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David Shrigley

The Scottish artist explains his new self-help book. “This is no help. Don’t obey this advice.”

Interview By Matt Putrino, October 1, 2013

Before David Shrigley even starts a drawing, he knows there’s only about a 25% chance he’ll hold onto it. While keeping that 1:4 ratio in mind is a productivity trick he picked up a few years ago to take the pressure off a creative workload, it also manages to describe his try-anything attitude toward production. That willingness to experiment, Shrigley told us last month from his studio in Glasgow, makes it possible for accidents and the process of learning a new form to have a place in his work.  

True to his experimental modus operandi, his new book How Are You Feeling?: At The Centre of The Inside of the Human Brain’s Mind is by far his longest unified work to date. Written as a self-help book, the drawings and writing don’t stray too far away from his familiar crude aesthetic, but this time, the subject matter (self-doubt, depression, anxiety) warrants a slower pace from the reader. The chapters are full of his recognizable instantaneous visual one-liners, but How Are You Feeling? is his first book with room for Shrigley to meditate on some potentially serious topics.

What are you working on today?
I have an exhibition coming up in Berlin, which starts on the 14th of September. So I’m finishing up some drawings for that.

Are there any sculptures in that one?
Yep, I’m in the process of making some giant ceramic lady’s shoes. And some kind of turd-like sculptures made of bronze that go with them. So yeah, big shoes and turds. That’s the theme of the show. And some drawings.

courtesy of the artist and the BQ Gallery.

How was your performance at the Latitude Festival?
It was kinda nice. Kinda fun. I’ve been roped into doing some festivals in recent years and, like a lot of things I do, it seems to happen by accident rather than by design. I don’t really like festivals that much. I don’t think I ever went to a music festival when I was younger. I think I went to my first music festival four or five years ago when I was actually employed to be there. I just have a problem with having to go to the toilet in chemical toilets and not being able to wash my hands under running water. I think that’s kind of gross. I’m kind of an armchair traveler. I like creature comforts. Festivals don’t agree with me that much-- even though every festival I’ve done I’ve stayed in a hotel and some guy comes and picks me up in a Range Rover and drives me to the festival, and drives me back afterwards. I still don’t like doing it.

My musical social life is spent in cities. Going to music shows in venues and taking a taxi home. That’s the way I like it. I don’t want to see somebody play in a field. I think that’s rubbish.

Previously I’ve been DJing, but the only thing I like about DJing is it makes all my record buying tax deductible. Which is really good. Apart from that, I don’t like anything else about deejaying. I feel like I’m the worst kind of DJ, a celebrity DJ. I’m employed because of who I am, not what I play.

But on this occasion at Latitude, I didn’t play any music. I did portraits of people on the iPad. We rigged it up so the image I was drawing was projected, and the people I was talking to were mic’ed up and people could see the conversation as an event. That was kind of funny. I guess the shtick of it was that they were really bad portraits. People were still really willing to have them done. That was funny, it was quite hard work, but it made more sense in terms of what I do as an artist, as opposed to DJing. I mean nominally I DJ for myself, but I don’t do any of that beat matching. I don’t even really mix that well to be honest with you. I was quite pleased with myself that I managed to get the iPad to work and everything.

What do you think the audience was expecting when they saw a primarily visual artist booked?
Latitude is one of those festivals where they always have some sort of art content. They have a poetry tent, and a literature tent, and some art exhibition going on. People were really into it, but I don’t really question people’s motivations. People invite you to do things and I figure if it goes wrong, it’s the fault of the person who invited you. Not yours. I delegate responsibility. There was a big queue of people, lots of disappointed people who there wasn’t time to paint their portraits. 

Your new book, How Are You Feeling?, is in the form of a self-help book. It’s a new format for you, but it doesn’t seem too far off from your previous work. 
It seemed to be appropriate. A lot of the statements I make tend to come in the form of missives. Telling people to do things or not do things or this and that. I guess when I was discussing the next book with the publisher, they were like, “It would be really cool if this book was about something. Usually your books aren’t about anything, they’re just a collection of nonsense.” I think I was in the airport lounge when I was having this conversation, and looking in the bookshop in the airport. Airport bookshops tend to have a lot of self-help stuff. People are in the zone for some kind of self-fulfillment. People are reflecting upon their lives when they’re in airport lounges for some reason. I was like, maybe I could do a self-help book, and the publisher was like, “Yeah that would be great!”

I realized as I was doing it, I was obviously not going to be much help to anybody. I was hoping people were going to understand that and there wasn’t going to be any legal redress.

