Thursday, 20 May 2010

Mashing Up: Practice+Research: Chris Dooks

The first in a series of posts from our MashingUp: Practice and Research symposium at the CCA on 19th May.

Here's the text of the talk by artist Chris Dooks. Links to his work can be found at

My name is Chris Dooks and I am a Polymash. I’ll be speaking about my
perception of mash‐ups and musing on interdisciplinary art and trying to work
out if I have any role in this. I guess my talk is related to, as opposed to being
about the wikipedia definition of the web mashup ‐ where two sources of
content are merged to form a new fusion.

I’m not a Polymath, though, oh no, even though I liked being called one by a
High Falltuin’ newspaper. My definition of a Polymash, as opposed to a true
Polymath is someone whose output is a little more bastard‐like, in the Heinz
57 sense. A little shambolic, not always creating patterns of logic and order –
hence Polymash, unlike someone who is the living embodiment of “Having
Learned Much” – the Greek definition of a true polymath the practitioner of
which, is an exemplar of this “Having Learned Much”.

Not me. I’ve learned maybe six or seven things and hundreds of short cuts,
plus I’m terrible with numbers. I’m probably fairly low‐IQ. I’m aesthetically
driven, so I would fail a Mensa test. A Polymash – the word I invented, is more
a make‐do mashup noun – a bit Health Robinson. If you’ve ever seen TVs
Scrapheap Challenge I am the bodger, welding different parts of my practice
together to fit, and if the measurements are wrong, I’ll just say it’s part of the
charm of the piece. I am in constant dispute with someone in the USA who
claims he invented the word polymash, but I believe it’s me, five years before
him. He owns the dot com, I am the dot org.

My registered business name is Polymash Digital Art Services. And my brief talk
and screening explain why I became my own sort of mash‐up and what my
awareness and definition of a mash‐up is, so lets start there. Some people
define a mash‐up in musical pop terms when you graft Kylie’s chorus onto
Missy Elliot’s verbage. Or as the Pet Shop Boys said : “Che Guevara and Debussy
to a Disco Beat

But mash ups or genre‐clashes have always been around. In fact you might say
that any new cultural artifact is a mash‐up because it presents say, 50%
original creative thought in the 50% context of it’s precursers. This is like true
traditional music, that keeps some of the old with some of the new, to survive.
We live in showy times, so I think one of the reasons we are discussing this
idea today is because the mash up has risen very high in the cultural radar, and
musical or video mashups are easy to share on your facebook page.

When someone emails you a video of five cats singing Independent Woman by
Destiny’s Child in North of England flat caps, smoking fags and playing the
double bass and banjo, it is likely to go viral very quickly. In internet mash up
terms that’s an oldie but goodie now.

When two genres clash for the first time though it’s a real thrill. Twin Peaks
was a mash up and David Lynch is a Polymash par excellence; He distills
several cultural elements like an alchemist ‐ the combination of nostalgic
midwestern film drama augmented by manipulating Jungian psychology, bits
of Bunuel and peppered with primal performance art under the marquee of
trust by a broadcaster. The Twin Peaks mash up really sealed the term
Lynchian – which is almost mash‐up shorthand now. If we hear it now, we
know it’s going to be a heady mix. And mix is the key word.

But maybe we are reading too much into mash‐ups, maybe the mash up is just
an early form of wholistic idea‐integration, like those of the Rennaisance
artists. Initial mashups, and in fact early works by artists, musicians and
filmmakers can often simply wear their techniques on their sleeves, so you are
more likely to witness a culture clash, a bastard pop and so on, early on in
someone’s career. Maybe that’s all a mashup is.

Perhaps as artists get more confident they want to be seen to grow and
develop, so the mash up becomes subtle, a little more refined. And then when
it is really grown up it becomes it’s own thing in it’s own right. It just becomes
good work, like Lynch, just a good mix of elements. It maybe doesn’t need a
name anymore. Maybe there’s something playful or Juvenille in the mash‐up,
maybe the mash‐up is like the first few seconds of the early universe where
everything is hot and molten and potential systems are not yet fully formed,
anything could happen, it’s exciting! One thing is grafted onto another. And
then a few billion years later it all cools down a bit, systems form, patterns
emerge, planets are bourn, arts council grants are signed and then you get
your own show at the CCA.

Anyway, I’ll stop here on mash ups, because I’m not a mash‐up, but I think it’s
useful to see, to what extent that different creative worlds stay or stray from
their own boxes even if the same person made these apparently disparate
forms. This is the daily mesh of the Polymash’s practice. It is very common
now in new media artists, to see writing, directing, composing, wordsmithing,
singing, speaking, performing by the same artist ‐ for example the same
shambolic Northerner in my case.

The following vaguely chronological list sounds a bit Me Me Me. In fact, I was
talking to a manager of an arts centre in Ireland and she said she always knew
when she had an email or letter from an artist immediately as it had a lot of I, I,
I in it.

So… I have worked as…
Malt Whisky Salesman. New Media Artist. Photographer. TV Director. Film
Maker. Sound Recordist. Artist in Residence. Musician in Residence. Storyteller
in Residence. Course Tutor. Course Leader. Curator. Psychogeographer. Sound
Artist in Residence. Festival Director. Web Designer. Book Cover Designer.
Podcaster. Course Governer. Body Double in a Sex Scene for the less popular
Irvine Welsh film The Acid House. Irvine Welsh’s Driver. Technician at FE
College. Gofer. Anthropological Researcher. Archivist. And finally Malt Whisky

I knew what I wanted to do when I was 8 though.

