Monday, 28 July 2008
‘Dinner with America’ by Rajni Shah, Pinter Building, Queen Mary University, London; March 29th 2008.
Image: Rajni Shah (c) Manuel Vason
Come and have dinner with America. Over the course of Rajni Shah’s durational performance, you are invited to witness American icons and ideals slip into one another, to hear Americans define their own patriotism, and to feast on the literal and intellectual fruits of this labour. Here, America is a bride in a shimmering white veil, a blonde 50s starlet, and a glamour model in Wonder Woman boots. America is the Statue of Liberty, Amazing Grace and Red, White and Blue. America is a series of symbols, a soundtrack of anonymous voices and a supporting cast of silent figures dressed in white.
Appearing as different types of all-American-gal (bride, starlet, model), and singing the chorus to ‘Amazing Grace’ Shah represents an idea of America. At times, the idea stands for liberties and freedoms – Shah repeatedly holds one arm above her head, like the Statue of Liberty. At others, this America is a land of exclusions and divisions. Recorded interviews with Americans play overhead, and one voice begins by staking her position as a ‘privileged white woman’, aware that her country holds different experiences for different groups of people. Each speaker’s reality collides with the American dream, which is rolled over Shah’s body in a repeated repertoire of gestures and moves. And Shah’s body also shows the strain: she gets tired; her voice wavers; her limbs begin to shake. Being America, it seems, is a difficult job.
It’s usually easiest to define things by what they are not, and these strains and exceptions are testament to an America beyond its own ideal. But it’s also the American dream that gives these doubts meaning. Silhouetted against the accessories of American patriotism (which comes with a flag, a constitution and an advertising industry), the shape of real life is defined by these ideals at the same time as it contests them. Melting between different symbols and their effects, in fact, Dinner with America does not hold each element of its America up for inspection, but suggests the ways that disparate parts congeal over time. Most noticeably, Shah traces a line from the mythological power of American ‘freedom’ – a story told so often that it seems like it’s true – to the consumer power that drives American society. As a beautiful woman with flowing blonde hair and shiny red lips, she stands for that elusive something that we all want to own – a role she acknowledges with a series of alluring poses lifted from every ad campaign you’ve ever seen. Moving between Statue of Liberty and Glamour Girl, Shah’s Miss America joins the dots between an individual’s right to freedom and an individualistic drive to consume. They are two manifestations of the same American liberty, and each idea provides the template for the other, just as, on the template of Shah’s body, each gesture dissolves inexorably into the next.
The fuel for both this individualism-for-liberty and individualism-for-consumption is neither liberty, nor capitalism – nor even a shabby looking American dream. Instead, it’s desire. Dinner with America vibrates with the anticipation of things to change, things to improve. Two women in white sweep and resweep boundaries of earth around the audience’s feet, with quiet industry but no clear logic; and Shah sheds her layers of costume at the sliding pace of the inevitable. It is this desire for change that feeds the myths of freedom and consumption – we desire more, we desire better. And it’s the desire for change that means today’s shortcomings can be overlooked. American life waits on the actors of tomorrow, and Shah’s female icons distil the American dream. Like a beautiful woman, America is a wonderful idea; it stays that way because it is always out of reach.
The momentum of change is also what turns the needs of the individual into something like a shared experience. When Shah has left the stage, the audience moves close together to watch a film projected onto a pile of earth. It is an intimate moment, and the flickering black and white film plays out like an old silent movie. As well as footage of preparations for the show, the film shows women passing earth to one another, gestures repeated by Shah and her helpers in real time as the film plays. These images are interspersed with prompts for what’s happening next – ‘The Feast is coming!’ Altogether, the film ushers the audience into a shared past (the nostalgia of the movie’s style, details of the labour that has brought us together), and it leads us into a shared future (the upcoming meal). What comes before melts into what is yet to come, so that the here and now has to take us there. This is how national identity is born. And this is how a community of America rises from the detritus of its symbols, however tarnished by testimonies (oral and physical) of real material conditions.
