Many thanks to the staff and students at the University of South Wales in Cardiff who invited me to take part in their photography alumni symposium at the end of February 2021. Below is the talk I gave on the day, talking about my work and reflecting on my various sidesteps since then, and what led me to go from wanting to be a photographer to becoming a writer.
I wasn’t going to share this at first — hence posting it now in April — but this was such a brilliant day and talking to the students inspired me a great deal. It led to me migrating all of my old photo blogs onto the xenogothic.com URL — which you can peruse from the archive — as well as reigniting my interest in photography and rediscovering its persistent relevance to my more philosophical concerns.
I was going to rewrite this talk, making it more general, folding in a few of my subsequent reflections, but the post has been clogging up my drafts for months now. As it is, it’s a talk of two parts: a brief self-introduction, explaining who I am and what I’ve done over the years; and a reflection on how photography and my arts education is nonetheless integral to my divergent non-photographic trajectory. Rather than try and cleave it all apart, I think it’s best to share this as it is and leave you with a “watch this space”.
Linked throughout are a few relevant blogposts from the archive. Enjoy those if you fancy a bit of blog spelunking.
More photography talk and reflections soon!
Hi. My name is Matt Colquhoun. I graduated from USW in 2013, and I’m really excited to be here today. It’s been an interesting 8 years since I left USW, and over a decade since I first showed up on campus. Counting those years made me feel incredibly old; it probably makes your lecturers feel a lot older.
I should probably start by giving you a brief rundown of what I’ve done since then: I started my graduate life with 18 months of unemployment but ended up as the exhibitions officer at Ffotogallery in Cardiff. I later worked as exhibitions coordinator at BAFTA and Anise Gallery in London. I’ve worked as a music photographer, mostly shooting festivals and bands. The last big project I worked on was William Doyle’s 2019 album Your Wilderness Revisited, which I shot the album art for.
I went back to uni in 2016 and did a Master’s degree at Goldsmiths in Contemporary Art Theory, mostly because I wanted to become a better writer and scratch an itch I had to study philosophy. I spent three years after that writing a book about my time in London called Egress, which was about a lecturer at Goldsmiths, Mark Fisher, who unfortunately passed away whilst I was a student there.
Mark wrote a lot about culture and politics and philosophy and their intersection, and he generally explored how we might escape this world of capitalist drudgery, breaking out of this obsession we have with our own past and into the futures we’ve long been promised, carrying forwards this modernist, post-punk attitude to always rip things up and start again. But Mark unfortunately died by suicide and so, in some ways, Mark’s own death called a lot of his own work into question. So Egress was basically a document of a collective grieving process, dealing with big questions around politics and depression. The rest of that year in London was horrible for all sorts of reasons — Trump had just been elected but, closer to home, we had terrorist attacks and Grenfell and an awful general election. But the book was more about how my friends and I managed to channel the joy in Mark’s work despite all that was going on around us, and despite what happened to him. It was about how that process of affirmation in the face of such negativity became this really life-affirming collective project that has continued ever since. That book came out in March last year. And just last month*, I published a second book called Postcapitalist Desire, which is an edited collection of Mark’s final lectures, and which was, as of yesterday*, Amazon’s #1 bestseller in socialism. Make of that contradiction what you will…
I’m basically more of a writer now rather than a photographer or an exhibitions person, and that is largely down to the pandemic. I lost my London arts job because the gallery I worked at closed, I moved to Huddersfield, and now I write full-time because it is the one thing I can do from home. I should say I also do a lot of talks and lectures and podcasts and things, which is my excuse for having this massive microphone. But this shift from photography to writing has actually been really fruitful for me. I put Postcapitalist Desire together during the first few months of lockdown. And I’ve taken on a lot of other editorial work related to fiction, philosophy and politics. But I’ve still got a foot quite firmly in the art world. Before Christmas, I worked with Turner Prize winner Mark Leckey, and most recently I co-curated a sort of online club night at the ICA in London at the end of January.
Now, I’m by no means raking it in, but I am always busy, and I think part of that comes from this attitude towards community that I write about in Egress, but which first became really important to me at USW. The relationships that were forged between peers and lecturers have continued now for over a decade. And those were some weird times back then too. We didn’t have a pandemic but there were a lot of changes happening, not only internally within USW but also nationally, like with the trebling of student tuition fees. A lot of my first year at uni was spent on buses to London to go and protest. And what came out of all of that was a firm interest in how we’re able to collectively respond to arduous circumstances, and that’s sort of what I want to talk a bit about today, and hopefully also later in the breakout session, with those of you who choose to join me.
