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Lovers of Debris – The INS at Tate Britain

By Steve Finbow.

Dressed in grey suits – sort of Joseph Beuys meets Gilbert and George meets half of Kraftwerk – Tom McCarthy and Simon Critchley took the stage of the Clore Gallery auditorium. Or they didn’t. Did they? This was The Tate Declaration on Inauthenticity by the International Necronautical Society at which actors replaced the General Secretary and Chief Philosopher. See what was happening? Were the actors authentic? Would Tom and Simon be any more so? The nameplates – onomastic jokes – proclaimed their authenticity (although the ticket stated we would be seeing Simon Critchley and Tim McCarthy). The actor portraying McCarthy looked like Andrew Rawnsley – the Observer’s Chief Political Commentator, while the one playing Critchley resembled some minor politician in a little-watched BBC drama.

This is the British avant-garde. Continental seriousness shot through with nods to British humour – Heidegger joins Monty Python or a Tommy Cooper-influenced Roland Barthes. The British do not do art movements – Vorticism produced Blast and very little after that. The YBAs – thrust together by a Saatchi-led press – had little in common apart from their publicity. With its proclamations, declarations, committees, purges, and publications the INS follows in the (ministry of silly) footsteps of Marinetti’s Futurists, Breton’s Surrealists, and Debord’s Situationist International. INS members handed out designer passes to the press along with documents on INS history and a transcript of the declaration, everything emblazoned with the INS legend. INS members wore INS nametags, lapel buttons, and, to cement the feeling of an organization, unveiled behind the speakers, the new INS crest showed a sponge (formlessness), a net of the globe, Anubis (the preincarnation of Wile E. Coyote), and the INS motto: cras ingens iterabimus aequor – “Tomorrow we shall (re)traverse the enormous space/sea.”

The packed auditorium did not seem to get the joke. The post-declaration Q&A session eventually elicited laughter either by the use of Bergsonian repetition – the McCarthy/Critchley clones reading from set answers: “let me answer you like this” – or Freudian release at the end of the interminable questions. Note: at readings, people asking questions – in love with your own voice – please be aware that interrogative remarks require an erotome.

According to the INS, we are all dividuals – the self is divided, split, is inauthentic, we are comic, incomplete; the art we make, which informs our existence, is fake, a forgery, is indeed the there of our thatness. Our journey to death (Necronaut) is a way to navigate existence – there is no transcendence – our matter matters. So: Beckett, Blanchot, and Bataille as drawn by Chuck Jones.

But does the INS matter? Is it an avant-garde movement? An in-joke? Is the avant-garde an in-joke? Like the crowd at the last Sex Pistols’ concert, did the audience in the Clore Gallery auditorium think they had been cheated? Or was it more like the Pistols’ 1976 gig at the 100 Club and everyone will claim to have been there. (Like the nappy from my original Sex bondage trousers, I might keep my be-ribboned INS press pass just in case). See – authenticity equals history. Or does it?

Despite some undergraduate humour, the actors’ inability to pronounce some of the words – “dédoublement” was a good one, the dodgy fascist chic, the INS is at least questioning how we think about art, literature, and existence. In its acknowledgment of continental philosophy, experimental literature, and the place of the avant-garde in society, the INS – whether wholly serious or tongue in cheek – is a welcome addition to a culture slaloming headlong down lowbrow hill.

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ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Steve Finbow’s novel Balzac of the Badlands will be published by Future Fiction London in October 2009.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, January 22nd, 2009.