Friday, 3 July 2009

Thomas Zipp: White Dada

White Dada is composed of two areas: a replica lecture theatre and a period gallery filled with the repertoire of Dadaist gesture. Where the former space is large, high-ceilinged and bright, the latter is small, dark and low. Zipp’s distinctive aesthetic is immediately recognizable in both. Muted colours, fluorescent ‘chandeliers’, faces with silver tacks for eyes, a portrait of Luther: all are familiar from recent installations. At the same time Zipp summons the frisson of historical authenticity. To enter the windowless smaller space, with its benches and hessian-covered plinths, is to remember that the talismanic sites of avant-garde activity were often back rooms in dingy cafes.

As always Zipp alludes to a range of conceptual systems. In the smaller room medical images are prominent: wards, nurses, surgery and a page from a textbook detailing procedures for dealing with mental illness, including electric shock and ‘narcotherapy’. This latter term then connects with the drug references of the dried poppies and tea-spoons nearby. The effect is to suggest a continuum between state control and transgressive behaviour, one implication being that these practices are linked rather than antithetical. Such assertions of complicity between elements normally seen as opposed are common in Zipp’s work. In its overt evocation of the avant-garde, however, White Dada makes explicit its concern with the relationship between radical art and other social and political forces. It is in the conjugation of the show’s two spaces that this relationship is most succinctly examined.

The lecture theatre’s wood paneling and tiers of uncomfortable seats suggest some nineteenth-century Mittleeuropean institution. Rather than the recalcitrance of the Cabaret Voltaire the mood is one of aspiration to power and the intellectual mainstream. Botanical paintings are regularly spaced on the walls, interspersed with a repeated manifesto. An imposing light-coloured semi-abstract figure (the eponymous White Daddy perhaps) stands to the right, the abstract Arp of its head balanced on a Jacob Epstein torso. Hanging above it is a Constructivist diagram of fluorescent tubes. The connotations are of a confident utopian Modernism: it’s Year Zero in the circular hall and the large sculpture is a template for the New Man.

If Zipp is careful to distinguish between two forms of the avant-garde he does not assert a banal opposition between an emancipatory Dadaism and its rivals. This would contradict the notions of complicity implied in the smaller room. Hence the disciplined atmosphere of the lecture hall is in turn complicated by the tokens of adolescent rebellion that occupy its centre: drum kit, organ, distortion peddles, microphone and amp. Zipp and his band DA (Dickarsch or fat ass) showcased their improvised rock on the opening night with a torrent of screaming that Hugo Ball may well have approved of. As a result the austere theatre and the shabby backroom cannot be seen as independent. Rather the latter – with its benches along the walls – is a kind of antechamber for the former where the band waited, incubating their performance. In this way Zipp implicates each historical (and political) space in the other while reaching forward to touch us in the present.

For the amp is emitting a powerful hum, letting us know it is live, and so inviting the viewer to take up the instruments and perform. By doing so we may perhaps maintain some kind of fidelity to the event that took place here, traces of which can still be seen: the carpet stained with ash and alcohol, the wooden tiers covered in dusty footprints. And yet this is at odds with the melancholy the empty lecture hall exudes. We are too late, the players have left the stage, and the audience for anything we might do ourselves has already departed. Such ambivalence extends to the status of the band’s performance. By connecting with them through performing ourselves can we really channel the distant creative event of Modernism? Or was the gig, like its surroundings, simply a facsimile, history repeated as farce, a kind of Actually Existing Modernism that traduces and perverts the ideals in whose name it justifies itself?

The excesses of DA’s performance may have suggested the latter, seeming merely to assert tired Bataillean ideas of art as transgression. Yet Zipp’s conception of Modernism as constituted though a contradiction between creativity and control demands a more complex analysis. The performance stands or falls on the question of whether it is grasped under the mannerist sign of irony or as part of a larger, more properly tragic exploration of the contradictions at the heart of both Modernism and the last hundred years of German art and society. Indeed Zipp’s very ability to pose this formal question suggests that his work does indeed afford a useful purchase on the receding event of Modernism, even as it dramatizes the problems and tensions endemic to it.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Forsyth and Pollard (Lux Interior RIP)

Walking Over Acconci (Misdirected Approaches): Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard at Kate MacGarry

‘Wakey, wakey, hands off snaky!’ The young woman shouts into the camera, kicking off a fifteen minute tirade addressing an absent ex-boyfriend. Although this new piece by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard is based on Vito Acconci’s 1973 monologue Walk Over, its opening suggests a reference to Seedbed, the infamous performance where Acconci secreted himself under the floorboards of a New York gallery, moaning and masturbating while visitors walked above.

