Q+A with Artist Group Common Culture

Ahead of their new video installation, Vent (specially commissioned for the MAC, Birmingham) Aesthetica talk to artist group Common Culture about the new work which examines popular culture’s obsessive fascination with the excesses and indulgences of “celebrity”.

A: Could you tell us about Common Culture, and how the group began?
Common Culture has been making work collaboratively since 1996 and currently consists of David Campbell, Mark Durden and Ian Brown, though other artists have also been involved in the past. We came together to make work as a response to the rampant promotion of art branded as Young British Art and its ludicrous “Dick Van Dyke” characterisation of British working class culture by the London art establishment. For us the YBA phenomenon just didn’t ring true, certainly it didn’t chime with our experience of living in the North West of England.  So in Menus we started making work that deliberately and playfully collided seemingly contradictory cultural references against each other – lurid, illuminated fast-food signage configured in minimalist formation reminiscent of Don Judd and Dan Flavin. Such work deliberately played with issues of class, taste and commodification to unsettle conventional ways of relating to high art and mass cultural forms of spectacle.

A: Your new video installation Vent is an exploration of consumerism, celebrity culture and the spectacle nature of television. Do you think that this work has a sense of purpose or moral message? Do you think it’s important that artwork contains something on a deeper level like this?
: The use of ventriloquism is an engaging and familiar device we use to speak about duplicity – to draw attention to things that may not be what they first appear to be.  The idea of ‘throwing a voice’, which is essential to ventriloquism, is in Vent transferred to contemporary cultural forms such as television talent and celebrity interview shows, where manipulation, deception and self promotion have become the currency of entertainment. It provides us with a device to speak, you might even say ventriloquise, our interest in unsettling and corrupting the persuasive and fascinating allure of contemporary spectacle. As events have demonstrated, contemporary politics, staged as a form of televisual entertainment, is equally mesmerised by the throwing of inauthentic and insincere voices, and has recently proven to be catastrophically successful. Hopefully Vent provokes questions about our fascination and trust in this culture of consumption and compliance.

Vent reflects on the extraordinary lives of TV celebrities, drawing upon aspects of their confessional interviews, which are presented in the form of a ventriloquist act, with the dummy being interviewed by the vent.   The work takes us into the warped and skewed value systems of people detached from the everyday world, homing in on less savoury human qualities— vanity, greed, addiction, infidelity— evident in the very life stories that fuel both our and America’s ruthless and lurid media culture.  We are in many senses playing back absurd but vivid aspects of our contemporary culture.

 A: Where did you first come up with the idea for the piece?
We have always been interested in ventriloquism, of using other people to throw our voices.  It is a distancing device, it was present in our early Menu sculptures that appropriated the ‘voice’ of Don Judd and British high street signage, but in terms of using actual performance, it began with Openings Are Always Awkward, a video commissioned by Solar in Portugal, which involved us working with Portuguese actors who played ourselves and enacted our frustrations with the art world.  This led to our video The New El Dorado where we deployed three Spanish actors to mock the premise of engagement underpinning its commissioning body, Manifesta. We decided to use the actual ventriloquist routine, the dummy and the vent, as a way of exploring the mannerism of  ‘authenticity’, a concept that thoroughly permeates celebrity culture and reality television programmes. Ventriloquism provides a readymade model of mesmerising deception and distraction, so it seemed like the perfect device to explore and unpick celebrity spectacle. As well as the use of the ventriloquist routine, we further play with the idea of in/authenticity through the use of an impersonator to mimic the voices of well-known celebrities, putting into their mouths a mash-up of self-serving confessional interviews by a bunch of dysfunctional celebrities: artists, actors and TV personalities.

A: How do you view your role within the creative industry? As your work is, in a sense, a spectacle, how do you think your work mediates with this sense of irony wherein your intentions are to have an audience?
We cannot escape the culture industry. We are producing a spectacular installation that mimes aspects of televisual culture, but does so in ways that seek to destabilise such consumerist forms, through a process of defamiliarisation, exaggeration and ridicule.  Its primary formal characteristic is modernist, as we deploy Brechtian and Godardian strategies of disruption to break up the spectacle.  The physical three-screen structure of this work, the use of a voice over actor to give the dummy the voices of Hollywood actors, the filming of an audience, all are deployed to oppose any straightforward consumerist engagement with TV spectacle.

