Interview: Ben Frost
It's complete cynicism.
He's faked his own death, corrupted Sanrio's cutest kitten and poisoned Warhol's signature soup. Over the last ten years Ben Frost's recognition has pervaded both the world of street art and the art world in general, but his work hasn't lost its rebellious streak. Later this year he'll be joining forces with 12 other Australian art guerillas in San Francisco for Young & Free, the most significant exhibition by Australian street artists ever seen in the United States. Armed with spray cans and brushes they've given our urban landscape a fresh coat of paint, and together they're setting off to run amok in California. With the exhibition just over a week away, Ben Frost spoke to Oyster about his veritable cynicism and wonders how "they" will stop him and his partners in crime from "going out and destroying everything".
Hannah Ongley: Do you think there are a lot of similarities between Australia and San Francisco?
Ben Frost: Yeah I think so, more so than LA or New York. I think San Francisco is a little more laid back and a little more welcoming, and maybe just the way it's laid out. It's not a massive city the same way that LA and New York are, and it's closer population-wise to Sydney or Melbourne. I'm really looking forward to going back there. It's a very welcoming place and the people are very interesting and very hospitable.
Yeah it's a cool city. It's very laid back and I guess they're more accepting of street art culture than other states would be.
Yeah I think so, absolutely. I always make the analogy between Sydney and Melbourne being like the difference between LA and San Francisco. Being from Sydney, whenever you go down to Melbourne there's always a different sort of feel to it. And I think because San Francisco's not as high paced as LA people have got more of an opportunity to concentrate on the art, and it's not so much about egos or whoever makes money all the time. It's more about exploration. So that's why there are a lot of "cool" artists in San Francisco, I think.
Have you always been doing the same sort of thing with subverting cartoons and slogans?
Yeah, I guess I'm very interested in taking a logo or icon from popular culture and being able to take the power back. I think we're presented a lot of things in the world and I just think being able to have the power to actually interact with that is really important. I've always been about subverting things and presenting them in a way that you wouldn't normally expect them to be presented. And in the same way you can enter in to that political messages about society and what's happening in the world, and I think that's a really important thing too. I think things like street art have are very immediate and bold and are able to say very vital things. That's what really interests me.
So how do you suggest maintaining a balance between being aware of what we're being presented and living with it, and just being plain cynical?
It's complete cynicism.
So you're a complete cynic?
It's very much a love-hate relationship. I think living in contemporary society you can't really escape a lot of the trappings, and to be part of society you have to give in to certain things. On one hand you want to be able to change things and move things forward, but at the same time you want to have a happy life and be able to interact with other people. So I think there's a balance there as to how much you interact with society and capitalism. Ultimately that's the world we live in, and I just think that from my perspective it's a lot to do with having my own awareness and still being very cynical about it but also trying to present that to other people to make other people aware.
Has the stigma around your work died down since street art has become more recognised as being an art form?
I think it's very hard to shock anyone these days, particularly since the idea of seeing things on the street has become more commonplace. Particularly in Melbourne – now the council is using street art as a sort of tourist marketing point. So yeah, I think on a certain level it's a little bit passe but I think what is actually happening is there's becoming more innovation in that, and now there are a lot of street artists exhibiting in galleries. I think this exhibition we're doing is evidence of that.
I read something where you said that although the stigma had died down, society was becoming more conservative. What did you mean by that? I thought we were becoming more liberal.
I think society is becoming completely desensitised. I think things like art now fall into the realm of entertainment, and if you go and watch a movie like the latest Marvel movie where people are getting their heads blasted off, if you think about it the movie is only rated PG. Even pornography on the Internet – young children are being exposed to this sort of thing now. It's almost as if the media has an obligation to keep presenting the next shocking thing, so when these things do actually happen I think that people are very desensitised. I think as an artist you've got to think of ways of presenting ideas that don't always have to give that shock, and I think you can be more clever about those things.
So desensitisation is fuelling innovation as well?
Well yeah, I guess a lot of it has to do with how slow something is on a news day, because sometimes if you see what people are shocked about it's the most banal, stupid things. I mean I was just watching Q&A last night and Noni Hazlehurst was on there. She's just helped release this book, a children's book called Go the Fuck to Sleep. Do you know about this? I think Samuel L. Jackson did a version as well.
Yeah that's right, I think he read it. Like an audio version.
Yeah, well Noni Hazlehurst did a version as well. But during the Q&A on the show there were people in the audience who were putting it down and not realising the irony of what was actually happening. So you sort of feel, well, why the hell are people so upset about things like that? Just because it's upfront.
How do you approach that line between subverting capitalism and trying to sell your art at the same time?
I actually had quite an issue with this and it did my head in for a while. I was like "Oh God, how can go saying one thing and then ask for money as well". But I think, as I was talking about before, it's really a commentary and it's pretty much impossible to get outside of that. So it's about having a more constructive attitude and trying to lead a more constructive life rather than always jumping to a polar extreme. I mean I'm by no means wealthy, I'm struggling constantly. The ability for me to sell a painting means that it can go in someone's house and I can get more money to make more paintings. If I was sitting back and my artwork was making me hundreds of thousands of dollars I was buying sports cars and houses then I think then there would be some sort of real thing to think about. But I'm living completely on the edge constantly and money isn't a very important thing to me because I never have any of it.
Is there anything else you want to say about the upcoming exhibition?
It's just going to be really great that there will be all of us there at the same time and we all know each other. A lot of people haven't been there before so I know we're going to run amok. I guess it will just be interesting to see how they're going to group us all together, or how they're going to stop us going out and destroying everything.