If I was to describe my own art practice or writing practice or whatever, it would as a responsive practice. Every step of the way, I’ve tried to find the best way to respond to whatever life throws at me and my friends, and actually work with those events quite directly as a way to make work that I find life-affirming but also political. And I think that’s what photography demands of us anyway – that sort of responsive relationship to the world as its changes around us.
But the thing I want to emphasise is that that’s an attitude that goes far beyond photography. It’s exactly the same drive behind most of the writing I do. So what you learn now can be put to work in so many ways, and be fertile ground for collaborations and opportunities that you could only dream of, if you know how to use it…
When I showed up at USW, I don’t think I had any real idea what I wanted to do with my life. Photography, for me, was just a way of engaging with the world. I know it will sound really cliché, but I was just fascinated by the way that holding a camera makes you engage with the world completely differently, and notice things that you wouldn’t otherwise notice. I found that to be quite a visceral experience and all I wanted to share was that joy when you encounter something new or a bit weird that doesn’t quite fit in with our expectations of how the world is supposed to work or look. It made for some interesting projects. I was quite aimless, but I was also committed to that aimlessness.
Case in point, when I was in your position, working towards a final-year project, I was throwing together all of these strange images and documents of peculiar experiences and encounters, a lot of stuff that I was just coming across by chance. For my degree show, back in 2013, I put together this loose, disparate installation of photographs, objects, books, music, embracing this random collection of things I liked but also trying to use them to dissolve that gap between looking at the world and looking at photographs in a white cube. I wanted to make looking at photographs as much of a multi-sensory experience as taking them was. It didn’t really have a strict narrative form — it couldn’t be read from left to right — but I didn’t really care. I just wanted to try and reveal this other world, that was all colour and possibility and strange coincidences and collisions, whilst otherwise being a pretty poor and depressed student in grey and rainy south Wales.
I didn’t want to make a project that just documented someone else’s misery. I didn’t want to make photographs to sell anything. I didn’t just want to illustrate someone else’s view of the world that I’d found in a book. I wanted to have fun. But I was very serious about having fun. I wanted to celebrate and affirm my own joy, especially because I found that joy to be in quite short supply. And I remember [senior lecturers] Peter and Matt being very nice about it and I did really well as far as grades are concerned. But I remember feeling like I had failed to convince anyone else at USW that I was serious about what I was doing. From the outside it probably looked a bit too irreverent and unserious. But I was actually pretty militant about what I was doing. It was real discipline of affirmation. It was a commitment to another way of doing things that didn’t actually exist yet or wasn’t valued in any real way. And I think not being able to articulate that very well was partly why I became a writer. I wanted to have another way than just photography to express those feelings, that were very deep feelings to me, but often looked superficial. And I feel vindicated, in a lot of ways, because although I often feel like I’m a thousand miles away from doing photography, I can draw a straight line from that amorphous body of work to the work I’ve become known for working on in more recent years.
Most of that more recent work is related to the writing of Mark Fisher, who, as I say, was a lecturer at Goldsmiths when I was there in 2016, and who sadly passed away whilst I was still a student in January 2017. About a week after Mark died, he had a book come out called The Weird and the Eerie. It’s this really short book about ghost stories and horror films, H.P. Lovecraft and the Chronicles of Narnia, as well as weird 1970s BBC TV shows, and what Mark’s arguing in that book is that just about every good horror story or fantasy story is built on an encounter with something that is weird or eerie. The weird, he says, is something that doesn’t belong; something new that doesn’t really fit in its place. The eerie is instead a sort of failed absence, or even a failed presence. There’s nothing where there should be something or there’s something where there should be nothing. You can probably think of a million horror films with that sort of encounter in, like a weird object appearing out of nowhere, or someone completely disappearing without a trace. I always think about that bit in The Matrix where Neo sees the same cat cross a door twice and goes, “Woah, déjà vu”, and everyone freaks out, and Trinity says that déjà vu is usually a sign that “they” have changed something. It’s the sort of encounter, or lack thereof, that suggests things aren’t quite as they seem. That there’s maybe another world somewhere, lurking beneath the surface of this one, and it very occasionally makes itself known to us, but only if we’re sharp enough to notice.
