In the wrong hands algorithms can be divisive tools, but used with skill and compassion, they can bring us together. That’s the approach of John Walter, who uses the algorithm analogy to talk about his Lockdown Tarot at Plymouth Art Weekender.
“It depends on how you use the technology doesn’t it?” says John. “Do you use it as a sledgehammer or as a glue?” he asks.
For Lockdown Tarot in Plymouth John is very much thinking ‘glue’, to allow people to connect, with the work, with the experience and with themselves. The algorithm analogy he uses derives from his thoughts on biology, ‘how there’s an equivalence between biological forms and cultural forms,’ he says.
“In this idea of ‘memes and genes’, the tarot is a great example of a meme system and the message system because it’s got a brilliant set of rules in place that can adapt on to any scenario. It’s a web you can throw on to a situation with people and somehow it moulds around it. It’s very fluid.”
In Lockdown Tarot John will play the role of part-fortune-teller, part-host and part-‘fool’, as visitors pick from his new tarot deck of 78 images ‘that can be shuffled and arranged into an infinite range of narrative sequences’.
“I’ve always made visual dictionaries,” says John. “They tended to be books. I would take images and make hybrids. Those hybrids became the characters that I’ve drawn to make up other things: paintings, books, prints.”
Those dictionaries tended to be quite short – around 20 images long. John wanted to push himself and the form and came across tarot.
“I thought, this is a brilliant way of stretching it for myself. I’ve got to make 78 drawings. So that was where it began. It also dovetailed with my interest in hosting things. I was beginning to run a lot of bars within installations and both the bar and the tarot offered me the opportunity to be a performer within my work. In some I was to be a kind of translator for other people about the art. Being a tarot reader is a big part of it as well.”
As that tarot-reading host, John will be in a form of drag that is ‘jestered’ as opposed to gendered. And people tend to open up in what could be described as a type of psychoanalysis facilitated by popular imagery.
“I’m a mirror for other people,” he says. “They ask the tarot a question and then we talk. Because I am a stranger to them and I dress foolishly. And because in the tarot there are funny images or images they recognizse – there’s Sharon from Eastenders, and Jacob Rees-Mogg (he’s the devil) – there are reference points that somehow let people lose themselves for a minute and feel uninhibited. All I do is tell them back to themselves what they’ve been saying to me. It’s absolutely therapeutic. And it’s very intense.”
The images in the Lockdown Tarot deck of cards are all drawn in virtual reality.
“I make all kinds of things,” says John. “Paintings, sculptures, drawings – you name it! And the VR is a great ‘glue space’ for all that to get stuck together in an imaginary world.
“These drawings are all drawn with a lumpy 3D brush. They look like embroidery – which is another part of my practice.
“It’s like a crossroads,” he says, “when you come in at one point and exit a completely other point.”
Unless Plymouth gets locked down again (don’t worry, there’s a contingency plan) this could be one of the first art events that has happened for a while in the city, along with the rest of the Plymouth Art Weekender gigs. Lockdown Tarot is planned to be performed in person, with social distancing and promises to be a fun, engaging and exciting event. Especially in a climate that has people locked down and distanced.
But is that the job of the artist, to bring people together? We asked John what he thought was the role of the artist is in society?
“To be an entertainer, initially,” he said. “Art is not politics. Art is not working in Sainsbury’s. It’s this other, extra thing. It’s escapism. It’s a way of shuffling the cards with life and with imagery and scrambling the coordinates for people in a way that is fun, entertaining, uneasy, surprising and hopefully something shifts in their brain.
“That’s the role of the artist in society. It can be more than that. It can be less than that. But that’s a just a basic a requirement in my mind.”
Plymouth Art Weekender runs from Friday 25 – Sunday 27 September 2020.
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top image: CAPSID