An Interview with Art in Ruins
by an Anonymous Passerby somewhere in London

Do you have a studio?

No we never have, we have always been too poor. Also we never really wanted one ….. we have an attitude. Although it’s allegory with which we deal we always felt closer to Duchamp and van Gogh than Courbet.

There is a certain literal-mindedness in English culture which associates “work done” with value. What we call the Pre-Raphaelite complex of ‘Never mind the content just count the brushstrokes/rivets’. The meeting point between a Protestant idea of value-for-money and the aristocratic obsession with antiques, we suppose …..

Perhaps you could call it ‘growing up in public’ where the site of production is collapsed into the site of consumption. In the beginning we were more interested in the idea of the artist as consumer and the audience as voyeur than vice-versa ….. we may get one later. (laughter)

Do you collaborate as some sort of social model?

We were never attracted to the heroism attached to the social status of the ‘artist’ or the ‘architect’ either in terms of persecution or celebration. We tried to side-step the issue by inventing a project called Art in Ruins.

Maybe it is inevitable given our backgrounds that we should be interested in mongrel culture. Perhaps it is also to be expected that we should adopt a strategy somewhere between the brute force of emotional hooliganism and a cool theoretical detachment.

There is no more dramatic way to test the limits of tolerance of our institutional culture and challenge the loneliness of individual freedom than collaboration.

Although personally, that is professionally, we never disagree, this does not mean for us that collaboration is a conflict-free zone. In fact far from it. (laughter) To paraphrase the recently resurrected Carl Einstein, the history of art is polemical struggle where each move is an assassination of other possibilities. Everything else is frozen gossip.

So why Art in Ruins?

“New developments in art are often described in terms that originally were intended as abuse.” This was one reason to choose for ourselves a description that could be interpreted negatively, instead of leaving it to the critics ….. always a blow in advance.

Perhaps for some, our project could be seen as simply a continuation of the fascination with decay which runs through English culture. In art, from Sickert through Gilbert & George to Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread et al.

Although of course we are ourselves ‘morbid symptoms’ – stranded between the overexposed clichés of a dying order and the impossibility of expression of something new – we try to mobilize the ruin in the name of ‘allegory as activism’. That is, the ruin as both a warning sign or reminder, and a possibility for imaginative social reconstruction outside of sentimentality and cynicism.

We should make it clear that for us ruins have nothing to do with nostalgia. The newest factory-produced objects are always already ruins. Language, communication, Canary Wharf ….. all ruins.

In fact the story of the avant-garde is the history of both the playing out of “theories of ruination” and the failed attempt to transcend them. The repressed returns to haunt the present however, as both Time itself and capitalism by its very nature, are on our side. (laughter)

By aligning itself with the concept of progress and suppressing the “allegorical cult of the ruin” modernism aligns itself with technological perfection and consumerist transcendence and ends up as fashion, and fashion for its part reveals if nothing else, that aesthetic experience is democratic.

So it’s not art-for-all but ruins for all?

Everyone is a ruin.

Do you have work in public collections?

In modern democratic society it is the first duty of any institution or discourse to question and continually re-define the nature of its procedures of legitimation. As a self-invented project it is precisely our aim and one of our functions to call into question the operation of those procedures, partially by asserting our democratic right of participation. (laughter)

We should say that it may be that it is our extremely visible failure to be indexed in the recent history of the dominant culture that is our greatest success.

Perhaps there is the hope that we will calm down and cuddle up to respectability so that we can be flogged off as the last of the British Situationists and enter “the museum of left for dead ideas”.

However our achievements so far have sufficient status to ensure that in the future these public institutions will without doubt, be called upon to explain their historical omission.

Though we may yet be buried alive under historical amnesia and contemporary curatorial blindspots, we will return from our graves like Zombies to take revenge. (laughter)

So what’s wrong with elitism?

Nothing, so long as when it is called upon to defend the nature of its exclusions it can do so. 1

We are against the concept of art as immaculate conception in favour of the dramatisation of the contradictions of everyday life.

The idea of pedigree of any sort is only interesting for us when it is asserted as revenge or challenge by the so-called victim. With Punk for instance we can see the contradiction between an extreme form of elitist exclusion and the idea that ‘anyone can do this’.

Do you have many enemies?

