John Powell Jones’ favourite film is Robocop, Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 masterpiece that provides a glimpse into a technologically-driven police state in a world of trickle-down economics, questionable authority, and allegories of Christ. Powell Jones’ work often deals with the complexity and brutality inherent in power structures, our perceptions of reality, and understanding of morality. In 2018 Tomb Machines launched at Castlefield Gallery, an eighty-page publication and cassette tape highlighting some of the artist’s most radical work, and at the end of 2021 Powell Jones exhibited two shows simultaneously, Cyberjunk (Castlefield Gallery, Manchester) and Cyberjunk: Quantum Crash (IMT Gallery, London). Presenting a universe of frenzied figuration across the two venues, the characters and iconography that inhabit Powell Jones’ work always operate in multiple cultural dimensions, taking references points from folklore and B-movies, which often already contain their own strata of meaning and associations. His universe isn’t designed to be fixed, but is ever-growing, chaotic and sublime.
Amrit Randhawa speaks to John Powell Jones about Cyberjunk.
AR: At the end of last year, you exhibited Cyberjunk at both Castlefield Gallery and IMT Gallery. How did it go?
JPJ: Yeah, I was super happy about it. The idea was to show the same work, but slightly differently across the two sites. A lot of the influence and ideas behind the body of work is to do with the perceptions of reality, quantum realms, string theory and the concept that multiple universes can exist at once.
AR: Is this something you’d consider doing again – the same show across two or more different sites?
JPJ: Over the past few years I’ve been interested in world building; the idea of creating these characters and a world that they live in and then narratives that can happen within that world. At the moment, I’m writing a new comic using some imagery from Cyberjunk. It’s in the same universe, but with different characters and a completely different storyline. I’m thinking about how to incorporate RPG elements, like a role play game or a choose your own adventure kind of thing.
There’s an established lore, but then you could then invite collaborators to come and interpret that in their own way. It’d be interesting if they took the world and designed their own character to exist within it. The plan is for it to continue as multi-platform; I’m interested in how that can take place over multiple spaces, ideally with one of those platforms being a physical space.
AR: You create universes through a plethora of mediums, such as screen printing, costume, performance, video, and more recently 3-D digital software such as Blender. Do you often stop and reflect back on what you’ve previously created, as with Tomb Machines, or even further back? And do you have a rationale for why particular works are in certain mediums – is it entirely process driven?
JPJ: I’ve got a short attention span, so the way that I keep myself interested or the way my practice works is to be constantly making and doing. If something is taking a long time or not going the way that I wanted it to, I find it very useful to have lots of different mediums.
For example, if I’m getting frustrated with a ceramic piece and it’s just not looking how I want it to, I’ll go to drawing or I’ll go to tufting, or I’ll go to printmaking or whatever it is, but it all comes from the same place of developing the world and the characters. So it’s not necessarily that a character will look better as a screen print or an etching, because normally most characters will end up being presented using various different processes.
AR: What frustrations exist within your practice?
JPJ: A lot of the work I make is a way for me to understand things that I’m interested in, whether social or political ideologies, philosophical ideas of culture, democracy or whatever. This is where frustration arises because doing any research or reading into capitalism and human rights is heart-breaking. Again, it’s that cyclical nature; you can see that what we’re going through now has happened before. For example, I was reading recently about the history of socialism within the Labour Party, and what happened with Corbyn almost mark for mark happened in the 70s in the Tony Benn era. It’s easy to fall into nihilism, but I try to steer away from that, as well as falling into familiar narratives of the hero and villain. I’m much more interested in the storytelling in books like The Dispossessed (1974) by Ursula K Le Guin or the Xenogenisis (1987 – 1989) series by Octavia E Butler, republished as Lilith’s Brood (2000), where there are different characters but not necessarily heroes or villains.
AR: So storytelling beyond good and evil?
JPJ: Yeah, Donna Haraway asks in Staying with the Trouble (2016): who is the author of the story that you’re reading? Even with history books, what does the author stand to benefit from the story being told in this particular way? So, rather than assuming that this is what happened, trying to think more in terms of how this is one account of what happened; not that it’s the right way or the wrong way, but it’s an account of what happened, and there are many more.
Mary Shelley’s dad, William Godwin, was an anarchist and an author who coined a framework for telling a story that took the idea of the hero chasing the villain and ultimately winning, catching the villain, and saving the day. But this is problematised if the villain is maybe not the villain, and they’re being pursued because the hero is not actually the hero, but is pursuing someone they see as weaker than them. So he would often employ a shift in the narrative where the hunter became the hunted.
Godwin uses this framework to talk about class. The idea that in order for the upper class to exist, the lower class had to be created. The upper class agree with this because it means that they can comfortably remain where they are, and even though they made this whole class structure, they then also despise the lower class because they aren’t the upper class.
