Friday, 16 October 2009

Interview with Russell Mills

Russell Mills has, in addition to developing his own highly distinctive style of collage, created album covers for Brian Eno, David Sylvian, Nine Inch Nails, Michael Nyman and Harold Budd; designed covers for books by David Toop, Milan Kundera, Samuel Beckett and Don Delillo; been involved in various sound and multimedia projects including collaborations with members of Wire; and produced two albums, Strange Familiar and Pearl + Umbra, under the name of Undark (with contributions from Eno, Sylvian, Kevin Shields, Bill Laswell and many more). He very kindly found the time to answer a few of my questions by email.

Do you see the decline of physical music formats as a loss, or as an opportunity for music and visuals to be brought together in new ways?

To be honest, both. On the one hand I'm saddened by the demise of the album cover and the continuing absence of the actual physical item. This is not a nostalgic yearning, but because I believe that people (maybe especially those interested in music), still enjoy the convenience and the intimacy of holding in their hands, wherever they are and whenever they want, something that has a specific meaning and relationship, be it to an album of music or a book. There is something distinctly personal about this activity that is not there when one is obliged to download music and visuals via a computer. On the other hand the technological developments that are still unfolding should mean that there are new avenues to explore, which might encourage genuinely new hybrid marriages of visuals with sound.

Do you draw regularly?

No. I used to all the time. Now I tend to draw when I need to either jot down ideas and notions or to record something that might have been triggered by something I'm working on. These drawings are minimal, a shorthand, enough for me to be able to go back to them for reference, not for showing and not to be held up as some example of skill or virtuosity.

Do you think that if you were starting out today, you would find it more (or less) difficult to get established as an artist/designer?

I suspect that it would be far harder for me to get started now, let alone get established. For one thing there are far too many so-called artists/designers graduating these days, all competing for fewer commissions/jobs. Secondly I think a lot of those who are in a position to commission work do not have the capacity to risk or the knowledge base to allow them to trust to the capacity to risk to commission me. The sensibility of commissioners and their increasingly corporate bosses is not about risk or encouraging the new but about shifting units, and therefore tends to encourage repetition, plagiarism and or laziness i.e commission something like someone else's work, in their "style" or commission what's already tried and known. Lazy and boring. No I wouldn't stand a chance nowadays.

Reading about your cover for Roger Eno’s Between Tides, it struck me that some of the symbolism and use of materials (volcanic sand etc) might be almost impossible to ‘read’ or decipher just from the visuals – is it important that they are directly communicated to the viewer? Or are we left to try and make these connections for ourselves?

You're right; most of the underlying symbolism is probably not perceived by a viewer. The symbolism revealed in my research towards a work has inspired and informed the evolution of that work. Of course it would be wonderful if a viewer or viewers found the same or similar signs in the work but I know it's not going to happen. I don't set out to directly communicate these ideas in an easily digested form. That would be boring for me and would be an insult to the intelligence of the potential audience. I'm not concerned with "illustrating" in the sense of producing an image that merely replicates a passage of text; I'm more concerned with producing something that obliquely alludes to an essence of the subject matter, or of the emotional core, whether it be text or music. I hope that the end result, whilst being an amalgam of the contextually anchored and the process-driven, is also arresting or seductive and intriguing. I would hope that a viewer might find their own way into an image, to find their own interpretations of the artwork.

Marshall Arisman has said, "Every gallery I’ve ever had has told me to quit illustration. They’ve said, 'It will ruin your fine art career.'" Have your commissions for book/album covers etc ever made this an issue?

