The Big Interview Part Two: Marcus Coates

In the second part of this interview, Andrew Foulds talks to Galapagos artist Marcus Coates about his practice, giant tortoises and being fearless…

Andrew Foulds – Coming from the west, where we are brought up to believe in science and the things we can see and touch, I wonder how much you believe in the acts you are performing. Where do your thoughts on traditional shamanism lie? Can it really heal and if so how?

Marcus Coates – It all depends on where you choose to put your belief. You can put your belief in the health system, or the judicial system or the social system. We have beliefs, social beliefs, cultural beliefs, religious beliefs, we’re used to dealing with belief all the time. For me, I think a lot of my own belief is related to my imagination, that is where a lot of the truth of the world is and I give that just as much importance as conscious reality. As an artist you do that, you train to do that. I see an equivalent with shamanic cultures, they give as much importance to the ‘other world’, the spirit world, it is almost more real to them. I am trying to look for an equivalent in our society and I’m not sure whether my work matches up to that or indeed, if it can ever, because it’s a cultural thing, but it’s the closest thing I have to it.

AF – Do you ever take hallucinogens as part of your work or research?

MC – I think it’s cheating taking drugs; I normally just have a strong cup of tea. Quite a few cultures do, but a lot don’t, and they see it as more of a pure form of ritual. I believe part of the understanding comes from our everyday experience, it is rooted in this experience. That’s why I do the performances in somebody’s apartment, or on the streets, in people’s everyday life, that is where the magic is. Not in a hallucinogenic state, it is in our imagination, which is linked to our everyday reality.

AF – Do you feel a greater responsibility to making art or to the participants of your rituals who may be asking you quite a serious question?

MC – I never really think about the art, particularly with the shamanic work, it’s all about the people who I am working with – it has to be. If it was about anything else, they would pick up on that, they would see through it. That responsibility is quite a scary thing. In other work, like Human Report, I am not answering a question; nobody has asked me to dress up as a blue-footed booby. I’m just coming from a very curious position, why are people on the Galapagos islands? There’s no water, no food, it’s all shipped in, and there are all kinds of problems with racism and poverty. It is so unrealistic and unsustainable to live there. They live here basically for the tourists. I was very drawn to that. But I felt a responsibility not to dismiss people’s lives, although, equally, the responsibility was there to question it. If you can’t work out the conservation issues here, on this small island in the middle of the pacific we don’t stand a chance anywhere. So I felt a responsibility to the issue rather than the art.

“They are the end of this evolutionary line, they’re supposed to be perfect”

AF – In the piece Intelligent Design, where you filmed the failed attempts of giant tortoises to copulate, you responded directly to the creationist argument against evolutionary theory, which states that life is so complicated it needs to have had an intelligent creator.  Was it important that you entered into a dialogue with Darwinism?

MC – The year that I went, in 2008, was coming up to the bicentenary, 150 years since the publication of On the Origin Of Species and 200 years since his birth, which made Darwin a very tricky subject to approach, it was very loaded. I had done so much reading about Darwin before I went that everything I saw resonated and I felt like I was retracing his steps; experiencing things for the first time and wondering how he came to his conclusions. All the knowledge, science and understanding we have, none of that was there for him and he was up against so much in terms of indoctrinated religious thinking and the beliefs of the day. Despite all that he was able to begin the process of writing on The Origin Of Species. All I could think about on the islands was that all these animals aren’t scared of me, it’s like an incredibly exotic billionaire’s petting zoo. It’s like a paradise that someone has set-up, either that or God has created it and I’m not religious at all. If anything it made me more religious so I don’t know how he worked against that. When I was thinking about all these things and the creationists theory of intelligent design, certain things struck a chord. I was spending a lot of time watching the tortoises trying to mate, rather unsuccessfully and I thought, nature isn’t perfect at all. They are the end of this evolutionary line, they’re supposed to be perfect now and actually nothing is perfect, nothing has evolved enough to be perfect. Things are just adapting, changing all the time.

AF – To paraphrase a famous Gerhard Richter quote, what comes first, the idea or the deed?  Did you go out filming the giant tortoises with a specific idea in mind, or did you chance upon it and the idea crystallised from there?

MC – I just heard them, grunting and grunting for hours. So I thought I would record the sound, it sounded so much like humans. Then I started filming, and used up hours of tape and they were still at it. They were expending so much energy and it was still a failure. Nature is sometimes hopeless. So it was curiosity that got me interested, and the cross-over between human and animal vocalisations, the connections across species, that all got me excited. Then I started thinking about the Creationists and the notion of one mind, creating all this, in a perfect way.

AF – Did you draw any conclusions yourself from the challenges that exist between the human and animal populations on Galapagos?

MC – The animal life there is so fragile, some of the islands are so small, there may be only a few hundred lizards living there, and they are the only lizards of their kind in the world. You tread on one of those lizards and you decrease the population by a considerable amount! The small things you do really affects everything in a way you can’t imagine or predict. So, I really felt my impact on a very personal level and I felt very influential just being present there, in a lot of ways I felt I shouldn’t be there. It’s easy for me to say, now I have been there, having always wanted to go, but I would think twice about going back. The more people visit, the more difficult it is to sustain that environment. It is at the sharp end of conservation, but if it is managed well, which I think it is starting to be, that has to be a positive. Coming back to Britain you realise we’re blind to that; here it is easy to think your impact on the world is quite small. When you see it there in front of you, you see how big your impact really is, how critical the matter is and how difficult this is to sort out. It was a really important lesson to learn.

AF – And finally, do the spirit guides have any advice for individuals and the creative scene as a whole in Liverpool?

MC – Blimey, we’d have to find a suitable animal to use as a guide, I’m sure there are some animals we could speak to, I would have to do a special journey.

AF – A Liverbird!?

MC – I only work with real animals. But I would be feeling very positive if I was an artist in Liverpool, there are possibilities here, there is an open-ness, a will and the potential to do extraordinary things.

AF – What advice do you have for aspiring artists?

MC – For artists, I guess I would say, try not to make art. Whenever I go and try to make art it often fails, whereas if I go and respond to the environment in an honest and frank way then, well, maybe we can call it art later. When you put this label of art on your experiences then it puts unnecessary demands on what you produce; play and fearlessness are the key thing.

Andrew Foulds

Galapagos continues at the Bluecoat until 1 July 2012

Read Part One of this interview here

Posted on 23/05/2012 by thedoublenegative