For us every ‘venue’ is a site with specific conditions into which we intervene. We treat the artscene horizontally rather than vertically – which is why our career never goes anywhere. (laughter)

We have a healthy disrespect for art and its social rituals. As ‘uninvited guests’ we believe in a concept of ‘theoretical suicide’ and that enemies guarantee your place in history.

What about success?

It all depends where you’re coming from – not everyone starts out from the same point. It also depends on where you’re going – not everyone has the same objectives ….. or criteria. A great leap forward to one person is an insignificant detail to another.

The aim of the avant-garde is to invent its own criteria of success, failure, etc. ….. and therefore reception. Avant-garde culture can only be assimilated into an unchanged status quo as ruins.

If it is true that the “value of the art-critical system, which includes the whole network of curators, gallerists, critics and associated cultural functionaries, is to distinguish the Charlatan from the Professional” then we would say that it is one of the duties of the artist (and artwork) to make that act of segregation as difficult as possible. (laughter)

So you have a “notorious” reputation?

We are interested in the complexities of “betrayal” more than in simple transgression.

The current success of “bad boy/bad girl” art is for the most part a trompe l’oeil to disguise the fact that almost no-one today breaks “the rules of art”. The difference between a “bad” artist and a so-called “difficult” one, however, is the difference between the picturesque and the avant-garde.

It is precisely in the realm of “bad boy/bad girl” activity that we see played out the conflict between biology and social construction. You have to be business-like enough to answer the phone but bad enough to get the call.

When we were invited to do the first talk about our work we decided to target it “for losers only”. Although it’s becoming a cliché these days to say you-was-inspired-to-do-it-yourself by Punk, we began by showing a slide of our favourite band of the day – the Depressions – and a still from the George Romero film ‘Night of the Living Dead’. 2

We posed the question of why struggle to be first-rate when it’s so much more difficult to be second-rate. Heroes are soon forgotten but losers live on.

At the end the audience was divided ….. as with most things your response to Art in Ruins depends on how and with whom you align yourself ….. “Now everyone wants to be a failure”. 3

Who are your other influences?

All the B’s of course ….. Breton, Benjamin, Baudrillard, Bourdieu, Broodthaers ….. and Genet.

Do you think that a lot of your humour is missed?

Some years ago when the idiot American Punk band the Ramones first came to Britain a rock journalist interviewed them for the NME. To his serious questions: “Did you go to music school? Do you know the work of Steve Reich and Glenn Branca? Do you know about sound-wave feedback theory?” they replied in that dumb way Warhol would do. The journalist wrote that they were a summary of all that is brilliantly banal about white rock’n roll.

When they came back the following year he interviewed them again. Same questions, same response. He wrote that they were a calculated intellectual parody. The following year they came, were even more popular and having still refused to let this journalist ‘behind the scenes’, infuriated, he wrote that in the end they really were dumb and stupid.

A few months later the drummer left and an interview appeared where he said that he had gotten tired of playing dumb all the time especially since they had spent so long at music school studying Steve Reich.

When they next came to Britain the journalist triumphantly waved the article at them. The Ramones replied that the drummer had not left the group, but that they had thrown him out because he told too many lies.

Everyone wants to be on the inside otherwise they take it personally. What should we do, put up a sign saying this is funny?

What is the relationship between your public personae and the work?

As there is no private life any more there is nothing behind the scenes. All is public, in the sense that the separation between our performance, our lives and our work is blurred and made more complex.

We said originally that Art in Ruins was a project and not autobiography but just as we can never be sure when we are joking you are never quite sure what’s a performance.


You have also acted as curators?

In 1985 we “curated” Our Wonderful Culture which had no selection procedure. Anyone who heard about it could take part and we ended up with sixty participants: fashion students, writers, architects, designers, etc. There was straw on the floor and the whole thing was like an overhung ruined museum; a context which challenged the content of the work, the integrity of the artist and the authority of the artwork and which put the audience on the spot.

It was reviewed everywhere partially because we had refused any quality control whatsoever. Some saw it as a model of collaboration whereas we saw it as a ‘site of conflict’.

This was followed by Ruins of Glamour, Glamour of Ruins at Chisenhale, an ‘audience-unfriendly’ exhibition which was destroyed after only three days. The scandal was played down by the artworld who seemed to think it poetic justice. (laughter)

Then for Desire in Ruins at Transmission we installed a shooting gallery and had a local Glaswegian country and western singer performing at the opening. To the sound of Stand by your Man the audience could shoot at white balloons over a repeated image of two children.

