Industry Insight: Art is Over, Unless We Fight It - Stuart Semple in Conversation with Georgia Mann

The sky's the limit for Stuart Semple’s multidisciplinary artistic practice. Stuart’s body of works range vastly, from shop installations to painting in the studio, but one thing remains common - his questioning of how he can use his voice in an attempt to bring change. In this Industry Insight, Stuart shares his experience in the field and the journey that took him from Nancyboy to Semple, creating works that are utilitarian and serve a social function. Additionally, Stuart and I explore different spaces of performance and the effects of the recent statement from the UK Conservative Party ‘Rethink. Reskill. Reboot.’

Stuart Semple

GM: Can you tell us who you are and what you do?

SS: I’m Stuart Semple, that’s the first thing. I make extremely multidisciplinary art that is utilitarian - the medium is not the point. My work is conceptual so it tends to appear in different forms; Chemistry, internet performances, shop installations, fashion etc. Not one has more importance than the other; my work is always driven by an idea. I want the work to be useful and to actually perform a function, a social function in the world. So, if the best mechanism to do that is through a music video then I will be directing a music video. I’m at the mercy of the work and quite often I’m finding things out that I don’t know how to do; for example, we’ve just made this virtual online art museum, VOMA. I don’t know how to make a virtually interactive art museum but that’s not the point. It’s the idea that drives the output.

When I was 19, I went to an art college, and around this time I nearly died from an allergic reaction. I went from getting a sandwich at the service station to the hospital, where I flatlined in the middle of the night. That’s when I started making art and I mean that very deliberately - making ‘art’ - I think there is a distinction. I actually quit art school and I moved into a little flat next to Borders, the bookshop. Everyday I went in and read books. I read the entire reading list from the art degree in the first six months, and then I read the marketing section, and then the spirituality section. I made art everyday and I put it on the internet - almost like a diary to make sense of what I was going through. That became the start of my art practice. Then that grew into exhibitions, and eventually left paper and started to become more performative. It just kind of evolved over time from there.

GM: I’ve gotten the sense that you express a persona within your contributions to digital spaces. Why do you approach your social media with a performative presence?

SS: I see the internet as a performance space. I have always been really intrigued by Andy Warhol - I used to question his monosyllabic character and why he’d say “Gee, ask Bridget” because he makes work that is so meaningful. So I looked through his diary - one of the things I read in Borders. I found one line where he says “It’s so good to get home and finally take my Andy off.” I realised that he knew he was being a performance artist, I thought that was great. If the internet requires me to be a certain somebody or a certain thing, then it’s the same thing as being what I need for the work. If social media requires me to be like “(shouting excitedly) Hey guys I made this thing!” and it works - then fine I don’t care, that’s the role as well.

GM: Would you say that you take your Stuart off once you leave that performative space?

SS: It’s a good question because a lot of people do have alter-egos. For the first three years I signed my works with ‘Nancyboy’ because I didn’t want it to be me. So if it did well or badly it didn’t affect me, it was something to hide behind. You see this in a lot of artists; Eminem needs Slim Shady, Beyonce needs Sasha Fierce - they can’t do it otherwise. When you use your own name you take ownership. So, the version of me that you’re talking to now is truly me. The character I am on the internet is less than what I really am, if that makes sense? It’s like an inverted persona.

GM: It sounds like it was daunting to share your voice for a time there. How did you overcome this fear, enabling you to take ownership of the work and sign as Stuart Semple?

SS: I was quite young, I didn’t have the ability and it was all very clumsy. I thought that I wouldn’t pull it off and that it would probably end badly, so I needed to take the risk away. Quite honestly it was a big, soul searching experience to finally take ownership. Nancyboy had exhibitions and thousands of people saw that work, but I was never responsible because it was never me. It wasn’t me showing up in the world and taking ownership for what I had made. So I couldn’t get any further with the work without it really being me, I wanted it to be real life so I had to implicate myself somehow, I had to kind of get married to it and sign my name on it. To stand for it and stand by it - otherwise it's too easy.

GM: I was just thinking about what going to your own exhibition would have been like, conversing with the gallery, curator, audience and then the element of photography - how were you able to maintain a distance from your work, remaining anonymous as Nancyboy?

SS: Initially most of it was online, so for photos I'd Photoshop them to death! He looked almost like an avatar. At the first show I was so terrified, I almost didn't go but in the end I did - I dressed up like the alter ego so I was able to hide behind that but I would most certainly hang back and not really be a part of it. I think that carries on in some of the public artworks; for example, if you watch Mr. Happy - The Art of Stuart Semple on Amazon, you'll see I'm not really in it - much of that is because it's about the work and the viewer experience. I don't want to get in the way of that.

GM: What advice would you give to someone that similarly wanted to make art to serve a social function but felt nervous to share their works?

SS: Well I mean you can do it anonymously, that did help me. Really just contribute where you can and with what you’ve got. Don’t pressure yourself into thinking you need to bring change in a big lofty way - “I’ve got to change the world.” It’s not a Nike commercial. Have a little go and then slowly it will evolve. It’s more important that you show up and do something. Not doing something is still an action and I found that it takes a lot of effort not to do it. My advice would be to gently or nearly do it, as long as you do something.

