A foul-mouthed decade of Modern Toss

No one captures the frustrations of modern British life more acutely, or scurrilously, than Mick Bunnage and Jon Link, aka Modern Toss
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The Independent Culture

'I don't think we go out to shock people at all," says Mick Bunnage of the art duo Modern Toss, who are about to stage a 10th anniversary exhibition featuring works such as the F***yeux Tapestry and the Periodic Table of Swearing.

The latter exhibit – which is available both as an app and as a four-legged talking table – spits out swear words at the push of buttons that resemble the elements as depicted in school chemistry labs. Thus, 'SffB' translates as 'S*** For F***ing Brains'.

Modern Toss are multi-media cartoonists, and the most familiar of the many characters Bunnage creates with collaborator Jon Link is a potty-mouthed French sign-writer called Mr Tourette, who never misses an opportunity to deliver the C-word. Yet Bunnage continues to protest that foul language is not the Modern Toss signature. "People say you're all sweary and everything but actually we're not," he says. "We use it as a tool to get the joke over."

His point is that swearing is now a ubiquitous part of our national discourse, the inarticulate expression of a simmering discontent. "A lot of our characters are really frustrated and not very good at expressing themselves. They tend to blast it out in an uncontrolled way which a lot of people find funny."

Link admits to empathy for flies, a common theme in Modern Toss features such as the animation Fly Talk, in which the winged insects are depicted debating the merits of humans such as 50 Cent. The obsession with flies is "quite creepy really," he says. "It's what we do – hanging around in public spaces listening to what people say, like human flies." A long-standing ambition is to create an animated feature film about these unloved creatures.

The Modern Toss exhibition coincides with the launch of a book – funded with £54,000 raised on Kickstarter – recording the pair's output so far and delicately entitled A Decade in the Shithouse. That's a building many of us might recognise, home to the depressing 'modern toss' of contemporary British life that Bunnage and Link depict in comics, greetings cards and television animation, as they mock familiar concepts such as 'customer services' and 'work experience'.

Their observations are acute and recall cartoonists such as Michael Heath and Barry Fantoni, who with Richard Ingrams produced Private Eye's acidic 'Great Bores of Today', another eavesdropping insight into inane conversation. Modern Toss contribute to Private Eye and national newspapers; The Sunday Times supplement Style provided them with what Bunnage describes as a "comprehensive" list of banned swear words.

When they broke into the cartooning big-time, they expected to be the vanguard of a new wave. But at Private Eye parties, Bunnage, aged 55, and Link, aged 46, who met 20 years ago when working at the lads' mag Loaded, find they are the youngest in the room. This they ascribe to the difficulty of the art form. "I don't think we cracked what we were doing until we were in our mid-thirties," says Link.

At least the humour crosses generations. Alan, one of the most recognisable Modern Toss characters, was made into a children's toy. "He's a little black shape with staring eyes – he's a bit dysfunctional and really popular with people's kids because he burns down people's houses and stuff like that," explains Bunnage of this Modern Toss gift to British society. "Well, you've got to give something back, haven't you?"

Modern Toss: a Decade in the S***house, is at Forge & Co, London E1, Thursday to 19 October. The accompanying book is out now, priced £25

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