David Shrigley is venting. I’ve asked him about the inspiration behind his new book, Fully Coherent Plan for a New and Better Society, and in typically humble fashion his first answer is, “I dunno, the usual stuff.” But then, he admits there’s more to it. “It’s kind of a political book, but a sociological take on it. More of an explanation of society. It purports to make sense, but it doesn’t. Someone told me the other day it was profound… and I said, oh, ok good.” Obviously, the title is ironic, he clarifies, just one of the book’s many jabs at the state of the world’s current affairs. “If we had a fully coherent plan for a new and better society we would’ve put it into action long before now.”
For the past year he’s been drawing and writing material responding to our current political landscape, and the results channel the artist’s anger into acute satire. “I’ve always been really interested in current affairs and politics and history, but since Brexit I’m suddenly like, fuck it,” he sighs dramatically. “We always used to watch Newsnight every week, but now I cannot stand watching it. I’d rather read Franz Kafka than watch Newsnight, he’s more informative about the world and the human condition. Ugh, and Question Time – watching that is so nauseating. It’s like watching people having an argument in a pub. It’s depressing. I don’t feel I’m being educated, you have to search a bit wider to find out what’s actually going on. So I think the book is borne of that frustration and exasperation and anger and desire to vent, in an oblique way.”
His response is to hold a mirror up to society, in a range of new works that range from the painfully true to the outright silly. “If you can have a comic take on things, laughter is synonymous with hope, so maybe it’s a consolation that even if everything’s gone to hell in a handcart at least there’s more food for satire.”
Meanwhile he’s also been working on an entirely new and parallel project, writing and directing an alt rock pantomime. Problem in Brighton will be staged over three days as part of Brighton Festival, which he is curating, and features original songs written by David with friend and visual artist/songwriter Lee Baker. He’s even designed the instruments. “I feel like I’ve literally done thousands of drawings over the past two years, so part of the pleasure of the Brighton Festival is I haven’t done anything like that,” he says.
“I’ve been writing, singing, playing my guitar and directing, it’s a totally different process, one which I’m not very comfortable with, it’s not my field of expertise but I’m enjoying it. Rather than looking at one blank sheet of paper after the other and trying to fill it up, which I enjoy, it’s my thing, but then you need a break from it now and again, to try something new. Hopefully it won’t be rubbish.”
Originally he set out to write an absurdist theatre production with music in the background, but as the process went on, he realised what he really wanted to do was write the songs, and have them performed, “having real input into the music as a director”. Co-writing with Lee, the process involved David writing lyrics and “bashing out chords” to Lee, which Lee would “embellish and expand on” to conceive the final piece. "Then it would sound great and he’d say “well you wrote that” and I would say “no I didn’t”. It was really unexpected but it’s somehow worked out. When we do it with a full band and all the actors it’s going to add another layer to it. I am quite out of my comfort zone, but I’ve really enjoyed it."
Some guitars only have one string, he says, whereas other more conventional ones are “made in a really bizarre way… they look like drawings of guitars, so they have a really graphic element to them. They’ve got these weird arbitrary scales on them. One of them has the frets all evenly placed, so only four of the ten frets are in the right place. It’ll be interesting. You play one of the guitars by banging it against your head, which is fun. It’ll be a spectacle of some kind.”
The songs are a mixture of “light and shade,” he says, some melancholy and others upbeat, some chaotic and atonal pieces and others that are more melodic. “I’m trying to include a lot of variety so it’s engaging enough for people to watch it for an hour.” I ask if this is the start of a new avenue for him, if we can expect an album from him in the near future, and he hesitantly says it could be. “It’s the first time I’ve picked up a guitar in anger in 20-something years, since I was in a band… but I’m careful about these things. Part of aspiring to be a good artist is denying yourself certain things you want to do. So I don’t want to perform, because I don’t think I’m that good and I think it would be self indulgent, and at the expense of the project. But I said that about writing the songs, so if in 20 years I end up on the stage playing guitar then so be it. But it’s not something I want to do at the moment, because it stresses me out.”
Though the book and performance aren’t explicably linked, he says, like with all creative work, they inevitably bleed into one another. “I see everything as a whole, a book and an exhibition and a performance, they’re all different but inform one another. They’re works in progress, and when they come out an people respond to them suddenly a meaning becomes apparent. We’ll figure out what the book’s about once it’s published, and when people have seen the performance I’ll figure out what it’s about afterwards. The marketing team don’t like that, but that’s the way it is.”
Brighton Festival runs from 5-27 May. Problem in Brighton is on from 10-12 May at the Old Market. David is also running Life Model II, a follow-up to his Turner Prize-nominated installation of the same name which invites visitors to take part in a life drawing class with a sculpture of a nine-foot-tall woman as the model. He’s also hosting an illustrated talk billed as “containing numerous rambling anecdotes… not in the slightest bit boring,” and a screening of a documentary about his work A Shit Odyssey.
Fully Coherent Plan: For a New and Better Society is published by Canongate on 3 May.