Switching roles: Max-o-matic gets interviewed by Fred Free after they’ve done just the opposite
During May 2021, our own Max-o-matic interviewed Fred Free for TWS’s DM conversations series. During that conversation, even though Fred Free was the one who had to answer, he wanted to know more about Max’s ideas and opinions. So once the interview was over he told Max: Now I want to interview you. And this is how this weird interview happened.
FF –You’re an artist. How did that happen? Take me back to childhood or adulthood or whenever that idea first entered your mind. What made it happen?
M: I’ve got to say that, going back to my childhood, art was something that wasn’t too present in my family’s life in any specific way. My father used to be an amateur photographer and played guitar as a hobby when he was young, but those things were part of his past, something he might talk about some time, but that wasn’t present tense.
One of my early memories related with art was seeing when I was a kid a painting in my grandmother’s house (by the Argentine painter Quinquela Martín) and feeling like there was some mystery in that canvas. But it was just an old painting of ships in a dock. It was something too far away from my reality and I couldn’t find or feel any connection with it.
So mainly art wasn’t something that was in my mind. I haven’t got any recollection of going to museums and feeling touched by art. Art, like many other things in my life, happened in a very unplanned manner. I never had THE CALL and thought “I love Picasso, Matisse and Velázquez, so I want to become an artist”.
My first attempt to do anything related with art came in junior high school when I started drawing. I drew earlier as a kid (I guess most of kids draw at some point), but that was the first time I wanted to draw as a way to get in touch with the things that I loved at the time. As a wannabe skater (I did owned a skateboard and cruised my neighborhood every weekend) and surfer (I had never tried surfing in my life), I bought tons of magazines (Thrasher, Transworld Skateboarding, Surfing, Surfer, all from the US) and copied the logos and graphics from brands, boards and bands. Even though I tried hard, the outcome was really disappointing: my version of those graphics weren’t good in any way, and the comparison between the original and the copy was just heartbreaking. I felt I could never make something as good as what inspired me so much.
After trying for some time, I just forgot about drawing, but I did kept my affair with the skateboarding and music culture. And also my affair with magazines. Sometimes I loved to get into any new thing, to find an excuse to get new magazines.
So, I’ll fast forward my teenage years and jump in into the next phase: University. After leaving high school, I went to study Economics. There was no art at all there, and it took me two and a half years to realize that I wasn’t made for that. I wasn’t good with numbers and I couldn’t think of working in anything related with what I was studying… I just wasn’t the guy for that.
After my first failed attempt, I switched to Communication Sciences (not sure how’s the name of that degree in English), which was a mix of sociology, journalism, cultural studies, etc. I was somehow closer to art, but still I was pretty far.
Around that time I started writing some weird prose and unorthodox poetry (to call it somehow). It was really bad, but it was a great link to a community of people there that enjoyed playing the Dada poets. We felt we had something interesting going on there. Those writings quickly became the source material for a zine that we put together with our texts.
As I was the only one with a design software on the computer (PageMaker, it was 1995) I became the de facto “art director”, designing the fanzine and being in charge of finding images to illustrate our texts. I wasn’t specially excited about doing that, but this PageMaker that was randomly installed on my computer will change my life.
Around we I had started with the zine, I attended a class that introduced us to the 20th century avant garde movements. And there we learned about Dada. It was a mind-blowing revelation for all of us. Art meeting pranks meeting punk rock attitude in the early 20th century. I loved Dada instantly. I was love at first sight. And, of course, Dada my formal introduction to collage as a medium and an art form. So after my frustrated experience in drawing, when I had to make images to use in the fanzine, I timidly started making collages (mostly digital). Sometimes they were very simple, other more complex, but, to be honest, they weren’t a conscious art practice but it was mainly just a way to gather the material needed to publish our zine.
During the 5 years we made that zine my interest for writing and design / art shifted dramatically. I just didn’t care anymore about writing and I became obsessed with visual arts. When I finished my degree I was sure I didn’t want to do anything related to what I was supposed to do after studying Communication Sciences, but I wanted to focus my professional life to design or something related with it.
That fanzine was a huge pivotal thing in my life. First it brought together many influences that I had been collecting without knowing (punk rock, skateboarding, avant garde movements such as Dada or Situationism, etc.); then it was my way to learn about art and design and to experiment in a creative and fun environment; and finally, in the process of making that zine, I embraced a DIY work ethic that is still with me these days, always learning by doing and using personal projects as way to exercise the skills that I’m willing to develop.
