Franko B’s pioneering career ranges from sculpture and stitching to visceral performance. His bloodletting works from the 1990s and early 2000s established his iconic position within contemporary performance art. On 27 and 28 July the Bluecoat welcomed him as part of their continuing programme of Artist Talks followed by the premiere of his latest performance work: Milk and Blood. Using the aesthetics of boxing to explore themes of social struggle, pain, masculinity, and vulnerability, Milk and Blood sees Franko endure thirteen two-minute rounds of physical exertion and verbal expression. After he had caught his breath, Sean Ketteringham caught up with him for a post-fight chat.
Sean Ketteringham: The first question that came to my mind when watching your performance was whether you’re a pacifist.
Franko B: Interesting. No, I’m an anarchist but I’m a constructive anarchist. Its very important to the work – in the past few years I’ve been very concerned about making work which is intrinsically personal, political, and, if I’m lucky poetic. [Laughs] I’m really driven by texts now, by words.
SK: So do you make any distinction between verbal language and physical language? Often you have used your body as a canvas but Milk and Blood is, perhaps, more concerned with speech.
FB: Yeah, but the language is part of my body. My performance, or my image-making, is connected with language or texts; it’s a kind of a mix of things that are going on, sometimes more consciously, sometimes less consciously, but I think they are part of the work. I think they’re part of who you are.
SK: What do you mean by that?
FB: Well, there are a lot of things that we are certainly not aware of; that we cannot somehow express who we are. We think we are in control, we think we know how we are but it depends on your ego, your confidence, your security, your experience. You know? I find it interesting that I’m 56 and I’m still discovering myself and being surprised by things. Ten or twenty years ago there were things that I couldn’t… that I didn’t have the confidence to express. But I make work and I’m productive when I’m happy.
SK: Are you happy now?
FB: Yeah I’m quite happy. I live my life and I make work that matters to me. And to me, that’s how I measure success. I measure success by the work I fight for and make. You know?
SK: So is this a way to define whether you’re mediocre or not? Your first words in the performance were “I hate mediocrity”.
FB: No! I can define whether I’m mediocre… but I tend to know when things don’t work. When things don’t work that doesn’t mean you’re mediocre. Mediocrity is not the same as failure because you can fail gloriously. It’s better to fail gloriously than miserably. You know what I mean? If you’re afraid of failing then it’s a form of mediocrity. Failing and having the gut or integrity to do something that you believe is important, is certainly more appealing and interesting than going for the safe bet.
SK: So what is vital and important about Milk and Blood?
FB: It’s about language; it shares language. It’s not so much about me asking you questions but I work in a certain way where questions can be asked. And that I think is the role of art: to go and have the gut to ask the question through language or through visual language.
SK: The way you communicate with the audience in this performance is quite different to how you have previously. In your talk last night you mentioned how in I Miss You (1999-2005) it was a performance where you were communicating on a small level, making eye contact with the people around you.
FB: Yes. There was an intimate one to one with people that wanted it.
SK: And in Aktion 398 (1998-2002), you had another one on one communication.
FB: But they were two very different ways of communicating. Often you can have much more intimacy in a packed space.
SK: People are more relaxed in that environment do you think?
FB: Yes but also its less frightening. It’s less about power. I had kind of looked at people while I was sitting [during Milk and Blood] but not generally. In the middle of the performance I’m thinking about the next round. It’s a different sort of presence: at the end I think it’s important that there’s a switch. It’s intentional. At the end I want to see who were my partners in crime so to speak, because if there were no audience why would I perform? I’m not into self-harm you know? Not really. [Laughs]
SK: So it’s about pain?
FB: It’s not about pain. It’s about being alive. No?
SK: Well the way you say, “I’m not into self harm” that implies that if there was nobody there…
FB: I would not perform. Why would I perform? Language is about sharing.
SK: What don’t you share in that sort of performance? What are you bottling up and keeping inside?
FB: I don’t know. It’s an interesting question. The key thing is that I try to be honest with myself. That’s very important when I perform and if I feel I’m fake or I’m doing something I don’t believe in I wouldn’t do it. Although, this performance is totally impulsive.
FB: Yes, improvised. I mean there is a history. What is important at the time is what I want to say. Its not acting, it comes naturally; you don’t need to think about the script. Whatever comes out is OK, like I decided to say [tonight] “Bluecoat”, “Brexit” because it’s in my consciousness – I know where I am.
