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"ART HAS TO BE A PART OF YOUR LIFE": IN CONVERSATION WITH RACHEL GARFIELD

London based video artist Rachel Garfield’s personal cinema explores how identity is shaped by lived relations, and how intersections of gender, race, class, and religion constitute insider and outsider perspectives. Interested in making visible what is not and exposing what is overly visible to scrutiny, Rachel’s films combine first person testimony with a feminist-humanist documentary ethos and punk aesthetic to sensitively consider the challenges and contradictions that arise from navigating different communities. Her films are rich in visual texture, full of hand-held, fixed shots, blurred and distinct images; fractured by montaging techniques, that arise out of twentieth century experimental film traditions.


Rachel is a Senior Tutor and Professor of Fine Art at the Royal College of Art where she also received her doctorate in 2003. Her work is exhibited in both cinema and gallery spaces internationally. I was first introduced to Rachel’s writing on Punk by the critic Erika Balsom who suggested I read her book Experimental Filmmaking and Punk: Feminist Audio Visual Culture in the 1970s and 1980s exploring the radical, female-led Punk audio-visual culture of the 1970s, while I was curating a screening of feminist underground films for Whitechapel Gallery earlier this year. The book became integral to my research, explores ideas of womanhood through the lesser-known feminist punk subculture and how the movement gave women the freedom to express their gender on their own terms.


We meet at the station and walk over to Rachel’s East London Studio, chatting about having both lived in Manchester. Rachel lectured in Fine Art at Salford University between 2005 and 2007 and notes that the sense of regional pride that people have in the North, which exists in the East End of London has been gradually diluted with gentrification and the demographic change of the area. I begin by asking Rachel about her film So You Think You Can Tell, which listens to the testimony of two Jewish women in London who have moved between different communities both towards and away from the Jewish faith.


Rachel Garfield, Unmade Up (still), 2002


Rachel Garfield: I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household, I went to a Jewish school, and to A cheder, which is the Jewish equivalent to Sunday school. For a while a lot of my work used to be about Jewish identity and my early work was always about racism. So You Think You Can Tell was one of my PhD films, and I was quite interested in the notion of indeterminacy when I made it. I had always had this question, generally in taxis or kebab shops, where people would insist that I wasn’t English and ask me where I’m from. I would say I was born in London, and so they’d ask me where my parents were from, which was also in London, two generations ago. So, I was quite interested in the fact that to some people I look white, and to other people I look like I'm not English at all. People have written about the fact that Jewish people look as if they're from anywhere, people have assumed I’m Portuguese or Turkish, sometimes Iranian when I lived in Spain, people thought I was from India. In So You Think You Can Tell, I was thinking about how much you can shift between communities and this notion that there is black and there is white, and if you’re black you can’t be white and if you’re white you can’t be black – which of course isn’t true, there are lots of mixed-race people. At the time, I had started going to this synagogue around the corner from my housing association, mainly because there was another artist in my studio block who used to go and said why don’t you come. I hadn’t been inside a synagogue for something like twenty years, but I went, and it was quite emotional. The Rabbi was this ultra-Orthodox guy, who does a lot of work bringing the Jewish and Muslim communities together in Stanford Hill, a lot of successful work and is seen as a really good guy. I never went that often but by going I met one of the women who’s in the film, the black woman, who was having an Orthodox conversion in the synagogue as she explains in the film. At the same time, a friend of mine, an African American woman who had grown up in what she described as a Black, Jewish neighbourhood in Chicago connected me with the other woman in the film. In the nineties there was this bartering service thing where you could phone someone up and say I’ll babysit for you, if you like paint my wall or something – that kind of thing.


Oh wow.


I know! So, my friend Anne had spoken to this woman through this service, and asked if she was Jewish and the woman answered “how do you know? Most people assume I’m black?" Anne responded that although she was African American, she had been around many Jewish women. They then got talking and Anne found out that she had left the Lubavitch community and married an African guy and was immersed in his community. She had grown up Chabad-Lubavitch – which is a very Orthodox Jewish community which don’t mix with anybody who isn’t Jewish – and then married this African man and she came across as very African in her mannerisms.



