Pausing outside a new shop on the high street, a family stare in slowly dawning horror at the smiling yellow-faced cartoon figure offering “pay day loans for kids”. An army recruitment poster campaign encourages new recruits to join up, to “become a suicide bomber”. And Bavarian institutions somehow receive helpful crucifixes to meet their Kreuzpflicht obligations… just ones that unfortunately hang from the bottom (a hat tip to the Satanic temple there).
These deftly satirical jabs are the work of Leeds-born, London-based artist Darren Cullen, aka Spelling Mistakes Cost Lives. Alexander Mayor caught up with Cullen for Kaput as his Kreuzpflicht mocking art works are about to reappear at a new gallery show themed around blasphemy in Naples, and as he crowd-funds a new work to bait his serial nemesis Shell Oil at the imminent COP26 climate summit.
Darren, it’s great to chat to you. Starting at the very start, I read that you nearly ended up in advertising. How did your journey into art get going?
Darren Cullen: When I was a kid, all I wanted was to be an artist, because I was pretty good at drawing and stuff. But my parents are Irish immigrants and I don’t think they thought art was a thing you could do. But then graphic design could be a kind of avenue that’s where you can make money and still do drawings. So I went to art college in Leeds initially, studying graphic design and I started to realise, that I actually liked coming up with ideas and it got suggested that maybe I’d be a good advertising copywriter, even more than say art direction itself.
And I really liked coming up with concepts and then building ideas off those concepts and stuff like that. It was kind of really good training, learning how to do that. But when I went to Glasgow School of Art I started to be surrounded by people and ideas and politics, that kind of challenged the ethical foundations of advertising and commercial work.
What were your politics when you first embarked on your education?
Well, I was actually quite a reactionary, conservative teenager. I like to say that I was radicalised by my paper around. My teenage job was to deliver these very right-wing newspapers – The Daily Mail, The Times, The Express, The Sun, and I’d read these papers every day, so I almost joined the UK Independence Party (UKIP) when I was 16. I was like, I used to write letters to TV teletext about why we shouldn’t join the Euro! We talk a lot about click bait now, but tabloid papers have always had that kind of reader-bait approach.
So I got into this kind of mindset as a teenager, I would skim through the newspapers, looking for something that would make me angry – I wanted something about why political correctness had gone mad, or loony left nonsense, you know, like that kind of thing.
And it was a pipeline to more and more kind of, right wing views. I mean, I didn’t actually join UKIP in the end. My dad kind of intervened. He said, just leave at a year because if you do this, you’ll have always have joined that political party, it’ll be in your past.
So your parents were quite political or had strong views?
Darren: Yeah. I mean, I think like, because of my strong Catholic upbringing, politics and religion are ways for me to rebel – what I believed in was my only choice – being an atheist, becoming a nationalist, they were ways of rebelling. I’d kinda forgotten about this but it’s funny it shows how internally contradictory my beliefs had become! Me and friend at school started a club called SoPSoQ – Save our Pound, Sack our Queen! We were anti-Euro, anti-monarchists!
Just before the first lockdown I visited your Museum of Neoliberalism – which has recently reopened in South London —, a fantastic installation that seemed to crystallize a lot of your themes and ideas. How did that piece evolve?
Actually it was when I heard that the British government was going to support the creation of a Margaret Thatcher Museum and Library, a project funded by a few right wing conservative Americans, like Newt Gingrich and the, like who it comes to their attention that there wasn’t a stature presidential library in the same way.
Anyway as soon as I heard about it, I looked online and I bought the domain name, www.thatchermuseum.org. And I researched what it would take to start an official museum, there’s an advisor you can speak to. Anyway, when I was doing Pocket Money Loans at Banksy’s Dismaland I met curator and academic Gavin Grindon and he said that he was really interested in the idea
We decided we didn’t want it to be about one person, like here’s how one bad woman or one bad person kind of ruined Britain, the piece should be more about the system – so it became a Museum of Neoliberalism basically.
And it turns out you can just call yourself a museum. You don’t have to get permission from anybody. And there’s an added benefit about presenting this information as a museum is that you borrow that authoritative tone of museums. So this looks like a, a neutral, kind of consolidation of the facts around, neoliberalism rather than being what it is… which is anti neoliberal propaganda!
When I first read about it I thought it was quite startling for that reason. Because neoliberalism is one of those things that is almost invisible. You hear the word, but the idea is translucent or like a gas, you can’t quite pin it down. Also, the idea is obviously darkly hilarious in the era of Bezos and co.
Yes, they’re the ideas that dominate our lives, but most people aren’t aware of what they’re actually called or if there is even an idea, – you know, it just seems like that’s just the way things are.
And actually someone came into the Museum yesterday and they were saying that they weren’t sure if before they came down, whether it was going to be a pro neo-liberalism piece or not. I was saying, well, the thing is that anyone who’s believes wholeheartedly in neoliberalism or who is a neoliberal, they never referred to it or draw attention to it. They’re just like “this is normal, this is just capitalism. And if you don’t like it, you can go live in North Korea.”
