Getting To The Point

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Artist Martin Creed, unedited, talks about his commitment to truth, freedom and the power of repetition

In the Senses Issue
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Turner Prize-winning artist Martin Creed agreed to talk to us about his commitment to truth, freedom and the power of repetition on one condition: we published his words entirely unedited, with every ‘um’ and ‘ah’ included. Here then is our conversation, exactly as it happened…

Hi, Hi?
            Hi Martin?
Hi.
            Hi, can you hear me OK?
Yeah I can hear you. Can you hear me yeah?
            Yeah that’s great. I’ve got you on speakerphone if that’s OK, because I’m recording it as well.
Oh yeah.
            I ag…
Yeah yeah… [inaudible]
            Sorry?
Why… oh yeah it’s OK now. Aye you were a bit broken up but I think it’s OK.
            Am I? It’s OK?
Ah no… [inaudible] [laughter] Ah no, it’s ok.
            [laughter] Thanks for agreeing to do this, and I really like your…
[inaudible]
            Sorry?
Yeah sorry, aye what? [laughter]
            [laughter] I was about to say I really like the idea of putting in all the “ums” and “ahs”, so it’s going to be even better now because we’ve got lots of “Who are you? Hello can you hear me?”
[laughter] Ha ha yeah.
            So I don’t know how much Ella* explained, but I mean – the idea of our magazine, we basically focus on – I guess the quickest way to say is creativity – we focus on people who interest us, who do interesting things really, and this issue’s…
Yeah.
           …focused on the senses, so I thought it’s really interesting to talk about theories of perception and even your idea for doing the interview ties in really well to that, it kind of intrigued me why you… [what] your motivation for that was. And also I think, as I said in the email, your art… I don’t know…
Yeah.
            …I don’t know if you do this deliberately, but I find it… you seem like you don’t particularly want to be pinned down on what your art is about.
No, no but… yeah…
            …but it seems like it seems to cover lots of, you know where somebody could be very much a visual artist, a painter or a sculptor, you seem to be… you seem to cover all media really? [inaudible]
Aye, well… right, sorry… yeah, well I know, I don’t, I don’t, I don’t, I hate feeling pinned down or erm… but I think you know in general I hate feeling sort of trapped.
            Mm.
Or to put that another way, I like to feel free, you know, and erm… and, yeah. [inaudible] Anytime I’ve ever done anything and got more and more involved in, eh, any line of work, you know erm, often it just, you know erm, think, you know, everything’s just a can of worms and…
            Mm.
…and erm, you know [laughter] so, erm – and also everything you do, you know, every, you know, thing you do means not doing something else…
            [laughter]
…and so the more you do one thing, the, the more it’s, that’s a sort of commitment to that thing, and then that feels like, you know it’s like you’re a believer? You know? It becomes like a religion or even a – or, or if you get, you know it can become like a habit as well, you know and…
             Yeah…
I find that, I find that gets more difficult as well because of erm… it’s partly because of earning money and then you know, so if you earn some money from something then obviously, you know, you’re inclined to keep doing that, and then, you know… that’s also, that, that, that also brings a lack of freedom, you know…
             Mm.
…or pressure, like a pressure that’s against freedom, you know, erm, so…
            And…
…I
            …is there a pressure to…uh… it’s interesting because I’ve seen you talk before about how you, you like working with repetition in your work. But then is there a, a danger through, you know, things like money and expectations, you then have to repeat things you’ve already done? Because that’s what people expect? 
[laughter] Oh right, aye. Aye. I do, aye, well, yeah, but I feel, I wouldn’t say I like repetition, it’s just I’m bloody… I can’t bloody help it…
            [laughter]
…so, like, I can’t, you know…I keep, erm [inaudible] you know, is, or, you know, sort of repetition in the form of rhythm, you know, that, that’s a sort of good form of repetition because that’s like a, erm, something that kind of makes you feel better, you know, as opposed to the kind of repetition that you’re talking about…
            Yeah…
…which is, you know like erm, like sort of erm, churning out the same words…
            Yeah…
…again.
