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Artist Spotlight: Billy Fraser

Meet Billy Fraser, whose practice explores an extensive series of speculations executed across a variety of mediums. Combining aspects of alternative art production with an interest in an expanded linear narrative, Fraser creates artworks that exist on a timeline of subjective experience, encompassing the at once majestic and horrific encounters of the natural, the industrial, the technological and the nuclear. Solemnity and absurdity collide as Fraser mines the pop-cultural and socio-historical context of human achievements; just as mythical legends of power and destruction inspired artists for millennia, so the feats of human endeavour witnessed over the past century serve to stimulate contemporary concepts of might, doom and inevitable demise. 


To celebrate and close Tomorrow, Today, Yesterday, a group show organised by Billy Fraser of six London based artists working in sculpture, Modern Forms will be hosting an informal talk and discussion ‘Today, Tomorrow: The Future of the UK’s Art Scene?’, as organised by Billy. Find information on how to attend the talk on the 20th of March in London here


We sat down with Billy to discuss Collective Ending, his work in resin, his thoughts on the role of history in contemporary art and more…


Billy photographed by @_gilbruno


How did your journey as an artist start and how did you go about finding your medium and moving into resin?


I had the fortunate upbringing of just scurrying around in an antique restoration workshop so before I could read and write I was competent in a wood workshop so I'd always made and delivered with my hands. And basically, as soon as I could, I knew all I ever wanted to do was to pursue art. So as soon as I got out of higher education, I could do my foundation. As soon as I did my foundation, I could come to London, and as soon as I graduated, I could build my own studio and as soon as I learned how to do that, I could build a bigger studio. And as soon as I built a bigger studio, I realised I could have a collective. So I was forever inching towards that community ambition and just making sure I was always surrounded by other like minded individuals that had the can do attitude that you need in the arts if you don't have a silver spoon and someone propping you up, or people paying your way, if you like.


When I was about 15/16, I was a meticulous representational painter, so traditionally trained in painting and got into contemporary art through that painterly lens. I went into university and there was lots of representational painting, and the main question for me was the middle ground between representation and abstraction. How far can you push representation until it becomes total abstraction?


Anyway, I was so invested in contemporary art so I went to Chelsea School of Art, which was incredibly broad based, broad spectrum, everyone did everything. The teaching style there was incredibly hands off. So they just pushed you into a degree and said, go put on shows, collaborate with your peers, go become artists. Although I was resentful of the lack of input at the time, it was definitely one of the defining factors that brought a cohort of artists together, myself Andy Hart, Ted Le Swer, Tom Ribot to name a few. We just came out of Chelsea, so equipped and not expecting anything from anyone, immediately were incredibly ambitious. Instead of some of the problems my peers faced, where they were given all these false promises at uni and then they sat around waiting for gallery representation. Every year there might be a thousand new graduates in London alone. So every year, a thousand artists are being pumped into the system, And if they're all sitting waiting for representation, it never happens. Honestly you're better off buying a lottery ticket. 


I've drifted away from your question. Painting in my heart and painting in my mind, but I was struggling with the limitations of painting. So I'd make this grand composition and it had all this meaning and merit, but what it actually conveyed… there was a distraction by the sound in the corner of that room, and the conversation happening there, and that smell and how you were feeling that day. Painting was two dimensional and not all encompassing. I was so obsessively driven by trying to world build or create new visual languages that I resented how little I could control through  the 2D painted surface. So that's when I slowly transitioned into experimental resin. I was making things that I would call analogies, which were like self contained situations where I could dictate almost like a scene that was taking place.





Suddenly I realised resin was a medium where I could innovate and I could create things that had never been seen before. I still, to this day, have that as a driving force of the resin work, whereas you can never find that with painting, because it's got such a rich history. The best painting of today, you can compare to painters from 50 years ago, and you can compare them to their modern contemporaries 150 years ago. So there's this lineage of regurgitation that is contemporary painting and for me, what was far more exciting was making things that never existed before and resin was a fertile ground to do so.


So how did history come to play such an important role in your practice?


