An interview with Paul Kneale

, 17 February 2014

The first time I encountered Paul Kneale’s work in real-time was via Skype at Harry Burke’s Poetry Reading at Test Centre in London. After some messing around with connections, Kneale’s face appeared, large and projected on a white wall, live from Tel Aviv and reading (“Profiles unfold. Viagra online. Fuck Google.”) over field recordings of the city, to an audience warmly received and largely familiar.

With that in mind, it makes sense that an interview with the mostly London-based globetrotter, originally from what he describes as a “blighted factory town” of Canada on the US border, should be carried out live via Google Drive. In Paris to organise the Pleasure Principles group exhibition, along with artist Raphael Hefti, there’s no indication of the Canadian accent in script, just a tendency to omit apostrophes in elisions and using double sentence spacing. It gives interesting insight into the processes of the person and his practice.

courtesy of Paul Kneale.
“Bold, semi-bold, matt, eggshell, off-white, raised, embossed, laser-cut,” suggests Kneale jokingly when deciding whether to use italics or bold text to differentiate my questions from his answers. We eventually settle on the latter to fit the aqnb format, Microsoft Word’s ‘Replace All’ coming in handy when it comes to his preference for using two, rather than one, hyphen in reinforcing a point.

Beyond that, there’s a fluency to the way Kneale communicates through writing that one imagines is difficult to replicate in speech. That’s not that surprising considering the role of the written word in his work, from his fore-grounding text in his exhibitions to co-founding Rotherthite’s Library + art space, with Hefti and fellow artist Megan Rooney.

Not so much a curatorial project but a space for fostering “a plurality of styles and positions” from invited artists, the focus of Library + is as much on meeting new people and being social as it is on art discourse: “[It] was basically that we had a free space in this old library, so why not paint the walls and floor and invite people to do something?” That’s part of the reason the February half of the two-part Pleasure Principles –developed and executed at the invitation of La Fondation d’entreprise Galeries Lafayette –will feature Kneale and Hefti’s friends and peers from around the world making the trip to the French capital to take part. More importantly though, this set of artists, including Rooney, Max Brand, Harry Burke, Quinn Latimer, Bonny Poon, Sam Porritt, Bea Schlingelhoff and Jesse Wine, will already “have the nice bars and galleries figured out” before the second lot of participants –invited by the first –arrive in March.

As with Library+, there’s no strict curatorial directive to Pleasure Principles beyond exploring “the role of pleasure in both artistic production and communities today”. It’s a process to be considered in dialogue with its participants who’ve been largely left to their own devices: “we trust the people we’ve invited and get to have the pleasure of seeing what they do.”

Photo by Raphael Hefti. Image courtesy of Paul Kneale.
Photo by Raphael Hefti. Image courtesy of Paul Kneale.

Why the plural?

Paul Kneale: Insofar as our shows at Library + have always involved performances and dinners and acted as a shared space, as well as presenting great works, I think this element is very important to keep everything from being too professional and boring. No last-train takers allowed. But especially, with regards to Paris, there is this very ripe, well-known bohemian artist history from the last century –but what’s been happening there lately?

We thought it would be interesting to explore this there, shifting the context from London. And, of course, ‘pleasure’ today can mean a lot of different things. We’re taking a critical look at things, that’s the plural, but from an embodied position. There’s no remit or assignment for the people we’ve invited. They’ll come up with something way better than we could instruct them to.

So then, do you think that that focus on ‘pleasure’ is something central to this idea of the “bohemian enclave”; hedonism as alternative to resistance?

PK: Yes. In a basic way, art is an alternative lifestyle. Or maybe the things that are involved in making art produce an alternative lifestyle as a side effect. It’s related to the time-frames and scenarios that you move through, but also the people you’re attracted to –free-thinking, fun, experimental –it’s not at all about a type, but a certain kind of openness.

I think when people who share certain characteristics get together under a shared thing, like art, the so-called ‘hedonist’ attitude might be evident. But I would like to reframe it from being a ‘resistance’, in some Marxist sense. I think it is, rather, this organic thing. I would frame a nine-to-five job and watching reality TV as the resistance –resistance to life!

Have you thought about the area in Paris and how art scenes or communities rise and fall generally? Or specifically to where you’re based in London?