The image was also used for the posters which were soon torn down by an enraged public. The police eventually turned up and demanded that those remaining were removed from the streets of Glasgow … but the show was already over by then.

A return match was planned at Chisenhale to be called Art in the Dark which was to have two hundred artists from all over showing art in the dark. (laughter)

The audience would have had to bring a torch or wear a miner’s helmet. We wanted to invite Arthur Scargill to open the exhibition ….. It eventually had to be cancelled as a new administrator took over who just couldn’t see it ….. She was worried that someone would bump into something and the insurance claims. (laughter)

Then in 1991 with Recent History we invited artists to re-present a work which had recently been seen in a different context, to explore an idea of disappointment and of the ‘re-use value of art’, demonstrating that “one of the things that we should have learned by now is that we do not always have to search for the next new thing.” Somewhat ironically one of the results was a cover feature in Artforum called British? Young? Invisible? w/Attitude. 4

You have in the past also done a lot of writing?

Writing as artists to demonstrate that everyone is a critic has for us always been a performance.

Very early on, parallel to our installations – made up (almost) entirely of found objects – we produced a long text Try Another World 5 – made up (almost) entirely of quotes – promoting the idea of unoriginality as radical intervention …..

We also set out to get published in various places as many versions as possible of an ‘irreverent and populist’ review of a major groundbreaking exhibition which no-one had seen organised by a French philosopher who no-one had heard of. All but one were printed before we gave up. 6

We have not done so much lately as we were making too many enemies. 7 (laughter)

You have recently been in Berlin on a daad grant. What was it like?

It was the end of a long romance with that city which had started with Iggy Pop and Punk. 8 We must admit that even we were slightly surprised by the extent to which it was a “glorious failure” in terms of legitimising our practice. (laughter)

When we arrived in Berlin we made an exhibition in a public space called Propaganda as Readymade which focussed attention on the relationship between advertising, celebrity culture, apartheid and ‘solidarity’. It was widely advertised as “new political art from Britain” so all the radical groups flocked to see it and decided that it was “just art”.  Of course the artworld also went to see it and decided it was “just politics”.

Six weeks later in a private space we did something which as far as we know has never been done before – we repeated the same show, and it provoked outrage.  We simply said that propaganda worked through repetition.

We were denounced in a new art fanzine which ended up with a great scandal with repercussions all over Germany. 9 A gallery was vandalised and copies of the magazine destroyed. We left a message on an answerphone saying “Get out of town” … So we got the blame. (laughter) The tape was made into an edition to promote the magazine.

What is it like to be back in London?

When we left everyone wanted to be upwardly mobile and sell to Saatchi; and now everyone wants to be downwardly mobile and sell to Saatchi. (laughter)

We are told that we have been influential on the context of art making in the Nineties ….. for better or worse. (laughter)

So what’s next?

We were thinking of doing a video of “true confessions” entitled ‘Just call us Hannah and Glyn’ but decided that no-one would believe it.

We find ourselves wondering whether we have finally successfully alienated ourselves from any possibility of working with anyone ever again. (laughter)

Finally, are you Communists?

In the war between democracy and capitalism which seems to be all that is left we are definitely on the side of democracy. 10 (laughter)

We don’t care if our anarchic attitude brings conflict ….. the project of Art in Ruins is a sacrificial monument to an unknown audience.

By the way whatever happened to … (inaudible)?

(Laughter) This could have been an interview by …


© Art in Ruins and Unknown Stranger – London 1994 – an unpublished project for Frieze.


