Lesley Guy visited the NewBridge Project in Gateshead to talk to artist Chris Alton about his exhibition of new works, Throughout the Fragment of Infinity That We Have Come to Know. In a show that explores economics, colonialism and speculative fiction they discuss the ideas and processes that inform the work and the importance of posing alternatives and creative thinking.
Lesley Guy [LG): Where does the title of this exhibition come from?
Chris Alton [CA): It’s the opening line of a short science fiction story that I’ve been working on. The story is like a set of anthropological studies into different imagined species and the way that they ‘do’ exchange and value, and how that is influenced by their physical presence and their societies and the planets that they live on. It is a way of saying that we only know a very small amount of what there is out there and that extends to models of relationships and models of value and that kind of stuff. Even now on this planet there are many, many other ways of doing value, doing exchange other than the dominant capitalist model, and that is the core question for me – What else could there be? So in the show I’m posing a few different alternatives. Some of them are a bit more realistic and some of them are very far fetched.
LG: You place the real alongside the not so real, exposing the absurdity of things like money…
CA: As well as the videos and the banner I present a collection of different currencies, real and imagined. It starts with cowrie shells, one of the oldest currencies used by human beings, and ends with an imagined future currency, which I’ve called CaC03-in. It references how the production of seashells by marine creatures acts as an incredibly valuable carbon sink and responds to some research I’ve been doing about how Bitcoin is essentially predicated on accelerated resource consumption. Bitcoin almost lays bare the relationship between growth orientated economics and climate change.
LG: It’s interesting how value and materiality and exchange are all tied up. The work suggests this happens on a cultural level too.
CA: Yes, there are objects on the table that try to tell that story in a very selective way, for example the George III cartwheel twopence coin. It’s the first industrially produced coin, so it is an incredibly accurate two ounces of copper. It’s also the first depiction of Britannia with a trident, in an official British context.
LG: And that’s an important symbol for you?
CA: It is important! It’s the bridge of this exhibition. It appears in the video ‘What Mortals Henceforth Shall Our Power Adore’ which is a story of its movement from the hands of Poseidon through the hands of Neptune and Britannia through to the present day and the Trident nuclear programme and tax avoidance organisation called the Trident Trust. I frame the trident as this object of colonial intent. I focus on a fresco by William Dyce, called ‘Neptune Resigning to Britannia the Empire of the Sea’ (1847), which literally depicts Neptune handing over his trident and also a crown to Britannia. This handing over of the trident was about Britain claiming that there was a Godly right to British imperial expansion.
LG: Could you say something about your creative process? I know you’ve talked a bit about the benefits of being allowed time to snooze or dream.
CA: Yeah, a lot of my work comes from that process. And it’s a gradual collecting or massing of different ideas or references and even with this show, which I suppose I knew would be happening for a good nine months but it wasn’t really until about a month and a half ago that a couple of the real key pieces of the puzzle slotted into place. I think that’s just the nature of forming ideas. On a neurochemical level it takes a long time for connections within the human brain to form into long term memories; once they reach a certain state it’s much much easier to access them and sleep is really important for that.
LG: What about the banner? Is this a recurring motif?
CA: I have a specific skill set and I do return to things. Recently I’ve made a fair amount of banners. There are few different things to the banners that I quite like. There’s that reference to a union or a collective body, but then there’s also, for me, a closer reference to Quaker quilts. The techniques I use are quilting and applique, things that my aunt taught me. The first one I made was very closely overseen by her.
LG: Posing alternatives is one of the mechanics of your practice. Could you talk a bit about ‘imaginative activism’?
CA: Yeah – I suppose having grown up as a Quaker, I’ve been around people who are engaged in activism, be that direct action or working around policy or lobbying. It’s an enabling thing to grow up within. I guess what I could say about this exhibition is that it’s an attempt to share something which I hope might expand people’s vocabulary. I’m using the word vocabulary because I’m thinking about George Orwell’s ‘Newspeak’ in the novel 1984, and how it effectively operated to limit what was thinkable. Under Newspeak the idea is to reduce what can be thought about to the extent that it is impossible to revolt against the government or to make any change. In this exhibition I’m trying to increase how thinkable it is that there are other ways of valuing and exchanging. I do that partially, by looking to history but also looking to the future.
Chris Alton: Throughout the Fragment of Infinity That We Have Come to Know, originally planned 7 March – May 2020, is currently closed until further notice. The NewBridge Project hope to reopen the exhibition at a later date to be confirmed for images and videos from the show please visit the NewBridge Project website >
Lesley Guy is an artist and writer based in Newcastle upon Tyne.