Centrespace, Visual Research Centre, Dundee Contemporary Arts, November 5th-19th 2010
Now the Hard Times revival is on, the slogan ‘The Rich Get Richer, The Poor Get Poorer’ is suddenly as relevant as rioting once more. As a new wave of disgruntled liberals becomes politicised as the Rave generation did before them, what better time for 1980s agit-video double-act The Duvet Brothers to reconvene for the first time in twenty-two years.
Over four years from 1984-88, Rik (now there’s an 80s name!) Lander and Peter Boyd Maclean pioneered Scratch video, cut-and-paste visual mash-ups that took existing footage from a multitude of sources to construct recoded narratives that were a world away from glossy MTV orthodoxy. The Duvets sound-and-vision collages were eye-poppingly busy and ear-poppingly brash even as they took a politically oppositionist stance. Perfect, then, to style the jump-cut visual identity of Channel Four’s 1980s Sunday lunchtime yoof magazine, ‘Network 7,’ a programme so exhaustingly all over the place it makes T4 look like kid’s stuff
Such provocations were captured best in their 1984 treatment of New Order’s groundbreaking 1983 indie/dance crossover, ‘Blue Monday’, which juxtaposed images of Margaret Thatcher and her cronies lording over the Conservative Party with picketing miners engaged in civil war with policemen. Post-industrial urban wastelands grew barren and nuclear disaster seemed imminent. A Godley and Crème production this wasn’t.
The ‘Blue Monday’ footage ended the second set of Lander and Maclean’s revisiting of their multi-screen based work that formed the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design supported Visual Research Centre’s response to Dundee Contemporary Arts’ split-screen show for their Discovery festival. ‘The Long Commute,’ by fellow Scratch video pioneer George Barber, and the science-fiction fun-palace of Jaygo Bloom’s ‘Arcade’ remain as iconoclastic as The Duvets even as they’ve moved into different spheres.
Utilising a wall of twenty-one screens and three video recorders, the first half of the show is a replay of one of the Duvets multi-screen scratch shows, which toured hip joints such as the Wag club, the Fridge in Brixton and Brighton’s Zap Club before moving on up to London’s Royal Festival Hall and beyond. These trade test transmissions mix and match a panoply of pop-art trash iconography and low-rent cult movies to dizzying effect in keeping with the club culture that spawned it. Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson are in there, as is ‘Shaft’ star Richard Roundtree.
This ‘set,’ which ran as an installation following the opening performance, was first performed on September 30th 1986 at London’s Soho-based Limelight club, the converted Welsh Presbyterian church that became the uber-trendy haunt for the era’s art-pop fashionista. Presented under the saucily nudge-nudge ‘Wet Dreams on 25 Screens’ banner, the piece’s original context exposes the first of its big contradictions. Here was radical chic in excelsis, making good out of the aspirational free-market ethic that had been opened up even as its creators purported to smash it up. Both men’s future TV careers would prove equally contrary. While Lander went on to direct post-pub shows such as ‘The Word’ and ‘Eurotrash’ as well as Turner Prize coverage and digital soaps, Maclean has worked on comedy sketch shows by way of documentaries for Jonathan Ross.
Yet the Duvet Brothers arrived at a crucial point in time artistically as much as politically. Pop culture was exploring its own parameters aided by hi-tech equipment that didn’t know what to do with itself. New technology had already allowed Factory Records to tour its ‘Video Circus’ concept around arts centres in 1982, while bands such as the Human League and Cabaret Voltaire had long explored the possibilities of multi-media.
With Lander and Maclean seated behind mixers, their passivity is concentratedly at odds with the hyper-activity onscreen. It’s a set-up straight off the backdrop of Tony Wilson’s seminal late-night TV magazine, ‘So It Goes’ by way of David Bowie’s TV-addicted alien in Nicolas Roeg’s similarly fractured 1976 film, ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth.’
A second set features material generated for the 1987 film of Brett Easton Ellis’ novel, ‘Less Than Zero’ as well as footage put together for the cyberpunk folly of Tony James’ Sigue Sigue Sputnik. Devoid of the overblown ridiculousness of the band’s image, the mash-up by any other name of Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, ambient dub and punk snarl on the Giorgio Moroder produced ‘Atari Baby’ now sounds like prophecy. Twenty-first century boys indeed.
‘Blue Monday’ itself may now look like history, but then was a living mass-media newspaper for the kids. What hits home is how shockingly recent such iniquities are, and, if the faces of Cameron, Clegg and Osborne were superimposed on, how frighteningly current it is. “One more tune!’ shouted some wag at the end of the first set, as we dance through dark times once more.
Map magazine issue 24, Winter 2010