BY Ross Sinclair in Frieze | 06 MAY 94
Featured in
Issue 16

Global Village Idiots

Roddy Buchanan

BY Ross Sinclair in Frieze | 06 MAY 94

It's a weird time. It seems like the whole world is breaking up faster than Steve Austin's spaceship in the opening credits of the Six Million Dollar Man, but where's Oscar Goldman to put things back together again? When you're hanging out with a bunch of people from hotspots around the world in a neutral city, talking about shared histories of punk rock over a few beers, you wonder how things got so bad. Cultures are collapsing together all over the place, faster than the old world order can turn them to market-led mush. This bleak landscape is the geography of Roddy Buchanan's art practice.

Buchanan and I got pathetically drunk in Vienna a few months ago, on the night a show we had made together opened. At 3am we stumbled into a bar and slumped beside a table football machine. A couple of guys were playing. We had just visited a Viennese hip-hop club (honestly, there is one) and were dumbly singing the joys and pains of South Central LA - bitches and hoes, Glock 10's and Tec 9's, a 187 on an undercover cop - and without thinking, the word 'nigga' slipped out. Bad move. The two black guys playing at the table overheard. At first they wanted to settle it like men. But Buchanan managed to convince them that the best way to settle this problem was to talk about it over a few beers (on us). He wanted to get this out in the open, because this is Buchanan's research, his raison d'être and it turned out to be quite a session.

It started with the question, 'can white men rap?' and moved through the possibilities of cultural integration and cross-fertilisation, identification with popular culture, working-class culture, nationalism, internationalism, all intertwined with the most sensitive of nerve endings. How can white boys from Scotland be passionate about Los Angeles hip-hop in Vienna? Just when we thought things couldn't get any more complicated, some young guys walked in and the discussion exploded. They told us they were Croatian and were in Vienna to avoid getting drafted at home. It was all too much - like a UN summit meeting at your local Pig and Firkin. Buchanan kept going till the bitter end, thrashing it out. These are the experiences which construct his working methods and shape his art: unravelling the threads that bind our collective neuroses. Buchanan's method is a constant investigation, development and dialectic. A slow process, a long-term project, that's how his art practice works. This is his territory. His passion. The art is born from the social, from lived experience; real culture. For Buchanan the talking is just as important as the 'work' per se. It is a process-based art where the materials investigated are people.

Much of the work Buchanan has made over the past five years has been politicised, utilising public spaces and billboards - always critically site-specific. It's ironic, then, that he is probably best known for works he has made over the past year which seem to be about football. In a group show in London last year, Buchanan exhibited an eight-yard length of flat metal about two inches wide. A succinct text on the wall at its end read 'Full Scale Premier League Goalmouth'. It's almost embarrassingly simple, but it isn't dumb. This 1/1 scale measurement isn't about football. It is football. From that one measurement an accurate football pitch could be constructed at Wembley Stadium. It's like Imperial measurements in brass, inset into the exterior of Victorian city halls up and down the country: the regulations are laid down. Here we have a hundred years of social history in eight yards of white-painted metal, rich and concise. In this work, football is only the enabler, the metaphorical key.

A couple of new works bring together basketball and football but, again, are really about neither. In Glasgow Buchanan visits five-a-side football pitches, and seeks out players wearing Milanese football tops. He invites them to be photographed in his makeshift studio in the back of his van. They stand like the professionals, arms behind their backs. Buchanan appeals to their vanity - maybe for a moment they do feel like the A.C. veteran Albertini, or Franco Baresi. He has built up teams of A.C. Milan and Inter, but of course all stoutly Glaswegian. As a counterpoint, Buchanan has also been visiting gyms in New York and repeating the process with basketball players wearing Chicago Bulls shirts. These heroic amateurs, too, are photographed posing like their idols. The two sets of ersatz teams together create a pool of desire and aspiration. The current vogue in Britain for Italian replica kits is inspired by the regular Channel 4 screening of Italian football, while the basketball shirts can be seen as a result of the extensive promotion in the US of blue chip basketball stars. In these portraits, Buchanan conjures up a mid-Atlantic reification of the persuasive potential of fin de siècle global media. This is 90s culture in action. Don't blink, you might miss it.

More recently Buchanan has been working with video. In Chasing 1000, made for an exhibition in New York, Buchanan and artist Paul Maguire appear within a fixed frame, shot from above, in an anonymous gymnasium setting. They are dressed from head to toe in box-fresh basketball gear. Buchanan holds a crisp new basketball, but instead of executing some wicked slam dunks or sleek triple doubles, the two start playing football. For 90 minutes they head the ball to and fro while a counter at the side of the screen advances until the ball hits the floor. When this happens, it returns to zero, painfully. The average count is a few hundred but when they get a good rhythm going they make 1000. It takes about eleven minutes, but, to paraphrase Whistler, it's not the eleven minutes that count, but the hundreds of hours invested in preparation. What holds meaning for Buchanan is that it is their cultural history that has enabled them to achieve this. He has taken the street game of his home country and combined it with that of his host country. A mellow jazz soundtrack obscures the accents in their voices. You can't establish their nationality but something looks odd.

Buchanan works the fact that basketball sponsorship is blossoming in the UK, with names like Jordan, Shaq and Barkley selling products to a youth culture who have probably never seen a basketball game in their life. It's this disintegration of the simulacra of traditional social and cultural values that interests Buchanan. What represents home-grown British culture anyway? He neatly sidesteps the clichés traditionally associated with art about cultural identity, injecting a healthy dose of his native hybrid culture. Chasing 1000 milks the beautiful irony that the first major US exhibition of Britain's most popular sport will not feature any UK teams because we can't even play our own culture well enough to take part. What does that say about accepted notions of British culture? It says 'I'm as sick as a parrot coz we wuz robbed but it's a game of two haffs and it's never over till the final whistle.'