Hullo again, Dear Reader. Welcome to the third instalment of Comfy Confabs where I get to ask fellow creatives the hard questions regarding their art, plus how and why they make it. Tati will be joining me this time which means I’ll have a bit of help doing the asking!
As we all probably know by now, art takes many forms. It can be a rude looking phallus in a major metropolitan gallery, or it can be a lowly issue of ‘Super Scrumtabulous Man’ that’s been used to wrap a Sicilian sausage at the local butcher. Art can be refined, it can be gaudy and functional, and it sure as hell don’t need no sniffin’ down the nose at by the likes of me or you!
So, let’s introduce this instalment’s interviewees. Their names are Mark and Chris Renney, a couple that blogs from ye olde England with words and images that have definitely caught our attention. They have a number of sites, and they also contribute to Hijacked Amygdala which I’ve also been an occasional part of in the past.
Mark writes some amazing stuff about the everyman, the human condition; stuff that’s mundane, existential, sometimes strange and yet always deeply human.
Chris takes the kinds of black and white photos that make you sit up and take notice. You find yourself reaching for your own camera in the hopes that you might get half as good with a little bit of practice.
Okay, let’s get this show on the road… (Oh, and feel free to click on the images and quotes in order to see and read more!)
TATI: Let’s start with a nice, easy question. Do you have pets?
CHRIS: Unhappily, not at the moment and this is mainly because we both work full time. Growing up my father would not allow us to have pets whilst Mark’s childhood was full of dogs (many of whom ran off to the annoyance and despair of the other villagers, and had to be fetched home, rescued from the baying crowd). BUT some years ago a thin, starving cat who was a bit pregnant arrived in our garden. Initially we thought she belonged to someone and of course she did—us!
Peggy, later Peg, was named after Peggy Lee about whom Mark was reading and who was one of the ‘lads’ in the band and called Peg by them.
Peg turned out to be ungrateful, in charge, a biter, an attacker and adored by us. She quickly sussed that Mark is not a cat person and insisted on sitting next to him on the sofa. She was never a lap cat, she frightened friends and family and we miss her very much.
I am still pining, and I will grind Mark down so that we can have a cat and dog in the very near future.
MARK: Well, maybe a cat.
TONY: I remember Peg featuring in a couple of your early comics actually. And, in fact, you began a blog dedicated to said comics in December 2014. What prodded you to do this?
TATI: Tony, don’t make a mess! We know Chris and Mark had blogs before this one. Why not start from the very beginning?
TONY: Ok. Tell us about your first teacher, Mark.
TONY: Jeez. Way to spoil the fun! Okay, okay! Guys, please disregard my previous questions. We’ve been following your blogs for quite some time now, and we’d like to know… have both of you always skewed towards the creative?
CHRIS: For as long as I am able to remember I have been drawn to the visual arts, and Art Class was something I really revelled in at school, but I was always more of an appreciator of the work of others such as the Abstract Expressionists, and I also loved film, especially the noir genre, which informed my love of black and white imagery. Photography is something I came to much later, and this was because of Mark.
MARK: Yeah, when I started The Brokedown Pamphlet I knew I wanted to use original images so bought a Nikon SLR, but whenever we returned home from our photo foraging I couldn’t help seeing that Christine’s shots were a lot better than mine, and so I handed the camera duties over to her, and that’s how our collaboration began.
MARK: This is the difference between us—she has the ability to be spontaneous and brave because she can get up in people’s faces, and I just wouldn’t and couldn’t do that. I, on the other hand, obsess over details, but this is how I have formed my writing style. Actually, giving the camera to Christine enabled me to concentrate on my writing. I am a bit of a procrastinator, and didn’t start writing until my mid-twenties which ultimately led to my blog, and it was then, as I reached my forties, that I wanted to write about my relationship with Christine and also other slices of my life, and the comic strips have allowed me to do that. I knew I couldn’t draw but Christine felt that some of the strips needed my rather naive style.
CHRIS: I do like Mark’s strange images—funnily enough this is where he is more spontaneous than I am, and his drawing has a sense of freedom to me. I am really lazy, hence I go ages without posting but Mark’s obsession—whoops, I mean drive—keeps me on my often reluctant toes, but I am always glad that he pushes me to get out and do.