Rachel Garfield, So You Think You Can Tell?, 2000


We only see her mouth in the film - why is that?


She didn’t want to be seen in the film, she didn’t anyone from her former community to recognise who she was as her family did not speak to her. I was also interested in this notion of visibility and invisibility, so who’s happy to be visible and wants to be visible and who wants to be invisible. In a way that was contrary to the debates around blackness, where blackness is invisible in a white society because of historical exclusions and black contributions to society being buried and whiteness is visible, an inversion of that in a way.


A lot of what the women say is incredibly compromising. The black woman talks very openly about her prejudices against the Caribbean community and other black people, especially her daughter’s boyfriend, and how she is disappointed that her daughter didn’t marry a white guy instead. I wonder what she would think of the film today, where conversations about racial identity and collective action against racial inequality are very different. Did she ever see the film and how did she receive it?


She was incredibly lacking in self reflexivity in a way and I think the other woman, the Jewish one, seemed a lot more knowing about what was at stake. I showed her the film before it became public and she was very happy with it. She said it reflected her views very well.


The other woman seemed to have more support.


That’s true, whereas the black woman, she was adopted into a white family so she’d had to really fight for herself. She’d felt very at home in the synagogue when she’d first gone and continued to feel so but she couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t automatically accept her daughter. Her daughter would have to convert separately and she was in conflict with the Beth Din (the Jewish court) because of it. In Judaism the rules are the rules and if you want to join you have to be dissuaded three times and it’s only then, if you still want to that you can convert. Her whole life had been full of rejection and this was yet another rejection. When I was making the film, I was very concerned about her not being a figure of ridicule, because she’s so confused. She is so anti-Caribbean because she conceives them to be working class and uncouth and pro-African she perceives them to be middle class. Yet, I remember telling her about my friend Wayne, who’s in my film, Are You Joking. At one point he was homeless, and he’d been living at mine until he got into this foyer and found somewhere to live, and I remember telling this woman about my friend who was homeless and she knew he was from a Caribbean background but she was like oh, the poor guy, what can we do to help him. That’s what interests me, is these contradictions, how people say what they think but often behave in a different way. Or how a sense of humanity can intervene into your prejudices and change, like this woman with her feelings towards the Caribbeans.


Rachel Garfied, You're Joking, Aren't You? (stills), 2005


Can you tell me about your formal decisions for the film?


The film is a two screen synced film. In terms of the formal structure for me it was really important both women were visible at the same time, even when one was talking and the other one wasn't. Doing that on Hi8 was quite complicated and showing it in in those days was also very complicated. Now it's easy because you just put it all on a timeline. But in those days, I had to put it on two Umatic tapes, and then we had to get this sync starter from FACT in Liverpool when I first showed it at East Internationa in Norwich in 2000. It was really complicated to set up, it was a nightmare.


That kind of adds to the fragmentedness of the work.


It’s true. I think in those days I didn’t realise how important the fragment was to me, or seriality, the idea of things being more than one narrative, being a series. You’re Joking, Aren’t You is completely about that, it’s a series of stories about just walking along the street when someone suddenly says something racist to you. My friend, Wayne and I used to phone each other and say 'oh my gosh, guess what happened to me today'. He’d also just trained as an actor, so I thought we could make a film where Wayne tells these stories like he did on the phone. So we started making this film, after my son had gone to sleep in the flat because he was really tiny at the time, but, as soon as I put the camera on it was like Wayne just lost all his animation. At the time I was also reading a lot of Judith Butler’s work on performativity, this was 2002 and she was a core thinker in my PhD which was about Jewish identity. I made So You Think You Can Tell and Unmade Up as my PhD pieces. Unmade Up is another multi-layered dialogue of voices, talking candidly about the reasons [Jewish people] don’t fancy Jewish people. I was really interested in the idea of people performing identity and the fact that you tell your story slightly differently every time you meet someone, that thing of your history being reiterative, something that keeps changing and so I thought what if Wayne acts these stories. That would be quite interesting because these are real stories, quite painful events for him, but he’s acting them and that ask questions about authenticity, which I think is a really problematic notion. I also used the direct address which implicates the viewer in the narratives. I feel we are all complicit in racism as a society.



