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Neon signage in Mirza-Butler studio (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

LONDON — Dr. Brad Butler, radical filmmaker, contemporary artist, and international traveller, is bantering with the down-to-earth staff of a bustling London café. Our waitress is unimpressed that her regular is conducting an interview. She tells me he’s not always this serious and warns me not to take him at face value.

But the image of a man of the people sticks. Together with partner and collaborator Karen Mirza, Butler is engaged socially on many levels. The duo is friendly with their neighbors in East London, networked with filmmakers through project space no.w.here, and side by side with activists from all around the world in a liberating drama group that experiments with the Theatre of the Oppressed, a politically engaged form of theater created by Brazilian Augusto Boal in the 1960s.

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Arcane film equipment at no.w.here

Before the interview, Butler offered a tour of no.w.here, the two-floor facility where artists collaborate. The phrase “Aladdin’s cave” comes to mind, but instead of pots of gold, the space is filled with vintage cameras, arcane projectors, and cans of film. The film processor is as big as a small car. In the chilly studio a member works on an incongruous new Mac. On the upper floor, the two artists keep a library and studio. It looks out over Bethnal Green Road, which is slowly being gentrified.

Butler lists the qualities that give the couple’s East End premises a special identity within this pricey city: a fairly open door policy, a chance to experiment, teaching by other artists, a screening room, and space for “really deep” critical discussion and engagement. Butler claims hospitality is built into the very structure of their project space and says: “In London, dominated by private property . . . that becomes a radical project.”

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Editing desk at no.w.here

For one, Butler expresses a hands-off attitude towards the films that are made with the help from no.w.here. “We don’t dictate what they make, so they make all sorts of things,” the artist says. “We don’t even keep track of them.” And considering that 75 percent of last year’s Turner Prize shortlisted artists were filmmakers, one can see that appetite for analogue film is still rife in the UK.

“The training in celluloid makes my films better,” says Butler. “The apparatus makes you think about — not what film does — but what it is, fundamentally, the way it works.” Traditional film has plenty of appeal for this postdoctoral researcher: “its hardships and its gifts,” “its philosophy,” “its authority about frames, about economics . . . about light and composition and structure.” The artist is at ease talking theory, even amidst the steaming tea and clattering plates of the café to which we’ve repaired.

But running a space in London soon became a mixed blessing for Butler and Mirza: “no.w.here’s success meant that it was very hard for people to allow us to have an artistic practice.” As a result, the duo hit upon a remarkable arrangement. At home, they are entrepreneurial (or anti-preneurial) facility managers; abroad, they are Mirza/Butler, artists. In order to make this leap, they developed a mythic, nomadic institution: The Museum of Non Participation.

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Brad Butler giving a tour of the no.w.here facility

The museum project was born on a trip to Islamabad, Pakistan. “We didn’t have time to breathe to make our work,” Butler explains. So the busy duo took to travel. “We started to get tired of the very Western European, North American bias throughout the whole language and history,” says the artist. As a result, the pair spends downtime in Istanbul, where Mirza (in Germany at the time of this interview) has learned Turkish, while lapsed Urdu-speaker Butler is now learning Arabic.

“You start to see it as a strategy,” says Butler. “We actually had to create a different fictional museum and that allowed us the room to do what we wanted, which was take on new issues and unlearn things in our body, to take all those experiences of working in a community, but come in and allow that art language to possibly be critical.” Now the Museum of Non Participation is a portable, conceptual space where Mirza and Butler can make their own films and installations on the go.

And the strategy, funded by no.w.here, is paying off. The pair has made recent appearances at London’s Hayward Gallery, Whitechapel Gallery, as well as the international shortlist for the £40,000 Artes Mundi prize, based in Cardiff. The prize was won, and shared, by Theaster Gates. Butler’s interest was to demonstrate that you can fund a joint art practice and retain what he calls an “ethical spine.”

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Cameras in the no.w.here facility

That ethical spine is the other enviable quality of Mirza/Butler’s finely balanced twofold career. The projects undertaken by their museum, whether inspired by visits to Cairo or Palestine, are made at the very cusp of art and activism. But when asked about possible compromises and sacrifices, Butler points out that the couple doesn’t have children (“Our personal relationship couldn’t survive it”). The “open” status of that relationship has been reported elsewhere, and the artist says it’s “partly political and it’s partly because it’s very hard to run a space and have an art practice together which is about power and patriarchy.”

The duo’s dynamic has the makings of an abstract soap opera, and indeed, the dramatic context is borne out by the couple’s weekly attendance over three years at drama workshops that employ the ideas of Augusto Boal to examine “forms of resistance to power.” “That smashed our relationship wide open,” says Butler. “Because you can’t do theatre training in oppression and not have a crisis in your own relationship. How can you?!” I have no idea.

“It’s one of those projects that you do which is only a little bit visible to the art world, because it’s so much more visible in other areas of community organizing,” continues Butler. Retraining the body is one of the duo’s foremost concerns, as can be seen by films that explore the corporeal language of resistance. One such, “Hold Your Ground,” enjoyed a run on one of London’s largest public projection screens deep in financial district Canary Wharf.

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Film’s alive and well at no.w.here, East London

The irony of Mirza and Butler’s practice is that it makes perfect sense in more troubled areas of the world, but in the UK — whether dealing with protest, terror, or community — the films and installations can be baffling. The settings are remote; the activism is heavy. “It’s about what’s hidden,” Butler points out. “It’s about the politics of translation, about the ways different voices and powers mediate their messages, in our conscious and unconscious minds, about how the connections between how our capital moves, how artists move.” Butler moves again with ease between theory and, say, asking for the check.

The friendly staff crowd around the cash register, asking how we liked the food. Butler pays for both of us, a gesture of radical hospitality, which I cannot prevent and which the waitress continues to tease him about (“He doesn’t usually pay!”) Out on the street we part, in the shadow of the local property developers. “We’ve been here for a few years now,” Butler said. “And every year we say we don’t take it for granted. Each day matters because you know that it’s ticking along to where it can’t continue.”

Even no.w.here has to have somewhere. Get to see the fugitive museum wherever you can.

Mirza/Butlers film The Unreliable Narrator (2014) can be seen in Artist’s Film International: Winter 2015 at the Whitechapel Gallery (77-82 Whitechapel High Street, London) through April 6. 

Mark Sheerin is an art writer from the UK. He also contributes to Culture24 and Frame & Reference, together with his own blog Criticismism. In 2012 he appeared in Nature, a volume in the series Documents...