Oliver Payne Nick Relph
Film Art: Pretentious, boring and irrelevant? Not any more. Thank God for Oliver Payne and Nick Relph, sighs Ben Cobb…

When Oliver Payne and Nick Relph left Kingston University in 2000 without their degrees – just some spray cans and a few “shitty” videos they’d made – their fine art tutors presumed it would be the last they’d hear from them. No such luck.

Armed with a video camera, a love of hardcore punk, rave, skateboarding and graffiti, and a ballsy swagger, the pair set to work on a series of films. The results are witty, provocative and underpinned, as Payne puts it, by “a ‘fuck you’ to corporate intervention in youth culture”.

2001’s Jungle featured a sword-swinging warrior in chain mail armour doing battle with a WWII soldier dressed in a white t-shirt and tin helmet, clutching a machine gun. Divorcee line-dancers are intercut with suburban bedroom DJs to the tune of Terry Riley’s Motown classic “You’re No Good” in 2002’s Mixtape. And in Comma, Pregnant Pause (2004) random text messages run below a suited Jar Jar Binks from Star Wars and two figures in ludicrous mobile phone costumes and Scream masks.

By 2005 the London double-act had exhibited at the Serpentine gallery, won the Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion Award, signed to Gavin Brown in NYC and were being heralded as the young gun saviours of film art. Not that it went to their heads – at 2007’s Frieze Art Fair, Relph sat at a card table burning bootlegs of their films on a MacBook Pro – “£20 each or six for £100”.

Payne and Relph (aged 32 and 35, respectively) are now based in Los Angeles – “it’s reeeeeally sleepy here… just the way we like it”. This month sees them return to London with a specially commissioned film for the revamped Whitechapel Gallery. The two took time out from this site-specific project to chat online from their Hollywood homes (Relph lives “just near The Bowl” and Payne in Koreatown). The following is a transcript of that Sunday evening encounter…

