February 7, 2023

Artist Interview: Daniel Kelly and The Pirates of Carthage (12th-24th January)

This week, after almost a year of work, Daniel Kelly’s play The Pirates of Carthage will finally make it out of the studio and onto the radio waves before moving to the stage at The Nellie Dean in Soho next week.

I go to meet Daniel Kelly in his Bow Road studio in the East of London. Newly moved in, with a couple of artist friends, the space is still sparse although it has got a newly built mezzanine. Kelly is tall, he’s wearing a fuzzy Russian hat, and a slightly paint bespattered tartan jacket with a silky scarf. He looks appropriately arty, but then it’s also a ploy to keep warm. With jasmine tea, and a heater between us, we begin to chat about The Pirates of Carthage.

This is ‘A play about Tunisia, Twitter and the power of the people’. But to describe it simply as a play is a little misleading, as Kelly explains; he is primarily a visual artist and this hasn’t been about leaving all that behind to become a writer. The Pirates of Carthage would be more accurately described as a multimedia artistic project; an interactive series of performances across media, based on a collage of tweets, quotations from Gustave Flaubert’s Salammbo, Tunisian hip-hop, and a video montage of internet surveillance.  On Thursday 12th January at 8pm a live interactive radio performance will be broadcast on Resonance FM (resonancefm.com/listen), on the 14th there will be a live streaming (frenchriveria1988.com, 4.30pm), and from the 16th there will be performances at the Nellie Dean in Soho.

Kelly sees his new project as having roots in his earlier practice of collaging in painting. The artistic development involved in The Pirates of Carthage, from painter to multimedia artist, was necessary in order to respond to Kelly’s inspiration; the powerful utilization of Twitter during the Tunisian uprising which led to the overthrow of the prime minister in January last year. Perhaps like many people, Kelly watched the Tunisian people revolting via Twitter in awe.  Feeling the need to respond he began by taking photographs from the newspapers and working them into paintings, but this seemed too simple. He had to use the tweets at the centre of the story, and it was essential that they were read aloud. Flaubert’s Salammbo, which is included as excerpts from an audio tape, adds historical resonance to our sense of the significance of the recent uprising.

The demands of the project have forced Kelly to become a playwright, a producer, to collaborate with aDirector and actors, with Tunisians and activists, and to become a brilliant self-publicist and galvanizer of willing friends. And what kind of a manager has he been? ‘I’m usually quite a relaxed person but I have found myself getting quite stressed at rehearsals. So now, I don’t have a coffee beforehand, I’m trying to be more calm.’

There is a lot of Kelly in the project. If you go to the Nellie Dean you’ll find in the introductory visuals, the eye of the artist staring back at you. By filming his screen as he used the internet and layering this into a video montage, Kelly sifts through the accessible data of the web; BBC News, newspapers, Youtube videos of Glee asking ‘Who Run the World’?, and soft porn, until we gradually see him focusing in on the Tunisian conflict; images of Sidi Bouzid, news stories, twitter feeds. Kelly says he had to ask himself who ‘was I to be making a political work about the Tunisian conflict?’ But the video demonstrates that we all have access to this public history, and that the internet and Kelly’s play are powerful ways of understanding it.

The whole journey and artistic process has been documented on Twitter. In fact when I check on my way home a new update reads ‘Just done an interview for @flaneurzine buzzzzzzzin’ with the obligatory #pcarthage.

Kelly’s play has been devised from the archives of the Tunisian conflict’s history on Twitter, and now Kelly’s play in turn has its own digital, trackable, archive. With a kind of essential circularity Kelly pays tribute to his work’s genesis by hashtagging  ‘ #sidibouzid and connecting himself back to the conception of the conflict. Of the original Tweeters; Kacem4, has created and managed the project’s blog, and a Guardian commentator will now be in the performance. This is a homage, above all, to the awe the uprising instilled in people.

If Kelly has an ambition, it is that his work can honour the original sense of collaboration and community, to prove Twitter to be as significant an artistic tool as it is political. He doesn’t believe that artists are particularly engaged with technology; they aren’t exploiting, as Kelly has, the potential of platforms such as Twitter.  ‘We didn’t use the internet when I was at school’ perhaps it is only now ‘that a new generation of technologically-engaged artists is emerging.’  With a glitter in his eye, it’s exciting to think that he might be one of the first.

At the end of the Resonance FM streaming, the audience can interact by tweeting, and Kelly hopes that many of these will come from Tunisia. With any luck #pcarthage will also be trending. He likes the idea that it will be the Twitter archive, and not the book he is producing, which will survive for posterity and represent the legacy of The Pirates of Carthage. The play proves that what we so frequently see as the ‘disposable’ ‘throwaway’ comments on Twitter are actually far more concrete and lasting; ‘perhaps in years to come the internet will seem more real than any of the physical relics of our time and historians will be looking at Twitter.’

Radio Performance- 12th January, 8.00pm (GMT) 104.4fm resonancefm.com/listen

Live Stream- 14th January, 4.30pm frenchriveria1988.com

Play- 16, 17, 23 and 24 January, 7.30pm. The Nellie Dean of Soho, tickets 5 pounds (80 Dean Street, W1D 3SU)

Artist Talk- 21 January, 7.00pm

ticket booking: frenchriviera1988.com



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