Q & A with Paul Burgess

Illustration Course Leader.
Brighton University. UK. 2011.

What is your attitude to collecting? Are you always on the look out for the perfect image to use?

My attitude towards collecting is that it’s essentially a habit. It’s just being visually aware all the time really. Either by filling my pockets with old pool chalks in the pub or by taking photos of net curtains with my phone, (a current preoccupation). It’s a passive process, it happens everyday, feeding an obsession by osmosis. I started collecting all sorts of paper to silkscreen print on when I was in my first year at college. Then got into taking photographs and collecting found numbers words and images to print on them. It was more about exploring the effects of printing onto unusual surfaces than the subject of what I was printing. I was hungry to find new and unusual things to print on, this slowly changed to collecting imagery, old photographs and objects and ephemera and mixing them through print.

The sorts of images I collected all started to have had a certain common factor I suppose, but there had to be something seductive and arresting, something that caught my eye. Peter Quinnell said that ‘things find you’, an idea that I really like. There are things waiting for me out there. I make a different analogy for things being all around you. I think its something like when you look up the meaning of an unfamiliar word in the dictionary, then for the next few weeks you read it everywhere or hear it mentioned in passing. If you’re aware of something you’ll see it, you’ll come across it. If you don’t want to find something, you’ll walk right past it. It’s all there, you just have to have your eyes open. It’s also important to be open to new types of objects and imagery too, not just your old favourites.

I also make scrap books and throw bits into boxes in the studio all the time. An ongoing archive. Stuff from the beach, hand written notes, scraps & printed ephemera from travels, bins in various places, flea markets, pub floors. I don’t think I’ll ever stop peering into skips. As for the perfect image, it’s been a while since I’ve found something amazing, but last year I found an old farmers notebook at a vide grenier (attic sale) in Normandy. A real thing of beauty, dusty, with loads of separate notes and bits of paper inside, an insight into a daily life, too nice to dismantle.

How did you start collecting collage material?

I’d always kept bits and bobs when I was younger, keepsakes etc, you know my first teeth, penknives, old trainers. Then when I was a teenager I used to hang around Portobello market in Ladbroke Grove on Saturdays, buying records and having a few beers, and used to work in Camden market on Sundays, so there was a lot of old interesting stuff around those places. Junk everywhere. I used to like vintage Americana and the Chelsea Cruise in The Kings Road. So I think nostalgia was always around. But later on, a big moment for me with regard to finding and collecting collage material happened on a student exchange in Southern Germany. I didn’t find the town itself very inspiring and I was struggling to make work after only a month. One day I wandered down a disused train track leading out of town, on the edge of the famous Black Forest. It was a very cold Feb 1994. I found the top half of a broken child’s doll lying on some white feathers. Sort of weird. Next to which was a few red painted steel cogs, also on feathers. Then a few feet away, spread around, old damp cardboard shipment cards, the type that slotted into the sides of freight train carriages, they had large single letters printed on them and hand scribbled German notes and numbers.

This was the first time I saw type as image, type as texture. And the first time I viewed a whole natural scene in front of me as a collage. The doll, the cogs, the feathers and the cards all in a perfect composition, but just scattered on these train tracks in the woods. The tracks led to a paper dump, and I’d never seen that much waste paper before. I was instantly intrigued and started looking for bags to collect stuff in. I unearthed vintage photo-albums, documents from the war, old letters, ledgers and scraps of torn posters. It was like accidently finding treasure, but a treasure I’d not really valued before. It all had an arcane beauty to it that was heightened as it was all in a language I didn’t understand. So words became graphic shapes and handwriting became markmaking. Even children’s drawings looked different. Little scraps were instantly beautiful on their own. So amongst the telephone books and daily newspapers were these gems of vintage reference material, right in this modern town. I became a daily visitor, bringing beers for the bemused workers who allowed me to sift through the mountain of paper debris that was delivered daily. I brought back a stuffed suitcase, a full mail-sack along with two collaged sketchbooks, all of which fuelled a series of projects over the next two years.

The collection has now grown into a large array of drawers & boxes, paper bags and folders. I’ve got an ongoing sort of ‘itinery’ of the boxes, drawers, vessels and bags in the studio which hold the many sub collections of collage elements, papers, textures and objects I collect. It might seem a bit nerdy or anal to have things kind of catalogued, but the fast-turnaround nature of commercial illustration has lead to the system evolving. It’s also a bit more random and scruffy than it sounds. There’s also now a growing digital library of elements and textures, remnants of scanning for jobs and projects.

What are some of the things you currently collect?

Old toy ambulances, dice, photos of pets, paint mixing sticks, badly made model Airfix planes, clouds in postcards, kids collages,
plastic flotsam and jetsam, diaries, Passports, Christmas cracker jokes.

How do you think young artists collect now?

I’d like to think that I’m still a relatively young artist at 37! The nature of collage has completely changed since the arrival of mainstream internet and photoshop, and I’m glad I stayed away in the early days when it was taking shape commercially. But regarding lets say, ‘post google’ artists and collecting, it might be easy to say that it’s all just online visual skim & grab searching, but I think that’s starting to slowdown, at least with the image makers arriving from the more forward thinking communication courses. As with most forms of creativity, a balance of old school hands on research and modern methods for me always lead to more interesting results. I find internet searches don’t usually unearth anything of great quality. I’d say start with opening a book, not just a favourites folder.

Your work carries a strong sense of nostalgia. Do you use nostalgic images as source material to comment on the current status quo, or even the future?