Rachel Garfield, Unmade Up (stills), 2002


Your use of parallel editing; DIY techniques, roughness, collage and fragmentation come out of a long history of active feminist revolution. Could you tell me about your visuality?


I come out of painting, which is very DIY in some ways and although I argue against the need to have a studio and finesse your virtuosity in my book and that being tied to a kind of commercialisation, there is also something quite DIY about painting, you can actually make a painting on your knees. In fact, my husband, the artist John Timberlake, spent ten years doing that when our child was small and I was teaching in Reading. During the week he’d come home, pick up the kid, do dinner and bed, get out his paints and paint something on his knees, the kitchen table aesthetic - so, it doesn’t have to be a woman that engages with the kitchen table aesthetic, it can be a man or a person of any gender. I think art has to be a part of your life, you have to make it work with your life. There are different kinds of modes of production, I mean certainly in the 1990s, what became a really big deal was this notion of the artist as professional, rather than the artist as amateur. The meaning of the term amateur, is doing what you love, coming from the Latin term amator. If you think of an artist like Jo Spence, who made all of this work in the 1980s, photographs which were either just pinned up or put in cheap frames, suddenly in the 1990s, if you were studying photography, you had to make everything large format, in aluminium and really expensive frames. Everything became expensive, very flashy, bombastic. What that was saying was, “I am a professional, I am world class, and I am doing things that you people can’t afford”. I never bought into that politically or aesthetically. There’s a class angle in terms of what you produce and how you produce it.


Rachel Garfield, Deep England, 2007


After leaving art school, I remember bumping into this filmmaker who’d been in my year and asking her if she’d made any work since graduating, and she said she’d been filling out lots of forms trying to get funding, but nothing yet, so she couldn’t really make a film until she got the funding. I remember thinking at that point, I’m never going do that. I'm never going to wait for someone else to give me the money or the ability to make work, I will always make the work because that's what matters to me. The pressure to be professional had a particular impact on film makers in the nineties, and you see that now, there's only certain kinds of filmmaking that is acceptable within certain parts of the art worlds. If you look at what most funders will fund it’s the long, the slow and the beautiful. In my book I talk about [Siegfried] Kracauer and the responses to photography, in which there was the same kind of debate at the time. Kracauer couldn’t stand people like [Alfred] Stieglitz who wanted to make photographs like painting, beautiful and aesthetic. Instead, he said we should go the other way, that the great thing about these technologies is that they can reflect and talk about life in all of its grime. I think that for me that kind of aesthetic is quite important because the work is about lived reality. That doesn’t mean that I don’t find beauty in what I make, I’m not trying to be ugly. But I do ask the question in my work about where we find beauty. It's just not about glossing it up, that's not the primary focus. I think it begs the question of what is a beautiful aesthetic object? There's lots of ways to make video, and it depends on what is appropriate to what you're trying to say. What I'm trying to say is something about how people ‘knock about’ in their lives, how people rub up against each other rub up against the mores of a society or politics.


Your works are all quite different but are thematically and aesthetically linked, as you say they are about lived realities, identity and socially motivated.


