There aren’t many advantages to living in a boring town in the East Midlands of England, but the perverse pleasure of reading the local newspaper just about qualifies. Not much happens here, and what does is usually some combination of dismal and banal, but the Burton Mail documents it all, six days a week, in a publication that runs to over 50 pages. Perusing it reveals Flaubert’s dictum to be true: “anything becomes interesting if one ponders it for long enough.”
The proud organ is frequently incompetent, coming packed full of typos, grammatical mistakes and basic typesetting errors. It aspires to the neutrality of a paper of record, but is a vector and incubator of the little-Englander mithering that begot Brexit, and the common-sense orthodoxy that results in punitive cuts in the name of austerity, ruinous military misadventures in the Middle East, and so on.
Not that any of that sort of thing gets too much attention. The newspaper is resolutely parochial, and that focus, combined with the sheer number of column inches to be filled, produces a morbidly fascinating spectacle. Debates over high street traffic management measures are treated with a seriousness and full-spectrum intensity reminiscent of coverage of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Potholes are portrayed as a threat to civilisation comparable to an outbreak of the Ebola virus. The moderate successes of the town’s football team are portrayed as a Mandela-like tale of fortitude, perseverance and overcoming.
And perhaps that is apposite too - that we’re all drowning in meaningless imagery and semiotic detritus, with the pattern recognition part of our lizard brain trying desperately to discern some sort of meaning amidst the cacophony…
But, eventually, with enough pondering, this daily document of the humdrum becomes more than just interesting: it turns to strange. Literal non-stories (“No awards for our pubs,” say) warrant a full-page spread, suggesting a wryly zen-like bent on the part of the editorial staff. Small snippets lifted from the fire brigade ledger seem to hint at bizarro tales from the pen of HP Lovecraft or JG Ballard. The distinctive, truncated grammar of the headlines starts to read like gnomic fragments of found poetry. The vacuously aspirational and exhortative style of advertising copy turns into auto-satire. Lonely hearts ads become Borgesian catalogues of futility. Crosswords and sudoku morph into monochrome Mondrians.
What was dull or depressing before turns to surreal and fantastical. And with long enough exposure life itself starts to seem a little bit Philip K Dick. The map begins to supersede the territory, the world becomes reflected in a glass-darkly, and trip to the shop turns into a chance for an encounter with the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter and the Queen of Hearts…
Thusly beguiled, a couple of years ago I started collecting clippings. I had no particular purpose or goal in mind at the time, but a few months down the line, and at risk of being crushed under an avalanche of newsprint, I started to find some things to do with them. I took some of the headlines and applied them as captions to famous works of art, juxtaposing the stupid and mundane with the beautiful and sublime and started posting them on Twitter @ledeastray, an occasional and ongoing series of inverted detournements.
For the story snippets I started to cannibalise old exercise books, pasting reports about the scourge of dog muck on pavements over old university notes, creating sardonic palimpsests in which inanity had subsumed knowledge and learning. In addition to the headlines and stories I began cutting coloured squares from photographs and adverts, then arranging them into grids, experimenting with pattern-making, tessellations and random compositions determined by dice roll, making pop-art and colour field inspired pieces that attempt to create some sort of order out of chaos, to assemble something interesting out of trash, literally and figuratively.
The newspaper is a sleeping partner in the creative process. It’s a little like mudlarking, sifting through the detritus with an eye open for something useful, then recycling and recontextualising it. I insist on solely using pieces cut from the Burton Mail in particular, so I can only work with the raw materials that it deigns to provide to me. An overhaul by the graphics department a few months ago abruptly removed teal from my palette of colours, and orange doesn’t appear very often, so I value it highly, in what I imagine to be a low rent facsimile of the sensation experienced by a Renaissance dawber who coveted an expensive chunk of lapis lazuli.
I stumbled upon the idea of the grid, but I’ve stuck with it. I like the idea of working within a stricture, of testing the possibilities of limited framework, and the tension between repetition and variation. The process of making them is very therapeutic and meditative. I like the idea of the square itself as a recurring signature too, like Roy Lichtenstein’s Ben-Day Dots. I hanker after doing some bigger ones, and making them on an epic scale, but I don’t have the space to do so at the moment.
I intend the pieces to be arch, amusing and sarcastic. There’s a kind of glamour to golden era pop-art; their imagery possesses an optimism and dynamism, and especially so now, viewed through the lens of nostalgia, and so it appeals to me to push in the opposite direction, and to work in a mode that is resolutely crap, tawdry and tatty. Others often respond to them quite differently though, taking a caption (or my pretensions) as sincere when I had intended otherwise, or extracting a meaning from the combination of headline and colour scheme that I had not considered at all. And perhaps that is apposite too - that we’re all drowning in meaningless imagery and semiotic detritus, with the pattern recognition part of our lizard brain trying desperately to discern some sort of meaning amidst the cacophony.
Note from the editor.
If you liked Matt’s work of art and satire, do follow him on Twitter @ledeastray — he’s been posting there for a while and has got some brilliant pieces not found in this article.