ROBIN DEACON ON COLIN POWELL & DISPATCHES / 2005
The following is an unpublished interview between performer and video artist Robin Deacon and writer and curator Adelaide Bannerman. Conducted in late 2005, much of the subject matter covered relates to approaches to topicality, biography, and journalistic process.
RD: The biographical elements in my work didn’t really come to the fore until I started using text in my performances. But it wasn’t until about three years after I started out that I actually used text in my work. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to – a big part of it was that I just didn’t really like the sound of my own voice. And at that stage, I didn’t feel as though I had the requisite lightness of touch to use text in a way that didn’t just end up being clunky and ‘actorly’. Also I was (and still am) wary of talking about myself in too direct a way. When it comes to speaking ‘from the heart’, the concern is that an audience may just respond with a big ‘so what?’ It seems a bit presumptuous to unload your ‘stuff’, and assume that because ‘this happened to me’ that that validates it in some way. I don’t know how significant that is, but I suppose the use of text started to allow me to approach things quite directly, so for me, the origins of the overtly biographical in my work certainly stemmed from its burgeoning textual aspect. Perhaps the best way to open this up is for me to describe the first performance where I used text to any significant extent – coincidentally, this was also the first genuinely biographical performance I did, in the sense that it could be traced back to an actual incident in my life. Actually, it may be of more use to talk about the circumstances in which this performance was written rather than about the performance itself. In the late 1990’s I spent ten months of my life as a sales assistant in a branch of Debenhams department store. As a newly graduated artist, this wasn’t exactly where I wanted to be, but over time, I developed a stoic acceptance of the situation, which in turn mutated into me actually being quite good at the job. Then came a suggestion that I may be interested in the idea of management training, and later on, I was even furnished with an employee of the month award. At the time this was pretty bizarre, as I never really viewed this job as anything other than an unfortunate inconvenience. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I thought I would use the situation to generate a new performance – it seemed the most obvious thing to do, as this job was such a central aspect of my life. So, using a series of training manuals as the basis for text, and my uniform as a ‘costume’, the Employee of the Month (1998) performance was born. The form of the text was quite important, as it was presented as a very dry, slightly dull lecture. This goes back to the point I made about the ‘actorly’ in text based performance, as this framework allowed me to use text in a biographical, but not a character based sense. Also, as it was presented as a tedious lecture, I didn’t have to learn lines, and as I’m not a trained actor, this took it things away from the sort of notions of virtuoso performance that I’m highly suspicious of. Of course, the performance twisted the traditional format of the lecture, eventually degenerating into something altogether stranger than the lecture on customer service that it started out as - the final scene of the performance involved me wearing a selection of Debenhams lingerie.
This was the starting point of a process that used biographical material not as a means to its own end, but as a springboard to take you to another place. So for me, the trick is to take an aspect of your life, and blow it up, exaggerate it, make it strange – in the case of Harry and Me (2004), this involved taking a real incident from my childhood, and weaving into it an over the top conspiracy theory. The performance involved me recounting my memories of being asked to join the school choir for the filming of Harry Secombe’s religious TV show ‘Highway’. The truth in this tale was that I was asked to join to assist in making the choir look a little more ‘integrated’, ethnically speaking. Where I took this was speculating that the actual placement of the black children within the choir as seen on TV could be coded to reveal a specific and deliberate racial slur. My theories were totally absurd, but I hoped at times they were strangely plausible. I know some people feel this undermined the strength of the ‘expose’, but I do like sowing little seeds of doubt not only about the veracity of the story, but also about my own relationship to the story – it just gives me a bit of distance and objectivity. Can I be trusted? Is this just an excuse not to take a position? I know some people find this ambiguity and ambivalence in my work quite problematic, particularly when framed within the context of ‘biography’ which I think for many people should equal ‘true story’. So despite the fact that at the core of it was an actual incident in this performance there was a strong element of unreliable narration. So although this appeared to be a ‘true story’ (‘True Stories’ was the original title of the piece), several people were asking me to unpick the truthful from the untruthful after the show. The question is, is it wise to gain peoples belief and empathy, and then tell them you’ve been bullshitting them all along?
So that idea of re-framing in the original question is interesting in terms of what I do – just saying what happened to you isn’t going to be of that much interest – you have to do something more with it – in this case, the idea was to open up a wider discussion on ideas of media representations of events and broader narratives regarding race relations. It was a similar idea with the Colin Powell (2004 – 05) performance, which I described as a ‘twisted biography of comparison’ in press releases. Originally, this performance was supposed to be written as a specifically biographical piece about Powell, placing myself completely outside of the narrative as an antidote to the questionably autobiographical, (but certainly experiential) musings of Harry and Me. However, as it developed, bits of my own life story seeped in – seems I can’t help myself. The personal element can also be useful in this scenario, allowing you to illuminate a larger issue from your own perspective, rather than just a sloppy form of generalised punditry (a particular danger with political subject matter), or simple portraiture – so the biographical element can ground things. But before I knew it, a sense of conceptual continuity started to develop - older narrative threads were picked up, such as comparing a picture of Powell shaking hands with Richard Nixon with another photo of myself shaking hands with the branch manager of Debenhams as I received my employee of the month award. The two images bore a remarkable resemblance to each other in terms of poses and composition – the point again was to think about the significance of something beyond its personal resonance, which I think you can only go so far with.
