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Story of Simon Birch
People often ask about my inspirations and how I developed @the14thfactory. This is my story...
I’m Simon Birch (...the artist, not the little guy from the movie of the same name!). I come from a humble background, relative to UK standards (so far better off than much of the world) and have very little now but have had many adventures along the way and am super grateful. I never set out to be an artist but I am one now and it's been an unusual journey and perhaps it's just getting started.
As a kid, I was obsessed with comic books and dreamed of being a comic book artist, working with Frank Miller or Alan Moore or Los Bros Hernandez, and spent endless hours drawing. Star Wars obsessed, Blade Runner even more so.
I loved being independent, I embraced and committed to any opportunity, being a delivery driver allowed me to travel around England, loved being a bouncer (getting bullied for being the new kid made me pursue martial arts) as my colleagues were all rastas so I got a crash course in Jamaican culture, hated working in the factory though.
Anyway, I left England with nothing but a passport and at least some choices to travel that are sadly denied so many in terms of options when in crisis. But, wow, what a rollercoaster. I'm lucky to have experienced directly, this huge new culture movement, music, energy, even with some challenging experiences.
After my rave career failed I left the UK with about $50 in my pocket and ended up in Australia.I worked odd jobs and met new people and embraced the outdoors. I built a rock climbing gym, the biggest in Oz at the time. I was the proud owner and part builder of The Rockface and thought that would be my future, adventure sports entrepreneur but as usual, life had other plans.
Arriving in Hong Kong, walked off the plane to a bar and got a job and was at work the same day I arrived. A week later I got a second job as a construction labourer in the Tsing Ma bridge. And with 2 jobs I could rent a 300sq ft apartment, 6 floor walk-up, and couldn’t have been happier.
We would regularly get thousands of people lining up to go nuts to Sasha, Paul Van Dyk, John Digweed, Goldie, Nick Warren and so many more amazing talented DJs. I set up an agency called Supermodified and would tour the DJs all over Asia and I acted as manager and warm-up DJ. Fun times and got to stay in amazing hotels in amazing cities, exploring them and learning much, Tokyo still my favourite.
I decided to try to get an education, go to the UK and get an art degree but I couldn’t get through the selection process due to my lack of education. So I had a go at making my own exhibitions anyway, painting friends' portraits or life-size representations. I knew nothing about the technical side of oil painting, taught myself, but the more I painted, the more my conviction grew.
At 30 I took a brief break, I was inspired by a book called Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. I went around the world photographing people that had an influence in my life. This was perhaps the beginning of my exploration of story and connection which is expanded upon dramatically and beyond, in my most recent project, The 14th Factory.
My new life as an artist started moving and I really went for it. I would hang paintings anywhere possible and would jump on any opportunity to collaborate and did all kinds of odd projects. Finally, after some years of independent shows, experiments and projects, I found a gallery, that was willing to show my work, thanks to AAA chief Claire Hsu.
Becoming more established meant I had money from regular painting sales and could develop experimental side projects; installation, video, immersive experience, and also meet other artists, learn from them, and find ways to work together. Not just contemporary artists but filmmakers, photographers, architects, actors, composers, and many creatives.
From my construction worker/painter foundation, and new efforts in larger and collaborative work, I started to think about new projects and going big. I photographed many of these great artists and started painting them. All were happy to be subjects.
The surgery took hours longer than expected, they found multiple tumours from below my eyes, close to the brain, throughout sinuses cavities, down to my neck and expanding rapidly, on the way to engulf my lymphatic system. Aggressive cancer, NK/T cell, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, 6 months to live without treatment. Low survival rate, normally only seen in older Asian people and very rare, a few people a year. No idea the cause, not genetic.
During chemo I still managed to put on one big show, assuming it would be my last. It was hard work to complete as had lost too much weight and had such low energy and was often in pain. But it was a very focused group of work. The show was a combination of paintings, installation, and performance. 'This Brutal House'.
It took me years to recover, for sure I had PTSD and I tried to put on a brave face and I wish I had asked for psychological help. So many people had been so generous to me, I didn't want to bother anyone with my mental health problems. But I slowly got better and it all seems like a distant memory now.
Before Instagram, in 2010, post survival, I built a 30,000 sqft multiple media installation, an immersive experience, built with collaborators from many different disciplines. It cost me $500k, though I got the space cheap, only $10k, thanks to Swire Properties, I couldn’t get any sponsorship, grant, or support other than Louis Vuitton and Diesel who paid for the opening party that 2000 people enjoyed. I paid for it with my last savings from 10 years of painting but quickly ran out of cash.
