Viv Albertine on Writing, Sexism and Activist Art

Pin It
Courtesy of Viv Albertine

We catch up with the creative polymath ahead of her talk at Frieze London

Punk is a feeling and a way of life, a two fingers up to anything you don’t believe in. If you were to devise a mental list of women who are truly punk, Viv Albertine would dance wildly around the summit. Her stance as a pioneering femininst is embodied by her most celebrated endeavours – from her role as the guitarist for cult 70s punk band The Slits, to her brilliant 2014 autobiography Clothes, Clothes Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. “Johnny Thunders taught me how to do screamers (his name) and Joe Strummer, to tap my foot and play at the same time. I didn't have sex with any of them," reads a typically defiant extract from her book. 

Today, at the age of 60, she continues to push the boundaries of creativity through film, art, music and literature with her subversive flair. Indeed, this weekend she's due to give a talk on punk at Frieze London which is sure to be as inspired as ever. Here, in anticipation of the event, Albertine waxes lyrical on writing, contemporary art and how to tackle creativity.

What attracts you to writing?
I like writing because I can do it anywhere and I don't need money to do it. I usually write at my kitchen table, nothing exotic, I don't need any equipment, I don't have to organise anyone else to rehearse and when I do a reading, lots of women and girls come, whereas gigs are dominated by men. Not against men but want to communicate to women. 

What do you struggle with most creatively?
Insecurity. Doubt. Time management. Dragging ideas out of my head. Cliché. Habit. Loneliness.

Do you have a strict work regime?
I bought this really expensive bed...I don't have a schedule which is no doubt why I'm not as prolific as I could be. I am below par physically due to past illnesses. I have ongoing physical problems, I am tired a lot. I think I am the Elizabeth Barrett of 2015. Not in terms of genius but in bed a lot. 

What inspired your upcoming talk?
I love that I don't have to prepare much for talks and readings because I know the subject so well. I get anxious very easily and it's great to have stumbled on a way of communicating that doesn't terrify me like playing music and directing did. I was very inspired by Neil Gaiman's keynote speech “Make Good Work” which I saw on YouTube, and I think of those words often.

Does anything make you nervous?
Leaving the house. Any kind of schedule. If I have a day when I don't have to leave the house I am so happy. I'm OK when I get wherever I have to go to, but I get anxiety at the thought of any demands on my time. Even a phone interview, or this.

What do you tend to do when you have writer’s block?
I don't believe in writer's block. I think all artists should stop when they've got nothing to say. It's very male to think you have to keep churning out work to be valid. The world would be a better place if “artists” from all disciplines went and worked in a café or a pub when they dried up instead of banging out work, an album, whatever, every 18 months. Inspiration comes back when you are rested, had a different experience, got something to say.

People must want to focus on your past when they interview you. How do you go about showing everyone that your present is just as, if not more, relevant? 
It took 30 years for The Slits to be acknowledged properly. The music industry was run by men, they couldn't even comprehend what we were doing. They couldn't hear us. We were ahead of their time. Now, due to time passing and the internet, we have been assessed without so much fear and prejudice getting in the way. I am happy to talk about what we achieved, it informs what I do now. I don't care if the work that I do now isn't recognised in my time. I'm not doing it for instant gratification. I have an urge to communicate, especially with young women. I do everything to my best ability and if it is relevant in the future, it will be noticed then. I don't care if it does or doesn't happen, or I'm dead by then.

Do you think anybody can be a writer? When did you first realise it was something you were good at?
I do think anyone can be a writer. The things that stop someone being good are confidence – so we must work on more disadvantaged people being encouraged, we need their voices – and the discipline to edit their work. I've given workshops on writing, and so many students want to just bang something out and not edit it. Good writing is in the re-writing and the editing. I'm good because I re-write a lot, I am very critical of myself, I listen and learn. With each new project I feel like a beginner again.

You’re speaking at Frieze London this year. Are you a fan of the fair?
I've been twice before and was surprised that I responded to the old work, the old artists, before I'd even seen their names.

With that in mind, what genre or era of art do you find yourself most drawn to?
Activist art. I can't bear any art or music that is pretty, clever, derivative, exclusive or rich – except as entertainment. I was brought up in a time when both art and music were dangerous; they challenged the status quo, informed the young and threatened the establishment. That kind of art is dead in the West. Activism is more exciting. Women from oppressive regimes are the most important people in the world at the moment. They are the people who should be interviewed and listened to.

Viv Albertine is speaking at Frieze London on October 17, 2015.