Alan Murray: Anybody who has seen my work will know that my aims are quite idealistic. I go into minute detail on something which might seem unimportant, like for instance a spelling mistake in the instruction or a diagram where a steam iron is shown on its sole plate when for safety reasons it should be shown on its heel. I put these things on a platform, the platform of art, to look at them in a wider context and to ask: How is it possible that people make mistakes like this? The essential idea is that by stopping the world and looking at an object, the instruction manual, highlighting the problems with that and showing them in an art context, you can change the world. I hope that my attitude filters through to the rest of society and that if I highlight the problems in my field, other people in other fields will be paralleling this so that awareness to certain problems and attitudes will be heightened. I might criticize myself in that I am on the verge of being a moral prude, someone who looks at a fairly adequate job and criticizes the most minute detail to which some people might say: What does that matter? But the more I go into it, the more I realize that these details are the pointer to a bigger issue.
MK: How did you arrive at the choice for the instruction manual?
AM: Four years ago when I was studying in Holland at Ateliers 63, I started to buy products and I would have them in my studio space. I was enchanted by them in the shop, enchanted by the advertizing, enchanted by the way they looked. Then, when you have them in your space, what do you do? I didn’t want to do a kind of neo-Duchampian stick-it-in-the-gallery. So I had a Bosch hammerdrill in my studio space. The Berlin Wall was coming down by German hammerdrills and Salman Rushdie was having his written word challenged to the core. Events like this directly and indirectly affected the choices and decisions I made. I worked a lot with the drill, but quickly I became more interested in the instruction manual. I tried to rewrite the instruction manual but did so in such a bad way that people thought it was intentionally bad, a parody of an instruction manual. I couldn’t physically do what I wanted to do. Then people from ╘de Bank’ in Enschede invited me to come and work in a kind of co-operative where they had the level of equipment that could compete with the people actually designing instruction manuals. From that point onwards I investigated existing instruction manuals, trying to rewrite them. As the work went on, I increasingly changed less and less.
MK: What would you change exactly?
AM: I would change the manual on a level of consistency, like for instance keeping the same name for an item throughout the manual, and on a level of safety. I believe that a manual should be changed if it is not specific to the product that is in the box. For me that is important. If I buy a product, and I always buy the most basic of the range, I shouldn’t have to be told about other products in the range which might be more luxurious. It is unfair to be told and consistently reminded of the products you can’t afford. It’s also not relevant. It is corrupting the idea of good straight-forward communication. That is why I stress the importance of making instruction manuals specific. It’s not much more work to print five different manuals for a range of products. The smallest run that any separate manual would have at Morphy Richards if they were individual manuals would be about 25,000. Surely on this massive scale you don’t need to compromise. The box of the Turbo Steam 1000 is in full colour, well designed, and totally specific to the model that is in the box. How dare they then say that they can’t afford to spend probably one eighth of a pence more to make the instruction manual more specific!
Camiel van Winkel: You have chosen a very concrete, but also very narrow terrain in which to intervene. Do you think for an artist that’s the only way to achieve any result?
AM: The terrain has to be succinct. It allows you to make direct comments. Don’t forget we are talking about the instruction manual – I would never exhibit the object, the steam iron. The instruction manual is a complex set of symbols which, when coupled with my work, needs no extra distractions. Now, the instruction manual is the essential link between the consumer, industry and the object. Advertizing forms another kind of link. People are suspicious of advertizing. They are enchanted by it, but they know it’s tongue-in-cheek and they deal with that. It’s the kind of peripheral package that comes along with a product. Whereas with the instruction manual, industry has a link of obligation, a link of trust. But an instruction manual is a throw-away thing for industry. They are treating the consumer with contempt: the important thing for them is just to sell the product. You would never find a spelling mistake on any advertizing, never. But I’ve found spelling mistakes in all the instruction manuals that I dealt with. For example, with the Krupps coffee machine, if you followed the Dutch instruction manual word for word, you’d blow your hand off! It tells you to remove the coffee filter before you’ve let the steam off!
CvW: In October 1991 you went to Morphy Richards and asked them to change the instruction manual of the Turbo Steam 1000. What was the result of your visit?
AM: Morphy Richards have changed their instruction manual. They have changed the diagrams as I have suggested. The spelling mistakes have been changed and now the manual is specific to the iron in the box. Unfortunately they have done this at the expense of the quality of both paper and design. They have followed my advice without taking up the challenge. I was not elated when I saw the changes that they made because I think their attitude hasn’t really changed. I’ve got to come up with another angle now, with another way of attacking them.
MK: Don’t you think there is a danger in that Morphy Richards might regard your criticism as just a curiosity? If they do so, they will never change their attitude!
AM: It’s easy to miss the important thing, which is the dialogue I have with them. In the conversation that we had, the essence of their attitude to a lot of different things becomes apparent. Their attitude to art, to money, to jobs, to their duty, to the consumer, and that’s exhibited.
