“I’ve nudged out of my comfort zone with this one” – Sheffield artist Pete McKee on new show Don’t Adjust Your Mindset
Ahead of the opening of his first major exhibition since 2018, cherished Sheffield artist Pete McKee speaks about the eclectic nature of social media, the significance of cultural hubs such as The Leadmill to our identity and the importance of avoiding comfort zones as a creative.
It’s great to see a McKee show returning to Sheffield. How were the seeds first sown for this exhibition?
I was originally working on an idea for a show based on nostalgia and how we often perceive things in the past as better. I wanted to look at whether that was true or more a case of rose-tinted spectacles. Then Covid came and that show was cancelled. In the time between then and now, my thought process has changed: lockdown meant a lot of turning to social media for comfort or enlightenment, so looking at the world through that one rarefied lens got me thinking about how society perceives itself through social media, how objectifying it is, and how we, as a society, are polarised. The title ‘Don’t Adjust Your Mindset’ is a reference to how we’re so ingrained in our world views – whether that’s Brexit or vaccines or whatever else divides us today.
There has been discussion about social media intensifying opinions on either side of the fence, meaning the middle ground or ability to engage in honest debate has been eroded. Is that a fair take?
Well, you can basically design your social media feed to reflect your stance on a topic, and that means almost every view you get is a polarised one as well. It often just serves to reinforce your views. Of course, sometimes we might not be able to see or engage with the other side simply because some stances are just bat-shit crazy! But social media does provide a vehicle for polarisation: if you’ve got an opinion, it usually gets backed up by everyone you choose to follow.
What is your personal relationship with social media like?
I’m very active on Twitter and my business is very active on Facebook and Instagram. It’s a massive tool to promote work as an artist. Magazines like yourself are a vital part of the information process, and more so prior to social media being so popular, but now you’ve got this direct link with people you know are interested in your work. It’s important to keep generating content and promoting that relationship with your followers. I certainly can’t diss social media too much because I’m very much part of that machine on both a social and business level.
It’s impossible to come down on one side of the good vs bad argument, isn’t it? As mentioned, it doesn’t often lend itself to reasoned debate and there are many well-documented issues with social media culture and its relationship to body image and mental health, particularly for the younger generation.
Of course. I can see how it can be damaging for people suffering from mental health issues. Monday mornings are particularly bad times to look at social media, as it’s scrapings of the weekend’s news and everyone is on a downer; even something like that can really have an impact. The idea of the show is not just to look at the polarisation you find on social media, however, but also the plethora of things you can see within the space of minutes. You can quickly go from a bombing in Ukraine to someone telling you that the climate is knackered, then to a funny meme or video of someone falling over. The human brain can’t handle all of that in such a short space of time – it’s unnatural. So, the show in itself reflects that by being deliberately eclectic, kind of like a scroll on social media.
The title ‘Don’t Adjust Your Mindset’ is a reference to how we’re so ingrained in our world views – whether that’s Brexit or vaccines or whatever else divides us today.
I guess from an artist’s view, it really removes the wall between the artist and people who consume your art, too? There’s no prism that you might get from a magazine or newspaper article, for example.
It’s certainly a no-holds-barred process, especially on Twitter when I’m just throwing out stupid things that come into my head. I could speak for an hour to a journalist but if they have a 600-word deadline to hit, then a lot of what’s been said will get left out and certain nuances could be missed. So, as an artist, social media allows you to take control of that, too.
A particularly exciting aspect about DAYM is the mixed media element, with it being touted as one of your biggest creative shifts to date. What inspired this shift and what does it allow you to say that you were unable to previously?
I think because this show is very current in many respects, I’ve had to change how I approach it. I think some of the new styles – as well as some of the older ones that people will already know – helped me tackle some of those new subjects. I think because social media is so eclectic, I could be quite eclectic with how I approached each subject. For example, there’s a piece about trickle-down economics for which I brought in a sculptor to create a sculpture from a drawing I did. It was nice to go to craftspeople I know and respect and ask them to help bring an idea to life. In other shows, I’ve asked artists and poets to provide pieces because I like the idea of using different mediums and mixing things up to engage people in different ways.
In your typical McKee show, you’ll find traces of darker themes but often heavily weighted against ideas of hope, humour and nostalgia. Would you say those darker undertones are a bit more prevalent in this exhibition?
I would say the darker undertones are a bit more obvious now, whereas before they were more subtle, almost like a cryptic crossword clue. This time I just thought, ‘This is what needs to be said and this is how I want to say it.’ So, in a sense, it’s more direct, but there is also humour in the show; there are LOLs as well as some political tubthumping.
I think considering the timing of our chat today, it’d be folly not to touch on the current situation taking place with The Leadmill. As an artist and music lover, just what does that venue mean to you?
It played a massive part in my development – as a human, really. Many of the great social moments in my life happened at The Leadmill. I’m old enough to have gone to The Limit, another alternative venue in Sheffield, and then The Leadmill came about and became more of the go-to live venue, whereas The Limit was, for me, more of a place to dance and meet girls. The bands that came about and played there when I was 18 to 22 really signified my formative years in music, so my record collection today was largely influenced by The Leadmill. So, not only is it a hugely important place for me personally, but it is so vital for Sheffield that it continues to exist. Bands have come from all over the world to play The Leadmill, many huge ones in their formative years who still speak fondly of it now. If we lose The Leadmill, we lose another piece of Sheffield on the world stage and therefore lose some of our identity, plus a massive part of our tourism and history. It really can’t happen. The Leadmill is as Sheffield as Henderson’s Relish and cutlery and steel. If these guys taking it over want a nightclub, get a warehouse and build one!
Your hometown shows are always hugely important to you, but following the rollercoaster of the last two years, does this one take on a bit of added significance?
Absolutely. Sheffield audiences are vital to what I do, and I choose to exhibit in Sheffield because it’s very important to me personally. That said, with the show going down to London as well, I’ve had to approach it in a more universal sense, which has made me choose some slightly different subject matter. It’s been cathartic to go down this particular process, and what my next show will be kind of hinges on how people perceive this one. It’s interesting – and also vital – for an artist to push that creative barrier, or else you can end up down a cul-de-sac of one style, one subject. I don’t want that to happen, so I wanted the ability to express different views in different mediums for my own creative good, really. I think the fact that this is quite different from my last shows is what I’m most excited about, mixed in with a little trepidation as well. I’ve nudged out of my comfort zone with this one, but there are so many things that I want to do with my career as an artist and this show is a great vessel to keep things moving forward.
Don’t Adjust Your Mindset is showing at Millennium Gallery 13th–22nd May. Free Entry.