Arabesque as a useful metaphor. Sharne Wolff talks to Baden Pailthorpe…
Sharne: Your new video Alt-Right Arabesque made in late 2016 reflects the ‘now’ of the global political climate. Was there any particular event that motivated you to make it?
Baden: There is no particular event that the work is based on, but rather a constant stream of fairly considerable shifts in the political/media landscape. Obviously, the election of Donald Trump and the associated emergence of fascism in the United States (sugar coated as the Alt-Right movement) represent a considerable shift in global politics. I felt that it was important to at least try to makes sense of what could be called a momentous political glitch.
SW: How would you describe the work?
BP: I would describe the work as a very immediate and raw attempt to process our present political moment, which is full of incoherent combinations of commercial interests, the celebrity TV President, so-called fake news and fascist theatrics. In the 1980s, French theorist Jean Baudrillard called the U.S. ‘the great hologram’, and today this image is more useful than ever in trying to understand the surreal (or hyperreal) situation we are in. So Alt-Right Arabesque offers a kind of theatre in which some of the key elements, artefacts, symbols, political metaphors and materiality of our present moment are arranged in a singular space.
SW: The conservative keyboard warrior in Alt-Right Arabesque is the same guy who’s spinning in the arabesque (ballet) position. How did those two ideas come together?
BP: I was interested in presenting the branding strategies of resurgent fascism in the U.S., which has been slickly marketed as alt-right, like some kind of sugar free snack or fake bacon. The arabesque is a useful metaphor for this – ballet is a traditionally beautiful art form – yet it is a beauty steeped in pain, a physical brutality on the body that is unbearable for most of us. There is a strong link here between aesthetics and violence, a relationship of co-dependency that is playing out in front of us globally through this bizarre political theatre. So these ideas came together in a round-about way – yet there are also strong historical parallels between dance and fascism. Rudolf von Laban, a key figure in the history of dance, was very active as a theatre director in 1930s Germany and thrived under funding from Joseph Goebbels until 1936. So, I guess the politics of the performing human body haven’t changed – only the way in which it is now deployed via mediated and networked strategies.
SW: Along with the cap worn by the seated character, which plays on the historical slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ recently reinvigorated by Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign, commercial brands feature in the video – namely, Absolut Vodka and the Nike Air Max shoe. Were they deliberate choices?
BP: There is also a can of Spam! These 3D objects – in technical terms – vary hugely in quality. The low-quality models are used in video games and other ‘real-time’ media to optimise efficiency. They are low on detail, so they can be processed quickly. This operational efficiency in digital media is synonymous with the policy strategies of current governments, where sound bites and other ‘low quality’ samples are presented with the aim of a kind of democratic efficiency. We are in a state of real-time history, where politics is performed at a crazy speed – and it is only accelerating. To keep the speed going, the messages get shorter and shorter, so Make America Great Again, or Lock Her Up!, are enough to induce a kind of trance-like aesthetic experience at a rally. This rhetoric gets shortened or condensed again, to MAGA, because Make America Great Again becomes too slow to say. So, Make Art GR8 Again becomes something else altogether – a useless claim on a blind subject.
SW: What sort of preparation was involved in making Alt-Right Arabesque? Was there anything that you found especially difficult?
BP: This was a very different work for me. Usually I work quite slowly, but this one emerged in a sort of furious rampage, a testament to the deeply upsetting politics that are happening right now. The most difficult thing was creating something vaguely coherent in such an overwhelmingly insane moment.
SW: The video had its debut earlier this year at Art Stage Singapore. What’s up next for you?
BP: I have a few exciting group shows coming up, Rencontres Internationales at La Gaîté lyrique in Paris and Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin; Countercurrents at the Samstag Museum; Beyond Belief: the Sublime in Contemporary Art at Bathurst Regional Art Gallery; Green: Body, Technology, Action at Griffith University Gallery, the film sector at Art Basel Hong Kong and I’m working towards a big solo show at Sullivan+Strumpf in October this year.
SW: There’s probably something else I could have asked about you or your work?
BP: Where does the amazing music come from? My illustrious composer James Brown, an exceptionally talented Australian composer!