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Interview: ’15 Folds’

Friday 19 December 2014
Words Ailis Mara

Remember that game where you would draw various parts of the body onto folded paper in the hope of creating something that’s gruesome or genius with your m8s? That’s pretty much what the artists who created ‘15 Folds’ have brought into the digital age. Margot Bowman, Sean Frank and Jolyon Varley spoke to me about how it all started.

The ‘15 Folds’ threesome are from varying artistic backgrounds but all had a similar passion of bringing together art and technology, focusing specifically on the gif (which I recently discovered was not pronounced jif like the cleaning spray – oops). And that’s exactly what the ’15 Folds’ project does.

This month’s ’15 Folds’ chain is inspired by ‘Fame’ and it is in collaboration with Absolut, no they weren’t just drinking it. But each piece gif has been entered into Absolut’s massive art exchange.

The Absolut Art Exchange, which is also in association with the launch of the Andy Warhol Edition Absolut Vodka, has seen art swapped and received for the last two months, with the December 31st seeing the final swap take place. You’re given a topic, and you create some art based on said topic. Simple. You can enter your own art in the exchange with the chance to receive back an original Andy Warhol Polaroid at the end of this month.

Lets start with the obvious one, tell me all about 15 Folds?

Jolyon: Basically, Margot you can probably explain this is little more succinctly than I can…

Margot: So Sean and I met each other because Sean went to Goldsmiths and I went to Saint Martins, so we just knew each other from being at art school together. Then we met Jolyon through this really amazing book club that he used to run, this book swap party thing. We all just had this shared interest in the Internet and creativity on the Internet and how those things started interacting and influencing each other.

Sean and I have been experimenting together making gifs and making new media work. We met Jolyon at a virtuous time; together we were just talking about correspondent art and shared generation of ideas. And actually Jolyon, the book swap is quite 15 Folds as well isn’t it?

Jolyon: I suppose so.

Margot: So we came up with idea that we would update this game Exquisite Corpse. Which is like if draw the head, you draw the body and someone else draws the legs. That is kind of how we started, and the first version of that is called ‘Exquisite Corpse’.

Jolyon: The first version was ‘Exquisite Corpse’ as a direct reference to the original game. The idea being that people would understand the jist of the project immediately based on what they knew about the ultra-realist parlour game. So in that model, it was a case of us creating a house gif and passing it on to contributors who each had 48-hour windows in which to create an original piece of animated gif art based on the one that came before it.

So I would make a piece of work, Margot would make one based on mine, you’d make one based on Margot’s and so forth. Across the span of the month, 15 different pieces, average 30 days in a month, one every 48 hours, 15 folds. So again it was a reference to the original concept.

I didn’t even clock that!

Jolyon: The idea is that it wasn’t immediately obvious. The actual practicalities of running a project like that became a little overwhelming. Asking creatives, in many cases creatives who work was very much in demand, to make original artwork in 48-hour windows based on someone else’s work was almost a fulltime job based in terms of the administration of the project. So we realised we had to change and we had to come up with something that was slightly less demanding of time but still had the same collaborative feeling.

Margot: What we really want to do was think about how we could find things as groups on the Internet and what does creativity look like on the Internet. What does it mean if we’re all talking about ideas and we’re all communicating, but how is that visualised? I got into gifs because I was interested in the Internet, but I can’t code, I’m not a coder. The great thing about gif making is that you take an image, you take an emotional thing, and you turn it into a piece of technology. Gifs only play when they’re in a browser, there’s a kind of magical relationship between an emotional, visual expression…

“Sean has joined the conference”.

Jolyon: We’ve just been talking about the genesis of the project and how we all came into doing it and what our inspiration was. I was going to say that in my day job, we’re building websites and complex technology platforms for clients and you’re thinking “this is great” but actually, where is the intersection of technology and art and how can I do more of that.

So the project 15 folds and the concept we came up with together seems like the perfect outlet, because its really important for me personally to reconcile my creative interest with the company and the direction of what we’re doing. It seemed like a great way to channel that.

So how did you get involved with collaborating with Absolut?

Margot: We just have a positive relationship with some of the people who are part of the company. We talked [to them] about loads of different stuff and I think that it felt like a really good fit because Absolut have always supported creativity. They have this really genuine tradition of supporting artists and art projects. When we did our exhibition in May, we worked with them in more of a traditional way; they were our really nice booze that everyone drank at the party.

Sean: They were our dream alcohol sponsor, we thought it was quite a good brand fit in terms what we’re doing and what they’re doing art wise.

Jolyon: I think it’s important to understand that as soon as you are an entity making interesting work and doing interesting new cool stuff, brands are always going to want to have a piece of that because it’s a great way for them to market their product. As a result, you have to extra judicious about the kind of brands that you align yourself with so as not to compromise the creative integrity of what you’re doing because it’s very easy to lose sight of that. We are very careful about the companies that we think about working with, and as a result we’ve done very few collaborations. Just to echo what Margot and Sean said, when the opportunity arose to work with Absolut, it was as close to a no brainer as you can get.

