ICON: Tell me about your self-portraits. Who are they? Are these people you have been? People you want to be? People who you never want to be?
LISTER: They’re not even really people. It’s just dress-up. It’s a kind of fabricated visit of an identity, like a superficial persona. I can imagine there are a lot of people, whether man or woman, who embody mannerisms of, say, their mother, and don’t necessarily choose to be feminine looking. So, in the same vein, it’s not necessarily being what I look like, as much as it is just looking like something for the sake of it. Fact versus fiction, myth versus legend. Who’s writing history? Who’s deleting it? What is our impression of somebody else? Now, people juggle digital avatars of themselves to the point of exhausting their actual own identity; something I imagine to be quite difficult. Not that I have any pity for actors…
ICON: Why so?
LISTER: Well, it’s just glorified kind of fibbing, really. I’ve always had a problem with acting and actors and things like this.
ICON: Aren’t you acting, playing dress-up in your self-portraits?
LISTER: [Laughs] You got me… You know, you can escape in the dark and still be yourself. Acting is a kind of lie; it’s exhibitionist, glorified lying. If you’re doing a good job, you’re absolutely tricking people and you’re lying. I just don’t think that’s what it’s all about or what people should be aspiring to do.
ICON: What should people be aspiring to?
LISTER: Well, it should be about philosophy. It should be developments in science, spirituality and ritual.
ICON: Do you think that’s possible, given your comment before about people not being in control of who’s writing history? Is it possible for the layman to really embrace this given the implication that others steer how we live?
LISTER: Well, yeah, they don’t even steer them, they’re pushed, aren’t they? It’s a Viking ship and everybody’s beating their heads on the computers as they’re rowing the boats and they don’t even know they’re doing it. And they’re smiling.
ICON: Only in certain pictures they’re smiling…
LISTER: Yeah, fuck. I just got the shivers. This is a horror film we are writing. There have been some terrible times. The government is continually letting down the people – however good the intention. Australia has a constitution and so much of our law is unjust. There are a lot of people not living up to the duty of their own men, you know?
LISTER: I think [Sydney’s] Kings Cross is in a sad state of affairs when it comes to the amusement of people’s disappointment and dissatisfaction taking over their willingness to actually fight for a life. Look at what’s going on here [Lister points to a tour bus that’s pulled up outside the strip club]. Has it even been down recently? I haven’t seen a bus come down here for the longest time.
ICON: Given the state of the Cross now, I wonder what they’re actually pointing out. What could they possibly be saying? Once upon a time, somebody was shot here?
LISTER: Why are they even stopping?
ICON: So now, the Cross has become a kind of lore and legend.
LISTER: It really has. If you see some video from the ’50s, you’ll note that you rise up out of the darkened William Street strip, basically showing a mini Las Vegas lit up in the distance – it was fucking beautiful. You wouldn’t find a sign saying “King’s Cross up ahead”. It is what it is and you’ll get what you’re given. It was really great storytelling. Now it’s just gone.
ICON: Nobody owns a corner anymore…
LISTER: Nobody owns anything! There’s no one running the show anymore, except for the police and they actually don’t even give a fuck. There’s nothing for them to do. I mean, they tried to shut this place down the other night, but what could they even do? We weren’t doing anything wrong. I had a smoke machine downstairs and they were looking at me like “You’re not allowed to use that thing.”
ICON: Why not?
LISTER: More often than not in this country, we wonder what we are doing wrong before we wonder why the police are there. I think the police used to be there to assist and service. It just seems like they just get in the way these days. I’ve not been involved in a situation where the police have got involved and it has made the situation any better. I’ve seen street fights and all sorts of crazy things, but at any time or place that the police have got involved, it has never made anything better for anybody involved. There’s a real problem when disaster has turned into entertainment. And that’s what the police are. They are entertaining themselves with people’s problems.
ICON: Who would really enjoy a job where it’s your duty to impose restrictions on another human being. It doesn’t sound very enjoyable…
LISTER: I thought about this a long time ago. There are two types of people in the world: cops and robbers. You’re either the kid who can thrive when he’s got something to chase, or you’re the kid who’s better at finding a better outcome.
ICON: Right, I need to find a way out of here…
LISTER: Yes, and it’s hard to do that. It’s always easier to follow the path of others. But that’s what I feel it comes down to. Are you the runner or are you the chaser? A lot of people do only one very well. What you enjoy comes down to how comfortable you are with enforcing things on other people. And I’m a parent and sometimes I don’t feel comfortable imposing myself. It’s a sickness for those who do; it’s sadist. When you get deeper into the system, you have these people who control the prisoners – the correctional officers. I went to prison once in New York and I’m sure what was going on behind this mirrored wall was a scene out of Pulp Fiction where they’re downstairs at Zed’s place. It was out of control. They’re beyond the law. What do you do? What does one do? What can one do?
ICON: What does one do?
LISTER: In Australia, as a white male, what can you do? You can do a lot and not get noticed, or you can do a little and get noticed. I’m not sure what the pattern is, but either way you’re going to die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. That’s a quote from Batman and it seems very true when it comes to tall poppy syndrome being alive and well in Australia. The nature of success is so abstract compared to, say, America, where should somebody from a community become successful doing something, it’s actually a launch pad for everybody else.
ICON: Within that community?
LISTER: Within the community and the industry as a whole. We just don’t see it like that here.
ICON: How do you judge your own success in Australia, then?
LISTER: It’s simple, if I wake up and I want to get up, then I feel that’s success. That’s something that’s ingrained in me. When it comes down to the success of individual projects, it comes down to whether the ripple I created from whatever it is I’m doing is powerful and not causing friction to anybody else.