After Hope and Glory in Hong Kong, I tried super hard to take the concept abroad, find an opportunity to show parts of it, or the support to build the whole thing again but was faced with many disappointments. I almost got it moving in Los Angeles, working with Ridley Scott's film company, but no interest in funding or sponsorship. I talked to museums and galleries and faced endless shut doors. A humiliating and frustrating experience.
While developing The 14th Factory, meaning a lot of research and planning, I put up a little show at the new Louis Vuitton store in Hong Kong, surprising as it was an edgy show juxtaposed by the luxury environment. Some other side projects and experiments also in some of these images. Including whole series of spray paint figures on the walls of HK, a tribute to the King of Kowloon, based on the Money King from Chinese mythology, produced with the help of Bodhi and PuiPui.
Another notable project in 2011 was 'Daydreaming With...' a collaboration with musician James Lavelle of Mo Wax and UNKLE fame. I’d known James for a while as a DJ and spent time with him in Japan and London and he was a huge influence. I met him at a low point in his life and set him up with DJ gigs in Asia. He introduced me to Futura, Bathing Ape, Supreme, Kaws, Kubrick, N.E.R.D., Maharishi, and a whole world of new urban culture I was unaware of. This was all before those brands became huge.
I also made the move to become independent and formed a company with some smart people; Future Industries. A collector offered to back us with regular funding taking the equivalent value of art as a return. It was so exciting at first but became uncomfortable as the investor had his ideas about our direction which were at odds with ours.
I still was really trying to find a way to get my work outside of Hong Kong. I did years of networking and hustling ahead of this new relationship and had a strong group of collectors on my side, I met every super famous artist and gallerist, from Kate Moss to Murakami, got myself invited to openings and dinners, did my best to be respectful and grateful, listen and learn, trying to get any gallery anywhere in the world to give me an opportunity.... but it never happened.
Perceptions are complicated. Who knows the truth about anyone. People often assume I have my shit together and I’m a successful artist, well known, and great work. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m no different from all independent artists with no fixed income. There is never enough time or resources but I am persistent and my drive to create is unwavering.
Over a few years, I had taken some of the ideas from Hope and Glory ("HG"), civilization rising and falling to the brink of collapse and somehow evading catastrophe. We are so different but the same, creating a blueprint for The 14th Factory. A more thorough and solid concept was developed by learning from the mistakes of HG in terms of quality and planning and more conceptually driven content.
With the overarching root concept in the region's history, I then had to divide the content into a series of elements, almost like chapters in a book. I developed these around the well-known hero/mono-myth structure, the same used in Star Wars, Wizard of Oz, and a thousand more stories. Karl Jung, Neitzsche, explored these ideas but a brilliant writer, Joseph Campbell, put it all together in the book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
So, even with no solid venue or timeline was in place, production began for an approximately 100,000 sq.ft, multiple media, immersive experience. Independent and built from the ground up by collaboration, an art journey for an audience that would be quite different from any typically curated museum show or gallery paradigm. In fact, the project is not really curated in the usual sense, as the work is not pre-existing and selected around a core theme, rather the project is made like a movie, a script fleshed out by artists, creatives, producers, location scouts, set designers, etc.
The failure to secure sites in Hong Kong, pushed me to different cities and I decided New York and scouted many locations. This was going to be costly but all or nothing, right? Follow your dreams? So I used my life savings and anything I could liquidate was sold (bye sports car) and went hunting for a location and a team. I felt strongly, with a little luck and intelligent planning, we could make it happen. Cash was limited but felt I could sell the vision to rich people in my network, crowdfund, hit the big brands for sponsorship, hunt for patrons and grants. But the space would be the ignition.
Each artwork was challenging on many levels. I had to crash my old Ferrari at the Tsing Ma Bridge where I used to work. One take only, can't crash it twice, upcycling luxury to artwork. The crash shoot was more expensive than the car. I asked Ferrari to sponsor it, they were very insulted.
When this disaster happened, all was ready, believing it would all come together. Just a little extra money or influence and we could've realized the project...Believe in yourself, commit, work, persist.....it's just not that simple. Where's the motivational insta post, the inspirational guru, that says; believe in yourself, follow your dreams, never give up...but also don't? because even with all that you may still be totally fxxked.
