Interview – Daniel Swan
It’s the hottest day of the year and I’m waiting outside Daniel Swan’s flat in Brixton. He’s walking up the road sipping on a Pink Ting. Upstairs, we head to his bedroom.It’s up to the rafters in books, videos, posters and ‘stuff’ – not a million miles from the adolescent flashback of his recent solo show. For The Games, he put an unmade bed in the middle of the gallery, then he plastered the walls and ceiling with glossy posters of motorcyclists suspended in a moment of both performance and disaster.
As nostalgic as the exhibition may have been, it doesn’t seem as though Daniel’s lost touch with that youthful sense of fantasy and possibility. His films are often journeys through dreamscapes or manmade universes that toy with viewers’ preconceptions of time, space and consequence. They’re incredibly simple in terms of narrative, and all the more beautiful for it. He’s got a unusual knack for giving the story, the mood, the cinematography and the animation equal weight, even in a four-minute music video.
From very early on, his vision has afforded him a serious amount of trust. People generally let him do what he wants. Early music videos for Jam City, My Panda Shall Fly and M.I.A. have led on to bigger scale productions for Palmistry, RL Grime and Django Django. He’s exhibited at the Barbican, the ICA and on Channel 4 and is championed by Dazed, rated 45th in this year’s Dazed 100. For a relatively young artist, it’s credit to him that brands are also ready to give him total free reign. His work with Adidas, Cottweiler, Primitive and Intel are as representative of Daniel personally as they are of each respective brand.
As his latest exhibition demonstrated, he’s adept with a variety of formats. The downside of this technological ease – when combined with his fashion-friendly aesthetic – is the risk of being associated more with an art scene than a profession. Pieces produced with net-savvy collectives such as Lucky PDF has seen him lumbered with both the new-media and dreaded post-internet tags. For right or wrong, neither have managed to generate any widespread critical respect and both have, in some ways, had a damaging effect on how people perceive online art.
Morgan Quaintance wrote about it in a recent issue of Art Monthly: “Like a transitory fashion or subculture… its linguistic framework, behaviours and aesthetic tropes are outmoded, unsophisticated and signify all that is passé.” While new-media art at least makes use of novel forms of production and distribution, post-internet art – with its now familiar stylistic traits of grainy retro-futurism and ironic digital dabbling – stagnates in an increasingly institutionalised toilet. There are only so many times you can take the piss out of commodification and self-obsession.
Understandably, an artist may want to disassociate from that culture. And in this case, it’s justifiable. There is far more to Daniel’s work than a fad or a style and his potential as a filmmaker is undeniable. But despite his proficiency as a fine artist and commercial collaborator, his interest in straddling the line means he’s yet to secure a strong footing in either. He could choose to stretch himself more as an artist, he could continue as he is, or he could dive headfirst into filmmaking. His heart seems to lean towards the latter, but would that mean sacrificing the freedom that being a fine artist affords… There’s the rub.
What was the motivation behind The Games?
I think it’s partly nostalgic but also quite fun and dumb to place yourself in the moment of an alternate version of your previous self, or some kid you imagine, and play out their fantasies. I want to do more of that.
Where did you grow up?
Blackpool. Well, I lived outside in a little seaside town. But I was born in Blackpool and spent most of my time there. I really like that place. I haven’t been back for six years because my parents moved away after I left but I kind of want to go back now. Although there wasn’t a lot to do. London feels so safe compared to most small towns. There aren’t so many groups of bored kids wanting to kill you.
How long have you been in London?
I’ve been here for eight years, since moving down for university. I’m still not into the idea of living anywhere but here. I’m still excited by it. I like that it feels harsh. I like the feeling that if I don’t concentrate I might die. There’s no safety net of just living at home. Although it would be easier living somewhere else.
What did you think of Camberwell?
That place was really horrible. Have you been in there? It’s really horrible. I was getting panic attacks every day. It feels haunted.
Was the teaching any cop?