The irreverence of the allusion is typical of the video as a whole, which affirms the importance of Acconci’s early oeuvre while also suggesting its limitations, not least the notions of gender and authenticity with which he worked.

At the same time Forsyth and Pollard’s piece is far from simple pastiche. Although the work does treat Acconci’s conceptualist heroics ironically at times, it also deftly traces the distance between the 1970s of the original Walk Over and the present dismal conjuncture. The thirty-five years that have elapsed since Acconci stalked a dingy corridor, humming to himself and baring his soul to a Super-8 have seen massive transformations in the political, cultural and technological landscape. Forsyth and Pollard register these changes in a number of ways. That said, the previous scenario remains substantially intact: although the script has been updated, we are still watching a lone figure approach to and recede from a fixed camera, alternatively obsessing over a failed relationship and tensely humming a short refrain.

The most obvious difference is the way in which Acconci’s grainy black and white is replaced by the crisp colours of high-definition video, a substitution that has immediate consequences for the genre of the piece. Rather than high-modernist Verité, the colour images of the new work recall the mediations of reality television, the gangsta Noir of music promo or the dumb theatrics of webcam exhibitionism. By accommodating the new ubiquity of the digital image, Forsyth and Pollard situate their piece in a much broader frame than the original’s confessionalism. In doing so they highlight the way that Acconci’s equation of truth with the speaking body is compromised in the present mediascape, which authorises itself through the constant circulation of pseudo-revelation.

Walking Over Acconci is also much more specific about the relation between viewer and onscreen figure than the original, which strongly implied a face-to-face relation between Acconci and an off-camera addressee. Here the narrator bends towards us, filling the screen with her mouth, then stepping back and straightening up to reveal her whole face. This suggests that we are watching an image on a monitor, relayed from an intercom unit at the entrance to a flat which may or may not be occupied. The effect is to introduce further notions of surveillance, privacy and siege, and to reframe the young woman’s impassioned monologue within an echoing, affectless realm. Rather than occupying the position of the addressee, as Acconci’s original bade us do, here the viewer identifies with the inhuman gaze of the recording apparatus itself.

Finally, where Acconci placed himself at the centre of the work, Forsyth and Pollard have substituted a female electro MC. Once again this removes the piece from the temptations of confessionalism. More striking, however is the way in which Miss Odd Kidd’s bodily economy is haunted by the gestures and mannerisms of bass culture. Although the young MC attempts to give this story of a relationship and its breakdown the naturalistic delivery it clearly demands, she cannot help but revert to her more accustomed mode of performance. The rhythmic movements of her head and hands, her feints and shifts in posture constantly betray her day-job. It is as if consciousness is periodically invaded by another more cartoonish, pop-cultural persona, one which has to be visibly restrained. This interruptive quality to the piece is reinforced by her constant recourse to the strained and almost catatonic humming. Here again it is as if the narrator is momentarily colonised, this time by floating fragments of the entertainment complex. Rather than Acconci’s emphasis on his own presence then, what we have here is a persona seemingly distributed across a range of competing registers.

Forsyth and Pollard are well known for restagings such as File Under Sacred Music, their recreation of a 1978 performance by The Cramps at the Napa State Mental Institute. More recent work, such as the predecessor to the present piece, Walking After Acconci (Redirected Approaches) featuring the Brit-Hop artist Plan B, or 2007’s Kiss my Nauman more clearly complicate the aesthetics of the remake. By forcing the austerity of classic video work into a strange conjuncture with the promotional tools of contemporary music culture this work radically defamiliarizes both, opening up a productive space between the present and the past instead of collapsing the two.