POLITICS MEETS DISCO
Clive Holden's multimedia show explores utopianism, human behaviour and the spirit of our times
In 2008, as Barack Obama leapt from stage to stage during the presidential race, commentators everywhere noted his energy. The masses rallied. It was a year that seemed to illustrate an idea at the centre of Clive Holden's exhibition at Platform - that "hope begets movement." In this post-electoral honeymoon moment, the Toronto-based artist's multimedia installation seems strikingly salient. Moving images suggest the best (and worst) of human behaviour and of thinking. How the two are connected is what we're left to consider.
The show, which is co-presented by Platform and the WNDX Festival of Film and Video Art, features three works from U Suite, a series of seven works and counting about, as Holden puts it, "describing or suggesting many takes on utopianism."
First there's Utopia Disco. Certain clips from Saturday Night Fever and still photos of a cast of historical visionaries project onto a two-by-four and screen "light hut" that's big enough to dance in. Accompanied by a dance soundtrack, it's a mash-up of Tony Manero (John Travolta) - strutting, dancing, kissing - and the likes of Karl Marx, Louis Riel and Simone de Beauvoir. The life of the mind is visually adjoined to the physical side of experience. "Celebrate life!" it all seems to say.
"I wanted the viewer to think of these people and their ideas as a real part of their everyday lives," Holden says. "These far-off seeming theories, ideologies, debates or philosophies affect every aspect of what we do."
For some, however, disco and SNF might seem an ambiguous choice of imagery, one that conjures an idea of hope as an opiate more than hope as a key to real action. It's a tension that Holden partly aimed for. "Disco seemed all about machine-made, corporate culture," he says. "I had no idea that disco's real roots had any political weight at all. I didn't realize anything like its full beauty and its incredible playfulness and fun!"
Ken Dryden, in contrast, is a much darker piece. The titular Canadian hockey player-turned-politician is heard in a 1980s interview on the subject of male athletes, sexual assault and a culture of impunity while a computer-generated projection randomizes multiple images: a hockey goalie, women walking, Dryden and flickering dots. With horror film-like music, sound and image marry in a striking evocation of humanity's capacity for evil. So there are two sides to this coin.
The third part of the show at Platform is a computer set up to explore a website, www.utopiasuite.com, full of info about the project, creative writing, interviews, a collection of articles on the theme of Utopia and more. There's so much to this project that the risk of becoming unwieldy is real but, in the end, U Suite seems as hopeful as its title suggests. Perhaps that's partly due to its form - vast and ongoing, a kind of Arcades Project for the 21st century. Right now, at least, it seems to be getting at something about the spirit of our times. Holden says the project will continue until at least 2012 and that the next phase will look at the notion of leadership. One can only wonder which faces might turn up there.
CLIVE HOLDEN: UTOPIA SUITE DISCO
VOIR, Montréal, February 14, 2008, Nicolas Mavrikakis:
*** 1/2 (3.5 stars out 4)
Clive Holden cultive tous ses talents. Il est cinéaste, artiste en arts visuels, écrivain et poète! Une installation nous montre qu'il se veut aussi artiste engagé.
Il y a dans cette installation vidéo de Clive Holden (artiste né à Winnipeg et vivant à Toronto) un look années 60-70 indéniable. Cela semble une évidence puisqu'il y cite et retravaille des scènes du célèbre film Saturday Night Fever (réalisé en 1977) avec l'ondulant, le grouillant John Travolta. Mais le visiteur se croira en fait plus en train de voir un film underground de cette période. Dans Utopia Suite Disco, vous verrez un montage visuel très fragmenté, très déconstruit, avec des couleurs vives qui rappellent le psychédélique tellement à la mode à cette époque. Du coup, cette oeuvre semble montrer comment le cinéma expérimental peut rencontrer, s'approprier, parasiter le cinéma hollywoodien. Ce montage, qui semblera hétéroclite au premier coup d'oeil, pourra en fait faire penser à une scène du film Easy Rider (1969), celle où à la fin du récit les deux héros font usage de drogues. Ce film (de Dennis Hopper) représentait alors déjà un bon exemple d'hybride, de croisement entre des genres cinématographiques très différents... En mettant en boucle certaines scènes montrant John Travolta et en les intercalant avec des images de personnages ayant marqué l'histoire (philosophes, écrivains, activistes...), Holden crée une fascinante bestiole visuelle. Cela aurait pu donner un discours un peu facile. S'agit-il d'une simple opposition entre culture populaire réconfortante et culture intellectuelle contestataire? Heureusement, le propos est plus complexe.
