It was 2015 when Chicago-native DONT FRET and London-based EDWIN, two artists for whom social commentary forms integral part of the human expression we know as Art, established a link between the unheard voices of two countries than would soon go through parallel political and social convulsions. Their collaboration, their bridge, serves both as a reminder and a beacon of hope, in what seems an ever-increasingly divided and isolationist backdrop, that no matter where you are from, where you are, and whatever labels are being forced upon you, humanity is and will always be a shared essence and as such, a shared cause that will always ring True.
They offer testament of their collaboration at Unit 5 Gallery (London), in an exhibition that runs from the 10th of November until the 2nd of December 2016. WONDERLANCER interviews DONT FRET and EDWIN on this important shared project, their work as individual artists and more.
WONDERLANCER: Dont Fret, thank you for taking on this interview; it’s a pleasure for this outlet to feature yours and Edwin’s work and perspectives, guys. You are an artist born, raised, and currently working in Chicago, best known for the wheat paste characters and musings you place on the street’s walls of that city and others around the world.
When did you start on street art and the social commentary you embed into it? What led to your first public piece?
Then shortly after that I went to Sao Paulo and lived there very briefly, and that trip led me to research wheat paste, and when I returned to Chicago, I started teaching myself to make paste and from there I began to make work in the streets.
WONDERLANCER: Edwin, you easily shift between painting, drawing and photography, often using layers of text, symbols and found objects to recreate events you may have witnessed or experienced first-hand, and to give voice to those communities that struggle to have their voice heard.
When was that moment for you, the moment when you knew you had to take your art to the streets and make it speak not just for yourself but for many others, too?
EDWIN: There really was no absolute pivotal moment to be honest. Art and social activism, for me, was genetic.
Often my creative process is one that I feel I have little control of, like it stems from an external place and it makes use of me as its vehicle.
That being said, as a young boy I used to walk the streets of my neighbourhood and write myself notes on lampposts about where I had been and where I was going. Like a personal visual guide book, these notes (“Just around the corner”, “no looking back” and “another 30 strong steps” as examples) were my own reminders of where my house was. When some of my school friends in the same neighbourhood asked me if I had seen then, they said they had felt like the notes had been written for just them and from that point the wider resonance of my actions became very apparent.
I was also very fortunate to have been adopted by an Australian indigenous family at an age that the formulation of my art and creative process could have been lost. Not only was my storytelling and map making from earlier in my life given fresh support and direction, but my eyes opened to a very human and ancient tradition of using common (public) space to discuss ownership, stories and heritage.
WONDERLANCER: Dont Fret, you keep your real identity private and aspire to continue to do so for as long as you possibly can, just like Banksy has done. Aside from the obvious reasons, does this decision respond to how you feel about fame and celebrity? It is true that, as individuals and as societies, we often get distracted by people’s characters and the gossip surrounding them, instead of focusing on the value of the message they deliver. We would love to know your own thoughts on this and how or by whom this could be perfectly exemplified nowadays, in your opinion.
DONT FRET: It has always been important to me that the work lives a separate life than I do. At least for now, in most cases, I’m happy I get to outlive the work. It is important to me to have a personal life separate from the work and for people to focus on the message of the work rather than (in the climate of social media) what I ate for dinner tonight, or what shirt I am wearing or what wall on Brick Lane I’m painting and how many likes that wall got and who gave someone free tennis shoes.
WONDERLANCER: Edwin, apart from what is visible on the streets of London, where else can we read what you write, and what are the subjects that inspire your writing the most?
EDWIN: I tend to write with an autobiographical and exaggerated (gonzo) style of storytelling. Observational critique of my life and experiences is the easiest thing for me to write about but the external influences, like the political landscape and the social condition play an obvious role.
I have a project in the pipeline, writing about the evolution of the art movement and its inevitable commercialisation. But you’re going to have to wait for that one.
WONDERLANCER: Dont Fret, your work is prominently featured in the comedy-drama anthology series Easy by Joe Swanberg (Digging For Fire, Drinking Buddies, V/H/S…), whose cast counts with Jane Adams, Hannibal Buress, Aya Cash, Dave Franco and Orlando Bloom, amongst others, and of which the first season was released on Netflix this past September. What was that collaboration like for you?
