Transporting us to a state of in-between-ness
Taking inspiration from the visual noise in the urban environment, artist Mike Ballard creates abstract compositions, sculptures, and installations that are sure to transport us to a state of in-between-ness. It’s been a month since Mike Ballard exhibited “The other grove” at the RA Summer Exhibition, a sculptural work that acts as a portal between the private and the public; the legal and illegal… a piece that invites the viewer to walk through it, yet makes the audience unaware if they’re allowed to do so. It’s fitting then that the artist has a fascination with ownership, displacement, the transitional, and the division amongst the city. Reacting to the urban environment and it’s constant flux, the artist sources his materials from the city itself, introducing scaffolding netting, billboards, or wooden construction planks into his works, which act as visual indicators of what’s to come with regards to provision of new accommodation, industry, and the removal of the old housing and communities. Artist Mike Ballard best explains the thought process behind his works in our recent interview, in which he explains the re-contextualization of his materials, the critical reflections in his practice, and his deep affinity with the hinterlands and non-places of our cities.
Mike Ballard (b. 1972, London, England) graduated from Central Saint Martins with an MA in Fine Art. He has previously exhibited at The Silver Building, London; Royal Academy of Arts, London; KARST, Plymouth; Von Goetz Art, London; Unit 1 Gallery, London; Griffin Gallery, London; Parafin Gallery, London, amongst others. Residencies include the KARST Residency, Plymouth; Untapped residency, Cyprus, Griffin Gallery Project based Residency, amongst others. Mike currently lives and works in London.
In what ways has your background as a graffiti artist fuelled your practice? It seems that you are involved in reversing street-art’s concept, by collecting the public and making it private?
From when I was painting graffiti, I have a deep affinity with the urban environment and the hinterlands and non-places of our cities. Graffiti definitely led me to explore and react to the urban environment. Writing graffiti really gave me a very motivated and prolific attitude towards making, and this has transpired to my studio practise. I loved the adventure and the pure process of illegal painting, the getting over, entering places where I wasn’t meant to be. I never considered my graffiti as street art, I was a writer, and I wrote my pseudonym. I was into letterforms, connections, structure, and style. The built environment and all the different materials that form part of the visual language of the everyday, ownership, and division amongst the city fascinate me. It’s the re-contextualisation and appropriation of the materials and marks that I find interesting.
Your painting process interlaces the analogue and the digital. Can you explain us this laborious technique in which the glue sucks up the ink? To what extent are you in control of the marks?
My painting incorporates photos that I’ve taken of the residue left by illicit stickers, from lampposts, and other street furniture. I’m interested in the abstract marks that are left when a sticker or poster has been removed; they’re like found paintings/compositions. I photograph a lot of these when I’m walking through the city, the stickers are everywhere, like a background visual noise in the environment.
I then enlarge these photographs and make them into huge stickers that I then transfer onto the canvas surface using glue. The process is a reverse of how the original image was made. I’m recreating a sticker of the removed sticker and the technique of transferring the image involves me working backwards through the paper by peeling the layers of the paper off until the image is left on the canvas surface. This technique is mixed with under-painting and painting on top. It takes a lot of work to remove all the paper pulp from the sticker that I make, especially on the bigger 2metre paintings.
I work a lot in Photoshop, trying out the images first before I make the transfer, and I really like this flipping between analogue and digital. The transfer technique is never quite perfect, as some of the glue doesn’t stick properly, so there is room for new unpredictable marks to appear during the process of making the painting. I love this about the technique, and it allows for happy accidents to happen. It would be a lot more precise to screen print these images, but I feel it’s conceptually vital that the paintings are made by reversing the sticker process.
Your scaffold netting wall works, which form new marks and waves due to their stretching process, intrigue me. How did this project initiate. Are these works part of an on-going project?
The scaffold netting works came from the same idea as my hoarding sculptures, I see the netting across construction sites all across the city, and I am really drawn to the material and the way it gets worn and torn during its use. Again, like the hoardings, it’s a threshold device that surrounds a property under construction. It came to me one day that I could incorporate this material into my paintings. So, I started to collect sections of the netting from various building sites, and then began stretching it over paintings, but then I felt the netting was strong enough to become a painting on it’s own, without any under painting. I then began stretching it over raw canvas and using multiple payer to build up opacity, and play with the tears in the material to form abstract compositions.
In my recent visit to your studio, you quoted that “the city is in constant flux. There’s never going to be no buildings” In this sense, does your work reflect a critical commentary on today’s city environments, which are increasing their pollution or residue levels, and are constantly re-generating?
Yeah, there’s always some type of construction going on in the city, it never stops, and that’s what I love about cities, always changing. My work definitely reflects critically about gentrification, displacement, and the divisions between public and private space in our cities, as the materials I use are the visual indicators of what’s to come, with regards to provision of new housing, industry, and the removal of the old housing and communities. I think that my works captures the transitional state between two worlds, and is a starting point that can lead the viewer into their own conversation about what is happening to the places where they live.
You’re part of the second edition of “Recreational Grounds” a group show curated by Fiona Grady and Tim Ralston that allows an experimental approach through site-specific works. In this sense, you’ve presented a work that holds the place together and almost feels like it belongs there. What can you tell us about this work and its “camouflaged” condition?
