Graduating last summer from a BA in Fine Art at Goldsmiths University, Liv Wynter has already been featured in some of the UK’s most prestigious galleries.
The young performer describes herself as a “queer, working-class artist working and living in South London”. Utilizing a potent mix of live spoken word, rap and poetry, Wynter draws out uncomfortable truths about sexuality, gender, domestic violence, class and “the hysterical woman”.
Currently resident artist at The Royal Standard Gallery & Studios, Liverpool, her talks and performances entitled HOW MUCH ARE THEY PAYING YOU? will coincide with the opening of the 2016 Liverpool Biennial and this year’s Bloomberg New Contemporaries exhibition at the Bluecoat.
“My beef with New Contemporaries is that to ask a recent graduate for £25 just to apply to be in something is disgusting,” she says. “I am so angry about that; £25 is a week’s worth of food. I don’t care what the exposure is.”
Wynter also criticises New Contemporaries for not paying artists’ fees or travel costs, a claim disputed by the organisation. (“We understand how increasingly difficult it is for artists to operate in the UK; we absolutely want to be supporting artists,” says NC director Kirsty Ogg, adding that all artists receive a “modest fee” of £100, and all “reasonable” travel and accommodation costs are covered. See full response from NC at the end of Q&A.)
So, what will you be doing in Liverpool in response to the New Contemporaries show?
Probably some flyering during the opening night, just so visitors know what they’re going into. We’ll also be talking about it throughout the week’s three main events. For the Saturday night, I’ve been speaking to artists at Liverpool School of Art and Design and I’ve offered to reimburse them the £25 New Contemporaries application fee if they applied for it and didn’t get in. Kevin Le Grand Bailor – a queer performance artist originally from Liverpool – will be hosting the night. Emily Pope and Travis Alabanza have made videos for it, and Liv Fontaine will be performing. And then the DIY or Die workshop on Sunday will be open to women, non-binary people and people of colour, with some Liverpool groups lined up to talk about their zines, films and music.
Where does art and activism meet?
I’ve been struggling with this recently. I think it’s really important that we keep a separation between art and activism. The more your activism becomes based on art, the more you’re beginning to exclude people of colour and working class people and others.
Watching the work that Sisters Uncut do [Wynter has just occupied a house in Peckham with the group, to highlight cuts to domestic services] and the work of WHEREISANAMENDIETA [a collective Wynter is part of that remembers the feminist artist who died in 1985 when she fell from the window of the New York apartment she shared with her husband, Carl Andre, the only other person with her at the time], I also think visuals are really important in activism; no one will write about you [without them].
I don’t think that all activists need to have anything to do with art, and that all artists need to have anything to do with activism. Mine blur just by chance. What I write about is inherently political.
You recently staged a WHEREISANAMENDIETA protest outside Tate Modern due to Carl Andre’s work being shown there, commenting that it “is so easy for institutions to pay lip service to those that demand change, to speak of change without implementing it”. Can you say more about being part of the project?
The idea is for people who don’t have the platform to make political work. The WHEREISANAMENDIETA collective provides that space to breathe, to really say what you want to say without fearing repercussions. A lot of galleries want to look like they’re really involved in politics; pretty much all of my big shows, at V&A, Tate, Royal Academy, booked me because they wanted me to cuss them out, so that they look politically engaged. It’s a monopolization that happens.
Do you think that the gallery can’t be for everyone, as it’s inherently a place for art and art appreciation?
Yes. That’s why I do so much work outside the gallery. It deserves a place there but [equally] putting work on YouTube is incredibly important. That’s why I did Don’t Flop [an online rap battle], as the majority of people who watch those videos are Year 10 boys bunking their lessons; that was an audience I really wanted to speak to. Growing up as a working-class queer woman, I felt excluded; being in London is so exclusive and frustrating. That’s why I really wanted to come to Liverpool for The Royal Standard residency; the DIY culture is where I really thrive.
Your Don’t Flop performance is an incredibly difficult watch. The sexist, vile language hurled at you is almost unbearable. Why did you do it?
