Following on from part 1 of my interview with Professor Richard Clay (which you can read here), here’s part two in which Richard reveals whether he prefers lecturing or seminars, thoughts on graffiti and nuclear deterrence, future book ideas, and much, much more! 😀

KBR: You went on to write and present the “Brief History of Graffiti” programme hot on the heels of “Tearing”. This could be perceived as a shift of focus, although there was of course content relating to the French revolution(s). Was this a concept for a programme that came from you, or was it suggested, and how did you feel about the final results?

RC: Yep it was my idea and I like most of the film, although I think it gets better as it goes on. I’ve been interested in graff since I was a boy. Growing up in rural Lancashire, East Coast hip hop seemed to make perfect sense to me and my mates and Graffiti was part of that scene. I was an undergrad at York, but many of the most important lessons I learned there resulted from my mates and I doing pirate radio in Leeds, organising parties (some of them legal), running a fanzine (‘Pure Sheng’), and DJing (we were good!).

As a postgrad in London, I was music editor for the UK’s first full colour, national, student magazine (‘Raise’). I used to write pieces on other topics that chimed with my work on the French Revolution. One of those articles was about contemporary graffiti and one of my interviewees, a train painter called Morn (because he could only see his work when the sun came up), reshaped my thinking about meaning making in public space. So, yes, I see graff and iconoclasm as closely related; for me culture is all that which is learned and all culture is a form of sign transformation…

The success of the Graffiti programme has kind of led to you being the go-to person for soundbites whenever there’s a news story relating to the subject. Is that kind of stereotyping a double-edged sword for an academic?

It is a bit odd to be the go-to graff person and I sometimes recommend that journalists talk to other people and I share their names. But I don’t feel stereotyped. I know how busy journalists are and the kinds of deadlines that working in news involves. My occasional comments in the news media have little impact on me as an academic; academics and students who know me and like my thinking know it’s wide ranging (like theirs).

Your most recent TV project was the three-part “Utopia: In Search of the Dream” series for BBC4, broadcast in 2017, which was very well received. You obviously drew on a number of contacts and sources to produce a fascinating and wide-ranging series of programmes. Were you happy with the results and was there anything you would have liked to include that didn’t make the cut?

Aye, I rate the Utopia films and I was surprised and delighted by the warmth of the critical response across the political spectrum. Like all my documentaries, the films are a real team effort with brilliant ideas and impressive skills being brought to bear by the whole crew and the post-production team. Much as I’d like to take all the credit, I simply can’t!

Schedules and budgets are so tight on a shoot, and the amount of travel so intense for the crew, that we can’t really afford to leave stuff on the cutting room floor. But there were things I’d have liked to have included. For example, Robert Owen’s New Lanark, the Cadbury family’s ‘factory in the garden’ in Bournville, and the contemporary permaculture movement. But if they’d been included, something else would have had to be left out…

Your scholarly book “Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Paris: the Transformation of Signs” (which has featured on the blog a number of times) came out in 2012 and represented a considerable body of work on the subject. You’ve also written a number of pieces over the years on the French Revolution, or related to other strands of iconoclasm. Have you ever considered a more mainstream book on the subject?

I periodically consider writing such a book. But a book is such a time commitment that imagine my next one will feature iconoclasm as one form of meaning making in public space and will explore how such processes have been shaped by new technologies since the 1790s. I’m toying with writing a shorter mainstream book that might be called something like ‘Three Ideas To Help You Survive the Twenty First Century’ (snappy title, huh?): semiotics, dialogics, and critical thinking.

Your recent interests, as you’ve commented yourself, are very broad. Do you think you’ve moved on from French Revolutionary iconoclasm or is it something you’ll revisit?

I think I’m done with iconoclasm of the French Revolution for now, but I’m hoping that a new generation of scholars will continue to explore that field. I remain part of an international iconoclasms network that has published a couple of books that I co-edited and that also advised Tate Britain on its ‘Art Under Attack’ exhibition. The network is about to start a new phase of work, but my contributions are likely to look beyond Paris and the 1790s; probably using far more recent examples to outline more concisely the theoretical underpinnings of my work on the French Revolution.

