What I Do, Know and am Thinking About: Chris Alton
What I do:
When people ask me that question, I usually just say that I make art, then give them a quick rundown of a couple of recent or forthcoming projects. I tend to find it hard to talk about what I do in general terms, because my practice isn't tied to a specific medium and the concerns that I address are so wide. Although, they are all interlinked and frequently stem from my interest and involvement in social justice campaigns and subcultures (often musical, but not exclusively). There are frequently collaborative aspects of my work. This might involve relatively brief periods of engagement, such as running workshops for groups of participants. In other cases collaborations may last years, such as the longstanding set of collaborations that make a project like English Disco Lovers (EDL) possible. As well as making art, which could be a movement rooted in the anti-fascist history of disco movement or a publication about a freedom of information activist, I also curate exhibitions, events, or similar. Curation is a really interesting mode of working; ultimately it's a way for me to support and learn from artists that I respect. I very much see my position as a curator as one of upholding the practices of those whose work I'm excited about.
Obviously, I don't just do art. I have creative ups and downs, as well as general 'down time' where I watch the usual 'bad TV'. I'm a big fan of science fiction and particularly enjoy philosophically driven sci-fi, like Star Trek: Next Generation, which explores a range of issues with nuance. Another gem is Battlestar Galactica, which is similarly concerned with issues like religion, belief, gender, human rights, consciousness, etc.
Recently I started setting aside time to do creative things that weren't connected to my practice. It's very easy for everything that we do to become absorbed into the machinations of neoliberal capitalism; hobbies become modes for making money, with one's embroidery ending up on Etsy; dinners with friends are posted to Instagram and become generators of social capital - and Instagram monetises their data. As 'personal wellbeing' projects, I'll bake bread, make small water colours, and take time to fix my clothes with my sewing machine, amongst others. I think that having times where I use my hands to engage with something, other than a phone or laptop, has been hugely beneficial for the mental health. Having less screen time is obviously beneficial too; it's widely known that the most popular social media apps and the wider value set that dominates our society are detrimental to human wellbeing in a range of ways.
Another outlet that's good for my mental health is Quakerism; Quaker worship could be likened to group meditation and is held in a non-hierarchical space (more generally Quakerism is a collaborative, non-hierarchical organisation - all decision-making is done in a consensus-style model). I don't know if you'll have heard of it? It's a religious group, which broke away from Christianity. Quakerism originates from the 1640s/50s - it emerged alongside numerous dissenting groups that broke from state-sanctioned forms of Christianity around the English Civil War. It was formed with a number of core principles: peace, equality, simplicity, and truth. Each is open to interpretation and there's a huge engagement with social justice by Quakers worldwide. It's the reason that I've been involved with various campaigns regarding climate change, nuclear weapons, the arms trade, etc. since a young age. There are definitely overlaps between my art practice and activism; although I tend to think about art as a place for ambiguity and exploration, and activism as a place for clear statements. There is obviously slippage between the two.
I actually gave the keynote lecture at the yearly gathering of Quakers in Britain in 2018. The lecture focused on the roles of art and faith in contemporary life, particularly regarding the tools each offers to envisage and enact a better future. It also included various personal reflections regarding grief (my Mum died a little over 3 years ago), precarious working conditions, and modes of generative and active optimism. As a young person, I attended various Quaker events, which I now attend as an adult volunteer. It's one of the most rewarding things that I do. We get to create a space for young people to be together and be accepted for who they are; many of these young people reflect on the freeing quality of the event and speak of how it allows them to act as their true selves and be accepted. It's also a chance for them to be introduced to ideas that they might not encounter in the daily lives, such as; transgender issues, Quaker work in prisons, and issues regarding the peace and disarmament, amongst others. I lead a regular session with a group of young people, some of whom have learning difficulties. We play dungeons and dragons, I'm learning so that I can help facilitate the sessions. More generally, I enjoy playing games, both video and board. I'm actually working towards two art projects that take the form of games, and have devised games as works in the past.
It's probably also worth mentioning skateboarding, but it's late and I am tired. Something that I also do is work quite late into the evening. It takes me a little while to get rolling during the day, but things seem to flow better in the evening. In short, skateboarding taught me many lessons about creativity and invention. It provided me with a lens through which mundane architectures became sites of play; it's remarkable the amount of joy that can be extracted from a piece of wood on wheels.
What I Know:
For this section all I could think of was: "I know less now than I knew then". I thought it was the best way to get across how temporary knowledge is, how subjective and how in flux the idea of knowing is. It's super elusive, and as my experience broadens, it becomes more apparent how thin the sliver of my own knowledge really is. Andy Weir's 'The Egg' came to mind when writing this response. It's a short science fiction story that - in some ways - chimes with that experience of a singular lifetime only representing the tiniest glimpse of all existence.
What I am thinking about:
My work-life balance; I've resolved to 'do less, but better'
Forthcoming climate catastrophe and how to effectively act to avert this as much as possible - I've been taking part in the Extinction Rebellion actions across London, but have also been thinking about the wider culture that has brought forth these circumstances. There are multiple, colluding issues/ideologies that need unpicking in order to effectively address the challenges that we will face
Brexit, although I watch more coverage regarding Trump
What it says that I watch more coverage of Trump, as opposed to Brexit
George Monbiot and Rebecca Solnit's recent writing on storytelling, particularly regarding the efficacy of narrativising value-sets in order to model them; to speak them into existence
The arms trade, the Queen, the King of Bahrain, horses, human rights abuses; and how these things are interconnected
PTSD, particularly in the case of a friend; a man called Michael who served as a translator in the Vietnam War. He's a multi-linguist and we've been having conversations about language and trauma, and instances in which language falls away - when it isn't enough or the right tool
My Aunt's health
My Brother's health
My Grandad's health
Getting back into skating properly, instead of the occasional sessions that I manage at the moment
Seeing my brother this weekend
Seeing the sea