From Issue 1

The Big Other

Artist and publisher of aggressively tasteless satire Dan Mitchell interviewed

A few years ago I was at some East London publishing fair when a scary-looking bloke in a Harrington jacket jumped out from behind a display board, handed me a glossy magazine and said, "Here you go, mate, try this," then walked off. The publication he gave me had the word "SHITLER" printed on the front cover in big yellow letters, beneath its title, "HARD MAG: Stronger than Reason."

I had obviously never seen it on newsstands. Leafing through, I discovered every page was a variation of the same crass visual gag: a cut-out of the Fuhrer shouting in a highly phoneticized German accent next to a massive high-res photo of a piece of faeces. Running along the bottom of each double page was a critical commentary on wealthy individuals in the art market.

I came away thinking this was clearly the work of an extremely deranged individual. Not only had he filled almost every page with a huge piece of shit---he must have spent hours looking at them---he had also spent an excessive amount of money getting it printed in a high resolution glossy format. And for no apparent gain, since he was giving them away to strangers.

After hoarding it in my collection with a perverse amount of pride for a number of years without knowing anything about it other than how good it was at clearing the room at the end of a dinner party, I decided to track down the man who gave it to me. He wasn't hard to find as he had quite a few artworks for sale on a reputable art auction website. We arranged to meet at his high rise apartment in Euston, central London.

The man I now know as Dan Mitchell came downstairs to meet me looking like the third, more open-minded Mitchell brother from Eastenders, in his red polo shirt and tweed jacket. In his flat full of art books and materials, he made me a cup of tea and spoke with great alacrity for over three hours about his practice.

The following is an edited transcript.

STRONGER THAN REASON

I don't know if I ever believed in reason. Whether it's through osmosis or peer pressure, you get given this liberal reason, which you're supposed to try and interpret the world through. So you read the Guardian or listen to Radio 4 and it gives you this information that's logical and reasonable and liberally contained, and presented for your digestion, but I don't believe that's how the world works. You can use reason to a point, but something unbelievable has to happen, or stronger than reason---faith, whatever you want to call it. That's what brought down the Twin Towers. Those guys didn't think it was a good idea, they believed it was an almighty mission of god. Look at the power at work today, whether that's Google or Theresa May or whatever, that violence occurs in the everyday, and it's unreasonable. Therefore my counter to it has to be unreasonable. There's no point fighting that thing with some reasonable, liberal thing like the Guardian or a protest march. There's some article by Zoe Williams saying you should go protesting because eventually it works. What the fuck does that mean, eventually? How long is eventually? It didn't do anything for nuclear bombs, it didn't do anything for the Iraq War, or student tuition fees.

I started Chiswick comprehensive school in 1978, and it was fairly decent. You had middle class kids like me with arty farty parents, and you also had kids who smelled like piss. Then Thatcher came to power and the first thing she did was fight the teachers and the nurses. Over about two years I experienced the staff's morale disintegrating. The students started to get the upper hand, so there were riots and fights. It became a disaster, and it was very boring. I actually cried once in a geography lesson through boredom. I was literally bored to tears! There were three students, one textbook and you had to copy out the pages. That's supposed to be some kind of education?

I did an art degree and graduated in 1989 from Kingston. Fiona Banner was in the year above me---she's quite successful. But most of it was getting stoned with the dudes, the other students. There was no education, no theory.

In 1989 the deputy head took me into his office to show me the book he'd got out of the library by Deleuze and Guttari. It had just been published in English for the first time and I remember saying, "Great, but why don't you put it back in the library so we can read it?"

When we left art school, Frieze was about to happen with Hirst and all that. I was in a squat, signing on and getting stoned. A friend of mine moved to Cologne, and he became an assistant for Martin Kippenberger, and another friend worked for Gerhard Richter. Back then you could fly to Cologne, fly back to pick up your giro, fly back out and work there. In Germany I saw what was possible with art that I hadn't seen in the UK. Here everything was becoming some kind of derivative of the Neo Geo show at Saatchi, this incredible show where Koons came to town for the first time. But the kind of art that was being made wasn't very serious, it was basically providing art for rich people to buy, which is a problem.

In Germany I met this guy called Stephan Dillemuth who ran a project space called Friesenwall 120. It was basically a hangout space or youth club, bar, cinema, video screening party place. There were some really interesting shows, kind of taking the piss. One of them there was a German soap opera, the equivalent of Eastenders, and one of the characters was an artist who made bad paintings who died from poverty or a heroin overdose in the show, and for some reason they got hold of the paintings and did a show with them. I was like wow, amazing, this is what you can do with art? This is what I want to do.

So I set up this thing called Poster Studio in London on Charing Cross Road with Nils Norman, Merlin Carpenter and Josephine Pryde. It was a large building, three floors, and we did these critical events: a talk about feminism, an exploration looking for a new audience, a community project where it was kind of like, "hello we're artists, let's meet the community." We did an architectural competition for artists to redesign Bankside power station which was to become Tate Modern. We commissioned Sarah Lucas to make a multiple to raise funds, because she was interested in what we were doing. So it wasn't exclusively them and us. There was no communication with journalists or galleries. We didn't archive anything on the Internet, either---we made a conscious decision to put it in a box and leave it for twenty or thirty years. It's all in my cupboard.  