How did the art exchange come up? What’s it like being involved in such a massive scale art exchange?

Margot: I think it’s really exciting. It’s the kind of thing that, in a way for us, the idea is quite familiar. That’s really what we’re doing actually. We’re asking lots of different people from all over the world to contribute to a definition of a group. That’s how the project works at the moment. We select a theme and then we make a house gif about it, and then invite 14 other artists to respond with their own gif.

There are lots of parallels in the way we run the gallery and how the art exchange works. I think the one thing that’s definitely different is we’re not just working with gifs. I think the scale is a really exciting one. It’s always nice when more established people do things that reflect the way less established groups are doing things.

So let’s move on and talk about your contributions to the art exchange. There was one from 15 Folds, and one from Sean and Margot individually. Shall we start with the joint contribution?

Jolyon: Our first gif of the month is always a collaborative effort. Sean, Margot and I will sit down together and work out the concept. Margot and Sean will make it, and often I’ll provide the copy.

Sean: This month we kind of wanted to reference Andy Warhol and the Polaroid’s and the screen tests that he used to do. We thought about drag culture and the ultimate glamour that drag queens embody, replicating iconic figures. We thought it would be a really nice subject matter for the first gif.

Margot: And also, as creative people, you always want to do something you’ve never done before and do something original, and I think no one’s ever made a gif about drag culture. We’re really proud that we’re digitizing that tradition. I can speak for all of us saying that it was such an amazing shoot. The Queens that we had were so fantastic, it was really awesome. I think it was a really inspiring day.

15 Folds

Sean your contribution was called ‘Finally Famou$’ about the lengths people go to for fame, what was the inspiration?

Sean: That was about all of these stories that had come out in the press about the extremes that people would go to to get famous. There was that three boobed lady, who had a third breast implant, which went viral. I think it turned out to be a hoax. But it’s this idea that people would go to these extreme lengths just to get their name in the paper. There’s a few other examples about people committing crimes. It was kind of referencing those sort of things. What are the perks of fame? You get paid, you get your name known, you might have a nice house, but what are the downfalls that come with it? What do you have to sacrifice?

Sean Frank

So many different directions you can take with the topic of fame. Margot, yours was ‘Special’, likening fame to show ponies. Tell me more.

Margot: I wanted to look at the way everyone is performing. In the piece, the rhythms are all different at the head spinner. It’s really disorientating and I think what’s interesting now is that all those attitudes are really easy to adopt and take on as a non-famous person. We can all be famous. It’s just a much more accessible and repeatable behaviour pattern. That idea of the show pony and how it’s spinning.

Margot Bowman

And what was it like using Andy Warhol’s art and life as an inspiration?

Margot: I mean, he’s like so weird isn’t he. If you read Andy Warhol’s diaries, his fascination with popular culture is so contemporary. If he’d been around, he would’ve be a massive Instagram artist, Andy Warhol. So working with pop culture and the mediums, in lots of ways it’s a lowbrow medium, feels like really fitting partnership.

And finally, there’s even been 15 Folds cocktails created by Absolut. Are these based on your favourite flavours?

Margot: Yeah they are. We need to drink ours. Mine sounds really good I’m so excited about it.

Sean: Mine was made in my absence so I’m even more excited about it.

Jolyon: I haven’t even seen mine.

Margot: Mines on Instagram, it looks really good.

They sound so good! Is there anything you guys want to get out there about 15 Folds?

Jolyon: Just about the movement of digital art, I think it’s important to talk about that to an extent. Gifs are a super exciting medium for telling stories and communicating with each other, they’re slang, they help us add emotional depth to text messages and emails. 15 Folds are concerned with elevating the gif to an established art form.

I think it’s getting easier to make and share and discover gifs in the same way that it is now with shooting and editing video. You’ve got really great apps with amazing interfaces and great onboarding. It democratises the whole process of making art. I think young people often perceive the mainstream art world as being elitist and to some extent inaccessible. Internet art is a lot less intimidating, there’s a much lower barrier to entry. I think companies like Sedition have found a model for collection and resale of digital art and that’s a really good thing. It all feels a little bit alpha but it’s pushing things in the right direction.

Ultimately, it’s much more affordable than other more established art forms and therefore more accessible for collectors. I don’t think there’s a better way for young people, or anyone, to develop a passion for collecting art than having a way to do so that’s affordable. Digital art allows for a whole different level of interaction that traditional art sometimes doesn’t and I think that’s an inherently interesting concept for creators.

With the technology that’s available, anyone can make the art.

Margot: Definitely. I think that’s really good, the thing is to not be intimidated. One other consequence of that is that there’s lots and lots of stuff out there and work can often get lost. There isn’t a dedicated home. At 15 Folds, we say that this is an art space, and everything we publish from here is art. That context isn’t something that the Internet often allows for, so that’s really a key aim for us is to give the work gravitas so it’s not just in it’s own ecosystem, we’re taking it out and putting it in a specific art context.