“I never set out to be a political composer, or an activist as such. I set out to make art, I channel my frustrations with the system through the medium of art.” -George West
George West is a British artist, composer, performer and environmentalist. Originally from Tamworth, George’s work centres around sustainability, activism and unconventional performance methods, with much of his art following the contours of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals. George currently studies Experimental Performance at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, and spoke to PRXLUDES about some of his experiences in art and activism, his core philosophy when it comes to composition, and his most recent large-scale project ‘Make It Work’.
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hey George! Thanks for joining me today — how have you been holding up? Have you been managing to stay creative through everything that’s going on at the moment?
George: I’ve been trying to be a bit more reflective and focus on my ideology a bit. [We’re all in] an interesting situation, and a lot of interesting pieces have emerged. [There are] definitely a lot of interesting responses to the pandemic, and what’s been going on in politics, too. I’m hopeful to see what will come out of it in the art world; some “coronavirus art” — to set out of make something like that — sounds a bit cringy to me, but seeing the way we have to adapt as practitioners has been really interesting and inspiring to me so far.
I agree. I always felt very “iffy” about creating art about lockdown…
I think there’s a point where [I was] feeling like it was a bad thing, a self-indulgent thing, to be a composer, with all that’s going on. My tutor — Michael Wolters — was saying that the two can marry together; you can use this medium to convey messages. I always want to do one of four things: to agitate, to educate, to raise awareness, or to mobilise people. Often — particularly in my orchestral piece, ‘the planet is on fucking fire’ — I think it [comes] across as quite agitative, whereas my original intention was to raise awareness for this issue. -laughs- I’m not sure how we managed to agitate people, but I think it’s part of the process.
Let’s talk about ‘the planet is on fucking fire’ — it has a very thought-provoking concept. What do you think it was about the piece that agitated them?
Thank you — I don’t know, I’ve been thinking about this for a year now, [and] I wish it took up less space in my mind. I remember it coming up in my ‘viva voce’ a few months ago; I was trying to justify [that] it was okay for people to be resistant to things that push the boundaries, or ask the performers to do uncomfortable things, and one of the people on my panel was like “oh, they’re just c**ts”. -laughs- I don’t think it’s fair to write [people] off, that they don’t like something because they don’t understand it — I think that’s a dangerous [idea] to put out there.
I was scared to do the idea [initially], but [I was] compelled to be brave and go for it. Throughout the process, a lot of the people that were organising the concert were trying to change it, push it in a different direction, or spin in a different way. I decided to stick to my guns and say “I’m not moving, you have to move to make this happen”… and I don’t know whether the performers didn’t like that, there was conflict with the conductor and management.
You ended up conducting that piece; what actually happened with the conductor?
When the piece was pencilled in, it was [for] the end of the year orchestral concert [at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire], it’s a pretty big thing. There were rumours that [there] would be a pretty high-profile conductor, and in the end it was [conducted by] Jamie Phillips. But it was really important for me to treat every member of the orchestra at the same level. I wanted to remove any sense of hierarchy because I really believe [that] in order to tackle the climate crisis, we really have to re-evaluate the way our society is structured; I wanted [the piece] to relay an anti-capitalist message at its heart, because ultimately I think the climate crisis is a symptom of late stage capitalism.
I wanted to treat the conductor as a soloist, performing at the same time but not as an orchestra. I conveyed this in the performance instructions — I gave him a random part, like everyone else had — and it came to the first rehearsal, and they pulled me aside… The conductor was there — and he didn’t say this to me, he said it to the concert manager — he was like “yeah, I’m not doing it. I’m not miming”. -laughs- And I just stood there with my teachers, and I was like “it’s not miming, you’re just performing a solo”. He really had qualms about having no control over the orchestra, which went against my entire message; it’s about relinquishing that control of one person against many people, to achieve a task together. They [asked me to] change the part, and I’m like “fuck it, I’ll do it myself”. Once again, if you’re not gonna move, I’m not gonna move, I’ll step up to it.
