Talking Crappy British Politics, the Media and Dog Shit with 'Coldwar Steve'
We spoke to one of the internet's best and bleakest satirical artists as his work is displayed in public for the first time.
"The Fourth Estate" by Coldwar Steve
Boris Johnson sits in a pile of horse-shit, red boxers visible through a split in his trousers, preparing to throw a lump of Ye Olde Oak tinned ham at BBC news presenter Laura Kuenssberg. Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee looks on jealously as a topless Simon Cowell takes his pet Komodo dragon for a walk past a bath shared by media stars Owen Jones, Nick Robinson, Robert Peston and Steve Bannon, Trump's former chief strategist. In the background, Danny Dyer looks like he’s about to finally catch up with his nemesis, David Cameron. A topless Vladimir Putin sits Christ-like in the middle of the fray on a fly-tipped mattress, enjoying the chaos.
It could only be the latest work of Coldwar Steve (real name Christopher Spencer), titled "The Fourth Estate". To his over 100,000 Twitter followers, the 43-year-old public sector worker has become the bard of Brexit Britain through his parallel universe, "McFadden’s Cold War".
The messed up collages place the pantomime villains of our political and cultural crap-o-sphere into absurd and hilarious situations. Tacky nostalgic touch-points – things that may have seemed a good idea at the time – are shoved into an obviously rubbish present. The Great and the Good are brought crashing back to the real world, situated in the naff ephemera of British life.
In one, Theresa May's dance in South Africa is transported to a 70s dance hall, watched by Sam Allardyce, Cilla Black, Donald Trump and Slobodan Praljak, the Bosnian Croat war criminal who killed himself by drinking poison in court when his prison sentence was upheld. In another, Boris Johnson, David Davis and Michael Gove all rush out of a Sports Direct liquidation sale, each with a new pair of trainers. In every collage, Steve McFadden, AKA Phil Mitchell, is pictured seemingly on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Appropriately, they're all made on a phone app, on the bus ride to work.
What started as a "coping mechanism" is now public art: "The Fourth Estate" was unveiled on a huge billboard in Williamson Square in Liverpool City Centre on Friday, commissioned by the experimental Rapid Response Project. So I called Coldwar Steve to ask what makes him want to place a dog taking a shit near Andrew Marr with a can of super strength cider.
VICE: Hi Steve. Take me through "The Fourth Estate".
Christopher Spencer, AKA Coldwar Steve: It's probably more obvious than the ones on my Twitter feed. I think the overriding thing is this state of the UK media at the moment.
How would you describe that state?
It’s kind of a media hell-scape really, a circle of hell. I've kind of tried to create a pit of odiousness. I've situated them all among some fly-tipping, which I use quite a lot. I think the main brunt of it would be against the billionaire Tycoon right-wing press. The Barclay Brothers [who own the Telegraph], Murdoch and what have you.
Yeah, you've got Theresa May on her knees to ex-Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre.
A lot of my work has quite a lot of symbolism and hidden things for people to work out, but this is quite a blatant one.
My overriding anger is just the way that [the right-wing media has] managed to manipulate large swathes of the population into thinking that the reason wages haven't gone up or services have been cut is because of the Polish family that moved in down the road, and not anything to do with [the media] or government cuts.
They're using bigotry in their publications, and it's scary to be honest with you. I see old people near where I live shuffling out of the newsagents with their copy of the Daily Mail. I imagine them sat at home, turning the pages and believing that all their problems have something to do with non-British people or just Muslims in general.
What’s your usual process? Does a particular kind of news story trigger your work?
It can do, yeah. Brexit is a big one. You'll see Brexit threads through all of the pieces one way or another. For instance, when [the government said they will have to make sure there will be] "adequate food" post-Brexit – on one hand, I'm thinking , 'Oh no, that's really bad.' But on the other hand, I'm thinking, 'Wow, that's just opened up a rich seam for my work.' That's when I started putting in the tinned Fray Bentos pies – stockpiling them and things like that.
Is this your first artistic or satirical project?
I did weird Twitter accounts before that got fairly successful, but not on this scale. I went to art school, but then since then I've not done anything work-wise in art at all. I've just done crappy factory jobs and things for nearly 20 years.
It’s interesting you mention weird Twitter. I was wondering if you like situate your work in any kind of internet milieu. It makes me think of Wint MP; a Thick of It and Veep writer thought it was in the vein of those shows. It’s also been described as modern day Hogarth.
There are references to the old Masters like Hogarth or Bruegel. Especially this one, which was very much trying to have influences of Hieronymus Bosch in the scale, lots of different things going on – quite the fantastical and grotesque. In terms of more contemporary influences, I think a lot of the humour is kind of what Viz magazine has always done. I was buying that when I was way too young to be buying it. My friends would find the fact that a cartoon strip said "fuck" hilarious, but I was absolutely in stitches at the articles – poking fun at the people in power, or whoever, in a really comedic way.
You've used figures like Harold Shipman and Fred West. Was that an attempt to shock? Didn't you get a bit of flak for that?
Yeah, I did. They're obviously monsters. They were awful people, but I don't think they're any more awful or destructive than lots of people I put them with. People obviously said, "Oh, that's poor taste," or what have you, but from an artistic, comedic perspective, to have Fred West kind of cradling Thatcher's head in a photo is quite magical, quite spiritual.
To me, that speaks to some of the Viz-type humour – where often the whole joke is how incredibly vulgar something is. Like a Viz gag would perhaps involve describing, say, taking a painful shit in almost unbelievably forensic detail until the reader wants to gag. Some of your stuff feels not a million miles away from that in terms of grotesquery.
Yeah. You know Picasso had his "blue period"? I recently had my "white dog shit period".
There's some white dog shit in "The Fourth Estate".
I did this during that period, yeah. It's nice and graphic. That's kind of a reference to people's desire to go back to when things were really great, you know: white dog shit, shit food in tins, no diversity in our High Street shops – that's Brexit.
I'm not sure I get the white dog shit reference.
I mean, I remember as a kid – I was born in 75 – I would see white dog shit everywhere.
Right. Was that to do with the diets of dogs at the time?
I don't know. I've had people message me to explain it, like it was some sort of bleaching stuff in food. I don't know, but it suddenly disappeared and people would say, "Oh, do you remember white dog shit? What happened to white dog shit?"
So yeah, Brexit's back, white dog shit's back, all is good.
Aesthetically, there tends to be a lot of touch points from the 60s and 70s in your work – working men's clubs and crappy old pubs. Is that the same idea?
Yeah, and also just, you know, it's a kind of nostalgic look as well. And it's the incongruity of having these people in those places – Kim Jong-un dancing with Theresa May in a working men's club in Wolverhampton. It just looks funny.
What’s it like to have your work displayed in real life?
It's not sunk in, to be honest. It's mad. I'm sat on the bus making it in inner city Birmingham, and then it's going to be on a massive billboard in Liverpool. It's brilliant. It's fortuitous that I started it when I did; it's evolved at a ripe time for satire. You couldn't write these characters, like King Jong-un and his massive trousers and his hair, or Donald Trump. They're amazing grotesque creations. But they're real.
That’s interesting. You keep hearing people say satire's dead. What do you think of that?
That form of satire is dead because how do you satirise something as bizarre as Kim Jong-un's trousers? But then, I think if you just embrace Kim Jong-un's massive trousers and hold a mirror up to it and make it more bizarre than they are... just do something really bizarre back at them, is how to fight it, I think. If it will do anything, I don't know.