Ben Long

July 4th, 2004

Ben Long

The exciting and original artist took time out to explain what it is he does, why he does it, its relation to graffiti and the art world as a whole and what's coming up next. Into the work of Banksy? You're sure to love this guys portfolio. Check out the horses!

How'd you describe the art you create?

Since 2001 I have been producing work for a project that I have entitled The Great Travelling Art Exhibition. The first stage of this project is a series of drawings that I have created by removing the dirt that builds up on the shutters of haulage trucks. Once the drawings are finished, the drivers make their regular journeys around the country, taking the trucks into the wider world and presenting the artwork for public scrutiny. Collectively, these drawings could be described as a moving art gallery in which the audience is left entirely to chance.

Do you see much of a connection between what you do and graffiti?

Of course, there are the obvious similarities – like many graffiti artists, I too seem to spend a lot of my time sneaking around in the dark trying to avoid contact with other people. But the context of my work is quite different to that of graffiti art. My work is born out of a frustration with the art world establishment and it's gallery systems, whereas graffiti art is historically the product of more real concerns like inner-city overcrowding and a lack of opportunities within those areas.

Are you a fan of hip-hop at all? What artists are you feeling?

RZA's influence on Kill Bill, Outkast, The Roots. Listen to older stuff too, but I have to admit that I'm not the world's leading authority on the genre and I don't tread too far from the beaten path, as you can probably tell from my list. I do have a massive appetite for music though. The Blues is my thing. American Blues from the 1920's and 30's. Obviously Hip Hop has it's roots in this genre of music.

What time period is there between the birth of an idea and the execution of the finished visual?

Time periods can vary and they are not something I have too much control over. Ideas can come in a split second, but generally the best ones weave their way out of a frenzy of activity. My best work is never planned, it just happens when I am not looking. There is no set time period with the work I do – it's just on-going. The key is to stay busy and stimulated.

Are you familiar with Banksy's work? Like it?

His art work aside, I have admiration for the way Banksy has managed to create an industry for himself out of being what is essentially a street artist. I think it's ironic that someone who is operating illegally and at a street level is suddenly the biggest name in British art. I saw that the Arts Council were even using his work on their website to promote creativity in the UK. And I also noticed his name in one of those Top Ten lists of most influential creative people in Britain. Bizarre! He was up there with Damien Hirst! Part of me thinks that he has hijacked graffiti culture to make a name and money for himself. At the same time the other part of me can relate to the demands of the from the work you do.

Which other artists or alias's are you fond of and why? Ever thought of collaborations on your work?

My hero from the art world is a guy called Gordon Matta-Clark. He had a profound influence on art, architecture and street culture in New York in the 1970's. Unfortunately he died young in 1978 at the age of 35. He is best remembered for his site specific projects which have come to be known as "building cuts". Basically he would source buildings which had been scheduled for demolition and make a series of massive cuts into the walls and ceilings – thereby treating the fabric of the building as something that could be sculpted. The results of these transformations were often beautiful and amazing – once he simply cut a house in two and jacked up one side to reveal a massive cleft down the centre! Matta-Clark has fascinated me since my days at college, but recently I have realised that his particular sensibility is lacking in the art that is being created in London at the moment. The financial demands of galleries seem to have a strangle-hold on young creative talent and art is being produced so that it can be easily marketed and turned into money. Perhaps this gives some explanation to why urban art is in a particularly strong position at the moment -urbanartofficial.co.uk is one website I know of which has some incredible artists on it. As for collaborations, I have never really considered them. I prefer to work on my own, but I have had some incredible assistance from other creative people in the fields of film and design. There have been many people who have helped and encouraged me with my work so far.

Are the days of pictures hanging on gallery walls over and is it now all about stuff on the street?

It's a personal thing. Don't get me wrong, I still enjoy visiting galleries, but they just seem a bit stale to me at the moment. Part of the reason I began The Great Travelling Art Exhibition was because I felt that many of the people I knew were intimidated by contemporary art and galleries. The YBA's did a good job of alienating a lot of people, even though they would probably claim to have popularised art in the UK.

Do you feel that eye catching pieces of art subtly placed in and around urban environments provide for a better response from the viewer than if it was stuffed away in a musty gallery?

I think an interesting point to make is that gallery spaces are artificial environments. They are designed to preserve the art work and enable us to view it without distraction. While this can be a real pleasure when living in a busy place like London, I suppose it also lends to the air of pretence that surrounds galleries and high-art culture. I personally respond to urban art because it is almost always in a state flux. No one ever says "Stop! It's a masterpiece, I'll give you a hundred grand for it", because it is generally unobtainable. When I make a drawing on a truck there is never the issue of ownership over the art – not even the driver can claim to possess the drawing because he knows that it will inevitably disappear.

Any anecdotes of being caught in the act of drawing on the back of a lorry?

Oh, I've been caught plenty of times. Most places in London have private security teams who will just escort you off the premises if they find you. One market has a security department that is a sub-division of the metropolitan police and these guys are really hard to outsmart. Everyone is vigilant at the moment because of the threat of terrorist activity. This makes my job all the more difficult.

Which hand wash would you recommend to clean the blackened fingers of expression?

Just good old fashioned soap and water.

Is this all you do with your life and what, if any, other creative avenues do you follow?

I am currently involved in creating the second phase of work for The Great Travelling Art Exhibition. This project is called "Scaffolding Sculptures" and follows on in a similar vein to the dirt drawings. It has taken me about a year and a half to develop the work. People should start seeing and hearing about the sculptures very soon. Also, a by-product of the dirt drawings is the music I have been writing and recording. Usually, when I make a drawing or travel with a driver to document my artwork I will carry my guitar with me. Originally this was just a way to pass time or entertain the drivers but the recordings have since become a valuable way of capturing a feel of life on the open road, reactions to my artwork and the types of relationships I develop with the drivers I meet. The music I produce is mainly instrumental and firmly rooted in the Delta Blues. Earlier this year I played a series of impromptu gigs in late-night truck stop cafes under the guise of Ben Long "The Great Travelling Artist". I have just compiled a number of these recordings and put them together on cd. For anyone interested, the CD can be purchased for £5.00 by emailing me at benlongartist@hotmail.com

What brings you from the North to London and to what extent is opportunity greater here?

I think I have always been drawn to big cities. I grew up in the countryside that surrounds Lancaster but I always knew that I would move away to live in the city. London seemed the obvious choice for someone who wanted to establish themselves as an artist. It's an incredibly open-minded place to live.

A lot of UK hip-hop acts move from around the country, settling in the capital. Is it really the core of all things arty?

It's just that it is where the industry is, so it is inevitable that most of the artists and musicians end up here. I've noticed healthy creative scenes when I've travelled to places like Newcastle and Birmingham, but they are by no means as diverse or as concentrated as they are in London.