What was important to point out for Mark was that these experiences aren’t limited to horror films. And they aren’t necessarily all scary either. The weird and the eerie can make us laugh. But they’re also feelings that can have a political significance as well.
This is a quote of Mark’s that my friends ended up stencilling to the wall by the library at Goldsmiths, in which he says that “Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable.”
Mark’s main point of focus in all of his writing was, really, capitalism. It’s a global system that we are seemingly incapable of imagining any alternative to, and we’re actively told that this capitalist world is the best of all possible worlds, but the reality of late capitalism is sad robots and broken self-service checkouts, and it’s various kinds of infrastructure that fall apart when faced with the slightest inconvenience. And what’s interesting is, when we start paying attention to those moments of failure and embarrassment, those weird and eerie instances where capitalism is revealed to be a system full of holes, rather than this effective and convenient world-order, is that those holes reveal that other worlds are possible, and it’s up to us to not only drag them out but also actively create them. And so, in hindsight, when I look back at a lot of my silly pictures of weird shop fronts and bad road signs and ridiculous design choices, that’s what I spent all of my time photographing as a student. A sort of postmodern psychedelia. Moments and encounters when the world didn’t look like it was supposed to, but finding joy and possibility in that rather than dejection.
And over the years since, whilst having those kinds of encounters alone, walking around town, is very easy, the best way to make those encounters have a broader impact is to share them. To take that picture and send it a friend and engage in this kind of dialogue about the way things are and the way things could be. This is something we did in our second year – this was an open exhibition my housemate Sara Rejaie put on, across all the photography courses, and even some of the other art ones, I think. She asked anyone who wanted to, to send in a single A4 picture, and then she curated them in a big art space, seeing the various resonances and the similarities and differences that emerged. And it was wonderful thing to do, because it immediately put everyone in dialogue with one another. If I might be so bold, I’d say that this was a practice of consciousness raising.
Consciousness raising is a group political practice that was pioneered by the feminist movement in the 1960s and ‘70s. Women would basically get together and talk about their experiences. One women might say, my husband’s shit and I hate the fact I do all the housework and my life is so dull, and another woman would say, hey, my husband’s shit and I hate the fact that I do all the house and my life is so dull as well. And when this group of people realises that their personal problems aren’t personal but are shared, then suddenly we’re having a very different conversation. Not about our own individual circumstances but actually about broader structural issues, like patriarchy or white supremacy or classism, all of which fall under that general heading of capitalism.
What’s amazing about consciousness raising is that you can do it anywhere. I’d argue that the crits you have, for instance — discussing each other’s work and interests and approaches to things, even if in an academic setting — provide a similar sort of opportunity. I imagine when you all come together, if they’re anything like the crits we used to have, you’ve all got your individual projects, and the most mortifying thing in the world is when you realise that someone else might have a project that’s a bit similar to yours. But that’s not an opportunity to get competitive; that’s a chance for collaboration. And that’s something that gets a lot easier once you’re outside these walls, when all your peers aren’t working in the same medium or even in the arts at all.
And I think that’s probably the best thing you can affirm once you’re out in the world. Not your differences but the things that you share. And that can be quite a difficult thing to do. I was quite nervous about talking to you all today, as photography students, about my life that has moved me further and further away from photography. And you might think, what’s this guy who writes books about politics got to say to us about making it in art world or the fashion world or in journalism. But the funny thing is that when I talk to academics and philosophers for the first time about what they do, they always look at me slightly weird because I’ve had this other life where I wasn’t formally engaged with a more traditional academic discipline that they’ve basically spent their whole lives focussed on. They see me as a photographer who has someone overstepped his bounds. And when I talk to photographers these days, they see me as a photographer who’s lost his way. But I have found that engagement with other worlds gives me an edge that they don’t have. They can look at the world as philosophers or photographers. I can look at the world as a philosopher and as a photographer. And it’s precisely that mixed background that has got me talking to artists and fashion designers and journalists day in, day out. As well as mathematicians and physicists and city planners and political activists and musicians. And I’m not just talking to them because I want to document what they do. We’re talking because we’re all documenting our thoughts and ideas together, in our own ways, and then pooling the results.