Published  08/05/2017

Oliver Griffin: ‘The very act of photography makes something interesting’

Oliver Griffin: ‘The very act of photography makes something interesting’

Oliver Griffin talks about drinking White Russians, his BMX bike, which he has named Susan, taking pictures of tyre marks, and why there is no such thing as a boring photograph


Oliver Griffin (b1983, Dorset, UK) photographs boring things – from library step-ups to fence panels – using repetition to turn mundane objects into things of fascination simply by their excess. His latest series, Demonstrations of Pattern in Flow, examines the floor of gymnasiums in the aftermath of Level Vibes, a BMX freestyle competition that takes place annually in Crayford, Kent. In these photographs, the familiar blue, white and green lines that mark out courts for various games are overlaid by new markings: the rubbery skid marks of tyres as they spin and twirl in “flatland”, BMX jargon that refers to the surface of the gym but also the psychological, meditative space that riders seek.

I meet Griffin one evening at his studio in Bermondsey, south London. Before the interview begins, he has retrieved a bottle of vodka, coffee liqueur and a pint of milk from his minibar and poured a pair of White Russians. “Susan”, his off-gold BMX bike, sits in one corner, and Risograph prints from Demonstrations of Pattern in Flow hang from a pinboard opposite. During our conversation he hands me various books to consult, and at one point gives me his favoured Leica camera, as he attempts to describe the soft and violent heart of BXM freestyle, a site of pain, discipline and solace.

Izabella Scott: You have spent some time in Russia. Does one drink White Russians in Russia, or is it a bit trashy?

Oliver Griffin: What I like about White Russians is that you can drink them in a tumbler. There’s a simplicity to it. You don’t have to have cocktail glasses or cocktail shakers, as with a martini. I spent a week in Russia for a biennale. Nothing major, but it was cool. I was doing 1:1 scale technical drawings of machinery, detailed line work. This way, you get to really understand what something is made of. You don’t take anything for granted. You can’t leave anything out and you have to figure out how it all fits together. After seeing a show at the Royal Academy in London, I became interested in the work of a Russian choreographer from the 1920s, Vsevolod Meyerhold. He curated avant-garde dance experiments, mixing everyday situations. Instead of the Ballets Russes spectacle, his work was about the mundane flow of human activity. There is something of the BMX freestyle in this.

IS: There is a technical interest you take in things, such as BMX riding. Are you a BMX freestyler yourself?

OG: Yes, I still ride. Only flatland these days. I’ve lost interest in street and park, the disciplines of BMX you see most in the media. Too much aggression and they need the idea of meditation more. Plus, I’ve become quite antisocial in my riding. I believe it’s down to the focus and, again, the meditative state that can be achieved within this sport. Along with this stupid bicycle I got made for me last year. One off the bucket list; a BMX that has more in common with an Italian racer than a freestyle BMX. It can’t handle anything too rough, just flowing around car parks, just about. Although I have broken her twice now. Yes, she has a name, “Susan”.

Oh, as you walked in, you mentioned something about surfaces? That’s a very sensitive matter. That also comes down to the bicycle. More importantly the tyres, the rubber compounds, depending on whether one rides on tarmac or wood-coated surfaces. Hence the title of the book [Demonstrations of Pattern in Flow, published by Loose Joints] that accompanies the work. We spray the gymnasium floors with cola to get them grippy, as they are usually too slippery to use with most hard-tyre compounds used for exterior use. Cola is cheap and the whole thing is all very DIY. The sport – and we can call it a sport, because there are competitions – came out of California in the 1970s. Certain tricks are named after shops they used to ride in front of. Circle K was invented outside the Circle K supermarket. But there was always a heavy London presence from that era, too – London riders and riders in Crayford, which is why there is still a meet-up there, Level Vibes, but it’s anti-competition. BMX freestyle in the US is fairly professional, whereas Level Vibes has a different atmosphere. It’s the opposite of going multinational – doing something very small, involving yourself, building the bike you want to ride. In the early days of BMXing, all the frames broke, so the riders began to build bikes themselves, learning welding and how to build from scratch. The flaw was that the bikes in the 80s and 90s got so heavy. They didn’t break but they were also 20kg – talk about making gravity your extra impediment. But now it has changed. Riders got clever and started to design their own parts. They are using lighter materials, better designed and [this] made more advanced tricks possible.

IS: In the text that runs through Demonstrations of Pattern in Flow, you describe “flatlands”, which is a literal space – a flat floor on which to do BMX tricks – but also psychological space. Is BMX a sport? Philosophy? Meditation?

OG: If it’s a kind of meditation, it’s because the tricks take years. Above all, it asks for repetition. I was told that, to get to a good level, I’d have to ride at least five hours a day. So it’s very devotional. Friends I know rode for a year and conquered the most basic tricks. It’s slow. One trick over and over again. Finally, the muscles remember and something clicks into place.

IS: I can’t help but think of a book, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by EA Abbott. It is a satire about a 2D world, a comment on Victorian hierarchy. Both the BXM flatland and Abbott’s flatland enact a fascination with the romance of surface. Is there a relationship between these two things?

OG: I know that book well and, funnily enough, if you type “flatland” into eBay, that book comes up alongside all the BMX bike parts. But I’ve just always seen it as two things. Flatland is a 2D space. And it’s a really nice word to say. It’s a flat word.

IS: In your text, your talk of the psychological flatland as a combination of imagination meeting the laws of gravity, or “seeing what works out between your imagination and reality, then coming to some comprise within an empty flat space”. Do you see it as a philosophy of compromise?