            Churning over old ground…
Yeah [laughter]
            So, it’s interesting that because I, I was kind of intrigued by the music side of your work, because…
Mm.
            …rather than, you know, you get people who do, like, sound… an artist who works in sound, but you, you know you release records and things which is a slightly different, you know people…
Aye.
            …could just take that as straight, you’re a recording artist, as in a musician, plus you do art. And err it’s interesting that, talking about the rhythm, even like, things like, um, you know The Lights Going On And Off**… 
Yeah
…and the rhythm of a track, you know, and there’s a kind rhythm to both of those?
[pause]
            I don’t know where I’m going with this but it’s…
Yeah.
            [laughter] it just struck me.
Yeah. Well, I, I, erm, I think that you know, err, I definitely, erm, well The Lights Going On And Off was definitely, I was trying to, like, that was like a little experiment to try to make a, err, a sculpture that was more like err, more like a piece of music, you know, more like a – just like a live event, you know…
            Mm.
…it was just a, just a little experiment but then I ended up sort of making it big you know, but erm, err… eh-erm, bit the music that I think, you know the big thing about, you know, if you see things, the thing, the big thing about visual… like to me the big difference is a visual work, you know, you don’t, people… you can kind of glance at it…
            Mm.
…in a, in a, in a milli… in a second and that, and look away and you know, so, so you kind of… and you can walk around the gallery and you just  kind of like look around and just have a wee look and then stro… and you’re talking to your friends or whatever you know, and then, but you know mus… you know music, even if its only a three minute long song. That’s still a lot longer than you might look at a painting.
            Yep.
Or something like that, you know? But then, of course you can do other things while you’re listening to music as well, so it’s not, not, I de… I don’t know, maybe it’s not that different, but it feels like it is a bit different. Like, eh the sound, I’ve made sound, err I’ve made things with sound that I, you know, that we were like, or, where not supposed to be, eh sat through you know, like, erm, work like sound work in gallery, you know it’s just like for someone that’s walking past, it’s not for err… it’s not designed to be erm, sat through, you know.
            Mm.
So those, in that case those kind of sound pieces, that’s why there’s one – I did this thing with 39 metronomes…
            Mm.
…erm which were all, every – metronomes have got 39 different  speeds, so I just got one of each of them and erm…
            [laughter]
…and put, so they were all going, you now and it makes a sound just like rain or whatever…
               Mm.
…and it’s just like kind of nice to see them as well, but they’re, you know, that’s not, that’s like a, that’s designed to be presented the same way a painting is in a, in a sort of gallery or…
             Yeah.
…somewhere like that where you can kind of like walk past it, have a wee look and then – or a listen – and then go away, you know. So that, that’s a bit different than a song with a, a song I suppose is like, you know… I don’t know, it depends how you look at songs, but you know it depends if you see them like as whatever, like think that they should be like, in the foreground or the background you know…
            Yeah.
But that depends on the people… depends on the people, what they want to do with them, you know but erm…
            Yeah.
But most songs, or, or, or, or… or time-based works are, are asking you to kind of sit through them or whatever, you know?
            Mm. Yeah. It’s interesting that kind of, you know, it’s… err, it seems like you’re you know, taking into account how your work will be perceived, you know? You know if it’s in a gallery setting…
Yeah. 
            You know, it’s trying to… 
Yeah!
            …um, [tuts] almost like, I don’t know, do you kind of try and second guess how people will react to it?
Err not, err not, not really no, I don’t really, I don’t think so, I… because I think that’s impossible…
            Mm.
…impossible to predict but erm. But I definitely… you know where you cannot  separate the work from where it’s presented, you know?
            Yeah.
So that is, and if it’s live in front of um, sort of, if you’re making something live, like in a live gig erm of music, that’s, that is different as well, than kind of putting something in an art gallery and going away, you know…
            Yeah. And are you… do you… I was kind of… I think I was very interested by, I get the impression that people misunderstand your work?