I’d always focused on how different my works were, but this April, a mini retrospective of my films was held at CalArts in LA. Often my work has been shown as a single piece in a mixed screening or hung in a gallery as part of a mixed show, so this was really nice. Suddenly there was about seven of my films that were shown back-to-back in the cinema, and I thought wow, I have an oeuvre, you can see the relationship between my works. There is definitely a Garfield aesthetic. The fragment has always been important to me, the broken narrative using footage that most people would consider outtakes and I think that’s that is to do with this broken narrative, and the fact that as we talked about before, if you were outside of the dominant community, whether that's class, or, race, or whatever it gives you a different perspective and I think it's often like a broken perspective. I don't mean broken in a bad way, actually mean broken in a positive way, kind of after Benjamin, because there's a lack of seamlessness. If you’re born with the sense of entitlement that comes with being from the dominant community, you don’t expect there to be any rupture, you just think you'll just kind of go through life and expect things to work for you. If you don't come from that kind of background, you have to fight harder for things to work, you know you’re walking across ruptures in order to try and make things work for yourself and you find other ways to do things. That fragmentation is a kind of analogy for a lived reality. The perspectives of the people in my film’s are also partial, it’s one story of a community, and there could be lot’s of other stories. It’s not about the individual carrying the burden of representation, it’s a composite snapshot of a part of society. All my work is not only fractured in the editing but I often use multiple screens or series. As described earlier, So you Think you Can Tell is a two screened video andI designed You’re Joking for gallery spaces. Ideally, it’s shown on four screens which you watch with headphones. It’s made up of four different colours, red, blue, white and yellow and so it has a painterly effect. The film has an arc to it so you can watch it from beginning to end but it has also been constructed in a way that means you can dip in and out and view it with different modes of attention. However it also works as a cinema piece.


Rachel Garfield, installation shots, 2005-06


Do you feel like people engage with your work differently in gallery spaces than cinema spaces?


Yve Lomax and Vit Hopley recently showed my last film Be My Ally, about feminism in Cyprus, at their Copy Press 10th Anniversary event at the Swedenborg Rooms. They’d approached me to be involved in a ten-minute performance or art piece and so I sent them my twenty-minute film suggesting that they select which part to use. They replied that the team had felt really strongly about it and unanimously decided to show the whole film, which was really flattering. It screened to a packed house. I’d felt that it was an awkward, edgy film; there was one person I’d interviewed in a really noisy café and I felt that it was going to be impossible to use. If it was for a TV documentary, I mean, you just wouldn’t have been able to do it, but it just added to the texture and many people commented on how much they loved the film and that I had edited it really subtly. I think people do recognise the artistry in what I do and what I’m trying to say.


I’m always so curious about how people whose work straddles the intersection of art and film navigate showing their work in the different spaces. I was speaking with Helena Wittman at Lago, and she talked about the difficulties of putting her films on in gallery spaces. Her films are very formalist, beautiful about the passing of time and light so when they’re placed in a gallery space and watched intermittently it’s a different kind of thing, it takes on different meaning. When I was interviewing Anne Hanavan for The Celluloid Body screening at Whitechapel, she mentioned that she had read that people have something like seven seconds of focus before they move onto the next thing.


The more I see video work in a gallery space, the more I think that most video should be seen in the cinema. When I’m in a gallery watching video, I’m always aware that there are all these other videos and other work and whether I have the time to see it all and I wonder what else is on show. It’s hard to sit there and focus. Whereas in a cinema, that’s it, you succumb to this mode of attention, so I think it's quite difficult. I think my work does try and deal with that and people. I'm always amazed at how long people do spend with the work. I've shown quite a lot of my work at Beaconsfield Gallery. They like to work with artist over time which I really respect, so I showed the trilogy there, right at the beginning in 2012, when I just done the first one, and then I showed the, the whole trilogy there as well in 2021 and most people did sit and watch all.


Rachel Garfield, Art Sex Work (still), 2022


I wanted to speak to you about gaze. Your work is documentary, it’s portraiture, it’s interview based. But it’s as though you’re looking away from the subjects you’re interviewing, or the camera is. It’s often placed at awkward angles or between friends and feels collaborative in that sense. I also noticed that your Dwoskin book, Dwoskino: the gaze of Stephen Dwoskin (2022) that the ‘g’ is uncapitalised. So, what is your gaze?