Comme le dit son titre, cette création parle de la notion d'utopie, mot inventé au 16e siècle par le philosophe anglais Thomas More pour décrire des projets de sociétés idéales. Voilà d'ailleurs pourquoi Holden inscrit le portrait de More (par Hans Holbein) dans sa vidéo. À ce portrait s'ajoutent ceux de Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela, Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem (une féministe étasunienne), Harriet Tubman (une abolitionniste afro-américaine du 19e siècle)... Le lien avec John Travolta et le mouvement disco? Comme l'écrit Vicky Chainey Gagnon dans le texte de présentation, le personnage de Tony Manero (joué par Travolta) représenta aussi un rêve, celui d'un enfant d'immigrants qui, ayant un emploi médiocre, souhaite réussir sa vie. La danse pourrait lui permettre de canaliser son énergie. Le rêve américain semble peut-être un peu simpliste, mais il est aussi une forme d'utopie qui passe, dans le cadre de ce film, par le corps dansant le disco. Comme si Thomas More avait fait un enfant avec Gloria Gaynor ou Donna Summer... Étrange mariage! Mais il fut une époque où la danse représentait un rituel social important et pas seulement un divertissement. Platon disait que pour être de bons citoyens, les hommes devaient savoir danser. On raconte qu'Élisabeth Ire avait choisi un ministre parce qu'il était bon danseur et que c'était une preuve qu'il saurait bien mener la société de son époque. Louis XIV adorait danser et il était l'étoile dans les spectacles à Versailles... Holden nous dit l'utopie (même la plus simpliste) comme mouvement social, comme manière d'être dans son corps.
Clive Holden - Utopia Suite Disco
Le cinéma expérimental, les installations vidéo
*** 1 / 2 (3.5 stars out 4)
Clive Holden cultivates all his talents. He's a filmmaker, visual artist, writer and poet! This installation shows us he's also a committed artist.
In this video installation by Clive Holden (an artist born in Winnipeg and living in Toronto) there's an undeniable look back at the 1960's and 1970's. This seems obvious in its reworked scenes of the famous film Saturday Night Fever (1977) featuring the undulating, teeming John Travolta. But then, the viewer believes he's in the process of seeing an underground film from this same period. In Utopia Suite Disco, you see a very fragmented visual, very deconstructed, with bright colours reminiscent of the psychedelia so fashionable at the time. As a result, the work suggests how experimental cinema can meet, claim ownership of, and parasitize Hollywood movies. This montage, which seems disparate at first glance, might remind one of a scene from the film Easy Rider (1969), where at the end of the story the two heroes take drugs. This film (directed by Dennis Hopper) was an earlier example of a hybrid crossover between very different film genres... By looping scenes featuring John Travolta and interspersing them with images of historical figures (philosophers, writers, activists...), Holden creates a fascinating visual beast ['bestiole' means bug or insect, which doesn't fit, so maybe 'beast' is best in this context, suggestions welcome]. It might have been easier to make this a lecture. But is this a simple opposition between popular culture and the comforting, intellectual, culture of protest? Fortunately, the connection is more complex.
Like its title, this creation speaks of the concept of utopia, a word invented in the 16th century by the English philosopher Thomas More to describe ideal societies. That's why Holden included the portrait of More (by Hans Holbein) in his video. To this portrait he added those of Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela, Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem (an American feminist), Harriet Tubman (an African-American abolitionist of the 19th century)... The link with John Travolta and the disco movement? As Vicky Chainey Gagnon wrote in the introductory text, the character of Tony Manero (played by Travolta) also represented a dream, that of a child of immigrants who has a poor job but who wants to succeed. The dance might enable him to channel this energy. Maybe the American dream seems a little simplistic, but it's also a kind of utopia that passes through this film, thru the body's disco dancing. As if Thomas More had a child with Gloria Gaynor and Donna Summer... A strange marriage! But it was a time when dance was an important social ritual and not just entertainment. Plato said that to be good citizens, men had to learn to dance. It's said that Queen Elizabeth the First chose a minister because he was a good dancer and that it was evidence he could lead the society of his time. Louis XIV loved to dance and he was the star in shows at Versailles... Holden is saying that Utopia (even the most simplistic) is a social movement, is a way of being in your own body.
30 January to 29 March 2008
The Memorandist, Winnipeg, June 29, 2009, Whitney Light:
INTELLECT AND A DISCO BEAT
A “light hut” reflecting projected images from Saturday Night Fever and of great leaders and thinkers is the centre of Toronto-based artist Clive Holden’s enveloping multimedia exhibition at Platform. Utopia Suite Disco breaks up the gallery space and invites you to dance, getting caught up in that disco beat while thinking about what the likes of Karl Marx and Yoko Ono did for the world.
I caught up with Holden by email to talk about this piece and another in the show called Ken Dryden. Both are part of a large and ongoing project called Utopia Suite, which is all about humankind’s process of imagining and creating.
