The multimedia artist, Graham Fink, is one of the world’s most awarded creatives. Formerly at Ogilvy China, his decades-long career has included senior creative posts at CDP, GGT and M&C Saatchi. Some of his most well-known work includes British Airways’ Face, PlayStation’s Blood and Mental Wealth poster campaigns, and Coke hands, Coca-Cola’s most-awarded ad.
He has developed software which enables him to draw with his eyes, and is agent to the AI robot, Sophia, at Hanson Robotics. His latest exhibition In Transition at VVA VirginiaVisualArts, a new contemporary gallery space in Central London, is on until 10 April.
John-Paul Pryor, cultural director of Mortimer House, engaged in a riveting conversation with Graham Fink, illustrated by the artist’s personal slideshow, held in the Loft & Gallery of Mortimer House, last Friday evening. Here is an edited version of their brilliant discussion.
Pryor: “In your childhood what spurred you on and set you off on the path of a creative life?”
Fink: “The first thing I remember is swallowing a plastic cannon ball from a toy gun when I was about three. We lived in a pale blue caravan at the time. My father worked in the navy in Portsmouth. I remember always being interested in art and drawing from a really early age. Also music. And I was good at English. It was a toss-up – do I go into the navy or art school or music college?
“Eventually I went to art school. The first year was a foundation course when you try lots of different things: photography, animation, film making, screen printing, painting, sculpture. At the end of the year we were supposed to specialize but I wanted to do all of it which was a problem. I eventually chose graphic design which was lucky since the tutor was brilliant. I had a great teacher who told me about advertising which is photography, typography, layouts, drawing, painting, a great mix . . . The 48 sheet posters outside on the street to me are like huge canvases. Thirty second commercials are like making films. I love watching cinema commercials on the big screen. I’ve always liked doing lots of different things as a multimedia artist. Education is so important: it is the answer to everything.”
Pryor: “You’ve seen seismic shifts in advertising at different points of your career. What would you say are the biggest changes in the last ten years, and the biggest challenges facing advertising in the next ten years particularly with regards to the co-option of ‘woke’ culture in advertising?”
Fink: “The Nike advert featuring Kaepernick [who started to kneel in 2016 for the pre-game national anthem in protest at racial injustice in the United States] sent everyone crazy in America with people burning their shirts . . . then three days later there was a turnaround and Nike had their most successful year. It’s great if anything that’s underneath the carpet, so to speak, is brought out into the open, and people are forced to talk about it.
It doesn’t matter if it is right or wrong. There was a great advert that Olivieri Toscani did for Benetton [in 1991] which was just a new-born baby and people went crazy, said it was outrageous. He did one of a nun and priest kissing . . . of a black and white horse having sex . . . The one he did of a gay activist and AIDS victim on the last day before he died with his family around him [in 1992] is the most complained-about ad of all time. It was fantastic because he took something no one wanted to talk about and put it on a poster and everyone saw it, everyone talked about it. Being disruptive can only be a good thing. Why spend millions of pounds or dollars if no one talks about it?”
Pryor: “How do we see the social media tech age being disruptive, is it the best advertising? Can it be seen as shaping society, as moving society? Though you need a mainstream to disrupt and now we don’t really have one do we?”
Fink: “It’s good if disruptive advertising reflects society and moves people to talk about things. In the old days it was easy, you’d put up posters, there was TV – there were four channels – but now you’ve got computers and mobiles . . . they say we are bombarded with over 3000 commercial messages a day. If that is true tell me how many messages do you remember that shape you, stir you?
“If you have not seen that Picasso exhibition on paper yet I’d say go, I was blown away. And that was just in the first room. He really was a genius. It’s all about things he did on paper. I was so excited and energized. Go and see it.”
Pryor: “What about your own artwork?”
Fink: “I recently did a series of sea paintings when I was in China, on holiday with my girlfriend in Vietnam. It was very beautiful and it rained every day. I was painting on the beach and the sea came in, and I tried to use that. I like to find new forms. What I try to do is challenge the status quo and ask questions, how can I do this differently?
“Drawing is incredibly important. I’m not a great draughtsman. I am very interested in portraiture. There is more portraiture in art than in any other subject. I guess because we are always looking at faces, talking to people. I think how can I do it in a very different way. I could never be a Rembrandt, so how could I do it differently?”