I would say it stems from the frustrations I had with painting. I wanted to make work that could comment on the now, but that was such a lofty attempt that forever you'd find yourself caught up in contemporary politics. A good example to give is that whilst I was at Chelsea, there was lots of people who were kind of discovering themselves and discovering their sexuality and lots of those undertones played a part in the work they made and the critique they gave to others. I found it very difficult to make work about the contemporary present day, without it being bogged down in all of the different contemporary identity questions that we're facing and lots of young artists were looking to address at arts school through their work.  So for me, as an easier method to understand my own relationship to contemporary art, I said I'd much rather define what the past was, and what the future might be, to give a better context to now, and that's where my historical obsession first kind of took hold.


I was thinking, like, what's the beginning of earth? Is that the big bang? Or is that the first vegetation? Or is it the first homo sapiens on earth? And I fell into this trajectory of being completely invested and embedded in historical discourse, because art and art history happens alongside this historical discourse.


I probably owe a lot of that research and understanding to my dissertation, which followed a trajectory of prehistory and the origins of what something could be considered as sublime. The neolithic homo sapiens experiencing the first incredible moments, and how the sublime is redefined by the generation we live in. People of the industrial revolution could no longer look at a vast expanse of land and see that as incredible, because they'd witnessed the steam train or they'd witnessed the first man on the moon, and all of a sudden the actual nature of human experience was developed.


I think those are some of the main undertones that have me fascinated with history, or this idea of a timeline of human history and art history and how they overlap, complement and contradict. 





What you were saying about being so independent because of your course at Chelsea is so interesting, because of course you've put on your own exhibition Today, Tomorrow, Yesterday. I'd love to know more about the exhibition, its themes and what inspired you to start your own exhibition.


I remember when I was younger, a dear friend of mine called Nathaniel Faulkner recommended a book which was called something like Gerhard Richter's Memoirs. There's this beautiful chapter where Gerhard Richter goes ham about the state of Arts education. Now, don't get me wrong, there's loads of brilliant tutors out there, and I've been tutored by brilliant tutors, but in this particular extract, it talks about the plight of the art school and how miserable, satirical, artists who never made it in their own career became tutors and used that position just to oppress the next generation and to put their plight onto them, and how there'd been this new birth of the role of the curator. So I always refer to myself in a curatorial context, as an organiser. So all of the press and everything for Today, Tomorrow, Yesterday, is organised by Billy Fraser, a practising artist, and I consider myself an artist first and an organiser second. Curation is an extension of being an artist, and I curate my own practice, I curate the people I'm around, I curate the work I do in my day to day. Being an artist, organising, curating are all one and the same. 


So for me, putting on shows is an extension of my interests and when I was offered the opportunity to do the main freeze event for Modern Forms, it had come off the back of a lot of solo presentations off my work that year. I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to look at my expanded emerging art network, which was some like 200 people strong because of things like collective ending, and to bring together a cohort of cutting edge, ambitious contemporary sculptors.  


It was really lovely to invite people who I have worked with so intimately to exhibit under the same pretext and themes that are some of the main undertones of my historical research and practice as a whole. 





Like we said earlier in our chat, obviously BRUSHWRK and yourself are similar but in different ways, both looking to shift the narrative of the traditional art industry. What other changes would you like to see in the art industry?


People forever tread on eggshells within the art industry.


Okay, so there's a few things to mention. Firstly, so many artists have to have side hustles, have different jobs, and have to support and sustain themselves. What I’d like to see is that being worn as a badge of pride, a lot more for me. I run my own studio, which is the main studio here, the resin studio chamber through there is where the resin casting happens. I have an incredible assistant who works off site that does lots of the sanding and finishing and processing for me now. I also am a founding member of Collective Ending, a massive arts organisation that provides for twelve artists and has done for almost five years in its permanent space. Alongside this, I run a massive tech company that is an umbrella for 15 to 20 freelance techs in London called London Art Services. The company acts as a figurehead, so that if the freelancers run into problems, they have an extra level of support. 


This is something I'm incredibly proud of because I get to support and look after all of these artists who need to earn money alongside their careers. With all of this additional infrastructure, I've actually found I have a lot more time for my own practice, because there's a conglomerate of people supporting one another. 


So when I hear about that from successful artists, that they might fit high end kitchens on the side because they have some crazy orientation of their practise, where they do mad bespoke art kitchens, things like that bestow the reality in young artists that it's okay to work that job at the Tate, that your career isn’t over if you have to work five shifts down at the pub each week. So first and foremost, I'd like more artists who are emerging, mid career, successful, to just let people know that for the most part, you really have to graft in order to get into the art world. In fact, it's a privilege and a compliment, and not something that belittles or is a demeanour to them, in and of themselves, as artists.


