Dean Blunt’s Urban and Clifford Owens

This review of Dean Blunt’s performance event ‘Urban’ and Clifford Owen’s exhibition at Manchester Cornerhouse ‘Better the Rebel You Know’ was published in Art Monthly, issue 377, June 2014.

Dean blunt

Question: how many performance artists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: I don’t know I didn’t stay until the end. Groans aside, the joke works because its droll, eye-rolling conventionality belies a complex commentary and critique. It is also funny because it’s true (sometimes). Performance, perhaps more than any other contemporary medium, sits in a strange critical limbo, a qualitative void where the criteria for judgement, if it exists at all, seems both mutable and contingent. As a result, audiences often endure ambiguous, open-ended and painfully amateurish live displays, with exit offering the only escape. Someone with a complete understanding of this dynamic and a desire to subvert its institutional boundaries is the enigmatic London-based artist and musician Dean Blunt.

Urban, an immersive, participatory installation as single performance devised by Blunt, transformed the interior of London’s Institute of Contemporary Art into a surreal, stereotypical and claustrophobic club night-cum-promotional event. It was ostensibly an ambitious, on-trend, hipster spectacle, but the promo-night format came bundled with a set of complex critiques. Racial essentialisms, notions of class-based authenticity and, crucially, the medium of performance art itself were all brought into play, deconstructed and confused.

Inside the institute’s large black-box theatre, weirdly illumined by ultra violet light, declaratory and faintly paranoid statements were spray painted on walls against which free copies of Blunt’s recent album The Redeemer leaned. Bouncers who operated an aggressive one-in-one-out policy controlled access, while black male youths, whose tight white t-shirts accentuated bodies pushed beyond athleticism into body-builder hypertrophy, performed hypermasculinity and patrolled the carpeted space. These were the ‘Ciroc Boys’, quasi-promotional ambassadors whose ice-white coloured contacts mirrored the opacity of the fairly high-end Ciroc vodka brand, name-checked in the phrase printed across their tops. The centerpiece was a large cinema screen faced by rows of floor-to-ceiling seating, flanked by two speaker stacks that relayed a stream of trap hip-hop to the most important element of Blunt’s work: the audience.

Urban’s critical targets were divided and addressed separately by the work’s form and content. Operating within a time-based field, in which frustration and boredom can be understood as psychological states that artists purposely induce through durational performance, Blunt’s importation of the promo-night format, from the club to the gallery, cleverly allowed its tedious procedures to be read as an incarnation or parody of the durational method of affect in performance art. In this way, the initial queue for entry to the ICA, the second queue inside the building for entry to the theatre, the hour a packed crowd spent waiting in front of a blank cinema screen, the aggressive no re-entry after exit policy – could all be seen as deliberate devices and interpreted as part of the work. Statements I overheard from audience members, ‘it’s not crap because its performance art’, ‘he’s only getting away with this because it’s in a gallery’, ‘this is all part of the work’ or ‘I bet he’s not even here’, showed that those who grappled with this state of affairs were, whether they knew it or not, engaged in a form of institutional critique aimed at performance art, Blunt and the ICA.

Rather then addressing the vexed condition of cultural essentialisms foisted on black artists, the presentation of stereotypical aspects of black British and African-American popular culture operated on the audience instead. Almost entirely composed of white, middle-class creatives not born in London, Blunt’s ‘black’-oriented content emphasised and exaggerated the audience’s racial and socio-cultural homogeneity. It instrumentalised and pushed attendees into the awkward performance of a parasitical public: a community of modern negrophiles indulging ironically in authentic and transgressive black experience. Blunt’s Urban, then, was a disorienting and repellent experience, a bleak and perhaps exploitative critique of homogeneity, cultural tourism and the thirst for otherness. It was also a brilliant work, shrewdly executed by one of the UK’s most important emerging artists.

If Urban was, to a large degree, about Blunt frustrating expectations and holding things back (including himself), then New York-based Clifford Owens’s emotive exhibition ‘Better the Rebel You Know’ was about satisfying the audience’s and his own desire for presence. Ten years ago Owens struggled to find evidence of black artists in orthodox histories of performance art and so decided to amass a collection of one-act instructions, termed ‘scores’, written by prominent black American artists that he would carry out as performances. In this way Owens artfully embodies the growing archive, while addressing and personifying what the field of performance lacks. At Cornerhouse this project continues with Anthology, 2014, a compelling new commission that draws on scores supplied by a host of British artists including Shezad Dawood, Jack Tan, David Blandy, John Akomfrah, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Lubaina Himid.

Across the gallery material artefacts from Owens’s interpretations of selected scores, carried out over a two-week period in Manchester, were installed. These objects are easy companion pieces to Owens’s second commission. Photographs With an Audience: Manchester, 2013, is a collection of large photographs documenting two sessions in which an audience at Cornerhouse revealed personal information about themselves and were then grouped together, according to experiential type, for portraits. Much of the drama, intimacy and cathartic energy of that original event is lost in the no-frills images. Rather than a touching portrayal of transitory communality and courage, an air of sideshow voyeurism surrounds the viewing of portraits featuring sitters who have shared experiences of abuse or eating disorders.

Where Owens incontrovertibly came into his own was in the live performance of Anthology’s scores. These scheduled acts took place over three days and on the evening I attended four were performed to a rapt, shoulder-to-shoulder audience. To open, Owens set the tone with an irreverent off-the-cuff introduction that immediately put audience members at ease. During Blandy’s score he read off a list of African-American dance forms to a female dancer who expertly carried out each one. It was a performance of irresistible exuberance and positivity from both the dancer, who slipped deftly between set patterns, and Owens, who strode through the audience calling out ‘the Charleston, the Electric Slide, the Cabbage Patch, Voguing’. More sombre and serious scores followed from Godfried Donkor, Akomfrah and Trevor Mathison, but it was Yiadom-Boakye’s contribution that allowed Owens to fully inhabit the role of magnetic master of ceremonies. Her instructions where ‘give people what they need. Emphasis on need. Your care should know no bounds’. Over the next 20 minutes Cornerhouse became the setting for a performance as a cross between stand-up routine, quasi-spiritual revival and motivational talk, during which people called out their needs (intimacy, a hug, socks, the assurance that everything was going to be alright) and Owens attempted to fulfill them. As the audience lurched between laughing and crying their total investment in his charismatic aura was at times difficult to take, but it was clear that for however brief a period the group felt empathetically connected, alive, present. Owens was the unmistakable catalyst and we were all suitably gripped. Most importantly, nobody dared leave early.

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