Interview with Mongrel

National Heritage and the Natural Selection Search Engine

First of all, this is what Mongrel has to say about their activities: “Mongrel is a mixed bunch of people and machines working to celebrate the methods of an ‘ignorant’ and ‘filthy’ London street culture. We make socially engaged cultural product employing any and all technological advantage that we can lay our hands on. We have dedicated ourselves to learning technological methods of engagement, which means we pride ourselves on our ability to programme, engineer and build our own software and custom hardware. The Core Members are Matsuko Yokokoji, Richard Pierre-Davis and Graham Harwood.”

What is your heritage?

Graham: It is mongrel. The first category is ‘don’t know’. A bit of Irish and English. My granddad is a bastard. People think he might be a bit Jewish. Then there are a few incestuous births. My dad really did not know who he was because he got thrown out into the ‘care’ of the authorities at the age of four. His parents could not feed him. He did not know until he got shot in Korea, so after that he went to find them. They were more or less peasants. Heritage in the wider sense meant poverty. My parents taught me that we could be proud of having nothing. To come from nothing is a fine place to be. I come from the land of fiddling. You can always fiddle, get away with it. My family was involved in a lot of gambling. We never had a place in society. They always had illegitimate children. My niece just had a child at 15. There are five generations of women that are, more or less, close to each other. They support each other, and the men are there to make some fertiliser.

Matsuko: The national heritage of Japan, what it did to other countries and my own, personal history are inseparable. There is an interesting period, last century, when surnames were being introduced. At that time people ‘bought’ their heritage, so to say, by choosing a name associated with a wealthy family.

Could the history of the working class also belong to the national heritage?

Graham: It is an anti-heritage. It was a way of existing outside. In the UK there is very much a collective identity. England is 007, James Bond, the crack of leather on the willow of the cricket bat. Strawberries and cream. If that image is not yours, then it is there to exclude you. It is a bit loose because there is no monolith. There has never been a single nation or grouping in the UK.

You recently published a poster/paper. Along with a black and white insert with material related to the Search Engine project, which we’ll talk about later, there are forty full-colour heads, organised into some kind of grid. It’s almost like a database with two available gender categories and four racial ‘types’ and with what appear to be racialised masks actually sewn into the faces below. The paper also has a large logo – ‘National Heritage’…

Graham: This aspect of our project is a reference to the Department for National Heritage. It allocates all the arts funding in the UK. We decided to make a project with that name, in order to make a direct reference to where the money comes from. 76% of all that goes to class A and B, people earning over 30.000 pounds a year. That tax money only goes to that wealthy class. The reason we have the white face with a black mask, covered in spit on the poster, with the words ‘National Heritage’, points directly to this particular department. A revised version of their logo is on the poster. This racial dichotomy is the heritage of the nation. We make them complicit with us.

Do you want this department to become ‘multi-cultural’?

Graham: That is their excuse for keeping power. Multi-culturalism is their method of classification, to maintain identities that are long since gone and not useful anymore. They would like to keep a binary authority, which no longer works. Recently, a think tank close to the Labour government gave out a statement, saying that embassies abroad should no longer have any politically incorrect pictures. Cover the walls with Britart and remove the portraits of old colonial rulers. Remove all reference to British colonial rule. Do they really think that people in Egypt or India can be fooled, by thinking that the British empire never existed? Such emphasis on image! Art is not that useful. But for them it is seen as a major prize.

How did you construct the images on the poster?

Matsuko: Out of a total of 100 faces we made eight faces and divided them into four colours: black, brown, yellow and white, both men and women. It is all montage, digital photography. We tried to construct a white male, or black woman, according to what we think these categories look like. We can never prove that somebody is a white male person. How would you define a black person? There are no characteristics according to medical terms. There are no ‘real’ categories, only stereotypes.

Graham: On TV there was a programme about people of mixed race, let’s say ¼ or 1/8 black. They were complaining because for them there is no classification. One of their grandparents are black, but most of them do not even know.

Matsko: I had never seen a Western person, for real, until I was eighteen. Only since the beginning of the eighties, when many people from all over the world started coming to Japan, did I start to recognise people of different colour in the streets. Only then, we became aware of the problem of racism. Before, the Americans were only on television.

Graham: These days, many young Japanese do not show much interest in where they are from. They see themselves as the future, not the past, the old Japanese culture. They live in the future. Any return to the past is horrifying because you will hit the brick wall of the Second World War. Japanese are good at hiding. The society can leave unresolved problems.

It sounds liberating, to leave the Benneton identity politics behind. (“I am from Ethiopia, look how beautiful – and pure – I am.”).

Graham: In the sixties, my parents used to say things like, ‘Don’t touch it because a black person has had it, you will get ill.’ At the same moment, they would say, ‘Martin Luther King, he is a great bloke, he is going to free black people.’ Two complete opposite views expressed at the same time. We are moving from that level of confusion. I grew up with ska music and black friends – and this black music was being sold to us, white skinheads. So, the level of confusion concerning race is OK. The single thing that seems to categorise white people was fear. The fear to even talk about race. Or to express difficulty about it. We clearly come out as anti-race, not so much as ‘anti-racist’. We are against the classification of race. That’s what a mongrel is – somewhere between two things, someone of mixed blood. Or it refers to a dog that has no category. Dogs in the UK are very much a class issue.