Yes. In England, definitely. Generally I've found that the English - England as opposed to the UK - particularly the critics, the "gallerists" (what does that fecking mean?), the art historians and the so-called curators, etc., i.e. the cultural arbitrators, don't like or trust people who do more than one thing. I have worked in "disciplines" as diverse as illustration, design, painting, multimedia installation, sound and design of sets and lighting for theatre, music and contemporary dance, but this diversity just puts the English cultural commentator in a sweat - it's not convenient, as it does not conform to known taxonomies. I've consciously worked against the restrictive barriers imposed by categorisation in the creative arts, as I'm naturally curious about the world and how it works and how it might be improved. I've therefore always wanted to explore new ideas and new ways of making. In this country, in the arts, an artist working in this way, doing more than one thing, blurring the boundaries, is considered to be a dilettante. This is used in the derogatory sense as one who is a lover of the arts (particularly the so-called "Fine Arts" - why do Fine Artists feel so insecure that they have to use the adjective Fine before the word Artist?) but who is an amateur, a dabbler, as someone who is not committed or serious. Whilst I think this term is ill-used I am proud to be an amateur. A serious, committed amateur. I approach everything I do as an amateur, with eyes wide with wonder, wanting to discover the new, the potential, the perhaps, the maybe and the "what if?"

Those so-called arbiters of taste conveniently forget their own paltry grasp of art history. Is the work of Leonardo da Vinci viewed suspiciously because he painted, drew, sculpted, invented flying machines, tanks and ballbearings, studied water currents, pregnant women and blood systems? No he has held up as being of the highest order, a model of modern man. Sadly, and I think shortsightedly, if a contemporary artist/scientist is perceived as working in this way it is treated with utter disdain nowadays. Much to the loss of progress.

Abroad, in Europe, America and Japan this problem doesn't seem to exist; there is no prejudice against an artist whose work spans disciplines, in fact such individuals are applauded and encouraged - and even funded occasionally.

I've always believed in synergy, symbiosis and synectics. These avenues lead to the hybrid, the unknown.

Why do you think that collage became so prevalent during the 20th century (from Schwitters to Public Enemy)?

Two disastrous world wars made intellectuals, artists, writers and cultural theorists re-consider the status quo. The moral and cultural certainties of the past (classical music and painting, formalistic structures. etc.) had been torn apart by immoral and despicable conflicts. The world had been ripped into fragments and along with it the cultural rules and traditions of the past. The cultural hierarchies of the past seemed meaningless, irrelevant and redundant. New ideas evolved out of the rubble, ideas about transformation, about processes, about discovering new ways of looking and new ways of working. Collage was born out of this global dereliction as we moved into an age of fragmentation. And as the age of fragmentation was brewing new technologies were emerging at an ever-faster pace. Collage, as a concept and as a construct, became the most important cultural idea of the 20th century; it still is. Collage has affected every aspect of contemporary life from literature to cinema, from comedy to drama, from dance to radio, from design to music. Check out T.S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915), Virginia Woolf's and James Joyce's experiments with stream-of-consciousness writing from the same between the wars period, in tandem with the experiments in fragmentation and juxtaposition of the likes of Picasso, Braque, Schwitters and Duchamp, Walter Benjamin and others, whose works from the same period led to the Dadaists, the Surrealists, the Beat poets, and onto Burroughs and Gysin to Keysey et al. From all these we have inherited the likes of the Jack Jackson radio show, which in turn inspired the remarkably fragmented humour of the Goon Show, Monty Python's Flying Circus, The Fast Show, The League of Gentleman and other such examples of comedic brilliance. Collage too has shaped film/video editing, sound sampling in contemporary music and multimedia installations, Photoshop, literature, Final Cut, advertising, drama, radio and, to maybe stretch a point, marketing, shopping and innovation generally - thankfully. Hybridisation creates far more interesting ideas than specialisation.

“The specialist has become a comic figure, replaced by the artist.”
– Edmund Carpenter.

“Clear statement is like an art object: it is the afterlife of the process which called it into being. The process itself is the significant step…”
– Edmund Carpenter.


  1. An excellent interview with an artist I've long admired. Thanks!

  2. It was great to get such lengthy, thoughtful responses to my questions. I'm just hoping the bit about "The sensibility of commissioners and their increasingly corporate bosses" doesn't turn out to be *entirely* true...