I wanted to direct Raiders of The Lost Ark. I was a religious little kid and would
constantly get these epiphanies in church, but curiously more so in cinema. I
think what had really happened is that I had discovered culture; orchestral
music and the photographic image. I would be a famous film director. Or a

Cinema seemed to be the place where everything overlapped. The writer, the
photography, the score, performance – a team effort of different disciplines
honed by a director. I wanted to be close to God and the director was a kind of
god. I made little super 8 films, used cassette recorders together to edit
soundtracks. I was a lonely wee kid at times, and mainly did everything myself.
In my head, I was on course for big stuff and I was barely at the big school.
Fast forward to 1991 and I am sneering at some layabout pot‐head on my film,
tv and radio course in Cleveland. I failed to get into a grown‐up university or
film school because I was obsessed by a girl at school who looked like Kate
Bush. That was then, now in 1991 I am the hardest working kid in
showbusiness. Or student BTEC film.

Anyway this pot‐head was having a chat with one of the course leaders, typical
of his type who didn’t really want to be teaching, so the lazy buggers got on
perfectly well. Why was I sneering at this lazy, dopey pseudo‐goth? Because he
hadn’t decided what he wanted to do. He wanted to do a bit‐of‐everything. A
master of nothing, I thought. Little did I know I would be doing a little bit of
everything for art and for a living.

Fast forward to 2010. Everything has changed. Everything. My TV directing
career was over by 1999. I am in the eleventh year of a highly inconvenient
sickness. I have had to change every aspect of my life. Everything.
My body betrayed my ambition. It’s not quite Diving Bell and The Butterfly, but
to coin a frankly useful clich̩ РI had to undergo a paradigm shift. I became a

I nearly changed my name to Polymash by deed poll. I also nearly became a
Buddhist Monk. Here’s how it happened.

I realised over the years I hadn’t been single minded, I’d been a control freak
but had picked up some useful skills along the way. Although back on my BTEC
I was very focussed, I didn’t work well in a team, so unconsciously I’d been
picking up all these weird little skills. I stayed back late to learn how to edit
radio programmes with a chinagraph pencil and razor blade – this was the
beginning of the music side of my career, I’d master the edit suite – this
enhanced my music technology whilst video‐editing, I learned how to word
process and design sleeves for VHS covers – this was the beginning of my web
design practice, I mastered blue‐screen video – this became photography and
photoshop, street vox pops – this became podcasting and sound recording.
Back then, I thought all this meant I was going to be a filmmaker. What it
actually meant after my diagnosis in 1999, was that I had a digital artist’s
skillset and to a small extent the world was to turn in my favour.

This is where Polymash comes from. Where collision of situation and skillset
have to plot or carve a niche in the world. And that’s what I do. I ended up
having a reasonable portfolio across the board. And it means I don’t just
subscribe to the visual arts newsletter of the SAC, it might be for an electroacoustic
residency, or like in Brighton where I was songwriter in residence for
Terence Conran’s Embassy Court – a modernist building.

Before some clips I want to recount a wee tale from a few years ago where I
did actually turn into a bona fide mash‐up. I was talking to a friend about a
writer I think. We are both M.E. sufferers, so there’s often a bit of cognitive fog
to say the least. Low oxygen in the brain and the odd silly synapse.
I was trying to say how the trouble with this writer was that they “over‐egg the
pudding” and complicate things. What I actually said was “The trouble with her
is that she overcomplicates the egg” which was actually a better sentence than
my rational mind, had in mind. This sums up my approach to making art,
where malfunctions of my mind and body result in combinations and leaps
that would not take place otherwise. Probably more mashed potato than
mashup in the traditional sense.

I will now present some clips of work. I am just going to say literally a few
words about each piece and then if there are any Q and A – that would be ideal.
The first piece of work I will show is a 5 minute video made in 2005 by myself
and about my Psychogeographic Tour of Edinburgh – The
Erica Tetralix Polyfaith Tour of Edinburgh. I have handed out some maps of
the tour you can take away with you.

What you have just seen is a lie. A kind lie. And I am going to spoil the ending
of the project. This is a project about shrubs. It has nothing to do with religion.
It is aimed at people searching for something. I worked for many years with
the middle east festival in Edinburgh and I was a fairly devout Buddhist. I still
hold many of the teachings dear. One of the teachings I like, is that there’s a
focus on proximity in Buddhism, that you’ve to pay attention to this moment,
or this breath, or this object and so on. But in practice people look elsewhere
for enlightenment. And not just enlightenment – holidays. People go for
hundreds of miles to go on holiday, yet don’t know how many varieties of bird
sing in their back garden, where they come from and where they go. So takes you on a story around ten stations in Edinburgh. And
there’s something to see in each station. But there’s something hinted at all the
way through. And that is shrubs. So there’s two ways to read the tour. And I’m
interested in that moment when the penny drops, because when that penny
drops there might be a minor epiphany and for (me) ‐ the Athiest who lost
faith due to reason, that’s a nice place to be. Death underpins all my projects. is now defunct, but I have a mirror site up if anyone wants to do
the tour. Come ask me with a pen and paper. I also have another tour of
Edinburgh available which is very popular, which takes place in Advocates

OK. Keeping it eclectic, I am now going to play you some music from various
projects over the years. This is a two minute reel. The visuals are not so

Music Reel Screening.

Lastly, I am going to end with a 7 minute film that was made in 1997 just
before I became unwell. It was part of Scottish Screen’s Prime Cuts series. This
cost £30,000 to make, which I would have rather have had for a deposit for a
flat because I tended to do everything myself. The idea of this project was that
it trains everyone with union rates, so I was obliged to have help. It didn’t stop
me from doing everything else. At the time, it was the only non‐narrative
(although I don’t like that term) film Scottish Screen had funded.


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