OG: Most riders have ridden since they were teenagers. They try to give up, but they can’t and, in some ways, BMXing is a drug. World champs who say they are happy, they have conquered and even invented so many tricks and they are ready to give up. But a year later, they are back on the bike again. Early riders who invented the sport are in their 50s. BMXing is harsh on your body: the small bikes, the weird movements. It’s easy to hurt yourself, to break things.

IS: There is something of a modernism aesthetic in the backdrop of the gym: the classical red, blue, white lines. Are you attracted to modernism? Were you looking for this aesthetic?

OG: Of course I’m attracted to modernism. There’s a certain violence to modernism in the straight lines, the simplicity, the function. Rather than the classical aesthetic where everything is mimicking nature, modernism is about humanity taking control. BMXing too is a violent activity: damaging architecture, throwing yourself over things. When things go wrong, they can really go wrong. I can think of certain private spaces, where I’m locked into the space, entering flatland. There are violent encounters with the floor.

IS: The language you use to describe flatland is “control as happiness” or “control as pleasure”. It seems fairly macho to me, or it has echoes of sadomasochism. Would you agree?

OG: Pain and punishment come with BMX freestyle when you fall, points where your whole body hurts. There’s not a culture of wearing helmets or shin pads. It goes again the nature of the art. You need agility and control. If you wear pads, you’d be like a grizzly man. Would you say to a gymnast or ballerina, wear a helmet? No. And BMX freestyle is also about desire. You have to really want it, to put in the hundreds of hours necessary. You see where you want to go in life. You know it's possible. As you learn to use the bike, you begin to work out the balance points. Slowly, it becomes play, the gratifying point when you know where your body and bike should be. Then the moves come.

IS: Are there many women on the BMX scene?

OG: There is a women’s league, WOF, which stands for “women of freestyle”. But there aren’t many women and it’s a problem. The BMX culture is very sexist in some respects. Women don’t feel they fit in, or feel that they get edged out. To take a historical perspective, the whole idea of riding bikes is macho. If you look at the 19th century, the whole idea that only men were riding bicycles in Paris, around gravel tracks. There is a book, Of Bicycles, Bakelites and Bulbs by Wiebe E Bijker, which traces the history of cycling and there is a point where feminism kicks in – the liberation of transport for women – but it’s very late. There is also a female bicycle historian from Goldsmiths [University of London], Kat Jungnickel, who writes a about feminism and bicycles, and even makes the cycling outfits that women had to wear – because there is a whole back catalogue of female cycling outfits. But this is moving away from the subject at hand.

IS: You often refer to yourself, and your art practice, as boring. “I’m boring!” your business card says. “Yes, you did meet Oliver Griffin and yes he was boring.” Is boredom a strategy against a certain currency of images – advertising, social media, etc – that are connected to spectacle, clickbait, violence, kittens, libido? Is this your protest?

OG: In On Photography, Susan Sontag expressed the idea that photography beautifies everything. She said there is no such thing as an ugly photo. Riffing off this, I say: there is no such thing as a boring photograph. The very act of photography makes something interesting. By it’s nature, photography aestheticises. Photography as a medium makes a spectacle out of things. In the first half of the 20th century, it had purpose: images were either useful or beautiful. My strategy is to do something else, to seek out photographs that are boring or ugly – which is, in a way, impossible.

IS: So would you consider your practice a philosophy of boredom? Is it your great aim to take a boring photo?

OG: I’m attracted to the flat manner of the Bechers [Bernhard and Hilla] – their new objectivity enacts a kind of boredom, but still it’s not boring – through the act of photographing, the subject immediately becomes interesting. What I love about photography is that you don’t necessarily have to go out and find spectacle. All you have to do is observe. You realise the most surreal things are things that happen right before your eyes. You hardly have to narrate them. That’s the beauty of photography. It’s one of the only mediums where to reproduce something is to make something different. There is somebody I follow on Instagram,, who photographs tourist buses in London. They photograph about five a day outside various museums. Over the years, they’ve compiled thousands, huge grid images that are of something you see on a regular basis that mostly pisses you off. The doors of a tour bus are always on the wrong side of the road, always in the flow of traffic. I don’t think many painters would take on this subject.

IS: What about Peter Dreher, the man who has painted the same glass for more than 40 years. There are thousands of paintings. Is that Zen philosophy, right there?

OG: It sounds like a mantra. There is so much repetition in religion – ritual, litany – and photography is also a kind repetition and BMXing is a kind of repetition. It gets your brain to a calm level. I’m interested in Zen metaphysics, the idea of closing a door or how should you close a door. Do you open the handle and walk through? Do you put your right hand on the lever and slowly push it down and open it? Do you slide your hand over the door and push it back and walk through? In Zen metaphysics, every single action in your life has meaning, and the more meaning you put into every action, the more meaningful your life becomes.

IS: If we think about photography’s indexical relation to time and its affirming present-ness, Zen links up to what photography can achieve: both attempt to involve themselves in a continuous present tense.

OG: But we live in an age now where everyone is a photographer – but they are photographing themselves. The age of the selfie. I’m scared of photographs these days: taking too many. Looking at too many.

IS: Is Demonstrations of Pattern in Flow a self-help book? In some ways, the text is didactic. You’ve called BMXing a “distraction from destruction”. Are you serious about positioning it as a line of escape?

OG: That quote comes from a notorious rider. He can’t run away from the sport. I can’t run away from it. I’ve tried so many times, resolved that I’ve got better things to do with my time – but I’m drawn back like a magnet. For a lot of people that it is their life – but then again, everyone has a fetish. I never trust people who haven’t got a fetish. It’s like Winston Churchill said: “Never trust a man who has not a single redeeming vice.”

Oliver Griffin: Demonstrations of Patterns in Flow is at Hannah Barry Gallery, London, until 3 June 2017.

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

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