Haha yeah.
            And I wondered, when I see people ask you about it, you seem to almost, like, either you don’t care, or you sort of gloss over it, or you say, you know, it’s to be perceived however somebody wants to. But is that – what, what do you think about that? Do you get frustrated that people don’t get what you’re trying to…
Erm, I don’t…
            …convey?
I think, I don’t… that’s a very difficult question, because I don’t think any… 
           Uh-huh.
You know, I think I might – I don’t think I understand my work, you know
            Yeah.
And the more, the more that I … the more I do it, you know it’s, and… so… I dunno, I think that, erm [pause]
I, ah… You know, I dunno, I think that… maybe I feel like, erm… like I’ve always [clears throat] maybe sometimes, like I, I, I would like to try and be clear, you know? I really like trying, like, like, like because err if something is clear, then that to me, that is a relief, you know?
            OK, yeah.
You know, in the world, there… in a world where nothing is fucking clear…
            [laughter]
You know? And erm, so I think sometimes if you kinda distill things down to the one thing that you can be sure of and it’s clear, that can end up, in, in being a very, kind of erm, that can – I think that can end up being, like, different from the world, you know, whether that, whether that means it’s a kind of abstract work that is kind of not, that perhaps, that might be, that might be, quote, “misunderstood”, you know because it’s not, because actually – because by trying to be clear, you make it so different from the world that it’s not! 
            Heh.
It’s not clear where the world is unclear…
            Mm.
…you know, because to be [laughter] – it’s something, you know, so, I dunno: I feel I’m talking nonsense! But, err…
            Heh.
 I think that, err… you know. Yeah. I dunno.
            [laughter]
I was never, I would, I would I, I think, I would… I used to think that people, that erm, I would not… like the idea that someone misunderstands something is not, is a diff… is not a… I dunno if that’s a good idea, because …eh, eh, eh, to me it suggests like, a way that there is, or a way to understand things…
            Mm.
…you know, I, and I, I feel like there, I feel like there isn’t you know, it’s all too slippery, you know…
            Yeah. Yeah.
And erm – but, you know, I don’t wanna avoid the question, you know, I feel like maybe… I also feel like people, people maybe kind of like, just say, “I don’t get that”, that’s, you know, whatever they think, they, they, they’re… not that I’m saying that: they’re saying that. 
            OK.
But then if they’re saying that, then I feel like, oh shit, you know, I want them… I want to, like I wanna, I need to try harder. Basically, you know.
            Hm.
It means it’s not good enough.
            Yeah.
You know? [laughter]
            So do you [laughter], do you like… do you like to play with people’s expectations? Or is that not a consideration?
Eerrrr…
            Heh. Or should I just ask another question?
You see, well – ah, I , erm… errr, I dunno. I think that erm… [pause] I definitely don’t, I want to try not to be… I think it’s really, it’s a, it’s a really big fight – a war – to try to not be conventional and do things… not to fall into conventions, you know?
            Yeah.
In, in every part of your life, in, in, in really small ways; you know not, and… and you don’t even know you’re doing it, you know?
            Mm.
In fact you’re probably, probably a lot of the time I think you do that just to – just to have an easier life?
            Yeah.
You can’t like, you can’t, you can’t just have a fight, or a, or a, or a sort of disagreement with everyone you meet: you’d never make it to the tube, you know?
            [laughter] Yeh.
You know so, but that kinda, but that kind, sort of, I’d call that a compromise or kind of like falling into conventions, or ways of doing things that you expect – almost like, people expect people in the world to kind of, you know they might expect a certain thing, so you kind of try to give people what they might expect.
            Yeah.
And then… just to, just to make them happy, you know? Or… than what…but that, that, that, I think that can really, like, like just seep into your work and you, and you can be doing that without realising you’re doing it and erm… and… so, it, to try to… so I dunno, I don’t, but … because expectations are difficult because they’re not, you know, I think that like by definition they’re… they’re an unknown quantity.
            Mm.          
