Interview with Moving Image Artist, Sam Curtis

Aesthetica speaks to Sam Curtis, who will be presenting work at the Moving Image Contemporary Video Art Fair in New York 7 – 10 March. Curtis is exhibiting two films Did anyone ever tell you that you’re beautiful when you’re following orders? and In Control. The aim of Moving Image is to offer a viewing experience with the excitement and vitality of a fair, while still allowing moving-image-based artworks to be understood and appreciated on their own terms. He is also due to take part in FORMAT International Photography Festival 8 March – 7 April.

A: What is it that drew you to video art?
SC: For me, video is a dynamic and relatively quick medium to use when capturing or staging events that explore my interests in social relations and the way people navigate society’s various systems and structures. A thirst for the real fuels my practice. As well being able to offer a similar version of reality, video has the ability to obstruct it behind layers of representation, with opportunities for manipulation and ambiguity.

Time-based media, in particular video is able to communicate some of the intricacies of the social relations and power dynamics between people in a very direct and readable way. Other ways of working such as performance can be very powerful but harder to control and direct.

Video art’s relationship to TV allows for an uncovering of how we are conditioned, to some extent, by it’s formulas and patterns of representation. Video art has room to parody, disassemble and subvert TV, and artists like Ryan Trecartin are doing this in increasingly complex ways.

A: Please explain how you came up with the idea for, Did anyone ever tell you that you’re beautiful when you’re following orders?
SC: It continues on from my previous research and work made around the concept of “Stealth Residencies”. That is, initiating un-invited artist-residencies in non-art spaces that one already operates within or inhabits out of necessity i.e. the workplace. This concept has a double objective that merges wage labour with artistic labour. It solves most young artists biggest problem; how to survive and keep some form of artistic practice alive when you lack time and money.

Did anyone ever tell you that you’re beautiful when you’re following orders? looks more broadly at people who do creative and individual things within the predefined and rigid structure of the workplace and challenges our assumptions of how we view certain roles. The title is taken from a gig poster for the punk band, The Feederz. Lead singer, Frank Discussion, well known for his situationist-like subvertisements, wrote and distributed a diatribe against school and work in the form of a mock announcement from the Arizona Department of Education. The inherent contradictions within the question are loaded; how can you be beautiful if you are following orders? If capitalism urges us to be individual, creative and free, how do we negotiate our way through life’s strictly controlled systems?

A: When using found material, do you approach it with an initial idea or take inspiration from the material you see?
SC: Both. Did anyone ever tell you that you’re beautiful when you’re following orders? is made up of found footage showing people doing creative and individual things in various places of work. I wanted to use other people’s acts of creativity and expression and add them together to build up a bigger more complex picture that communicates my ideas. For every clip included in the work, I have another 10 clips that I didn’t use, but that still inspired and informed the way the work was made. Held together by a soundtrack, the work is comprised of bus drivers singing, a builder and call-centre worker beatboxing and schoolchildren competing in a pen tapping battle. Together these are edited together and beat-matched to create a relentless rhythm.

The soundtrack was not premeditated but instead asserted itself through the common occurrence of singing and beat-making in all the clips I was finding at the time. For centuries singing and drumming have been used by people to increase production at work or to relieve the mundanity of their day. Although done in a less communal way, we continue to use song and drumming at work today. But with so many jobs now involving some aspect of customer facing service, the rules of work generally say “not too much individual expression”. In the case of Yves Roy, the singing bus driver from Ottawa who tunefully laments “You needed me, you needed me”, his employers told him to stop pursuing his creative interests whilst at work or face losing his job, despite huge uproar and protest from passengers and the local community.

A: Which film directors and artists have inspired you?
SC: Thinking of film directors and artists led to me to John Smith and his film Girl Chewing Gum. It’s a really beautiful and simple idea that relates to my interests in the potential of directing the everyday and in directing life. I endeavour to create work that carries out a good idea in a non-fussy way, that doesn’t conform to imposing norms of contemporary art production. I have been really interested in the work of the Artist Placement Group and their ambitions to place artists right in the higher workings of industry and government. The recent APG show at Raven Row was so rich in detail, Barbara Steveni’s correspondence with the various CEO’s unearthed a lot of fascinating signs as to how artists were valued at the time and how perceptions possibly changed through APG’s work.

