BY Michael Bracewell in Reviews | 06 JUN 99
Featured in
Issue 47

Common Culture

Cornerhouse Gallery, Manchester, UK

BY Michael Bracewell in Reviews | 06 JUN 99

Common Culture are David Campbell, Mark Durden and Paul Rooney. They formed in Liverpool in 1996 with one other member, Anna Vickery, who subsequently left the group. Individually, Rooney has made three records - listed in the current Common Culture catalogue as 'Common Culture Records' - which have won the approval of John Peel. He has also produced a set of paintings under the name of a fictional artist: 'The Last Paintings of Gary Richer'.

As a group, Common Culture achieved notoriety in the cover story of The Guardian Higher Education Supplement of 18 November 1997 - 'A British University is using taxpayer's cash to exhibit cod and chips in its Manhattan gallery'. The article detailed how, as lecturers in the Fine Art Department of Staffordshire University, Rooney, Campbell and Durden worked together as Common Culture to produce their 'New Menus' exhibition for the Real Gallery in New York. The rental on the Gallery was paid from a government research grant and the project as a whole was quite openly (and successfully) geared to raise the profile of Staffordshire's Fine Art Department.

The University's Head of Fine Art, Terry Shave, was quoted as saying that "'New Menus' offered Americans a humorous slice of Brit Art in the vein of Damien Hirst's dead animals". The idea behind the show was to employ the illuminated menu boards you find above the counters of small take-away food shops as a kind of visual Esperanto to comment on the purpose of contemporary art within a complex multicultural society. 'We smear the surface of serial minimalism with the curry sauce - laced with flecks of pie crust - of today's Britain', one member of the group asserts in the exhibition's accompanying catalogue.

In the show at Cornerhouse, the majority of the wall pieces are witty references to the 'High' minimalism of Donald Judd. A floor sculpture comprising illuminated tubes encoded with quotations from cultural theory echoes the work of Dan Flavin, while a neon sign flashing 'Lunch/Dinner' suggests Bruce Nauman. The illuminated menu boxes themselves encase a solidity of colour and form, which, in the vertical arrangement of Mini Menu and Mini Menu 2 (1999), suggest that Common Culture have identified an ideal new material for the making of minimal ready-made pieces and multiples. They reassert Judd's identification of a kind of sublime American banality in his source materials: 'most modern commercial buildings, new Colonial stores, lobbies, most houses, most clothing, sheet aluminium'.

Counter Culture presents an equivalently sublime assemblage of 'Chinese Chippy'-style menu-boards. You find yourself absorbed in their sheer familiarity, reacting with the mental reflex that makes you go blank when you look at a menu and can't decide what to have. But whatever comedy of recognition provoked by the source material of 'Counter Culture', its true function is to serve as a kind of Socratic lure. It places the viewer in a quasi-political dialogue between two opposing experiences of culture: on one hand, the knowing, cultivated in-jokes about the history of modern art; on the other, the reality of take-away culture, with its uneasy assertions about class and multiculturalism. And when one looks at the passive expressions of the counter staff in the photo-pieces Bar 2 (1999) and Bar 3 (1999), with their smiling submission to the process of being photographed for this project, the sense of unease is heightened.

The way in which Common Culture have surrounded themselves with the rhetoric of a collective manifesto - 'Our quest is the critical pursuit of popular culture' - as well as the fact that they have listed their individual names under 'Current Members' and 'Previous Member', implies that they are presenting themselves within a tradition of pan-media interventionism which, in the last two decades, has included the group self-portraiture of Art Club 2000, the oppositional stance of The Grey Organisation and the dictate of the Neoist Alliance to 'destroy all serious culture'.

The common denominator of such interventionism has tended to be a theory-driven but largely self-serving demand for confrontation - be that Art War or Class War or both. But the success of 'Counter Culture' as a witty, provocative and ultimately humanistic project lies in its rejection of mere polemic for a careful consideration of functional signage and cultural language and the possibility of translating the messages of one into the form of the other.

Michael Bracewell is a writer based in the UK. His most recent book, The Space Between: Selected Writings on Art, is published by Ridinghouse, London.