Q&A with John Walter and Curator Bren O’Callaghan

What have you been up to since the launch of CAPSID at HOME?  

I’ve been working a lot with Virtual Reality and 360° video. I invested in a PC and an Oculus Rift and I’ve been teaching myself a whole new language.

Another big development has been a shift away from biological viruses towards what we might call cultural viruses, or memes. I’m particularly interested in viruses of the mind that are especially infectious such as religious ideas.

My VR computer game SOUTHCOTTIAN, which I made while resident at i-Park in Connecticut, tells the story of 18th Century English prophet Joanna Southcott. She’s famous for her box of prophecies and believing she was going to give birth to the new Messiah – she didn’t!

I’ve been thinking a lot about how cultural forms transmit… to think about memes and how consciousness emerges in the complex human brain. As part of this I’ve been looking at the Paisley Pattern as a great example of a replicator that shows fecundity, fidelity and longevity. My interest in the boteh or buta, as it is also known, has taken my research into diverse new realms ranging from Kashmir shawls to Gothic Revival architecture and Las Vegas drinking vessels. I recently made a massive book of paintings called The Jacovitti Paisley that memetically re-engineers the Paisley Pattern, making it fitter as a fertility symbol by splicing it together with images from a cartoon Karma Sutra.

It’s a diverse array of projects as ever. I’ve taken on a mantra from Complex Adaptive Systems: MORE IS DIFFERENT.

Thanks for sharing the full short film, A Virus Walks Into A Bar, that you conceived, created and directed for your exhibition with us. Although addressing HIV infection using humour and a playful, vibrant visual aesthetic, how do you think this might help viewers in our current circumstances? 

COVID-19 isn’t HIV and it has different mechanisms but there are shared principles that all viruses share. Viruses are Trojan horses. They do things by stealth. They trick the immune system to sneak themselves in and do their work without detection. They interact with host cells at a nano scale. They bind with proteins, they cleave. They’re like keys. All these principles are on display in AVWIAB and so you could read it as dealing with COVID-19 if you like.

What interests me about this coronavirus outbreak is the way that evolution, and co-evolution, work. This isn’t a “new” virus. Nothing in the evolutionary sense is new. It’s been feeling around in the gene pool for a while and now it got a grip. It’s been co-evolving in relation to the host cell. It’s an arms race.

What I’d say is try not to worry unduly. I don’t want to downplay the severity of the current situation but we have immune systems that will make antibodies against the virus and most of us will be fine.

Your work draws upon a dizzying array of pop-cultural references, from cartoons and television to music, architecture, performance and fashion. Can you prescribe us three items from your store-cupboard staples – such as YouTube links, music tracks or other content accessible online – to provide a dose of John Walter’s juice as a cultural vitamin boost? 

OK, if you don’t know the Italian illustrator Benito Jacovitti you should. He’s excellent:

Shamelessly plugging myself, you should listen to my new album DOOMSDAY and watch my performance from New Zealand m_Doomsday{Shitney(exorcism)}:

I went to Hamburg recently and I really got into their Miniature World – it’s the largest miniature world in the world!

BOC: Finally… how are you keeping occupied?

I wish I had been furloughed but alas I am working as hard as ever, if with more financial precarity! I am working from home to push ahead several big projects simultaneously. Some new small paintings based on Jacovitti’s character Beppe, a new film called Jezreel’s Tower about a cult who built a temple to house the chosen people for the Day of Judgement (very prescient huh?!), to my long term project to change how we talk about death and dying, and wellbeing – Möbius Hospice. I’ll be headed to Japan and Germany, once we can travel again, to carry out architectural research supported by a Churchill Fellowship.

Otherwise I am going running, cooking lots of healthy food and hanging out with my boyfriend Gary in our tiny apartment. Basically I was made for lockdown. It’s a dream not to have to go anywhere. Ask me again in a few weeks when I’m rocking in the corner! ;-)

You can watch John’s original HOME Artist Film commission, A Virus Walks Into A Bar here.