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Cold War Steve on media, politics, and not selling out

Christopher Spencer aka Cold War Steve is a visual artist from the UK, currently making huge waves across the global media sphere. We recently caught up with him and his manager at the FIPP World Media Congress in Las Vegas to find out more.  

Cold War Steve takes images of Eastenders character, Phil Mitchell aka actor Steve McFadden, and photoshops them into Cold War scenes. Or at least that’s how the offering originally started at the beginning of 2016. Since the EU Referendum and the UK’s decision to Brexit in June of that year, the artist’s work has taken on a more expansive tone.  

In June of this year he was commissioned to design the cover of Time magazine, a company themselves on-hand at Congress to tell us how the publication’s contemporary creative process is carried out. The issue was titled ‘How Britain went Bonkers’ and the artwork is used to depict what the author, Tina Brown, refers to in her cover story as “the nervous breakdown in Britain”.

There’s also a book, ‘Cold War Steve Presents... The Festival of Brexit’, an outdoor media collaboration with British satirical campaign group Led By Donkeys, a host of UK newspaper and magazine commissions, and as the artist tells us in this interview for FIPP, tentative steps into the world of merchandising.

 

 

He appears here on-screen alongside Manager, Carl Gosling, who begins by introducing us to the Cold War work:     

Carl Gosling: “Chris is a satirical artist, based in Sutton Coldfield in the UK, who in the last year has kind of become pretty bloody popular on Twitter. He’s put out books, and done exhibitions, billboards at Glastonbury, stuff at the National Gallery in Scotland and in England… and now finds himself in Vegas, somewhat jetlagged, feeling quite weird, eating cookies, talking to you…”   

Chris Spencer: “… I was messing around on my phone doing different things with a cheap cut and paste app, and I came across the idea of putting Phil Mitchell from Eastenders into Cold War scenes, because I did have an interest in the Cold War. So I put Phil Mitchell in front of the Kremlin, or with Ronald Reagan or someone. And that was it really, that was the one joke, and that got quite popular.”

“But then I started to add more people into them, and with everything that was happening politically I was moving more towards the satirical side of things, so it’s evolved to be what it is now.”

And as a man who is himself moving increasingly into the world of Phil Mitchell aesthetics as I approach my late-thirties, I asked Chris why he felt that Steve McFadden provided such an evergreen source of comedy.

Chris: “It’s not just the good looking, bald, rugged, handsome, features… Steve McFadden who plays him is a brilliant actor, and the images that I always used of him where when he’s drunk, or on crack. There’s some great pictures of when Phil Mitchell’s kind of post-crack comedown, and I just thought placing Phil Mitchell post-crack comedown with Ronald Reagan or…”

Carl: “Was he a crackhead?”

Chris: “He did crack in… yeah… that one where he’s just kind of like [does demonstrative facial and body expression], it just fits really well with Reagan and Gorbachev in congruity, and the jarring nature of it.” 

Of course, in a political world dominated increasingly by populism, and the extreme, caricatured media appearances of individuals like UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and US President, Donald Trump, satire is a discipline that is more difficult to execute than ever before. 

It is also an artform that is arguably finding it harder to break through into the mainstream, particularly at a time when social media bubbles seem to be polarising, rather than uniting audiences. So how big a challenge have these issues posed in amassing a following through the modern media?  

Carl: “I think the key is, even though you’ve got that platform on social media to be able to do that - and for Chris to be able to satirise what’s going on – you’ve then got the next issue, which is that bubble. So people within a certain group will see your pictures, and enjoy them.”

“But I think it’s interesting, and that’s what’s really interesting in being invited out to stuff like this, in trying to break out of the normal circles that we all move in. Chris has managed to do that this year in loads of different ways – Time magazine being the mad one, right? And ending up in Vegas is sort of proof that Chris has broken out of that sort of smaller circle I guess!”

In examining media models, FIPP often pays great attention to how brands strike the balance between maintaining editorial integrity and deriving revenue streams around it. For an individual artist, this tightrope can at times feel to be made of even tighter twine, when walking the line between observational impartiality, and a need to keep the lights on to even see the canvas in the first place.