The second important point that I'd like to make is that the art world is incredibly exclusive, for better, for worse, in all its own ways. It's hard to break the seal, it's hard to tap into. The problem with that is that the art world is this tiny, tiny blip in the real world. There's a hilarious quote that the adhesives industry, the sale of cello-tape and packing materials, is bigger than the whole art world combined. So whenever you've got all these people taking their galleries really seriously and all the infrastructure, all the interns and stuff, I always remind myself that sellotape is a bigger and more profitable industry.


That said, there's so much money in the world that's being spent on anything and everything. And the art world needs to be more open and more inviting to that new wealth. The art world needs to invite people to start their collections. When you come into my gallery, I should be excited that you're looking to start a collection, not dismissive of the fact you don't have one already. And that's a really big problem - I've seen it firsthand. I've heard it through back alleys and channels, and now there's loads of wealth looking to invest in art, and contemporary art pushes it away, saying it's uneducated new wealth. What happens is that a pocket of money  leaves the snoopy contemporary art gallery and walks down New Bond street, walks into one of those smoke and mirror galleries and goes and buys a massive inflatable Jeff Koons knockoff that costs 100k and is pretty much worthless. 


There's this tragic shift where money is being pushed away from the arts, and it's getting smaller and smaller and more inclusive and more inclusive. I'm just terrified for the future, because I live a wonderful, fun, exciting, weird life within the arts. The best thing that can ever happen to me is I sell to someone who's starting their collection, as opposed to - that work’s being sold to a big collector [pointing at piece in the background]. It's been sitting here for a year and a half because all of her houses are full of art, all of her storage is full of art, so she doesn't have any impetus to collect it or to put it anywhere. Whereas when someone comes in and buys a low price point edition, and it's a resin fish in a bag, and it's the first work they've ever owned, four months later, I get a message from them saying that their aunt, from such and such, thought it was real, and they had a half an hour conversation where they explained the reason and meaning behind the work and she loved it, and how grateful that person is. Nothing fulfils me more and is more humbling than those new collectors and encouraging people to start collecting.





You mentioned Collective Ending there, could you tell me more about that and the Poster Campaign that you’ve been running? 


So, collective ending - I'll do the as abridged version as I possibly can.


The problem we found with contemporary art shows is that people are immediately looking for the beer and then the door to go to the after party… and we were like how do we blend everything into one, how do we give people a reason not to leave. In short, a massive, ridiculous concept show at James Capper’s warehouse in Bermondsey. Didn't know how it was going to go, six to ten artists were exhibiting there, but the show was from 06:00 p.m, until… well… it had no close. So it just got bigger and bigger and bigger, and more and more people showed up until every street was filled. And this legacy of the first ABSINTHE prototype show had taken hold in the London emerging art scene.


It went incredibly well. It was incredibly well received and then about four months later, a massive commercial pub who had attended the first show said, look, we've got a three story pub. We don't know what to do with it. We don't make any money. If you guys want to take it over, you can have the whole space for the whole year. We won't get in your way, you can exhibit anything you want, you can do anything you want. Is that something you'd be interested in?


That is kind of the birth and the beginning of Collective Ending. So me and one of the founding members, Charlie Mills, put on three shows during a one year absinthe programme at this pub. It was as adventurous as the first Prototype, with events and loads of crazy things happening. I think we managed to just about show 100 artists over that duration. It was so exciting, it gave life, it gave opportunity to the emerging art world. Anyway, at the very end of that, we realised that we couldn't be under the thumb of a commercial Pub, and we had such a conglomerate of people around us that we had to have a space of our own.


I very fortunately had just been told by a friend of mine that this crazy warehouse was becoming available and that it was so unique and so fucked up that if I got in there and talked to the landlords, they'd much rather just hand it over to me than to attempt letting it. There's leaks everywhere. There's five foot trenches across all the ground, there's foxes and pigeons.. .the list goes on. Anyway, us, being the can do artists that we are, looked out at this vista, this huge space, and knew the potential. I flirted with the landlords for about a month. Lots of back and forth. Said that I'd pay their rent forever in total and never be a problem if they could give us some seed investment to turn what was absinthe into Collective  Ending, which was the name that we'd given the platform to provide for absinthe. 


