Benefits of the ICA #2. It’s Friday night and there’s a leaving do plus a birthday going on. The ICA narrows from bottom to top: out of our cramped offices on the servants’ level of the grand Nash terrace we descend into function rooms, gallery space, theatre and then bar. It’s a little like Central Perk being on the ground floor of the building: take in the bookshop and cinema and it’s a wonder anyone ever leaves.
I bump into James, who’s off to a talks event upstairs, and persuades me to join him. Stubbing out a fag and leaving a half-finished drink and an A-Z on the table, I bounce breathlessly up the grand staircase to the Nash Room where I’m handed a programme and a thimble sample of water from a canapé tray.
This evening’s event is courtesy of with, an ongoing conceptual art satire on corporate ‘life products’, and tonight’s product is ‘WITHWATER’. The audience mills around for a while, and a video presentation begins, extolling the virtues of a two-grand-a-case blended water ‘product’ where branded meaning has been added to the basic molecules.
So far, so good: the video is simultaneously slick (swelling background music in just the right measure) and crude (flash-video style animals plonked onto backgrounds without perspective). It’s funny, and yet difficult to describe (there’s always the danger with conceptual art of accidentally revealing that you don’t really get it). A ‘live by satellite’ segment, with with water’s creators in the bath begins, and is suddenly cut into by a cynic loudly denouncing clever-clever ‘satirical’ concept art. He leaves the room and the video cuts out. Then it gets a bit odd…
A woman by the window, up until now apparently one of the audience begins a monologue about her premonition of the world’s end in two months’ time. When she’s finished, a man appears on stage at the front and performs ‘Supermarket Girl’, a monologue about falling helplessly and dangerously in love with a fantasy, followed by a woman telling the secret history of her grandmother who died a virgin.
After a little further investigation of the programme I’m holding, a couple of things become clear. We can start to spot who in the audience is going to begin speaking next, because their mugshots and potted actors’ bios are on the back of the programme. The monologues have been written by Gary Abrahams, posing as Gilad Bryan, part of the theatre company BAG’A’VANTE, and each of them is an interpretation of a previous ‘with’ conceit. The prophet, for instance, is based on miraclemaker, a with self-help product manufacturing religious experiences for the insufficiently religious.
And here’s the second weird thing. The original ‘with’ conceits are all satirical, arch, knowing (out of respect for our common tongue let’s avoid using the word ‘ironic’ here). The dramatic monologues are not. They’re funny, they have twists in their tales, they’re overlapping and intertextual, but they definitely don’t have with’s comedic and conceptual art distance.
The cynic interrupts once more, leaves and returns. An Australian woman tells us that the annoying little sister of her ex-boyfriend is dead. One of the men with trays of water tells us that he’d like to be a woman and a drag queen drunkenly rants about American culture and splaying her genitals across a drive-in screen.
Finally, the cynic returns and tells us his story, a foul tale of pubescent cruelty, and slates us all for our willingness to laugh knowingly at self-help. He doesn’t need help. Perhaps we do. The show’s over, and we applaud the actors, knowingly or otherwise.
What just happened? Is this the with experience? Or have with gone as far as they can with the satire and turned the show over to someone with something to say? How serious are with? It reads like a spoof [ppt], but they’ll take money off you for their merchandising right now, and money doesn’t make jokes. Here’s one take on the ‘corporate meme‘. The man behind ‘with’, Alasdair Hopwood, talks about making ‘work that’s about the process‘.
Again, you encounter the difficulty of describing conceptual art in straight terms, and encounter the eternal paradoxical question: is it a joke pretending to be serious pretending to be a joke, or vice versa? It would be tempting to just try not to think about it, if it weren’t for the feeling you get that with are simultaneously trying to make you think, and remind you that they’re cleverer than you are. In the end, for my money, it’s Gary Abrahams who’s made the evening what it is.
Back downstairs, the evening’s premiere is over, the director is chatting with people, my drink’s long gone, my A-Z is in Emma’s bag and Harriet’s boyfriend is trying to persuade her to run a mile for charity. When I get as far as the Central Line, it’s broken because someone’s under a train at Acton. Who’d ever want to leave the ICA bar?