GM: What was the first piece of work that you made that you regard as utilitarian and striving for a form of social change?

SS: Nancyboy did a sponsored swim for cab drivers in London. I’d never really been to London until I had my first exhibition and I travelled in a black cab. The drivers were really moody. That made me sad and I questioned what I was going to do about it. I thought I would go home and do a sponsored swim. So I put on some goggles and I had my arm bands on and I was going to do 25 lengths. I sold the sponsor form as the artwork. That was the first really public thing that I did and it was in the local newspaper. NancyBoy swims 25 lengths to make cakes for cabbies. I was very excited! I used the money to get cake ingredients and then I dropped cakes off at the cab depo. We took a polaroid of me giving them to where the taxis stopped. I probably still have that polaroid somewhere in a box. I can’t tell you how much fun I had that making that piece, although they probably would’ve preferred a bacon sarnie.

GM: Your pop-up installation work Artist Job Centre, 2020, was made in response to Rishi Sunak’s statement “Rethink. Reskill. Reboot.” Can you share the process of thinking that went behind the work?

SS: Well my brain jumps through a few things and comes out with something weird. First of all, it was hearing the statement “Artists should retrain” and then people started to post memes of the ballerina retraining. Some of these were very funny, it was exactly my sense of humour. To me memes can be art, take it or leave it. I thought that this was cool but questioned what I was going to do about it. What would I do? Well I’d open a job centre! I wanted to create a mockery. I felt the centre should be in the middle of London. In the midst of deciding what to have on the floor and what the posters in the window should say I decided I wanted Basil Brush to open it! So I got Basil Brush’s agent on the phone. Finally, I questioned how people were to find out about it and decided that we could get it in the papers - Basil Brush was going to be there after all. Now it would be visible, everyone would open their newspapers and see the Artists Job Centre. There is a huge part of my practice that is very conscious of hacking the media to spread ideas, I see that as another performance space. This turned into the pinnacle of what I had hoped for with a project like that because that is to the heart of it, that’s the total Middle England, it’s made a mockery about the whole thing.

GM: Do you feel that the media were blindsided by their role as an agent in the overall performative nature and outcome of this work?

SS: I think that they probably saw it as art and knew that it wasn’t real, as they know that I made it. However, they didn’t exactly go into the nuance of “What was he trying to say and what does he mean.” It raises quite a lot of questions - why is an artist making a job centre for other artists? If we are completely valueless in society, then why am I making this and how have I got the means to do it. It isn’t cheap to make what I made, so there must be some mechanism or capacity within artists to make an impact on society. So surely we must have a value, we must have relevance, otherwise we couldn’t do these things. We’re saying don’t ignore us and don’t forget that we have something to contribute. It’s hurtful what they have been saying about the arts. If the government, or my mum, had said that when I was a kid then I would’ve had no wind in my sails. It would’ve completely wiped me out. So I want the youngsters to know that they can do it. It is possible, you don’t need permission, you can make art with what you’ve got.

GM: Your comments on permission and artistic materials ties to your Artistic License, 2020. Can you tell us what this is?

SS: I like the idea that we are all born with artistic license, but people have forgotten this. It feels like people are waiting for somebody; gallerists or museum owners, educators or their parents to give permission to be yourself and express yourself. I thought of making a physical artistic license and actually sending it to people. It’s very Fluxus, I’m very inspired by Fluxus Mail Art. It's a huge source of inspiration for me. I like the idea of disseminating multiples as if they are products, people think they have bought a product but really they have bought an artwork. It doesn’t matter whether they know it or not; in fact, ,it is better if they don’t know. The Artistic License is definitely that. In acting as a multiple it is also giving you permission to express yourself. Additionally, you also have art materials coming, so you realise that you better do something with them. Now you end up with all these art materials and the artistic licence, so you can shove it in the face of anyone that tells you that you can’t make things. Deeper than that, it’s also questioning if we need to be buying an artistic license on the internet and who this guy is to be issuing them.

GM: What can we expect from you in the future, Stuart?

SS: In terms of the public side of things, I did have quite a few projects scheduled but these are now paused. I’m working on a project that will hopefully be in The Brooklyn Museum one day...if the world ever wakes back up. I’ve also been in the studio, painting, but they are going very slowly. Maybe something will happen in the world and I will have to make something about it. Normally I am sitting here waiting for something to happen so I can make a response to it. I’m waiting for what the next thing is. In this time I learn stuff, so I will read books and study things that might be useful, should something crop up that needs me to know something.



‘How Art Became Active’ 5-Part Video Series on Tate Youtube Channel. Episodes 3-5 are most relative to the themes discussed in this interview.

Episode 3 - Can an Object be a Performance?

Episode 4 - Does Performance Art Need to be Experienced Live?

Episode 5 - Performance and Protest - Can Art Change Society?

Artist Job Centre, 2020

Fluxus & Mail Art

Art and Activism