I guess looking at our past in a new way can help inform us of where we’re heading. I don’t think Humans have really emotionally changed that much in thousands of years. We’re still motivated by the same sensations as we were in the dark ages. Love, fear, greed etc. We read communication in the same way and we do the same things over and over, in spite of the technological advances that drive our societies today, I think people’s lives are still governed by these same basic emotions and motives. And visually, I don’t think it really matters wheather you use old or contemporary images to evoke feelings in people. It’s all about creating an atmosphere, a story, a world.

Photography is still only relatively young too at around 150 years or so. So using images of the recent past to portray an idea about the future can be very revealing and have an uncanny air of truth about our current direction as people. We all recognise ourselves in the past and tie ourselves to it. It defines us. So I guess it’s that ‘small’ 150 photographic year archive that I’m interested in playing with, plucking elements out, reshaping them and changing their context, re-writing their stories.

I have all sorts of memento’s from my childhood – faxes from my Dad’s car garage from the 80’s, school sick notes, scribbled directions and old lino floor tiles from our kitchen. I don’t know why I kept this stuff back then but it all fuelled my collection and is still pops up in work. I also fell in love with the aesthetic of by-gone lo-tech production and printing methods, i.e. block, screen and litho printing, experimental dark room photography, 50’s technicolor magazine production and handmade signage. There’s a quality to ‘low quality’ that’s really exciting to me. The exception to the rule is of course the awful lo-res pixelated images you see in national press and magazines these days, I thought we had left that all behind with the wonders of technology…

How do you go about making a commissioned piece of work? What’s your process?

You’ve got to completely understand the brief firstly, and make sure you ask any specific or basic questions about the subject matter, even if you think they’re silly, as you’ve got to get the facts and tone right. I then start by gathering all sorts of material. I collect lots of imagery, photos and textural elements for each project before I start trying to make an image. I can usually visualise a finished piece, but this isn’t of much use if you cant find the component parts that you’ve imagined. Collage is about working with what you have in front of you. I’ve often spent a couple of hours looking for an image in the studio that I thought was perfect for the job, only to find it wasn’t right. Sometimes it’s better to adapt and invent something new rather than look for something you already have. So I research in the form of collecting imagery, info gathering, look facts up on the internet, and if I need to take photographs before I start making an image. I like to have a lot of reference material layed out. This opens up unusual avenues and juxtapositions that I couldn’t just ‘think up’. I don’t like to use the internet too much for research / image sourcing. I like to look through old books and if there’s time, go to relevant destinations to find the right kind of imagery.

Buying second hand specialist books online is a great way for visual research, again if they can arrive in time. I have collected hundreds of these type of old books, mainly for their pictorial value. These are a great source of inspiration. Manually flicking through hundreds of images is great for idea generation. I then work up compositions by photocopying and scanning, printing and cutting, moving things around, resizing and tinkering around, collaging. Then I take a few digital snaps and move things around again. These along with a few scans along the way form roughs or sketches for client. The direction and development process can start then. Finally the finished collage will be scanned and cleaned up and tweaked digitally, ready to get beamed into space and onto someone else’s desktop. Sometimes all this has to be done in hours, and other times you have days or weeks. The original collage is usually filed in a plan-chest or occasionally dismantled. The off-cuts and scraps from the work are either filed for future use or binned / recycled.

Why now? Collage is undergoing a resurgence, why do you think this is?

Social Networks, Self Publishing,Twitter, blogging, texting… Right now, and at every time of each day we’re blitzed with information. For me, collage seems to be a very appropriate way of echoing this multi formatted interactive mode of living. Instantly mixing references from different era’s and genres is a powerful tool, bringing unusual ingredients together to form original messages. The power of layering and splicing disparate elements has a beautiful and infinite randomness to it and always throws up unexpected juxtapositions and new meanings. A lot of people despised sampled music when it came out in the late eighties, now it’s in every top ten in the world. I spent my teens dj-ing, collecting records, experimenting with turntables and mixing sound effect LP’s together. It’s a similar process to what I do now, just another medium. It would seem that collage is undergoing a resurgence across many disciplines. Fine Art, Writing, Music, Animation, Film, sound design and poetry. It feels fresh. And mixing the newest high tech tools with old fashioned collage values is yielding some clever and cool results.

For me the computer can still be a frustrating place to create work. I think doing things with your hands teaches you much more about the true nature of how a composition or an idea comes together, moving around a few photocopies or scribbling a sketch. One other big factor for me staying essentially hand made collage is my working space. I need to spread things out to see whats available. I prefer a ten foot desk than a two foot desktop, and until Apple unveil that 10 foot table top touch screen mac I’m gonna still be changing scalpel blades every week.

How can you see your work developing?

Well, like anything you experiment with, it morphs and grows in other directions as you develop new ways of working. I feel my commercial work sits well with my personal work, there’s almost no boundry there visually, but I do have a few new process driven avenues I want to explore in the near future, and hopefully these new areas will feed into commissioned practice.

The first one is moving image, this is an exciting time for artwork that moves. There are so many platforms now for seeing moving image. I do feel a collaboration coming on. (I want someone to walk into this studio full of bits and say we’re going to do something amazing.)

Two: Live large scale collage installations. I was commissioned to make a few 100ft collages when I finished Art college and it’s time to revisit the format. I like to work fast and incorporate found elements from the surrounding area or donated by the audience/ public. It’s good fun and great for interaction. A photocopier, a cutting mat and a pot of paste and I’d be off!

Three: Sound collage. I made a 3 min sound collage for the limited edition Artists LP ‘Stage Fright’ in 2006. It was surreal mix of scratching Disaster movie Sound effects records with Farm Yard sounds and crying babies. Not calming. It was a fascinating process and really took me back to my DJ-ing days. So investigating sound, chopping, layering and melding unrelated sounds again and then bringing that back into the studio to make visuals / moving image for, that’s exciting me right now.