Chew and Spit: Interview with Beatrice Loft Schulz

Beatrice Loft Schulz discusses her Chew and Spit exhibition at Tramway, and its take on the dismantling of the social state, gallery neutrality and the Wham Rap!

Article by Adam Benmakhlouf | 05 May 2017

As tastes change, it’s possible for a style of decor to materially devalue a house. Until 14 May, the recipient of the first Tramway Open commission Beatrice Loft Schulz’s exhibition decorates the front space with a technique called ‘popcorn.’ It’s a rough looking wall covering that’s a sharper relative to woodchip, feeling gritty and potentially painful to skite against. This question of taste, refinement, and what might be “too much” is one that has wide-reaching implications from contemporary lifestyle trends, to judgments of what is necessary and its political consequences of what is calculated as the basic standard of life.

Immediately from the referencing to interior decor through the large-scale changes to the wall and floors, there’s a sense of intimacy or familiarity, though tempered by a certain monumentality. There are glances towards Loft Schulz’s own upbringing in a council flat in East London. Loft Schulz thinks in particular of the kinds of changes that were made by the people living in social housing around her, “in really different ways.” In her house, she remembers one book of English country mansions that formed the basis for her mum’s decoration. However, the relevance of this is not straightforward for her: “It came from trying to respond to some personal feeling that material evoked to me and my parents’ house, where my mum still lives – this very particular space. But it’s also something that is nothing to do with me, it was this fashion that happened at a certain moment in time.”

Covering the walls and floor was also a means of making a space different from the glaring white walls of the usual gallery space. The walls are treated, rather than drawn on, or the surface for hanging, presenting or fixing distinct work. “I feel like the supposed neutrality of the gallery space is actually a very intense space. That white with fluorescent lights is so much for your eyes. You wouldn’t want to spend that much time in a space like that. I always feel like I need to create housing for the work and myself: an environment in which I feel okay.”

Thinking then of these changes of attitude more generally, Loft Schulz wonders “What is too much? At what point does decoration become clutter? At what point is it too much… and disgusting?” In particular, she thinks of the “rejection of decoration that’s come out of modernism [to an extent]”, and how this in turn becomes a jettisoning of “sentimental objects” and the comforts they bring. According to these kinds of philosophies, objects are “just things” and people that have too many things are judged to have indulged in consumerism and don’t know when to stop.

She thinks in particular of a movement based mostly in the USA, “of these people that only have 100 possessions.” There’s an attendant protestant and utilitarian ethic, only to have “what is essential,” nothing more. While acknowledging that for some people this has been an important life change, Loft Schulz is nevertheless suspicious of some of the dominating versions of this process. She thinks in particular of two men who lead one specific strain of this trend, and she paraphrases some of their comments in a recent article. “We gave up our six-figure salaries to live this minimal lifestyle.” In the same article, she describes the photographs of these still obviously rich people, who had a massive empty New York loft apartment with a single Eames chair.

In response to this “patronising attitude of ‘I know how to choose quality life. I know what’s good,’” Loft Schulz describes being “committed to objects and possessions.” A huge context for this feeling for her comes from a series of insecure housing situations for the last few years. “Having to move all the time, [I have been feeling] this impetus to get rid of stuff… All I’m doing is carrying it around in boxes from place to place.”

Considering the political implications, she thinks of the deterioration of the social state, and how people are expected to live with much less. “I see a relationship especially in this American 100 Possessions or Minimalism movement to individualism.” She thinks of a lineage that extends from Henry David Thoreau's Walden; or, Life in the Woods, first published in 1854. “He goes to live in this little hut in the forest, and it’s this very programmatic description of life in this forest.” She sums up the prose: “All I need to eat is bread. All I need is flour and water, and a bit of salt. I don’t need anything on my bread.” But nevertheless, his mother was doing his laundry and he was from a very wealthy family. She contrasts Thoreau with the 18th-century Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “who has this obsession with getting to the most simple point of his life. And for him it does feel like a genuine disgust with the aristocracy and the life he came from.”

These ideas translate, for Loft Schulz, to neoliberal ideas of what an individual needs to live, or deserves. She remembers in particular a newspaper item that was based around the opinion “maybe if someone can’t afford something, they shouldn’t have it.” In response, she asks, “do they know what the logical conclusion of that is? If somebody can’t afford somewhere to live… if someone can’t afford food. It’s an absurd statement.” After discussing these kinds of headlines, letters to the editor and stories, Loft Schulz speaks happily of the Wham Rap! by Wham! Its video sees a young, gorgeous George Michael pick up his cute friend. In pre-I, Daniel Blake times, the lyrics include ‘A.1. style, from head to toe/ Cool cat flash, gonna let you know/ I'm a soul boy, I'm a dole boy/ Take pleasure in leisure, I believe in joy.’

In a different, though connected, line of thinking, Loft Schulz also speaks candidly about the difficulty of achieving her proposal in a formal institutional context. Though accepted on the basis of her plan to execute the ‘popcorn’ decor directly onto the walls of the gallery, the final outcome has been to have fabric sheeting (that is not perceptible on visiting) between the popcorn material and the wall. Specifically, she thinks about the ambivalence of (particularly art) institutions to host critical-thinking and challenging projects, but nevertheless protect themselves. This gave rise to the exhibition’s title Chew and Spit and how that “relates to the position of the artist within the institution. They want the show to be in critical dialogue with the space, but they don’t want the permanent mark. They want to be able to spit it out, while they’ve tasted it, but not swallow it.”

Chew and Spit at Tramway, continues until 14 May