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Unveiling Truths and Challenging Orthodoxy: A Conversation with Artist Martin Fowler

Within this interview, we will unravel the layers of Fowler's artistic philosophy, exploring his motivation to counter prevailing orthodoxies and his commitment to challenging cultural norms. Join us as we dive deep into the mind of a visionary artist who encourages us to rethink the stories we tell ourselves about our identity and society.

2023-08-25

Joana Alarcão

Today, we explore the intricate and thought-provoking artistic realm of Martin Fowler, specifically focusing on his film montage titled "Sheep-Walk."" Drawing inspiration from varied sources including Bertolt Brecht's Epic Theatre, Jean Luc Godard's materialist cinema, and the counter-establishment writings of Tom Leonard, "Sheep-Walk" is a poignant political montage that challenges established ways of perception, cognition, and storytelling.


Fowler's filmmaking style diverges from the traditional linear narrative, opting instead for a pluralistic, non-linear, and fragmented approach. His film delves into his personal familial experiences as well as the historical narratives of previous generations of working-class Scots. By doing so, "Sheep-Walk" aims to unravel the stereotypical depictions of Scotland, presenting a multifaceted view that interweaves image, object, and narrative within the intricate web of capitalist ideology.


Fowler's deliberate use of fragmented imagery and non-linear storytelling serves as a form of resistance against dominant narrative structures, disrupting the traditional ways in which stories are constructed and consumed.


Can you start by giving us a bit of an overview of your practice?

I studied Drawing and Painting at Glasgow School of Art and was fascinated by figurative painting. This was my focus until it was gradually delegitimized by my lived experience of the so-called modern workplace, whether offices, warehouses, prisons or academia. These encounters with authority, the incarcerated individual, dissent, bureaucracy and conformism revealed, to my mind, the lived contradiction between the figurative canon and neoliberal orthodoxy. Subsequently, my rejection of conventional painting was signalled by a damascene moment in which I picked a discarded cigarette packet from a city street. The packet, an indexical trace of working-class commodity culture, recalled, I gradually realized, the lived history of my working-class grandparents. As such, the reclaimed box became the catalyst for my PhD project PREFAB: Dissident Art-Making Against The Capitalist Common Sense. In turn, PREFAB enabled the development, materially and theoretically speaking, of a counter-canonic praxis grounded in Marx, Gramsci and Brecht. This reached an apogee of sorts in the construction of Supermarket, a bogus market stall populated with redux commodities and exhibited in Carlisle’s central marketplace. More recently, my work has been using montage to challenge the ruling class ways of seeing, knowing and telling. 


Your background in both academia and art is quite unique. How have your experiences as a lecturer and your artistic endeavors influenced each other?

In hindsight, the 6 years I spent teaching full-time in the Scottish prison system were life-changing. Working with men serving life-sentences within a maximum security environment, in essence, a large cage, exposed the tensions between authority and the individual. Alienated by a reactionary regime, art-making provided the men with a means to (re)connect with loved ones, rebuild self-esteem and explore their lived experience within a supportive environment. Subsequently, this formative experience of power, the concrete realities of working-class life and the alienated individual, underpins a pedagogical purview in which teaching is approached as a socially-purposive project. 

 



Your films, particularly Sheep-Walk, seem to challenge conventional storytelling and cinematic norms. Could you elaborate on your inspiration behind this approach and its connection to your artistic philosophy?

Sheep-Walk draws inspiration from Brecht’s Epic Theatre. Anti-naturalist and anti-illusionistic, Brecht’s (historical) materialist theater evolved, near the end of his life, towards a ‘dialectical theater’, or left surrealism, enabled by counter-conventional methods such as interruption, caption and montage. These estrangement techniques, or verfremdungseffekt, have shaped a theory in practice as opposed to political authoritarianism and the imposition of market criteria upon every sector of society.

 

How do you navigate the line between personal narrative and broader societal commentary in your work?

Through my PhD research I came to understand that, theoretically and historically speaking, personal narrative and wider society are connected by the individual’s lived experience. This lived history underpins Gramsci’s theory of the ‘inventory of traces’, a historical materialist formulation grounded in an understanding that the starting point for critical elaboration is ‘the consciousness of what one really is’. This ‘knowing oneself’ enables us to understand ourselves ‘as a product of the historical processes to date’. These processes have deposited within us ‘an infinity of traces’ - religious, educational, geographic, familial, cultural, economic - but ‘without leaving an inventory’. As the Glasgow poet Tom Leonard wrote ‘Less the childhood, more the place and the childhood of the place; and through the childhood of the place the present: the present people’.