I hope it’s a gaze of humility. I hope that I'm giving the speaker the power over me. Even though I have power through the edit, one of the things that I've been really interested in for a long time is the direct address. I’m interested in this idea, which comes from Paul Willemen’s reading of Steve Dwoskin and my own reading of Judith Butler in relation to video (in my PhD), that the direct address can call an audience into engagement. It's not about the audience having the power over the actor who is rendered invisible, rather, there's a call to equality, and I think that that's what I'm trying to do. Adrian Piper was really important to me as well, particularly her film Cornered, where she is talking about the one drop policy in America, about blackness and whiteness: that if you have even “one drop of black blood” - ie: one black ancestor that it would render you as black under the law. In this video, at this point Piper suddenly turns to the audience addressing them directly and says ‘so what do you think about this?’ and ‘what do you think now that you know you're black? What will you do?’ She's assuming that the viewer is white, which I think is wrong footed, but she's also saying you need to think about who you are. I think that in a way all of my work addresses the viewer and asks ‘so what do you think now?’ That’s my gaze, if you like, my gaze is back to the audience.


How important is collaboration to you?


Douglas Huebler once made this piece of work where he wanted to photograph every person in the world, which is an impossible thing. I think I see my collaborators as the whole of humanity – not that I’m arrogant enough to think that the whole of humanity are looking to collaborate with me. I’ve always been interested in sociology and my films could be seen in some part as visual sociology – although only in a similar way to Huebler – as art. Except, I don’t interview controlled groups, just people that I happened to meet, or who consent and want to speak. I don’t want to force anyone to speak, I don’t want to position anyone, they position themselves, that’s important. Sometimes there’s a kind of depth that happens over time, but sometimes I only speak with people once. A lot of the people in the trilogy, The Struggle, I only met once. I don’t know if it’s something about my demeanor that makes people feel comfortable enough to be candid, or else it’s just people who want to tell their story.



Rachel Garfield, The Struggle I: The Straggle, (2014), The Struggle II: Opening Up, The Struggle III: Glimpse (2020)


Possibly because of your background in social and outreach work? Could you tell me about your other experiences outside of film and teaching?


So when I was at school, in those days, when you did your O-Levels you could choose Typing and Shorthand as one of your options. That’s disappeared nowadays but I remember having this big row with my parents where they were trying to persuade me to take typing shorthand, and that being a secretary was a really good job, and, you know, my mom was like, well you know some people marry their boss –


Ha!


And my dad was like some people get to travel the world. I was like no way. But my older brother was quite supportive, he would say don't be the dental nurse system be the dentist. I was a punk at that point. So I went to art school, finished, got my degree, got a 2:1, perfectly respectable and thought okay, I’ve got to earn some money now, what should I do? So, I went and did an evening course in touch typing.


Haha!


The irony of ironies. At the time there was a whole bunch of us who were living in ACME or London and Quadrant houses in Leyton, basically what was called shortlife housing. It was sub -standard and short term but very cheap. This was before the A12 was built, during the huge campaign against building the M11 link route (as it was then called). There was a massive community of artists living there because of short life housing. A whole bunch of us had just finished art school in London and Manchester at the same time, Paul Noble, Cornelia Parker and a whole bunch of others. Gary Dockety, who was quite a firebrand and a couple of others they saw this empty car showroom on Leytonstone High Road, and we're like, why don't we see if we can have it as a gallery. So they went and saw the owner who said well it's empty at the moment if you clean it up and use it as a kind of DIY gallery, we'll charge you peppercorn rent. This was in 1985. This was before Hoxton DIY gallery explosion, so in those days you could just do that. So, we did that. I was the secretary. We called it ARTEAST Collective or often just ARTEAST [pronounced artiste].


Ha!