Dinner with America effects a poignant reconciliation between ideal and reality, by conscripting the audience into the promise of a shared future. But who is this America for, and who is recruited into the American project? By the time the film is shown, we have seen Shah stripped naked. She has removed her glamorous clothes, taken off her wig and peeled off the mask that turned her brown skin white. She has also been subject to the unforgiving scrutiny of light that is all red, then light that is all white, then light that is all blue – exposed as an impostor beneath the metaphoric gaze of the American flag. The performance I saw, moreover, was to a British audience in a London university; and Rajni Shah is British herself. It’s tempting to say that it’s American cultural imperialism that makes us all so interested in a country far away and from which we are excluded. But it is also the extraordinary effectiveness of America’s cultural message. Built on desire, the idea of America must always project the dreams of the people at hand – even if they step out of costume with a shaven head and dark skin. The American dream is only a dream of America – it is etched by the people who see it, and it belongs to anyone that looks.
And yet the real collective moment in Dinner with America comes with the feast itself. Here, food and thoughts are served up in equal measure – you’re encouraged to take a topic for discussion at the same time as a piece of fruit. But Shah’s model of communal feasting is very different to the cultural production of America we have all just witnessed. Up to now, ‘America’ has been a chimera of unfulfilled desire, which means it doesn’t have to define its goals. In contrast, Shah’s feast invites the audience to sate its desire – for food and for conversation – and marks the end of a shared event. If Shah’s America uses the rhetoric of the individual to dangle a united future just out of reach, Shah’s feast uses the rhetoric of a community to harvest different reactions to a past (the performance) that we all know: it turns the ideology of America inside out. Is this a new model for the land of dreams? It’s hard to tell, because one similarity remains – just like the idea of America, the content of the feast is up to you.
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Monday, 21 July 2008
The main gallery of the SLG is blacked out. Two monitors on opposite sides of the space flash intermittently with stills of tanned and glamorous fashion models with 1980’s hairdo’s - women on one screen and men on another. The two screens emit a dull flickering light by which the audience sees to move around. In the darkness, performers Douglas Park and Diletta Mansella are in no way distinguishable from anyone else. They are dressed casually in dark clothing and move slowly in amongst the audience. As they move they repeat the phrase “I did love you once” into handheld microphones. The sounds of these amplified declarations of one-time love mingle closely with the voices of the visitors, who are scattered around the space chatting freely. There is no apparent pattern as to who these two are engaged with or why. At times, they make seemingly sincere and lingering eye contact with the assembled strangers, clearly addressing their ‘I did love you once’, to individual visitors. At other times, they can be spotted in the darkness, standing in an empty corner at the far side of the gallery pledging their ‘I did love you once’ to a blank wall. Meanwhile, outside in the foyer, the video ‘Where are We’ (2004) screens Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson’s infamous ‘honeymoon’ home-movie that leaked onto the internet in 1998. The video’s visuals are blacked out, leaving only a blank screen with graphic subtitles and audio. With this, visitors are left to imagine what is clearly Lee and Anderson filming their own drug fuelled, porn style, nuptials in a moving car.
This is Get Lost by Claire Fontaine. The work is an examination of contemporary desire and liberal love within the context of capitalism; as such it is an exercise in intimacy feigned and at once rejected. The Shakespearean phrase ‘I did love you once’ is itself a complex rumination on love taken from Hamlet Act 3, Scene 1, who then later in the same act seemingly revokes his declaration of love with ‘I loved you not’. But the real clue to the complex negation the work manifests is in its title: Get Lost simultaneously pulls its audience in only to push them away. The immersive environment, direct interactions and love utterings are engaging. But the monotony of the repeated phrase serves to distort meaning, leaving a hollow and insincere aftertaste. The empty gaze of the polished and perfectly re-touched fashion models on the monitor screens, further reinforce that Get Lost is a surface interaction on display. Add to this the apparent arbitrariness of Park and Mansella’s interactions - they could equally love you or the wall- and we are left in no doubt as to the intended in/sincerity of Get Lost. In short, what is created is a false intimacy, closeness or love made into public spectacle and amplified out to a paying crowd.
Looking through the lens of capitalism, spectacle and fashion, Claire Fontaine defines contemporary liberal love as commercialised, moreover contrary, fickle and empty. However, the work in Get Lost maintains a tantalisingly ambiguous position towards this shallowness. In presenting what is essentially a non-screening of Anderson and Lee’s sexual exploits ‘Where we Are’ leaves space for an alternate narrative to emerge; one that is not a banal critique of Western love in the form of a carnal, plastic Pammy and rock star Tommy Lee. The question that arises from between the blank screen and the subtitles is, bourgeois idealism, hepatitis infection, divorce and abuse allegations aside, who can say that Pammy and Tommy Lee’s is not a genuinely contemporary model of true love? Folding such critical questions back into the material of the work – both in the performance and the video - is how Get Lost teeters on the brink of critique.
