Richard DeDomenici "Making Unprecedented Art"
Richard DeDomenici is a UK based artist, filmmaker, raconteur and manufacturer of dangerous toys and his works often take the form of public interventions. The following is a transcript from the conversation between Richard DeDomenici and Zane Cerpina on April 6th 2017. Photo: Sarah Jeynes, BBC
Zane Cerpina (EE): What’s your background? How did you get interested in art?
Richard DeDomenici (RD): The first performance art I ever saw was by Kira O’Reilly at the open-day of Cardiff School of Art when I was 19, and I thought “what is that?” Because my art education up until that point had basically involved drawing tea pots. I couldn’t understand what I was looking at, I thought it was stupid. But it stayed with me and I thought I could try out the time-based fine art department as a bit of a joke. When I got there I realized it was amazing: so broad and freeing. Most of the universities in the UK didn’t even have such a department, and those that did have mostly been shut down now, because it is not as profitable as painting. I think it is bad for the art community, but good for me because it gives me less competition! The first performance I did after university was in a phone box, blowing up balloons to protest against British Telecom’s decision to stop expanding its public telephone box network in early 2000s. Then I was invited by the Live Art Development Agency to perform at the National Review of Live Art, which has also been shut down, and for the next year I was going around the country blowing up balloons in phone boxes, and I became very quickly established in the live art scene in the UK. It’s very fortunate that I’m still doing it 15 years later. But I am unemployable now, I could never get a job in a shop, because I have a very suspicious empty period of unemployment on my CV. So that’s it! I have to do this for the rest of my life.
EE: In one of your projects Live Art Aid you raised money together with artists for the artists themselves. Was it a comment on how hard it is to survive as an artist?
RD: It was a parody of Live Aid with 20 artists involved. Artists are being kicked out of their studios, a lot of people are leaving London, giving up on making art. There were big arts funding cuts planned, so I was asked by the organisation Home Live Art, to develop an alternative method of fundraising. I said: “Yes, let’s release a live art fundraising record, a take on Do They Know It’s Christmas!” It was slightly ridiculous because in society people feel little sympathy for the plight of performance artists.
EE: Are the current times a test of which art will survive?
RD: I am secretly an optimist. I have a facade of pessimist, but that is just to protect me, because optimists are vulnerable. If I was a pessimist I would have given up years ago. But in a way the best art often comes out of bad situations. It always takes time to think of how to respond to current crises. In the UK it costs £40,000 to go to university. Poor people can’t go anymore, and the ones who can afford it rarely study art because there is no obvious career path. University has become all about joining the workforce. I only hope artists who are still studying will be up for the challenge to make some interesting work about everything that is happening at the moment.
EE: We are definitely living in interesting and dangerous times. How do you express that through your work?
RD: We live in unprecedented times, and I think it is my responsibility to make unprecedented art that responds to the times we live in. So I am trying a lot of experimental techniques. I believe that cumulative effects of lots of tiny anomalies can be huge. So if you can change things a little bit and do that a lot of times, eventually it will cause an interesting critical mass. The objective in my work is to cause the kind of uncertainty that leads to possibility (a quote I stole from the LA Cacophony Society). If you can make someone look at the world in a slightly different way through your work, hopefully they will question everything they see. And that is the dream of my work to unlock these modes of perception.
EE: On your website it says that you are an inventor of dangerous toys? Do you mean a specific project?
RD: When I first wrote that statement, I yet had to invent any actual dangerous toys, so it was more of an aspiration. Now that statement refers to my phallocentric line of architectural sex-toys made in response to the recent spate of phallocentric skyscrapers in London. They all have these ridiculous names, like The Undershaft and The Shard, and so to satirize that I am going to release them as a series of adult toys.
I also was considering making sex-toys from the bobbly straphangers that were installed in the London Underground trains to hold onto. We had them in trains for 150 years, then they were removed for safety reasons in 2008. I managed to get Transport for London to send me a box of 16 of them. I took them to Japan six years ago and installed them from the ceilings of skyscrapers in Tokyo, so that during seismic activity people would have something to hold onto. It was an urban-absurdist project, an international exchange of something no longer needed anymore and put somewhere where it might be useful. Two weeks later the tsunami happened. And I thought I was slightly ahead of the time and maybe it was my fault, because art can change the world. And I believe it. You have to believe it as an artist. And if you believe that art can change the world for the better, you also have to accept that it could make things worse. Personally I would prefer to make the world better, but more importantly I would just like to change the world!
EE: Your artistic interventions have some similarities with The Yes Man from NY. How is the value of a hoax changing in times of post-truth, Trump and the constant flow of fake news?
