Characters of crude mystery are the speciality of John Powell Jones, from the outside looking in it feels as though he has an obsession with gruesome body horror and feeling that Slipknot can make life better for everyone. He crosses over all mediums in art, but we wanted to actually know what’s going on, he filled us in on his story.
Listen to our full chat together, watch it or read on!
John is from Teesside, just outside of Middlesbrough and quickly moved to Manchester on a whim when he was 19, friends were moving and he came too.
“We were floating around, doing retail work, enjoying the Manchester nightlife. Through that I’d always been going to gigs and was really passionate about music and started making gig posters. Those designs ended up going on clothes that I sold in the shop that I worked in and I realised that there was a real struggle to be paid for design work, however after you’ve made products, there is no doubt about payment. So I went to Hot Bed Press in Salford and started a printing course to learn how to do the whole process myself, from design to print.
So then I set up my own screen printing and design studio, it was great, I didn’t have to work in bars anymore, but it had a negative effect on my own practise. I was just doing stuff for other people and not as much for myself. It’s that classic neo-liberal myth that working for yourself gives you freedom!
Through all of that work I was then lucky enough to be invited over to lecture at Salford University. Because my practise was based in classic printing it ended up being an area forgotten, so then I could balance out the industrial printing of my own work with this, which was much more rewarding.
That then gave me the time to really start to look at my own practise. I applied for the full time position at Salford Uni, which is what I still do now. Once I properly started at the uni I could really look at what my practise was and what I really wanted to do. I got my portfolio together and applied for an MA at the uni so I could really work it all out, that was three years ago and really takes us up to when I figured it all out! It’s been a very slow process because I never originally went to uni, but I’ve got here eventually!”
So we are slightly more up to date, we are in about 2017 shall we say. But what does John actually create now?
“Since I was very young I’ve always been an avid reader and collector of comics and sci-fi in general. When I was about 9 or 10, my brother and I would collect Marvel comics, I was X-Men and he was Spiderman, so that was something we really enjoyed. I think the comic range that had the biggest impact on me was 2000 AD, I think what struck me was that the stories were more like real life, with Judge Dredd, it just felt grimy. It was the same with Ren and Stimpy, it’s what a kid wants to watch instead of what a parent allows.
Horror movies too, specifically 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s, when video became really accessible and anyone could make a film, that b-movie genre really boomed! People then saw that as a possibility of being able to mess with that guise of a horror or slasher film by adding more socio-political aspects to these films. In Texas Chainsaw Massacre there’s so much going on there with the idea of capitalism and huge areas of society being left behind, there is definite commentary on mass consumerism in terms of how we farm animals and reduce them to a thing. If you look at when it was made there was a massive disillusionment after the Vietnam war and people used movies as a way to package information in a different way, that alone is a massive influence on me.
Then on the theory side it’s more to do with reality and how we perceive that really, how its fed to us, how it makes us react to that. The idea that you can use your device to access horrific imagery of a war torn country, or watch part of a film on your daily commute, to reading something. That distancing from reality that the screen presents and how to that informs us on everything. There is a good book by Susan Sontag called Regarding The Pain Of Others, focussing on the idea of the lens of a camera, how war photographers have a barrier from their reality and then how we take that to the screen and we get another barrier and we get further away from reality.
This bleeds into my latest work which is looking at virtual reality and the total disassociation of reality, as in physical, but becoming something else, asking what is reality? If you live in a second life, that’s where your meaningful relationships are and your experiences, then what is to say that the physical one you inhabit is real? Then there are potential problems that can arise in that, as a species, we really benefit from community, physical closeness to be able to live harmoniously, show empathy and understand people that don’t think the same way that we do.
Part of me feels sad and worried of things going to these polarised communities in digital space, but is that just me being old and not getting it? The crux of it for me is -with all these new systems- the problem is that if they are built under a capitalist structure then they are going to be negative for the vast majority of the population. The internet poses real excitement for building new communities, but it’s also a terrifying place, a bit endless.
This is what I’m constantly thinking, amongst watching RoboCop every other week.”
Throughout John’s work you can see images of people, creatures, animals, ghouls, all manner of classic horror spiel, but are they characters of has he watched They Live too many times and believes half of humanity are alien inhibitors?
“It's definitely characters! Within the last few years with all the characters and masks there is always slight character development with all of them, they’ve got a backstory. With the big installation I did called Two Machines, the idea was that I wanted the audience to go into a reality, these characters exist in there and it’s like you’re spying on them. That’s why I would do these performances, film them and then project them in the space, so what the audience is presented with is the aftermath of the performance and the projection. So you end up putting two and two together, you’re through the lens creating what was happening and viewing it.
That was the first real literal way of being able to present this idea of distancing reality and that has developed into the most recent pieces. It’s a big narrative that I’ve been working on for about a year and a half now, that all started with a performance at The Holden Gallery, presenting the characters in real life. one work I’m doing now is still linked to that, it’s a literal narration of a story. Creating worlds.
A big thing is that I like the physicality of things, so I always work in loads of different mediums. Of course over the past year things have changed, so I’ve done much more 3D modelling, ceramics, tufted works, figurines and life size costumes.”
John's story with Islington Mill really started in around 2003, so really early in its infancy, he got to know everyone here and became friends with them over time.
“I’ve properly been going since I was 21, going to gigs, exhibitions and hanging out in general. I moved into a studio maybe around 2013, but I’ve been part of the community for more like 16 years, so a while”
So someone with that long of a tenure must have some tales to tell of the mill.
“They’re all a bit blurry to be honest. A lot of like really happy memories of being there, made some super important relationships and it’s truly influenced my practise. Really it's all about the community, sharing stuff, pot luck dinners. When Fat Out had the club space that was just amazing, saw some great gigs. IMPATV are here and used to do films night all the time. I guess it felt like a very special place to not just have a studio but also meet people.
One memory that really sticks out is when I was 21, there was a club night called ‘Brenda’, you technically weren’t allowed to buy alcohol so instead you bought a raffle ticket and just so happened to win beer! I remember being dressed as a skeleton, doing live artwork and having come from a relatively small northern town, it was like ‘Jesus, this is wild’”
As always we have to ask about who John can recommend us from in and around Manchester.
“I’m going to say IRL Sports, i’m going to say Taxi Cab Industries and my wife Aliyah Hussain”
Hopefully we all get to experience the weird wonderful world of John Powell Jones in real life soon enough, but until that time look through the work he has already done!