Open Frequency 2008: Common Culture selected by Russell Roberts
Common Culture, Tribute Singer, 2005. 60mins loop
Russell Roberts profiles artists' group Common Culture
Founded in Liverpool in 1996, the artists' group Common Culture have consistently produced artworks that seek to question the social dimensions of advertising, stand-up comedians, nightclub bouncers, fast-food, shopping, tribute singers and discos. It is the collision between the elitist assumptions attached to Art and its institutions, and the perceived commonplace and vulgar aspects of popular culture that preoccupy the three members of this artists' group. For Common Culture venerated and vernacular forms are unequivocally bound up with issues of taste, class and notions of national identity. From their earlier 'Menus' series (1997-2003) to more recent projects such as 'Binge' (2008), questions of social interaction, exploitation and excess are unravelled and cajoled, often unflinchingly, through photographs, videos, installation and performance works.
In their 'Menus' (1999) sculpture that formed part of their 'Counter Culture' work (1997-2000) allusions to the format and serial arrangement of Donald Judd's coloured three-dimensional objects are combined with the gaudy signage of illuminated British fast-food menus. The adapted coloured menus carry the trace of a particular relation to the British urban scene and the work mimics Minimalism's formal purity only to inflect it with industrial signage, designed to incite mass consumption.
In one sense the 'Counter Culture' work reverses the direction of Minimalism's engagement with industrial society; while Minimalism borrowed forms and serial fabrication processes from the urban scene -the fluorescent lights of Dan Flavin, the industrial materials of Robert Morris and Judd- the specific source materials became aesthetic rarefied objects, isolated by the rhetoric of value associated with the 'white cube' setting.
Spectator unease, the creation of awkwardness between the artwork and its reception, becomes a defining feature of the 'Pop Trauma' work. In a series of staged performances, workers employed in popular entertainment (stand-up comedians, tribute singers, mobile disc-jockeys and night-club doormen) are each hired and filmed delivering a modified version of their specialist services. Their live performance and it's video recording, continues Common Culture's fascination with consumption, by addressing the social relations involved in the commodification of human labour power and its representation as art.
In 'Local Comics' (2006), individual comedians are filmed performing their act in an empty comedy club. Each routine is recorded by a stationary video camera, positioned so that it gives a close-up head and shoulders portrait of each comedian. The video starts and finishes with the empty stage, the comic walks on, delivers his or her routine and then walks off, leaving the videotape running. Every time the format is identical, emphasising the repetitive and standardized nature of the commodified comedy form. Most routines last approximately twenty minutes, some last longer, others painfully unravel in less time. Duration seems to depend on the performer's confidence, professionalism and range of material. All of the comics are instructed to deliver their normal routine; the only difference is that they are asked to do so to a solitary video camera, without the presence of an audience. Playing to an imaginary absent audience, the performers trawl through the complexities of everyday life, finding temporary solace and accommodation in the witty anecdote and the 'joke'. But unconnected to any audience response, their carefully timed performance spills into the void of the club. The spectator of Common Culture's 'Local Comics' witnesses the comic's struggle to balance the rehearsed control of the professional with the panic of someone who knows all too well the routine nature of their 'entertainment'.
Russell Roberts, September 2008
The artists' group Common Culture was founded in Liverpool in 1996 and it's current members are Ian Brown, David Campbell and Mark Durden. They have exhibited extensively in the UK and abroad including the group show Shopping (Tate Liverpool, 2002-3) and as part of the Shanghai Biennale in 2006. Recently the group produced the solo show Void (Derry, 2006) and held a joint screening and book launch of their 'Pop Trauma' work at The Photographers' Gallery (London, 2007). Their current projects include a curated show 'Variable Capital' (Bluecoat, Liverpool, 2008) which is accompanied by a book of the same title, published by Liverpool University Press.
About Russell Roberts
Russell Roberts is a curator and writer. Born in Cosford, Shropshire, he studied in London for his BA and MA before joining the Department of Photographs at the Victoria & Albert Museum as an intern from 1990-92.
Early curatorial projects included Memory & The Archive – Photographs/Images/Documents (1995) at the John Hansard Gallery at the University of Southampton, and the acclaimed international touring exhibition In Visible Light: Photography and Classification in Art, Science & The Everyday(1997) at MoMA (Oxford).
From 1998-2006 he was Head of Photography at the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television (National Media Museum), where he is now Honorary Fellow in Photography. As a curator he has worked on projects for festivals and venues such as Arles, Photoespana and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Nederlands Fotomuseum, Tate Britain, Moderna Museet and the Finnish Museum of Photography amongst others. Between 2003 and 2006: he was an advisor to Arts Council England; Research Associate at the Pitt Rivers Museum Research Centre at the University of Oxford; Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Wales, Newport; project director for the Museums, Libraries & Archives Council subject specialist network for photography; consultant to the National Galleries of Scotland and The Photographers' Gallery; and Chair of the Committee for the Jerwood Photography Prize.
In 2006 he joined the Centre for Photographic Research at University of Wales, Newport, in a unique partnership with Ffotogallery, Cardiff to work on developing a national centre for photography in Wales. Recent projects include Material Industries: The Photographs of Maurice Broomfield (2007). He is currently working on an exhibition and book on the archive and legacy of Mass-Observation in contemporary art with Photoworks and Steidl, and a book on 30 years of photographic art in Wales between 1978-2008 for Ffotogallery.
Research interests include: histories of photography, curating and contemporary art/photographic practice as historiography, documentary aesthetics, the cultural politics of exhibitions and collecting, and contemporary photography & The Museum.
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