MARK: So, I suppose the short answer is yes, we have always been creatively skewed, but we each need the other for encouragement and passing ideas between us.
TONY: I’ve found that to be the case for us as well. Tati and I seem to be far more productive together than on our own.
TATI: Yuck! Guys! You’ve answered at least two or three of my questions already. Now I should put my thinking cup on. Oi! Cap! (Fucking English!)
TONY: She looks cute with a cup on her head.
TATI: Tony, stop tapping my cup! Mark, I told you before, and I’m going to repeat this again: Your writings (I don’t know if it’s a compliment or no) remind me of the best of Ray Bradbury. Do you have a favorite writer? Can you say that you are influenced by anyone?
MARK: Thanks, Tati—yes, I do remember you mentioning Ray Bradbury, and I have read a lot of Science Fiction and still do in fact, although I am now drawn more to the types of dystopian futures conjured by Philip K Dick and J G Ballard. I often stray into that speculative field or I try to evoke it without actually going there.
About ten years ago I did a Creative Writing course with the Open University, and I don’t remember which writer was quoted in the coursework but I do remember the quote that ‘genre is a great gift to any writer’, and I really embrace this idea and still agree with it, so I do take your comparison as a compliment. And then, of course, there is Kafka—but then which writer hasn’t, at some point, striven to be Kafka-esque. However, the one who has most inspired me is the American poet and short story writer, Raymond Carver. Sadly, he died at fifty, and so we don’t have the novels he would certainly have written, but his poetry and short stories are amazing; minimalist, edgy and real. He was the writer who made me realise that literature is not this big elitist thing belonging only in the hallowed halls but that writing also belongs to the everyman, the regular guy doing a regular job. My copy of A New Path To The Waterfall, his last collection of poems, would be my Desert Island book.
TONY: Have you considered releasing a collection of your writings in print, Mark? Perhaps something that also features Chris’s wonderful photography? I know Tati and I would buy it in a heartbeat.
MARK: Ah, thanks, T ‘n’ T. Before I started the blog some of my work was published in small press magazines, and it really is exciting to see your words on a printed page. It would be great for the work to appear alongside Chris’s photography, but I think it would be difficult to find a publisher who would consider this. Maybe we need to separate our work and submit individually, and I do try to encourage Chris to enter competitions but she will tell you herself she lacks confidence in her photography. This year I have started to send pieces to on-line journals and currently that is the path I will tread so, who knows where it will take me in the future.
TATI: Chris, how do you think… Does the art of photography lie in meticulous preparation, or is it a matter of luck to find yourself in the right place at the right time?
CHRIS: Ah, a very thought provoking question, Tati. Perhaps I should quote Henri Cartier-Bresson who spoke of ‘the decisive moment’ in photography—not off the cuff, but the image which comes through observing and waiting for that one shot. Meticulous preparation speaks to me of portraiture, or still life compositions created by the image taker who thus has total control of the final product—in a different medium I would draw your attention to Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘documentary’ Triumph of the Will in which the control she had over the production resulted in the most influential piece of propaganda for the Nazis, and remains a technically brilliant and important work despite its revolting message. I am much less organised, but will seek out particular environments to see what occurs, and I much prefer street photography because of the oddity of we humans, our actions and reactions.
The art of a good photograph to me is whether or not we find something within it which we recognise, even in an abstract form, and which interests or pleases us. Therefore the art remains in the eye of the beholder.
TATI: I see nothing wrong in the desire to be famous and recognized, but what is more important—to be popular (be an opportunist and an audience pleaser) or to preserve your unique creative voice, even if it means you may go unnoticed?
TONY: And do you believe that artists have a moral responsibility to hold up a mirror to society? Can art say something important, and should it?
MARK: Apart from being published in a few small magazines I didn’t show my work to anyone other than Christine for a long, long time. I have always been very private about my writing and I don’t talk about it with anyone else, but I reached a point where I thought I needed feedback and I did want to share it with others, and my Blog has enabled me to do this. The fact that there are people out there who do read my work means a great deal to me. I also felt I had got into a rut and I wanted to be more exploratory, and I suppose I have managed to do that with the comics that are often more autobiographical. Overall, though, I don’t think my writing and subject matter has changed much, and so I guess the answer is, “Yes, I do believe that a writer should maintain their own unique voice rather than strive to be more popular or even famous.”