In the same way love in Get Lost is performed as both simulated and real, so too Claire Fontaine herself can be seen to be a contradiction. Despite being described as singular and female in literature, Claire Fontaine is not a woman, nor is she a person; she is a Paris based collective founded in 2004 who describes herself as ‘a readymade artist born out of the standardisation of identities produced by contemporary capitalism’ . Claire Fontaine then, is a brand - an artistic pseudonym; she is the sum of an unknown number of anonymous parts whose collective anonymity is an attempt to embody the crisis of the singular - including singular artistic genius - and to critique sovereignty, production and commercialism in the art world.
Claire’s overt sloganeering on capitalism might be off-putting and heavy handed, thus leading to Get Lost being considered as banal agit-prop, but underneath the work itself manages to maintain its moral ambiguity and light touch. Conversely, Claire’s strategy of collective anonymity, instead of serving as an embodiment of anti-capitalistic endeavour, actually increases the possibility of artistic production, participation and networks. The ongoing commodification of these artistic and cultural elements affords Claire the opportunity to capitalise on the same art world commercialism she purportedly rallies against. Claire’s artist biography testifies to her success; it includes a string of shows in private, commercial galleries. Clearly, Claire Fontaine does not feel the need to be a poor artist struggling in her garret. This complicity with capitalism, when added with the subtle complexities of Get Lost as a piece of work, makes the artist’s bald political rhetoric read as all too knowing - and as such, empty, cynical and deviant on an entirely different level.
It is this inherent contradiction, the push and pull between sincerity and rhetoric, and the interesting grey area in between - that is at the heart of Get Lost. The work is contrived and a prick tease; it attracts and repels simultaneously, its intentions are equally in/sincere and not. Nevertheless, the underlying point is that genuineness and authenticity are of no consequence in this liberal model of love, since they can never be distinguished from simulation, appropriation or mere performance, nor should they be. The fun is in the flirtation and the chase, and to embrace Get Lost without reservation is to be gloriously cuckolded.
Rachel Lois Clapham
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Gail Pickering, 'Mad Masters', 2008, performance view, South London Gallery
The vast exhibition space of the South London Gallery was filled, for Gail Pickering’s ‘Mad Masters’, with large plywood structures draped in coloured material. Between and out of these strange shapes, young female dancers moved with a kind of exaggerated clumsiness, in distorted versions of military routines – like a march or a salute. They were accompanied by an energetic percussion, played on a range of instruments including cow bells and a violin bow, by the musician David Aylward; they were also accompanied by a young American woman who sat on top of the tallest plywood structure, and read a story.
I can’t tell you what the story was about, because the performance itself was so overwhelming that ‘Mad Masters’ seemed both greater than the sum of its parts, and weaker than them. It was an exhilarating explosion of sensory effects, in other words, that nevertheless rendered each effect impossible to understand.
This is partly because each element in Mad Masters had been abstracted from the world. The material draped over plywood, for example, suggested the structures were flag poles, or sailing ships, or ceremonial buildings; in the end, they were none of these things. Sufficiently formless to become simply forms, the structures were just physical obstacles in the dancers’ way. Likewise, the music was like nothing I have heard before – a syncopated disharmony that was both compelling and unrhythmic. The dancers moved in irregular patterns that were impossible to pin down, and even the narrative was incomprehensible. The narrator sat far away from the other performers and spoke in a monotonous, US drawl. In the context of this reduced and distorted reality, her words floated above the action, and remained untethered to what was happening below.
And yet, amid this confusion there was a strong sense of purpose. In keeping with its title, the constituent elements of ‘Mad Masters’ seemed to comply with a logic that was both external to the performance itself, and impossible to ascertain from watching it. The wooden structures were complex and looked like they were difficult to build, even if their function was unknown. The dancers, moving with severe precision and blank faces, looked like puppets controlled by hands we could not see
In Pickering’s current solo show at Gasworks (12 June - 27 July 2008), two video pieces also explore the implications of a common – and perhaps arbitrary – purpose. In‘Hungary! And Other Economies’ (2006) a group of porn stars is transported around rural France, dressed in geometric costumes and reading passages from a play about the Marquis de Sade. It is never clear whether or not the actors’ flirtations with each other are for show, which of their words are their own, or indeed why they have been instructed with this strange accumulation of tasks in the first place. Similarly, at the start of ‘Dissident Sunset’ (2007) a gathering of would-be revolutionaries searches for a movement to follow. ‘Like something to put on a T-Shirt?’, one of them suggests.
