Artist of the Month: July 2012, Allistair Burt
This month Ruth catches up with artist, illustrator and architect Allistair Burt to discuss art, architecture, mormons and moomins.
Ruth Wilbur: How do you balance being an architect by day and artist by night?
Allistair Burt: The truth is I'm an insomniac and a workaholic and neither does me much good but it's just the way I am. Both practices have developed simultaneously and enrich each other. The frustrating thing about architecture is that can be very slow and you are often far removed from the physical act of creating. This is one reason why I like painting and sculpture so much: it's your arm at the end of the brush and it's an immediate connection from brain to finished work, unlike in architecture, where you work through a team of people and it can take many years to go from the page to the completed building.
That said, my training as an architect has helped enormously with the management of my artistic projects. It means I am used to running large teams of people and controlling large budgets to get projects to completion.
RW: You manage your artistic projects under the name 'Hole in my Pocket', where does the name come from?
AB: It popped into my head when Scott Airlie and I were initially coming up with names and just seemed right. We were both in a grump at the time we started working on projects (we quickly discovered that the job of the architect was not the wonder of creativity that university had led us to believe) and it fitted our mood well. When we started working under the title I guess it was an apt name, as all projects were self-funded. Thankfully things have improved a bit over the years!
RW: The projects you work on are really varied...
AB: Yes, I basically keep an eye out for anything that might require a creative solution and if I can see a way to solve it or if I come up with a fun idea then we go for it. As a result we have a varied back catalogue of projects including illustration work, directing short films for Channel 4, hand painting t-shirts for swanky London parties, forming our own religion 'Himptology' and trying to sort out the MPs' expenses fiasco in a project entitled 'Common of Houses'. Throughout this time I've also created more traditional art work for galleries and a couple of years ago I started designing products like cards, mugs and t-shirts which sell in little design shops around the country.
Allistair Burt, Glasgow Film Festival 2012 trailer
RW: Where did you get your inspiration from for the Glasgow Film Festival 2012 trailer you made?
AB: We took inspiration from Glasgow's historical love for cinema and explored the fact that many films are made in Glasgow, but few are set there. In response to the project, Hole in my Pocket created an animated sequence of paper cut outs which blended different famous movie shots and scenes into Glasgow settings.
RW: A lot of your work explores narratives - what is your favourite story and why?
AB: I’ve always been a huge reader. My girlfriend (artist/architect Ann Nisbet) and I have a ridiculous amount of books between us. They come pouring out of our giant bookcase, and soon we will have enough to open our own library. As a result, my favourite tale is constantly changing but recently I’ve been re-reading Georges Perec's 'Life a User’s Manual', which is this fascinating multi-layered meander through the delicacies and complications of everyday life. It’s a book you can dip into for a chapter and find a new way of thinking about something you’ve taken for granted.
RW: What can't you live without?
AB: If there was a fire in my studio, I would go on a rescue mission for my sketchbooks. I started keeping A6 sketchbooks when I first started studying architecture and over the years I’ve managed to fill around 50 of the things with all kinds of illustrations, notes of trips, birthday lists and initial thoughts on projects and ideas. When I’m struggling to solve a problem I’ll flick back through the books and sometimes find the perfect solution. I would be lost without them. It might be tricky to carry them all however, so I’d grab a bag on the way out too.
Allistair Burt, Hole in my Pocket, Moomins v Mormons t-shirt, 2012
RW: I notice that much of the work you make employs humour to make a point - what reactions have you had?
AB: I get a real kick out of watching people laughing away at something I've made. Sometimes I sneak into our exhibitions and listen to the visitors chuckling away and it makes it all worthwhile! I guess really, when it comes down to it, my aim is to try and make the world a little more interesting and it's the reactions that I receive from people which drive me to make new work.
The most interesting reaction I've had was during a religious exhibition I was asked to make work for. The Arches in Glasgow asked me to design a show that explored religion. We decided we would create our own religion as a way to reflect on ideas of belief and belonging. This manifested itself in various different ways including a large number of drawings which looked at various aspects of mainstream religion and asked (in a humorous fashion) which ideas were worth adopting into our new faith.
One of the drawings explained the key differences between the Moomins and the Mormons. It proved so popular that we had to start creating prints and t-shirts for all the people who wanted a copy for themselves. Eventually word spread on the internet and the Mormons started to email us saying that we were making fun of their religion. Some of them were very angry. However, this wasn't the end, the most interesting aspect was that as soon as we politely replied and explained the aims of our project people's attitudes changed. When we pointed out the Mormon 'in joke' - the Mormon in our image is holding a bible with a cross, (which is not part of their belief) - we actually got quite a few chuckles and Salt Lake City is now the number one export destination for Mormon v Moomin t-shirts!
Unfortunately, on the flip side, the Moomins were not so understanding and have stated that the t-shirt undermines their species and have asked us to stop making the shirt. [Yes seriously, they got their lawyers to email us!]
RW: What was the last exhibition you saw that inspired you and why?
AB: The last exhibition that really inspired me was the Venice Biennale in 2010. I've seen lots of brilliant individual shows since then, but that whole festival is the first thing that jumps into my head when you ask me that question. There was a wonderful blending of architecture and other art forms throughout the city. I suppose you can't really go too far wrong with Venice as your backdrop, but the huge variation of work was very interesting and we just spent from morning until dusk each day wandering down alleyways and popping into gallery after gallery.
RW: What are you working on at the moment?
AB: I'm in the middle of designing and moving into a new studio. I found a great barn near my flat and I am working out how best to convert it into a studio. I'm also finishing all my current projects before I get started on some new books, one of which is the second book in my Tales of the Edge series. It's all about the life of lighthouse keeper on a tiny island in the middle of the sea: it's a story of love, loneliness, isolation and fish.
RW: What advice would you like to share?
AB: A lesson I've learned through many years of mistakes, working on something that interests you is far more important and valuable than working on something that pays.
Interview by Ruth Wilbur, July 2012
About Allistair Burt
Allistair Burt is an artist and architect who practices under the title of 'Hole in my Pocket', an arts collective he first formed with Scott Airlie in late 2002.
Recent projects have included a trailer for Glasgow Film Festival and a series of performances for Glasgow International at The Arches.