Brown Council: Critical Comedy

Anneke Jaspers

Acomedy_performance0099

Brown Council, A Comedy, 2010, performance still, Next Wave Festival, Melbourne. Photo: Devika Bilimoria.

 

In his proposition for ‘the emancipated spectator’ philosopher Jacques Rancière argues for a rethinking of the relationship between performance and spectatorship.[1] For Rancière, considering these terms binary is problematic in that it is based on a paradox that frames spectators as necessary for performance, but entirely without agency. He characterises this lack of agency in the following terms: being a spectator means looking at spectacle; looking is the opposite of knowing and of acting, and so the spectator is by nature disempowered. As a counterpoint, he calls for an understanding of spectators as active interpreters—as such, able to bridge the divide between looking and acting.

This idea has gained significant traction among commentators on visual arts performance, particularly in relation to participatory practices, though some, such as Caroline A. Jones, have pointed to its utopian idealism. Jones, in turn, has argued that at a time when performative and participatory art practices are proliferating, the way in which agency is imagined and enacted by performers, presenters and spectators alike is by all means uneven terrain.[2]

Sydney-based collective Brown Council makes works that circulate within this matrix of ideas about the social experience of performance and its underlying dynamics of power. Since graduating from the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales, in 2005, the collective’s four members—Frances Barrett, Kate Blackmore, Kelly Doley and Diana Smith—have pursued a video and performance art practice that straddles the contexts of gallery and stage, and draws on the historical lineages of both the visual and performing arts. Their work has consistently engaged with the concepts of spectacle and endurance, as well as the dialogue between live-ness and the performance document or trace. Recently, they have begun to fold participation into this mix.

 

Acomedy_document0111Brown Council, A Comedy, 2010, performance still, Next Wave Festival, Melbourne. Photo: Devika Bilimoria.

 

In the past three years, Brown Council has developed a cluster of inter-related works that appropriate the genre of comedy and the figure of the dunce. Among their other projects, these particular works stand out for the way they explore performance as a form of entertainment and engage with the politics of spectatorship, audience expectation, and the ethics of participation. The first of these works were presented as part of the group’s exhibition Big Show at Locksmith Project Space in Sydney, during December 2009. The exhibition comprised two videos, One Hour Laugh (2009) and Big Show (2009), as well as an installation component that responded to the shopfront architecture of the gallery.

One Hour Laugh (2009) is documentation of a performance staged for the camera over the course of exactly 60 minutes, presented as one unedited take played in real time on a single channel. All four members of the group stand in portrait view, dressed in simple, DIY costumes that feature brightly coloured approximations of a dunce’s hat and collar. At first they look expectantly but silently at one another, before simultaneously bursting into exaggerated laughter. Barely a minute has passed before the challenge of laughing without reason begins to show and over the course of the hour, their antics become increasingly forced and absurd. By emptying out the authenticity of laughter as an expression of emotion and reflecting the object of comedy performance back to the audience as a subject, One Hour Laugh short circuits the logic of comic entertainment and undermines the possibility of innocuous pleasure.

The endurance aspect of One Hour Laugh also introduces the notion of schadenfreude—taking delight in the misfortune of others—to the performer-spectator exchange, a concept explored in greater depth in the companion piece Big Show. This video features the artists dressed in the same costumes performing for the camera in the same generic studio space. Extending on the references implicit in One Hour Laugh, they enact a series of sketches that recall variety routines and stand up comedy, collapsing the dunce’s embrace of humiliation with the comedian’s typical mode of debased parody. Doley wriggles about on the floor in an uncomfortable attempt to free herself from ropes binding her wrists and ankles; Blackmore performs a ‘magic act’, plucking bananas from her pants then making these ‘disappear’ by eating them in quick succession; and Smith and Barrett take turns slapping one another across the face. The work makes palpable their vulnerability, nausea and discomfort, and in so doing, probes the accountability of the audience as passive witness to a spectacle that is premised on cruelty. But it also points to the way this ethical conundrum plays out differently in relation to live and recorded performance.

Big Show is carefully edited in a way that inverts the documentary credibility of One Hour Laugh. The video cycles through short excerpts of each of the sketches, interspersed with frames that flash temporal milestones (“TWO HOURS & FIFTEEN MINUTES”, “FOUR HOURS”) suggesting the durations of the performances are far longer that what we see represented. The endurance element of the work as we experience it in the gallery is essentially speculative. So while the mythology of theatrical illusion is debunked, for instance, by the absurd notion that the bananas disappear through an act of magic, or the reality of Smith’s and Barrett’s bruised cheeks, the truthfulness of what the artists ask us to believe is called into question.

 

BrownCouncilBrown Council, A Comedy, 2010, performance still, Liveworks Festival, Performance Space, Sydney. Photo: William Mansfield.