FF –How and when did you land on collage as your main focus?
M –How I landed in collage? At one point, collage was everywhere around me. Collage was part of the punk rock movement; collage was part of Dada and Situationism; collage was part of Pop art; fanzines used collage to illustrate their texts. I loved so many things where collage was important, that the day I started making collages I felt I was already part of it.
As I mentioned before, my way into collage wasn’t planned or designed. It was a situation where one thing led to other and I just keep going until I realized that collage was the best way I had to express visually what I had in my mind. Zines had been the stepping stone into design and the visual world; then I discovered illustration and collage, and finally I learnt that I could express myself through that medium in a personal way. It was a slow and natural process.
Those first collages / visual pieces I did for my fanzine, without fully being aware, became the first steps in a search for my own voice and my own way to tell stories in an interesting and meaningful way. This search is still on-going as my work keeps evolving, always looking for what’s next, learning from what I’ve done, keeping some elements and discarding others to be able to change and evolve as an artist. The feeling of needing to go to a next destination is what keeps me, piece by piece, working with the idea of forging my own identity and finding my voice.
FF –Related to the previous question, what are some of the things that inspire you before you get started on a personal piece?
M –I’m not sure how I’m inspired by things. My work sometimes is personal, other times it might be more political o sometimes is just an exercise in formalism, but I can’t really see how the things that happen in my life become a part of my work. It probably happens on a more subconscious level, but it’s not a process that I’m fully aware of while it happens. I have always felt that inspiration is not something that is involved in my work process.
What drives my work is something as powerful and simple as the question “what’s next”. What will I do next, how it will be different from the previous stuff; which new elements will become part of my new pieces and what will stay from the previous… answering to all these questions is what drives my work. The idea of motion and evolution is key to know what “inspires” me. That’s why the idea of newness is very important to understand my work process. Analyzing my previous work and thinking about how it will evolve is what makes me want to work on new pieces.
FF –Can you talk about your process once you do get started?
M– I’ve been thinking about this on many occasions and I’m afraid I always answer different things because my process keeps changing while my work evolves and mutates.
When I started, I tended to make the treasure hunt (getting cool source material to work with) the center of my process. Once I’ve got the right books or magazines, I decided a theme for the series and then let the intuition and improvisation kick in. But as my work kept changing, my way of approaching each new series also has changed. Now I feel that the research period prior to start working is way more complex and less source material centered. In addition to providing more space for a conceptual framework, I have a more calm and thoughtful approach to my work. Before it was all about speed and letting my feelings flow through my hands, and now is less hectic and more reflective, molding ideas beforehand and making sketches to plan the series in advance. While 10 years ago all important things happened when I started cutting, right now I feel the more relevant aspects of the process occur before the first cut is made.
Also I always tend to talk about my paper collages, but I never mention my digital work, which I do plenty -and not only for commercial projects, but also for personal and art projects.
And I’d love to say that my digital work is also something that I’ve been enjoying lately. There’s an on-going project that I’ve been posting about on social media lately but that I haven’t explained much about that I really love and feel that has a very interesting twist: the Digital Scraps Series.
This series is based on the idea that when working on paper, the leftovers are a key part of the collage process, becoming a source of unexpected turns and twists that add a layer of freshness and spontaneity to the pieces. But when we work on digital collage, we just never think about the scraps that are discarded. When cutting images on Photoshop we erase the unwanted without thinking in the information that we eliminated without leaving any trace. There are no leftovers, there’s just relevant information. And this, in my opinion, is why sometimes digital collage tends to be a bit stiff and over designed. It either lacks the spontaneity of the unwanted elements or it abuses of the clichés of the medium that some people use to make things look collage-y.
So, some years ago, I started collecting digital scraps when I make any commercial project. What does this mean? It means that when I’m working on Photoshop I keep an open document where I paste every piece of any image that I discard. That’s how (almost) each commercial illustration that I make has it’s own counter-part: another layered document where there are stacked dozens (hundreds?) of meaningless outlines of bodies and landscapes and other weird shapes non-relevant pieces of information. I have TONS of these files, that then, from time to time, I open to turn them into art pieces for this Digital Scraps series.
I find the idea of digital scraps really interesting because it makes me think about the nature of our digital life, where reality is reduced to what we see, without taking into account what is left behind, blocked by algorithms and forgotten because of its invisibility.
FF –You make art both for yourself and for clients – in what ways are those worlds the same and how are they different? And does one affect the other? And how do you also find time for both AND maybe your biggest project – TWS?