That sounds fucking intense. It’s awesome you managed to step up and conduct things yourself.
Yeah, it was fun. I always wanted to be a conductor; I went into composition as a stepping stone to be a conductor, and later found my love for making political art, and here we are. -laughs-
I remember you’ve said before that you were moving into the world of experimental performance; was there anything in particular that catalysed that shift?
Yeah; I think I just got bored with the classical music world a little bit. I fell out of love with a lot of the traditions that were ingrained in it; it’s always felt like an uphill battle to push experimental ideas and concepts into your work, to push the boundaries… [It] was something I was always consciously trying to do, perhaps not always for the best reasons. It’s not good to push boundaries for the sake of pushing boundaries, I don’t think.
How do you feel about your shift towards performance art, in relation to your process?
It’s just more freeing to detach yourself from having to make things idiomatic, [or] for an ensemble. Sometimes there are a lot of distractions; for me, trying to convey a concept, but having to think about all these things at the same time kind of diluted how happy I felt about the work. But now, I’m free to explore different mediums, and better ways of conveying concept. It’s more interesting.
Tell me about ‘Heavy Metal’; how did you feel about the collaborative process when it comes to installations?
[‘Heavy Metal’] was a really wonderful collaboration with five other musicians from Birmingham, and six [composers] from Frankfurt. There were twelve of us altogether; I think my best work probably comes from collaboration, in some ways. Being challenged by other people, being pulled in different ways, kind of forces you to think outside the box. It’s kind of like an internal political struggle at times, but it’s always rewarding. On some level, all composition is collaborative, or should be considered as collaborative — you never know where a piece can take you if you’re open to different possibilities. There’s a really good quote from Sean Clancy — and I kind of refer to that [in terms of] my orchestral piece — “openness to what’s beyond ourselves will save the world”. It’s a bit cheesy, but I like it.
It’s interesting [in terms of the collaboration] to have a very Birmingham school of thinking — where people are very familiar with experimental performance — and a slightly [different] approach from our colleagues at the School of Frankfurt. They were far more focused on interesting sonic experiments, like how the piece sounded, but we were more interested in conceptuality and conveying these concepts. So the two worked really well together, in the end; [but] what was slightly sad about the project was that was the first time we worked together out of two collaborations, so we tended to stick the Birmingham people together and the Frankfurt people together. But in the second [collaboration], ‘Enough room to grow?’, in Frankfurt, we made a more conscious effort to push ourselves to work with people [who] had different views. The result was a very different collaboration.
Once you take the initiative to push people together, you end up with a much more interesting collaboration.
I agree. Before I came to the [Royal Birmingham Conservatoire], I always believed in the classic idea of a composer; sitting at their desk, scratching on manuscript paper — physical manuscript paper — and then [I came] to Birmingham and [was] shown that not a lot of people work that way, and for me, it was more fun when [I didn’t] work that way. When you’re working hands-on with people, in a freeform kind of collaboration, and that’s still composition — [that] was eye-opening for me. I don’t remember there being a specific moment, but seeing that this was a potential way of working was really eye-opening.
Your work is very much intertwined with politics in various ways; was that a deliberate choice? Was there anything in particular that set you on that path?
I think I was feeling very disenfranchised from being a composer. It was maybe the second year of my undergraduate, [and] I just fell out of love with composition. I felt that what I was writing was a) not very good, b) not very interesting, and c) not very fulfilling, and Michael [Wolters] suggested [I] use [my] platform as a composer to bring these political focuses which [I’m] really obsessive of to fruition. So whilst some people might still say it’s not very good, and not very enjoyable, at least it’s still fulfilling to me. Instead of screaming out into the void, I’m screaming out into the void through performance art and music.
Do you see your work as activism?
