Rudi Laermans

Art versus mass culture, episode 4579945 (a [culture sociological] fragment on the work of Superamas) (1)

English version

According to Thierry De Duve, the “readymades” of Duchamp started definitely the era of ‘the art in general’. What still used to be a derogatory remark in the public reactions to impressionists, became a legitimate question of more and more artefacts: ‘is this a piece of art or is this not a piece of art?’.

From banal utilities over scabrous installations to boring performances, they are nowadays still massively presented in institutionalised contexts where one can expect art. They especially want to remind the audience of the contingency of each definition of art. The public can decide for themselves whether or not the shown is a piece of art, as long as he’s aware of the fact that his decision is without any foundation.

Is the work of Superamas art? This artists collective is playing on the differences between art and kitsch, high and low culture, television and theatre… with such an ease that the almost forgotten phrase ‘post-modern art’ seems to be useful again. But this thought is too easy. Superamas play a game with the differences between the art and her diverging environments (institutional, technical, social, mass cultural…) that is so complex that the difference between art and not-art is simply put offside.

This artists collective is operating in the vague but fast growing zone of postart. In there, ‘art in general’ merges into a strange mixture of seriousness and amusement, form research and reflexive allusions to well known genre codes – however in a completely different way than the ‘better pop music’ of Radiohead, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction or the Compilation Work of Andy Warhol. 

The reason why popart shocked, was because of its discovery in commercial mass culture of hyperreal forms of authenticity. They guided the icons of consumer society towards art with realistic images that were much more related to traditional landscape art than with ‘the art in general’ of the avant-garde. More than half a century later, this belief in the authenticity of ‘the popular’ feels rather naïve. Nowadays, mass culture is so omnipresent that the difference between real and unreal can only be made in relation to these prefabricated worlds of images, words and sounds. Our personal lives and wishes are irrevocably woven with the worldwide web of brand names, ideographs and publicity photo’s, with the codes of melodramatic soaps, tearjerkers and pornographic movies, with… (you can fill up).

Authenticity is an impossibility, everybody is repeating or quoting material from their own mass cultural environment and pretending at the same time to be ‘themselves’. (this simulation is, of course, also a quote). Superamas promotes this statement as the starting point of their art practice. This sounds again ‘postmodern’, but it isn’t. Different from the pomo-art of the eighties and nineties of last century, in the work of Superamas the difference between reality and hyper reality  simply imploded.

It generalises the strategy promoted by Judith Butler for sexual identities: make a parody out of it, repeat it in a shifting way, with a variation that is disruptive. This maxim is followed by Superamas in its recent performances and installations, not only concerning male and female identity (everybody accusing them of ‘masculinism’ is lacking every sense of humour and living on the planet Mars). They also practice it in a more general sense to interrupt for a moment the diabolic loop between live and mass mediumistic images-of-live or examples.

Without any doubt, ‘Big 1’ is a key work in the provisional oeuvre of Superamas. In this live show, it seems as if the replay key is pressed constantly. Live performed scenes are performed again, but also redone in voice dubbing or on video screen. 

This constant citing and reciting within different media generates quite fast the impression that everything is fake, especially the live happening. Therefore, double-up theatre, but also not. Because both the acting of the performers (amongst who two excellently acting female gogo dancers) as the on screen projected cognitive scientist (prof. Dr. Robert Trappl, Austrian Research Institute for Artificial Intelligence) orientate themselves quite emphatic towards the codes of  modal television. ‘Precession of the simulacra’ (Baudrillard)  or ‘pressure of models that can only be made true’ seem to be a more apt description than the more obvious references to theatre and theatricality.

But we find ourselves suddenly on a higher level when the simulation of mass mediumistic stereotypes develop into a live and repeated imitation of a video clip by Fat Boy Slim. The public enjoys their insight of the live tv-fake, which is after a few retakes screened on a television screen. At the same time, there is the pleasure of direct viewing, which all in all does almost not differ from the pleasure of the mix of coolness and eroticism offered by a weekday television programme. Television becomes theatre, and theatre becomes television – until both genres form into one ambivalent loop. The end of the performance confirms this ambiguity: a persiflage on a commercial for the newest Nissan-model (the car is on stage), with again the two scarcely clothed gogo dancers in a leading role. This end puts yet another ambiguity to the front, the one of the individual pleasure of viewing. Because this could be called slightly perverse: to enjoy art as an alibi to enjoy television, as an alibi to ogle at two beautiful girls… Can we then still say that parodying quotes (or quotes of quotes) really works liberating…?

Next to an ending, ‘Big 1’ also has a coda. In this, a thorny comment is given to Adorno’s well known characterization of the cultural industry as deliverer of banal and standardized entertainment. Superamas manipulates this manipulation by putting the question on one of the television screens whether the reality of cinema or television not simply is part of… reality? The answer is given by the two girls, guilelessly talking to each other on the sofa under the screen, wearing this time a modest white sweater. This tableau vivant could originate from a television movie or a soap – but also from one of the numerous living rooms where a movie or an episode of a soap are being watched. This brings us back to the beginning – to the statement that the collective Superamas indeed start from the inviolability between live and mass mediumistic images-of-live.  

A performance like ‘Big 1’ – but I could easily have described the video ‘Billy Billy’or the installation ‘TruckStation’ – shows the currently existing feed-back relationships between reality and hyper-reality, ordinary things of live and their representation in mass media. Soaps imitate, of course with specific shifts, the ‘daily live’, which in its turn takes selectively example by the soap reality, which then reflects this exemplification in a theatrical way, etcetera. This interaction creates a strange loop wherein it is no longer possible to segregate the influence of the media from the feed backs by the users of the media. In this loop, cause and consequence form in the meanwhile convertible entities. The result is a closed, self referential machine, a cybernetic system that is no longer tangible in realistic terms (the media as passive registrators), nor from a critical outsiders position (the media as active manipulators). Neither is it possible to draw a clear line between reality and hyper-reality, the Real Live that is influenced by nothing or nobody and the real mirroreffects of our innumerable identifications with rags of mass culture.

Our environment is simply post-metaphysical, it is not possible anymore to describe it with the common oppositions between ‘being’ and ‘appearance’, reality and representation… What does that leave for us? Playing! – quoting and parodying, according to the ‘game-boys’ of Superamas. This does not result in Critic-with-capital. But who still cares? Deconstructive pleasure will do, no?

(1) Note

This text goes back to a number of notes I made on the occasion of two series of evenings Superamas presented under the title ‘Game-Boys’ in October 2002 in BSBbis/Beursschouwburg, Brussels (Belgium). In this text, I only develop one reading, and do not go into other interesting aspects of the work of Superamas, like their use of technology for remediations. 

Copyright Rudi Laermans, Brussel, short quotes permitted, not the reprint of longer passages. Rudi Laermans teaches socioculture at the University of Leuven, Belgium.