I did Graphic Design and kind of I hated it. I failed it and redid it and passed it. I wanted to be taught processes and they didn’t really teach processes. Other than that I just wanted to use the facilities and be in London. It’s meant to be good if you want to be a graphic designer or an illustrator. I’m not sure what I am. I don’t feel like I can really call myself an artist at the moment because I’ve been away from it for too long, doing commissions. I need to build back into it.
I guess you can let people call you what they want to call you and just do what you do.
I imagine not having a label can give you more freedom. You’re able to do commercial work without feeling any sense of guilt.
There’s also something about the idea of being an artist I don’t like at all. I’d prefer to be a film director. Or something in between. Maybe it’s stupid to be courting the artist label when I don’t fully want to be one.
Do you think art is a bit pointless?
Yeah, that’s what I’m going through right now. I’ve gone into a hole. If you become an artist and you get good, how much are you really affecting things? How big is your audience going to be. I guess I feel that making films is more culturally and publicly affecting than art.
What are you interested in?
I’m fascinated by brutal things. I don’t want to be, but I am. I’m fascinated by real life, like how it looks and how seductive that is compared to how beautiful it is. They had a Northrup Grumman stealth bomber advert in the middle of the Superbowl. It was a really romantic, beautiful film saying, ‘We’re taking care of you.’ It’s such a thinly-veiled evil portrayed in such an obvious glossy way and put out into the public realm.
Destruction can be very compelling.
Yeah, all through history people have had hangings and legitimised public killings. Now there’s a hole and that’s even scarier. People go into it. It’s a vacuum.
It’s as though the majority of people are lacking tangible involvement with death or destruction so they’re seeking it out.
Yeah, there’s no outlet for it, which is pretty scary. I’ve been seeing so much extreme stuff on the street recently. I was coming back on the bus this week and I saw this woman running to catch the bus. The bus did a hit and run. It ran over her leg and her leg went up the kerb. It was completely flattened. The very next day I was on the bus coming down Brixton hill and a cyclist was laid flat on the road bleeding after getting hit by a car. It’s been a visually stressful week. But I don’t know what that means. It just means I’ve had my dose of horror for the week. I feel freaked out but fuller for it.
What sort of things were you making at Camberwell?
I did loads of VHS stuff in college. I did this short film, Lux Laze. It was about fifteen minutes long. My friend Jack of Jam City did the soundtrack. We’re rereleasing it this year. This is what failed Camberwell. I did a Jam City video later on, maybe a year after I left. We’ve worked on a few things together. From that, I started doing more music videos.
He plays a video recently made for Adidas.
I haven’t evolved the technique that much. This is kind of the same thing, slowly scrolling. A narrative comes out of the order in which things appear. It’s an easy gimmick, but I quite like gimmicks.
Although there is the risk of gimmicks becoming fads.
Yeah. A lot of the stuff that I was into, I want to get away from. The style of video flyers I did for shows, posters and album covers and things like that. I guess you see it a lot more in music than art. I did a load of 3D stuff after the Jam City video but I kind of want to slow down on doing that now. It’s quite a rinsed aesthetic. I’d like to do more proper direction.
Are there any elements from your old work you want to hold on to?
I want to retain the very machinated or sterile feel of things I’ve done but try and do them in real life. I think it’s quite fun to use the limits of one format as artificial constraints within another area. So say, using movie industry stuff in a different way where it doesn’t need to be used. Trying to move on from the defaults that you find yourself limited by in software or applying them instead to something else. I’d like to explore real physical space more in film and installations.
What sort of films do you like?
I like a slow film. The pace of film annoys me a lot.
Would you still want to use visual effects?
Yeah, I love effects. I still love a lens flare. I like minimalism but really like maximalism. My first film will be very maximalist film drawn out over a long period of time – that’s how I want it to be. I don’t know who will be into that. I think people will be into that.
I don’t see why not. I’ve never understood why some filmmakers go to such lengths to patronise.
I guess no one ever got poor from underestimating their audience.
Interview by Amelia Phillips / Published 10 August 2015