OFFICE — How have your early experiences in London informed your work?
NICOLA TYSON — It was really lucky that I came up during the ‘70s when the punk thing happened in London. I had this gender identity crisis when I was a kid, partly because I wanted to be a boy—I didn’t actually want to be a boy, it just seemed like they had a better time. But punk was just brilliant in every way. The irreverent, rebellious thing appealed to me, but it was also very androgynous. You could dress in your shirts and ties and short hair and all that. It was also very connected to the gay scene in London. There was a lesbian club, in fact, where all the punk crowd used to go after hours, the Sex Pistols and Siouxsie Sioux and all those people—this was like 1977, ‘76. I was just a young teenager but my friends and I used to go. It was a very small scene at that point, crazy exciting and different from what the mainstream was doing.
When punk kind of went mainstream at the end of the ‘70s, it wasn’t this underground scene anymore. People that were left, mostly younger like me, wanted to develop a new scene to fill that void, that was when the whole New Romantic thing started. In 1978, I could use a proper professional camera. I took loads of photographs every week, color snaps, which were useless to the press, they couldn’t use color in those days. I was getting them processed at the pharmacy and bringing them back at the end of the week and selling them for beer money. It was young Boy George and all those people. There’ll be a book at some point.
But that whole dressing up thing was really important [to the New Romantics]. I liked the punk scene, but I didn’t like the dressing up thing. The big carnivalesque stuff. I was more classic, a simple girl. I eventually left the scene because I didn’t want to dress up. I photographed it all but I didn’t dress like that. I’m very straightforward. I’ve been wearing the same look since I’ve been seventeen. But it came out much later in my work, that sort of carnivalistic stuff came out in the weirdness of the figure and the reinvention of the body. There’s often weird bits of clothing on my figures. So I think that was definitely part of my development.
O — What brought you to New York in 1989?
NT — I met somebody and I came to live with her. I’d just graduated and decided it was a great idea for the kind of work I wanted to do. At that point, I was interested in sexual politics and was working a little bit conceptually. I was much more interested in the work that was going on here in New York at the time—all the stuff that was going on in the ‘80s with women artists. I ran a little project space for a while in the early ‘90s, Trial Balloon, just up the road from here.
O — What was the driving force behind Trial Balloon?
NT — The space was only for women. It was kind of a joke, kind of a rebellious thing. Like, “Fuck you, we’re only going to show women.” It wasn’t like twenty years before when it was a political separatist thing, and very hardcore that way. We were sort of punky. It was very brief, only about three years. A lot of the people showed there went on to be quite successful. I ran it with my partner at the time, Angela Lyras. Nicole Eisenman, who just won a MacArthur Genius Grant, had her first shows with us. There was a scene around that, we were kind of developing a lesbian subculture. The gay guys had already got it sort of worked out, but there wasn’t a defined lesbian subculture, artistically—but there were all these artists who wanted to talk about it. And London at that time, the end of the ‘80s was when that whole thing was starting up with Damien Hirst and YBA putting on their own shows. That’s partly why I came to New York, wanting to do a similar thing, starting a space and completely bypassing the whole gallery system.
O — Did you eventually move into the gallery system from there?
NT — At the space, I was showing my own work along with everyone else’s. That’s when Friedrich [Petzel] came by. He was just about to open his own gallery. A friend brought him over and he liked my work and took me on. The art world was much smaller and manageable then, it was still here in SoHo. It was still a kind of noble community, and then it exploded.
O — When did it explode?
NT — I think the ‘90s was the first shift, when everything moved over to Chelsea. And one more, over the last ten years, with all of the auctions and art fairs. Back in the early ‘90s, art fairs were just what dealers did to get to know each other. They weren’t a big deal. They were kind of like trade fairs where the dealers get together and exchange information about artists, but it didn’t become the massive thing it is now. It’s often more important than shows and galleries. There’s a million of them all the time. Nobody’s very happy about that. It’s just the way it is.
It’s like shows and galleries are barely relevant anymore. It’s this huge machine of auctions and art fairs. It’s become a place where people move money around. It’s really got nothing to do with art. At the high end of it, the super rich are just moving money around in these art objects. Just like real estate. At that level, it’s only to do with money, really. And the bottom end has been priced out. Because nobody can afford to live anywhere. Artists can’t afford to live in Manhattan—or Brooklyn, really—anymore. You don’t have this artist-up art world anymore.
O — You do so many things—sculpture, painting, drawing, writing, photography. Does each medium take on its own structure or is the creative process generally similar?