  




Your books, "The Tension of a Line: A Portrait of Perth Prison" and "Scotland the Brave: A Graphic History Of Scotland 1514-2014," delve into historical and socio-political subjects. How does your background in the visual arts contribute to your exploration of these themes?

Drawing from Gramsci’s notion of the ‘organic intellectual’, my exploration of socio-historic subjects, whether the impact of heroin upon the Scottish working class circa 1980, the Housing Act (1981) or further back, the Highland and Lowland Clearances resulting from C18 Enclosure Acts, were grounded in a determination to make critically-conscious images grounded in their historical moment. In this sense, my formative experiences in the visual arts played a limited role, defined, as they were, by an apolitical ahistorical art school system: a system in which the signifier is disconnected from the signified. In contrast, my childhood experiences of Protestantism, working-class commodity culture and the cultic militarism of The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, provided ample material for the dialectical materialist method. As a result, the ‘art for art’s sake’ formalism of de Kooning and Gorky which had so influenced me at college, was now overturned by the critical realism of artists such as Brecht, Grosz, Heartfield and Keinholz. 

 

The term "oppositionalist film" is intriguing. Could you explain how your work challenges prevailing artistic norms and encourages viewers to reconsider their understanding of storytelling and culture?

PREFAB, (named after the post-WWII prefabricated working-class houses in which my parents were raised) disavowed the moral compass of the liberal arts and art history. The habitual orientation of this largely apolitical and ahistorical approach to art-making and its subsequent critique is to privilege the psycho-pathology of the individual artist. In contrast, my work, informed by Walter Benjamin’s notion of the ‘author as producer’, opposes ruling-class ideology and its concealment, distortion, and displacement of lived history in the interests of oppressive power. As the Welsh cultural materialist Raymond Williams wrote ‘Culture is ordinary: that is where we must start … My grandfather, a big hard labourer, wept while he spoke, finely and excitedly, at the parish meeting, of being turned out of his cottage…I speak a different idiom, but I think of these same things. 



Your emphasis on the non-linear and plural seems to create a rich tapestry of perspectives. Can you discuss how this approach impacts the viewer's engagement with your films?

My intention is to estrange the viewer from conventional linear narrative and the illusionism of classical seeing. Second, is to show, using found images and crude animations, historical events - the massacre of unarmed Malayan villagers by Scottish troops in 1948, the recent creation of a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in North Edinburgh, or the impact of the C19 Enclosure Acts - and, in so doing, create oppositional images whose meanings are anchored by the use of leftist captions. This angling on the image, on what it shows or does not show, creates a dialectic between word and image which is intended, as Esther Leslie maintains, to ‘blast the image into political associations’, ‘to pull it into context and enable us to measure experience against representation’. In this sense, my recent montages are antagonistic towards both nation-state myth and the ahistorical ironies of the contemporary avant-garde. As Tariq Ali asserts in his anti-imperialist writings ‘What’s Past is Prologue’.

 

Bertolt Brecht, Jean-Luc Godard, and Tom Leonard are cited as inspirations. How do these influences manifest in your work, and how do you see your contributions building upon or diverging from theirs?

Tom was a friend and mentor whose life-long resistance to the ‘agenda corrupted language’ of State and media inspires my opposition to the philistinism and violence of late-capitalist society. Like Tom's (and Brecht’s) bourgeois dissident purview, Sheep-Walk seeks to build upon its truth-to-materials (political) modernism through the use of non-linear narrative, mismatch, deskilling and text. Whether it be the ‘ben and glen’ stereotypes of Scotland (tartanry often serves as contradictory cover for prevailing forms of nativism and cultic militarism) or the possessive-individualism of the contemporary art world, Sheep-Walk opposes the commodified and ‘fatal a-historical basis’ of capitalist culture. As Tom said ‘…creativity is process, that is the point. A commodity-driven society will hold that creativity is measured in outcomes. Creativity is on the side of being, not having.’



In your perspective, how does contemporary art challenge current societal norms? And how do you see the impact of art in the current global atmospheres? 

