David Blandy is fascinated by the way love of culture shapes the worlds we inhabit. Mark Sheerin meets the artist behind the installation Odysseys at Phoenix Brighton and Lighthouse during the Brighton Digital Festival.
It is September in Brighton and David Blandy’s largest solo show to date could not have come at a better time or place. The seaside town is in the throes of its annual digital festival. So interest in hacked arcade games, manga and collectible Star Wars-like figurines is at a high. It is some 12 months since the 36-year old artist moved to the South Coast. And as luck would have it he now finds himself surrounded by geekishly kindred spirits.
“For this show you’ve got a very strong digital crowd of, you know, the coders and game freaks, and anime people have been going along,” says the artist, for whom authentic interpretations of gaming, hip hop and Japanese animation are a trademark passion. His exhibition at artist led gallery and studios Phoenix includes carefully modified arcade machines, artfully appropriated animations, figurines corresponding to Blandy’s various personae over the years, plus Lego representations of scenes from his latest film, Anjin 1600 (2012). The performance artist appears in a number of guises, as both game character and star of half a dozen video pieces.
As befits a flagship event of Brighton Digital Festival 2012, the show is technically ambitious. “The big gamble was the arcade machines, whether they would play the videos properly and whether you could get them there and ready in time,” Blandy reveals over mugs of tea in the kitchen of his terrace house in Preston Park. “But it paid off I think, and gives an amazing context to the custom games I’ve made. It makes you feel more like you’re in an arcade.”
Duels and Dualities: Battle of the Soul, installation at Phoenix, 2012. Photo by Bernard G Mills
Fortunately, Blandy has been able to share the challenges involved, thanks to the involvement of both a co-operative venue and specialist digital arts agency Lighthouse. “Phoenix have really great resources in terms of manpower and enthusiasm so Mike [Stoakes] who’s the technician there did an amazing job doing the more tricky install elements.” The detail-loving artist gets special pleasure in the faithful way Japanese tatami mats have been recessed into the floor in a darkened alcove where his 2011 show Child of the Atom is on a loop.
Lighthouse, meanwhile, who curated the show at relatively short notice, have helped in “very practical ways”. Whether sourcing Perspex or buying in new VGA leads, the local organisation has delivered. “Those are just practicalities of putting a show on, equipment etc,“ says Blandy. “Lighthouse provided most of it and then anything they didn’t have was just got in. I don’t think we had to hire in anything, the only thing we had to hire in was the arcade machines.”
The artist talks about the gaming cabs as “found objects”, all of which were acquired using his own contacts in the UK gaming scene. These led him to a place called the Heart of Gaming in Potter’s Bar; Blandy described his first visit. “It looks from the outside that it should be a car repair place or some strange little metal workshop, but you go through the doors and there’s about 15 machines set up and people playing them,” he say, excited by the community which has sprung up there in North London. It was here the artist found another collaborator in the form of organiser Mark Starkey who has been busy renovating several machines in time for the Brighton show, which features a tournament on Saturday 22nd.
Lego ship and cut-out ephemera from Anjin 1600, Odysseys, 2012. Photograph by Bernard G Mills
The artist’s other collaborators are no less immersed in their chosen fields. Since 2008 he has worked with manga illustrator Inko and more recently has been teaming up with toy engineer Stuart Witter. These partnerships have resulted in comic books, animations, figurines and Lego models. “I feel like I’m in a band,” laughs the artist. “That was my background really. As well as art school, it was being in a band for years . . . and now, you know, I come along with a song, an idea for what we can do. And then Inko’s like the lead guitarist, she adds the extra fills and really it’s what I would call a proper collaboration.”
Lego Pagoda, Odysseys, Phoenix installation 2012. Photo by by Bernard G Mills
Witter meanwhile, who has worked for Games Workshop and Hasbro, fills what Blandy calls, in admiration, a “nerdy niche”. The two will often kick around ideas and the artist says, “He knows the language of that kind of collectible (Star Wars figures or the game cartridge),” even down to the spelling mistakes on game package. “All the details that just add a lot of richness to those projects,” he concludes with evident satisfaction.
But this is an artist who fetishizes the smallest of touches and admits as much. “Well, the devil’s in the detail,” he insists. “I always think of my work as an anthropological project . . . an analysis of my obsession and part of that obsession is you get very drawn to particular details.” That said he demonstrates, by offering an unfavourable comparison of the US packaging for role playing game Final Fantasy 3 alongside the Japanese box for Final Fantasy 5. It is clear, he cares.
Both games offer quests and as such hold an appeal to Blandy’s project: his own quests have included trips to Hiroshima for the film Child of the Atom (2010), to Cumbria for the film the Soul of the Lakes (2005) and a semi-fictional outing in Anjin 1600, which deals with the life of early explorer of the Far East. In the midst of an exhibtion called Odysseys, it seems fit we reflect on the artist’s own journey at some point.
Child of the Atom at Odysseys 2012. Photo by Bernard G Miles
“I think as a video artist you almost have a different career path to a painter in some ways,” he says. “Being a video artist enables you to be shown in a lot of different places with no real transport costs, maybe just the cost of a stamp for the DVD.” He claims that video art offers opportunities for virtual networking. “So in a kind of career way that’s been quite useful, I guess, but of course makes you no money at all.” He describes the need for “a bit of ducking and diving” since leaving his MA in 2003.
So one can only hope that the arrival in a digital hub like Brighton represents a homecoming for this affable artist. “I guess I’m only really just tapping into that,” he says of the local scene. “I’m realising what a pool of talent there is in terms of getting stuff made and coding. . . You think maybe I could actually build this from the ground up or really modify it quite heavily, or make something quite radically different.” In other words, Blandy could take things to the next level. It’s game on in East Sussex.
Odysseys, 1-23 September 2012, at Phoenix Brighton , 10-14 Waterloo Place, Brighton, BN2 9NB.