West End Boys
In conversation with Oliver Payne and Nick Relph
frieze Tell us about your new film Gentlemen (2003), which is currently on show in 'Days Like These' at Tate Britain.
Oliver Payne It's done on handheld DV, similar to our earlier work, but not so much like Mixtape (2002), which was shot on 35mm. Basically it's just another film about London - the high streets and cheap shit that we both love. It's loosely about public toilets in as much as Driftwood (2000) was about skateboarding. I suppose toilets are a metaphor for a number of things touching on our persistent gripe with corporate intervention into youth culture.
Nick Relph But which we embrace at the same time. Although we begin our films with a very definite idea of what they are about, we always lose the plot, they always go wrong and we always get about 100 other ideas somewhere along the way. Because we don't have to pitch our idea initially, we have the luxury to sidetrack and come up with something that we didn't necessarily know we intended to make.
OP Ninety-eight per cent of the best police work is done on hunches, and that's certainly been the case for all of our work so far.
frieze What was the starting point of Gentlemen?
NR We were quite concerned with manners and being a decent person.
frieze Codes of conduct?
NR To an extent. It's about young people - being repulsed by them and how to cope with them. How young people have a weird relationship with Punk and that although we have this legacy, this history, there's no real way to engage with it collectively. You can only engage with it in an individual way.
frieze So are you using toilets as a metaphor for the underground?
NR In a sense, yes. They are places where you find private behaviour in a public environment. They can be completely ordinary, just somewhere to go to the loo, or they can be sexual spaces. They're very theatrical. I always have my best thoughts in them.
OP It's odd that simply being in a small underground room off a public street utterly dictates your behaviour and what you're doing, whether it's for the building's intended purpose or one of the many other activities that occur in public toilets. It's an escape from the above ground.
NR I like the sounds and the colours. I like the new type of corporate prefab toilets that have no kind of heritage whatsoever. Gentlemen is trying to embrace what most people find ugly about this city.
frieze Like Carnaby Street, where much of it was filmed?
OP Yes. Shopping on Carnaby Street is a beautiful liberation from the 'elite' - a two finger gesture to being continually told to wander around the darkest areas of Borough looking for a fish and chip shop that's apparently excellent.
frieze But Carnaby Street has radically changed in the past three years.
NR There's a general consensus that in 2003 it is some kind of monstrosity that belittles its supposed glory days - but I think it's fantastic.
OP Carnaby Street will only ever be remembered fondly for its first incarnation. It will be forever looked down upon because of its 1980s and 1990s journeys into tat, T-shirts, hair dye and studded belts. But there are people who enjoyed Carnaby Street exactly for that. Let the tourists come to Carnaby Street and have their photos taken if they enjoy it; let the public school boys go there and wear studded belts for the weekend, or buy long-sleeved Nirvana T-shirts.
frieze How do you think it's changed since the 1990s?
OP The junk shops and the last of the real shops, like the old tobacconists, have been pushed out and replaced with flagship stores for predominantly American street-wear labels and European fashion giants. Puma and Mambo, that sort of thing. It's natural selection, survival of the fittest.
NR It's always been about progress and forced change. Before Carnaby Street became groovy in the 1960s it was full of sweatshops - I'm sure the young dandies didn't think about that when they were buying their cravats. London changes, it's brutal and it doesn't care about you - it cares about money and what's selling.
frieze So you like Carnaby Street in its present state?
NR Yes. Obviously we wish a lot of the people that shop there were dead, but the people who moan about it are much worse. The same applies to Oxford Street. It's just what England looks like.
OP You don't want to ban fox-hunting because you love foxes, you want to ban fox-hunting to fuck off the people that do it; you don't love Carnaby Street because you love shopping at Mambo, you love it because it fucks people off who say it's naff. What is genuinely sinister is that it's all owned by one company, a kind of groovy young gentrification service that takes over an area, knocks the shit out of it and waves carrots to multinationals to have them open up flagships. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I just find it weird that they have a finger on the pulse.
frieze There's a line in Gentlemen that goes: 'Writing poetry in the window of Starbucks on Oxford Street is the most staggeringly modern thing you can do.' How do you feel about Starbucks?
NR We're in two minds. Again, the people who want to smash a Starbucks window fuck me off more than anything. You're not going to get rid of Starbucks by smashing their windows ...
OP ... once a year.
NR Andy Warhol would have hung out at Starbucks. I'm sure that means something.
OP To moan about Starbucks when so many beautiful things have been taken from us just makes you look like a cunt.
frieze What are the beautiful things that have been taken from us?
NR Youth culture, Punk ... pretty much everything worth caring about.
frieze What do you mean by 'youth culture'?
NR I don't mean people like us. We don't represent youth, we're already past it.
OP The idea of a sustainable sub-culture is defunct due to the commodification of all youth culture. There are always going to be 15 and 16 year olds in their bedrooms doing something new. The fact that I can't say what that is anymore is fantastic.
frieze So you embrace the banality of uniform culture ... Isn't that apathy?
NR Smashing a window is a lifestyle choice now, so you might as well go full circle: buy a fucking latté, sit down and have a think.
frieze Are you angry young men?
NR It's too much hard work being angry young men ... We've found ourselves less and less angry about anything. We represent depressed young men in London.
OP I do get angry but I'm more accepting and reluctant now. Miserable young bastard perhaps.
frieze Do you think that there are spaces for wandering in modern cities?
NR Yes, but I don't want to put Gentlemen forward as a new way of dealing with the problem of London. It's just a highly personal take. I'd hate it if people went out and started ...
