Hungry Castle, the Barcelona-based art collective, has been making big, bold, colourful moves all over the world with their pop culture inspired sculptures. Music, fashion, memes, and art come together perfectly in their projects, but what we love most about their work is that it’s all done with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Now this loud, brash, and above all fun collective has opened a studio in Dubai, with plans to shake up the Middle East (in a good way). We spoke with Simon Coates, who is heading up Hungry Castle’s Middle East office, to find out more about how Hungry Castle will approach work in the Emirates, and whether the conservative culture will stand in the way of the UAE’s (and particularly Dubai’s) proclivity for exciting art and large-scale work.

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Do you think the art world is hijacking the corporate?

I wish. I think it’s very much the other way around, now more than ever. There is a tiny percentage of artist collectives or artists worldwide than can afford to sustain their own survival without some kind of sponsorship. They’re lucky. It’s largely corporations that are stumping up the cash for getting things done and it’s now part of an artist’s job to understand and work with this.

Would you say the internet is your biggest inspiration (as a collective)? 

Totes. It’s all there for the taking. In fact the new range of Hungry Castle merchandise is inspired by the kind of old school vibe of the internet. There’s so much to draw on and the kind of stuff that becomes well-known online is famous because it’s shared by real people amongst their friends. Remember the Dancing Hamster? Lolcats? Last year it was the Doge. It’s self-generating inspiration.

Are trends important to your work?

Following trends? No. Working with trends? Yes, very much so. If the internet is continually offering up such a rich seam of ideas then it we’re all laughing.

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Do you agree with the statement “Every trivial thing can be art”? Why or why not?

Speaking for myself, yes, I do. Day one on any decent art course will feature a few minutes on Duchamp and ready-mades. It’s standard. However, the crucial distinction and qualitative factor is the credibility of the artist who the make claim that anything can be art without presenting a substantial, informed body of work.

Do you welcome conversations about what constitutes art? How do you respond to those that question the art that Hungry Castle creates? 

Great question and very much fundamental to the Hungry Castle ethos. Hungry Castle artwork is made with debate in mind. Killian speaks really well on Hungry Castle’s artworks’ ability to polarize. The artwork is interactive and is at its best when people are engaging with it, and that kind of engagement breeds dialogue. How can a giant model of Lionel Richie’s head be art? Well, we say it is and we’re really happy to talk to you about why we say so. We’re also really happy to listen to what you have to say.

What do you anticipate for the future of contemporary art?

From my own point of view I think contemporary art is entering into a period of new conservatism. For economic, political and social reasons audiences are drawing in their horns and this is reflected in which artists succeed and fail. Ai Weiwei wouldn’t have been able to visit his own show in the UK without the intervention of the government’s home ministry, based on his perceived misdemeanours in China. Physical travel between certain countries is becoming more difficult, making it more difficult for ideas to follow. Politically important and radical-thinking artists will get overlooked.

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The Middle East is generally more conservative than the western world when it comes to creativity, advertising, art, and so forth – however, in the UAE at least, minds are opening up more and more, especially when it comes to art. Do you think a conservative environment can still encourage art and creativity?

I’m speaking in my own right as an artist here: when discussing conservatism it should be noted that the mainstream art business worldwide is incredibly conservative and has been for a while. There are glass ceilings, structures, hierarchies and cliques at work in the mainstream art scene of every country. I’ve been in Dubai since the beginning of 2011 and I genuinely have seen the UAE opening up. An artist is always going to crave total creative freedom but that means different things across the globe.

Are you going to tip toe around cultural sensitivities, ignore them, or face them head on?

I don’t think it would be a good idea to ignore cultural sensitivities. That would be crazy. Any mission that we’re on remains the same wherever we are in the world, and that’s to make public art and fashion for planet earth. We’re global, baby.

How has the reception been to Hungry Castle so far, and how do you think it will be as time goes on? 

I’m not just saying this but people love Hungry Castle. Even if they don’t get the background or the inspiration at first, people generally react with absolute delight. As time goes on I can’t see this changing, we just need to try and reach more people.

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What are your main reasons for opening a studio in Dubai? What sort of projects are you hoping to work on as Hungry Castle?

Dubai is the new base from where we’ll cover the rest of the Middle East region, as well as India, North-East Africa and South East Asia. So we’re looking forward to bring the artwork to the UAE for sure but we’re also talking to other organisations elsewhere. In terms of what we’re hoping to work on, we’ll bring all the big guns plus the fashion range. Everything.

