The sacred banality of everyday life
An interview with Martin Butler on his performance Ritter, Dene, Voss during the opening of Flickr Peep Show, on the possibility and impossibility of the sociable image and how Flickr's religious zeal resides in a recreational bungalow.
Visual culture, already reigning supreme, added another potent ingredient into the mix. Its complete sociability. Websites like Flickr.com and Smugmug.com have a way of making the image into the perfect social gadget. For Mediamatic the fast emergence of this phenomenon was reason to explore the possibilities for the cultural and social field. Flickr Peep Show is intended as an experimental democratic exhibition in which virtually everyone is able to manipulate the content of the space. By sending an sms with a keyword, random images from the 5 million+ Flickr archive appear on 5 large screens. In addition to this Mediamatic commissioned several artists to design events that play with the interactive exhibition concept. First to rise to the challenge was choreographer and dramatist Martin Butler. Butler usually deals with the human body and space but in his performance these are replaced by text and image. In an adaptation of a Thomas Bernhard play Butler inserted keywords taken from the text to be linked to images from the Flickr archives. It turned out to be an experiment on how to deal with and control the banality of random information.
For your performance inside the Flickr Peep Show you chose to do a reading of the Thomas Bernhard play Ritter, Dene, Voss. Why this play?
I liked this play because of its sourness and banality. It is about a bunch of wealthy bored people, two reasonably successful actresses and a famous philosopher whose lives still end up in complete failure. In my opinion dealing with Flickr is dealing with the notion of banality. Most images on the site are of everyday situations. I chose neither to deny this nor to become completely reactionary to it. I didn’t want the human body to become just decorative.
What does this say about the status of the image?
The image has always had a strong social element. Remember those evening in the 70s and 80s when people would meet to see each other’s holiday pictures? Capturing the image was then still such a rarity that it was a good reason to physically come together. It was also about status, about the fact that you actually had gotten on a plane and flew to Mallorca or Crete. The photos are proof. I believe there is still a need to rejoice around the image but it is hard to see the spirituality that is underneath it all since everyone these days is so busy with capturing the moment. My nephew now takes 300 pictures a week while I have only about 20 pictures of my childhood all together. In Flickr the banal and the religious come together again. For thousands of years images were created from a religious perspective. Religion was always based on visual culture, from the cave drawings up to the Christian church. Seeing the images of God and Jesus Christ was proof that they existed. My performances regularly deal with this inherited iconography. Photos now may depict our recreational bungalow but they are still based on the same set of believes. Maybe banal is the new sacred.
How did you actually work these notions into the performance?
I took keywords from the text that I thought caught the atmosphere of the play well and linked them to the images on Flickr. There were three layers. The text by Bernhard, the keywords, and the link that Flickr made between the keywords and the images. The pictures themselves became a fourth layer sometimes matching and sometimes mismatching with the text. I could only control the parameters. In the performance I was thus relying on amateur photographers to add context. By inserting these tags into the Flickr machine I was hoping for a realistic photo-scenography. It brings the story into the present, so instead of seeing images of a turn of the 19th century kitchen you would see a contemporary American suburbian kitchen. I was basically playing with luck or chance since the images are completely random. Not every tag is as specific as it might be.
All three performers were dressed in black, almost as if you wanted to take yourself out of the frame.
The commission was to deal with other peoples aesthetical choices. My personal aesthetic choice was three people completely in black doing a 50’s style reading of Dene, Ritter, Voss. I was still in control. I appropriated the space and its content by positioning the performers between the audience and the images. You first saw the performer, then the keyword and then the image. The image was mediated through us.
Were you aware of the audience?
Yes it was horrible. I felt like a hooker. Normally you see the audience but now you only saw a glimpse of an eye. It was an unnerving experiment. Inside the atmosphere was very intimate and concentrated while outside there was chaos, music and barbecue. The people looking in did so with an outside eye. There wasn’t a controlled environment like in the theatre or the museum. Many of Mediamatic’s projects have this approach of deframing context.
But if you turn things around what you did was also an occupation, keeping the floor occupied before the mass outside could take over and play with the Peep Show themselves.
Is Flickr about the death of the artist?
Maybe its about the birth of the artist as member of the audience? What tag did you like the best?
Strangulation, because the photo was of a blond woman with this silly pink ribbon around her neck acting as if she was being strangled. It just epitomizes the fine line between the banal and the terrible or beautiful.