Ben Cobb: Where did you first meet?
Oliver Payne: At an abandoned warehouse in West London. We were vandalising it. Doing graffiti.
Nick Relph: Stencil art… just kidding.
OP: There should be stiffer penalties for stencil art. Lock ’em up. I hate street art. Tagging is the pinnacle of the graffiti world.
BC: Why go to Kingston University?
OP: We thought it would be full of kids that couldn’t get into the cool schools.
BC: Couldn’t you get into the cool schools?
OP: No chance.
NR: I couldn’t get into Middlesex, which isn’t even cool!
OP: I think we both might have been turned down from the same ones. I couldn’t get into Middlesex either.
BC: I heard you hated Kingston… why?
NR: We probably talked a bit of shit about it but we didn’t hate it all that much – we had each other. And you’ve got to be a bit antagonistic in art school. It’s part of it unless you’re gonna be really pally with everyone and hold hands, which is not really where we were coming from.
OP: It was actually quite fun in an odd way. I remember some kids getting upset that there wasn’t a kettle in the studio! Like somehow an interesting dialogue can be opened up through a shared interest in tea.
BC: You were on the Intermedia course… what on Earth is that?
NR: Hahaha. Exactly! It means you don’t want to paint.
OP: Nobody ever told us.
BC: So you just got on with your own thing?
NR: Yeah, from day one. We sealed ourselves off and locked the doors… not to make it sound too romantic or anything!
BC: Is that why you got asked to leave Nick?
NR: I got asked to retake the year… like a ‘special’ student.
BC: And you failed the course, Oliver…
OP: Yes. I’d love to say it was for something more exciting but basically I refused to do some coursework that related to business and professional practice because I was at art school for fuck’s sake!
BC: Why did you decide to work together?
OP: We had no choice. It needed to be done.
BC: Had either of you made a film before?
NR: Ol had made some great ones…
OP: I had made a really shit one called The West Four Days Of My Life. It was about growing up in London W4.
NR: Which is now lost.
OP: Yeah, I lost it. It was rubbish.
NR: I have the poster.
OP: Do you? I’d like one of those!
BC: A poster? That’s business and professional practice!
NR: Hehehe.
OP: Hahaha.
BC: Have you ever wanted to go under a collective name?
OP: I don’t like it when people go under those sort of collective names…
NR: But if we had to… Moral Poverty 3.
OP: … they will call themselves The Doubt Configuration or something silly… when really it’s just two blokes called Keith and Steve.
BC Have you ever lived together like Bert and Ernie or Morecombe and Wise?
NR: Hahaha. Yeah, we lived together in NYC. Shared a bed – the works.
OP: It was well Bert and Ernie. Or like The Beatles in “Help”… or do I mean “Hard Day’s Night?”
BC: Who does what in the partnership?
NR: We press the record button at the same time.
BC: Do you ever argue?
NR: Never.
OP: And if we did… it would be about which is the best Fugazi record or something of that nature.
NR: But it wouldn’t come to fisticuffs.
BC: If it did, who would win?
OP: Nick… with a swift left hook to the nuts!
NR: I’m Willow The Wisp, me.
OP: It’s true… Nick is more a lover than a fighter.
BC: If one of you was too ill to work would you both get credit?
OP: I’m too ill… I represent Park Hill… See my face on a twenty dollar bill… Sorry, impromptu Wu Tang lyrics! Yes, we’d both share the credit.
BC: What do you think of most film art?
OP: I’d have to see some first.
BC: Why can’t you see a lot of your work on the Internet?
NR: Because you have to afford the work some respect, which it doesn’t get as a window on a PC somewhere.
BC: What effect does your work have on the public?
OP: Absolutely zero… ziltch times nothing plus zero times air.
NR: Almost none at all. I mean it’s good to show at the Tate and the Whitechapel cos you get more casual visitors but we’re not so concerned with ‘reaching out’.
OP: That’s true. And they’re free.
NR: Art isn’t for everyone, clearly.
BC: Do you care what people take away from your work?
OP: I was a little miffed when someone took away part of one of our sculptures in Miami. It was a series called Ash’s Stash – we’d bought the entire contents of our gallerist Ash L’ange’s basement and made 35-40 pieces from it all – and someone pinched a floppy disc that was sticking out of an old Mac.
NR: It was a Mac from the mid-90s… with a big Nike basketball shoe on top.
BC: What was on the disc?
OP: It was a disc that came free with a toy from the film…
NR: Independence Day! Hahaha. It was a hot item…
OP: … probably on eBay.
BC: Did you take it as a compliment?
NR: I just felt a bit depressed for that person to be honest.
OP: Yeah, it’s not quite the same as nicking a Monet.
BC: What message is behind your work?
NR: We’re not too big on messages. We do say things and we stand behind those things…
OP: … There are recurring ideas that pop again and again.
BC: Such as?
OP: Navigating the area between reluctant acceptance and defiant resistance to the capitalisation of counter culture.
BC: Right. This conversation is getting like the text messaging in your film Comma, Pregnant Pause.
NR: You mean awkward and full of misunderstanding?
OP: Hahaha.
NR: Speaking of that film… did you see the boss of Ryanair dressed up as a cellphone because you can use your phone on their flights now? The costume fitted him so badly…
OP: I loved that picture!
NR: He looked insane. And they’re charging one pound to take a piss… it’s fantastic.
BC: How much to go for a shit?
OP: Hahaha. In the same article he said if you try to sleep they will wake you up to sell you something! He’s fucking amazing. He fires his employees for charging their phones at work!
BC: Do you have a favourite piece of work?
NR: I like Swoon a lot because we used something very modern and throwaway – those little animated giffs that probably won’t exist in five years – and did something with them. Created a world with them. It’s about being blissed out and in love with today.
OP: Word.
BC: What inspires you?
NR: The ecstasy of walking past a JC Decaux bus stop.
OP: When kids took that high-pitched noise that only people under twenty can hear – it’s used to stop kids from loitering outside shopping centres – and turned it into ringtones for their phones.
BC: How long before an exhibition do you decide what to do?
NR: About six months and then we make it about two weeks before the show… when people are waiting outside at the opening. OP: It makes it ‘hot’ for ourselves.
BC: Tell me about your new film for the Whitechapel…
NP: Well the Whitechapel are expanding into the old library next door and we were commissioned to make a piece that related to the history of the building. We had been thinking about libraries in that area a lot anyway.
BC: Really?
NR: Because of the ‘idea store’, which is a New Labour creation – libraries but with considerably less books and more big colourful panels of air. It’s just really insulting.
OP: Like a crèche for depressed people. Somewhere to write your CV.
BC: Have you started the film?
NR: Yeah, we shot it in an abandoned library in Hollywood and used mates as extras, as usual… It’s a proposal for a public library where you can also drink.
OP: A bib-libation-oteque, if you will. Nick worked in a library for eight years.
NR: I loved it. I mean, for a crappy job when you’re 18 years old it’s fantastic. You get to meet different people from your community.
BC: Did you steal any good books?
NR: Not at all. I cleaned and repaired them. The three places you are never allowed to steal from are hospitals, libraries and schools. Anyway, for the film we used the aesthetic that a lot of regeneration projects have – the artist’s impression of a finished building with people pasted in. But the proposal is grounded in something deeply human and civilised… learning and drinking.
BC: Great. That’s everything. Thanks so much for your time.
OP: Thanks… that was fun. I’m going to skin up now.
NR: Yeah, spafe.
BC: What does ‘spafe’ mean?
NR: It’s from that Nissan ad campaign where they created new words. ‘Spafe’ is spacious and safe. ‘Modtro’ is modern and retro.
OP: ‘Jazzual’ is jazzy and casual.
NR: Just a failed attempt at buzz marketing.
OP: Start dropping spafe in jazzual conversation.
NR: I’d better dust – gonna get kicked out of my home in 30 mins! Bye.
BC: Thanks Nick. Bye.
OP: OK Nick, see you here shortly. Hey, Ben…
BC: Yes?
OP: What are you wearing?
BC: Hotpants. You?
OP: Hahaha. A smile. Cool – I’m out. This spliff isn’t going to smoke itself.

Words: Ben Cobb

A full version of this article first appeared in Wonderland #18, Apr/May 2009