I’ve made a new hoarding sculpture for this show, and rather than the sculpture providing no function other that an object, I decided to make a piece that will blend in to the fabric of the space where it will be shown, so it may take a second look to realise it’s not meant to be there. I will also be showing a series of large signs that I liberated from a council building in Plymouth whilst on residency at KARST Gallery in May. They’re motivational graphic signs about regeneration, and may also look like they belong in the space they’ll be shown. The camouflage element is inevitable, as it’s material that I’ve taken from the outside and will now be shown outside in a different context, so there’s no avoiding that it will look like it’s meant to be there.
I’m curious about your street interventions, which almost have a performative element to them. Can you explain further your method of collecting deteriorated wooden panels, and replacing them with new “ghost woods”?
I’m always on the look out for interesting materials, so when I see a set of hoardings that look great in terms of paint and weathering and re-painting, I’ll call my good friend Kev, we then go and get our Hi-Vis invisibility cloaks and turn up in his pick up truck, with nice new painted wood. Often initialled and numbered by myself, we then proceed to replace the panels I’d like to use for sculptures, with the new ‘Ghost wood’. I started calling it ‘Ghost wood projects’ as a joke, and thought of getting some cards made, just in case anyone every questioned what we were doing, and I like the idea that these panels just appear and interrupt the existing fencing, almost like a work exchange or signature, so if you do see a set of white boards amongst an other wise painted fence, it’s probably me.
You’ve recently undertaken a residency at Untapped residency in Cyprus. Given that your work directly responds to the environment, has it changed/developed by working in a different country?
The time is Cyprus was amazing, and a great opportunity to explore a completely new place to me. I was really intrigued by Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, I was un aware that it was a divided city, between the Greek and Turkish. It was amazing to walk around the streets near the green line border. There were a lot of abandoned buildings that had been left since the Turkish invasion in the 70’s. I took a lot of photos there, and have started a series of paintings informed by my time in Cyprus. It is such a unique environment to respond to, and I’m looking forward to how this will reflect in my newest paintings.
You frequently re-use archival graffiti photographs you’ve taken in your paintings. What role does photography play in your practice? In that sense, is there a certain nostalgia attached to this intimacy of photographs, often in which you’re the subject of the image?
Photography has become an important part of my practice, but I’ve always been into photography, simply through painting graffiti. It was very important to document the graffiti I was making as it was so transitory, and would often be cleaned or painted over, so it was imperative to capture those moments. And now, I look back through my archive and find certain photos that reflect the spirit of the times I was painting graffiti, the freedom and energy of the movement, especially my older photos from the late 80’s 90’s. These were the golden years of graffiti writing in this country, before it became more socially acceptable and absorbed by marketing and advertising. They definitely contain a lot of nostalgia for me, it was underground and secretive back then, pre-Internet, when graffiti writers shared real photos and had to travel in order to see others works. I really loved the travelling associated with the graffiti and the network of like-minded people. Now my photography isn’t so much documentary, it’s more of a reference and a starting point for my paintings, and a tool for me to be able to enlarge found marks, although I do document the removal of materials when going to collect hoardings.
Your recent work on view at The Royal Academy Summer exhibition addressed ideas on being in-between, by presenting a door structure with no address or provenance. What draws you to this in-between state of doors, motorways, train tracks or bridges? Is it a self-reflection?
The piece in the RA summer show is entitled ‘The other grove’, and with this piece I wanted to make a portal…we’re use to being kept out by hoardings and they act as a threshold of ownership, like the developer has put his arms around what he/she owns, and as with all my sculptures, I like to change the sheet material into a deeper form, to give it structure. So, I made this shape in order to invite the viewer to walk through it, or at least want to walk through it… but they may not be sure if they’re allowed to. It is exactly that, a state of in between-ness, and although it’s clearly visible what is on the other side, we still feel the piece invites us to walk though it.
I think again, it goes back to painting illegally, one minute you’re on one side of a fence, where you’re allowed to be in, then to reach the place you want to paint you have to cross the threshold of legality, and although you’re on the same land, the stakes have changed dramatically, and you’re in another zone…filled with danger, loss of liberty and full of adrenaline. As always, the real threshold is in you’re mind, trying to remain focused whilst buzzing with fear and excitement. I like to explore the infrastructure of the city, train bridges and under motorways have always appealed to me, I love the brutalist structures, the by-product-places that are produced by the functionality of a motorway flyover, the noises and atmospheres they create, the feeling of being beneath the city.
Considering that you source your materials from our everyday environments, would you consider your works changing as our city’s do? In that sense, does the material dominate your decisions?
It’s inevitable that my work will change with the materials that I use, but I also use very traditional materials as well, such as oils, canvas, acrylics… so I doesn’t really dominate as such, and as I work across 3 different modes of work, I don’t like to be tied to just one way of making work. The found materials I use defiantly carry the weight of the places they were taken from, but do not dictate what I’ll make from them, they hold a cargo of memories from the streets they were taken, and it just a case of how I choose to present them.
Words by Vanessa Murrell