CHRIS: I am much too lazy to think about fame as all I have to declare is my genius (thanks Oscar W!). Whilst ‘Art’ may not change the world it is an imperative as it records our skewed, wonderful, wicked humanity. A mirror reflects an interpretation of what is happening—documentary war photographers such Capa and McCullin were there to record the suffering and cruelty, and when I study their work I see not only what they are seeing but also the strange beauty of their images. The work doesn’t stop war, but it forces us to see—albeit from a safe distance—what it actually means. Woody Guthrie, moving around the USA and recording what he saw in his songs and using them to help bring the message of the hideous Depression, but also invoking a sense of unity amongst the forgotten. Picasso’s Guernica which is a powerful summation of the bombing of the town is also an amazing work of art. The messages are still coming through from all of these works, and such pieces are educational, and perhaps the strength and depth of them is better understood by a later generation. If we don’t record it then those who have no conscience will never be questioned or revealed as tyrants.
I know that if I were to take beautiful serene photographs of nature—the dog, not the dog shit—then more people would ‘like’ my work, but I am much more interested in the decay of the human and his environment in this world, in the 21st Century when poverty and war should have been a subject of history and not current. I also must mention the importance of the cartoonists—the satire of Gillray and Hogarth, for example, is still a forceful use of image today. You just need to see Hogarth’s Gin Alley which could be most streets on a Saturday night. Of course, Art should entertain us as well as educate us, but as a means of getting the message out there it is vital and invaluable. Sadly, though, I don’t believe it changes the minds of the conservatives, most of whom see Art as either a financial investment or to boast of their wealth.
MARK: And I agree which is why I am such a big fan of Science Fiction—it is a genre where the writer can explore and examine the moral dilemmas and complexities of society. In the past it was a way for writers to get the message out there and under the radar of censorship. Rod Serling was a master of this, as was Ray Bradbury and indeed our own George Orwell. Nowadays, writers such as Chine Mieville are still using the genre to push the boundaries.
CHRIS: Art is, and always will be, an essential tool for history, and lets our descendants see what our world was today and yesterday and today.
TATI: Chris, Mark, we’ve seen what topics will be always at the end of your ‘creative gun’. Are there any that leave you feeling rather indifferent? (Because I definitely have some stuff that makes me yawn.)
CHRIS: I think it is safe to say that we are not driven by so called reality TV and the like because what it does is pretend to be true when it is all a theatrical stunt, where as great documentary making, for example, O.J. – Made In America and Thin Blue Line analysed and were able to reveal a truth much larger than perhaps even the film makers realised.
MARK: Yeah, I agree with that—I hate the Murdoch press which purports to tell the truth, but which engenders fear and hatred in the ill-informed of any status. Our recent election in the U.K. was, for the first time in a long time, not influenced by The Sun newspaper and I find this really heartening.
CHRIS: I think we can safely say that the Royal Family is not a subject we would ever think about unless that heady comes when the Crown crashes to the floor. In truth there is not much we are indifferent to as even the Royals can make us jump and down—but not in patriotic fervour—but we are indifferent to rubbish films (take a bow 50 Shades of Grey et al) which lack honesty, rubbish fiction (Dan Brown should never take up another pen or computer in his lifetime)—see, not even indifferent about that!
MARK: Umm, getting a bit angry, so should wind this question up with the answer, “We are not indifferent to much as we either love it or it annoys the hell out of us…”
TONY: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about you? Other than your social security numbers of course. (Well, actually…)
MARK: Well, I am quite an introverted person and Christine is much more open to socialising, but we have found a wonderful balance between us, and this has formed the relationship we have.
CHRIS: We share the same interests, but Mark is obsessive but controlled, and I am a reactionary with little control over my words sometimes. I think we make one good whole person together—Mark really cares for his family and his writing, and lets others live their lives as they choose whereas I get over involved. He is my rock. And I am his ball and chain…
MARK: And I think we are very fortunate to have each other.
TONY: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us, guys. We really are big fans of your work. Long may it continue!