 

This emphasis on the mediating function of the camera is a key feature of Brown Council’s practice. In Big Show, it works in conjunction with the interrogative but simple nature of the actions and pared back aesthetic of the studio-as-set to form a dialogue with the conventions of early performance art of the 1960s and seventies, exemplified by artists such as Vito Acconci, Chris Burden, and Marina Ambramovic. In turn, this speaks to another of the group’s ongoing interests—exploring points of intersection between performance art and theatre—which at Locksmith was brought further into focus by the juxtaposition of the two videos with a spangly metallic blue ‘curtain’ made of foil-like material. The curtain hung inside the gallery’s bay window, obscuring the contents of the space. It framed the gallery as a theatrical stage, suggesting that the spectators of the exhibition were also performers—or at the very least, that their response to the work was an active element in its operation.

Significantly extending this idea and its implications, in May 2010 the artists presented a new work A Comedy at Next Wave Festival in Melbourne that reconfigured and expanded on the material presented in Big Show to become an hour-long live performance. Held in the modest and informal context of the Carlton Traders Hall, A Comedy literally situated the audience in the space of the stage, arranged in a semi-circle around the spot-lit area in which the action unfolded. Spectators were invited to wear dunce hats matching those of the performers and a large suspended black-and-white light box stating ‘COMEDY’ announced unequivocally that they could expect a laugh. The ‘magic trick’ and ‘slap stick’ sketches of Big Show featured once again, joined by some new acts: ‘stand up’, a comedy routine that began as crude and bombastic, then developed into an agonisingly self-conscious capitulation to the gaze of the audience; ‘cream pie’, where a spectator was invited to lodge said object into one of the artist’s faces; and perhaps most brazen of all, ‘dancing monkey’, which involved Barrett imitating a monkey that in turn attempted to extract small change from the audience by banging a pie tin at people’s feet.

The casting of Doley in the role of MC and inclusion of canned sound effects controlled by the artists from the stage rounded out the transformation from performance-for-video to fully-fledged stage production. But it was in the climactic final act that the possibilities presented by the live spectacle were wholly exploited. At the end of the performance, Doley kneeled centre front of the stage, bound and blindfolded, implying—but never specifying—an invitation to the audience to pelt her with tomatoes that were scattered at their feet, which had until now appeared simply as mute stage props. Many people obliged, with varying degrees of enthusiasm; some refrained. At this point the friction between viewing pleasure and discomfort, and between obedience and empowerment, took a more confronting turn. Even in refusing to act, viewers were complicit in Doley’s degradation and in fulfilling the work’s critique. After all, it anticipated both extremes of audience response.

BrownCouncil2Brown Council, A Comedy, 2010, performance still, Liveworks Festival, Performance Space, Sydney. Photo: William Mansfield.

 

The group has subsequently continued to develop A Comedy, pushing the work further into the realm of ‘live art’ and away from the more contained, tightly scripted structure of theatre. In November 2010 they presented a second iteration at Performance Space in Sydney as part of the biennial Liveworks festival, for which they re-configured the work as a four-hour ‘endurance spectacular’. Instead of acting out each of the sketches only once in a deliberate sequence, the sketches were treated as discrete units of content from which the audience could generate the performance action by popular demand. The artists switched their assignment to the different roles hourly. The set evolved to be less formal: beneath the light box sat a table holding props and equipment around which the performers gathered; against the table leaned a large blackboard ‘advertising’ the sketch options and keeping a tally of what had been nominated over the course of the show. There was no seating, and spectators could come and go as they pleased.

In its drawn out, destabilised format at Liveworks, A Comedy’s interrogation of the politics of spectatorship reached its full potential. It tested the idealism of Rancière’s notion of the ‘emancipated spectator’, creating a spectacle par excellence through its fusion of endurance and comedic conventions. It invited viewers to participate in the construction of the work’s meaning while demanding self-awareness about the distribution of power in the room. It addressed spectators as both individuals and as part of a collective social body. It equated looking—looking only—with acting (as opposed to passivity) from an ethical perspective.

Ultimately, A Comedy at Liveworks also pointed, as Jones does, to the disparity in how spectators understand and exercise agency. Brown Council approaches this question and others about the nature of performance today, from an interdisciplinary perspective. They are among a generation of younger performance makers whose exploratory practices are reinvigorating the dialogue between visual art performance and theatre locally, and generating new energy around the hybrid genre of live art. As the evolution of material and ideas between One Hour Laugh, Big Show and A Comedy suggests, this is rich and complex territory.

www.browncouncil.com


[1]1. See Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator Initially delivered as a lecture at the Fifth International Summer Academy, Frankfurt, August 20, 2004, Unpaginated transcript http://digital.mica.edu/departmental/gradphoto/public/Upload/200811/Ranciere%20%20spectator.pdf (accessed February, 2011); later published in Artforum, March 2007, 271-280, and then as the first chapter of Ranciere’s book The Emancipated Spectator, (London: Verso, 2009)

[2] 2. Caroline A. Jones, ‘Staged Presence’, Artforum, May 2010, 216.


Originally published in Runway, Issue 18 , EXPECTATION, Autumn 2011, pp 14 – 17.

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