Clive Holden: I was drawn to the movie and the disco era for many reasons. I realized that it was a gap in my education, in a sense, and I like gaps. They’re often charged places, especially culturally speaking, gaps between media, genres, and artistic and social subcultures. I grew up in a fairly drab, suburban, white, male, middle-class, straight and, so, relatively unchallenged context, hitting high school exactly between the hippies and the punks. I had no idea that disco’s real roots had any political weight at all, I didn’t realize anything like its full beauty and its incredible playfulness and fun! For me and my friends it was just something that killed live music, we didn’t know punk was coming and disco seemed all about machine-made, corporate culture. I was wrong. It was partly about the ascendance of an amazing new musical tool, the electronic keyboard or synthesizer and part of disco’s story is a huge amount of joyful musical invention evident in the songs from the era. But for many the music and era are also wrapped up in the rise of the gay rights movement, and for other young people it was about their self expression through dance and colour and fashion.
CH: There’s been a very wide range of reactions to the juxtaposition. Nostalgia is an interesting, charged word. For many people in the 21st century we have this new relationship with the nostalgic, or even the once-dreaded “sentimental”, where these can now be enjoyed alongside of our critical awareness. The two perspectives run side-by-side and that’s OK. That’s human.
CH: I wanted the viewer to think of these people and their ideas as a real part of their everyday lives. These far off-seeming theories, ideologies, debates or philosophies affect every aspect of what we do. In Utopia Suite Disco, by standing in the work’s ‘main viewing area/dance floor’ (and maybe even dancing yourself) you’re actively in the midst of this swirl.
CH: The Utopia Suite project as a whole is describing or suggesting many takes on utopianism, which has to include dystopia. (…) Ken Dryden is partly about the dynamic formation of a “middle man’s” character: [he’s] middle class, middle aged, politically middle, and his relationship with women is a central factor in this. The soundtrack’s remarkable interview (about male sports and rape) is from the mid ’80s when so much was being brought fully into the open for the first time. We owe a lot to this era too. And also it’s personal for me: when I recorded the interview from a table-top radio with a hand-held microphone I was in my 20s and trying to figure out “how to be a man” myself. Ken Dryden is an interesting and compelling Canadian figure, but for all of us who are following his changes over the years it’s like watching a life-long quasi-movie. What will he do next? And what are women and men becoming now, in the 21st century?
The Voice, Toronto, August 21, 2008, Catherine Tammaro:
"Utopia Suite is about maintaining hope." says Holden. "Being conscious about what's going on, without losing hope is extremely difficult. I feel that hope is an important ingredient of remaining progressive. Movement is required to make hope which interests me as I make art with moving images and I think that this movement itself is Utopia, it's the destination."
Utopia is currently understood as meaning an ideal, hypothetical society. It has been used to describe both intentional communities and fictional societies portrayed in literature however the term has been used pejoratively, often by rightist media says Holden, referring to an unlikely place or ideal. Holden believes it became out of fashion to discuss idealistic issues as recently as the early seventies. "It's funny to think that hope would be considered outdated, though this may be changing now. I'm tracking the use of the word 'utopia' on news sites and it's cropping up much more. Recently the word started appearing in the centre left and more progressive media but very cautiously.
"As a teenager, I read Orwell, Huxley and then Thomas More's Utopia. Now, I'm trying to approach Utopianism as a process, rather than as a static edifice or place. What is the ideal state, or city, or world?"
With such a boundless concept, Holden's creative process is lengthy, each project taking many years to complete. "2008 will be the first year when I'm really going to roll out this work. One of the things I'm looking at is different ways to exhibit as I also work with text, music and web culture. The different elements of the 'suite' are really conversations between various subcultures in the art world, which is utopian in a way."
The project incorporates Holden's beautiful looped, split screen montages and full screen images with sound and text in a cycle of films with such titles as Utopia Suite Disco, You Are Being Remembered, Engines of Despair and Jesus Jesus Jesus, dealing with a substantial array of segmented concepts revolving around the central Utopian theme.
In his work, Holden continually disrupts narrative and admits "It's very difficult for an artist to sidestep narrative, because people think by making patterns and they have a love for this, it's pleasurable – narratives are patterns, so they'll build them out of the raw materials you give them. Many film-goers have very conventional ideas of how to view a movie. Ideally, I'd prefer that people approach my films in the way they might listen to music, where they often have more tolerance for complexity."
La Tribune, Sherbrooke, February 9, 2008:
Exposition: Utopia Suite Disco
Artiste: Natif de Victoria, au Canada, Clive Holden habite maintenant à Toronto. Cet artiste multimédia est également connu en tant que poète.
Technique: Il travaille à partir d'images en mouvement sous différentes formes: films, vidéos, performances et installations.