It’s a tricky question. Something that I’ve realised lately is that I never set out to be a political composer, or an activist as such. I set out to make art, I channel my frustrations with the system through the medium of art. Tania Bruguera once said “I don’t want art that points to a thing, I want art that ‘is’ the thing”, and that really resonates with me. When you’re sat in a concert, and someone’s like “yeah, [this piece] is about deforestation”, I don’t want to sit there and hear somebody convey how that makes them feel. I want answers, I want solutions, I want to feel provoked… I want people to leave the concert hall angry, or more informed, or determined to make a change to tackle this issue. But it’s tricky, because not all art is political, and it shouldn’t be. I just really struggle to have [this] level of privilege and not use it.
You can relate that back to ‘the planet is on fucking fire’! The piece isn’t ‘about’ what’s happening, it’s conveying it in a sense of coming to your own conclusions after seeing what’s in front of you.
For sure. I wanted to give my personal experience [in that piece], and the placement in Nigeria was the big catalyst for me that made me aware of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which are a core structural feature, but also a personal belief system too, to achieve those goals to build a cleaner, greener [and] fairer society for everybody. For me, it’s a success if even just one person leaves the concert hall feeling one of those four emotions; angry, educated, mobilised, or aware. It all comes back down to that.
What’s become important [for me] lately is realising that this has an impact on the performers, too. They’re the people that spend the most amount of time working with you, looking at the material, so it’s important to impart [those] feelings on them.
If you see people leaving a concert or exhibition you’ve done with those kinds of feelings as a success, I’d love to know how you feel about some of the more negative reception your pieces have received in the past… -laughs-
Yeah. -laughs- One of the most controversial [pieces] I’ve done is an interview with Naomi Seibt; I get a lot of German comments about that. Some of them are quite good, when I run them through Google Translate… -laughs- It’s funny to be controversial. There used to be a point where it would make me feel demoralised, especially with the orchestral piece… [That] was hard, that whole process, the week of rehearsals, getting a frosty reception from the performers throughout the piece. I kind of threw myself in it when I made [a] meme about the conductor [refusing] to be in it, and to see everyone’s responses was quite difficult. But you have to be aware that you’re going to ruffle a lot of feathers along the way; you can elicit a lot of positive reactions, too. I never set out to be controversial, or confrontational either, but inevitably, having these opinions — and having the platform to convey these opinions through performance — kind of makes it controversial.
Let’s talk about your most recent project, ‘Make It Work’. Do you see the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals as an overarching guiding philosophy across most of your work?
Yeah, definitely. Which is weird, because they’re designed for governments to follow — they’re not there for everyday people. But they should be, I think; everybody should be aware that this is what countries should be striving to achieve. [The project] is a reference to Jackson Mac Low and his Social Action scores; the score would be ‘END POVERTY’, and in smaller text at the bottom, it would [say] ‘MAKE IT WORK’. I think these are brilliant, because some people spend their lives as aid workers, or some politicians [dedicate] their lives [to] performing these scores, and doing everything they can to “make it work”. And you hope somebody completes a piece — or finishes performing a piece — when these goals are achieved. I really like the title, coming from an adoration of Fluxus and text scores too, [and] I wanted to carry that through.
Your performances on the ‘Make It Work’ website are interesting, considering the scores themselves are very open; was that dichotomy a deliberate choice?
I think so. I wanted to deliberately leave it more open to interpretation, and not adapt the score so that it fits my performance perfectly, but leaves no room for anybody else to put their own interpretation on it, too. Have you seen the political compass?
Yeah, I have.
So when I make scores, I think like they can be quite authoritative a lot of the time, so I’m trying to be more libertarian. Particularly with text, it tends to be more instructional; it’s easier to specifically ask somebody to do something, but it’s more interesting to provide a stimulus for somebody to respond to that allows them to be creative to it too. Otherwise, [it’s] not really any different to traditional music notation, in the sense that it’s an authoritative, almost dictatorial, way of creating a performance. I think music notation is inherently authoritative, regardless of how flexible you are with different things… Again, it’s all about dismantling that traditional image of the composer, which is basically a dictator. I’m trying to be a democratic socialist, through sound, I guess. -laughs-
I know you published ‘Make It Work’ earlier this year; have you received any responses to the piece since then?
