Franko B: ‘An artist’s job is not to suffer, but to ask questions on what it’s like to be alive’
Interview by Jessica Greenall
The opportunity to meet and talk with Franko B is not one to go amiss. He will deliver an intelligent and mind-blowing sentence, followed by an outburst of loud, warm laughter, leaving you goofily smiling and trying to comprehend the said mind-blow. He doesn’t take himself or life too seriously, but focuses on appreciating it in all its glory, and believes the most important thing is to be true to yourself.
Franko B’s controversial and challenging work uses a wide range of media such as sculpture, painting, photography, and video. He is best known for his live performances that use the body as a site of representation, such as I Miss You (1999 – 2005) in which a naked Franko, painted entirely white and bleeding from his arms, walks slowly up and down a catwalk runway. His most recent work entitled Milk & Blood, performed at The Bluecoat Thursday 28th July, uses the aesthetics of boxing to explore social struggles and the ability to overcome them.
Prior to a talk he delivered at The Bluecoat the day before his performance, I chatted with Franko, starting off by briefly discussing the grimness of the Wirral (in 1985 the then vegetarian Franko received cheese sandwiches for his Christmas dinner, when visiting his then boyfriend’s family in Liverpool… typical Wools) before moving on to Milk & Blood, his ‘bleeding’ performances, and his advice for young people. His relaxed openness and soft nature proves that you should never judge a book by its cover, this book being covered in tattoos and finished off with impressive gold teeth.
What inspired and influenced you to create Milk & Blood?
It’s interesting, because you never know where an idea comes from. Two years ago I decided that I wanted to use boxing as a metaphor for the struggle of life, to talk about the things that matter, the things that we don’t notice going on. It is a combination of using the punching bag in the same way you let out frustration, but at the same time, it’s a creative process. It’s not destructive, it’s not negative energy, it’s about dealing with a ghost. With the ghost of life, you know? Milk is actually in the show. Blood is a metaphor. Blood is the story.
Unlike your previous work, why have you chosen to use milk and not actual blood?
Milk is the first food we eat as soon as we come out. Milk makes bones. You cannot walk or grow without it, it’s very important. In a way, art and language is a similar form of food for me. The blood is the struggle. When I first had the idea of the bag and having the liquid come out it would have been blood, which is fine, but then you think it’s too obvious. There’s a thought process that develops organically by talking to people that you can trust. People told me it was too obvious, and then I thought, ‘milk, it’s perfect’. If you wanted to look at it in a kind of funny way, I’m punching this big thing that looks like a c*k. I’m basically, you know, I’m making him cum. Somebody pointed that out to me. It’s like a big, gold dildo.
The gold is about optimism and desire, especially in sport. I was thinking about the way boxing, in early days, was a way to get out of the ghetto. To save your life. Especially in America, kids that would’ve been in gangs and killed, boxing became a way to get out. The gold is artificial and superficial. The mirage of success. The car, the golden bracelet, gold everything. Like footballers, in a way. In Italy, where I grew up in the 70s, a lot of the footballers were lawyers. They weren’t like they are now. Now the only way to get out of the ghetto and to make it is to either be a footballer, or be in a girlband or boyband. A boxer, like Mike Tyson, as soon as they made it they made their million. I wanted to use this, but also to use the gold as a kind of radiance. The positive energy and warmth, like the sun, and also as a kind of optimism to get out of the ghetto and to make something of your life, and to share that.
How did you prepare yourself for the performance?
I’ve never been a boxing guy. I mean I’ve never particurlary been turned on watching two people beating each other up, but I do find boxers individually homoerotic – when they win, lose, cry, raise their fists in a pose. I trained for 20 months in a cross-fit gym, and the last three months in a proper boxing gym. I don’t get my s*t kicked out, because I’m in a safe environment. I’m there for a reason. My boxing trainer says, ‘you’re going to box When you come in here, we box. I’m not teaching you how to act boxing. It’s real.’ It was intimidating at first, and this is the thing that interested me. You really have to take something seriously. It’s not just like a performance. I trained three days a week. I am pushed to my limit, to where I cannot breathe. On my way there I will think, ‘it’s going to be hard’, especially on a Monday morning, but I do it. Once I’ve done it I feel exhilarated. It’s very good for my mind. It really helped me with my depression. Physical exercise helps the mind. I find boxing, the adrenaline, a very good discipline. I have a reason to live, it’s not that I don’t have anything else. I work, I’m an artist, I teach, I get out of bed because I have to, but it’s a discipline. Also, it’s a discipline in another world. I have this kind of fantasy Franko B world, and then I have to interact, not as an artist, but as a person in another kind of world.
In what way did it help you mentally?
Two things: one, you have to be super fit. You don’t realise how fit you have to be and, for me, it’s a good focus. In a way, I’m combining something that’s very good for my mind and milking it to make a piece of work. Two, I subconsciously make work that is only cathartic in the moment I do it, but that also goes a long way. An excuse to get my s*t together. I think this is my subconscious survival instinct. Without really knowing it, I throw myself in the fight, you know? And do it. I think of something and I say, ‘ok, let’s do it. I can’t swim, never mind, I learn to swim.’
What is your creative process and has it changed overtime?
It’s not really theatre. It’s not telling a story. It’s about somehow making sense, for me and for others, because I think it’s very important to share what’s going on, not just in my world, but what is my response to the madness that we live in. We have different perspectives, but I think the question is not about agreeing, it’s about the question. One of art’s roles is to ask the question, ‘what does it mean to be alive? What does it mean to be human now?’ Now is your time, because you are alive and you are feeling. It’s about now. It’s about the moment, and you can pinch yourself and feel alive.
My work now is more concerned with communicating. To communicate less in a semiotic way, less in an abstract symbol, and where you really know the baggage of the symbol and what it means. Now I think it’s more accessible, yet without being commercial. The image is still super important, but what makes the piece is the combination of things. It is the text, the text that makes the piece that I’m making up and repeating.
How is language and text important to the piece?
I think the language is very important. Language is the only thing that we can claim for ourselves. It is the only thing that, in a way, we can own, yet nobody can own. Language is a fluid thing. You cannot own it. The moment you express it, it’s no longer yours. There is a witness.
I think you appear less vulnerable in Milk & Blood compared to your previous work.
There is a fragility. I think there’s a vulnerability. There’s more chance of doing lasting physical damage from punching the bag than from the bleeding. The bleeding is controlled, whilst the punching is not. Either you punch or you act, and if you act, you can tell. With the bleeding it’s very technical. It is time based to an extent, but also simple. You stick in a needle, you open it, and after a certain time you close. A lot of things can happen with the boxing. I can hurt myself.
Would you say that this piece was more challenging?
Yes, totally. You have to see it live, and then I think you realise.
Did you want to move away from ‘bleeding’ performances?
The strategy has changed, but essentially, I am still bleeding, but I’m not showing you blood. It’s still about blood. We bleed inside, and when you punch you kill blood cells. When you jump, you bleed, but you don’t see it. A marathon runner loses a lot of blood, as the impact of the heel hitting the ground smashes blood cells internally, but you don’t see it (until bruising occurs). How is it that if an artist bleeds, he has a doctor, but something happens, then he is selfish, he’s a masochist? If a racing driver kills himself in a race, he’s a legend. If an artist makes a piece of work with bleeding, you’re selfish and you’re a narcissist.
Were responses to the performances mostly negative?
No, no, no. You have to think also, when I was making the bleeding work, it wasn’t now in 2016. We’re talking about the 80s – it was a totally different political context, and the work was a response to that situation – Thatcher, AIDS epidemic… I was challenging and I was being challenged. At the same time, what with 24-hour news, if I was doing a bleeding performance, in this literal sense, it wouldn’t be scandalous. People wouldn’t even notice it. You see it every day now.
Yes, we’re definitely not as shocked by violent images.
The moment I came to make that kind of work was important, because there was such a f*king paranoia about blood and infection. I was an active openly gay man and suddenly people wouldn’t even kiss you, because they were worried about catching something. I remember when The Sun Newspaper told its readers not to sit on the same toilet seat as someone who has HIV. Don’t drink from the same cup. People believed it. That’s only 30 years ago. It’s interesting, because a lot of the resistance I had from my blood performance was from the psuedo politically correct gay world. I performed in gay clubs where some people would happily f*k without condoms, but they were disgusted by my performances and my body type and called me ‘politically incorrect’. It was contradiction and paranoia. In 1995, Time Out wrote about how politically unethical and incorrect I was to perform my bleeding where, at the same time, there were people having unsafe sex. The gay community didn’t like my work, because they thought I had HIV. They thought I was putting the gay community in a bad light. As it happens, I don’t have HIV, but a lot of people wrote about my work and assumed I did. I thought, ‘where did you get that information, “Franko B, positive”?’ It was interesting. It was another period – although, to this day, some writers and academics still falsely refer to me as being HIV positive.
I remember in 1994 to 95, a lot of people were still dying, and when I was in art school in 1986-1991, some of my early performances were in the gay scene. You can imagine they were totally paranoid. There was a moment where I made a name doing 3 or 4 performances at the ICA in London, and there was a programme about performance for the arts and about body ‘extremists’ curated by Lois Keidan. I fitted in and it became quite fashionable. When I stopped people asked why, and that’s why I stopped, because it was meaningless. It wasn’t necessary. The thing with art, or with anything, you try to find or to think of strategies to make work that is necessary. It’s not decorative, it’s not because I can do it, but because it matters in the moment. Three years later, five years later, you think, ‘I could’ve done it this way’ or ‘now I don’t need to do it’.
As a successful artist, what advice would you give to young people?
It’s not just about success. Success is being able to live your life with integrity and being yourself. Success for me is to make the image, to make the work that you really want to make. There’s a beautiful song by Patti Smith, she talks about measuring the success by how much spit she gets on her body during a concert, and the respiration. Art gives me a focus; it gives me a reason to live. I was drifting. I was running away and drifting.
To be honest, art is a vocation, not a career move. If you’re looking for a career, look for something else. What I say to young people is, you have to be honest with who you are and what you want. It doesn’t matter what you want to be, as long as you are honest. It doesn’t have to be agreeable with anybody else. If you want to be a cop, you become a cop, if you want to be a pimp, you become a pimp, whatever. The moral package is that you do it. So at the end, if you want your holidays, your garage, your car in the garage, then maybe art is not for you. There’s a chance you can do better. If you want security, forget it. But then I can say, this uncertainty and insecurity is another form of security.
The best thing you can do for yourself is to be honest and really mean it. Really mean what you mean in the moment. Live the moment. Things shift, things can change. Where you think you see yourself can change and that’s fine, if you are honest and don’t pretend to be something you’re not and what you cannot be. Being an artist is hard. I’m somebody that uses money to make work. I’m quite eccentric and I share my money, I don’t hold onto it. When things are bad and I don’t know where my next rent comes from, which still happens! It’s not that, because I’m Franko B, I’m success, I don’t have this kind of worry, I do! I have to work to make things happen. I want to keep my studio, my flat, two dogs, and my eccentric lifestyle. That’s fine, but if I wanted to be rich I wouldn’t be doing this. It’s not what I want. I want to be able to live with myself and who I am.
This is what I say to young artists: don’t pimp your art, pimp yourself. Find something else, get another skill that can pay your rent. If you’re worried about the rent or security, you can make a living and keep your art separate. If you’re going to do prostitution, do prostitution! But don’t prostitute your art. That’s the difference. Sell your body, if you need to sell your body, but don’t compromise your work. Don’t undersell or compromise your work or your ideas to get in the door. That door is a revolving door; it chucks you out. Instead, you show integrity. The worst thing is not to be a failure per se, but to fail miserably or in a mediocre way. If you fall, you get up and you restart, or you carry on, but if you’re mediocre, you’re mediocre. That’s the worst. I think that is the killer.
Milk & Blood will tour both the UK and internationally.