A: Could you talk about how you’ve used dramatic contexts to get the themes/tones of your work across, for example using ventriloquism and cabaret?
We were interested in Cabaret as a form, associated with transgression, expression and creativity and its role in challenging the mainstream, which has become increasingly dominant in our culture. We recognised how television broadcasters have utilised the variety of cabaret but re-engineered this as a sanitised, profit-driven commodity for Saturday night viewing. The ‘act’ became a key element of this spectacle and the use of ventriloquism, as something we may see on a talent show, allows us the distance to play around with another particularly prevalent type of television show – the celebrity confession. The tone, particularly in respect to the ventriloquist character, emphasises the awkward nature of the interviewer who feigns empathy in order to encourage the guest to spill their salubrious content. The TV studio setting is deconstructed across three screens, allowing the gallery visitors to both adopt the role of the audience and see themselves outside of the audience/act dynamic.

A: How does this artwork compare to your previous works thematically or in its execution?
The multi-channel format is one that we have used quite a lot in recent works. It gives us an opportunity to play with multiple perspectives and voices that we use to host dialogue about everyday experience. Often we “throw voices” in the sense that we might use characters to ventriloquise certain attitudes, voices that may or may not be our own, or might be a voice of authority, or represent an established or conventional perspective. We do this to encourage an active spectatorship, people have to take sides, show allegiance with the different characters and the attitudes and ideas presented. We want to create a sense that the meaning of the work is there to be negotiated, it is not a given, but emerges from the viewer making judgments. We use ventriloquism not only as a means of ‘throwing voices’ but also as a way of ‘throwing off’ expected interpretation.  There is a heightened theatricality in our recent work, allied to a preference for a minimalistic aesthetic, albeit with a leaning toward the gaudy and the lurid, and a fascination with the beguiling allure of consumer culture.  In recent work we’ve adopted a very mannered form of performance in order to create a deliberately constructed reality, a kind of falseness, but one that is recognisable as corresponding with aspects of contemporary culture.

You could say that the use of “ready-made” material also typifies our work, whether that is through the use of actual objects and signs borrowed from contemporary consumer culture, entertainment formats, or when we eavesdrop the chatter we hear around any of the issues or ideas we address. We like to take material that people recognise, are familiar with and then set about unsettling their normal interaction with it so as to bring about a different relationship, and suggest the possibility of different meanings or highlight the constructed and conventional nature of social exchange and the possibility that things might be different.

We like and find productive the comedy of awkward encounters, moments where social conventions and ways of behaving are put under duress and might open up new opportunities, new interpretations. Our current work Vent has many of these characteristics, as does most of our video work.

A: This work has been commissioned especially for Mac Birmingham, how important do you think it is for artist groups like yourself and institutions to collaborate?
Extremely important. As culture becomes more commodified, and therefore dictated by commercial concerns, the production of artwork outside of this system becomes vital if we are to allow for freedom of expression and an exchange of ideas for its cultural value. Working with Mac Birmingham has been very exciting and rewarding, since this is an organisation that believes wholeheartedly in free access to culture for everyone and the importance of supporting challenging and critical work.

 A: What do you have planned in terms of future projects?
The great thing about working intensively on a project is that it throws up so many ideas that they can’t possibly be contained in one work.  So Vent has already spawned ideas for a couple of new video works, both of which are quite dark in their content and form – but we will see how these develop.  We also are very excited about working on a much more upbeat project that entails us working with a successful pop impresario to knock us into shape as a theoretically astute boy band. The plan is to rework one of his original compositions rejected by record companies, agents and musical artists as a nonviable vehicle for success, and turn it into pure gold. It will be hard, we will have to work with a choreographer to help us master 1970’s disco dance routines, get kitted out in coordinated spandex suits, the works! But our ambition is to achieve a moment of harmony, grace and cool that will offset the ravages of age and our physical limitations that have otherwise made us long past our sell-by date. But as S Club7 put it so well, you’ve got to reach for the sky!

For more information: www.commonculture.co.uk

1. Vent close up. Courtesy of Common Culture.