kennardphillipps: Protest as Practice

kennardphillipps describe their beginnings rooted in political protest, the hours of work that goes into getting that incisive moment of montage, and their latest programme of public workshops as part of Edinburgh Art Festival

Feature by Adam Benmakhlouf | 01 Aug 2015

For decades, Peter Kennard had cultivated an angry photographic practice. He’d been politicised by the Vietnam war and subsequently was collaging old school with scissors and a pile of old newspapers, and whatever other material could be of relevance. Cut to 2002. Cat Phillipps is about to spend a month travelling around the peripheries of Iraq in advance of the war which has enraged millions, but at that point feels inevitable. "I really demanded from Peter," she remembers, "that we make work there and then about Iraq."

Phillipps had herself experienced first hand the propaganda machine that brought the phrase "manufacturing consent" back into the collective consciousness. As part of Network, a collective of photojournalists, she was watching every hour as wires came through that were not publicised, and the masses of photos that were for political reasons essentially censored by the main media outlets through their refusal to publish the materials. "For me, Iraq was the first time I had witnessed mass propaganda," Phillipps states. "And lies," adds Kennard.

Kennard describes the emergence of the collaboration as "organic." For him, it was a natural by-product of the kind of activity that had been spurred in all sections of the community – no different in the visual arts. "Like millions of people around the world we were angry, and in that very high emotional state we went on marches. But that was it. There wasn’t a groundswell of creative involvement." As Kennard remembers, this was the moment when kennardphillipps began.

Having made his name as a politicised and generally enraged photographer, Kennard was Phillipps’ obvious choice for a collaborator. He had what she knew she was lacking: "Peter had already made a practice that had the ability to address and work through [them] in public,” she says, referencing the kinds of issues that she found unignorable.

As a collaborative effort, kennardphillipps provided the most appropriate way to respond to political issues they were interested in. It allowed the artists to import directly into their everyday practice the kind of political dialogue and argument they wanted to happen on a grander scale. In this set-up, as Kennard describes it, "You’re arguing things out politically, then you’re arguing it out in the picture and having to justify yourselves to one another. It’s got an educational quality, rather than just working alone."

Working in a partnership also makes different kinds of work possible. Phillipps describes wanting to make ambitious work, but not having the resources or time independently to complete more involved or complicated processes. "Ambition" is narrowed in her use of the word; she uses it "not in the sense of just making a name for yourself, and becoming something like [Damien] Hirst. If you’re really ambitious as an artist, then you want to break new ground. When you can’t afford assistants, collaboration widens your potential."

As Kennard describes it, the choice to collaborate and make work directly in response to genuinely troubling world events was out of step with the art world and art community in general, and in a lot of ways, took kennardphillipps out there too. This distance is generative for the duo, and their decisions since have continued with a disregard for, and distance from the visual art scene.

For one, they don’t consider art as a means of earning a wage, or making money. Kennard teaches, and Phillipps prints for a living. They’re by no means careerists. "I’m ancient," says Kennard, "so I never had the idea of art as a career. It was something you had to do because you had to do it." Phillipps chimes in: "Bizarrely, the art is a lot more important to me than printing. The reality is you have to earn some money to pay your rent."

For this reason, kennardphillipps don’t see anything more appropriate than giving away their work for free online: "It’s not really intended for an elite audience." They cite as a converse example the kind of artist’s video that is literally inaccessible, distributed via limited edition DVDs and only ever visible for limited periods sporadically in art galleries. "It’s aimed at the general public, not the art community, so the more accessible it is the better. The internet’s an amazing space for this. With it being available for free to pass around, that just means it’s seen by a lot more people."

Working as a duo also can often make it difficult to take part in certain arts programmes, or opportunities that are set up more in line with the traditional individual artist in mind. "It’s all set up to have one heroic figure whether it’s a question of reviewing art as a critic, or selling it as a dealer. Even showing in a gallery, if you’re a collective and a gallery want you to travel over to make a site-specific work, it becomes much more difficult than doing it alone. A multitude of things are still up for the single, individual artist."

Perhaps it’s this sought-after hero-status that’s come in the way of artists putting themselves at the service of bigger issue campaigns, and a waning of the noteworthy protest visual. With regret, Kennard notices how "NGOs and the like used to be more concerned with getting the singular images across." Specifically, "With the climate catastrophe, there haven’t been really great impactful images, just polar bears."

Making these punchy images isn’t an alchemy, more of a hard slog. "It’s basically spending hours and hours looking at images. The most powerful montages always get suggested by the images themselves." They gradually educate themselves on specific issues or subjects, and encounter masses of images in this research. "Your sense of something builds up, then the two pictures suggest themselves." For them, this process is the opposite of the ad mogul, that comes up with a concept then puts it into visual terms.

Asking kennardphillipps what’s bothering them politically right now, they keep their response open. Referring me to the exhibition itself in Stills, it will act as an encounter with the images generated by the temporary space War on War in St James Shopping Centre. In these workshops, in which they work with a whole spectrum of different community and support groups, as kennardphillipps puts it, "We encourage people to use all the equipment we’ve got, to make their own ideas and visualise them through using imagery and bits of text and smash through the order of newspapers and magazines by putting themselves in it."

The content of Stills gallery is set up loosely with wooden palettes and prints. It will act as a showcase of the workshop participants’ ideas and concerns. While kennardphillipps might be concerned right now by the fate of trade unions in the UK, they will under no circumstances prescribe the kind of work that will emerge from the workshops they are leading. In this way they distance themselves by leagues from the individual heroic artists. As they do throughout their practice, kennardphillipps facilitate a public-facing expression of the most important concerns of those who are the least enfranchised by current media, and social and political configurations.

kennardphillipps' Here Comes Everybody continues at Stills until 25 Oct