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NEoN Digital Arts Archive

Black and white portrait of the artist

NEoN INTERVIEW: DIRTY ELECTRONICS aka JOHN RICHARDS

NEoN’s resident journalist, Michael Burns, has been busy interviewing some of this year's artists involved in the festival. Here is the first installment of the series:

Who are you?

I am Dirty Electronics (aka John Richards)

What do you do?

I work with large groups creating performances and electronic sound devices. I am also interested in the intersection between artwork and printed circuit boards, the technological unknown and the absurd.
what has been your journey?

My journey has been windy: art student, guitar maker, unemployed, unemployed, itinerant music, unemployed again, student, factory worker, student, student, doctor of philosophy (music), academic, musician, artists … There were moments during the Thatcher government when I really felt like part of a lost generation and was living an isolated life in London playing piano in bars to get by, but my interest in music and exploring sound kept me going.

How do you collaborate?

I like to collaborate with an open mind. It is all about developing a relationship with your collaborators. I have done a lot of collaborations, particularly with Dirty Electronics. Recently I have also found myself in a number of cross/inter-art residencies with filmmakers, choreographers, fashion designers, animators, other musicians, sound artists, etc. These have been very experimental and open in nature culminating in the presentation of work made collectively. I’ve spent a couple of weeks this year resident in a disused coal mine near Saarbrucken, Germany, and the idyllic surroundings of an olive farm near Sparta, Greece. I also built a larger-than-life cardboard synthesizer with Anat Ben-David (Chicks on Speed) at the former home of James Bond author Ian Fleming.

Can you provide a quick overview of what you’ll be up to at NEoN?

I will be working with a large group building the classic Dirty Electronics Skull Etching and working with that group to devise a performance. The Skull Etching combines etched artwork and electronics into a unique touch instrument.

What do you hope to achieve or experience here?

I always have ideas for pieces that I would like to realise and perform. I have been thinking for a long time about a performance where an electronic musical instrument is played with feather dusters. Hopefully the premiere of this piece will be at NEoN!

What was your first successful piece of work and how has your work/style developed since then?

I have had some recognition as a composer of electronic music, but it was not really until I started Dirty Electronics that I became more widely known. This stemmed from me being more truthful about the work I was creating and looking at myself more holistically. And some of this recognition has come outside of music and from the arts community. This has been a bit of a surprise.

Can you describe a couple of favourite examples of your projects, please?

This year I spent a week in residence at the ICA in London. This provided an opportunity to treat the whole residency as an artistic process. I had people making instruments using hammers, tin cutters and soldering irons and I treated this as a form of choreography and theatre. I kind of composed structurally exactly when participants would get the hammers out. It was about thinking laterally to create a structural dynamic for the whole piece. The public were also able to view the process, so it kind of came like a living installation.

What media or tools do you use in your work?

I only use software/computers when I really need to. They can be overkill. I am always thinking of ways of realizing ideas in the simplest and most direct way. Do I really need all of these tools to express what it is I want to communicate? I am always trying to make a social comment on my environment, which is heavily technological. But, for example, I recently had an idea for a piece called Powder Puff, where loudspeakers filled with powder or flour would omit a very short intermittent sound. The result would be a puff of powder. However, I ended up realising the piece with twenty-five performers with popguns filled with flour!

Where did you get the inspiration for your last project?

I devised a piece called Hope for the 60th Anniversary of the Festival of Britain for the Southbank. The work explored the themes of mass production and individualism, the hand-made and collective process in the creation of an artwork. Workshop participants built a tiny ‘grain’ synthesizer that omitted a very short repeated sound and visually concurrent blinking LED. As the weekend progressed, the grains of sound amassed into an installation to create an evolving sound and visual texture. It was only through a collective effort that the final piece was realised.

Which creatives do you most admire – and why?

I find the work of David Tudor and Nam June Paik inspiring. Both transcended their Immediate disciplines to incorporate a range of approaches and technologies. Paik in particular stands out as a pioneer of cross/inter-arts.