So does Cold War Steve worry about maintaining artistic integrity, or perhaps more accurately about the perception that in ‘making the cover of Time’ his audience will somehow perceive him to be going mainstream or selling out?  

Carl: “He is a sellout!”

Chris: “Trip to Vegas, what am I supposed to do!? They’d do the same thing!”

Carl: “I don’t mean it.”

Chris: “No there is, there is always a concern. And even when I started selling prints and merchandise stuff, I’m always wary of people that have been following me a long time thinking, ‘Oh you’ve changed man… You money grabbing, a**hole, sellout!’ But yeah they were fine…”

Carl: “They’re really supportive, not just fine…”

Chris: “Yeah they’ve actually been really supportive. If we ever do a limited edition print we’ll always do a free hi-resolution download to go with it, we do a lot of charity stuff, and I just try and keep things on a level with people really. People have been supportive, they’ve been brilliant.”

One thing that is absolutely fascinating about the current evolution of the web, is the shift towards a more aesthetic, intuitive, and altogether less text-heavy forms of communication. FIPP recently looked at TikTok, and Media Account Manager, Paco Camuñas’ observation that the platform may even represent the emergence of a new audiovisual language, in which users are able to communicate emotion and meaning through the use of music, appearance, and movement.

Even without straying into the world of next-wave social media platforms, it’s fair to say that memes, shortform videos, and more conversational and observational forms of posting have longsince been reshaping the way information is shared online.

How important is it therefore, particularly in an age of geo-political turmoil, that satire is able to capture younger demographics, and can these more visual forms of communication be used to build rapport with Millennial and Gen Z audiences?

Chris: “I mean I think they could. Because I’ve got three young daughters and what they watch and what their involvement is online - although I do try and keep an eye on it - mystifies me. Because it’s so different from when I was growing up – you’d have four TV channels, and that was it. Now they’re constantly getting into different things, be it YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat or whatever.” 

And has the book helped in respect of attracting wider audiences as well? 

Carl: “When Chris was asked to do the book it’s such an amazing calling card for an artist, to have a publisher like Thames & Hudson behind them. They’ve got such a massive reach. I think since we’ve started working together it’s gone from just being Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, but also now a new website and all the other platforms that are available and all the other media opportunities that are available. There’s been a notable growth in the audience, but also the type of audience as well.”

In an age of ‘always on’, calls for greater regulation of the modern media, and ultimately lower levels of trust in traditional and social media alike, can social still be a shining light in providing a more egalitarian form of information exchange, a vessel for political and social change, and delivering the forums that people need in order to develop dialogue and empathy?     

Chris: “I think so. Because I’ve been fortunate enough to do some work with Led by Donkeys, who started out just doing big billboards of Tweets or quotes from the politicians that orchestrated Brexit. And it was just illustrating the hypocrisy and the lies of what they do. That took off, and I think it gives a lot of support to people who might feel that they’re alone in thinking that this is a terrible decision that the country’s taken. People do get behind it don’t they?”

Carl: “I think they do, and I think the important thing is – Led By Donkeys have kind of nailed this really in what they’ve done – is making sure that anything that’s being talked about on social media then becomes genuine activism in the real world. I think it’s quite easy to sit and say stuff on social media, or share stuff on social media. Does that have a definite, positive effect on the outcome in the real world? Not always. And I think that there’s perhaps other ways of coupling that, and again Led by Donkeys have been brilliant at that.”

And finally, we had to know, as a social media phenomenon that has recently graced the cover of traditional media giant, Time, how did our Cold War guests enjoy their first Global Media Congress?

Chris: “Thanks to Las Vegas”

Carl: “Yeah. Thanks to FIPP!”

Chris: “I love FIPP media conferences!”

Chris: “I mean, this is our first FIPP media conference, so we’ve got nothing to compare it to… but everyone’s been very friendly, we had some photos taken in the New York Times photobooth, they know how to infuse their water with cucumber and other fruits…” 

Chris: “The infused water was really infused!”

Chris: “We’re gonna go and find some daylight now… hopefully!”

And may we all find some form of proverbial daylight, in this age of populism and ‘alternative facts’.  

 

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