You know, but erm… if I would… so I don’t know if I would, you know, if I, if I thought that there were expectations that I… that might make me feel trapped; that I’d have to be in some conventional way and then I might have to not do it that way…
            Yeah.
 You know?
            Yeah.
Erm…
            So I guess kind of what I’m getting at generally is, um… is there like a message or a… a meaning that you’re trying to convey, or do you think that people are kind of looking for meaning where there isn’t one in what you’re doing?
No there, err, aye! Well, I, I, I am trying to, you know, erm, I’m… I don’t know where… I, I want to feell better, you know in my life.
            Yeah.
And work… and doing, making things – whether they’re songs or sculptures and what have you – helps me, you know. And I… and these things mean something to me you know…
            Mm.
…and I hope that they mean something to other people. And erm and if, and the things that I like, that, you know, the kind of songs, or, or books or pieces of work that I like, they mean something to me – whether they’re by someone else or whether they’re by me, they’re… because they, they kind of like, strike a chord or, or, erm they, they, they rhyme, they make me feel better in some way; like excited or I think it’s beautiful, or it makes me feel calm to listen to, or whatever you know: they’re all, all those different reasons, but if that, you know – all those things help me in my life and so if I, and if, if they could, if they, if I can help someone else in their life, then that would be… and if, something… because I am a person in the world, so I… you know, some… what… someone else who is also a person in  the world might look at something I’ve done and it might yield some… you know, they might think, “Oh yeah, I feel like that!” Or, or, or they might, or they might not even… or like if it’s the lyrics of a song or whatever or, or, or if it’s more of a… let’s say an abstract painting, they might also think they feel something like that, but without maybe – not in a literal way, but like, just you know like, “Oh yeah, that’s amazing!” or “That’s beautiful” or something, you know but... So it’s just… I feel like it’s all to do with trying to feel better, you know, because I think that life is really fucking difficult, you know like…
            Yeah.
…kind of like, in, you know, in general, you know, we’re all like… stuck in our bodies and minds and stuff, you know, and… erm [laughter]
            So…
Erm…
            Yeah…
Yeah, anything that helps with that is good I think?  
            So what, err… where or when – when and where – are you happiest would you say? Is that working?
Yeah I think when I’ve… where and when? Well when I’m working. When I’m working and… when I’m working and then, and also, like, and when I’m working, kind of, sort of, erm… not like, not having meetings or something like that, but like you know [laughter]… where you’re sort of, like in the studio working on songs err… So that’s often hard work, like, I might be happy, like, like, ah… like I’m not necessarily, you know, kind of like, erm… smiling. Or whatever. 
            Yeah.        
I definitely feel like I’m at my happiest when I’m working. 
            OK, so content…
And also when I’m with my loved ones, you know, erm, at home, having a laugh…
            Yeah. Yeah.    
You know? Err, because, and because, because erm, because that, because that, that, like that is also an escape from the difficulty of life, you know?
            Yeah. [laughter]        
[laughter] And then, you know, both of them are one, one… working is like trying to do something about it and kind of, the other one is more of a comfort I suppose? You know but…
            Yeah.        
Or being in a gang, and being in a gang, a gang, even if it’s a gang of two or whatever, you know that [sigh] or three, you know?
            [laughter]
But…
            And did… your dad was a silversmith wasn’t he? Is that right?
Yeah.
            And do you, do you think that kind of sense of making… did you, did that lead you into doing art do you think? Do you think, is there…
Aye, I think so aye, definitely. I think that these things are… yeah. Yeah, yeah, totally like, you know… Yeah. Yeah, in fact, and erm, because… so I grew up getting taught you know, I mean getting taught by, by, you know by erm, err, sort of by example, but err, you know that art and… also music, because my dad’s mother was a pianist…
            OK…
Err, and so, erm, there was always this idea that art and music  were the, you know, the highest… things you could do …
            Mm.
