EXCLUSIVE: Mark MacGowan "People think artists are a bunch of wankers but they're just being a witness to their time"

Radical artist Mark MacGowan is best known for his bonkers art stunts or 'comments' as he likes to put it, on current affairs.  Some of these have most famously included pushing a monkey nut across town with his nose to protest against student top up fees, leaving a tap running for a year and kicking a crack head around town to highlight their rights. Oh, the bittersweet irony. I would like to know more about his style of protest and why he thinks many do not believe it contitutes art. ..

Legless but not pegless - Mark's stunt backfires when the drunks attack
him with some clothes pegs.

Mark MacGowan meets me on the steps of Camberwell Arts College where he tutors and we make our way into the lively student cafe. He stops on the way to chat with a gang of students decked out in paint splattered skinny jeans n DMs . They confer about an 'art stunt' conducted in a Peckham pub the previous night. They all chuckle together like they're in on a naughty joke.

We grab a seat at the back of the cafe and he offers to get me a coffee and returns with a pain au raisin and a latte.. He then sits down and turns on his laptop and suddenly becomes deeply absorbed by the screen. After about five minutes he comes back to me. 'Are you gonna ask me loads of questions then?' he says. 'Erm..' I reply, slightly bemused by his nonchalance 'well you know, a few, I guess'. 'Go on then' he says still transfixed. So I begin..

I ask him what his favourite radical action has been so far. "Well, I like the running tap" he begins "it's  a tap that I left running for a long time.. I like that one. Scratching Cars  too. That' a good one.  Eating a corgi' (Mark once ate a Corgi to 'comment' on the monarchy) he finishes.

"What did that taste like?"

His phone rings and it is David C West, the co-owner of Decima Gallery. They talk about the gallery's event from the previous weekend - Decima, a gallery well known for its controversy, recently sparked outrage when they invited guests to a 'Make your own Madeline McCann porn' stall - an event which the gallery stated reflects the media's treatment of the child's abduction.

Mark looks on line at the coverage in The Metro.

"You know that comedian, Scottish comedian.  He tells jokes about Madeline McCann n Shannon Matthews, you know  'Mock The Week.' There's a Scottish guy Roddy Doyle or something, he's talking about Shannon Matthews n then he looks at the audience n he says "Why's it always the ugly ones come back?" Awful. And he goes "Maddy didn't come back."  This is like a top-level comedian on mainstream television telling really sick jokes. Comedians get a licence to do this. That's the problem with art. You see, I did a re-enactment of Jean Charles Demenses and it's construed in a way where it's like 'well why are you doing this?'"

"There are different forms of representation and I think people find art a difficult point of representation. You've got the cinema, the TV, newspapers and you've got all these layers of the way you receive historical events or an incident but when art tries to interact with that it's a bit, obviously it depends how you do it..."

"Do you think that's to do modern art getting an increasingly bad name for itself - always trying to grab headlines?" I suggest. "Yeah probably, I think people are very sceptical of art n they think artists are a bunch of wankers. They think it's hard to get any credibility and respect because the way people are using mediums.   The traditional medium of art is painting as a form of representation, so because people aren't using this traditional medium, everyone's like, 'is this art?'"

Mark was planning to do an art event based around a similar theme the following Thursday, which involved the re enactment of the kidnapping of Shannon Matthews. On his website, he has stated that he thinks 'Karen Matthews is stupid but is a victim herself'.

He continues "Lots of artists do different things.  All artists do is be a witness to their time but when you do that about sensitive things like Shannon Matthews people don't know how to take it, like this thing I'm doing with Shannon Matthews.  You know, I'm not doing anything horrible, I've just got a bed but inside it is actually gonna be David C West.

I can't help but burst into laughter "That might be offensive now!"

"See, they  [Decima] are more hardcore than me... I'm a lot more subtle in what I do."

"Do you think they have a good message?" I ask.

"I think they've got a message there and I think it's perfectly reasonable to say things, whatever you're saying." 

And what is the most important message that you've conveyed?" I press.

"You do projects that carry a message but at the same time you're not actually trying to carry a message, it's almost like a comment."

"A lot of this mag is about activism and encouraging artists, and encouraging people to find a voice and express their views in whatever kind of capacity they like. What would you say about finding a voice for yourself?"

"It's difficult because as an artist wants people to see their work and there's lots of ways to that and actually to get noticed.. I don't know if the intention should start off with that I think you're better off just doing your work and seeing how it goes.. it's natural how you find your voice."
"Would you describe yourself as a protestor?" I wonder.
'Well I'm interested in protest. I'm interested in the futility of protest.  People protest you know, like everyone went outside the Israili embassy the other day but they [the Israelis] are still gonna kill everyone. They only stopped cos the new man [Obama] got in. Maybe sometimes you can't make a difference but you can offer resistance.

I'm interested in the futility of his protests, "How do you come across your participants, like a crack head to kick around or an old person to propell into space?"
    "Sometimes I place an ad or see people who are right for the part. If I have an idea who I want n then I see someone and approach them." he replies casually.
And now I get a bit Grandma and start to wonder about the practicalities required for such activism. "When you pushed that nut across town to protest against top up fees was adverse to your health in any way? Did you have to wear a mask?"
    "I had to wear a little thing on my nose. I had to wear knee-pads too. Did you have to train for it? No, I'm really good at crawling. I can do about five miles a day. To me it's like jogging.  But I still had to pay my student loan."

"I'm a really good crawler, crawling is like jogging to me"

And finally, I ask "Given your radicalism, what do you make of Saatchi's involvement with the art scene, given its' roots within the Tory Party?"
    "Yeah well, Art's got problems." he shrugs "It has problems with funding and artists take dodgy money. It's always been like that throughout history and the companies kind of clean their name through giving money to art."

We chat a bit more about his future art stunts while we finish our coffee and he tells me he's off to do an event about Palestine on Sunday and he's been 'polishing his boots!'.  He hollers to one of his students who comes over. Mark introduces us and pops off for a cigarette. Whilst he's gone the student keeps me entertained with tales of being Mark's accomplice. 'We re-enacted the Stockwell shooting at Stockwell tube once. I think it went really well but I was a bit worried at first with all the security and protesters that turned up'.

Mark returns from his fag break and the two of them start  looking through a video on YouTube of two girls lashing out at each other in a pub in Peckham. Is this last night's art venture. 'Yeah, I took my students on an art trip' he replies. LB!


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