Kulture at the Hugh Lane

‘The best way to connect with a television audience is to enlighten and surprise’ Karen McGann, PVA Vol. 7 p. 30

For years the Kardashian family was, for me, a cultural shield from uncomfortable situations. Watching a season of Keeping Up With The Kardashians was my way to fill up on alternative culture, or perhaps an alternative to culture, or maybe Kulture. It worked as a useful segue from having to engage in less desirable conversations, it always produced chuckles and normally ended the conversation causing the group to disperse. Then came Rachel Maclean‘s ‘Just be yourself!’ at The Hugh Lane gallery and made a statement about Kulture through carefully crafted pieces of harsh and glamorous political art.

‘Art is not remote but essential and connected to the very real business of living.’ Ibid p. 29

With walls painted pink, the first room acted as an introduction/warning – if you cannot stomach the first screens, this probably isn’t your kind of exhibition. These little pieces were a fantastically stylised horrible parody of televised adverts and children’s programming. The characters, all between the divine and the deformed, exist in a world we spend hours each day in, not reality, but Reality, the same world where bodily fluids are blue, probiotics are glowing, and antibacterial cleaning liquids are glittery. But Maclean’s glossy Reality is terrifying and even decapitating to those who step into it, so with a shake of the head I ventured on. The introduction room also included the first two pieces from We Want Data (2016), a series of 2m by 3m wall hangings, colourfully printed canvases leading from the back of the entrance to the main room of the exhibition. The series uses Renaissance hierarchical triangle compositions with bright colours to  speak of power in the age of digital technology in the artist’s dark satirical way. Products and brands unmistakably rule the scene in each frame of We Want Data’s Reality, be it the Kardashian-like character and her phone or the business buddha and his Starbucks-like takeaway coffee.Threatening the supply of technological bliss are the furry creatures nibbling on the power and data cables.

‘Since cinema became a mainstream medium in the twentieth century, it has informed and manipulated how we see the world.’ Ibid p. 30

I walked along the gallery of movie-poster-like images into the main space, lit mostly by the brightly coloured moving image projection, showing It’s What’s Inside That Counts (2016), a 30 minutes twenty-first century full digital colour take on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). In the video the upper class characters and lower class characters, all depicted by the artist, suffer from the same condition: an absolute dependency on technology, namely power supplies and data channels. The cables in Maclean’s dystopia don’t only fulfil the craving for knowledge, beauty, and social acceptance, they act as actual nourishment to the lower-class rodents who physically feed off the data when nibbling on the cables. I sat on one of the bean bags in front of the screen, took a couple of quick photos to post on my Instagram #galleries2018 feed, and then focused on the film. The goddess-like character was easily identified as a Kim Kardashian-esque (yellow) avatar. Easily, perhaps because of my familiarity with the Reality character, but I think it exceeded that. Her face is no-one’s face, but despite being noseless, it’s also a face we know, cosmetically made up in a way we notice in the street, perhaps at home, certainly online. But if she is an updated comment on Lang’s Maria, who created her?

‘[…] Whether the story is based in fact or fiction – you’re always guiding the viewer towards a certain feeling or destination point within the story.’ Ibid p. 33

Documentary films are perceived by cultural researchers as a “serious” artform. When reality television emerged into the British television programming in the late 1990s, the more intellectual channels such as the BBC chose to describe it as “fly-on-the-wall documentaries” or “formatted documentaries” rather than the now common titles of reality television or docusoap; ‘it cannot be separated from conceptions of cultural value and the implicit hierarchy between documentary and soap opera.’[1] This genre, which is an evolution of the urge to find real people on prime time television was a hybrid of documentary work and drama. It was invented by the British documentary filmmaker Paul Watson who ‘became the progenitor of the fly-on-the- wall genre.’[2] These productions are ‘largely believed to be a journalistic invention intended to foreground the form’s “trivialisation” of the “serious” project of documentary, it is fair to suggest that the term “docusoap” almost became a “term of abuse”… It was nevertheless rapidly adopted by the TV industry.’[3] Docusoaps use the observational aspect of documentary film or television while putting an emphasis on everyday lives, similar to the plot lines in soap operas. They are the attempt to depict the drama of the everyday of real ordinary people.[4] Another significant catalyst for the development of the fly-on-the-wall reality television was the creation of web cameras and the beginning of user-generated content channels on the internet. All of this exposure to the lives of other people in a raw format, combined with the rising standard in quality of broadcast (in its technical aspect, at least) was the logic behind the birth of the genre.[5]

This account of the evolution and the differences between the genres assumes that data and information go together. It assumes that the more images we look at, the more we see reality. In Kulture, however, there is no reality, there is just Reality – the tailored narratives that tie the protagonists and the audience together, telling us which of the two classes we belong to and what we need to do to make the impossible move from one class to the other. It is no longer the everyday of ordinary people that is the leading form of Reality – rather a created class of Reality Stars. This also affected the rapid monetization of user-generated content, through being identified and publicly marked as desired, or expert users. In 2018 it’s a cliché, and it’s expected of political artwork commenting on culture to acknowledge the role of product placement and monetization in art and entertainment. In It’s What’s Inside That Counts (2016) the cultural critique in the form of a completely fictional world functions as a journalistic documentary giving a “behind the scenes”, “fly-on-the-wall” view of Reality on television and online.

‘Not all gallery experiences should be reverential – and it’s good to play against expectation’ Karen McGann, PVA Vol. 7 p. 33

Unlike Metropolis, Maclean’s piece does not offer a cleansing triumph of class warfare. In fact, the rodents and the lowly, face-melted “ordinary” avatar-characters seem quite content as long as they are provided with power and data. The idea of class warfare doesn’t cross their mind as long as the towering structures housing glamorous spiritual and commercial inspiration keep providing data (not information). Their reality is Reality, as Maclean situates them to be our avatars. They don’t aspire equality, they aspire an “earned”, guiltless inequality in which they are relatively on top. Perhaps they think what a lot of us do: without the products propping them up, the branded coffee, the contouring cosmetics, the constant emotional and financial support streaming through their devices, the yellow-skinned representatives of beauty and serenity are just the same as the other ratty or melted-face occupants of this world.



Postscripts

  • The exhibition included another third project, installed across the main space, however the two spaces already visited made my head filled with buzzing images of pink, blue, and yellow with high-pitched voices and I could not imagine looking at any more data or information.
  • Karen McGann’s quotes, all collected from her Paper Visual Art Journal Vol. 7 text entitled Art on TV (2016), all discuss documentary filmmaking about art, films made for television. In the text McGann discusses the place art takes in culture, and how it can engage with us as individuals and as a public. Maclean’s work speaks to its audience in a familiar visual language, she knows our reality as well as our Reality, and accepts us as residents of both worlds, that is the key to how touching her anything-but-subtle artwork is.

Referenced Sources

[1] Holmes, S., Jermyn, D. (2004) Understanding Reality Television, New York: Routledge, p. 7

[2] Rees, J. (2007) The man who would play God [online]. London: Times Newspapers Ltd.

[3] Holmes, S., Jermyn, D. (2004) Understanding Reality Television, New York: Routledge, p. 7

[4] Queen’s University Film and Media Department. (undated) Summary of information on Docusoap [online]. Kingston: Queen’s University.

[5] Barron, L. (2010) ‘From Social Experiment to Postmodern Joke: Big Brother and the progressive
Construction of Celebrity’, in: Dvorak, K. and Taddeo, J. A. (Eds.) The Tube Has Spoken: Reality

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