Ahead of the presentation of his newly commissioned film, ‘You Know Nothing of my Work’, at Jerwood Arts this autumn, Anneka French sat down with the artist Guy Oliver, one of the recipients of the Jerwood/FVU Awards 2020.
Perhaps we could start with the central theme of ‘You Know Nothing of My Work’—the fall from grace of a popular icon.
The film addresses how we react when the truth about a person is revealed and our relationship with their work changes. How do we navigate that? It’s been a prevalent issue in the last few years with a number of high profile figures being exposed for committing criminal acts, and it’s something we’ve all had to process. I wanted to articulate the anxiety that goes with that problem and the messy way we try to make sense of it.
There were a few key cases that led to this project, in particular the Jimmy Savile scandal, and the other people implicated by operation Yewtree, like Rolf Harris. These people were a huge presence in our lives for decades and then suddenly, an entire era was tarnished by their presence. You can’t look back and avoid these people. But what do we do? We can’t pretend they didn’t exist. Savile’s case seemed to open up a sense of the past colliding with the present. There was definitely a shift in the cultural landscape that made us all see the values of the past differently.
Savile wasn’t necessarily beloved in the same way as Rolf Harris though. Harris had a benign grandfatherly persona and I remember the genuine sense of shock and dismay I felt when the scandal came out—that literally anyone could turn out to be a monster and nothing was sacred. And there are people still fighting to keep things like this under wraps, so we are aware that there will be more disturbing revelations about others in the future.
Could you tell me more about how these subjects manifest in your work?
The film is a hybrid of different forms—scripted drama, documentary, Hollywood musical—and is broken up into six chapters. It starts as a conventional musical in which I play myself, exploring a charity shop—a place where we drop off our unwanted objects from the past and discover other people’s discarded artefacts. The idea came when I found a Lost Prophets CD in a charity shop: they were a band caught up in a horrifying scandal surrounding their lead singer, who is in prison for committing shocking crimes against children. The situation was so heinous that we’ve wilfully erased the band from history. So it’s strange for one of their CDs to slip through the net and end up in the unassuming setting of a charity shop. I was struck by the idea of wanting, but not being able to erase things from our past.
The lyrics that I sing articulate the moral anxiety of discovering this CD and as I go through the shop I find other things made by people who have been tarnished or disgraced. My character becomes aware of the scale of the problem, which sparks a journey of discovery for me to learn about this issue, and try and reach some kind of conclusion. Some of the chapters are more factual and use archival footage, particularly in the second chapter where I adopt an alter ego reminiscent of a TV arts broadcaster. There is a specific focus on the BBC and the culture that it fostered in the 1970s, of which Savile was a huge part.
A musical form almost sounds like something light-hearted…?
There are definitely comedic elements to the film, but I’m always trying to be as sincere as possible. The humour is trying to illustrate and satirise the collective nervousness around the subject, but also, to satirise my own role as a commentator on the subject. A lot of the content of the film was generated or inspired by conversations with people, including with my girlfriend who would always challenge me on the ways that I was approaching the project. She was keen to point out to me that, particularly as a man, I’m in a privileged position to be objective about some of these people, and that it is a luxury for me to find this subject “interesting” when often, for others, it is traumatic and disturbing. I tried to be mindful of that throughout.
I’ve always felt strongly that comedy can be a very effective tool to explore serious subjects, but I would never want people to think I am being flippant or light-hearted about the crimes that these people have committed. Hopefully the film has a sense of balance.
Is this the most ambitious work you’ve made to date?
Definitely—I’ve never worked with this kind of budget before and I’ve certainly never made a musical before, which is probably foolhardy as well as ambitious. I wrote all of the lyrics, but I’m not musically trained, so I worked closely with the musical director, Suzy Davis, who brilliantly produced the musical elements. It was amazing to have the support of a whole trained crew for the shoots. It allowed me to concentrate on aspects like developing the script and/or performing in front of the camera.
How do you hope the work might speak to people and how it might live in the world?
The conclusion of the film is that there is no definitive conclusion to all of the questions raised in the film. However, it tries to encourage us to think about how we all have a stake in our collective culture and the values we are trying to forge.
The shadow of Woody Allen appears in various ways—some subtle and others more overt—like the title of the film. I wanted to feature somebody who has affected me personally, as he has been an influential figure—creatively speaking. His films are autobiographical in a way; he’s always playing a version of ‘Woody Allen’ and is hyper-conscious about how he might come across. When the work is so tied to an artist’s persona like that, it becomes impossible to separate it from Woody Allen the man.
I am drawn to subjects that really question our sense of morality, but I don’t want to be morally didactic. I think there are dangers in upholding a certain kind of moral and ethical absolutism that is reflected in a lot of social media spheres. I wanted to address that we’re all implicated one way or another and that pointing fingers can be a way making ourselves feel morally superior.
Although in some ways it can feel like a trivial issue, when a person of real cultural significance falls from grace it leaves a scar on the culture. We may feel nostalgic about a time when we didn’t know the truth about our heroes, but the truth has to come out if a crime has been committed. Take Michael Jackson—the idea of putting a lid on the influence he has had on contemporary culture is so hard. We all have a relationship with his music in one way or another.
How did you take into consideration the voices of the victims?
In the film I create a musical duet with singer songwriter Rebecca Taylor (aka Self-Esteem), where I play a university lecturer type figure and Rebecca is a member of the audience. Her character challenges me on my position and the position of the film in general. I wanted to explore the potential failings of the film within the film itself. I wrote the conversation as a way to create a critical space within the film. At the end, Rebecca cuts me off and delivers a monologue which was entirely her own authored words—I very much wanted to give Rebecca space to speak in her own voice. Rebecca confronts me, in a very pointed way, about whether I’m the best person to examine this issue. I’m aware I’m not the ideal person. I feel that she addresses the problem of how, for me this is an academic exercise, but for her and for others, talking about sex offenders is absolutely no laughing matter. It’s an important moment in the film when I surrender authorship, as I wanted the project to be genuinely driven by different conversations and different perspectives.