I’ve received a few, very similar responses… [though] it’s clearly spam. -laughs- Cause even though they’re from people with proper names, they always have the subject ‘Website Proposal’, and that’s somebody asking if they want me to pay them to make my site better. So it’s going pretty well. -laughs- They’re not the kind of responses I wanted, but still, they’re there because of the website. I guess a lot of it was made with people in mind throughout the process — lots of people contributed to the dog poo response — [but] I guess I haven’t got people emailing me with their different performances of these scores, which I expected, so I don’t really know how I’d change it to elicit that more naturally. I think maybe it’s a bit janky to have it as a standard website response.
I can imagine how that would put some people off.
But it came about because of the pandemic. It was my major project [for my undergraduate] and I had no real direction of what I wanted to do. I was gonna make some kind of performance art piece, but then everything went into a proper lockdown, so I took a step back… Then my hard drive corrupted so I lost all my progress on that, [so] I had a month to make this major project. So I decided the easiest way was to make seventeen text scores and then perform them, and a website seemed like the best way to convey that. It came as a result of pressure, which a lot of my pieces kind of do.
Was there anything in particular you weren’t happy with after that process? Do you think the material is worth revising, given everything that’s happened culturally and sociopolitically recently?
I don’t know — I always kind of disliked my response to the first piece, ‘No Poverty’. How do you make a piece that tries to respond to this really important, broadest, most difficult to achieve goal? Other than go, like, blog-style and ramble about [your views] for four or five minutes. So I’d be interested to work with somebody directly and revisit that. But if I had to go back and do it again, I’d work with a performer of some kind for each goal, to then have a fully collaborative approach throughout the piece, which is kind of the aim of that last goal — to make sure that throughout the development work, you’re working internationally with other people, to achieve these goals throughout the world.
Would that be something you’d consider doing in the future, especially in a post-COVID context?
Yeah, hopefully [in a] post-pandemic context, that could be quite interesting. All of the structural flaws in society, particularly in the UK, have been laid bare, it’s more present in peoples’ minds now — after the last election, too — particularly the emphasis on the [fact that] we really undervalue the people that do the “dirty jobs” in society, our key workers. I think some of these themes are more than likely to come up if we did look at it directly in a post-pandemic climate.
If your central philosophy for your work continues to centre on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, how do you see future projects compounding on them?
Honestly, right now, I have no idea. -laughs- At the start of the pandemic, not wanting to be creative but [it being] a necessity in order to graduate, and I’m quite happy with it. But now, it’s been a difficult [few] months, adjusting to what the situation is, slowly getting back into it. We’ll see what happens, but if I’m honest with you, I don’t have a clear direction of how I’ll take a new approach — or use a similar approach — to create more performing art from these goals.
I’m interested to take [things] in a less musical direction for a while, be that visual art, or film. The other day, the [Experimental Performance] guys made a piece together, and Andy [Ingamells] and Paul [Norman] were talking about making something that expresses your good qualities through the meaning of your bad qualities. I kind of thought, like, what were my good and bad qualities? What I came to the conclusion [of] was that my good qualities are that I’m obsessed with politics, a conviction to make political art, or art that conveys my frustration or political beliefs — and my weakness is that I’m almost “ashamed” of it, or not very confident with it sometimes. So I thought [about] my core political beliefs — that being the seventeen [Sustainable Development Goals] — I wrote them on 17 apples, and then covered them in masking tape so that you couldn’t read the goals. So it was art inspired by politics, but veiled through it.
The full ‘Make It Work’ series can be found at:
George’s work can be found at: