Interview with Fiona Banner: 'Words Are Visceral and Slippery'

Fiona Banner with The Bastard Word, 2007, neon parts bent by the artist, paper templates, wire, transformers. Installation, Ikon Gallery 2015. Courtesy the artist and Ikon Gallery. Photo: Stuart Whipps.

Working In Words: An Interview With Fiona Banner

THE BASTARD WORD. Flickering in the dark, these rough, hand hewn neon letters announce the central concern of Fiona Banner's work: the power, plasticity, and limitations of language and communication. The British artist, of the YBA generation, became well known for her wordscapes, translating visual information into texts: "drawing" a nude model in words; detailing, scene-by-scene, the entirety of six Vietnam War films in a 1,000 page book; or describing the action of a porn film across the length and width of a gallery wall. She's worked with film, installation, drones, books, typefaces, semaphore, and full-size military airplanes. Her subjects are big ones: war, sex, power, and representation.

Banner's work is the subject of a major solo exhibition, currently showing at Ikon Gallery, in Birmingham, from October 10, 2015 - January 17, 2016. In the following interview, MutualArt asks the artist about the development of her work, her obsession with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and the frustrations and liberations of language.

Fiona Banner, Arsewoman in Wonderland, 2002, screen print, paper. Installation, Ikon Gallery, 2015. Courtesy the artist and Ikon Gallery. Photo: Stuart Whipps.

Natalie Hegert: In a recent profile in the New Yorker, conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith remarked on his decamping from the art world to the poetry community, "Nobody in the art world wanted to read, and I love language. That was the end of art for me." As an artist whose works sometimes involve massive quantities of words--Arsewoman in Wonderland, for instance, comprises a blow-by-blow (if you will) textual description of a porn film, written on a vast scale across a gallery wall--do you relate at all to Goldsmith's statement? Why the move to essentially frustrate viewers' attempts at reading the piece by presenting Arsewoman in Wonderland upside down at Ikon Gallery?

Fiona Banner: I don't expect people to read my texts in the literary sense - though sometimes they do.

The art world's desire for immediate gratification runs contrary to the act of reading. Text artists use language in a very reduced, simplified, formalized way that satisfies that desire. I'm working with language both outside of the literary/poetry tradition and outside of that conceptual art tradition. 

Personally I am as frustrated by language, as I am liberated by it. Exploring that is a motivation.

Although the writing is really narrative, there is always a conflict there, because usually the work is read in the way an image is read, scanned, and unpicked in a non-linear way. My first big texts came from mainstream heroic conflict movies; I was motivated by the skewed politics of the films. Working in words is a way in, without subscribing to the image - having some distance from their seductive power. I was captivated by these movies but could see they were dodgy too. I enjoyed the non-linear reading, that didn't tread the heroic narrative path but made a new one. 

Words are visceral and slippery; I like engaging with the physical dimension of language. Hanging Arsewoman in Wonderland upside down has engaged the reader in different ways - made reading it an act. People have been reading the text by lying on the floor or tipping upside down. There is something odd about reading when you're upside down; it becomes very conscious and actually physical. 

I haven't shown it for many years; it was made 15 years ago and it is now exposed to a different context, different interpretations, as the porn industry is a different, much more ubiquitous thing now. Installing it upside-down was a way of recognizing it is, if you like, a different work.

Fiona Banner, Verses Versus, 2015. Installation, Ikon Gallery, 2015. Courtesy the artist and Ikon Gallery. Photo: Stuart Whipps.

NH: Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness always struck me as somewhat implausible, as it's essentially a hundred-page-long monologue. As a teenager stuck with a school assignment, I thought the book was absurd and impossible to read. One day I was bemoaning my assignment to some friends and, mockingly, I started reading the book aloud to them. Soon, however, I was riveted by it. We finished the book by reading it aloud to each other--hearing it performed like that completely transformed it for me. Heart of Darkness lies at the heart of many of your works, and continues to inspire new adaptations. What drew you to Conrad's text, and why does it continue to figure so prominently in your work? Also, I'm curious to hear your thoughts about the different ways we relate to language, whether spoken aloud, or read from a page, or read from a gallery wall, and how that plays into your decisions regarding the presentation of your works.