I thought what’s interesting about a lot of your work is that it seems to be about revealing something hidden. The idea that things end up being accepted, not by decision, but because we don’t really know how things work in reality.
A lot of my work tends to exaggerate reality to make a point about it. Whereas with the museum, it was more ‘here are a bunch of real things you can actually point to’. They’re almost self satirical. The sponsored scout badges, or the Delta Airways anti-union poster created to tempt workers to buy a PlayStation instead of paying their union membership dues. People would ask me “how did you make all this?” and I’d respond “I didn’t!”
Here in cartoon-like Great Brexitland, we have a clown prime minister, we are appointing right wing cricketers as trade envoys… does the country going mad make your job harder or easier?
Actually it feels like I don’t go far enough because then reality catches up with you within six months. Like my Shell anti-greenwashing showroom I did a thing about “seed bombs”. So it was like a bomb you drop on a city but it’s got lots of seeds in it, so you’d get lots of vegetation growing in the blown up city. And then I found an article about the US Department of Defense developing bullet casings that had seeds embedded in them, so you could grow flowers on the battlefield kind of thing. So clearly I didn’t go far enough!
So here we see, how the art world’s gain has been the advertising world’s loss! Talking about your upcoming piece in the blasphemy show in Naples, it’s a chance to revisit your work on the Bavarian cross law. How did you sort of see the issues of like the state and religion kind of intersecting in that work?
I’d been doing a 3-month residency in Munich and it was pretty clear this law was to benefit the CSU, to stop themselves being outflanked by the far right. by coming up with headline grabbing, anti-immigrant policies. And, it seemed particularly absurd because their leader Markus Söder wanted to do this very pro-Christian, Muslims-aren’t-welcome-here, act, while negotiating the secular nature of the German constitution. So he had to say things like ‘the cross is not a religious symbol,’ which is just incredible. He was completely undoing the conceit, trying to say ‘well, the cross is just a symbol of our culture’.
I thought that this inverted cross campaign, was a simple and kind of cheeky way of trying to stink up their plan, I guess.
Boris Johnson has brought in a similar policy, that the Union Jack flag must fly from every government building now. Depressingly obvious bait for the right wing press and some impressionable voters. Is there a way, do you think of galvanising the public to have some kind of common feeling or pride that that isn’t creepy or nationalistic?
Yes I think there is… We see it in the UK around the public’s love for the NHS. Where there’s something with actual public benefit that we all benefit from and we contribute to. In general civic pride has been eroded in our atomised capitalist society – there’s a been a separation or breaking of community.
There’s a recurring question in culture for the last couple of years, about whether it’s possible to get people to share a reality and common frame of reference, to sort of meet each other half way. Is satirical art a way of getting them to look at things differently?
I’m not sure. I’d make very few claims about the power of the stuff I make. I mean, it’s cathartic for me to do things about stuff I’m angry about. Sometimes it might be like cementing people in their existing opinions, you know, like what I just said about the army or whatever. I don’t know if that might be like cementing someone’s view of us on the left as wanting to destroy everything they hold dear. So art can be a kind of anti propaganda and it can also help galvanise existing movements and maybe help or assist activists with their work. I think that’s the best thing that has come out of the stuff I’ve done has been, like working with Veterans for Peace, helping them on their campaigns or with Extinction Rebellion with their work. I mean, the thing that really unites most of us is that we’re not the ruling class, so we need to get back to seeing we’ve got more in common with each other than invented national myths that serve the rulers.
Tell us a little about your work involvement in the forthcoming show ‘Ceci n’est pas un blasphème’ at PAN – Palazzo Nazionale delle Arti di Napoli in September.
Yes. I’m coming from the position where I guess I felt like I escaped Catholicism to some degree. I used to be an altar boy and stuff like that. In places like Italy you still have blasphemy laws, and I’ve got friends showing work in this show, who have been arrested for their ‘subvertising’ posters they’d put up in bus stops and so on. So that’s why I was interested in the show.
And I feel like we’re kind of lucky in the UK that we don’t have to deal with these issues quite as much – our issues tend to be more about the persecution of religious groups rather than persecuting atheists, you know? I mean, we do have our own problems here, like the fact that, we’ve got religious leaders, automatically given seats in the House of Lords. These are the kind that the press in this country would point to as ‘backwards’ if they were happening in another country. But when it’s here, it’s just, ‘hey, that’s fine’. Oh and our national anthem is literally a prayer to God demanding that the queen will never die!
We have the climate summit to end all climate summits coming up. Are you participating in some way?
Well, by the time you publish this I’ll be attempting to get hold of a single decker bus that I’m going to fill with my anti-Shell greenwashing work and hopefully power it with bio-diesel all the way up to COP26. I want to be a thorn in the side of any Shell corporate events. So that’s less than two months away. I’m getting it ready, making more dioramas and prints. It’ll be a kind of satirical, mobile exhibition, basically.
Thanks so much for your time Darren.
You can find out more about Darren’s work and his anti-greenwashing work at www.spellingmistakescostlives.com. Ceci n’est pas un blasphème runs from 17 al 30 Settembre at PAN – Palazzo Nazionale delle Arti di Napoli – more here: https://articensurate.it/en/homepage/