Since the early 1980s a certain kind of brash, media-savvy cultural practice coined as ‘culture jamming’ has been on the rise. Subverting corporate logos and other media imagery for satire or commentary, its form of pastiche has become the predominant visual language of graffiti, T-shirt design and has even fed back into advertising. This strategy enacts a particular endgame, which merely turns in on itself to acknowledge it has nowhere else to go. Conceived by artist Olivia Plender, the group exhibition ‘TINA’ was named after Margaret Thatcher’s mantra of free-market capitalism: ‘There is no alternative.’ In an overly loaded, almost archaic way, the show created its own theatre of ideological culture jamming, taking on the mechanisms and symbols of economic policy.
‘Communism Never Happened’ instructed Ciprian Muresan’s 2006 vinyl text as you entered the show. A teal curtain – Plender’s Framing Democracy: How the Audience is Made (2008) – lined one wall of the space, creating the vaccuum of an empty stage. A small carpeted island, complete with plastic chairs, glass coffee table and an oversized arrangement of fake tropical flowers, created the feeling that the audience had become players in an eerie play set in an anonymous corporate waiting room. Anja Kirschner’s Baumuster drawings (2008) were the plans for a wooden structure to go within this set. Placed next to a print of William Hogarth’s The Fellow ’Prentices At Their Looms (1747), the plans seemed to be based on the weavers’ machines, but Kirschner’s design was more akin to a gallows. This sinisterness was shared by Pablo Bronstein’s 2003 film Temple of Lethe and its atmospheric, unforgiving portrait of the façade of the neoclassical Bank of England designed by the architect Sir John Soane. Throughout the exhibition, we were made resolutely aware of being positioned as actors, but in a setting in which the potential of our performance was defined in negative terms, by boundaries, absence and denial.
Plender’s board game Set Sail For the Levant (2007) offered hope for escape, a Monopoly-like chance for social advancement where winners could fulfill the dream of the game’s title. You began as an indebted tenant farmer. Rolling the dice, players could land on squares of varying fate: ‘Tristitia’, ‘Fortuna Major’, ‘Festula in the Fundament’. One card stated, ‘So dramatic have changes been to the economy of late that food is now unaffordable […] New faces have set their stalls and as you have no education you cannot take part and sell your services. Go back to SCHOOL.’ The game, inevitably, could not be won, as you simply went further and further into debt. Elusive hope also lay at the spiralling heart of Gone Offshore (2008), a project by Swedish artists Goldin+Senneby. A video displayed an earlier conversation that took place on a carpeted island between Plender and John Barlow, a ghostwriter hired by the artists to research a company based in the Bahamas. The furtive company, curiously named ‘Headless’, might have had links to a secret society formed by Georges Bataille in the 1930s. As Barlow described his fruitless search, however, the familiar sense of an almost predetermined game of cat and mouse began to set in.
Twice during the London incarnation of this exhibition, Melanie Gilligan staged a performance of Prairial, Year 215 (2007), an extended dialogue between a smug banker and an incredulous artist about the nature of the market and its relationship to the supposedly revolutionizing force of art. Revolution, spits the artist, is ‘synthetic, animatronic bust.’ The impending recession cast a shadow over the show’s critique of society as a rather predictable and obvious statement of the failures of neo-liberal policies. This bullying ‘I told you so’ impression left by the show’s framework not only flattened the performative irony of Gilligan’s play so that it appeared to be a kind of ‘economics for dummies’ (it’s worth noting that the play, named after a date in the French revolutionary calendar, was written a year before the current financial crisis and), but it also steamrollered some of the more subtle work of the show. The quiet expectation of Muresan’s Pioneer (2006), lithographs of young children solemnly blowing up plastic bags appeared too close to spelling out a visual pun of the economic ‘bubble’, while Bronstein’s drawings of London’s postmodern achitecture among ruined wastelands became an almost direct illustration of the current fears. Nevertheless ‘TINA’ remained a timely, if inward-looking, attempt at scrutinizing the processes and policies that have brought us to this point, a heavy-handed criticism of both the free market and the actors within it, which includes, simply and frustratingly, all of us.
First published in Issue 120