NOTES (Annotated 2010- onwards)
1 “As the hero of George Romero’s (low budget) horror film Zombies – Dawn of the Dead warns us: “When there is no room left in Hell, the dead will rise up and walk the earth.” A grim reminder, when authority ceases to be representative, to beware the dispossessed lest they rise up in revolt against everything held sacred to the prevailing order and inherit the ruins of a shattered ideology.”
Art in Ruins Return of the Living Dead Art Monthly No. 73, London 1984
Appearances are Against Us Art in Ruins Cover Feature and Symposium Text. Camera Austria, No. 47/48 Graz. 1994

2 “… the zombie’s allegorical (rather than merely metaphorical) potential lies in trying to elaborate and exacerbate the zombie as a cliché of alienation by using it to deliberately “dramatize the strangeness of what has become real,” … As Deleuze and Guattari had it, the problem with capitalism is not that it breaks up reality; the problem with capitalism is that it isn’t schizophrenic and proliferating enough. In other words, it frees desire from traditional libidinal patterns (of family and religion and so on), but it will always want to recapture these energies through profit. According to this conclusion, one way to circumnavigate capitalism would be to encourage its semiotic excess and its speculation in affect. Capitalism is not a totalitarian or tyrannical form of domination. It primarily spreads its effects through indifference … It is not what capital does, but what it doesn’t do or have: it does not have a concept of society; it does not counteract the depletion of nature; it has no concept of citizenship or culture; and so on … Dramatization of capital through exacerbation and excess can perhaps help distill this state of affairs.”
Lars Bang Larsen Zombies of Immaterial Labor: The Modern Monster and the Death of Death
e-flux Journal 15 April 2010

3 c.f. “In Tableau Rastadada, a collage from 1920, we see a photo of the artist and on his chin Picabia has placed a label with the word “RATÉ” – meaning, a loser, a failure: in a world that had gone mad with war and nationalistic fervor, to be “a failure” or “a loser” was perhaps Picabia’s way of markedly rejecting the values of a society that had produced so much pointless misery.” Sam Ben-Meir in Francis Picabia: A Painter for This Moment Global Research, February 24, 2017 available from

4 British? Young? Invisible? with/Attitude?  Michael Corris. Artforum New York. May 1992

Cited as the first usage of the term yBa: “In many ways, the article could be said to have set the tone for much of the critical and curatorial coverage that the ‘new generation of British artists’ has since received abroad, not just in America.” Patricia Bickers in The Brit Pack: Contemporary British Art: The view from abroad. Cornerhouse Communiqué.  No. 7 Manchester 1995.

5 Try Another World Polemics, Art Monthly Nos 80/81. Oct/Nov 1984 London, UK. and in Real Life Magazine No. 13. Autumn 1984. New York. Also re-printed in catalogue to Art in Ruins exhibition Lies in Ruins Institute of Contemporary Art London 1986.

Edited by artist and writer Thomas Lawson, Real Life Magazine grew out of the Pictures group of artists in New York and went on to include features on and articles by Hans Haacke, Dan Graham, Ken Lum, Jeff Wall, et al. Try Another World is left out of Real Life Magazine: Selected Writings and Projects 1979-1994  published by Primary Information, New York 2007.

6 Les Immatériaux organised by Jean-Francois Lyotard at Centre Georges Pompidou in 1985.
See archive/oversite/sites-of-conflict/ 

7 c.f. Seduction of Resistant Virgins Art in Ruins on Art & Language. Pilot Issue of Frieze magazine. June 1991. Re-printed as Die Verführung jungfraulichen Wiederstands. A.N.Y.P  No. 4 Berlin. 1992.

Conceptual review of Art & Language exhibition produced as unofficial consultants to the launch of Frieze magazine. Art & Language did not, as far as we know, become enemies, but graciously conceded that their published reply was not as humorous as our review.

8 For a brilliant survey of this period see Rip it up and Start Again by Simon Reynolds. Faber & Faber. London. 2005
See also: Style Wars Book Review by Art in Ruins. Studio International. No 1003 Jan 1984
Subculture: The Meaning of Style by Dick Hebdige. Routledge. London. 1979

9 “trap” curated by Stephan Geene, BüroBert and Art in Ruins. KunstWerke, Berlin 1993.

See documentation CopyShop: Kunst Praxis und Politisches “Öffentlichkeit” Ein Sampler von BüroBert. Edition ID-Archive, Berlin/Amsterdam. 1993. Also catalogue to expose, to show, to demonstrate, to inform, to offer: Artistic Practices around 1990 published by Museum Moderne Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Vienna 2015.

See also Jorg Heiser. (2006). Between Glamour and Ruin: Low-key Attitudes, High class Expectations in Berlin in the 1990s. in Constructing New Berlin: Contemporary Art. Bass Museum of Art and Phoenix Art Museum. Munich. Prestel.

See also archive/debt-trap-kunst-praxis/

10 That is, participatory democracy, of course.