What kind of notes does a publisher give you about your work?
With all the publishers I’ve published with, I tend to be one of a kind within their stable of authors. There usually isn’t a crude cartoonish type, as a rule. So they make allowances for me. I think the main problem that publishers have, when they think of the bookstore, they think of where the book’s supposed to go. Whether it goes in the humor section or the art section or, in this case, the self-help section. I think it should go in the self-help section for this case. I think it’s good to be in a different section for every book that you write. Maybe next time I’ll be in another section, like travel.

As far as the advice of the publisher is concerned, that’s one thing they’re very keen on. There’s only so much I can do to change the nature of the work. When publishers are interested in the work, they don’t want to mess with it too much, otherwise it loses its “thing.” But, that’s one thing. They always want a theme so they can tell people what the book’s about. Whenever everybody asks me what my book's about, because I’ve done probably thirty [interviews] up to now, I always say, “It’s just the usual kind of thing. Drawings and stuff.” That’s not really good enough for the publisher.

I came across the Spanish translation for one of your books, and I was curious about the translation process for a work with so much handwritten text. Do you speak Spanish? Did you redraw all of the images?
No I don’t speak Spanish, only a few words. I was basically given a translation of all the text in it and I had to copy all the text out in my own handwriting. Which was quite laborious, but kind of good for my Spanish vocabulary. That was quite a tedious process. The same book was published in German and in Finnish. Finnish is like the weirdest language in the world. In a twelve-letter word, eight of the letters are a form of the letter A with some form of accents. The other two letters are K and P or something. They have these really long words, really difficult to translate. Quite difficult for speech bubbles as well. You say something in English that has 20 characters and you translate it into Finnish and it has 120 characters. Really difficult to copy out as well because you have no understanding of the words. Unlike German or Spanish where it does bear a resemblance to English. That was pretty hardcore. I really don’t want this book to be translated into Finnish, that’s for sure. I think the Finns will probably have the English copy, and they’ll deal with that fine. Likewise, a Spanish one…I need to find some kind of automated typeface version of my handwriting, although maybe that would spoil it to some extent.

Have you seen the fan-made typeface of your handwriting?
The odd thing about that, besides my agent asking if I wanted to sue this person, I said, “No, no I think we should leave him alone. I think that’s fine.” Once you make a typeface based on that, it doesn’t look like my handwriting anymore. It makes you realize that handwriting is handwriting and typefaces are typefaces. I think if you wanted to replicate handwriting in a typeface, you’d probably need some sophisticated piece of computer software that would make all the letters in a slightly different place, in a slightly different size. That could work. Maybe I should just ask that guy to develop the idea. It’s interesting, you see the typeface written out and it doesn’t look anything like my handwriting. At least not to me. Maybe to other people.

But I’ve been designing a typeface recently myself for a printmaking project. I’m just sort of doing it to see what it looks like, just because my work is so synonymous with my handwriting, I think it’s an interesting experiment. People spend their entire lives designing typefaces. When I was doing it, I felt a little like a dilettante in that it took me a day to make a typeface. Anyway, I guess I am a dilettante as far as designing typefaces is concerned, but I guess I’m doing it for different reasons as opposed to actual typeface designers.

image via Below Another Sky.

Is the goal to design a typeface that would appear in the rest of your work?
No, no, just in some of the work. I just want to make a printmaking project. I’m doing it in quite a crude way. It’s done in linocuts, and then I cut out each letter by hand. So it’s all slightly irregular anyway. They’re not set in a sense that a letterpress is set. They’re all done by hand and lined up by eye. It’s sort of regular, but more irregular than a regular typeface. A lot of what I do tends to be an experiment to see what happens. I guess that’s what this is. I’m not quite sure why I’m doing it, apart from the fact that I was invited to make some work in a print studio and this is what I figured I would do.

It’s interesting that you haven’t limited yourself to one medium. I was trying to find something you haven’t done, and I could only come up with textiles.
I’ve done like t-shirts, wallpaper. I’ve never actually done any textiles. I haven’t done any dance or ballet. Textiles and dance. There’s still a lot of scope for me to examine every possible media. I’ve been writing poetry recently as well. I like poetry. I wrote some poetry when I was in New Zealand, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to typeset it in this typeface. We’ll see.

