‘Basically, you guys are here to laugh at poor people!’ On the evening of 3 June, Minni Karttunen joshed the audience at Routine (2018), an evening of live comedy at Studio Voltaire in Clapham, south London, and the audience loved it. The performances accompanied the collective They Are Here’s exhibition ‘Laughing Matter’, and were the outcome of a series of ten 2½-hour workshops over two months, led by Logan Murray, a comedian and the author of instructional books on the craft of stand-up comedy. Performers had responded to an open call for participants, circulated via community activist groups. This gave the evening a sense of political immediacy, with topics including precarious housing, labour, and happiness, as well as a generalized crisis in people’s sense of identity and belonging. The performers sparked with humour.
Bianca Ives, who has lived in London for 42 years, joked in a thick Latin American accent about her inability to distinguishing between ‘emigration’ and ‘immigration’. None of the comedians pulled any punches: Russell Pavlincova riffed on London’s newly awarded status as international capital of slavery; Looloo Jack, who comes from the Midlands, quipped that he was ‘Midlands posh but London poor’; and H. gave a hilarious performance dissecting that perennially awkward question, ‘What do you do?’, providing the audience with a detailed description of her work as ‘a professional whore and occasional personal trainer’.
Harun Morrison and Helen Walker, who have been working together as They Are Here since 2006, explained to me that their approach with Routine was ‘breaking one routine to build another’. Much of They Are Here’s work entails interactions with the public and community projects, but the artists are critical of the tropes that tend to appear within socially engaged art, in particular what they see as a way of ‘staging the participant or their image and circulating it as capital.’ With Routine, which was part of their recent exhibition ‘Laughing Matter’, the culmination of a yearlong residency at Studio Voltaire, the idea was to enable participants to perform so that they were an active part of the work. One reason why the project was so successful is that the performers wrote all their own material and expressed themselves within a supportive and free environment.
Participants in Routine were paid the living wage for attending the workshops and a fee for their performances. The gig economy is a recurring theme in They Are Here’s work. STAND HERE UNTIL YOU FIND SOMEONE TO REPLACE YOU (2010–ongoing) consists of a vinyl cutout of the work’s title stuck to the floor with an ‘X’ inviting people to occupy the spot. A performative allusion to the reality that in many gigs, as Morrison puts it, ‘any body can do the job’, the work balances on a knife-edge between fun game and uncomfortable reality. These conflicting aspects of the work are characteristic of a mercurial sense that runs through much of They Are Here’s practice. For Laughter Track (2018), a sound piece that is triggered whenever someone enters the gallery, a cacophony of laughter erupts in the space, startling unsuspecting visitors. The work is a composite of 22 individual recordings of the artists’ friends laughing, a polyphony that infects bystanders with mirth. But the truth underlying the piece is that laughter does not always signal happiness. Each voice belongs to someone in the midst of a personal difficulty. The laughers are heartbroken, depressed, ill, bankrupt, homeless, or seeking asylum. On the audio track, the sharp shock of laughter is followed by a sharp intake of breath. So often to laugh is also to gasp.
In They Are Here’s practice, the strand that deals with personal experience and emotion has a counterpart in projects that seek to bring about a better understanding of the systems that influence society. The People Behind the Financial System, which premiered in London in 2016 and received its second iteration in Sweden in 2017, sets up a kind of speed dating between members of the public and representatives of the financial sector. Over two hours, participants are invited to have ten-minute conversations with ten financial specialists, including fund managers, CEOs of insurance and investment companies and politicians (Vince Cable, former Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and current Leader of the Liberal Democrats took part in London in 2016). Bringing people in positions of power to sit and speak face-to-face with those affected by their policies highlights the complexities and contradictions at play in big business and government. An issue They Are Here are especially interested in is the problem of institutional invisibility, which can leave those affected by policies with little to no power to challenge decision-makers. The People Behind the Financial System reveals this imbalance, They Are Here are under no illusion about where the power still lies. Walker and Morrison told me they are ‘resistant to narratives around our work’s power to liberate. It’s more about offering a space for people to become more attuned to themselves within a wider context.’
At Studio Voltaire, a ‘Welcome to the madhouse’ doormat on the floor of the vestibule was the first in a long line of mats that wound its way through the gallery and out the other side into a small yard. Welcome (2018) was inspired by an episode of the cartoon ‘The Simpsons’, in which Homer Simpson gains overnight success as an artist, and then rides the career rollercoaster from famous conceptual artist to reviled conceptual artist. In a bid to reclaim his status, he comes up with a plan: ‘Lisa, that’s it! I’ve got an idea for a wonderful art project that’ll make everyone love me again! Step one: steal all the doormats in town.’ According to the exhibition’s marketing material, the mats on show at Studio Voltaire were borrowed from local residents who volunteered to loan them in exchange for a print, but the artists told me that they followed Homer Simpson’s instructions, and that many of the mats were stolen. The work introduces objects from the outside into the gallery, and places the concept of ‘welcome’ under scrutiny. It does this at a time when the effects of the UK government’s controversial policy of creating a hostile environment for immigration are increasingly being acknowledged and debated. The artists assured me that the stolen mats will be returned to their owners after the show, but in the meantime, the work is a web of contradictions, simultaneously symbolizing hospitality, exchange, and theft, and representing a staunch commitment to artistic process. As Morrison joked: ‘There are multiple conflicting ethics in the piece … You are walking on stolen property, but it’s for an artwork. A lot like the British Museum!’
Main image: They Are Here, ROUTINE, 2018, commissioned by Studio Voltaire, London, in parternship with Block Universe. Courtesy: They Are Here; photograph: James Allan