Anyway, we got the space, we built out this warehouse. We convinced everyone on a residency to move in with me and Tom Ribot, who's been my full time partner in crime since our Chelsea days. When we'd managed to claw together the rent, the landlords released this seed funding and we built out Collective Ending. It almost killed all of us. We got into loads of debt, but what we were left with was this incredible organisation that we got to self govern. We call it a tiny slice of socialism within capitalism. It's super funny. So ever since then, we've self governed. We've had a four and a half year permanent programme. Many of the original members are still here.


Some people have gone on to do MAs or have left the country but what we've done best is open our platform up to the emerging arts community that we've fostered. So the shows that we do at Collective Ending are never the in-house artists - it's always that peer group. And each year we open up Collective Ending as an institution to our past exhibitors and we say, has anyone got a live event that they'd like to suggest? Has anyone got something for the summer programme? And in house, we have the 150 artists we've exhibited before. They might say, we've got this experimental fashion show we'd love to do. We've got this crazy music night, there's a particular book reading, and we plan out the summer events programme in coherence with them. 


Regarding our most recent poster campaign… 





The decision to produce a public facing piece of political activism, was made collectively by all members of Collective Ending. The decision was not to act anonymously, but unanimously. We’re a public facing organisation, so our members’ list is not a secret but it was a deliberate decision to take an entirely collective action for this campaign, we felt it had more power. 


Like many of the artists and people in our local community, we were aghast at what we were seeing and reading as the death toll of Palestinian civilians continued to rise in Gaza. In moments of widespread violence, thousands of miles away – we, like many others, felt powerless. So we sat down to plot how we could do something with impact and felt that local action would be important in order to hold those who are supposed to act on our behalf and our beliefs accountable. Within our community, we knew many who had written to our local Labour MP, Vicky Foxcroft demanding a ceasefire, many who had marched and campaigned for the end to the violence and occupation of Gaza. Yet her comments, actions in Parliament and mass emails back to constituents did not reflect our views, so many of us felt ignored and unheard. She abstained from voting for a ceasefire in November much to our confusion, hurt and fury. 


So our campaign very much came from a reflection of this, and thinking about acting locally to try to have some sort of impact globally. We thought about our skill sets as an artist collective and to think about what our strengths were and how we could bring them together to act quickly and effectively. We had four elements – a big 48 sheet billboard that called out what was happening as a ‘genocide’ and asked Vicky Foxcroft (by name) to step up to the plate and take action within Parliament. This linked through to a webpage which collated 75+ resources that educated people on the history, politics and agendas around the issue of Palestine and Israel from organisations and charities based in the region and here in the UK. We wanted to show just how many people are urging a ceasefire, and are engaged with this issue at great length for a meaningful resolution. Then, we had a series of fly posters that our studio members designed using visual motifs and symbols that reflect calls for peace, hope and perseverance. All of this was PR-ed to gain coverage in the press, on social media and online platforms to create mounting pressure on our MP to do something. Which she did, eventually, when Labour’s amendment to the SNP motion for a ceasefire was voted through in late February. It’s the first time Collective Ending has moved to public activism and it was quite successful with thousands of views, a direct response from our MP, and an actual result coming from the government.


More from Billy…


The Tomorrow, Today, Yesterday exhibition has received such good feedback, and all of the tours have gone so well that we're actually scheduling a talk on the 20th March, which is about the future of contemporary art. The talk will have different leading professionals expressing their concerns. For example, we'll have two different collectors, we'll have two different gallerists, we'll have two different artists, we'll have two writers, we'll have two dealers. So it will be a really interesting conversation for the emerging art crowd to hear from the horse's mouth, if you like, the problems that galleries are facing, the problems that collectors are facing, as opposed to just the same rhetoric coming from artists and the people who we always hear speaking. 


So that is something that I'd encourage many of your viewers and readers to attend, if they have the time, and that's in Mayfair. And on the 20th march, of which all details will be available through my platform and the Modern Forms platform.



If you enjoyed this conversation with Billy, make sure to check out our other Artist Spotlight interviews over on https://www.brushwrk.co.uk/blog and whilst you’re there, why not have a look through all of the fantastic art we have for sale from emerging artists? Pop into the website to see what catches your eye…

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