Interview with Andrew Shoben of Greyworld
23 jul 2014 by Ashton Chandler
art:i:curate’s Ashton Chandler interviews Andrew Shoben, the founder of Greyworld, a London-based artist collective whose work is really about play. They create public-activated art, sculpture, and interactive installations in urban spaces, filling parts of cities around the world with opportunities for creative expression. While Greyworld’s work is reflective of its environment and essentially subtle, users react to the situations presented by the collective, engaging in the artwork’s creation by bringing it to life as they become more aware of their presence and community.
AC: Can you share the beginnings of Greyworld, what it is all about and who makes up this artist collective?
AS: There’s four of us, although we change depending on the time of year, there are three and a half of us at the moment, as one person is in and out. I set up Greyworld when I was 17 in 1993 in Paris. I was writing music for contemporary dance (my background is a musician) and Marcus was a furniture designer. We were creating work for the artistic elite, who we despised. It was like we could write for seven chainsaws and a helicopter and they would like it - we couldn’t stand it! It was almost like they were attracted to the difficultness of the work. So, after doing this for a little while we created Greyworld. Neil has been with me now for about 14 years.
Greyworld’s definition was to create work for the people who weren’t going about digesting art, it was for the people who were going to the supermarket to buy a can of beans. We feel much more connected to those people. We find the city much more an interesting area than a white sterile laboratorial white box. We have shown at the Hayward Gallery before, where [the other artists] were setting up in their little tight-nit areas and we were on the stairs, but I liked that. Though, showing inside versus being outside means you don’t have to worry about vandalism and the weather.
Trafalgar Sun (2012)
AC: How would you describe how you merge art, design, landscapes and urban design into your projects?
AS: Well, I’m going to split your question into two questions. There’s the boring question about art and design in general because every artist designs work and every designer needs art so whether one is one or one is the other isn’t really that interesting. I think if there is any definition of art and design that is interesting for me is that an artist sets his own brief whereas a designer is often led by a client. Our brief is to take the city, our playground, and create instances where play can happen - to take spots which are really creatively dead that can allow some kind of expression which is really interesting and lots of fun.
Play is an essential part of human development. It’s where all the best ideas come out of and it’s also the best way of relaxing and getting away from the structures we put on as adults.
AC: How do you produce your projects? Do the members of the collective sort of hang out and play around with ideas?
AS: The real answer is censorship. Let’s say I’m making an artistic proposal saying I want to do this, knowing you are going to judge it. There’s the part where when I’m thinking about it and coming up with ideas that I’ll say ‘No, I can’t do that, it’s impossible, it’s ridiculous’. How many ideas do you have that actually don’t come out of your mouth because of your own destructive ability to remove options? We have one rule at Greyworld and it is that every proposal is a good one. We have one room of crack scientists that will create anything and we have an infinite amount of money - if those two things are true, then what idea could not be proposed? We try to ignore reality until the last possible moment in that process, desperately trying to avoid censorship.
AC: Whereabouts do you find inspiration?
AS: The city. The city is friction, it’s dark, it’s fun. It has unwritten rules, things you should and shouldn’t do, things you morally shouldn’t do but you can. For me, if you put someone in a completely comfortable place, it is completely uninspiring. There is no creation without friction. If you make someone completely happy, I think they are completely dead creatively.
We like looking at situations and setting up moments where people can choose to engage themselves, and sometimes, they’re often hidden.
Greyworld is not some artistic construction landing from space that plops in the middle of town, we want it to come out of the world, out of the city.
AC: Tell me about the name “Greyworld”.
AS: We’re called Greyworld not because we’re manic depressives who listen to the Smiths, Greyworld is about the way we see cities - the places where you sleep, eat, drink, as these are places which are well defined in cities. In cities you’ll find areas where all construction happens, where all the bars or similar establishments seem to go. It’s weird! For example, there’s a road in Peckham that just sells bags! Greyworld’s work is much more interesting in that it zones between those ‘grey’ zones. A lot of our work is created for the street behind the supermarket, the footbridge around the corner, not so much a location for anything but those spaces are fundamentally rich for potential.
AC: Can you expand more on the aspect of ‘play’ in your work?
AS: The more psychologists look at play as a method of development. You realize the play for a child is not just about enjoying himself but it’s about learning and discovering the world and also about the creation of new ideas.
Whereas most of our projects are for people passing through, we’ve done a music box project engaging people in a room. Other projects include the London Stock Exchange project with the spheres that show the rise and fall of the market, one where bins and benches come over to you when you whistle at the them and the Nokia project where you fill up the paint bucket with your face and you can throw your face against the wall. We’re not afraid to use technology, if our work had the aesthetic of digital we’d be depressed. New media aesthetic can be a real turnoff; how it is being done is irrelevant really.
Many artists define themselves by the media they use, we define ourselves by the experience, by the interaction, by the play.
The Source (2004)
AC: Why do you feel public art is important?
AS: There’s a couple of reasons. How do you define space, how do you define the place you live in? Do you define it psychologically where the buildings live, where you go to school and the bus stop where you get off? I think public art has a lot of say in what they call ‘place-making’ and identifying an area.
But, I think there’s a more fundamental issue. Think of the world where nobody played in the city, where nobody was allowed to express ideas in cities - what kind of world would that be, where we’re not allowed any kind of artistic expression? It’s not a world to live in, it’s a world to die in. At the very least it couldn’t happen - humans would explode with all the pinned up ideas!
Public art is to give vents to those creative potentials that we all have. It also gives us an opportunity. Say we’re walking across a bridge and you say to me ‘what’s all this’? Our artworks, such as our Dublin Bridge project, give an opportunity to speak in the morning. It gets that little conversation going that is a really nice side effect to our projects. It’s that community of presence. It’s an unexpected explosion from these types of projects.
Images courtesy of Greyworld