Allan Kaprow’s work and writings have been influential on my thinking. I also like the work of Chris Evans and his use of complex collaborations that contain unbalanced and messy power relations. The work of dutch artist Cees Krijnen, whose art feeds from his mum’s personal life whilst also attempting to improve it through interventions in the artworld, the media and the fabric of their everyday lives, is another source of inspiration. When the judges of the Prix de Rome visited his studio to judge his work, he set-up a situation whereby they became suitors to be quizzed by his recently divorced mum for suitability. He filmed the process and the results were exhibited as his entry. He won the prize and spent the money on legal bills and a new central heating system for his mum, which also became a new artwork in itself.

At the moment I’m also re-watching old episodes of the TV programme Faking It.

A: Do you work with any other artistic forms?
SC: I try to work with whatever form is most suited to an idea. I have made a text work that acts as a re-written CV, imagining all my previous blue collar and service sector jobs as artist placements and residencies, turning mundane and often difficult experiences into positive and artistic ones. The work attempts to mobilise “art speak” and turn it against art’s elitist values by reapplying the built up language around art to the subject of the everyday. The idea that washing-up pots in a pub kitchen could be artistic, meaningful and thought provoking is in contention with the idea that some painted bits of wood, a lump of concrete and a feather placed in the middle of a white room could be artistic, meaningful and thought provoking.

Performance interests me and more recently I’ve explored the use of other people as performers without their knowledge. The advantages for me are in uncovering or highlighting some kind of social relation or power play through the point of a reveal, a moment where an audience can see what’s really going on.

Part of my practice involves operating as an artist in a variety of spheres and this has proven to be quite successful in my current day job. Employed as a teacher, I work specifically with homeless people in day centres and hostels around London. Seymour Arts is an informal art course I have created for homeless and recently re-housed people. Here I’m less of a teacher and more of a facilitator, collaborator and co-producer working with Seymour Art artists and organisations such as The Showroom, Centre For Possible Studies, Tate and Gasworks to produce events, exhibitions, residencies and conversations.

A: Both of your short films, Did anyone ever tell you that you’re beautiful when you’re following orders? and In Control look at our working lives, is this something that particularly interests you?
SC: I have always worked. When I was 6 years old I got paid to dig up dandelions on my Grandad’s lawn. I received 2p for each dandelion. Throughout school I did various manual labour jobs to get some extra pocket money and throughout my BA degree I worked part-time in a call centre, champagne bar and as a door-to-door salesman selling gas and electricity. During my MFA at Goldsmiths I worked as a fishmonger in Harrods for two years to pay my way. These experiences have all been enriching, real and have taught me much about other people and myself.

Our time spent working, increasingly determines the shape of the other aspects of our lives. Work time is incorporated into leisure time through changes to the way we are employed and through technological advancements. In Control looks at how people fulfil their ambitions by asking a group of retired people to take psychometric career tests and compare their suggested occupations against what they’ve actually done with their lives. Not everyone can fulfil their ambitions, the world is not structured that way, so we try to cope with failure. Post-capitalist society inspires and encourages us to aim high and work hard to have good lives, enriched by material possessions, yet a high proportion of people will never be able to have the ‘dream’. How individuals navigate all of these challenges throughout life, to be happy in what you do and still survive financially, I find fascinating.

A: What do you have planned for the future?
SC: As well as showing at Moving Image Art Fair NYC, I’m pleased to be showing Did anyone ever tell you that you’re beautiful when you’re following orders? at this years FORMAT 13 Festival in Derby. I’ll be working with gallerist, Nathaniel Pitt at Division of Labour towards a solo exhibition in 2014 at his gallery spaces in Worcester and Great Malvern. Pitt is a man with vision who has built up a progressive and focused commercial gallery and artist support system, in a very short space of time.

My work with Seymour Arts will continue this year with our on-going collaboration with the Serpentine Gallery’s Centre For Possible Studies. Although the Centre is now temporarily homeless and looking for a new venue, we are working with them to produce ‘Re-Housed’, an exhibition exploring ideas of relocation, instability and homelessness.

I’m still trying to balance my day job with my art practice. Perhaps this struggle will never end, but for now the tensions and issues contained within it, are integral to my work and drive to question the current socio-economic order.

Sam Curtis will be at the Moving Image Art Fair, 7 – 10 March, more info at

1. Image courtesy of Sam Curtis, Did anyone ever tell you that you’re beautiful when you’re following orders?
2. Image courtesy of Sam Curtis, In Control.