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The 2016 bats photographed by Paul Thompson
27th March 2017

The Z List: Q&A with Algy Batten

The Art of Ping Pong combines two unlikely suitors — art and ping pong — on a mission to raise money for charitable causes including Children in Need and the Alzheimer’s Society. Born out of creative agency Fivefootsix, in the last four years the Art of Ping Pong has collaborated with some of the world’s most exciting artists, including Zetteler favourites Camille Walala, Anthony Burrill, Alan Kitching and Jake & Dinos Chapman, turning ping pong paddles into unique works of art that are then auctioned off after they go on display for all to enjoy. 

Having recently added the Jake & Dinos Chapman Art of Ping Pong 2016 poster to The Z List (buy it here), we thought it was high time we caught up with Art of Ping Pong founder and curator Algy Batten to find out more about the project and what he’s been up to since closing Fivefootsix back in 2015. 

Hi Algy! You’ve got a fairly sparkling career behind you, for those who aren’t familiar with your work can you tell us what you’ve worked on and how you got to where you are today?

“Fairly sparkling”, that’s brilliant.

So in the late 90s I moved to London and started working for design studio Browns. An agency I still have the upmost respect for and, as their first employee, an agency I still have a fond affection for. After a little over two years with Browns, I was asked by Unicef – one of my clients back then – to help them build up their own in-house design studio. So in 2000 I found myself living by the lake in Geneva, working for a charity. Swapping the stresses of London for the lakes and mountains of Switzerland was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

After a year though it no longer satisfied me creatively, but I wasn’t ready to return to London. So I set up a small design studio with a Swiss friend. We worked on advertising campaigns for snowboard brands and we did some work for the America’s Cup and UEFA. I also designed the European Guide to Snowboarding book. But eventually the lure of the creative scene in London brought me back home. And at the start of 2003 I began freelancing in London.

Soon after I was recruited to work as part of the Nokia re-brand team. Where I was fortunate enough to work with Mark Holt from 8vo, which was pretty special. We did some great work, but after a year I was keen to do something for myself again…So in 2005 I set up a design agency called Fivefootsix with my good friend Mark McConnachie. Fivefootsix proved to be the hardest, yet most rewarding, thing I have done with my career so far. We closed at the end of 2015, with both myself and Mark keen to explore new challenges for ourselves. You can get a feel for what Fivefootsix did on our website – www.fivefootsix.co.uk 

Now I’m focusing more of my time on creative consultancy for brand and business development. I'm using the skills I’ve learnt throughout my career as a designer, from running Fivefootsix and from the Cranfield School of Management – something Mark and myself did back in 2012 – to help young brands and businesses grow and develop. And I really enjoy it. I’m working with some great new design studios – Point, Studio Thomas and Field Projects – helping them develop their own business approach. And this career direction is something I’m keen to pursue…

And I’m also concentrating on developing The Art of Ping Pong. I want it to become a brand/business in it’s own right that develops more strings to its bow. I need to find ways it can support itself and the running of the charity auction. I particularly enjoyed the collaboration with Nike last summer. And the fact that the legacy of that project meant we could add the artworks to our charity auction.
Jake & Dinos Chapman's bat
Tell us about The Art of Ping Pong? Where did that concept come from?

I’ve always loved ping pong. A long while ago Fivefootsix was invited to enter a battle of the agencies tournament. We won, inspiring me to buy a table for us at work.

Around the same time I was an early member of Run Dem Crew and good friends with the founder Charlie Dark. At Run Dem Crew we met each Tuesday evening in the Nike 1948 space in Shoreditch. Charlie knew I was a ping pong fan, as I’d often invite mates round to the Fivefootsix studio after hours for ping pong and pizza nights. He suggested we approach Nike to use the 1948 space for a ping pong tournament. The proposal, naturally, had to have an artistic twist so I suggested we had artists work on each of the four tables used for the tournament. The tables would then be auctioned at the end of the evening for charity. 

