Artes Mundi Questionnaire: Karen Mirza & Brad Butler

One of the shortlisted artists for the Artes Mundi 6 prize, the London-based artist duo answer our brief questionnaire

By ArtReview

Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, You Are the Prime Minister, 2014 (Installation view). Courtesy Waterside Contemporary, London Karen Mirza and Brad Butler: Deep State, 2012. Commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella, London. Courtesy Waterside Contemporary, London. Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, The Unreliable Narrator, 2014 (film still). Courtesy the Artists Karen Mirza and Brad Butler. Courtesy the artists / Waterside Contemporary, London


As two of ten shortlisted artists for Artes Mundi 6, you are presenting a project in a large exhibition, taking place across three venues (the National Museum Cardiff – the exhibition’s regular venue –and also at Chapter Arts Centre and ffotogallery), through 22 February 2015. Could you tell us a bit more about your project and what form it takes?


Our work is an exhibition at Chapter that circulates through its social space and into the gallery. The work is called The Unreliable Narrator and it explores the contested power of the author(ity), class, privilege, violence and mediatised spectacle. It asks people to consider a 2011 Eton Exam question for 12 year-old boys arguing for the moral and necessary deployment of troops on UK streets in 2040. In the same space (separated by a thin curtain) a two screen video work about the Mumbai Attacks depicts terrorists, journalists and Bollywood competing with each other to endure in human consciousness.

Out of Chapter Arts Centre, in the Temple of Peace in Cardiff we staged The Exception and the Rule: a performance co-devised with 10 local community members that combined the techniques of Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed with a learning play by Brecht, opening up complex issues of power further developed with the audiences' live participation. The performance exposes a tale of oil, exploitation and the rule of law as the bones for an investigation of how collective activity can take shape on location. By the end we were thinking through what kind of processes of justice we would like to share, in a sense putting the rule of law itself on trial.

Finally in February Karen Mirza and Rachel Anderson will hold a ‘Gossip’: a nocturnal gathering in which to meet and exchange stories about women's bodies as sites of resistance. The 'Gossip' is to be held at the National Museum Cardiff and is part of a project called The Museum of non Participation: The Patriarchal Clock. A project which celebrates women's solidarity, strength, and power in the face of violence, racism and oppression. The oppression of patriarchy runs throughout all our Artes Mundi works, but this intervention into night time hours privileges both personal and political intimacy.

AR: Artes Mundi aims to support ‘contemporary visual artists who engage with the human condition, social reality and lived experience’. How do you feel your work relates to that definition?

KM & BB: In our practice we employ different methodologies to talk to different locations of power. Visual Art is one of these methods, and we don’t privilege it over the importance of holding open a space for production (as we do in East London at, campaigning, highjacking resources, radical education, occupying spaces and/or creative direct action. We also employ these strategies, whilst simultaneously championing the power of the imagination, absurdity, aesthetics and the desire to locate new languages of resistance. After all, politically many of the forces we are fighting against are actively investing in their own imaginative agendas, often with limited censure and backed by huge resources.

AR: Making work which reflects society as it is today can involve some of its most difficult aspects. What role do you think art should or could play in better highlightling or understanding these issues?

KM & BB: The question of the praxis of art and politics is too large a subject to answer in just a few lines. Our immediate response is there is no outside: I might not be interested in politics - but politics is sure enough interested in me.

Our work reflects our own shifting interest in focusing less on Art as a set of commodities and signs, and focusing more on its ability to point to a lack of connections

As political subjectivity takes a multitude of forms, your question is best addressed in the work of art. Over 19 years of our unfolding collaboration, we have noticed a shift in our work from asking questions, to depicting conditions. Conditions of domination, fear and exclusion as well as resilience, resistance and potential. We have recently created a sic-fi protagonist in a series of works who attempts to teach, whilst struggling to speak a new language of resistance. This tension is important to us, and also reflects our own shifting interest in focusing less on art as a set of commodities and signs, and focusing more on its ability to point to a lack of connections. We have created an imaginary Museum of non Participation as a creative and critical frame to help us accumulate this intention over time.

AR: What has the experience been like to be in a group exhibition such as Artes Mundi? Do you feel particular connections with the other artists’s practices? And what do you think could emerge from this experience?

KM & BB: Since we began making work we have fundamentally understood that it is a privilege to experience a dialogue with a public, it is the most exciting thing. And we genuinely feel at Chapter that it is happening with our work. When we saw the other names on the shortlist we were also honoured, as some of the artists we hold in very high esteem for their amazing and provoking work. But who knows what will emerge? We have for many years found that our ideas, passions, friends and principles have ended up placing our bodies in situations of crisis. Hopefully Artes Mundi will help that continue?

AR: Artes Mundi is the largest monetary prize in the UK, offering £40,000 to the winner. Should you win, how do you plan on using the prize money? Do you have a particular project that you would like to use it to realise?

KM & BB: Yes ... It is important to us to hold open a space for radical aesthetic practices, to continually experiment and invent new social and political forms. We would use the money to further support the collective work we do at and to advocate for artist run culture in a system and structure that continually places value elsewhere. To ask and model the question: How do we as artists and cultural workers exist between the state and the free market? How can we safeguard our future in buildings we don’t own? We want to share this process publicly with a new platform: We live in a Utopia - it's just not ours.

Karen Mirza & Brad Butler will be hosting an ArtReview Live on 23 January, look out for upcoming details.

Artes Mundi 6 will be awarded on 22nd January at a ceremony in Cardiff. The prize show is at National Museum Cardiff, Chapter Cardiff, and Ffotogallery, Penarth until 22 February.

19 December 2014.