Interview with Matt Stokes

Artist Nisha Duggal spoke to Matt Stokes about his interest in musical subcultures and his latest work, Dance Swine Dance.


Matt, I first saw your work in Hull back in 2000 where you showed Roll-in’ Along – which I loved. Could you describe the work and explain how it relates to your practice now?

Roll-in’ Along took the infamous song Wandrin’ Star sung by Lee Marvin, who plays Ben Rumson in the 1969 film Paint Your Wagon, and turned it into a karaoke choral hymn. A chorister, accompanied by a pipe organ, performed the piece in Hexham Abbey. This was filmed in a pseudo Songs of Praise style, and then on-screen bouncing-ball lyrics applied. The work was made specifically to be installed in busy going out areas of various cities, so that it would be seen by late night drinkers – many who on seeing the piece joined in with the work in either a gruff drunken voice or mock angelic style.

This was the first single-screen video work I made, and was quite key to the direction that my practice headed. Circularity was very important in Roll-in’ Along. Starting with the song which when sung in the movie, is performed on the roadside by Marvin’s drunken, down and out character – taking the original out of context – then setting up a scenario that invited people to sing along with the song in a way that mirrors the film version, though in a very different context. This notion of circularity is still present in many recent projects. As is the element of religion, albeit contained in Roll-in’ Along with a heavy dose of humour.

Music and the subcultures that surround it are obviously important. Besides Dance Swine Dance, you’ve made work that looks at rave in the Lake District (Real Arcadia) and at the punk scene in Texas (These are The Days). Do you start your research from the position of being a fan of the music yourself? And if not, what is your route in?

Most works grow from very loose research connected to a particular context rather than starting from my interest as a fan of a particular music scene. Often I don’t necessarily begin a project by looking into music or music scenes, but gravitate towards music as a means of tying together a number of research threads. Also, and most importantly, the interest in specific genres of music comes through people or groups that I meet, often by chance… such as a pub conversation about the Cave Raves in the Lake District leading to Real Arcadia.

You work in a range of media and always seem to base it on (somebody else’s) performance. Is your interest in the individual characters of the people you portray or in what they represent as the Everyman (as seems to be the case in Dance Swine Dance)?

Both. And there is also an admiration on my part for what the people are involved in, or in collaborating on a project too.

Could you say a few words about the technical production of Dance Swine Dance? How did the experience of working with animator Elroy Simmons differ from previous projects?

I was very keen that the piece should be created using traditional animation techniques – partly for visual reasons, but also to achieve the fluidity of the character as he dances. I was put in touch with Elroy (through Animate Projects), and we began by working on the character concept. I’d already created a drawing of how I wanted the character to look, from which Elroy then created a turnaround (i.e. the character from all sides). This helped to refine the character further and give him a definite style.

Once the character turnaround was complete, I provided Elroy with video clips of each dance style – mostly found through online sources – which Elroy then translated into drawings/frames. First creating key frames and animations to check how the character moved, then adding the in-between frames once we were happy with the keys.

All the drawings were scanned, then a compositor cleaned up the drawings and the effects were added, including the shadows. Then finally all nine clips were edited together with a few tweaks here and there.

I’m interested in why you choose to display your films as gallery installations as opposed to cinema screenings? Do you see your position as an artist as very different to that of a filmmaker, and why?

Because a gallery setting allows much more control over how a work should be seen and experienced, such as the scale relative to the viewer, whether an audience sits or stands and so on, and this is really important in many works.

I’m an artist who uses film, but that doesn’t make me a filmmaker – which I think is another realm. As an artist the idea of how film is used can be approached slightly differently. Also, I don’t solely make films – past projects have taken many different approaches and outcomes.

Your practice seems to have moved from taking a documentary or archival approach towards a more authored narrative. How has your role changed from recording existing subcultures to creating your own – albeit from a historical perspective – as in The Gainsborough Packet, or through creating this character in Dance Swine Dance? Was this a conscious move?

This was more of a natural progression rather than a conscious move.

I wouldn’t say I create subcultures… they already exist, and I work with, or collaborate with, people or groups who are part of these. Often a work focuses of their interests, knowledge or skills, sometimes bringing these together in combination with outwardly conflicting groups, to create outcomes that reframe or invert perceptions about specific ‘scenes’. So, in that sense a work might be connected to a subculture, but also sit outside of it, such as in a recent work Cantata Profana – a new choral composition performed by six extreme metal vocalists. After we finished the recording we were all chatting trying to figure out exactly how to neatly describe what we’d just recorded. I don’t think we found or agreed on a phrase – which is probably exactly how it should be.