So in a sense, this performance wasn’t really about Colin Powell, or myself for that matter – we were both convenient stooges providing the basis for a bigger picture. Why Colin Powell though? He just seemed quite topical - I could have done essentially the same thing with a number of public figures, but I suppose the biography of the ultimate ‘moderate black man’ had some resonance with a few of my own experiences – again, it was a way of exploring some of these issues without necessarily opening myself up with all the ‘this is what happened to me’ type stuff. Actually, his resignation was a godsend at the time in terms of ‘currency’, but it’s gone the other way in terms of shelf life, as now he’s very much out of the public eye, the performance seems to have had its relevance drained away.
AB: Returning back to your comment about referencing topical figures and events, your 'subversive stooging' appears to work quite effectively when you adopt an outsider's eye where you initially observe and make rationally comment on an event unfolding before you. In these situations you sound or appear to respond well to the constraints or the flexibility of the situation which generates material for analysis during the lecture or video. In effect your pieces on Berlin, become tourist video diaries, you are essentially a stranger, an outsider to the situation, but there are implications attached to your presence. Could you please talk about these particular works?
RD: The Berlin work entitled Dispatches (2005) was part of an Arts Council International Fellowship at the Sophiensaele Performance space. I was given a studio and an apartment for 6 weeks and worked with Thomas Frank, a Dramaturg based at Sophiensaele. I didn’t really go there with a clear idea of what I was going to do, but I had been mulling over my process is a broad sense, and how to develop the idea of the topical – of a work existing in a specific time and space with the performer responding to prevailing events or issues as maybe a journalist would. Colin Powell was the starting point for this, as when he resigned, I was still writing the performance, so the whole emphasis had to change in relation to this, and fast. In this case, at the time of the residency, there was the German election – I soon realised that focussing on a political figure in the form of candidate for Chancellor Angela Merkel would be an interesting way of approaching this. Again, as with Colin Powell, I was dealing with a public figure with a certain ‘outsider’ status – Powell as successful black politician in a white hierarchy, and Merkel as a female politician, in a male environment. Merkel was a figure of fun in much of the media, presented as dowdy and unattractive – a kind of German Thatcher if you like. But no matter what ones political persuasion, I think it’s fair to say that had this been a male politician, many of these observations about her appearance and demeanour would not have been so much of an issue.
As with Colin Powell, I tried to present a contradictory portrait that attempted to unpick this image, and deliberately take an incongruous viewpoint. So for example, for the publicity image, I re-used my ‘Colin Powell is a nice man’ image but replaced the words with the roughly equivalent ‘Merkel ist eine tolle frau’ which to many left leaning Germans (i.e. the audience) would be a pretty strange assertion considering her right wing credentials. Again, my rule of thumb regarding not telling an audience what they want to hear was applied. The premise for me was that despite my steep learning curve regarding the rudiments of German politics, I really didn’t know what I was talking about, and this I made explicit in the eventual performance. So in some respects this was quite liberating, as I felt I was able to say pretty much anything – sweeping generalisations were made about German people and culture that I attempted to excuse with my own frequent admissions of ignorance.
The performance itself was presented in my standard lecture format, but the video element took a central role, presented as a sort of diary of events over the six weeks of the residency. As well as ruminating on Merkel’s campaign, I described my attempts at ‘integration’ with episodic films including my visit to a Bavarian folk festival (with all the clichés of Lederhosen and Oompah bands) as well as footage of me eating a currywurst, as a means of ‘tasting’ what it is to be German. I’m still unsure to what degree the irony read.
Going back to the
journalistic analogy, at the time, I was thinking a lot about the fact
that a newspaper is designed for the day it is published rather than for
posterity. I was trying to get a performance to function in the same way.
This runs counter to the traditional theatrical idea of developing a piece
of work to completion, and touring it for the next year or two - the idea
here was to produce something that would have no relevance outside the
time and the location. Of course, this has no basis in economic reality,
and in a way it’s a shame that after the work was shown twice in
Berlin, it didn’t really have a context afterwards – a disposable
performance. Perhaps certain forms of stand up comedy work in a similar
way, depending on the comedian of course. This approach as is risky as
it is exhilarating, as there is the danger that things simply won’t
come together over the designated time period.