phone in which a sinister voice guides them around the streets of Venice, luring you into the sense that you're either Eamon or Ulrike and that this is a fellow terrorist instructing your next mission. However, once guided to a canal side church it becomes apparent that you have actually been led straight to the authorities who will now sit you down for an interrogative interview..

 We manage to tear Matt Adams away from this 'art operation' to talk to us about this latest project:

Photo by Anne Brassier, Copyright Blast Theory

LB: Let's talk about Ulrike and Eamon Compliant. Obviously these are very exciting, historical characters but what else is it about these two particular people that made you want to dedicate your next project to them?
MA: I think we're very interested in why we take action in society and why we don't and I think for Ju and Nick and I, we're always curious about that boundary and that moment where you take a stand for something. We've looked at that in many ways in our works over the years.  Even going back to 'Stampede' which was back in 1994 we did loads of stuff about manifestos and what we believed in and trying to be really really precise and accurate in the things we believed and looking for the things that we believed most strongly and challenging each others idea.  We even did an interrogation on this work where one of us would make a statement where they would say "I believe" and the other two people would spend the next half an hour trying to break that person down and getting them to say that they didn't really believe it.  So it was kind of testing our ideas against each others and so both Ulrike and Eamon were people who in very radical extreme ways decided that not only were they going to act but they were going to give up almost everything to do it, certainly in Ulrike's case, and Eamon paid with his life ultimately too. So we just felt that they were very interesting examples of people who had done that. Also, of course, the fact they are terrorists and in this political moment terrorism is such a live wire issue and so we were very interested to try and explore the motivations around people who act in ways that are violent and involve murder.

LB: And how will your work portray them or is that up to the participants to make up their own minds about them?
MA: I mean, you can never be totally faithful in the way that you represent someone in their work because your always distorting by omission, even to start with, the things that you're leaving out are huge and in this work when you've only got 30 - 40 mins to deal with someone's life it's an inevitably partial and slanted view but we have researched it very carefully and the vast majority of the work is either based directly on evidence or is entirely consistent with what is currently known. So not that there's any particular virtue in everything being all true, but it's a question of being faithful to those particular people and the reason for that is because these people are real and that in and of itself a very interesting thing.  The fact that they didn't hypothetically do these things, they actually did these things is a critical part of it and so we want people to feel that sense of tangible reality and some people who come will know a lot, especially about Ulrike Meinhof who is an extremely famous figure.

Photo by Anne Brassier, Copyright Blast Theory

LB: You mentioned previously that one of the desired responses from the participant might be a bit of a shudder. Is this to do with the confusion between reality and role-play that they are exposed to?
MA: There is a tremendous amount in our work where the line between reality and fiction is blurred and you are in a kind of subliminal state between these two things and there's a kind of pleasure in that ambiguous position.  The history of post-modernism has taught us about how heavily constructed and coded all forms of realities are, that they are things that come out of forms of meaning rather than forms of being. So in 'Ulrike and Eamon Compliant' we're particularly interested with playing with the subjectivity of people who participate as though you are yourself or this other person and we kind of treat you throughout this experience as though you are this other person and so then we want you to kind of be put in a slightly awkward position because these people are not sympathetic much of the time and some of the things that they did are extremely hard to explain or justify so in extending this empathy towards these people, if you extend this far enough to actually start to feel that that you are accommodating the other person as part of yourself or allow yourself to become partly them then this is quite an ambivalent thing and so this is where the shudder might come in.

So yeah your work is preoccupied with a wide range of social/political comments.  What's the most important message you have conveyed, and learnt?
MA: Well the author Jane Smiley wrote a great thing once about confusion and it says [paraphrasing] 'I used to think confusion was lacking clarity but now I understand that confusion is perfect site' and what I interpret that to mean is that when you see reality as it is it is inherently entangled and confused and the difference between activists and artists is that artists can accommodate those confusions in fact you have to be true to those confusions and ambivalences and the fact that I am a less politically active person than I was once is part of what makes our work. The work is about those slippages and gaps and the differences between who I would ideally like to be and who I currently am.  So those are the kinds of messages that interest me in the work we've made which is to acknowledge those various kind of ambivalences and anxieties to their fullest degree and then situate them into political understandings of the world to assert that those things are interlinked with politics rather than to say they are separate from politics, it's to say that they are part of our politics.

LB: What's the best thing about being a group of artists, as a opposed to a solo artist?
MA: Well partly I don't know because I've never worked on my own before but I mean, partly it's working with Ju and Nick as individuals because they're amazing people and fantastic people to spend my working day with and I find them incredibly creatively engaging. So it's partly about them as individuals. We wouldn't have worked together for eighteen years had that not been the case.  The best thing about collaborative practice in general is the sense of discussion and argument.  What I really really love about it is that you're working in a place where people test your ideas every step of the way and push and interrogate them and help stimulate them to go further and refresh them and so there's a kind of shifting dynamic between the three of us as we go from project to project. It is just so rich and has a complexity and depth to it that I feel I just wouldn't be able to achieve if I were on my own.  I would be terrified to make work on my own and I have such a respect to those artists who do make work on their own because it is so brave.  To put it out there and take what people lay on you, especially in UK where people are vicious about artistic activity in some cases.  Working with others I find I have the guts to take risks and push it further.

Why the name Blast Theory? 
Two sources; origin Windom Lewis's magazine 'BLAST' published in 1913 but in the 1980s an anarchist fanzine called 'VAGUE' did an update on this where they made similar lists that Windom did, where it was 'Blast this' and 'Bless the other' and one was blast theory and bless practice and that sort of chimed with us. But I went back and checked the other day in 'VAGUE' and I couldn't see it anywhere so I don't know where the hell we actually got it from. We must have made it up!

How do you see your work progressing form here? I don't know. At the moment we are completely absorbed in Ulrike and Eamon Compliant. However, what I do know is that we are working about outside broadcasting and thinking about how you could do outside broadcasting in new ways and we're doing a project with Channel 4 about a teenager in a band which is an interactive SMS narrative. Formally that's two things but formally where our ideas will go only time will tell. LB!



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awesome! interesting project and interesting interview.
jonny badd
i found this very informative, i like art that tells a story and educates you, especially on such an interactive scale. I'm actually really annoyed I missed this at the bienalle!
Jess Mouton