Why do you think other artists don’t work in as many media as you?
Probably because it’s not a very good idea. Artists tend to be seen as experts of something. In terms of selling a product it’s easier to sell the product if you’re the principal exponent of the creation of that product. I tend to not follow that strategy. I suppose it’s partly due to the fact that my work isn’t really craft-based. I’m best known as a graphic artist, but [my work] doesn’t really display a lot of graphic skill. Just a graphic sensibility I suppose. If I were a painter for example, it would be quite difficult to change media if you’re well known as a painter. Whereas, if you’re just sort of well known as doing crappy drawings, you can kind of do anything really. Anyone can do a crappy drawing. It gives me carte blanche to do anything really. If you set a precedent for having almost no craft skills, then somehow you’re free to do whatever you like. I like to think there’s some kind of quality control for everything I do, but my criteria for every project is: it’s not rubbish. As long as it’s good enough, and interesting enough, then I’m happy to do it. Obviously one strives for excellence to some extent, but I also strive to learn things, and for things to happen by accident. In order to facilitate that you have to go into every project and be really free and not really precious about what you’re going to do, or what you can achieve and just see what happens.

I guess ultimately, one only has so much time on this planet, so it’s good to mess around and try everything and do everything. I don’t want to think about my art practice as too much of a serious career, trying to make money and make a product. It’s nice just to do something different every time. It’s fun. People always say, they want to live every day as if it were their last, but I want to live every day like it’s my first. I want to always feel like I’m always at the complete beginning of something. A lot of the time, when I feel like I’m doing the same thing again or twice, I just stop doing it. I always want to feel like I’ve got everything to learn. I’m able to do that with drawing, in a sense that drawing isn’t any kind of craft. You can say anything and everything in a drawing. I guess I’m sort of able to keep doing it. It’s kind of different with opera for example. I wrote a libretto for an opera about a year and half ago, and I don’t think I’ll be writing another one, because I’ve done that now. And classical musicians are all assholes so I don’t want to work with them anymore.

It was that bad of an experience?

Yeah, classical musicians. You ask anybody about classical musicians, and unless they are a classical musician themselves, they’ll tell you they’re all a bunch of assholes. Don’t work with them, that’s my advice.

Print available from Counter Editions

He’s not a classical musician, but how did the Stephen Malkmus Ege Bamyasi cover come about?
A friend of mine organized this festival in Cologne called Weekend. He asked me to do the poster for the festival. I know him quite well and he said, “Oh you really like Pavement, don’t you?” Because I was a big fan of theirs back in the day. Stephen Malkmus was on record saying he was a big fan of the Can record Ege Bamyasi, and [my friend] was going to try to persuade him to play it live with a pickup band. So he did, and they recorded it, and he asked if I would like to do the poster because I like him so much. One thing led to another, I did the poster, the poster became the record cover, and I did a little more artwork. That was it. But yeah, it was pretty cool to do some artwork for two bands that I’m a big fan of. That was fun, and I got a bunch of records to give to my friends as gifts. I’ve never met Stephen Malkmus. I saw Pavement play many times. The last time they played in Glasgow, 15 years ago, I went to see them play and then after they all showed up in this bar. I was like, “Oh, I gotta go speak to them and say, ‘You’re cool’ and everything.” I’m a bit shy about stuff like that and I was trying to get the courage, and it took me about 20 minutes, and then some guy popped up in front of me just as I was about to approach them, and he was like, “You’re David Shrigley! I know who you are!” By the time he’d finished his spiel, Pavement had gone away and I never got to tell them how much I liked them.

It feels a little bit funny asking about your Twitter feed, but there does seem to be a connection between the 140 characters of a tweet and the super succinct text elements in your work. Do you think being on Twitter has ever affected a drawing?
I don’t know. I never really started doing Twitter because I was interested in it. Like a lot of people I was told to do it by a publicist at a publisher. I guess I’ve sort of embraced it in my own way of doing it. The easiest way to do it is just basically not to correspond with anybody and just transmit only. It’s interesting, I’ve been trying to write some poetry recently. I’ve been trying to make these kinds of poems, I don’t know if they appear as poems, but my Twitter output for the last few weeks has been these odd poems. I like the fact that Twitter just arrives context free. So most of the time, people have no idea what you’re talking about. Also I kind of like the fact that in a way I’ve been told to do Twitter. So the people who told me to do it, don’t mind what I tweet about. So I can tweet any old nonsense and it’ll be fine, but it’s still kind of your obligation fulfilled. So that’s kind of nice, it’s a business activity, but you can write a lot of nonsense and post pictures of your dinner and stuff. Yeah, hopefully I do it in a responsible and non-annoying way. What really annoys me is when people tweet too much. That’s a surefire recipe for being unfollowed.

There’s a hierarchy of interaction. At the top, actually coming around to your house, knocking on the door to speak to you. Second up is a phone call, and I suppose there’s a handwritten letter in there somewhere as well. The next one is email, and the last one is social media. 

How Are You Feeling? is available in the U.S. from W.W. Norton, and in the UK from Canongate Books