MK: How the real world functions…
AM: Yes. That’s the crux of the matter.
CvW: But how do you communicate that? The conversation can be read, but in a presentation it’s not so easy to get these things across. There’s the research and the process, but in the end you just have items on display.
AM: I portray the dialogue as the interactive part of the work. At the exhibition in Amsterdam at W139, the corrected instruction manual was almost in a corner. In fact it turned out to be a museum piece because it had had its effect: it had been in the design room of Morphy Richards, it had made them change their manual and so it had served its purpose. It was exhibited almost as Exhibit A, like a piece of evidence. The evidence of intervention was exhibited as text printed in the form of a booklet set out on a reading table in the exhibition space. The highlights of the conversation with Morphy Richards were printed on A0 size posters. The actual showing of my work is in a way dissatisfying, especially in galleries. But I like the idea of a museum. That it isn’t real life, that it is one step removed, that it shows antiquities, and you go there and see examples of the way people think. That’s why I was glad when I could present my work at the Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens in Deurle.
CvW: How do you feel about showing your work under the context of art?
AM: What excites me is the fact that it’s an arena for you to say what you want. Therefore it’s potentially the most exciting place to be. But the way people use it and then the way it is set up, makes people corrupt and lazy. Museums can be real places of investigation where people go and collect and agree or disagree with the information that is there. In the meantime artists have to look for different ways. They have to be willing to engage with the real world and use the museum to exhibit the results of the experiment, good or bad.
MK: Would you situate your work within a British Conceptualist tradition?
AM: Yes. At Chelsea Art College I was very excited about seventies conceptualism which I perceived as a direct approach to statement making. It was based in having a look at the social structures around, investigating those, trying to break them down, and exposing levels of hierarchy. I think that British art in general has an ingrained notion that there is a hierarchy that you’re working in and against. You are supposed to know your place so you want to investigate and push the limits of that. If you would ask me what class strata I’m in I would try to answer the question. Now isn’t it weird that I would not just dismiss the question?
MK: You know your place, so that explains the choice for the cheapest steam iron?
AM: … (laughs surreptitiously)
CvW: Do people in England also recognize that? Do they see your work as political?
AM: Not many people in England have seen my work. They could not mistake that it is political. But I don’t know whether they could take all the implications of that. They would though, recognize the eccentricity. Why pick a steam iron? At the time I wanted something which through the use of steam had a connection with the industrial revolution. The steam iron is almost a symbol of the industrial revolution. One of the first mass produced objects they made with their new smelting method was an object for straightening cloths. The steam iron for me is a kind of silly, society based gadget. It doesn’t make food for you, it doesn’t make you a drink, it’s doesn’t construct things – it takes the creases out of your clothes. And almost everybody has a steam iron. Whether a Philips, a Morphy Richards, or a Black and Decker, they all have this modern façade of industry at its best. It’s a modern machine with all the right curves. Another important aspect is that it is quite dangerous. I wanted that, because then my work on the instruction manual could serve a direct purpose.
CvW: You said that you will have to find other ways of attacking the steam iron industry. What will be your next step?
AM: Last year I realized that I didn’t know enough about the industry that I’m criticizing. Since then I have worked as a free-lance designer on a lot of different levels within industry. In that way I collect information, working under the same pressures as the people who actually make the manuals. The next time I confront them our exchange has to be on a more complex level. I’ve got to go back now with a better instruction manual. I want to continue my dialogue with Morphy Richards. I’m working on an instruction manual which puts the information across using different sources. Maybe I should use a little figure to help you find your way around the instruction manual. Its movements and actions could help communicate the information in the manual in a more readible way. It would be a way of re-introducing the narrator to this `cold story’. I’m also making the manual correspond with the full colour advertizing on the box. I would like something that you almost read like a Sunday newspaper colour supplement. I am considering printing the manual on a tea towel so that when you buy a new steam iron, you can read, use and practice the information on the manual.
MK: Your work is very functional. It could be criticized for lack of aesthetic ambition.
AM: I quite like that criticism because I see my work as an investigation of symbols, letters, colours, and the attitude behind them. I find that other artists, when seeing my work, ask: Is this art? When I first went to Ateliers 63 the thing that most amazed me was that nobody was asking that question about their own work. I would say that the connection between the sixties and now is that there are certain artists who are in some way old-fashioned avant-gardists, and they ask: What is art? I see the job of an artist in a wider context. It’s not about putting work into a gallery and reaching a small number of initiated people. Goals have to be larger and the work should affect a wider section of people. The job of an artist is to investigate the visual imagery of the world around us. It’s a way of stopping the world and decoding the complex layers of messages. That’s why two- and three dimensional static objects have continued to be so effective. Artists should look at issues and objects, investigate them and then use their visual and intellectual awareness to put their message across.