Whitehot Magazine

March 2011, Interview with Jeremy Hutchison

Jeremy Hutchison, Decorum At All Costs design, 2011
Courtesy, the artist and Heal's


Interview with Jeremy Hutchison

After producing a wry installation in 2010 in response to one of Tottenham Court Road department store Heal's old advertising slogans, London-based artist Jeremy Hutchison was approached by the company to design for mass production. A friend alerted me to this odd turn of events, describing the institutional-critique-turned-business-opportunity as a "rather fun contradictory muddle." The resulting mix of clean-lined objects, oh-so British phrases ("tea first milk second", "don't blow your soup"), dark Helvetica styling and shop window display made it worth untangling in more depth. Jeremy & I talk about the complexities and contradictions of making art with consumers in mind; his past as a New York ad writer; and the chequered history of exchange between art and design.

Jeremy Hutchison, Heal's Rules window installation, 2011
Courtesy, the artist and Heal's

Becky Hunter: Your original installation was intended as a critique of Heal’s’ rather totalitarian 1915 slogan “Nothing Need Be Ugly.” How did you uncover this piece of period branding and why did it appeal to you?

Jeremy Hutchison: I was rummaging around in the V&A library - where Heal's store their design archive. Suddenly, this sinister logo popped out. Its rigid lines and cool logic propose a universal aesthetic, a situation of total design. Hmm… that's the stuff of totalitarian regimes. Not only that, it's the precursor of Heal's graphic identity: the black & white palette, the Helvetica type, the euclidean geometry. This all seemed rather fishy… and yet it made sense. Heal's is the home of modernist British design, the showroom of a rationalist utopia. Its design ethic is driven by a specific ideology: the elimination of the subjective, the embrace of the machine. In this modernist vision, the home turns into a superior living mechanism. Or - as Jacques Tati saw it - a space of normalization. So I started to imagine Heal's as the apparatus for a totalitarian regime, and set about designing its iconography. Every product would enforce the codes of Britishness: the language, the table manners, the 'done thing'. Each object would instruct the public how to eat, how to walk, how to sit, how to talk. The British home would become a laboratory for an immaculate population. It seemed like an absurd idea, so I proposed it to Heal's. Curiously enough, they put it into mass-production.

Hunter: What has the process of negotiating boundaries with Heal's been like? How much freedom have you been allowed?

Hutchison: Actually, I didn't try to set up boundaries - these could have become restrictions. My project was sort of the reverse; to inhabit the role of a product designer, trespass into an institution, and embed an idea at the heart of it. I think this gave me more freedom to work invisibly, as an artist. Sometimes I had to divert attention from the connotations of black & white geometric symbols. So I'd bring the focus back to marketing questions: the brand values, the target audience. But I didn't always get away with it; the marketing department asked me to remove 'fascist' from the press release. Mind you, in the same document they describe Heal's as a "well-meaning dictatorship", which I rather like. I imagine every dictatorship starts off well-meaning.

Jeremy Hutchison, Heal's Rules, installation view, (someone purchasing a Heal's Rules mat), 2011
Courtesy, the artist and Heal's

Hunter: There’s something a little unsettling about the appropriation of your institutionally critical exhibition into a new product range. How have you dealt with the contradictions, or don’t you see it that way?

Hutchison: I think those contradictions are really what this piece is all about. The commercial language of Tottenham Court Road makes our chaotic universe seem uncomfortably tidy. So I wanted to push this Helvetica-bold rhetoric a little too far - until it dissolved into confusion. I wanted to stick a big flashing question mark right between Starbucks and Habitat. When this critique was appropriated - by the very object of its critique - the questions I was asking just seemed to get more interesting. Its like when Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA was used as the soundtrack of Ronald Reagan's 1984 presidential campaign. The song was actually about America's spiritual crisis; it was intended as a cry of lost patriotism. But it was very publicly misinterpreted by the Reagan administration. It became a glitch in the smooth workings of the presidential machine. Can a critique remain intact once its assimilated? Does it become more effective? Who's in control of this project? Who's exploiting who? I can't seem to settle on any answers to these questions. Each time I try to pin it down, the whole thing slips on a banana skin.

Hunter: Have you made such slippy work before? Could you talk us through a previous project?