…you know the highest value was; of pursuit was, like art and music you know, you know and basically, erm, you know, erm, professions of the spirit, you know, rather than… whereas money was considered, erm you know, basically a bad thing effectively. Like you, you come… my dad comes from a Quaker family and err, you know, err, they, they definitely erm… Yeah so art and music, you know, and that, my dad was always doing his own work, kind of, err, his work, he had a workshop at home. Erm, and err, which he was incredibly precious about, you know [laughter]. And err, and I think, and you know, I’m quite precious about my own space, like, kind of like in private, you know my private, my private… [inaudible]
            So do you, because, err, the um, the title of the magazine,
Hole & Corner, is an old phrase which means like a secret place, somewhere you might go to either escape or to contemplate, or to create: so do you…

Oh yeah!
            …have a place like that?
Yeah, I do yeah. Yeah I do, very, very much. It’s more and more like, but erm, you know, it’s kind of more and more like that. Erm, because, you know, because, and that… and it’s my flat. My little, I’ve got a little flat in the Barbican.
            OK
And that’s my little hole. You know, erm, err… and basically that’s my studio, and I, and so I work and live in the same place – but, although I, erm, erm, half the week I go, err, and spend it with my family, erm, my partner, she lives somewhere else and so we live together kind of half the week [inaudible], so anyway this is my –yeah I work and live in this little flat, and erm, and err – to me it’s very important I think to live and to sleep in that. I’ve never had a studio that was, erm – I’ve never had a studio that was like, separate from my house. So…
            Mm. Yeah.
Although I did actually, I did for a couple of years, about, about ten years ago but I didn’t, I didn’t like it. But erm…
            So why is that, you don’t – because, because quite often people find they need to get away from their home environment…
Sorry, what?
            Well, I’m interested why that is because quite often people…
Oh, sorry you’re a bit broken up…
            Ooh – can you hear me now?
Yeah! That’s better!
            OK, sorry. Um… what am I saying? Yeah, so I’m… it’s interesting because a lot of people say they wanna get away from their home environments to work. So do you find that you’re slightly unusual in that respect?
I dunno. Well, I dunno, erm… [pause] I just think, because I, I dunno really, when like I work …I dunno, sometimes I work you know in the middle of the night when I wake up, and then, ah, you know [inaudible] so… and then sometimes I just wanna have a lie down, you know, and I think that’s all part of working so I…
            [laughter] Yeah.
I think you… I don’t think you can separate life and work. But, erm, but also I think I feel very strongly that work, that working well is, you know, sort of living up to yourself. Sorry, sorry – facing up to yourself.
            Yeah.
And, erm… and err, so if it’s all… so I believe in that kind of living like a – a monk, do you know, like? [laughter]
            [laughter] Yeah.
In a cell, and err, and, and it all happens there, and you don’t go away and leave it, you just have to face up to it. You know and you have to clean your own toilet.
            Yeah.        
You know, or whatever. But erm, erm…
            And that’s, that sort of brings us…
Yeah?
            …I was really intrigued by you, you know saying you wanted to keep all the ‘ums’ and the ‘ahs’ in the conversation…
Oh yeah… 
            …er, verbatim. And again, is that like facing up, up to who you are and that…
Aye!
            …reality and…
I think so. Yeah. And erm, because I feel like often, like I feel like edit…when, when…well, with, when, because one of the things I sort of, I hate feeling fake you know? And…  
            Yeah.        
…and err, sometimes when things get edited I, I, I feel, you know it ends up… I, like, I sound like I, I know what I’m talking about!
            [laughter]
You know?
            Yeah.        
And, you know, it sounds like I’m making, kind of sweeping statements that are…to me, you know, editing can make you sound, kind of like, pompous you know?
            Mm.