I knew I had very little money left but I figured I would just get my hands dirty, innovate and beg for help. So just a few months after being rejected by NY, work on the 14th Factory in LA began in earnest. I couldn't hire high-level management or PR but I could for sure find some talented contractors and reasonably priced labour, often hanging out down the road at Home Depot. Anything extra would be cut, no-frills, budget equipment, second-hand AV, get stuck in with painting and cleaning, I slept upstairs on a mattress on the floor of the building as no budget for accommodation.
The issue continued to be money. We lost so much in NYC on PR and pre-production. I made inroads to people in film, Hollywood art collectors, big brands but still not one dollar of sponsorship or other support. So we innovated like crazy. We found a gang of wonderful characters that would work more for love than money and we just got going, got our hands dirty, all under the direction of Justin Diener who had zero experience of building an art installation coming from the film world but is a very smart man, somehow, along with Lining Tao, we pulled it together.
Over a few months, we renovated the whole building and started to install the works piece by piece. It really was a handful of people during this period that did it all. We had so little money we had to all just get stuck in and do our thing, including my then girlfriend too who was a trooper. I lived in the venue, literally, and had cold showers for about 6 months and slept on the floor but to be honest, I didn't mind at all. Even with no money, and under constant threat of eviction as we were always behind on rent and so much stress as we innovated around cutting costs, I was still getting to finally build the project I'd dreamed of for many many years, rough around the edges as it may be.
At the opening people were overwhelmed, many commenting they had never seen anything like it before (in a good way!). People were emotional, excited, and just loving it. The outpouring of positive response was something I've never seen at an exhibition before. The first few weeks were quiet but word of mouth slowly spread and the crowd started to build. By the end of the run, people would line up for an hour or more to get in, thousands of people every day. The first adopters were simply the local community, with who we had made many friends, but as word spread, the hipsters came, then the general public, followed by the art crowd and celebrities......always late to the party.
It is a miracle we opened at all. We are so used to seeing some new thing in the media, all put together, money and branding, overnight superstars, often already superstars, we don't see the endless creatives who deserve the opportunity and don't make it. This is why I am still here, finding space, raising capital, for the next 14th Factory, and many more in the future, to make them proud and prove their time, money and energy were worthwhile. And also because I have never seen such love for an art project and I am quite sure people want this more than a multi-million dollar NFT or another repeat of some superstar artist's auction record-breaking work that few benefit from.
Each part of the project represents an element of the hero's journey. Same narrative structure as Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Homer's Odyssey, Journey to the West. The long dark tunnel at the entrance is the rabbit hole leading into the journey (another, a vortex, at the end of the show takes you home). After this entrance a procession through darkness, light, intimidation, comfort, expansion, contraction, a talisman (pitchforks) a conflict, a resolution (Ferrari crash), reward (crowns on fragile display stands), and transformation.
After we closed The 14th factory, I collapsed from exhaustion and was rushed to hospital, I got double pneumonia and spent a week in the ICU. Lovely.But onwards and upwards and started scouting for space in London, Chicago, Washington, San Fran Disco, looking for ways to build a follow-up project. We committed to a year in London working on one particular site, the empty site that was once Earls Court Exhibition Centre, with the help of Zaha Hadid Architects. We planned to build a temporary structure. We worked hard to find strategic partners, team and finance to make it happen. But the landlord pulled out after a year and that was it. They sold the site and the new owner wouldn't let the project happen.
You would think after this major let down I would have quit but I kept meeting great people who were so impressed with the LA project and encouraged me to keep going. Including big dogs like The Kering Group in Paris (Gucci) who offered all kinds of support and small cool brands like Ace Hotel, all of who were keen to help. Key was the amazing support of Zaha Hadid Architects, one of the greatest architectural firms in the world. Our list of enthusiastic potential partners includes V&A, Punch Drunk, Design Museum, Gates Foundation, The City of London, and on and on. These kinds of people taking me and the project seriously was an endorsement and all the encouragement I needed, along with the everlasting love from my friends.
It has been the most depressing process of my life. I've seen much bullshit and met many wealthy people with little vision, who were simply born into money, who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. It is humiliating putting yourself in front of people and getting looked down on. Not all rich are awful, I have some great friends who are wealthy and kind and generous but in my direct experience of fundraising it's been 100 no's at least. worse, some yes's, who then, when it came time to write the cheque.....vanished. Finding rich people to listen to your investment pitch is hard but finding one that gets it is even harder. Imagine being George Lucas in 1977 pitching a film about a golden robot and a man with a laser sword.
More stories coming soon... Stay tuned
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