Do you think issues with censorship will affect your work? (For example, the words “Cool Shit” probably wouldn’t even be allowed to be printed in some places, or discussed openly in a public forum, etc)

Yep, and this goes back to respecting cultural sensitivities. We’re not here to upset any of the existing apple carts: we’re bringing one of our own. It just happens that our apple cart is cool and groovy, and shoots lasers and stuff. In terms of the name of the fashion label, we’re talking about this. Maybe we’ll come up with a collectible range that’s exclusive to the UAE.

What is your approach to dealing with strict government rules and regulations? Do you anticipate any issues arising there?

I can’t see any issues arising, although it’s part of my job to navigate all local eventualities and I’m totally up for that. And this applies across the board. So, in India for example, there are things we’ll need to bear in mind. Same in Vietnam, Thailand and so on.

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How do you hope to add to and improve the creative scene in the UAE? Are you interested in taking part in the UAE’s art events? 

It might take more than the arrival of Hungry Castle to improve the UAE creative scene, I fear. That said we’re really up for making a difference. The fact that we don’t acknowledge boundaries and define our audience as ‘everyone’ might open eyes a bit. I hope so. I’ve already started speaking to a few people out here about what we’ll do and it’s apparent that there are events that simply aren’t structured to take on our sort of work. The other side of that is that we’re happy to take part in other types of events that aren’t necessarily all about art. Laser Cat took part in a block party in Brooklyn last November, appeared alongside the Thievery Corporation in Washington in February and was part of Les Folies festival in France in June. Our new piece, ‘Nicolas Cage In A Cage’, debuted at the Splendour In the Grass festival in Australia in July. We’ll go where the party is. And if there isn’t a party, we’ll start our own.

What (if anything) do you think should change or be improved in the UAE’s creative scene, corporate culture, etc?

Arts education and a creative economy based on support. The arts education system here is under constant scrutiny and there must be good reason for that. It’s a shame that a lot of the gifted artists have to go abroad to study. Also, providing broad support for creatives from all backgrounds in order for them to develop a creative economy that grows naturally would be good.

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Do you think companies are looking towards the Middle East as the most lucrative frontier at the moment? Do you think it is a trend to open up studios and companies there, and if so, why do you think that is? 

If you had asked that question a couple of years ago I would have said yes, the Middle East is seen as a lucrative frontier. However things have changed drastically in terms of the political landscape and that’s had an effect. From a local point of view I can only think of the creation of a couple of new creative hubs, so I don’t think there’s a trend there. For me, you can build as many studios as you like but, unless there’s an organic, natural groundswell of creativity, these spaces will always be occupied by those who can afford them, rather than those who might deserve them.

How do you think people will react to Hungry Castle’s work in the Middle East, especially in comparison to the reactions to Hungry Castle’s work in Europe and the rest of the world? 

At first I thought most people would be baffled, and that was part of the challenge. There are still going to be a bunch of people that don’t get it – and that will continue, I’m sure – but a lot of people seem to simply fall in love with the artwork. I think this is because we just don’t have this sort of thing out here and people are delighted at the prospect of Hungry Castle setting up camp in the UAE.

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Is your main target the expat community in Dubai? Who else is a target audience for Hungry Castle? Are the references in your work understandable to any/everyone or do you think some stuff will just go over peoples’ heads? How do you plan on dealing with issues like that?

We honestly don’t have a target audience. I’m trying hard not to invoke the cliché of our stuff being for everyone from aged five to a hundred and five. We are anti-clique, anti-social boundaries and our arms are open wide. As far as references go, I don’t think it matters if there are those that don’t get it. To be honest when I first saw Laser Cat eighteen months ago I had no idea it had anything to do with internet memes, I just thought it was really ace. And when Dave and Killian told me about Nicolas Cage In A Cage earlier this year it just seemed hilarious and ludicrous, I didn’t really think about the inspiration behind it. What’s at the heart of the matter is that Hungry Castle stuff works on different levels. If you get it, then great. But if you don’t then that’s great too. This artwork isn’t about in-jokes, it’s about inclusivity.

What aspect of bringing Hungry Castle to and working in the UAE excites you guys most? 

One thing about the UAE is that the people and the visitors here like to have a good time. And so do we, so it’s a win-win situation. So, as well as being a cool place to do our thing, we’re also ideally situated to leap off into other parts of the world.

How much of your work is based around shock and awe? Big and bold, creative, colourful – these things excite people, but is there substance or a message behind the work, and if so, what is it?