I used to be obsessed with Don’t Flop at school when I was 13/14; I’ve always been obsessed with words and slang. The politics, obviously, is completely fucked, but I loved it. As I got older, I found it less enjoyable because I couldn’t watch it without thinking about the politics of the situation. I went through a stage of feeling very militant about speaking in places I wasn’t welcome, and thought: “Fuck it, I’ll just apply”. You’re supposed to go through try-outs, but I sent a funny email saying: “Hi, I’m an angry feminist”. They got me on hoping I’d have no sense of humour and get destroyed doing it. It backfired.
How many women had rapped at Don’t Flop before you?
One. Her name is Dekay, and she’s an incredible battler, but her politics are shit. I felt it was important for me to take the politics to the party; to be unashamedly a woman. It did my career a favour: it’s had nearly 150,000 views on YouTube, and it opened up a conversation at Don’t Flop, to the point that they had to change rules on their online forum.
I was considering this phrase you’ve previously used about “getting into the head of the artist”. This seems to be a thread throughout your work – in HEADFUCK (2016), the Ai Wei Wei performance (2015), Late at Tate Britain: My Bed (2016).
I’m not even sure it’s part of the work, it’s just been part of my life. When I started gigging, my mum insisted that I had to get paid or I couldn’t afford to give up my bar job. I decided to never do a gig for free about one month in, after that first Don’t Flop rap battle [in February 2015; Wynter had been writing for just three months before that]. The labour is really intense: learn a 20 minute set, make sure the writing is up to scratch, practice, spend time after the set hugging strangers, listening to the horrible things they’ve been through… that stuff is exhausting and completely unpaid.
The reason I actually started writing is because I ran out of money! I used to do textiles in second year of uni; I was working 60-hour weeks and only had time to write notes in my phone. My alter ego was a pretend rapper who would turn up in galleries with bouncers and sell merch; people started believing it. It’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy [laughs].
You’ve been vocal about arts education. Do you think that higher education is in danger of being increasingly for those that can afford it, rather than for those talented enough to be there?
I followed my dream of going to Goldsmiths believing that everyone would be like me. In fact, it was just me. The amount of times tutors told me to quit my job… that was the extent of their advice. It’s silly because I have a very strong work ethic. I was very annoyed at the arrogance of someone in that position telling me that. I am worried about Goldsmiths. Grants have been cut. My 15 year-self wouldn’t now be able to leave a horrible boyfriend and run away to go to uni. My five-year plan is to set up an unaccredited foundation for students that don’t have A-Levels. In five years, I might be a big enough name to blag some kids into good schools.
Liv Wynter’s artist talk is on Tuesday 5 July 2016, 6.30-8pm, at Crown Building Studios, Liverpool; her performance night, Put your money where my mouth is, is on Saturday 9 July, 8pm ‘til late, The Royal Standard; DIY or Die is on Sunday 10 July, 2-4.30pm, The Royal Standard.
Wynter will be speaking about WHEREISANAMENDIETA with the collective on Thursday 4 August at Arcadia Missa, London. The collective has already produced its first zine. If you want to contribute to the archive or access the zine, email [email protected]
New Contemporaries responds
In light of the criticisms levelled at it by Liv Wynter, New Contemporaries has asked a-n News to publish the following response, which we are happy to do:
New Contemporaries acknowledges that it is increasingly difficult for emerging artists to operate in the UK, as the cost of living, studios and further education all continue to rise.
Since 2014, we have actively worked to address this and have put new mechanisms in place that are intended to support emerging practitioners. These include the payment of exhibition and performance fees for artists, in addition to the reimbursement of travel expenses and the covering of accommodation costs for both the launch of the show and its subsequent tour.
In partnership with Artquest, we have also introduced one-to-one mentoring offered to all of the selected artists and peer mentoring opportunities that are available to a broader constituent of practitioners.
We have launched a studio bursary with SPACE, which is now in its second year, that provides Bloomberg New Contemporaries alumnus a free studio in London for a year, as well as talent development support offered by both organisations. Our second Studio Bursary was launched in Nottingham with One Thoresby Street earlier this year.
New Contemporaries is also one of the partners delivering The Syllabus, a non-affiliated learning structure for artists who are wanting to challenge and develop their practice. And we are a partner in the STOP, PLAY, RECORD network, which commissions new short moving image works from 16-24 year olds and gives them access to distribution and support networks. In these challenging times, all of these initiatives are intended to make practices sustainable in the long-term.