RD: Yes a little bit, and I’ve done a couple of things with them. I think it is interesting how networks of artists are built across the world. Big corporate structures are pretty resilient if you attack them from one area. They are so vast that they can accept attack from one node and just redistribute. And I think it is good to have similar transnational networks for artists. I think it helps the artistic community to resist attack in the same way.
The prank has been a powerful tool throughout history to highlight ridiculousness in society, but it is true that it has become mainstream. Advertising and PR have appropriated the performance art prank. Your ideas will always get co-opted. But, if every invention eventually becomes convention, then it is the job of the artist to keep on innovating! We live in fertile times in terms of creating new forms of reality. It has always been hard to hoax. And I think Fake News are temporary, I don’t think it is the new normal. I hope. There’s my optimism again...
EE: Tell me more about your latest project Shed Your Fears exhibited at Tate Modern?
RD: I built a non-religious confession booth, that looked like a garden shed, for two strangers to sit in and talk to each other about their fears. I didn’t know if people would even want to go inside, but actually some participants were spending even 45 minutes in there, talking with a complete stranger, coming out in tears, hugging each other, and making new friends. Except for Catholic people with claustrophobia. They were terrified of it. A mother went in the shed with her children, and I didn’t think it would work. But she came out 10 minutes later saying that her two sons have been talking to her about things that they have never discussed before. I accidentally made something magical. The next stage is to see if the shed will work in a non-arts setting. We want to get people with differing views to have a chat, and talk without fear of ridicule. For example, a lot of people did not admit to voting for Brexit. A lot of politicians are exploiting our fears, and I think the only way to avoid that is to talk more about our fears to each other.
EE: Another very political project was your Asylum Seeker boy band. What was your take on the issue?
RD: The Fame Asylum project caused a lot of controversy, as I suspected it might. It was an idea to combine the exploitative nature of manufactured pop with potentially vulnerable asylum seekers. But by doing so, hopefully capitalising on the affection young people have towards pop stars. At the time the term Asylum Seeker was used pejoratively in the media, but few people had ever actually met an asylum seeker, or knew their personal stories. So my idea was to use pop music as a trojan horse to alter attitudes towards immigration issues among the difficult to-reach opinion-influencing female adolescent demographic, who are the opinion formers of tomorrow. I think in 30 years a lot of today’s problems will be solved by younger generations. The whole thing was a very small art project, until quite late in the process when Channel Four Television got involved and it turned into a TV documentary. I didn’t have any editorial control of the finished film, and they manipulated it to add some extra drama. Luckily it was before social media, otherwise it would have caused a lot more controversy. But afterwards people sent me emails about how it had changed their attitude towards immigration. Some of the same media organisations that had been demonising asylum seekers were now accusing me of exploiting the boy-band members, so people didn’t know how to react. It was a bit of a non-logical moment. Like my Reverse Begging performance, where I sit in the street with a coin in my hand asking passers-by “Would you like some spare change?” When it works best, people get trapped in a logic-loop, and really have to challenge their own assumptions about what reality is. It was my dream to take Status to Helsinki Eurovision. I theorise that a UK Eurovision entry comprised of performers who aren’t from the UK is the only way the UK will ever win Eurovision - particularly post-Brexit!
EE: Yet, the work you are best known for is The Redux Project. Tell me more about it, how it started and why has it become so popular?
RD: The Redux Project is a comment on, and contribution to, the increasingly derivative nature of mainstream cinema. It started by mistake when I was asked if I had any ideas for a site-specific performance in a cinema in Bangkok. At that time I was travelling around Europe by train, because I had given up flying in airplanes for 18 months to save the world - which didn’t work. But I was spending a lot of time in European train stations, and recognized lots of locations from films. In Paris I had a video camera and I tried to recreate what I remembered from the movie Amelie. Later in Berlin I had a YouTube-enabled smartphone, so I could more accurately match my footage to The Bourne Supremacy. I quickly realized it was possible to make something for a dollar which looks like it costs millions of dollars. So for Bangkok I chose to remake the romantic comedy Bangkok Traffic Love Story in the exact original locations. I decided to play the female lead - I was the most unconvincing lady-boy in the city - and when we screened it at the Scala Cinema in Siam Square I thought people might be a bit offended, but it actually got a better review from a local film critic than the original. I was amazed that people preferred my cheap remake to the original, so I decided to make more. Since then I have made more than 60 Reduxes around the world!
I think people like the Redux Project because it encourages them to take the manufacturing of culture into their own hands. People no longer have to be passive consumers, they can be conscious creators!
The Redux Project showcases the latest cheap technology to show that the old hierarchies don’t need to exist anymore. Next I’d like to build a mobile application which notifies you when you are close to a film location, shows you the original footage, and helps you film your own Redux. Hopefully by making fake versions of things that are themselves inherently fake, we’ll somehow arrive at a greater truth.