FB: I came to Heart of Darkness backwards - through Coppola's Vietnam film, Apocalypse Now - in my 30's, when I was writing THE NAM, 1997. Conrad's novel provided the narrative template for the film. When I first read it I thought it was like a painting not a book, the sense of time drifting and recurrence of place, not like a work of narrative fiction at all. What interested me is how it deals with our desire to dominate, monopolize, colonize and own, but also deals with the inner struggle we have. It is about conflict, and contradiction. I think it's a book for our age, a much as it was for Orson Welles in the 30's on the verge of fascism in Europe, Coppola in the late 1970's or for Conrad in the 1890s. I'm interested in the restlessness of that material, how the meaning won't settle and how it is open to reinterpretation from one generation to another.

I worked with HOD directly in a performance in 2012, when I directed a performance of Orson Welles' script "Heart of Darkness." In the script, as the novel is really the sound of one man's mind, and one man's inner conflict, to hear the text spoken seems right.

Welles' script had never been performed ever since it was written in 1939. That was performed on the Roi des Belges, a building that I co-designed (with David Kohn) and takes the form of the boat Conrad piloted up the River Congo - it's on the roof of the Southbank Center in London's South Bank. The performance was live beamed as a film to the Purcell Room theatre three stories below. 

Fiona Banner with Work 3, 2014, Glass. Installation, Ikon Gallery 2015. Courtesy the artist and Ikon Gallery. Photo: Stuart Whipps.

NH: One of your latest works is a new version of Heart of Darkness, printed like a glossy magazine, and illustrated by Magnum photographer Paolo Pellegrin, whom you commissioned to photograph London's Bank district as though through the lens of a war photographer, situating present-day London as a kind of zone of contention and conflict through the conventions of conflict photography.

FB: The new print edition came about because the book is out of copyright and I felt it should be slung out there in the contemporary vernacular. So the images are not illustration but a parallel. Conrad refers to Fleet Street and other places in The City of London though the main story is set in the Belgian Congo. I have lived on the edge of The City for years, as have many artists. But I have had nothing to do with it, and never went there really - it's like there's an invisible wall around it. So this was on one level a way of exploring that zone with its own laws and electoral privileges, its own governmental powers and customs etc. It was a very voyeuristic gesture. Deploying Paolo Pellegrin, a conflict photographer, who has worked a lot in the Congo, to photograph the city was a way of doing that - taking it back to the idea of reportage, a heroic form of photography and making plain the voyeuristic allure this city had for me, as I live so close but in such a totally different culture.

Public art is normally something associated with hefty sculpture and permanence; I'm interested in publishing as a form of public art, art that is available outside of the gallery. The systems of distribution seem more natural and more fluid, partly because books are cheap compared to art. A glossy magazine is as much of a finely honed fetish object as a rarefied sculpture. Materially I would not place one above the other. One is designed to move, one designed to be static. I chose the form of American Vogue magazine because it suggests, or even evokes a sense of insatiable desire. That seems to chime with the themes of Heart of Darkness. It is easy to always describe conflict as elsewhere, but I wanted to make a link between the activities of the City of London, the center of the global financial industry, and conflict, in somewhere that seems a long way off - that place in Conrad's book is Africa.

Heart of Darkness, 2015, magazine format. Words by Joseph Conrad. Photographs by Paolo Pellegrin, commissioned by Fiona Banner in association with the Archive of Modern Conflict. Published by The Vanity Press and Four Corners.

NH: This also resulted in several other works: a video from the vantage point of a drone descending upon the book; a film of the photographs, set to music; an installation comprising the magazine, a windsock, a light, and a fan; and a series of pinstripe prints and sculptures (patterned after the ubiquitous costume of London financial traders)... It's interesting how many different versions can result from this body of work--from a magazine sold for £11.99, to artworks hung in a gallery or museum. 

FB: The Heart of Darkness magazine became the protagonist in a film shot by a drone phantom whose blades create a down draft that worry and chase the book, the drone camera is trying to read the images, trying to film the pages, but the closer it gets the more it fans the pages and chases the book away, so the more it tries the more it's creating an impossibility in terms of reading and interpretation and also thwarting the attempt to film, to make another image, to document.

