On filth and transgressive art with Studio SCUM

In a time in which everything has felt increasingly sanitised, Manchester-based art collective Studio SCUM is returning to the idea of filth as something liberating and transgressive.

FILTH is the title of their most recent project. It takes the form of a zine: fifty pages of text and imagery. There is poetry, prose, photography, sculpture, graphics and painting – basically, lots of art.

“We are a collective that operates as a platform for independent creatives – creative being a very loose term – be that writers, artists, thinkers, choreographers, performers. We really try not to characterise ourselves; that’s something we find quite limiting in modern culture”, say SCUM’s Ella, Sam and Tom, over the phone.

Artist: Samuel Lyon Spice, ‘Toi er moi’, C-Type Print
Used with permission from Studio SCUM

Their work is deliberately challenging, like the words ‘scum’ and ‘filth’ themselves. The collective is designed as a space for young artists to be bold and make the sort of art they might not be encouraged to if they were operating within the constraints of more traditional art institutions.  

“In many ways”, Sam says, “our work for SCUM is very much driven by how hard it is to establish yourself as a practising artist”.

SCUM was born out of a frustration with the contemporary art world. “What I find very nauseating is the idea of trends”, Ella says.

“And the idea that as a queer person or as a woman you have to kind of exploit your identity and consistently state your identity in order to sell and commodify your work.”

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“Cleanliness is a perverted straitjacket / There is nothing pure about white walls / The source is from the silence at the centre of each of us / This is academia for slags.”

These are Ella’s words on pages 21 to 24 of FILTH; the white text is scratched and scribbled into the black background like chalk; the images that accompany it are fragmented, disconcerting.

Ella Jo Skinner, ‘Anxiety #1’, Acrylic on wood
Used with permission from Studio SCUM

None of the work in the zine is labelled until the index at the very end. The experience of picking FILTH up, then, and flicking through its pages, is not like going to a gallery – where everything is named and explained. All the different pieces form part of a greater whole, and there is a sense within FILTH that offers a middle-finger to the art world as we know it.

“Filth is earth, and earth is paint, and paint sits on a surface hung in a gallery waiting to be sold for more than it was ever bought for.”

This text features in FILTH and is from Hannah Sullivan – like the rest of SCUM she wants to shake us out of nice, easy assumptions about what art is and should be. A painting, she says, is just earth on a wall.

The theme of filth comes in here, too: filth as something physical. This is why SCUM chose to print their work; they wanted to create an object that you could touch and feel and spill drinks over – something that exists in the real world.     

Babalou Tana Web, ‘Untitled’, Ink on paper
Used with permission from Studio SCUM

Filth is also something that we associate with the body – waste and odour, for instance. Things that have become ever more central to our lives during the pandemic. We wear masks now and mind our distance. We wash our hands for twenty seconds, and we do so to protect ourselves and others.

“My work is heavily linked to the gay fetish scene”, Sam tells me, “so my life before Covid and after Covid was completely polarised. I would be used to going to these dirty back-street clubs to then being told you cannot do this, and you cannot do that”.

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“It was a really nice time for me to reflect on that lifestyle, which is perceived as filthy, and transgressive and immoral. But I’ve always quite liked being called filthy”, he says. 

“It’s a term of empowerment”, Ella adds.

SCUM are definitely not telling us that we shouldn’t be washing our hands. They are not anti-maskers or anti-vaxxers, and they don’t want to be pigeonholed as making ‘Covid art’. It’s more subtle than that.

As Tom explains, “this isn’t a straight contrarian: filth is actually good. You’re seeing people who are trying to break down that social boundary of ‘this thing is declared good’, ‘this thing is declared clean,’ versus ‘this thing is bad’”.

Ella Jo Skinner, ‘Front cover’, Ink on paper (digital manipulation)
Used with permission from Studio SCUM

They seem to be asking us to remember that we are connected to the world around us, and the other people who occupy it and their bodies, and dirt, and germs, and pollution and rubbish. And to not be ashamed of that fact – to refuse to be idealised, Instagram-clean efficiency machines, gliding through the physical world without a trace.

FILTH is a reminder that life isn’t like an airbrushed advert. And that is fine, that’s good. We can’t – and shouldn’t – ever hope to be some sort of totally secluded and sanitised individual. It is with this, to me at least, that their work feels most timely and important.

Cover artwork by Lottie Peachey / Salt Magazine.

Read more of our coverage of Greater Manchester’s zine culture.