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Interview David Campbell and Mark Durden, Curators of Double Act at Bluecoat

Double Act: Art and Comedy
at Bluecoat. Saturday 9 April – Sunday 19 June (Viewing Friday 8 April from 18.00)

Words by Patrick Kirk-Smith: Interview with Curators, David Campbell and Mark Durden

Bluecoat, in association with MAC Belfast, have produced an exhibition which is an absolute dream come true for a huge portion of practicing and studying artists around the country. With new publications every day on the value of humour in art, and Jennifer Higgie’s The Artist’s Joke flying off the shelves nearly ten years after its original publication Double Act: Art and Comedy is set to be an excellent reshaping of how the public view this institutional gallery.

As the exhibition’s curators, David Campbell and Mark Durden, describe, “Humour opens up new critical ways of engaging with the world”. But more importantly on a local level, this exhibition will completely reshape how the public engage with Bluecoat, a gallery that is often turned to for the serious side of art; a gallery that usually rigorously plans and develops everything it does. What Double Act will do is to impart the role of the comedian to the curators, and to the artists; it can’t be about planning, or about structure; it must be about timing; it must make us laugh.

If you’re puzzled by the notion of a gallery functioning as a comedian, look again to the exhibition’s title: Double Act. A show produced by two artists and curators, who are not only likeminded, but who have long standing relationships as Bluecoat studio holders, and as founding members of Common Culture (http://www.commonculture.co.uk/). That gives them insight, it gives them confidence, it gives them precedence, but most of all, it gives them banter; the opportunity to bounce back and forth, developing their ideas through playful conversation.

As with all great comedy double acts, that’s precisely where the greatness lies. But look again at this exhibition description – this is not just a Bluecoat effort. This exhibition will run in line with MAC Belfast (https://themaclive.com/), one of Britain’s most influential and forward thinking galleries, linking performance and stand-up with a bustling exhibitions programme.

As with any comedy, don’t walk in expecting to be blown off your feet by every single joke, there will be highs, and there will be lows. Some work will be predictable, and some will be exceptional. The art of comedy in curating it will be whether or not the audience leaves with a snigger and a thought.

Finding the funny in art is an oddly serious business on the part of the artist, because whatever the product, it still has to pass the rigorous process of any other art, and come out the other side, being good enough for the public to witness. And even more so than the ‘other’ art, which is on the face of it pretentious, comedic art absolutely has to challenge preconceptions and question rules and societal values; all jobs of the artists, and all jobs of the comedian. The areas where art and comedy thematically cross over are innumerable, but just within this exhibition you will witness witty parodies on the abject, human anxiety, racial prejudice and the age old wonder of slapstick.

And all of this is supported by lectures, events and a night of what looks to be outstanding stand-up comedy. The question on everyone’s lips though, “Will it make us laugh?” Well, We’ve got a brilliant short interview with curators, David Campbell and Mark Durden that might help shed a little more light on that:

How on earth did you manage to pull this together? The Bluecoat/MAC/Stand-Up/Art/Cross-overs/Live/Static. It’s hardly unambitious.

We worked with Bluecoat on an exhibition and book, Variable Capital, in 2008 and had since then always wanted to do a follow up show. We initially approached Bluecoat with the idea of a co-curated show on art and comedy over two years ago.  The MAC, Belfast, knew our work and when we discussed the idea of art and comedy with them they suggested we held the exhibition over two venues. This meant the scope of the show and range of artists we could include expanded considerably and it was because of the fact the show would be in two venues, as well as co-curated, we came up with the title Double Act.  

Is it funny?

Yes and No.

This is one of the big challenges of a show on art and comedy. As in regular comedy, there’s not just one form of humour that everyone gets and enjoys, different jokes work for different audiences, that’s what makes comedy interesting and insightful. We think it is a funny show, but one of the things we want the exhibition to do is to give a sense of the rich variation of how artists joke, highlight some of the ways they do this, and identify the targets of their humour. Often the joking is directed at art itself, insider jokes, as well as those that feed off the public’s suspicion of art as an elitist and pretentious activity. Hopefully the work in the exhibition covers some of this range as well as showing how serious issues and themes can be addressed in popular and accessible ways through the use of comedy in art. In this sense the exhibition is like a comedy night with each of the artists doing their turn, and we are the comperes.

The jokes they deliver might range from the more immediate laughter prompted by slapstick, which in the Bluecoat show is exemplified by a video by Peter Land, Pink Space, in which he plays an entertainer who keeps falling off his stool, to the dry humour behind Bank’s amended and corrected Press Releases or Gemma Marmalade’s photographs that playfully rework gendered stereotypes and sexual innuendo.

What we would like the exhibition to highlight is the fact that there is no single, unified audience for either art or comedy.  For both to be successful they have to acknowledge that both art and comedy might play to a range of different audiences who come together around shared interests. If you are not part of that particular grouping, then it’s unlikely you will find the art interesting or the joke funny.

How do you see this playing out with the public? Will they leave with a smile, a pensive stare or a wrinkled face in the throes of belly laughs?   

One important characteristic of the joke is the way it has the ability to disrupt everyday life, to take you by surprise, overturn conventional expectations and get you to look at things differently, we think many of the works in the exhibition also have this quality. There are artworks in the show, in which the humour might be seen to be obvious and immediate and create an instant laugh, but hopefully there will be other works that require a different kind of engagement and in return might reward with an unexpected humour that is perhaps longer lasting.

What is the biggest benefit of comedy to creative practices in your eyes? How does making light of a subject help it flourish?

Comedy might seem to make light of something. But the operation of comedy is quite complex and anything but light. We have started to explore this in the book we co-wrote that will parallel the shows and will be launched late May.    

Laughter for us is an important part of our engagement with art and one that is perhaps not given enough attention.  Art and especially art history can be a pompous affair and what we like about looking at art and comedy is how this pomposity can be punctured. Comedy is a great means of putting things in perspective and bringing things down to earth.  

We work collaboratively together with Ian Brown as Common Culture and our practice has always concerned itself with bringing art into relationships with more popular forms of social engagement.  We have previously worked with bouncers, DJs, comedians, tribute singers, TV actors and musicians.    Our interest in comedy is borne out of our own art practice and the show will feature a recent commission that involved us filming the routine of a stand-up comedian bereft of an audience.   

And, last but not least, in the most predictable way possible: If you had to sum the show up with a one liner – funny or not – what would it be?

A drunk went into an exhibition and said to the invigilator ”I think I’m in the wrong Joke!”