SK: You have spoken of yourself as an image-maker, as someone who builds an image. You’ve also spoken about the necessity of that image, how that image is in someway necessary. Can you elaborate on what you mean by this?
FB: Well what is a painter? An image-maker.
SK: But in your performances you’re very different to a painter.
FB: What’s the difference?
SK: The medium in which you work.
FB: Yeah but it’s a metaphor. And in the end the canvas is me, it is everything that makes me alive: it’s the blood, it’s the sweat, it’s the pain that you will see or hear. It’s the fear; it’s everything that makes me tick.
SK: You were talking about hot and cold in the talk yesterday and you said during the performance you had to keep a cool exterior while everything in you is on fire.
FB: But this piece is very different. I use boxing as a metaphor for struggle, for being alive. So in a way I’m not so much interest in my existential problems. You know, why would I want to share them? In a way this is my reason to be alive. The fact that I make work… otherwise there is no point. Why would I wait to die or get cancer or get run over?
SK: People compared your earlier work, your bloodletting, with existentialism. They spoke about it a lot more then than they might about this work today. You were white and cadaverous…
FB: I don’t know about white and cadaverous… I thought it was comical.
SK: The bloodletting?
FB: No, painting the body white. Almost comical… it wasn’t intentional but who paints themselves white? Clowns. It was also so I could somehow be neutral, to cover my tattoos and try to transcend this idea of being human. But years after I said, “I need to survive this performance”. I heard myself saying that and [I thought] “Actually, why? I don’t have to.” I don’t have to fucking survive because why would I want to you know… [put my life in danger]? I’m not really that masochistic. It’s not about survival. Before I became an artist, I was involved with an anarchist group in London. I believed that anarchists were good people: they weren’t racist, they weren’t misogynists. Then there was a moment of realization when I got to 23. I felt deflated; I felt I didn’t have anything interesting that made me want to stay alive. And this went on for a few months. When I started to make art this kind of bottle opened and I just started to express myself. Didn’t even know what art school was. I left Italy with hardly any education I could barely speak a word. I was homeless in Italy. I was homeless here. From the age of 14 I rejected the church, the state, and institutions. They tried to fail me in every respect. And somehow I just ran and ran and ran and ran. But there came a point after nine years where you’re running from yourself and you don’t know what you’re looking for but you can’t stay still. I did most of Italy hitchhiking, living on the streets, doing little manual jobs, sometimes sex for money when they offer you food or money for a blowjob, whatever… I was a practical person.
SK: When was that?
FB: This is when I was in Italy aged 18 or 19. And then I came here. And then much later, after I left college, I tried to do a bit of prostitution. I knew what I was doing. It was specialized.
SK: It was your body as a product in a way that it still is now I suppose.
FB: Yeah, well use it while you can! In a way I doesn’t matter how you look – when you’re 16 everybody wants to fuck you. When I was 14 everybody wanted to fuck me. I was kind of innocent but because I didn’t grow up in a normal way. I didn’t grow up in a family, a normal family. I grew up in an institution with strangers that did things to you. I was totally, what you’d call, unconstructed.
SK: Is the performance tonight a way of taking back control from that environment?
FB: Maybe subconsciously.
SK: It’s seen as quite a masculine thing, boxing.
FB: Yes, but do you think I’ve been masculine?
SK: No. But perhaps you are engaging with that topic.
FB: Yeah, well definitely. I actually love training. Before I go, I know it’s going to be very hard. I sweat. They make me sweat. I have somebody one to one pushing me. I have to get out of the way otherwise I get fucking hit. I have to try to hit him and he is trying to hit me. And you can’t stop. You can’t say, “Ah give me a break.” You have to defend yourself or you get hit. You get hit. Sometimes in the performances I can get much more emotional. Tonight I wasn’t.
SK: What do you feel in the more emotional performances? And what did you not feel tonight?
FB: Well sometimes I have to try not to cry.
SK: What are you feeling in that moment? Why is that? Are you connecting with the people around you?
FB: No. Maybe you get too immersed into yourself. The key thing for me is to be present, not to escape. When you perform you can’t pretend to be somewhere else. You have to be present. There are lots of techniques that people use when they perform, they go into a kind of trance. I don’t want to go into a trance. It’s very important that if I hurt myself, I hurt myself. The most I ask of myself is to be honest.
Franko B performed Milk and Blood at the Bluecoat on 28 July.
Sean Ketteringham is a writer and postgraduate student based in London and Liverpool.
Twitter: @seeanate // Instagram: @seeanate