ICON: Then how do you balance people’s perceptions of you before and after? You have the same people saying let’s get rid of the graffiti asking you to create street art on their garage doors because they’ve seen your name in a gallery or magazine.
LISTER: Look, that shit haunts me. There’s a guy who asked me to paint his bar, but won’t let anyone tag the toilets. I’m helping his business by letting him know that the tags are a form of communication, so don’t remove them. It’ll keep people coming back.
ICON: In their way, yeah.
LISTER: You’d be surprised how hard it is for people to let the toilets go. It’s not desecration. I slash my own pieces. Honestly! Then you have these guys saying can you come to do more work at the bar after they’ve painted over the tags. And I’m like fucking what? I tag the toilets if I accept the gig. It is a struggle to see this contradiction within society. It’s taken me a long time to get to a place where, going on radio to talk with some people and morning ABC associate and she’s telling me how her kids like graffiti and street art and how it’s this whole new language that she’s learning about. And I’m like that’s great but noticeboards have been around for a long time. Like before Facebook there were real walls and people would write “piss off”, “draw on my car again and you’ll get a beating”. It was real, it was communication.
ICON: Without surveillance.
LISTER: Yes, the fear of the freedom of and individual’s speech is far greater than the fear of many other things to governments, because when it comes down to it, art can change the world. When things are liberated, when people feel like public spaces can be for public people and they activate them, then you’ve got people voting every day. And when you’ve got people voting every day, you’ve got things moving quicker and changing. There’s a massive black hole that money goes into removing street art and prosecuting artists. Because a number of artists are juveniles, they’re considered vandals and the community fears them.
ICON: Because there’s some association with them being violent?
LISTER: Criminals. The fear mongering about graffiti started a long time ago. And the propaganda involved us not knowing who these guys were. And it is just a perfect storm that subcultures generally don’t want to be known – it further feeds into the picture.
ICON: Do you think that’s got to do with the positioning as an intrusion into my personal space when in fact it might be a public space?
LISTER: Absolutely, absolutely. They make out like the public space is for public people and that the taxpayers’ money cleans off this graffiti, but really it’s an absolute farce. Statistically speaking, when it comes down to street art, almost all the time people appreciate good work. They always say it’s the tags that we don’t like. There’s no garden that’s ever being ripped out by a council. The council isn’t going around ripping out Mrs such-and-such’s garden that she’s had there for 10 years. They’re not weeding her garden for her! I see graffiti tags as the weeds and they’re germinating the soil. Because if the weeds stay there long enough, then somebody does something nice there because they know it’s going to stay. A garden isn’t going to grow flowers if it’s constantly weeded. And there’s no artwork that’s ever caused an allergic reaction like any of these native plants we’ve got around. So here you have government agencies going around taking it upon their own judgment and audacity to delete culture when they’re taking away people’s artwork. I’ve transcended beyond the despair, and the sadness, and the anger, and even the acceptance. I’m so indifferent. I don’t see what anything that I do is anything to do with the law, or breaking any kind of law. Fuck, what is it like? It’s like walking down the street giving someone some flowers and then them smacking you in the face.
ICON: Or just putting them straight in the bin. You’re the target unless they earn one of your works. And then they love it.
LISTER: So, culture is over.
“When things are liberated, when people feel like public spaces can be for public people and they activate them, then you’ve got people voting every day. And when you’ve got people voting every day, you’ve got things moving quicker and changing.”
ICON: “Culture is Over” is the name of your exhibition. That’s quite a call. Obvious applications to Kings Cross and why it’s called that, but how do you feel that it also applies to other disciplines beyond the arts?
LISTER: Oh, well, I love the idea of it from a John and Yoko point of view. If you build it, they will come. So, in the tarot sense, death is the rebirth and transformation. So, I see “Culture is Over” as a rebirth. If I were to have the audacity to even conceive it as any sort of literal depiction of the words themselves, I’d be taking the piss, but in actual fact it’s like saying, “I am attempting to break art.”
ICON: And I’m sure Marcel Duchamp attempted to break art with his 1917 “Fountain”, but did he know he was breaking art? Who knows?
LISTER: I think [American painter] Chuck Close said, “I’m far more interested in problem creation than problem solution.” And I think that’s a great way of chucking another thing in the mix. It’s more interesting. I just liked the idea of thinking it’s over and if anybody’s willing to take that literally, then fantastic. Imagine that. And I like to imagine how they feel about that. If they’re going down the shops and they go, “Fuck, yeah, finally. Hear that? Culture’s over.”
ICON: Culture has existed forever. Even if a civilisation doesn’t exist anymore, the culture still exists. So when we are gone, our culture will still exist; it will just exist in a time capsule with nobody to observe it. So, whether there’s a museum to display it in the canon of its own history, or it’s all under the ocean. Any which way you look at it, culture will continue to exist, no?
LISTER: Wow, that’s fascinating. But I didn’t think anyone truly allowed themselves to feel a state of permanence or definition. So even as it relates to like a religion or spirituality, right? The fact that in people’s minds it’s like, well, there’s going to be something else so I don’t need to act upon what I actually must do today. Or if categorically we all knew that there was no more culture, we are devoid of all of this now. If we actually knew that, then people would probably do something about it, don’t you think?
I leave you, who reads this to ponder that thought.
Current – 12th October, 2019 Modern Masters at Mirurs Gallery, Denver USA www.mirusgallery.com
26th November – 9th December 2019 Woke Up On Fire at Robert Fontaine Gallery, Miami USA
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE OCTOBER 2019 EDITION OF ICON AUSTRALIA.
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