M– I’d say that in my case there’s no commercial VERSUS art. They are different parts of a quite similar thing. The main difference is the motivation and the approach. Commercial work has to communicate in a direct and unmistakable way, while art can be more subtle and can express feelings in a more obscure and less obvious manner. But apart from these, I feel that my art and commercial projects are deeply connected. They operate in different ways but they are definitely related and they both help nurture the other.
I always felt it this way and recently I found someone who put into words my feelings in a much better way than I do: Mac Premo. When I interviewed him for TWS’s podcast I asked him about the art vs commercial work dualism, and his answer fits perfectly with my ideas on this issue. I have to recommend everyone to listen to that interview because Mac’s words sum it up in the best possible way. But to answer to the question, I’ll say that commercial work gives me the economic support to have the freedom of creating my art work just the way I want to make it without having to make any compromise in order to be able to create income and financially support my life. Also, and not less important, while doing commercial projects I learn lots of things that I incorporate in my art practice –and the other way around too. So, yes, both are affected by each other in a positive way. I do not wish to opt for one of these two paths. I am happy to go for a combination of both.
And about finding time to make work + art + The Weird Show: that’s a more difficult one. I guess the only way I can explain it is that I have a very strict work ethic. I put a lot of hours into my work and TWS. There’s no secret spell to make things happen. It’s just hard work.
And regarding to TWS I need to say that I can do it because I am not a perfectionist. Being almost a one-man operation for the last 5-6 years, I’m aware that I do things the best I can, but that it has many flaws that can be improved. But I’d rather have it exist with its bugs, than wait until I have the time to make it perfect. Imperfect and alive is way better than flawless and non-existent, so I can live with it grammar chaos, the low social media engagement, the interviews that don’t arrive on time and all the things that happen in a non-professional enterprise that just happens thanks to the enthusiasm and curiosity to learn and share something about the world of art and collage.
FF –Speaking of TWS, about ten years ago you were just living your life and making art for yourself and your clients, but apparently that wasn’t enough and the idea for the weird show began to develop. Take me through how it all went down. When did it happen and who was involved? What was the initial spark?
M –The Weird Show is a project that was conceived with my dear friend Rubén B., with whom we shared the direction until 2016, when he stepped down. By 2010 Ruben and I had been friends and had been making collage for some time. We also shared a similar go-for-it attitude and love to jump into projects without giving second thoughts to things. So in late 2010 Rubén got the chance to curate an exhibition in Madrid where he invited me along other 4 artists. That turned to be TWS’s first show, and from there on we decided to work on this platform to research and showcase collage in its most innovative approaches.
I’ve got to say that James Gallagher and his Cutters exhibitions (held in Brooklyn, Berlin and Cork between 2010 and 2011) and later his Cutting Edges book (published by Gestalten) had an huge influence in us. We not only loved James work, but also were very inspired by his curatorial approach. He was a model for us in so many ways. So it’s fair to say that TWS owes a lot to James work.
FF –Once TWS got going, what were the next steps? What were some early projects and initiatives?
M –TWS’s history can easily be divided in two parts. The first one goes from 2011 to 2016, where Rubén and myself worked together on the exhibitions and online publishing and defined the core Weird Show spirit. After that first Madrid show we set up quite quickly the website and started working on content. So when we hadn’t got a show going we spent time adding interviews and artists profiles to the site.
During those years I think that the exhibitions were probably a priority over publishing. We did both, but our efforts were more focused on finding new venues and new cities to take the International Weird Collage Show. Finding and connecting with artists around the world that helped us to co-curate these exhibitions has been key in this process. Thanks to amazing artists such as Ashkan Honarvar (Rotterdam and later Trondheim), Charles Wilkin (NYC), Goster (Lima and Quito), Alan Ganev (Montreal) among others we had been able to tour different places taking our vision of collage and getting to know local talent. Through these shows we started building a network of artists that had a similar approach to collage and art that gave us the amazing feeling of being part of a community that was much more than internet pals, but a group of like-minded people that from time to time gathered and had fun with collage as the main excuse.
FF –How did you spread the word and build an audience? Could there have been tws without social media?
M –I’m not fully sure how we manage to spread the word. Instagram wasn’t a big thing then and to be honest social media never was our thing. I guess that when we started we were ones of the few talking about what we talked about in the way we did it, so it was easier than probably would be today. Also in a short period of time we got to exhibit in many places and featured some of the most relevant artists in the medium, so that helped us to show people that we took TWS seriously, that we were backed by amazing artists and made great shows.