I was the one who was like "we need to have minutes, and meetings, and all of that". We cleaned the space up, and we exhibited our own work, and loads of people came to the opening and asked how to have their own shows and ended up showing their work with ArtEast. But then after nine months, for the first time, there was a group of artists who showed and were broken into. Some work was damaged and some dissapeared and they happened to have insurance. It was the only group that had insurance and were broken into. But the insurance company said to them, 'well, we're not paying out, you need to go to the people who run the Gallery so they came to us', and I suddenly had this letter through the door from this big City firm (Stephens Innocent) saying you owe us £5,000 - which in 1986 was an awful lot of money. I didn't have a proper job, I just started working part time for my old art school as the course secretary. It was a term time only thing. It was quite a shock and very worrying. So we went to see Henry Lydiat from Art Law and he said, 'well, actually you don’t own the place or really manage it, because you handed over the keys to them'. So we decided we would go to court on this and so did they, but the day before the court case they caved. By then, however, the owner of the building got cold feet and said, I don't want to do this anymore, so ArtEast lasted nine months, and it was really exciting while it lasted. It galvanized a community, I got to know loads of artists and it was a real coming of age thing. It was through ArtEast that City Racing, which were quite a big deal in the nineties, got their idea, and they ran for ten years. After that, I got this job at Waltham Forest Council Voluntary Service, which helps to set charities up. I was working for that, part time, two days a week. I got a studio which was twice the size of this and only twenty six pounds a month. I lived in a shared, short life house which was like eight quid a week each so I could live quite well, if simply.


Jason Royce, Postman nonchantly delivering mail, the first day of the final eviction of Claremont Rd in Leyton


Wow!


This was the thing, across Leyton there was all of this short life housing and it was all really cheap so you could live. In 1989 I went to live in Spain. While I was there we got kicked out of the house in Leyton because of our involvement in the anti-M11 link route campaigns. .I went to Madrid partly, because I needed a change, but also because I’d been to Egypt and one of the things that really amazed me about Egypt was that it really helped me to understand how deep religion goes in terms of forming a culture. When I was there, I realised how Christian England is because I could see how Islam had formed Egypt. It was palpable. I was really fascinated by that, particularly coming from a Jewish background.


There was a moment after art school where I was sharing a house with two people who were both from Surrey, who were both very English – really nice people – but I’d just come back from my parents and I suddenly realised that I didn’t feel completely comfortable there because my culture is very different, and it wasn’t until then that I realised that there was any distinction between Englishness and Jewishness. While I don't want to overplay it, there is a subtle difference. Part of why I was interested in Spain was that at a certain point in its history it was a nexus for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and they actually lived together pretty well. You can see those traces in Spain. So, when I came back I was kind of really interested in the iconography that I come across in the architecture, the iconography of like architecturally religious buildings. So I worked a lot in charities, part time, for about ten years and my art became more and more abstract and I got quite bored with what I was doing in the studio. I was reading a lot, but I just didn't feel engaged enough in the work that I was doing.


This was by now the early 1990s. I also was in a small group we called triangle as it was only 3 of us and one of us Liz Ellis was doing an MA in this new course at St Martins which she said was really good, so I went and did an MA, finally, at Saint Martins. They had opened this MA for people like me, people who had been out of college for a while. It was a very discursive one, and one of the conversations they had was why you still painting? I was like, I'm painting, because I'm a painter. But in the nineties, it was very hard to paint. And French theory had entered into the academy, and I was reading a lot of Foucault etcetera. So, I was talking to the people on the course about my paintings which were about being different and about what that difference means. I was focussing on cultural difference and how my references are not Christian so different from most. And they couldn’t understand what I was talking about, they said I was just white, and I was like no, I’m not just white, there’s a difference. I felt really angry, and thought can’t you just believe me? In response I started making these paintings about anti Semitism and about the history of racism in the Enlightenment and I’d dug up all of these disgustingly racist quotes from such as Kant and Voltaire and others and put them together with these 1990s neo-Nazi leaflets, they’re on my website. They were really shocking and apart from my degree show, I’ve only shown them twice and both times people have tried to shut the exhibition down.



Rachel Garfield, Assimilation (series), details and installation view


Really?


Yeah. The first time someone called the police and said they were racist paintings and therefore it should be shut down. I think it was a neo-nazi actually. But the second time it was a Jewish woman who said she felt really threatened by them, and she wrote the Board of the Deputies of British Jews, so the university gallery that they were being shown in, had to cover the walls so that people couldn’t just see them from the outside. That's quite powerful stuff really isn't it? I'd love to show those works again but they are very confrontational works and quite shocking. I mean, they were horrible to paint, can you imagine, painting a Jew rat - you know, a Nazi Jew rat - when you are the Jew rat? They are also large so when you’re faced with them you are immersed in them. In the early 1990s I also started working at the Barbican art gallery looking after the Saturday gallery speakers and the audiences coming to the talks. I did that for a while, and then the woman who employed me, realised I think, that I was wasted on that and asked me to start doing the talks and workshops.