Sadly Nike didn’t bite, I don’t think ping pong was on their radar then. But at Fivefootsix we decided to hold our own tournament in our building for all the neighbouring companies to enter and to get to know each other. Some of the team thought it would be good if the event raised money for BBC Children in Need, as they were a client, and that’s when the illustrative bat idea came into play!

And here we are four years later. Fivefootsix has now closed, but I’m still taking The Art of Ping Pong forward.

The power of collaboration is something integral to The Art of Ping Pong, and something we actively encourage here at Zetteler, why is it so important to the creative world, and even the world generally?

Good question. Creative people are always striving to learn new stuff. If you only create things from your own viewpoint your projects won’t often reach their full potential. So we enjoy the process of collaboration. It broadens our horizons, challenges us and helps us develop our own thought process. 

On a deeper level, regarding to the wider world aspect of your question, I think humans are essentially social animals. We enjoy being part of something. Isolation isn’t so healthy, so being collaborative fulfils that basic need.

Jake & Dinos Chapman's bat
How does it feel to be part of The Z List?

Carefully curated collections are always fun to be associated with, and the Z List has some wonderful creators in its line up. So I’m proud to have been asked.

It’s also good for The Art of Ping Pong as it increases our exposure. On a personal level though I don’t feel like it’s myself that’s part of the Z List. Really the work here is by Jake & Dinos Chapman, I just made the poster. Perhaps they should be interviewed, not me! 

Both The Art of Ping Pong and The Z List have a key focus on raising money for charity. Do you think all businesses have a responsibility to address philanthropy?

It would be easy to say yes. But having had my own business before, I know how hard it is to run a successful business, before thinking about philanthropy. Once you reach a level of stability though I think it’s important to consider how you can contribute.

But, in running a business, you shouldn’t forget how many people’s livelihoods you support. And that, in itself, is making an important contribution too.

Have you ever worked previously with Jake & Dinos Chapman? How was it?

I was so stoked when they agreed to be part of what is still really a tiny project. In fact I’m always amazed at how many great artists agree to get involved.

Sadly I didn’t get to meet them. I dealt with their two studio assistants who were incredibly helpful throughout the process and really lovely to work with.

Who would you like to see create a ping pong bat next?

Obviously big names help raise the profile of the project and raise more money for the charity. So, in the same vein as Jake & Dinos, it would be great one day to have artists like Tracey Emin and Peter Blake involved.

But last year it was also really fun to work with a jewellery designer (Nylon Sky), a sculptor (Wilfrid Wood), a conceptual artist (Ryan Gander) and a photographer (Lacey). It really helped the project evolve. 

I’m in the process of building my wish list of artists for 2017, so I’m excited to see how this year might evolve too. I’ve got lots of plans, but the project is still reliant on my own spare time and money as well as the very generous help of its supporters. So I have to be realistic as well. That’s why I’m selling the posters, and exploring other merchandise, as they could help with the running costs of the auction.

Are you any good at ping pong?

I used to think I was pretty good. Like being a decent pub pool player kind of thing. After Fivefootsix won the Battle of the Agencies tournament I was asked to join a team in the third division on the English Table Tennis League. And that’s when I realised, in the grand scheme of “real” players, I had a lot to learn!

But the Art of Ping Pong has opened up new doors for me to get involved in playing. The chaps at Topspin Sports, who generously supply the blank bats for the auction, suggested I started playing in the sandpaper bat tournaments. This is essentially old skool ping pong, just a wooden blade with sandpaper on each side, no rubber). And somehow I found myself playing in the World Championship Qualifier tournaments. Obviously I didn’t qualify! But I did get to play against some great players. 

I’ve also played against Jonathan Ross’ brother Miles who is a table tennis coach and even, with the Nike project, against Roger Federer! So I’m loving that side of the project too…

Find the Jake & Dinos Chapman Art of Ping Pong 2016 poster on The Z List
The Jake & Dinos Chapman bat poster
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