Relph and Payne’s film Gentlemen (2003) was first shown as part of the 2003 Tate exhibition Days Like These. It is a film about youth culture and how it inhabits public space in a city. The artists use public toilets as a metaphor for their grievance with corporate intervention into youth culture. They say that they are ‘places where you find private behaviour in a public environment. They can be completely ordinary, just somewhere to go to the loo, or they can be sexual spaces. They’re very theatrical.’ (Nick Relph, interviewed in Frieze, p.70.) The work is dominated by iridescent abstract images, which the artists shot in and around Carnaby Street, a neighbourhood that was the epitome of Swinging London in the 1960s but that now stands for global brand marketing and the decay of urban culture as a result of tourism.
The film opens onto a black and white image of water falling and to the sound of Morse code. Turbulent water appears to emanate from a fountain. There is the sound of a toilet flushing, an image of urinals, tissue paper and a red cubicle door. The camera moves above ground onto an empty night-time street. A pigeon walks by. Christmas lights flash. Inside again, a basin fills with brown water. There are many further disjointed shots, such as close-ups of mould, stains and burns on surfaces and a globule of liquid soap in a basin. Foil banners above a street reflect the water of the opening scene. Moving through these abstract images of underground lavatories and close-up shots of Christmas illuminations, the film’s unseen narrator articulates a rap-style inner monologue and critique of society and the art world. The voice describes the banality and ugliness of the city: ‘Writing poetry in the window of Starbucks on Oxford Street is the most staggeringly modern thing you can do.’ Then, later: ‘Londoners avoid Oxford Street because they can’t bear the fact that it looks just like the rest of the country.’
German philosopher and social theorist Theodor Adorno characterized the most effective avant-garde tactics as a double-move – not as a simple resistance against the all-encompassing power of estrangement but rather a double embrace of it. He argued that one defies the conditions of estrangement by imitating and exaggerating them and thereby making them overtly visible. Relph and Payne’s practices reflect their experience of alienation from their surroundings. Thus their work does not try to escape the boring regularity of everyday life but rather embraces it in order to make visible the predicament of urban estrangement. A line in the script reads, ‘If you make something blander and blander and blander, won’t you end up with something pure?’
Payne and Relph’s approach has been to try and embrace what most people find ugly about the city. They claim that they achieve this goal by refusing clarity in their images. ‘The ambiguity of the script is reinforced by the ambiguity of the images. We shot the outdoor scenes at Christmas, in the drizzle, and the only time we could work together was at night. The idea of shooting things out of focus was to not credit anything as being worth looking at. There are no people in it, no recognisable places, landmarks, shops, statues, monuments, buildings. Even the close-ups are so close that you can’t recognise them. It’s purely lights and glitter.’ (Oliver Payne, interviewed in Frieze, p.74)
‘West end boys / Frieze talks to Oliver Payne and Nick Relph’, Frieze, issue 75, May 2003, pp.70-75.
Andreas Kroksnes and Hans Ulrich Obrist (eds.), Taschen: Oliver Payne & Nick Relph, Oslo 2004.
Judith Nesbitt, Now and Then: Art Now at Tate Britain, London, 2004, pp.9-13, p.40.