It sounds like you’ve lived so many different lives.


At one point, I travelled around Germany painting murals in bowling alleys with my old school teacher. She called me up while I was working this really boring job at the Social Workers Council and so I left it and joined her as her assistant., It paid £100 a day, all expenses paid. So, I’d do it for a month, come home with £5000 and I’d be able to live for like six months, just painting. I did that for a few years before digital images started being cheaper, so people started using big digital printouts instead. I also did projects for schools and housing estates as part of their regeneration projects in Hackney. Then I moved into teaching at university. I’d lived a lot of lives while I was painting, and I brought all that with me into teaching. In fact, when I was running the department at Reading I brought all the skills I learned in local government. I’d been a representative on the Women's committee in Walthamstow Forest when I worked at CVS both in the 1980s, and seen how a big council committee worked. I learned a lot about how to work with structure and how to help people work together. So, I took those skills into my work when I took on a head of department. I’d also like to think that some of the students who came from less privileged backgrounds like me knew that I kind of had a certain empathy with them and their struggles.


It's interesting to me because now roles feel much more defined, the role of the curator for example and it feels like perhaps there is less opportunity for looking around and exploring?


Things have changed a lot, I joke that when I was at art school, that the reason we went to art school was because we didn't want a job. We didn't want to be part of the system, we didn't want to clock on and clock off, we certainly didn't want to do a job that we weren't passionate about. And we didn’t know how to make it happen. I think it’s really hard to know that something will happen and that there’s more than one way to do it, when you’re young and you’re swimming around. It’s hard. Those first few years when you leave college are critical and they’re really difficult because you don’t know how things are going to work out and often really struggling just to live at the most basic level. Loads of people abandon their dreams and think “I’m just going to do whatever it is, go into marketing or something” and some people, against all odds, stay. There are no prizes either way, it depends on how you want to live your life. This is how I think about success or failure as an artist. It's not about how many shows you get, not about am I ever going to be like, you know, Louise Bourgeois or something but about how you want to spend your time in this world while alive. Although having said that, all artists want to show their work too.


She wasn’t Louise Bourgeois until she was in her sixties anyway.


Well, exactly. It’s about how you want to spend your time, do you want to spend your time making art, or would you want to spend your time, you know, having a job pays you enough money to have lots of holidays? It doesn’t matter which you choose, it’s your life and your choice. It’s harder to be an artist so you only stay the course if that's really what you want to do. And it’s very rewarding it's a rewarding life. It gives you an interesting life, I’ve travelled a lot, I’ve done interesting things, I’ve mixed with lots and lots of different people I wouldn't have mixed with if I wasn't an artist, and I think those things matter. For me, that's a good life. I’m lucky, I’m a professor now and for me it’s a good salary, finally. Most of my life I’ve just been getting by but that’s okay because I was making art. There’s no doubt that it harder now without the dole and with the expenses of living in London, but artists are moving to where they can afford to live cheaply so London is not the breeding ground of interesting new art in the way that it was when I was young. And that is a good thing, that things change and move around. Each generation needs to reinvent itself.


Rachel Garfield, Be My Ally, 2023


I sometimes think I can see people cementing themselves in careers that they don’t really want and I think that some people have been lucky not to have been swayed in any direction and other times I think certain people wouldn’t have been convinced to go in any direction other than their own anyway – which I think sounds like you and I wonder how you got involved with the Punk movement?