And erm so… ah, I’d hate anyone to think that I thought that I knew what I was talking about and I, I feel like, eh, that err, that err, all of the, err… I suppose there are some things, you know, in all aspects of my work, of, of trying to do work, I feel like, erm, the problem of… this kind of problem, like of, of editing, erm, or, or, erm, you know, presenting your shit; you know, how, how, how to, how to do it is a big question and err, and it’s very, very easy to take the life out of it. You know? I say editing it, but, but, but the problem is how to know, if you are going to take something out of it, how do you know where the life is – and where the life isn’t? And erm, increasingly I feel… you know increasingly, I, I, I feel like I need to work on… like, err… so, like, so, I mean these recordings I did recently were done in much more of a spirit like that, of erm...err the songs were put together… I worked on them by doing them kind of live for a bit over the year, you know, solo… playing them solo while I worked on them more and stuff, and then, it was all done quite fast in the studio with the band playing live and err, err, not kinda… because previous albums I’ve made I’d got, I’d got really involved in heavy post-production and kind of editing and stuff; I think because I was so anxious that it was gonna sound shit.
            [laughter]
You know?
            Yeah.
Be shit.  You know? But I feel that I might have taken the life out of it a bit. And, erm, so… you know, I’ve been trying to approach this differently. I’ve been trying to approach all my work a bit more like that, you know, like doing… doing exhibitions where I made the work in the week before the show, rather… or on site, rather than, like, erm… I mean that’s a bit… that, that approach to exhibitions is a little bit like taking some music and the idea of, like, going to – you know going into a studio with the band and, err, and the recordings. So I’ve been taking that approach to visual work you know as well and go…
            Yeah.
…going into gallery and, and, you know, just making the work in one week before the exhibition opens. Err…
            Some… somebody might say that’s just being disorganised. Hehe.
What? Sorry, what?
            Somebody would just say that’s being disorganised, would they?
Disorganised?
            Yeah. By leaving it…
No! Well I thought, I thought, well yeah, maybe, but… I don’t know, it takes quite a lot of organisation to… [laughter]
            Yeah, no I was just being flippant, I wasn’t, I wasn’t – I didn’t really mean it!
[laughter] Aye. No but I think that, I think that a lot, you know, a lot, a lot of decisions are made, you know, because of… a lot, a lot of kind of tidying up… or, or, or a lot of kind of err… yeah a lot of decisions are often made I think due to anxiety about the future, you know.  
            Yeah.
Which makes you wanna control things. And that, and that can be the exact thing that, you know, kills it. You know, so…
            So…
…so that kind of leaving it, you know, leaving it to the last minute could be much more scary but you know, as well, as, you might call it lazy as well, but you know but…
            [laughter] Yeah. 
…but you could, you could call it erm… courageous as well.
            [laughter] Yeah. It’s interesting, actually, right at the beginning when you were talking about freedom, and…
About what? Sorry?
            About freedom?
Freedom, yeah.
            Trying to be free? And, and, that almost kind of led, in what we’re doing now and the kind of conversation, just letting it go and just putting it out there… That seems…
Aye.
            …to tie in really well with that: “This is what happened”. You know, we’re printing an article and this is exactly what happened, this is a, we’re not…
Aye, aye, aye exactly!
            …not being control, control… not trying to control it… after the event?
Yeah. Aye. Exactly, and that – exactly! And, err the thing with that which makes me think as well, that’s exactly… that is… I… what you just described is a good example of why freedom is difficult, you know? Like, to basically…erm, yeah. [pause]
            Good.
You know, that’s why you might not want to be free!
            [laughter] Yeah. Exactly.
[laughter] You know. Err…
            That feels like quite a good point to stop. Don’t you think?
Err, yeah!
            Feels quite…
Yeah, aye…
            …like we’ve come full circle.
Yeah good one, yeah, yeah [laughter]
            If you’re happy with that? [laughter]
Yeah, absolutely.
            Cool. Great, well thanks I really appreciate that, that was really fascinating.
Good one. Good one, thanks!
            Cool.
That was a laugh!
            Great I enjoyed that, thanks a lot. 
Ok cheers.
            OK, speak soon, thank you.
See you later, bye [laughter]
            [laughter]

*Ella Dooley, Creed’s assistant.
**Work No. 227, The Lights Going On And Off, Creed’s 2001 Turner Prize-winning work of art.

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Photograph: Maria Baranova