Matsuko: I lived for the last 12 years in London, so culturally I am mixed now, always fighting between Japanese and English. So I suppose that I became a mongrel. Since the eighties more and more Japanese started living abroad and brought back their mongrel culture to Japan. That’s the positive side of the use of technologies.

Graham: Matsuko and I are of the same year. Despite all the differences, much of our media references are the same. The Thunderbirds. We both grew up under the imperialism of the United States. But then, Richard is bringing a lot of different elements into the group! He is a Black-Indian-Welsh-French person from Trinidad. He is not so confused about his identity as perhaps others are: he is a black cockney – much more so than me. Compared to him, Matsuko becomes an honorary white person.

Matsuko: In 1987, when I was visiting South Africa, which was still under Apartheid back then, showing my passport, I was being treated as a white. But if Chinese people would go there, they were categorised as ‘coloured’.

‘Natural Selection’ is another project by Mongrel, an internet search engine. Did you come up with this idea because well known search engines, like AltaVista, are no longer useful because they always come up with thousands of references if you type in a keyword?

Graham: We are looking at classification from another point of view. We created a search engine that sits on top of other search engines. We strip out what they are saying and return the URLs. It you type in any word which has got to do with race, eugenics or sex, you are dropped into our content. This means a whole load of web-sites being produced in collaboration with a variety of people and groups from a lot of different places: in London, around the world and from different situations which they bring in to flavour the work – academic theorists, street activists, poets, artists, nutters, whatever. If users look around carefully, they will find the right keywords to access these sites – or they might do it without realising. On the other hand, you might end up in a ‘real’ Ku Klux Klan site, but you will not find out anyway whether you are reading one of our constructions, or not. You need to be alert all the time as to where all the information you are reading is coming from.

What does the term ‘eugenics’ mean to you?

Graham: It was used recently by a friend who has brittle bone disease. She talked to me about it because she went to a hospital where they were killing off anyone like her. She made me aware that there was a certain type of human that was to be valued, while others weren’t. At what level of disability do we discard those people? Critical Art Ensemble looked at how eugenics are coming into play within fertility treatments. We two went through such treatments, together with CAE, and found out that a lot of such eugenic decisions had to be made. It was a hard project to go through.

Matsuko: We are not judging what is good or bad, we are trying to give information. We don’t say, killing life in this or that stage is justified, or not. There is no answer. We do not value life or race. We are showing that it exists.

Graham: We are struggling to find images that deal with the complexities of the kind of lives that we are living now. There is no longer black and white. There are no longer binary arguments. So the right wing can jump on us and say: “So you are confused.” We are just struggling to find images. Sometimes they are complex and take a long time, like those faces on the poster. It is much harder to think about the same problem from six, maybe opposing, points of view, and hold them all equally. For me, all of this comes from Matsuko’s influence, from Japan, where you are able to accept something before you judge it. In the West, I have been brought up to judge something before I have accepted it. One could even say that of anti-racism and anti-fascism. A lot of the identity politics were useful, at the time. But the holding on, imagining the problem would be solved, instead of it slipping it through, like water through your hands, is what actually happened. That anti-fascism no longer works. It has become a way to sell a product. Not a way to deal with complexity in society. At the same time, I have absolute admiration for people that sleep on the floor of immigrant’s homes in trouble, defending them with their bodies when the fascists come around. We engage in the imagery that forms around these topics. We are in realm of producing troubling images. Often our actual enemies turn out to be politically correct people. The very name ‘Mongrel’ is too difficult for them, let alone our intentions.

You’ve also produced some software – let’s see how it works. Here we have got a package called ‘Heritage Gold’ on the screen. It is an ironical, bastardised version of Photoshop. We have imported my image into the system, and now you are going to give a new heritage. It’s a good idea, let’s go for it.

Graham: This is family-oriented heritage changing software. You need some black and female. You can invent a new family. You can have a bastard birth, revert your genes, you can have immigration, repatriation, whatever. I am pasting the new colour into your skin. It reminds you how easy it is to manipulate all this data from other people. There will be a huge demand in the West for this software when it goes on full release as people feel a general discontent about their heritage. It will become important to have racial mobility. This menu allows us to add more Chinese and African into your make-up. You never have to have a sun tint again. In order to make you even more dark, we go to the ‘flesh tone adjustment’ dialogue box. We will extract some of the Aryan elements – and you are really beginning to show through now. We will add some social elements too. We are offering a social filter of ‘police’. You look a bit more criminal… We also add some historical relations. A bit less imperialism. Put in some more Afro. We can resize your family by a certain percentage, raise your class consciousness. And then there are the different file formats in which we can save you: genetic index, pixel punish, raw, regressive… There you are – here, you got your brand new heritage.

Mongrel Bio Mongrel is a mixed bunch of people and machines working to celebrate the methods of an ‘ignorant’ and ‘filthy’ London street culture. We make socially engaged cultural product employing any and all technological advantage that we can lay our hands on. We have dedicated ourselves to learning technological methods, which means we pride ourselves on our ability to programme, engineer and build our own software and custom hardware.