I remember when we were kids my brother and I (but mostly my brother as they were the same age) used to be quite close with this girl called Bianca Phelps, who we lost touch with after we moved. One day when I was about thirteen her mother brought her around to meet my brother. I think her mother thought she was a bit of a problem and that my brother would be a good influence on her because he was a bit of a geek. She wore this, like, gorgeous long black slinky thing and her hair up and I thought she looked amazing, it was the first time I’d seen anything like that. I thought I want to be like her, and she was an early punk. I had also decided at the age of fourteen that I didn’t believe in religion anymore, I didn’t believe in God. I was just walking back from Synagogue and suddenly thought well now I’ve asked myself that question, I’m not sure I do, and the sky just fell in.


It's quite a brave thing to be thinking at a young age.


I don't know where that question came from but once I’d asked it I couldn't un-ask it, and I went into a bit of a deep depression for a while. I can't remember how I got into punk apart from remembering this woman. I think I went to a gig with her, and then that was it. I was, like, in love with the rebellion, the music. It was a gift to nonconformism. I used to go and hang out in Camden, where I went to school. I went to a Jewish school, a comprehensive in Camden called JFS It was massive - like 1,500 kids. At that time Camden market was much smaller, it wasn't like a tourist place, and there were all these second-hand clothes dealers and it was like a new thing at the time. They’re now called vintage clothes. So I used to hang out and Camden Town in the market, at the weekends and I'd like buy clothes and get to know people, so I kind of got into punk that way, but I think it was a way, it was a way, of, saying, you didn't like me when I was normal, cause I was always a bit different and so I think it was a way of like, I’ll be really different then. It was a way of hiding my anger, I, think, the anger of not wanting to live like what I perceived to be a typical Jewish woman who was going to get married and have kids and not do anything else. Also at that time my parents had moved to an area that was very middle class but were not as affluent as the others in that neighborhood. My dad had worked for a charity but everyone else had like doctors and dentists for parents. At that time we weren’t poor but we didn’t have much money and we didn’t go on holiday. And all the others used to just sneer at me because we were poorer than them. So it was a way of me channelling that and thinking I’m going to be really different and you’re going to think I’m weird. But I’ve got all of these weirdo friends who think I’m great and I think they’re great. So I kind of found solace in the music and the mileu. Although it was more than that, because I loved it and as I argue in my book, that really formed me. So many things about punk spoke to me in a really deep way. Being able to reinvent your life and reinvent who you are was fundamental to that. It’s about reinvention. How do you become who you want to be? That’s what The Struggle is about: how do you come out of an ideological framework and become who you want to be?


You open your book with this comment about criticism as early fandom and how critics were people outside of the industry becoming fans and writing about their thoughts and I just wondered who you were a fan of in the early stages of this movement.


My all time fandom was focused on the Slits. Ari Up was just fantastic, I used to wear my hair up like a pineapple like she did and wear monkey boots and footless tights. Polystyrene was the other one – so that was the end of punk that I was interested in – I wasn’t so interested in the Sex Pistols or Sham 69 or the more rock and roll side of things so much., Essential Logic, The Modettes then later Delta 5, Girls at Our Best, Poison Girls and The Raincoats, also the Birthday Party, The Pop Group – so a lot of the kind of the girl bands I really liked. The Clash and the Buzzcocks and there were a bunch from Leeds – Gang of Four and the Mekons. And of course heavy dub, lovers rock and reggea– Prince Far I, and Toyan and the Space Invaders for example or Black Uhuru (who were’t heavy dub), U-Roy and toasting such as Dillinger. Then, I got to a point where art became more important and I kind of left punk. So it was an important moment in my subjectivity but that moments over. It’s that thing of transforming your life, you don’t hold onto the past, I’m not a nostalgic person, I don’t hold onto the past in that way, I look to the future and what ‘s next.


 

Rachel Garfield is co-curating a Punk screening as part of the Women in Revolt show for the BFI on 24th January 2024. Experimental Filmmaking and Punk currently features in the reading room of the major Women in Revolt exhibition at the Tate Britain, and advising for the Women in Revolt conderence at the Tate in March.


Agnès Houghton-Boyle is a critic and programmer based in London. Her writing features in Talking Shorts Magazine and Fetch London.


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