A review of Not Necessarily in the Right Order by Laura-Jade Klée
Looking across the road from New Art Exchange, there is a buzz in the air as Forest Recreation Ground is being filled with luminous fairground rides for Nottingham’s annual Goose Fair. This festivity is reflected within the gallery, where artist collective, Common Culture, have created a surreal vision of a festival for everyone and everything, with bizarre vibrant costumes and alien sounds of otherworldly music. Not Necessarily in the Right Order is a multi-screen audio–visual installation that deals with notions of cultural identity through references to Hyson Green and its festival heritage. It simultaneously celebrates the free display of individuality, but also places it under some scrutiny. Furthermore, the artwork considers the relationship between art and social engagement and asks the question ‘does a common culture really exist?’
Common Culture- currently consisting of David Campbell, Mark Durden and Ian Brown- initially formed in the 1990’s with the intention of presenting a more authentic version of British art than the YBA’s. Their current exhibition, Not Necessarily in the Right Order, asks ‘what does it really mean to be from: Britain, Nottingham, Hyson Green?’ It seems impossible to answer a question so loaded and subjective, particularly in a culturally-diverse area where heritage extends beyond English borders. Instead the audio-visual installation seems to mediate a discussion between different voices and styles, adopting a myriad of forms.
In their quest to explore what a common culture actually means, the artists often merges popular culture and institutional contexts. In Menus, English fast food signs were displayed in a New York gallery resembling the Minimalism of Flavin or Judd yet presenting Britain’s unique tastes such as mushy peas. A New El Dorado, also showing at NAE, is a comical video piece where three men intellectually discuss the difficulties of social engagement through an awkward conversation in a bustling discotheque, slightly reminiscent of gallery private view social conventions. Not Necessarily in the Right Order continues to mix popular culture with high art, breaking down social barriers. This odd marriage of styles is epitomized in the exhibition title and the repeated backing lyrics “I am singing all the right words, not necessarily in the right order” which combines famous quotes from French film-maker Jean Luc-Goddard with British comedians Morecambe and Wise.
Similarly to their previous works, Not Necessarily in the Right Order faces the challenge of presenting a public space within the confines of a gallery. Common Culture use the gallery as a ‘non-space’ – a space detached from the public sphere used to understand peculiarities of everyday life. Although festivals usually occur in the open air, Not Necessarily in the Right Order is filmed indoors against a black backdrop, detached from physicality of landscape. Entering the exhibition is a disorientation and somewhat intimidating experience as it continuously breaks viewer expectations. The installation occupies a large dark space with three towering screens that display different content. To see the work it demands the audience to physically navigate around the space like a participant rather than an observer. Its physical layout reflects the whole experience of the artwork- a challenging installation where issues surrounding identity as actively addressed questioned.
Occupying the large screens is an array of unusual performers. Under what circumstances would entertainers wear elaborate costumes such as: an owl, a belly dancer, a teddy bear, traditional Indian clothing, and a polar bear? Despite their fanciful appearance, the characters stand still and alone and share only a serious demeanour uncharacteristic for what is usually a joyous occasion. The performers hold a direct piercing gaze into the camera and display self-aware sterile acting which creates an uncomfortable environment. Through this contrived replica of everyday life, Common Culture remove viewers from their familiar environment and allow them to critique public spaces more objectively.
Since music is a central feature of celebration, Common Culture worked with 16 different local musicians to create a dynamic soundtrack. The musicians are filmed playing solo without an audience and consequently their physical performance is wooden, further adding to the unsettling atmosphere. All performers belong to the immediate area however they play in diverse styles and embrace different cultural influences. Common Culture created an intense audio landscape by recording musicians playing to a unified beat and key and then editing it into one track to create an unusual but organic mix of genres. At times it is discordant, at other times it is harmonious, somewhat reflecting the tone of living in an increasingly culturally-diverse country.
Common Culture examine the cultural importance of festivals by compiling overheard conversations spoken by local Nottingham people. This is narrated through an actor who plays three characters and delivers his speech in three accents: Received Pronunciation, West African, and Jamaican. Here, British identity is about having multiple distinct voices. The speech conveys mixed message about carnival; a space for celebration as well as criticism. In a Jamaican accent the narrator says “we are the force and field- unstoppable” presenting the public as powerful in creating change and expressing themselves without restriction. Yet the narrator also observes that festivals “show what we lack in our everyday life.” People are dissatisfied and seek revolution, but this rebellion is only role-played and contained over a few days. The narrator speaks directly to viewer as though in an attempt to initiate conversation.
Through juxtaposing images, sounds and ideas, Common Culture present the rich diversity of festivals celebrated throughout the country, and specifically in the locality of New Art Exchange. It also highlights the similarities of festivals- how they share the key ingredients: music, dance, and costumes making them almost interchangeable. The installation is a powerful and immersive experience, but also creates an unsettling environment- making viewers question their thoughts and feelings surrounding festivals. Through the direct narration and eye contact of the performers, Common Culture speaks directly to each individual from their unique cultural backgrounds and asks ‘what does festival really mean to you?’