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Satire, when successful, is not an end point, it is a scalpel with which one dissects a complex conceit, a way to see behind a veil of artifice. Scot Cotterell’s new work, Romantic Conceptualism has some qualities akin to satire, and it is certainly a work that asks more questions than it answers; but this open ended nature is where its success lies.
In a darkened room at Contemporary Art Tasmania an audience encounters looping video projected around a space punctuated by still images. Footage, such as a man made up to look like some kind of horned demon, his voice lowered to an ‘evil’ pitch, leaps about in a lounge room in bad light repeating the phrase ‘romantic conceptualism’. A crass digitally constructed wave that embodies everything that became ridiculous about CD-ROMs by 1998 throws up some glowing words: ‘romantic conceptualism’. A heavily tattooed woman smokes a large cigarette and eventually speaks: ‘romantic conceptualism’.
Jarring and bordering on discordant, the videos reveal some people completely disengaged with their activity, others seem almost amused, as if in on the process and what was being slowly turned over and examined. What brings them together, beyond their use of the phrase ‘romantic conceptualism’, is their method of creation: everything was outsourced from Fiverr.com. Fiverr.com seems like an idea a group of design undergraduates followed through after too much coffee somewhere, but it’s real: there is a vast selection of skilled persons, who offer a range of services for a base rate of five dollars US. This is a one sentence idea, which seems ridiculous, but it works. It was established in 2009. In 2015 there are 1.3 million services offered, there is an iOS app and an Android app and it has $50 million worth of funding.
Many people charge more than five dollars for their services, but a lot do not, especially in the Fun & Bizarre section. Here, one finds people who will ‘dress as an evil clown and scare your friend’, or ‘write your message in coffee beans on a white serviette’, or ‘be painfully sarcastic’. Other sections offer services such as a simple digital animation that clearly uses available templates, and there’s a guy who will dress up as a tiger and sing happy birthday.
Cotterell selected a number of these individuals and asked them to say ‘romantic conceptualism’, if they sang or spoke, or to hold a sign with romantic conceptualism written on it, or whatever it is that each individual offered as a service. One memorable individual lit up a cigarette and blew smoke, which became the words.
Beyond purchasing the service and giving the basic instructions, Cotterell attempted to subvert the process; if the person was offering to dance like a crazy tiger, he would request that they stand still. The tiger would still get paid. Cotterell also engaged with many of the ‘your name here’ services, which placed the phrase in a specific location, or, memorably, had it being spelled out by school children in India.
The resulting exhibition was not a collection of individual works; it is one work composed of many elements. Cotterell has long engaged with variants of collage as a technique and here he has refined his usage to a new degree. The selection process must have been laborious, which is funny when considered: how much work was put into finding people to make the work?
The first question that arose, beyond admiring the aesthetic, was one of exploitation. When we live in an era where an artist works with entire communities and courts controversy, or someone tattoos lines on sex workers, as forms of art, paying someone who is offering a service for five dollars US, reminds one of exploitation existing, more than actually being exploitation. If you find fiverr.com disturbing, there are 1.3 million people who are using it to get paid, and they could be very happy to do so.
There is the problem of the debasement of content itself, when it becomes ridiculous and very cheap. What does the idea of online, rapidly generated content imply about all creative activity? There is a sense of reduction to the most basic component, as late capitalism uses the Internet in a race to the bottom. Quality is out the window; we just need a gap filled. What Cotterell has done with this work is point to the cracks and hit a pause button. What is being transformed is that debased process: when you ask someone who is not from a rarefied art world to use a phrase from it, the meaning and the method transform each other. High art becomes mundane and comedic; a content-providing task performed for five dollars is granted the status of poetry.
Romantic Conceptualism is contemporary art that functions both as a prank and a mechanism of crude revelation. When a high art market exists wherein it is common that the artist outsources the actual work and this is an accepted activity, something that so honestly reveals its method is a powerful critical moment. There are elements of class warfare and Do it Yourself culture at play here as well: the work is made from that which is immediate, cheap and readily available. The work discusses money and labour by showing some truly bizarre versions of it: this is what work is transforming into in the late capitalist era. The creative process is so present in the end result, which, despite all the insane variety, emerges with an aesthetic which is not heavy handed or forced, but possessing an engaging elegance. There is satire present but it is not bitter or snide, despite its sharpness: Romantic Conceptualism wants you to consider the mechanics and mechanisms by which art is made, who it is made by and what labour is. Look at the dancing tiger, who is not dancing but holding a sign. Look at how he is making a dollar and consider the economic landscape of which he is a feature.
Scott Cotterell, Romantic Conceptualism, 2014. Photograph Courtesty of the artist and Contemporary Art Tasmania.
Video still; Scott Cotterell, Romantic Conceptualism, 2014. Photograph courtesy of the artist and Contemporary Art Tasmania.