Peter Kennard talks to Leah Borromeo

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Broken Missile (1980) courtesy the artist


Peter Kennard is an artist and teacher who has been creating photomontages for nearly half a century. Dubbed the “master of the medium” by the critic John Berger, Kennard’s “Broken Missile” image for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament is still deployed in protests today. Journalist and filmmaker Leah Borromeo is a former deputy foreign editor at Sky News and has over a decade’s experience covering stories on the arts and social justice, from Gaza to Haiti and Pakistan to Iran.

Leah Borromeo Tell me about your latest project.
Peter Kennard @earth is a story without words, a completely visual pocketbook of photomontage essays about the world as it is today. I’ve used montages I’ve made over the last 40 years combined with new digital ones made with a young Lebanese artist, Tarek Salhany. I was his tutor at the Byam Shaw School of Art. The book tries to communicate through pictures in a way that can be understood across the world – it’s in seven chapters dealing with issues like oil, Palestine, climate change, war and poverty. I’ve always been concerned with making work that can be understood by a non-art audience, especially now that it is up to young people to try to confront all the shit that’s hitting the fan.

LB You’ve always been seen as pretty cool by younger artists, designers and activists.
PK Dunno about that. I’ve just tried to use my art to fight against war and poverty. I’ve been at it for 45 years, and sadly a lot of the images I made against the Vietnam War are just as relevant today as they were then.

LB If that’s the case, then hasn’t it all been a bit pointless? What real change do you think your art has inspired?
PK You can’t measure the effect of art like you do selling tins of baked beans. I see my work as being allied to social and political movements fighting current power structures. On its own, the work doesn’t change anything, but being used as part of movements of resistance, it becomes a visual expression of the possibility of change.

LB There’s a distinct lack of hope in your imagery, though. It doesn’t really show change.
PK No, you got that wrong! By trying to be as direct and honest about what’s going on around the world today, there is an implicit assumption that things have got to change. It’s no good showing the resolution of conflict by inventing happy images of rainbows or people bopping around with “Empire State of Mind” on their iPods. I’m not selling my idea of utopia. I’m using montage to get people to think critically – montage does this by cutting together images that are usually separate in our commercial culture. It rips apart the smooth surface of capitalism to reveal the interconnections of powers thrust on us when we wake up every morning.

LB You started as a painter. What drove you to montage? Do you still paint?
PK I studied painting at the Slade in the 1960s but as I got more politically involved, I wanted to find a way of working that corresponded with my politics. Painting seemed too gallery-bound and is heavy with its own history. But photography, however much you pummeled, tore, scraped, scratched or spat on a photograph, still took you back to the reality photographed. As Susan Sontag says, a photograph is a trace of reality. So I was able to use the photograph as a canvas. I still use paint in relation to photographs because there’s still a mystery to painting where the paint takes over. You can get a direct relationship between your hand and your emotions with paint. I’ve found ways of using paint with digital and photographic imagery that deepens the weight of the work.

LB But you know sod all about how to work a computer – what’s your process?
PK I can do emails! And I can listen to YouTube! I just can’t deal with Photoshop because I’m used to having piles of messy paper, cutting it up with Number 10 blades and sticking them together with cow gum. But I’m not against digital imagery, which is why I’ve worked on this book with Tarek and crafted a large number of digital montages.

LB Is @earth your magnum opus, like a greatest-hits compilation? When musicians put out their greatest hits, they’ve usually had it.
PK It’s mashing work from the past with new work, to do what I’ve always been trying to do, which is to create a visual language of opposition that is accessible. This book feels like the best way I’ve found to do that. It’s an affordable way to get visual images through to people who may not have access to it normally. It’s different to the internet in that it exists as a material object. It’s real.

LB Accessible and affordable? It’s published by Tate and is only available to those who can afford the cover price and live in the developed world. I can’t see this reaching farmers in Malawi or even council estates in Glasgow.
PK Well, obviously you need a tenner going spare, so its availability is limited by economic reality. But if one kid on a Glasgow estate gets hold of it, others will see it and get an idea that you can make pictures that are critical of our condition. I get lots of emails from kids who have come across my work – seeing it has encouraged them to try to make art that is about their own situations. Or it encourages them to become activists who try to change their situations. They are more likely to come across a book than go to a gallery.

LB You want to get your images out to a non-art audience. Apart from the book, how do you do this?
PK I’ve always used every available method to get my work out. I put work on the street, put it on T-shirts, badges, posters…

LB Like merchandise?
PK No! It’s not to make money for me. Social movements and NGOs use my images to make things they sell to fundraise. CND have been using my images for the last 30 years. We still have the same fucking missiles now as we had then, so the images against them are still needed. I’ve always made a living from teaching in art schools so I haven’t had to rely on my work selling for thousands to keep me going. This has allowed me the freedom to make the work I want to make, instead of work that makes money for the art machine.

LB If there was any real social change, would you be out of a job?
PK [Laughs] I don’t see it as a job. I don’t see it as a career. At the moment, there are enormous social movements for change kicking off all over the world. There is a great need for oppositional art and I hope my work can encourage young people to develop new forms of visual protest.

LB How have your students reacted to your work? 
PK It’s been different at different times. Now, because of what’s going on in the world, students are interested in more political work. In the 1990s, when most of the art world believed in the hype of the YBAs, students were taken over by the idea of being multimillionaires and instant successes. At that time, they looked on me as a dinosaur who believed in art as a moral issue. But my work and techniques have been taken up by street artists around the world who are making very direct statements on the street.

LB Where do you stand on the art vs. aesthetics divide? Isn’t there a tendency for political work to come across as propaganda and lose the “art” element?
PK It’s vital, if you want to make political work, to hold on to the idea that it is art you’re making and not propaganda. The criteria for the work is the same as for any other art. I’ve always been concerned with the materiality of my work and have experimented as much as any other artist. I make work where the medium and the means matter as much as the message. I want my work to be measured against any other art.

LB Is there anything outside art and politics that drives you?
PK I’ve often felt more connection to writers than artists – writers such as Harold Pinter, John Berger and Naomi Klein. And historically, Walter Benjamin’s work has been a great inspiration. He, alongside Bertolt Brecht, theorised the need for artists to use montage to tear through the seamless reality sold to us by the state, and to think of themselves as material producers – artists as art workers. I’d like my work to be used like I use Benjamin’s – as a resource and reference point for political engagement. You can take the daily bombardment of images through advertising and the media and create an image that fights back. § 

  • Peter Kennard