You have a new documentary coming up on BBC4 this week on meme culture, entitled “How to go Viral: The Art of the Meme”. Are you able to give us any information about this?

Viral’s basic pitch is ‘Why are the Cross and that Crescent internationally recognised symbols, but the sandal from “A Life of Brian” isn’t? Why do some symbols stick and others don’t?” The film goes from antiquity to the internet in 60-minutes, engaging with notions of memes and internet memes en route. It’s very fast paced in comparison to my other films; I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it!

You appeared on BBC Radio 4 last September with a highly successful programme on the nuclear threat. Can you talk a little bit about that?

‘Two Minutes To Midnight’ was my first foray into radio documentaries. Given that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ ‘Doomsday Clock’, is closer to midnight than it has been since 1953, the programme asks whether we all ought to be somewhat more worried about nuclear Armageddon than we appear to be. Personally, (to paraphrase Frank Herbert) I think that ‘fear is the mind killer’. But there are good reasons for all citizens to reflect on the risks of nations’ holding on to their nuclear weapons, not least those associated with accidents or hacking. After all, radiation doesn’t respect borders. I’ve long been a supporter of deterrence, but making ‘Two Minutes…’ rekindled some of my youthful idealism. Even if we accept deterrence, we need to be aiming for a global ban on these awful weapons.

You’ve attended conferences, delivered keynotes and papers, and spoken at numerous locations all around the world over the years, including Mexico, the USA, Taiwan, Riga and more recently Lisbon, to name just a few. Do you enjoy the travel that comes with your role, and where would you say you’ve found your best audience?

I can’t say that I like travel, but I love arriving! My favourite audiences are always students. They look at problems with fresh eyes and offer some amazing insights as a result. The best groups have the courage to say the obvious thing and they understand that just because it’s obvious to them that doesn’t mean it’s obvious to everyone else. As a result, they learn from one another and knowledge multiplies. My father told me that ‘Lecturing is a means of communication whereby one person speaks without thinking very much to a room full of people who listen without thinking very much. Don’t lecture’, he said, ‘run seminars. You’ll know you’re succeeding when you shut up (for once) and learn from the group.’ My favourite audience is one which is also performing and of which I’m a member too.

You’ve also published widely on a range of topics; most notably, of course, French Revolutionary Iconoclasm, but also on subjects as diverse as industrial revolution numismatics, the role of graffiti in society, art and war, and even contemporary jewellery. Do you believe this variety is essential to avoid having too narrow an academic focus?

There’s nothing wrong with having a narrow academic focus! Without such work the rich weave of intellectual life would be weakened. Good educational institutions foster and celebrate work that is conducted at a range of different ‘resolutions’ and encourages debate between all involved. I just happen to be synthesist and to enjoy ranging across disciplines and periods (but that might just turn out to be phase!).

Do you find it difficult to juggle the commitments of academia with those of a television career; could you ever see a situation arising where one would have to take priority over the other, and if so which one would it be? And where do you see your career going in the future?

I don’t think that I’m likely to have to make the choice between the academy and the media – not least because the media stuff that I do is fairly niche. But if I did have to choose, it would undoubtedly be the academy. As for where my career is going, I like the balance I’ve got at the moment. I’m fortunate in having a Chair that spans my whole faculty and I’m very excited about cross-disciplinary and cross-sector developments that are taking place at Newcastle University. I’m inclined to wait and see which opportunities arise. But I’m always mindful of my father’s career advice, ‘Never take a job you can do’. Oh, and ‘cast slowly’ (like him, I fly fish rivers).

******

I’d like to thank Richard so much for taking time out of his busy schedule to be interviewed. I’ve found his documentaries and writings to be fascinating, so it was a real privilege to hear directly from him about his career and the genesis of some of those projects. “How to go viral: the art of the meme with Richard Clay” will be broadcast on BBC4 on 20th March and I can’t recommend strongly enough that you watch it! I’ll be sharing my thoughts about the programme shortly after broadcast…. 😀

Interview c. Richard Clay/Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings – no unauthorised reproduction, please.

Advertisements