Hutchison: I'm currently working on a project for the SouthBank Centre that operates in a similar space. It takes Evening Standard sandwich boards and invites the public to participate in a confusing mass-media spectacle. For ten days, the SouthBank will be awash with Evening Standard posters. But rather than the typical 'TV SOAP STAR DRUGS SHAME'-type headline, these ones will be ludicrously mundane, written by ordinary passers-by about their everyday lives. If it works, the piece will hover in an awkward mist of interpretations… absurdist intervention? Bungled advertising? Actual news? Dorothea Von Hantelmann talks about celebration as a more sophisticated form of cultural production than critique. She says that 'doing' rather than 'saying' is a better way to reveal the spectacle of our time. This makes sense to me; I'm more interested in becoming entangled in our culture than commenting from the outside.

Hunter: This topsy-turvy process of drawing out something critical or “edgy” from a conservative brand is something that your work as an advertising copywriter must have prepared you for. What shifted you towards fine art?

Hutchison: That's an interesting question. I think capitalism's driven by an internal criticality. It has no loyalty, no respect, no heroes. Watch the Bloomberg ticker: it moves in surprising directions. It's tirelessly precarious, inherently anarchic. So if advertising appears to have this phoney "edginess" etched into its slick surfaces, perhaps this is actually motivated by a true criticality, deep-set at the heart of our economic reality. In many ways, the ad industry's endless revision of consumer culture is good training for the strategies of fine art. You're constantly interrogating the things around you - throwing a lateral slant on existing cultural artefacts. That said, fizzy drinks become rather frustrating subject matter. I was living in New York at the time, where anything's possible. I got a few residencies, a studio, some lucky breaks. I started working with an artist called Paolo Tamburella - he was a huge inspiration.Thankfully, I stopped trying to cram my art practice into after-hours, and opted for a life of tuna sandwiches and intellectual brainfood.

Jeremy Hutchison, Nothing Need Be Ugly, installation view, 2010
Courtesy, the artist and Heal's

Hunter: So was your entrance into art practice through a sort of apprenticeship rather than formal education?

Hutchison: Not exactly; nothing's been very formal. For a long time I worked in a very solitary way. My practice emerged through a messy collision of linguistics, electronic noise music and a lot of wandering around cities. In 2006, I got involved with Paolo in a project down in New Orleans. Against the backdrop of the post-Katrina devastation, my work hit a wall of questions. So I hopped onto the Slade MA programme to try and figure them out. But during this period, I've come to realise that if I find the answers, my questions probably aren't interesting enough. (I graduate this June.)

Hunter: Is there a different ideas-generating process involved in making an art installation as opposed to ad copy?

Hutchison: Yes, I think so. One's silent and tidy, the other's noisy and really messy. Advertising's a tidy, reductive process. You start with a problem, and you have to whittle it down to a "creative solution". You remove ambiguities, misinterpretations, slippages. You find neat linguistic threads that connect unfamiliar ideas, and then you Photoshop out the flaws, fissures, imperfections. The success of an ad campaign - monitored by a focus group - is judged by the transmission of a message, perfectly intact. It's a bit like holy communion. As an artist, my activity is way messier. I try to find situations that make sense and riddle them with problems. Rather than seeking some silent transferal of meaning, I'm looking to create misunderstanding, mutation, confusion, noise. I think the success of an artwork is in the amount of noise it generates. It definitely shouldn't make sense.

Hunter: There’s a history of various exchanges between design, advertising and fine art, from abstract painter Sonia Delaunay’s fashion boutique to Tracey Emin’s designs for Longchamp and ads for Bombay Sapphire; the transposition of James Rosenquist’s billboard painter day job into his art; and magazine designer Barbara Kruger’s move into political art layouts. Do you see yourself positioned somewhere in this mix?

Hutchison: I think there's definitely something interesting about making artwork in the realm of the mass-media. When people aren't wearing their art goggles, perhaps they give a more gut-felt response. A few years ago, I visited the Museo de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. A man came in and made the sign of the crucifix on his chest, before gazing at the Diego Rivera murals. I want to break down this reverence between audience and artwork; I don't think it's helpful. But to give you a more direct answer, I'd rather not define my position. I think the job of an artist is to try to do the opposite: to find a place that's hardest to articulate. So rather than designating my cultural niche, I'd like to head for unexplored territory, and keep moving. With any luck, I'll find somewhere really weird.

Jeremy Hutchison, Nothing Need Be Ugly, production documentation, 2011
Courtesy, the artist and Heal's

Jeremy Hutchison, installation view, 2011
Courtesy, the artist and Heal's


Becky Hunter

Becky Hunter is a writer based in London and Durham, UK. She is Assistant Editor for Whitehot Magazine.

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