I don’t believe that contemporary art challenges societal norms or impacts in any meaningful way on socio-political factors. If anything, contemporary art is dominated not by an avant-garde but by a rear-guard, the ‘new conformists’ which help maintain the conceits and conventions underpinning bourgeois liberal humanism. In thrall to a form of C18 patronage and prevailing economic orthodoxy, this critically-naive arriere-garde helps maintain a situation in which art is commodified within the apparatus of the culinary entertainment industry. In contrast, I believe that Benjamin’s idea of the ‘author as producer’ offers an effective alternative to confronting the lived contradictions of late-capitalism. As Brecht said ‘For art to be unpolitical means only to ally itself with the ruling group’.  


How do you intentionally make your practice and creative process more complex? Do you have any amusing or captivating anecdotes about changing your methods of creation?

One morning, not long into my tenure at HMP Perth, I was busying myself with the Art class’s collection of old art books and tattered magazines. Upon opening an old hard-back edition of MacMillan’s A History of Scottish Art 1460-1990, I was surprised when two Tunnock’s Teacake wrappers (Tunnock’s Teacakes are a popular Scottish biscuit) fell to the floor. Picking the pieces of flattened silver foil from the floor, I naively asked no one in particular if someone was planning a collage. ‘No’, came the matter-of-fact response. ‘They’re going to smoke smack off them’. There was some derisory laughter. I may have muttered a face-saving ‘Fuck’s sake!’


Analogously, that unwitting and momentary encounter, was echoed, approximately twelve years later by my picking up a discarded Lambert & Butler cigarette packet from a Carlisle street. This found object came to form the basis of my more recent historical materialist praxis. As such, in Perth jail, the ground was laid for a necessary dialectic of ‘low’ grade material and Marxist pedagogy. As such, the prisoner’s repurposing, albeit illicit and self-destructive, of the indexical traces of Scottish working-class consumer culture and, inadvertently, the pre-given meanings of modernist collage was, in a Gramscian sense, a timely refutation of the ‘polished surface’ of conventionalist method. 





Lastly, what platforms, books, and artists would you recommend to our readers?

The Condition of Postmodernity by David Harvey.

Paris Hollywood: Writings on Film by Peter Wollen.

Fetishism & Curiosity by Laura Mulvey.

The Social Production of Art by Janet Wolf.

Understanding Brecht by Walter Benjamin.

Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism by Esther Leslie.

Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-Garde by Esther Leslie.

Selected Essays by John Berger.

Outside the Narrative by Tom Leonard.


Know more about the artist here.


All images courtesy of Martin Fowler

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Biography:

My name is Martin Fowler PhD and I was trained in Drawing & Painting at Glasgow School of Art and Winchester School of Art. I am a lecturer and artist based in the UK. I have exhibited my drawings and paintings extensively throughout the UK and Europe. In addition, I have published two books The Tension of a Line: A Portrait of Perth Prison (2010) and Scotland the Brave: A Graphic History Of Scotland 1514-2014 (2014). Prior to working at University of Cumbria, I spent 7yrs as a full-time lecturer in the Scottish Prison Service – teaching predominantly life-sentence prisoners and young offenders at HMP Perth and HMP Edinburgh.


Artist's Statement:


Sheep-Walk (named after Marx’s term for the large sheep enclosures which came to epitomise the trauma of 18th century clearance) is a political (film) montage challenging ruling class ways of seeing, knowing and telling.


With an emphasis on the plural, discontinuous and non-linear as opposed to the linear format of traditional filmmaking, the film’s fragmentary yet historically conscious multiple perspectives draw on the lived experience of my own working class Edinburgh family and the lived histories of preceding generations of working-class Scots. In this sense, the film seeks to demythify the ‘traditional’ ‘ben and glen’ stereotypes of modern Scotia by reframing both image, object and narrative in relation to the causal networks of capitalist ideology.


Challenging the ‘fatal a-historical basis of our culture’ (Berger) – as evident in the morbid symptoms of sectarianism, nativism, cultic militarism and the commodity fetish – Sheep-Walk’s truth to materials modernism opposes the auteurist and possessive-individualist coda of modern culture.


In summary, taking inspiration from the Epic Theatre of Bertolt Brecht, Jean Luc Godard’s materialist cinema and the anti-establishment writings of Tom Leonard, this oppositionalist film - oppositionalist in the sense of its willingness to deviate from the prevailing orthodoxy of ‘art for art’s sake’ formalism of the Scottish avant garde - asks us to think once again about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

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