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Culture Vultures | Daniel McKewen

‘Culture Vultures’ is an exhibition that brings together the work of artists who, in some form or another, address the presence and effects of popular culture in their lives. Their practices are fed by mass media – so that as they pick through and consume its ‘cultural carrion’, these artists produce works that creatively and critically engage with pop culture’s numerous and ever-present forms.

In his 1984 book, ‘The Practice of Everyday Life’, Michel De Certeau made an argument that pop culture audiences need not be regarded merely as consumers who passively and blithely ingest all that is doled out to them. Instead, he argued that consumers could be ‘active readers’, tactically navigating through the cultural terrain, selecting and appropriating elements from many different cultural forms in order to develop new understandings of their own social experiences.

Building upon De Certeau’s discussion, media theorists like Henry Jenkins and Matt Hills have identified the activities of the fan as the archetypal ‘active reader’. They describe the idea of a fan that moves continuously amongst pop culture’s endless output, constantly consuming cultural artefacts, appropriating them, reinterpreting them into new cultural forms and redistributing these out into the community. Perhaps not coincidentally, this description matches that of many contemporary artists, who also look to pop culture as a source of raw materials, ready to be cut, copied, pasted and manipulated, as part of an artistic practice that seeks to explore, question and critically engage with pop culture’s influence.

Brandon Bird’s practice focuses upon the cult or fringe aspects of popular culture, injecting humour and the surreal into the already ridiculous and banal nature of the entertainment industry. Consciously playful and comical, Bird’s literal juxtapositions also experiment with the conceptual linking of various pop culture elements and forms in order to build a unique and distinct portrait of one artist’s cultural fascinations and influences.

Nicholas Cotter’s practice consists entirely of his personal regime of ‘collection and selection’ of various pop culture artefacts. A self-proclaimed ‘outsider’ to the art world, its history and traditions, Cotter insists that he employs this dedicated routine purely in an attempt to regulate and order his consumption of popular culture. Given this proclamation, it appears as if any artworks produced by his practice are done so almost as an afterthought or a by-product. However, the careful and considered mannerisms evident in the assemblage of the work in ‘Culture Vultures’, speak to the underlying processes of the avid pop culture consumer, and give rise to questions about the similarities that might exist between artist and fan behaviours, as well as the amount of reinterpretation that is possible or perhaps even warranted in our engagement with mass media.

Danielle Clej and Alex Feu’u’s collaborative work acts as an intersection between Clej’s practice, which aims to interpret culture through mathematical and scientific inspired systems, and Fe’u’s practice, which playfully explores issues of cultural identity as found in hip-hop culture. ‘99 Problems’ is a reference to hip-hop superstar Jay Z’s song of the same name. The work seeks to find an alternative method to represent Jay Z’s exclamation, “If ya havin’ girl problems I feel bad for you son, I got 99 Problems but a bitch ain’t one”. This systematic approach, while immediately comical, could also be seen to allude to the kind of graphs that operate ‘behind the scenes’ of the entertainment industry, such as audience demographic breakdowns, ratings and sales figures, all of which serve to interpret and categorise consumer culture, from hip-hop to sitcoms.

An important aim of Louise Bennett’s practice is enacting a shift in a viewer’s perspective of an image, in order to process ideas surrounding the individual in contemporary culture. By employing a DIY or grunge aesthetic in reference and response to its emergence (or re-emergence) in pop culture, Bennett aims to literally and figuratively reframe found video and audio. Her considered process of selection, enlargement, and slowing down of appropriated movie studio introduction animations, creates an entirely different and hypnotic viewing experience, but at the same time, the work breeds a subtle sense of familiarity, provoking questions on the confluence of shared and personalised experiences of popular culture consumption.

Mallory Green’s practice employs collage as a formal and conceptual device, and through the animation of these geometric shapes, she communicates a highly playful sense of experimentation with this device, one which serves as an aid to literalise her own viewing experience of television. Exhibited as repetitive and unexpected bursts of colour and sound, the works also seem to suggest the idea of the television viewer driven to drastic intervention through the very predictability and repetition that is the mainstay of popular culture.

The artists brought together for this exhibition have varied and disparate ways of consuming, reinterpreting and presenting their engagement with pop culture. However, in each of their practices, there is a continuity of methodology – of the artist as fan or ‘active reader’ – a figure who almost can’t help but critically engage, consume, digest, remake, re-purpose and reinterpret their surroundings in order to ‘make sense’ of their own cultural experience.

by Daniel McKewen

© Copyright 2008. Boxcopy and the writers and artists. Not to be reproduced without permission from Boxcopy.