I was about to begin this review with a quote from Peter Brook’s writing on ‘The Rough Theatre’ in The Empty Space (1968) ‘the spectacle takes its socially liberating role...’ etc. etc., so forth and so on. But then I stopped myself. Peter Brook would hate Stephen Sutcliffe’s Outwork (2013).
Instead I’m examining the author photograph of Tom Wolfe printed on the back cover of Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970), a book I had pulled out specifically for this review to double-check the quote ‘in its moment of naked triumph ...’ as a way to describe the quality of VHS reproduction texture. And now it strikes me: the very surface of Wolfe’s dandy-checked three-piece suit, in particular the way the fly bulges over his crotch with too much knowledge, expresses much more about Outwork’s episteme than Brook’s observations on the temporal presentation of experience.
Commissioned for the Margaret Tait Award, Outwork is Sutcliffe’s longest work to date, at around 24 minutes, and his first multi-screen projection, including material not only from the Glasgow-based artist’s personal archive of film, televisual broadcasts and sound recordings, but also cannibalizing a number of his own previous pieces, such as New Numbers (2012), to produce a glistering, hiccupping, densely populated work that might well cause reference-gout in those who watch it with ardent desire for too total a comprehension.
An incomplete inventory of Outwork’s reworked parts would include: often synchronic clips from the films Stripes (1981), Marat/Sade (1967) and Charlie Bubbles (1967); out-takes from The Cannonball Run (1981); trailers for films by Alain Resnais, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Rainer Werner Fassbinder; Sutcliffe being interviewed (at art school, his face Rorschached to interpolate with a trailer for Pasolini’s 1969 film Porcile); Sutcliffe snoring; Sutcliffe being interviewed (this time by British radio broadcaster Robert Elms for BBC London); witty animations that look like Saul Steinberg’s work for The New Yorker; footage of Jacques Derrida seated on a stage, his head enlarged cartoonishly in a superimposed box; a man dancing to and simultaneously signing for the deaf to a pop video playing in the background; Christopher Logue’s poem ‘He Was a Youth from the Suburbs’ (1969); a wee splash of Monty Python.
All of these ‘bits’ are exercized speculatively within two sociological worldviews, one mooted in Erving Goffman’s Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organisation of Experience (1974) and the other in Derrida’s Dissemination (1981). Goffman writes in Frame Analysis, ‘the individual in our society is effective in his use of particular frameworks. The elements and the processes he assumes in his reading of the activity often are ones that the activity itself manifests.’ Outwork shows us (not least through its structure, built around shouty uppercase chapter titles taken from Frame Analysis) that how you look at something is just as important as what you look at, through the way the thing itself is primed, contextualized or ‘framed’.
Writing about prefaces in his own preface to Dissemination (from which Outwork’s title is borrowed), Derrida says: ‘Time is the time of the preface; space – whose time it will have been the Truth – is the space of the preface. The preface would thus occupy the entire location and duration of the book.’ Outwork sandwiches what appears to be its own main content, or supposed centre on the middle screen, between verso and recto elements, which agitate, unsettle and ultimately stage a notational putsch using their own margins.
Returning to that checked cloth stretched tightly over Tom Wolfe’s crotch.
Careful watching, or again reading, of Outwork must consider it as a roman à clef or Bildungsroman, in method but also in narrative character, for the work imbibes the practice of autobiography – How do I learn? How do I know what I prefer? How do I make myself? – to produce a work concerned with selfhood through editorial occlusion; through what is left out, what is (just about) covered up.
In the final lines of ‘The Rough Theatre’, Brook writes: ‘We must prove that there will be no trickery, nothing hidden. We must open our empty hands and show that really there is nothing up our sleeves. Only then can we begin.’ This is the very reason Brook would hate Stephen Sutcliffe’s Outwork.