About social media… yes, we could have existed without it because we suck big time on social media. We’re not good at it and we kind of don’t like it –even though we accept we need it.
FF –Has everything been successful in your eyes? Do you have any favorite or less favorite TWS moments or projects?
M –TWS has been always about struggling and getting things done, and in our eyes success was a matter of doing tons of things with almost no resources. But by 2016 Rubén stepped down of the project to focus on other personal endeavors. He needed a big change in his life and it made sense to start with new things without the weight of stuff that wasn’t as meaningful as it used to be. That was probably my least favorite moment in our history (along with when the site got hacked and we lost everything we had on our server. More than 6 years work… We had to make archeology and recover all interviews and images from our personal hard drives (we didn’t find all of them) and later had to publish the whole site again).
Going back to when Ruben left, that was a tough year too because by then I had sort of experienced some of the limits of the model that we had forged (without being very conscious of doing it). In 2016 TWS had three exhibitions being two of them probably the biggest done up to date. The first one was in Barcelona, my hometown, with more than 150 artworks from 35 artists involved form all around. The other big one was the one we made at Trondheim, Norway, with Ashkan Honarvar and Sylvia Stølan co-curating it and held in one of the city’s most respected cultural institutions.
Both shows taught me somehow that we reached our limits and that we were making shows with an amount and quality of artists that needed more budget and organizational resources. At that time it was just myself and the local co-curators (whose work has always been vital) juggling with so many things that the feeling that something could go wrong was just a part of the process. Luckily things didn’t go wrong and the shows were a success. But I felt that I needed to re-think TWS from there on.
That’s when the second era of TWS starts. With myself directing on my own the project and with the idea of focusing more on publishing and less on exhibiting. I felt that to make new shows I needed a financial and organizational support that I couldn’t provide being just as a one-man operation with no budget apart from the money that I spent from my own pocket.
So I did few shows after that (including London, which was a complete disaster in organizational terms) and I decided to think very carefully each new show opportunity and be sure that if I make news exhibitions, I have all the resources needed to make it the best possible way. I needed to leave the DIY ethics that led us here and try to think in a more professional way, because the artists we were showing deserved it.
So when I re-focused TWS into publishing, I made a great effort to improve the quality of the interviews and bring more depth to the conversations with the artists. I didn’t just want to know how they did things, but to focus more on why. Also I became more aware of what collage meant to me, being much more that cutting and glueing paper, but a way of approaching reality. That’s why I started interviewing people that came from other artistic fields (film, ceramics, painting, performance…). This is were the podcast came. It is a great way to adding depth to the issues we’re addressing and always putting the artists as the center of everything we do.
With all I’ve been doing at TWS, I meant to share this view of collage as something that is bigger than Dada and that has many implications in our contemporary culture. My intention was (and still is) to champion a broader vision of what collage is from the small platform I’ve been putting my time into for the last 10 years.
FF –On the TWS site it says that you “seek to expand the boundaries of this practice, leaving cliches behind in order to redefine collage as a meaningful cultural artifact and expressive language.” Is it fair to say that this was a big part of your motivation? What cliches did you want to leave behind? Did you feel that collage was not being respected as a higher form of art?
M –Yes, I’m aware I wrote that. Maybe I need to re-write it. As everything I do I don’t think too much about it and I probably publish it without too many second thoughts. I’m an impulsive publisher. I’m glad I haven’t got a drinking problem because that would be a really bad combination.
To be honest, today I’ll use other words to explain what I had in mind at that time. But also, that text was a reaction to things that were happening at that moment, when collage became a sort of hobby for people interested only in repeating formulas empty of content. When I wrote that text I was feeling that there were many new platforms that were selling the idea of “make collage, the new and easiest way for anyone to become an artist”. Many social media platforms were (and still are) showcasing anything that had a couple of paper cuts from Life magazine and a color circle. And because of the nature of people and social media, that version of collage became predominant almost erasing other more complex visions of collage -that I was most interested in showcasing. So when I wrote that text (not sure if it was 2016…) I felt I was losing the battle. But I was totally wrong about it. There was (and is) no battle. There are just different levels of understanding and living the art practice. Then I was feeling, as you said, that collage wasn’t being respected as a higher form of art. But I was very wrong, and it took me some time to realize it. I was so focused on social media and internet that I couldn’t see that on one side there’s the art world and on the other there’s social media. If my mother’s neighbor makes a collage with a beautiful puppy and an cat and gets 5436 likes, that doesn’t mean that the art world validates anything related with it. As there are armies of “Sunday painters” and painting’s status in the art world is not compromised by grannies painting flowers, there are also armies of “Teatime collagists” that don’t change what the art establishment feels about collage as a medium. The disregard of collage as a lower form of art is related with other things (some of them cyclical) and are not related with what people post on Instagram.