I mentioned the polarizing effect and that’s something that’s central to what happens with the Hungry Castle artwork. People form opinions very quickly and we encourage them to participate by giving these opinions a voice. There’s a gnomic side to the art made by the likes of Martin Creed and that’s a participatory side to art made by the likes of Jeremy Deller. I’m not speaking for the others here but I see Hungry Castle sitting somewhere between the two schools. On the one hand, ‘Lionel Richie’s Head’ is monolithic and unknowable. Confusing, even. On the other it’s participatory because audiences need to interact with it for it to fully function. Martin Creed’s ‘Lights Going On and Off’ inspired debate, as did Deller’s ‘Sacrilege’ which as a bouncy castle based on Stonehenge. So Hungry Castle contributes to the ‘…but is it art’ debate in a way that isn’t as immediate as it seems.

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Do you anticipate push back from clients who are afraid to go too big and too bold? Are you concerned with getting clients at all? And if so, how would you handle the notorious clients of the UAE who tend to drive creatives mad by withholding creative control, demanding constant changes, etc?

It’s early days but, from the outset, I’m being quite selective about who we work with. I don’t want us to get drawn into those kinds of situations. After all, if we’re bringing in works that are already made so there’s not much we can change. I have met like-minded people during my time in Dubai – people who just get things like this in their entirety – and it’s these sorts that I’m really keen to work with.

Are you interested in staying in Dubai for the long haul or are you trying things out and seeing where they go? Is there a game plan for a long-term future in the UAE and the Middle East?

Who knows what the future will bring? Dubai is a good springboard for us geographically and part of what I do is to start conversations with people in the region. I’ve got a wishlist of events and organisations and am slowly building conversations. I’m not going to pretend that it’s easy and straightforward. It isn’t. But how are we going to know what we can achieve unless we try?

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Are there any other places in the Middle East you are interested in working in?

I’d love to do something in Beirut and have been speaking to a few people there. I don’t think we’re going to be able to get anything in the diary for this year now but 2016 should be good. There are people in Qatar that love what we do so that could be interesting.

Do you think politics and religion will affect your work in the Middle East? Or play some sort of role in your creative process?

Politics and religion won’t affect our work for the very simple reason that the work is apolitical and non-religious. I don’t say this lightly because I know that any contentious content would have potential repercussions, but the work is so approachable and amenable that it just exists in its own right.

What sort of challenges do you expect you’ll face in the Middle East that you haven’t faced before? And vice versa – do you expect some things to be easier?

In general I think the rest of the world sees somewhere like Dubai – or the UAE in general – as an unending fountain of money from which we all drink copiously and without interruption. However, in my own experience as an artist, it can be the opposite. Especially if you’re proposing a creative or artistic project. So our key challenge is getting the right kind of sponsors and champions. In terms of things that are easier, without a shadow of a doubt Dubai is brilliant for getting things. So if we need scaffolding, spotlights, weird shapes cut out of wood…You name it, there will be somewhere in Dubai that will do it, no problem, and will help us to get the finished results to wherever they need to be . That’s both very cool and very useful.

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Do you plan on working with local suppliers, manufacturers, etc?

Absolutely. In fact we rely on them. All the Hungry Castle artwork is transported as a kind of flatpack and we have to source local providers to help us get the work up and running. I don’t think it would make economic sense to work otherwise. We’re not all about the entourage and the huge production teams. Not yet, anyway.

Do you plan on targeting segments of society who are usually ignored? In other words, do you plan on creating work anyone can enjoy – from labourers to the obscenely rich?

I don’t think that targeting anyone really fits in with our way of doing things. That’s not meant to be an evasive answer, it’s just that saying ‘Ok, let’s just target so-and-so’ reflects a value judgement that favours one above the other.  Also, from my own point of view, targeting – for example – labourers, has to be done with the right intentions and has to be sustainable. Simply rocking up with a giant model of Nicolas Cage’s head might not solve a lot.

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Who do you hope to excite or inspire in the UAE?

One of the reasons I worked at the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre (DUCTAC) was because I wanted to somehow help people here who want to become artists, and that feeling hasn’t gone away. Hungry Castle artwork is the epitome of what can happen when you let your imagination run wild, and I want people to know that imaginations are there to get unlocked. Also, seeing Hungry Castle artwork online or in magazines is very different to seeing it in real life. It’s even cooler and more exciting when you’re interacting with it all.

Do you have any projects coming up that you can discuss with us?

We only opened the new Dubai office in May of this year so it’s still early days. As I mentioned, we’re already talking to a number of people about some very interesting projects, so keep them peeled…

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