Tim Noble and Sue Webster have worked from the Dirty House – an imposing 4,000 square metre space designed by David Adjaye – on the corner of Chance Street for the past ten years, but have been based in east London for closer to 20. “I remember none of our friends would come here because they thought they were going to get mugged,” says Webster of their early days starting out in the mid-90s, living and working in nearby Rivington Street. “They wouldn’t leave their car outside, they thought their tyres would go missing or something.” The Dirty House sits on a site that was once home to the Blue Anchor pub, a venue famed for bareknuckle fighting in the 19th century. What a difference a century makes. Webster describes the experience of being residents in east London today like “living in a shopping centre”. They are a stone’s throw from the new Boxpark retail zone. But if it is a problem, it is one of the artists’ own making. “Well, the artists come and they occupy the warehouses and then because of the artists being here, more bars open up,” she explains.
Meeting Noble and Webster is like meeting two rock’n’roll cartoon characters – his-and-hers artists from the same factory. Both have jet-black hair (his curly, hers straight), kohl eyes, leather boots and jeans (Sue in faded blue, Tim in black). Scanning the walls as we wait for the film crew to set up, FOREVER screams in neon from the back wall of the main studio. Posters from their shows fill the walls and dead animals line the windowsills.
The pair met at Nottingham University and bonded over their magpie tendencies. “Sue had a room all of her own,” says Tim, who would dive into skips to find material to work with. “She used to lock herself in it and I was fascinated by that. She used to get things like bits of American cars and chrome and would just weld them all together.” When Sue was growing up in the Midlands, she used to work for her father, an electrician, during the summer holidays to earn her keep. “He had me, my sister and my brother working for him,” she explains. “My sister and my brother hated it but I absolutely loved it, so ended up working for him more.
I used to go on jobs with him wiring up cigarette vending machines, so I developed a natural ability to understand electronics. I was fascinated by it. All of our early light sculptures I wired up myself. When we did our first exhibitions, I’d invite my dad to the shows and instead of looking at the front of a sculpture, I’d take him round the back and show him the wiring.”
The duo’s first piece was the 1995 film “Ornament in Crisis”, which saw Tim submerged in a fish tank. “We drilled a hole in the bottom and he was breathing through this little pipe while trying to keep calm and be an ornament. But the little piece of electrical cable he was meant to breathe through was being blocked up with condensation, so his air flow was reduced over the 20-minute filming period, to the point where he couldn’t breathe any more, but the camera was still rolling. We didn’t have a get out clause so when he spat the thing out, he was trapped with his head inside the fish tank, and I panicked and tried to smash the tank against a brick wall with his head still in it. I could’ve broken his neck.”
Read more of our exclusive interview in Issue Two of The Hunger, on sale now. See more of our Art in the East End interviews here.