It was a big place and I had the lease, so I earned money by renting it out at the weekends for very, very naughty parties, which is where I started getting interested in crack and heroin.

HARD STUFF VS HARD MAG

I came out of rehab in Plymouth in 2002 and stayed there for four years. That's where Hard mag was born. It took me a while to get my head clear, but I ended up getting a little studio in a business park, which I then made the first Hard mag with, then they threw me out the office for it. They didn't like the idea that I was producing a magazine next to people who were running children's charities. They thought it was appalling the kids were 20 feet away from what they described as aggressive pornography.

I used the Daily Herald, which is owned by Northcliffe, the company that runs the Daily Mail, to make fake posters. I got it from the press on Friday, drove it up to London for the launch on the Saturday for the first Publish and be Damned publishing fair, and I got back to Plymouth on the Monday to find two letters: a cease-and-desist and an eviction. I'm not actually allowed to sell that or give it to anybody else they take me to court, but fuck them, you can have one.

The hidden message is that I include myself in the criticism. Maybe that's not explicit enough. But I was thinking the other night about the next Hard mag, and I was thinking of having my face on the cover and my mouth open, and a hole being punched through the cover so you make that into a glory hole, then fuck me in the mouth, penetrate the magazine with a phallus of some kind. I consider it to be semi-portraiture in a way. I'm definitely inside the problem as well as on the outside saying, this needs to change.

IT'S LIKE LISTENING TO A GUY SHOUTING OBSCENITIES ABOUT EVERYTHING AND YOU LEARN A LOT ABOUT HIM EVEN THOUGH HE'S NOT BEING INTROSPECTIVE

I think it would be very boring to make a magazine about me and my problems, whereas I think this is the opposite. It's underpinned by humour. Some people find it completely revolting, horrible, and they accuse me of misogyny, racism, but the joke's on them anyway.

BACK TO SCHOOL

I taught art at St Martin's College of Art for about five years and it was great. I loved it, and then it became very boring.

Two and a half years ago there was a protest at St Martin's when students trying to preserve the foundation course took over the internal office, locked the staff out and occupied it for a month. That would be unthinkable when I was teaching there. They had these meetings in the boardroom which were great, I went along and joined in.

Mark Fisher was teaching in FE as well and found it absolutely brutal. Capitalist Realism is all about the depression that fell upon him through his labour as a tutor, and I experienced the same thing.

That got worse when I left. I got a job training unemployed people, which is the most blunt form of education possible. They'd have a workbook with ten lessons. Page one says, how do I find a job? You read a handout then fill in the blanks. Each one needs to be dated and signed by the student. I had to then date and co-sign their signature and write a comment---"very good, keep it up, well done." Ten pieces of paper times thirty is 300 pieces of paper in one day that I had to sign, date and write a comment on. Who is going to read this? The Big Other will read this. It's a department in a department in a department.

Once I forgot to do the register. I photocopied, very faintly, the previous day's register, changed the date, then went over it again and forged the register. "What's that? What have you done?" the manager asked me.

"I forgot. But these people have already signed in ten times for today's lesson, so it's not relevant. We still know who attended and who didn't."

The manager said, "You've forged paperwork! That's really bad! Go home, come back tomorrow and tell me why you want to keep your job."

I went back and tried to explain, "I'm really sorry, please don't sack me." But the boss said, "what you don't understand is we need to be on the same page, but it's my page we need to be on."

In The Invisible Committee, there's a great point about the hipster generation being these people who basically trade experience. So the whole thing is to trade this experience, which becomes a thing of value. It's a way of looking at the individual as they've been processed by the economy and technology. I agree with that. Most people have no idea about the power that exists.

That was what I wanted to say when you first walked in and I asked if you have a full time job. You can't do this, make magazines and write poetry and make art if you have a full time job. People say you can, and there are a few exceptional people who can do that, because it fucks my canister up completely. It's that Capitalist Realism point: it destroys you, working for this Big Other that doesn't actually exist, and there's something inside that seeps into you as an individual.

WHAT DO YOU HATE ABOUT GRAYSON PERRY SO MUCH?

At the time of the student occupation he was one of the senior board members of the University of the Arts, London, and didn't support the students. I hate his spectacular bullshit. Some of his work is semi-OK, the imagery is graphically not bad, he's not stupid. But I hate that "look at me" TV star art bullshit, as though that's trying to help people with social issues like class and inequality and alienation. It's one of the key examples of art wank, but it comes across as being for the people. He's basically herding the people into a gas chamber. It's exploiting the people he's supposed to be making art about. He trades on their currency, using this faux idea of who British people are, the working person or the middle class, the "normal" person, as part of his spectacular vision. It's a lie.

WHAT WOULD TELLING THE TRUTH BE?

Telling the truth would be saying, you're absolutely fucked.

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