It is humour like this that gives the audience access to Pickering’s bewildering circus of effects. In ‘Dissident Sunset’ one-liners make the audience smile, in ‘Hungary!’ the actors’ laughter shatters the brittle incongruity of the tasks they perform, and in ‘Mad Masters’ the sheer exuberance of the percussion rippled through the audience as we stood in single file against the walls. The result is a kind of communal ‘punctum’ (to use Roland Barthes’ term), which pricks the bubble of individual allegiance, and joins the audience and the performers in a moment of cathartic unity.
The title for ‘Mad Masters’ in fact comes from an ethnographic documentary by the filmmaker Jean Rouch, who made ‘Les Maitres Fous’ in 1954. His film shows a Ghanaian ritual that was designed to exorcise the violence of colonialism, and Pickering’s piece was a restaging of this film. In other words, Pickering re-presented Rouch’s representation of a Ghanaian rite, which represents European invasion. This makes ‘Mad Masters’ a representation of performance itself, and of the echoes of performance performed ad infinitum. In this light, it’s not surprising that the purpose of the work was so distorted that it seemed arbitrary – purpose had become performance itself.
Energetically combined, the confusing and abstracted forms in ‘Mad Masters’ suggest that performance is more than a social ritual; it is a social need. The piece is one link in a chain of events, not concerned with the masters at the start of that chain but with the waves of influence that they set off. In this piece, as in other works by Pickering, the performers seem locked into a gesture of representation. They are compelled to perform, and exist only inside these layers of performance. Do they submit to this regime voluntarily, or is it the only way to survive? And is the audience really being drawn in through moments of cathartic release, or are we already involved? Perhaps those moments are our reward for compliance.
At the end of ‘Mad Masters’, nobody knew if the performance was over –the audience waited in silence to see if something else would go on. Normally when that happens it’s because the artwork lacks impact, but in this case it suggested the opposite. In the aftermath of this theatrical display, everything could have been part of the performance; everything, in other words, was twisted out of line with reality, as if performance was the only reality left. Personally, I was drawn into this half-sinister world. Like the revolutionaries in ‘Dissident Sunset’, we all need something to follow.
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Wednesday, 16 July 2008
The Live Art Almanac is a collection of 'found' writing about and around Live Art, recently published by the Live Art Development Agency.
In early 2006 an open call announced:
What articles have you read, what emails did you receive or forward to a friend, what blogs have you visited, what texts crossed your path? Did they engage you, amuse you, or make you rethink Live Art? If it caught your eye and had something interessting to say, then we want to know about it.
Over a hundred articles, reviews and interviews were submitted from sources that ranged from mainstream newspaper articles to text messages, and from these recommendations the Live Art Almanac was compiled.
Joanna Loveday, a Yorkshire based performance writer who participated in Open Dialogues: New Life Berlin, has written a comprehensive review of the Almanac. You can read Joanna’s review in its original location, on the Institute of Ideas online platform for debate and critical writing, culturewars.org.
Live Art Almanac contributors: Tim Atack, Madeleine Bunting, Barbara Campbell, Simon Casson, Brian Catling, Rachel Lois Clapham, Helen Cole, Stephen Duncombe, Tim Etchells, Ed Caesar, David Gale, Lyn Gardner, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, Daniel Gosling, Leslie Hill, John Jordan, Nick Kimberley, Adam E Mendelsohn, Alex Needham, Sally O'Reilly, Mary Paterson, Will Pollard, Chris Riding, Nick Ridout, Ian Saville, Theron Schmidt, Rebecca Schneider, Rajni Shah, Mark Wilshire and John Wyver.
The Live Art Almanac is available to by at £5.00 (ex p&p) from Unbound, the Live Art Development Agency online store, or to read in the Live Art Development Agency Study Room - www.thisisliveart.co.uk