Inspiration: Par un crescendo d'images et de sons, l'artiste veut emmener le visiteur le plus près de ''utopie. Dans une hutte dotée d'écrans de projection, il provoque la rencontre avec les plus grands penseurs utopiques. Un plancher de danse, animé par la musique disco du compositeur Oscar van Dillen, est à la disposition de ceux qui veulent s'y défoncer.
Courtney Yip, The Campus (Concordia U.), Montreal, February 6, 2008:
Courtney Yip Ventures to the Foreman Art Gallery to review a new gallery exhibit: Clive Holden's Utopia Suite Disco
It's always an exciting event when a new artist comes to the Foreman Art Gallery, whether you are studying the arts or simply enjoy seeing outside talent embrace our local community. Last Wednesday, Toronto-based artist Clive Holden held his world premiere of Utopia Suite Disco, a film installation charged with energy, colour and intrigue.
Through the faint chatter of gallery-goers I see the darkened space beckoning anyone near the doors to enter. The flicker of reds, greens, blues, and yellows teases my vision while the distant muffle of music flirts with my ears. Armed with a celery stick in my mouth and struggling to balance my papers with a beer, I unexpectedly bump into Mr. Holden himself on the way inside the gallery. With a few minutes to spare before the beginning of his talk, he happily agrees to take me on a quick tour of his new and exciting installation.
The first image I see is the famous figure of Tony Manero from Saturday Night Fever (a.k.a.: John Travolta in one of his most unforgettable roles, besides maybe Hairspray). The name of Holden's work, Utopia Suite Disco, was enough to capture my interest, but at this moment I am completely curious and full of questions.
"There are four sides to this piece," Holden begins as we approach what appears to be a structure right out of Studio 54, "red for passion, green for hope, blue for despair, and yellow for fear". Together, these four projected panels merge into one harmonic form and yet they still manage to convey an electric dynamic which the theme of disco so appropriately embodies. Scattered among these coloured projections are not just clips from the Travolta film appropriate to each emotion, but figures from what Holden claims to be his 'Utopia Hall of Fame'. Yoko Ono, Hugo Chavez, Jimi Hendrix, and Jesus Christ, are just a few I recognize right away. They appear on their own in larger portraits or in repeated patterns which mirror the lone disco ball in the far right corner of the gallery.
"I'm not looking for saints," Holden defends, "The people I have chosen are those who have taken the initiative to change society". So where does Saturday Night Fever fit exactly into this society of 'utopia'? "We recognize most of our revolutionary moments in recent history to take place in the 60's or 80's," Holden explains, "But I am attracted to the gaps; where things meet. There was a rapid movement in politics in the 70's. Gay rights is one important example that was heavily explored through the idealism of the disco subculture". It becomes clear that this piece relies heavily on the concept of movement and repetition for its successful understanding, whether it is the actual flicker of light and dance on the screens or the social movements the time period exemplified by each member of Holden's Utopian Hall of Fame. As each face appears and dissolves from vision we are exposed to the historical importance of each person and how they have affected the world we live in today. At the same time we chase Tony Manero's dancing and strutting figure around Holden's creation bringing both mind and body together in a personal dance of our own.
This new exhibit is certainly not something to be missed.
Jonathan Ball, Calgary, October, 2007 (Utopia Suite project correspondence, several email excerpts):
The Earth is degenerating these days. Bribery and corruption abound. Children no longer mind parents. Every man wants to write a book, and it is evident that the end of the world is approaching fast.
About 'apocalyptic anxiety' + utopianism: I'm thinking maybe we have to live in a state of quasi-fiction so we can maintain enough hope to get out of bed in the morning, so we can eat, breath, make money and love. This illusion of hope is central to human life. More and more I think that utopia IS this hopeful story we're living. We'll never be able to plan it, build it, or own it. The best utopia is like the best structures in art, it's organic and dynamic, it's an ecosystem. When we try to interfere with it we screw it up. But we don't have any choice but to try and find a way. We're here now. We're the poison and the antidote. We have to get up in the morning, even though it might be better if we didn't. We have to try to love, make things, and grow.
And I can't help thinking, even though the anxiety is old, that the nuclear threat and global warming might just be new in human history. We can now end the human race as we've known it (it's hard to not think it's a question of 'when', not 'if'). The other possibility, aside from being saved by aliens or someone's turning up the lights so we can leave the theatre, is that humanity will experience a kind of evolutionary leap at this point. Sparked by the shear, conscious, weight of responsibility for our future being in our own hands now (not in a God's angry hammer), this might push us forward. I wouldn't lay a bet on it, but I guess this is my secret utopian fantasy, and this 'riddle' seems to be at the heart of everything.