OP ... power dossing.
frieze What's 'power dossing'?
NR When we went to Kingston Art College and got bored, at about 11.30, we'd ...
OP ... want to get a sandwich, or perhaps I might need some new socks. We'd spend four or five hours every day walking around Gap or wherever, each clutching an eggnog latté. We would discuss things, laugh at things and joke with each other - that's how we work. I know there are a lot of people who like to harp on about how they can't work until five in the morning, man, because they just can't sleep - so they drink a bottle of whisky, smash it over their head, cut their wrists and paint with their blood and whatnot. Well, fine, let them. We don't do that. We walk around fucking Marks & Spencers together nattering about the state of affairs. We affectionately refer to this as 'power dossing' - a poncey flâneur thing.
NR The best places for power dossing are Oxford Street and Carnaby Street.
frieze When you're making your work do you think about the viewer at all?
OP We want the viewer to have a good time when they watch our films, we don't want to punish them, we want to entertain them. If people are going to afford us 20 minutes of their time then we can at least crack a few jokes. But in terms of how the film is shown and projected, no.
frieze Gentlemen is very unusual for you in that it doesn't have any music as such.
NR It just has instrumental percussion and Morse code - there's a second script written in Morse code. It's a sub-text played very gently under the narrator's voice, almost like a pulse.
OP I think we are crediting the audience with the intelligence to read between the lines and treat it as you would an album on your second or third listen, when you might get more out of the lyrics than you did on the first.
NR Or it's our admission that we're failing to communicate adequately and we always will.
OP It's a message in a bottle that never gets read. It's a narrative structure in the sense that it sets the pace in the film and is paralleled by the percussion and the main script that the narrator reads. The intention was to let it travel from the back of your mind to the front throughout the entire film - probably much in the same way that David Pajo, on Slint's Spiderland, intended to have crickets chirping throughout the entire record to create some kind of barely audible impression.
frieze Did you write the script with narrator Ian White's particular style of delivery in mind?
NR He has a heroic camp voice.
OP It is passionate, snide and cutting; you'd far sooner not feel the sharp end of his tongue. He's a bit like Kenneth Williams - everything he says sounds correct and authoritative.
NR And he swears really well.
OP He swears amazingly well.
frieze His narration works well with the very evocative outdoor footage of Gentlemen.
OP It was a question of making the whole film appear to be a suggestion of something.
NR Taking everything out of its context visually, so that we could do the same with the script.
OP The ambiguity of the script is reinforced by the ambiguity of the images. We shot the outdoor scenes at Christmas, in the drizzle, and the only time we could work together was at night. The idea of shooting things out of focus was to not credit anything as being worth looking at. There are no people in it, no recognisable places, landmarks, shops, statues, monuments, buildings. Even the close-ups are so close that you can't recognise them. It's purely lights and glitter.
frieze Talking about Mixtape, you once said 'We wanted it to look like a cross between an insurance ad and Schindler's List, heavy, ugly and stupid, also colourful and brash like a Carry On movie',
OP Insurance adverts are absolutely fucking mental. They have a really dark look and feel that I'm into: like Sarah Green saying 'Cash if you die, cash if you don't!'. We wanted Mixtape to have the same heavy plastic weight to it, something that Schindler's List has too. It's hilarious. And I also like whimsical, sugary, Ealingesque things.
frieze You seem to often work with your friends and family. Does that give you independence from the art world?
NR Everyone thinks their friends are the best people out there - so do we and we're going to use them. We only work with our mates.
OP Because we think the same way as them.
NR And friends and family are cheap. I don't think it's terribly important for someone watching our films to know that, it's just how it is.
frieze Your confidence seems to let you steam right through contemporary culture, mixing up all the references in your work.
NR We like talking in clichés and I think people like listening to clichés.
OP Yes, I think that's right.
NR We're watching clouds reflected in the windows of a tower block ...
OP ... or a drip in a puddle.
frieze When Driftwood came out, it seemed simple and obvious, but also naively audacious to film a flower or a cloud.
NR We have next to no idea of what goes on in video art, so we wouldn't know whether it was a bold move or not. Driftwood was about exploring secret London and getting lost in your own city. It makes me wince a bit now because we shot it in the most obvious places and it's not that mysterious. I always thought we could have made a better version. Gentlemen isn't a mature second album to Driftwood, but it is a celebration of the tourist London that Londoners like to knock.
frieze Your work is often described as: dreamy, lovely, a reverie, finding the extraordinary in the ordinary ...
NR That makes us sound like cunts, like we make films with nothing to say. I love making beautiful films but I guess there are too many people making beautiful films that don't say anything ...
OP There's a venomous, bilious undercurrent to our films and I think that's another thing that people might like.
frieze How do you feel about being in 'Days Like These'?
NR The fact that we're showing the Tate is a fantastic thing in itself.
NR It's just a big building that you can take your mum to and she'll be impressed. It's more dignified than going to the ICA and being asked to pay £5 when you're in the show. We can go to the Tate and be treated like human beings.
OP Because it's not some fucking competition via some fizzy-pop company, fucking radio phone-in, fucking style-mag-endorsed fucking gimmick. It's a pretty fucking decent, thought-out fucking art show at the Tate and we wanted to be in it.
frieze What is your favourite sandwich chain?
NR I like Marks & Spencers.
OP I like Marks & Spencers too, but I sometimes get angry with their selection after four o'clock.
First published in Issue 75