None of the images are humanly composed. It is hard to control the drone camera; in the end there is a rough attempt at framing. It is the opposite of cinematic in that way.

The music gave it a sense of hubris and urgency. There's another level, which connects to drones, flight and the military.

Fiona Banner, Scroll Down And Keep Scrolling, 2015, artist's book. Published by The Vanity Press in association with Ikon, Birmingham and Kunsthalle Nuremberg.

NH: You run your own imprint with The Vanity Press, and to accompany this exhibition you've published a major new work, Scroll Down And Keep Scrolling, for which you designed and typeset your own font. Can you tell us a bit more about this new book and what it contains?

FB: I called my press The Vanity Press because I like the idea of self-publishing; all art is a kind of self-publishing and also all art is some kind of mirror (of the world we are in, or more personally) - a form of vanity.

Scroll Down And Keep Scrolling is a kind of anti-catalogue (for the Ikon exhibition); it doesn't represent works as formal or finished, or even installed. It considers the relevance of the publication in the Internet age. Known or exhibited works are adequately represented on the web; instead the book represents work through the ephemera surrounding it, the stuff that is not exhibited. It doesn't seek to present the work formally or as finite, but as a process. The book focuses on related material from an archive of ephemera that I have been compiling over the last 20 years, which I have digitized. It is something of a sequel to my first artist's book THE NAM. The book takes the material form of a large directory, over 800 pages long and typeset in a font that I have designed especially for this project, titled Font, which is an amalgamation of typefaces I've worked with previously: It's a family tree arrangement where the child of Avant Garde and Courier mates with Peanuts and Didot's child. Bookman and Onyx mate; their child mates with Capitalist and Klang's offspring - the final font is an unpredictable bastardization of styles and behaviors. The font is available to download free from

Fiona Banner, NAM Stack, 1997, inkjet, aluminium. Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery London and Ikon.

NH: You are also a book with your own official ISBN number, which you had registered and then tattooed on your body in 2009. This brings up some interesting notions about the similarities and differences between books and bodies and works of art--confronting our assumptions about the supposed permanence or immortality of works of art or books, and the intertwining of biography and body. What motivated you to do this?

FB: The portrait of myself as a publication, or the act of publishing myself under the title of "Fiona Banner" is also about copyright and publication (in a jokey serious way). A self-portrait as a publication. In a way I like that. Recently I published a series of one-page books, all registered under their own ISBN with individual titles - completely edited books. Though they completely strip back the idea of a book, or a narrative, they are still classified as books, because they are registered as publications. So then they are mobile. As for the book: the tome, the tomb. The book as a body, the jacket, spine, the arse in the shadow of the gutter, waiting to be opened revealed, read. It's an erotic object.

Fiona Banner, Harrier, 2010, BAe Sea Harrier aircraft, paint. Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery London. Photo © Tate Photography - Andrew Dunkley and Sam Drake.

NH: In 2010 you produced several works involving actual decommissioned fighter jets--Harrier and Jaguar, two planes that were displayed at the Tate Britain, and Tornado, which was a Tornado Fighter melted down and recast into a bell. After the exhibition at the Tate, the two planes were melted down into solid metal ingots. What was the logic behind melting them down in that way, into this kind of raw material or commodity (the ingot), rather than as some kind of functional object or other sculpture (like the bell)?

FB: I just wanted to store the planes and store the idea. I carefully stamped each ingot with its name, Harrier, and Jaguar. So they are still identified with those two predatory animals. On one level it was a decision motivated by an emotional position. I had researched those planes a lot and I knew their military history - which was very active and brutal in one case. I had had enough of them and wanted to erase the image. On another level I didn't want them to become trophy objects. So I made them into the closest an object can get to an anti-object and melted them onto ingots. Also the best way to store metal.

Fiona Banner, Unboxing, 2012, bronze, parachute cord,. Installation, Ikon Gallery, 2015. Courtesy the artist and Ikon Gallery. Photo: Stuart Whipps.