PK: The area of Paris, the Marais, is of course a very upmarket area, full of shops etc. It’s also right next to the Pompidou, which I think has been a very strong institution, at least not afraid of the new. I don’t think this area was ever the centre of ‘bohemian Paris’. But the historical coordinates that did produce that period –the waning of the French empire, combined with social liberalism, are significant in understanding that area.

I think the situation in London is quite different today. It’s more of an against-all-odds struggle to persist in a place that’s a crossroads for the rest of the world, due to everything from a lot of airports, to the flow of international money, to a lot of good schools.

Our particular area, Rotherhithe, is at the excretory end of this city. It’s mostly council flats in desperate need of repair and a new condo boom, which just creates bedroom communities for the city. So I think we occupy some kind of liminal space there. It’s a little bit accidental. To me that’s a key characteristic of the scene in London –a kind of scrapping –making quick use of an opening in the otherwise hard-plated economic and urban fabric; a kind of guerilla tactics.

So, I suppose that area of London is a sort of microcosm of that intensified social stratification that’s happening on a global level.

PK: You see that here, definitely. There’s a good flow of people blowing their money at the gambling shop, just a hundred metres from some very expensive high-rises. I think we occupy, again, some space that isn’t really involved in either, but is obviously in the same fabric.

Why, because a library is a shared public space? It makes you think of the fact they’re disappearing, to a degree having been made redundant by internet usage, and what the implications are about the online’s effect on that very social stratification we’re talking about.

PK: I think the disappearance of the libraries has more to do with the fact that the current government has declared war on the poor. The building now is just a brick shell with no heating, on a street that no one wants to patronise because it’s falling apart. I think what we do here is able to happen both because of and in spite of that.

That’s a good point, especially when you consider these art hubs that are made possible in areas where the rent’s low, which more often than not are the neglected ones. Isn’t that what the ‘pleasure principle’ is in a way –‘no pleasure without pain’?

PK: The Freudian Pleasure Principle is something like that, very simply put, the drive to avoid pain. But it’s also important the ‘how’ of that drive. That’s what’s specific to every time and place. I think art is very powerful in expressing this relation, in ways that don’t have to speak the language of the corporate state or media.

It strikes me that you mention speaking the ‘language of the corporate state or media’, because it’s pretty apparent that a lot of art is and has been adopting that very lexicon in implicit critique. Even you use Clip Art on your Pleasure Principles website…

PK: I think the way this relation is negotiated is an important issue for a lot of artists I know and respect. I don’t think there is anything like a consensus, which is also good! It’s naive to think you don’t exist within all these state structures. Of course you do. Smashing the state isn’t the point of art. Or rather, it’s a very ineffective method if it is. I think the microcosm of art is much more potent at the level of the interior life of its audiences. And, of course, those people are social beings.

Image courtesy of Paul Kneale.
Image courtesy of Paul Kneale.

So it’s relevant that you’re working with friends and peers for Pleasure Principles then. Not only in relation to artists as these social beings, but also this organic emergence of art communities.

PK: It was natural to invite people we had already worked with, or that we knew as friends. Since we’re not curators it wouldn’t make sense to invite strangers just because we liked their work. But within that, the people you know has a logic –we’ve been really lucky to meet a lot of amazing people in London, often standing outside of a project space in light rain drinking a tall can.

I think if there’s some praise I would give to social media, it’s that it can help people with a shared interest to find each other IRL. So we’re building on that. But in the second part of the project in March, everyone who’s been invited for the first part gets to invite someone else again. So that’s where the network goes outwards and new people come in, with maybe a degree of remove, which I think is also very important to things growing and staying sharp.

I was going to say there’s a danger in that kind of insularity that social media can also promote, a disconnection from differing perspectives.

PK: Hopefully we have a good mix. Because of the aspect of friendship and geography that’s in play, we have people involved who do nothing but make things from clay, alongside poets and performance, artists and painters. I think it’s conscious there, to not be insular.

We’ve always found it boring when people just surround themselves by work that reinforces their own positions. I’m sure that, within the people we’ve invited, there would be some disagreements about very basic art premises. But I think that’s what keeps it interesting and hopefully it’s an opportunity for some of those antagonisms to be tested and pushed forward. **

Paul Kneale and Raphael Hefti’s Pleasure Principles is running at 9 rue du Plâtre in Paris on February 17 to 24 and March 25 to 29, 2014.