June 1st, 2009


The charisma of documents

Dexter Sinister is a sort of "documents workshop" operated by David Reinfurt, Stuart Bailey and Sarah Crowner. They're people who've turned the manipulation of documents into performance art. I first veered into their universe when Dot Dot Dot magazine ran a document of mine -- an essay entitled Metaphysical Masochism of the Capitalist Creative -- about five years ago (Dot Dot Dot is edited by David and Stuart). I then wrote about them last year for 032c magazine, describing how I'd failed to understand their request for documents to be used in the 2008 Whitney Biennial (famously given the choice of designing the catalogue or becoming artists in the show, they chose the latter, setting up shop as a sort of absurdist PR unit). I wish I'd seen their ICA "documents opera" True Mirror Microfiche back then. It would have helped me glom on better to their aesthetic.

You could hardly think of anything less London-on-a-Saturday-night-ish (less charged, in other words, with rabble-ready Dionysian energy) than the performance Dexter Sinister gave in London on Saturday night. The ICA theatre became the site of a measured, dry, cerebral event in which texts by Robert Musil, Marcel Duchamp and Thomas Pynchon were read from two lecterns, microfiche was projected onto a screen and flow diagrams representing the process of communication were shone onto side walls by overhead projectors. Even if loud chords and drum beats quoted from a Napalm Death song occasionally jabbed through this "documents opera", the adjective cluster you'd want to use for the performance would probably include terms like quiet, dry, serious, intellectual, quirky, playful, pensive, didactic, boring, intriguing.

When I spoke to Stuart Bailey after the show, he said the biggest step towards the current Dexter Sinister aesthetic had been a show called Faxback mounted by artists' group Bank about ten years ago. I saw and liked this show, which featured a series of art gallery press releases faxed back to the galleries marked up -- in tones of schoolmarmish impatience -- with a bunch of "corrections" of their poor spelling, bad grammar and fuzzily French or Radio 4-ishly middlebrow philosophising.

Dexter Sinister's delight in the didactic and in documents links them, in my mind, with a dry / playful school of artists like Alex Singh, Joëlle Tuerlinckx, Frances Stark, Jonathan Monk, or with designers like Zak Kyes and James Goggin (who was the one to invite me to contribute to Dot Dot Dot in the first place). What was really interesting about Saturday night was the revelation that documents which in themselves might be boring and abstract can be turned into a multimedia spectacle which is actually rather enchanting. Text here became texture -- a succession of human voices orchestrated with the semi-mesmeric lantern shows we might remember from school, where overhead projectors and microfiche and Gestetner-duplicated handouts generated their own weird fascination, whatever content they purported to carry.

Seeing this show directly after the Luke Fowler exhibition at the Serpentine was perfect, because Fowler and Dexter demonstrate that the charisma of documents (often captured in retro media) can be performed over time, and transformed into rather compelling film and theatre.