DONT FRET: I hate to say it given the obvious… but it was easy. I was first approached about the project by Eon Mora (Joe’s cinematographer), who is a friend from college. Eon has always been very modest about the projects he is working on, so I didn’t know very much at the beginning other than it was directed by Joe, the show was set in Chicago (which Joe uses frequently as a backdrop for his writing) and that the characters worked in my neighbourhood. Apparently Joe liked my work and wanted me to be part of the brewery storyline, and to me it ended up not being too far off things that are happening in my real life friends’ life, so it made sense.
WONDERLANCER: Edwin, The Distinct Sound of Laughter in The Distance is the result of over a year of shared communication between you and Don’t Fret via social media. And what a year this past has been, between the UK’s Brexit vote, the turmoil of the US Presidential Election, the Refugee Crisis… all of which have influenced this project.
DONT FRET & EDWIN (The Distinct Sound Of Laugher In The Distance)’s ‘Pray For Rain…’
How did this exchange between you two start, and what are you hoping people will take from it above all?
EDWIN: It’s apt, but we initially linked via social media. I was putting together a show of artists that had a strong anti-style (low brow) gallery aesthetic but also pushed it to the public space. Dont Fret was an obvious choice. Our sense of humour and subtle (or lack thereof in my case) political themes drew us to link in person when he visited the UK back in 2015. From there the project really grew. When he left, we kept in touch and the ideas and influence sharing took on a new role to materialise on walls we couldn’t physically access.
You are right, the intense local and global move to what seems more severe right ideals on both our sides has taken the project to places we could have never predicted.
Moving forward, the project doesn’t seem to have an end in sight. It’s an exciting place to be, the possibilities are only limited to our collective imaginations. I hope that people get excited to see that there are artists working in the public space that are concerned with issues wider than themselves and are willing to share and collaborate.
THE DISTINCT SOUND OF LAUGHTER IN THE DISTANCE
WONDERLANCER: Dont Fret, for those who are not familiar with your artistic work, what would you say are its most common threads, what discussions they aim to spark? What about yours, Edwin?
DONT FRET: I’m interested in putting my work in the street in a number of contexts, but typically, I am guided by the idea that a work either fits within a space or is completely absurd within that space. I guess the majority of my work ends up in cities, so I’m interested in absurdity and how we deal with it day to day, and how it ultimately shapes the way we interact with other people. I think living in a city means living with other people, or perhaps rather dealing with other people, and I’m interested in what that means in a variety of contexts.
EDWIN: I feel that I have more freedom not being tied to a style or material, so often employing different working methods may make it harder to identify my work, but I really don’t mind that. There is though, thematically, an often critical response to the spaces I inhabit. Sometimes it may come across as ungrateful or unappreciative, but I do believe that there is an element of suppression when it comes to communicating important public issues. Be it personal censorship, media numbness/ misinformation or even what I see as the “British politeness”; the subversive action and message is intended to startle at first, then perhaps the significance seeps in upon a second look.
WONDERLANCER: Edwin, do you think Brexit is unstoppable by now? And what do you think the UK will look like ten years from now if it does indeed take place?
EDWIN: That’s a great question. I’m optimistic that article 50 may still not be enacted, but in my opinion, the current PM has been thrust into the role by powers beyond her to do a job that nobody else wanted the responsibility to be credited with. Long story short, yes it looks like it will happen.
As to what this country will be like in 10 years, insular, poorer (culturally and economically) and far more isolated beyond the realms that many expect. Certainly not as great as it is now.
WONDERLANCER: Thank you both, again, and best of luck with this exhibition and with everything. Hoping lots of people get to see it, and think and feel with it; here are all the details:
The Distinct Sound of Laughter in the Distance opens at Unit 5 Gallery (The Yard Yorkton St, Hackney, London), on Thursday 10th November and runs until Friday 2nd December 2016
A special book of the same name which visually documents the unique project the two artists have undertaken over the last year is now available at: unit5gallery.co.uk/shop priced at £12.50 + P&P.
The first 50 online orders will come signed. The first 100 online orders will automatically be entered into competition to win an original drawing by the two artists.
Dont Fret * Instagram & Website: instagram.com/dontfretart & dontfretart.com
Edwin * Instagram: instagram.com/edwinonwalls
UNIT 5 Gallery * Instagram & Website: instagram.com/unit5gallery & unit5gallery.co.uk