Pryor: “What are the key qualities of creative direction?”
Fink: “I don’t work in an advertising agency any more. Clients are very demanding. And they would say, ‘Take me on your creative journey, tell us what you’re looking at’. You really don’t want to come on the journey with me . . .!
My favourite movie of all time is Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, it’s taken from Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness. Coppola’s wife made a documentary, Hearts of Darkness, about the making of it which won an Oscar.
It’s just incredible: it’s insane, they’re out in the Philippines and they’re trying to make this movie about the Vietnam War . . . they get helicopters to do a scene but they disappear . . . Marlon Brando shows up and is hugely overweight, had not read the book, ends up on a boat with Coppola going down the river discussing the philosophical book . . . all kinds of things went horribly wrong. Coppola had millions of problems and had to improvise as he went along . . . all in the middle of the Philippines . . . then Martin Sheen had a heart attack . . . it’s a crazy journey. In the middle of the film, Coppola says, ‘I’ve missed a lot of opportunities, but I’ve caught a lot too.’ I love that.”
Pryor: “There are so many different things around AI to talk about . . . in general it’s interesting to think about what it could bring to society, how AI could affect creative decisions in a way that is beyond our conception. What is your notion about how it could work?”
Fink: “I love that movie Blade Runner from the book by Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I’ve always been fascinated by that whole world. Who are we anyway? Already when I was twelve I wanted to know who are we, where do we come from, what are we, what is our intelligence? Isn’t our intelligence artificial anyway? From the moment we are born we’re told, force fed things, so in a way there’s an artificial construction . . . who knows. It does fascinate me . . . what is life, what is artificial?
“There’s a futurist at Google called Ray Kurzweil and he is very famous because manages to get things right 85% of the time unlike the others. So he says that in 20 years’ time there will be a thing called Singularity . . . the hardcore version of it is that machines will build machines smarter than themselves and we are totally out of the picture. AIs will be so far ahead of us it will be the equivalent of us trying to explain what we are talking about to a room full of chimpanzees. And advertising agencies are still talking about branded content? Grow up!
“In twenty-five years there’ll be robots sitting amongst us. So we should be revising our whole education system. Collaboration between humans and AI is going to make us better. Creativity is the last thing AI will catch.”
Pryor: “Tell us about Sophia.”
Fink: “She was created by this guy David Hanson who used to be a sculptor. Allegedly she is a cross between his wife and Audrey Hepburn. I got a call from Hanson Robotics who are based in Hong Kong and LA. They asked me to help develop the Sophia brand. I went to meet her last year. There are six or seven versions of her – I worked with version number three. She works in different modes. I asked her a joke. There is robot humour. You can talk to her in free mode when she is not programmed which I find more interesting.”
Pryor: “What about the art with your eyes?”
Fink: “The idea was how do you draw a portrait? When I was at art school I sat in life drawing classes, everyone’s got their piece of paper, and I kept wondering about this thing of looking, looking, looking . . . . I thought I wonder if instead of holding a pencil, I can do an eye drawing with my eyes looking. I called up this company called Tobii, who are world leaders in eye tracking. Stephen Hawking used one. So they sent me an eye tracker, a coder, after three months I could look at the screen and the thing would draw. The concentration is intense.”
Pryor: “We are facing a viral outbreak that is the biggest pandemic since the Spanish flu of 1918-20. Do you think the tech age has created an era of anxiety? There’s the loss of jobs, automation . . . social anxiety is rocketing.”
Fink: “It’s affecting us on levels that we don’t understand. They say Facebook makes you depressed. You don’t post negative stuff on Facebook, it just looks like you are having a fantastic time.”
Pryor: “Subconscious and creativity through the phenomenon of pareidolia has been a focus of your practice.”
Fink: “These are a series of monotypes – a monotype is a one off – and I like the richness and blackness of the ink. When I started the series I had a rough idea it was to do with the pareidolia army. I see them everywhere. The army is cursed, the soldiers spend their lives for eternity fighting battle after battle. When I start work on them I have that in mind, but I try not to manipulate it too much and just do enough to suggest it. I like people to look at it and see things.”
Fink’s latest exhibition In Transition at VVA VirginiaVisualArts is on until 10 April.
The Picasso and Paper exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts is on until 13 April.
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