He was developing this framework around the same time as the French Revolution, and this can be seen in the ideas that Mary Shelley explores in Frankenstein (1818); Frankenstein’s monster is literally made from the stolen bodies of working class people. Grave robbing was a common practice for rich scientists to acquire bodies to experiment on, and Frankenstein creates this ‘thing’ but as soon as he does it, he despises it, he hates it. All Frankenstein’s monster wants is to be treated like anyone else but instead he is rejected, and ends up turning against Frankenstein.
That different mode of storytelling where it’s not linear and there’s no clear good guy or bad guy, I find with comic books as well. There’s an amazing series called Hellblazer (1988 – ) that’s set in Liverpool and the protagonist, John Constantine, is not a good guy, but nor is he a bad guy, I guess you would call an antihero. He works with demons as well as angels. Both the demons and angels have their own agenda. Neither are good nor bad, they’re all just trying to gain power. I’ve always found that dynamic more interesting. Another example of this would be Judge Dredd, who is arguably a bad guy that we should hate, but you enjoy the storyline because he is a shitty person, and I much prefer the realism of 2000AD (1977 – ) and Judge Dredd’s characters over say, Superman, which is boring by comparison.
AR: Dredd inhabits a similar space to other recent antihero characters like Tony Soprano, and Succession (2018 – ) is also all about this desire for power to the exclusion of all else. The characters all want leverage and power over situations, placing themselves in positions that they’re not necessarily qualified for, seemingly just for the sake of having power.
JPJ: What’s amazing about Succession is that the show’s premise includes the fundamental un-likeability of every main character. They’re all total bastards, every single one. There could be a moment where you think ‘Oh, they’re actually all right, they might be my favourite’ and then they’re made irredeemable again.
AR: A lot of your practice is informed by injustice and presents an insight into and understanding of the human condition. The lie of capitalism is also emphatically exposed, with a suggestion that maybe there is an alternative. What world are you suggesting through this?
JPJ: I don’t think the work has an overall message. Well, I’m sure it does hold messages and people could interpret it, but for me it’s more about being influenced by things that I’m interested in, such as a critique of capitalism. But I wouldn’t want the work to be seen as telling the audience something specific about capitalism because I’ve got no alternative, which makes it feel like I’m not in any place to be telling people it’s bad. It’s informed by the conflict between hierarchies of power and personal realities. I’m most interested in storytelling; ways of building characters and having them interact with each other.
One source I go back to a lot is the 1987 RoboCop film. You can take it on face value as exciting sci-fi, or you can look deeper into its critique of capitalism and hierarchies of power… I might be wrong, but it’s not that easy to find interviews by Paul Verhoeven that explore the philosophy behind RoboCop, perhaps because that would ruin people’s personal interpretations, whereas people have written PhDs about the philosophy of RoboCop and the underlying meanings behind it.
AR: Then it’s not just a film anymore is it?
JPJ: That’s it and a current example would be Jordan Peele in interviews where people are trying to dissect Get Out (2017) and Us (2019) and he’s like ‘sure, if you want, if you want it to be’. But it’s also just a fun, really well made horror movie.
With Cyberjunk, I wanted it to be an experience that, even if you have no interest in the ideas that it comes from, hopefully there’s be something you can take from it, whether it’s the textures, colours, characters, sound or whatever. If somebody did really buzz off it, then maybe there were enough clues in there that they could infer deeper meanings?
AR: You showed me a Philip Guston interview where he says that if he was able to analyse his paintings to a certain degree, he would no longer be a painter, he’d be a psychologist. He says you can’t be both. The process of making, and understanding the work analytically are very far away from one another.
JPJ: I read an interview with Guston a long time ago where he talks about the subject matter and it resonated with me. He was doing these very graphic and brutal drawings of Klansman, and whether it was right or wrong for him to be depicting that… that’s a different conversation than the making of the work itself. He recalled how people were just not interested in the work because it was like a lecture, like being told off. He then started drawing Klansmen as Disney characters and he won the audiences over. He talks about luring the audience in so they might think ‘Oh, I recognise that kind of cutesy Mickey Mouse hands and the eyes and stuff’, and then that starts a conversation. Certainly, when I’m visiting a gallery I don’t want to feel like I’m going to be to lectured. Well, it depends on who the artist is and where it’s coming from. I guess what I’m saying is that I wouldn’t want to go to a show and feel like I’m being lectured about capitalism by a white, arguably middle class, dude, so I wouldn’t want that to come across in my own practice. (laughs) You know?
Amrit Randhawa is a designer and writer from Manchester.
John Powell Jones’ new comic book series, World Wide Web, volume 1, is available to buy at his online shop along with other editions and publications.