So this is were my rant against cliches came from. And I’m fully aware that I need to find time to write new stuff to explain what TWS is and what wants to achieve.
FF – Were people mostly receptive to the goals of TWS? Any resistance?
M –I’m not sure TWS ever did a good job communicating our goals, so I’m not sure what people think of TWS and what people understand of what our goals were and are. I guess some people got it and others didn’t even cared to read what I write on the site and on social media.
What I do know, based on our following growth, is that either our social media strategy sucks (which it most probably does, since I’m not very keen on spending my time on social media) or that there’s no resistance, but people prefer all the other platforms that approach collage from a more basic (and sometimes lighter) perspective. If TWS’s positioning is something like “collage can be more than the usual stuff”, I see that many of the social media platforms who share “everyone can make collage” and share almost everything that comes to their screens are more effective in gaining following and interactions. But as a good friend once told me, I’m not interested in trading what I feel that is TWS’s spirit for more following, so I should be ok with not being Instagram’s top collage account. After all we are the Weird ones.
FF –You’ve initiated a bunch of exhibits and gatherings, have interviewed many artists in print and now also in podcast form – which means that you’ve seen and heard and discussed a lot of collage stuff in 10 years – have you come to any conclusions? Do you need to?
M–My idea of TWS is not finding any conclusion or final answer about what collage is, but is creating a vault were I can document my take on what’s happening in this medium while I’m actively involved in it. In 20 or 30 years time (if global warming or any other global threat that threatens us allows us to do so) I’ll be glad to see a (small) part of collage history all together in one place. So, to answer your question, the only conclusion I’ve reached to is: we’re still here.
FF –Are there more questions to ask? More to do? And in what form?
M –There are always tons of things to do. Art, collage, artists, ideas, approaches… I can’t ever have enough of listening to people telling me about what they do and their ideas. I learn so much while doing this that I can’t think of stopping doing it. Sometimes I’ll go faster and other times slower. I may take a break for some time and then come back with renewed strength.
M –TWS is a very long term project and it’s more about capturing the different forms of collage that happen while we are here working. It’s about trying to imagine what collage is and what collage might be.
FF –Have you found what you were looking and hoping for back in 2011?
M–I guess that back in 2011 Rubén and myself wanted to change people’s perception of what collage is. And I’m mostly sure that we set the wrong goal for ourselves and, as mentioned before, missed in evaluating which was the battle we were fighting. But we did found other things that we weren’t looking for that had been amazing. Meeting people, going to places, discussing ideas, sharing workshops, etc were things we haven’t planned and had been amazing.
Also I feel that I learnt so much by talking and interviewing artists, that I feel that our initial goal of changing people’s idea of what collage is became totally irrelevant, since I was the one who learned that my idea of what collage is was wrong or ridiculously biased. So basically I was the one learning from the community.
So I haven’t found what I was looking for, but I found other things that shifted my early expectations.
FF –How do you see TWS developing in the next year – or two or five or ten years? Do you think collage will ever run its course – be irrelevant?
M –This year I started a change at TWS that I hope that will be the stepping stone for a larger change in the operation of the platform. This year artist Andrea Burgay and writer and curator Teri Henderson joined me to help me with adding different content to the site. Andrea will make new interviews and Teri will be featuring, on a bi-weekly basis, Black collage artists from her Black Collagists Art Incubator. And I can’t forget about Cless, who’s been helping me for some time posting Monday`s inspiration and Friday’s bookshelf on Instagram. With them helping, my main idea is adding different visions of art and collage, adding more diversity of ideas and artists.
I’m very excited about these changes. So in the next years I’d love to explore this path and see where it takes TWS.
FF –What questions haven’t I asked?
M –I can talk also about my hobbies: music (I play guitar) and mid distance trail running. I suck at both, but they are my escape from the cut and paste world I’m sometimes too immersed in.
FF– What’s your (personal) definition of collage?
M–Collage is the violent act of de-contextualizing, re-signifying, re-framing and re-grouping stuff to twist history and culture the way they express our own ideas and feelings. Collage is a personal and transient revolution.