Between 1999 and 2001, Nick Relph and Oliver Payne made The Essential Selection which consists of three films entitled Driftwood (1999), House and Garage (2000) and Jungle (2001); a trilogy themed on London, the suburbs and the surrounding countryside. Driftwood is a streetwise crack at London’s geopolitical enclaves and civic wellbeing. The artists state that Driftwood grew directly from their desire to make a homage to Patrick Keiller’s film London (1994), a quasi-fictional anatomy of urban, industrial and commercial space at the end of the 20th century. They decided to appropriate his technique but use it to discuss skateboarding, a subject about which they had an intimate knowledge. The film opens with an assessment of the Waterloo area and the South Bank Centre. The smooth surfaces and concrete ramps around and under the South Bank Centre attracted skateboarders despite the authorities’ attempts at the time to put obstacles in their way. The film then takes the viewer on a journey through Canary Wharf, Earls Court and Mayfair whose citizens are subjected to sneering vitriol. The film outlines the origins of Soho as founded by Greek Christians fleeing Ottoman persecution in the 1670s. The carnival of artists, dropouts and revolutionaries who came to settle there over the following years further established the district as one that would later attract artists such as Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud.
The title of Relph and Payne’s second film, House and Garage is both a reference to desirable home ownership and a popular musical genre. The film opens with an ambient soundtrack layered over an image of a nondescript teenager, blurred and out of focus. Interspersed with images of parkland deer, the teenager’s emerging identity appears to be at the juncture of childhood and adulthood in a way that is reminiscent of the emergence of the suburbs from the meeting of town and country. Adopting the home movie format, House and Garage depicts a space where imported cultures rub shoulders with middle England. A man in a cowboy hat performs a country and western line-dancing routine in a domestic interior while another scene captures a group of teenagers rapping to drum and bass music. The artists’ youthfulness at the time of making this film afforded them access to the den-like bedrooms of ordinary British teenagers. Teenage nonconformity is captured in a nostalgic scene where a young lad ritualistically bows his tie into an unorthodox knot.
Jungle, the third film in the trilogy, opens on an area of sky where a local claims to have sighted a UFO. The emptiness of the sky accentuates the implausibility of this eye witness account. There follows a frenetic scene of a man rolling a burning barrel up a narrow street packed with onlookers. Filmed in Ottery St Mary in Devon, where this ritual is observed every bonfire night, the strangeness associated with medieval re-enactment in the present day recalls the rural collision between local customs, unabated for centuries, and our current preoccupation with health and safety measures. A recent addition to the British political landscape has been the Countryside Alliance, filmed here on the march through Leamington Spa which makes for the unusual sight of a parade of aristocratic dissenters.
The idea of moving through a place, what Relph and Payne call ‘power-dossing’ has a long heritage and can be traced back through the Situationist International group and Surrealism to the nineteenth century figure of the flâneur that became popular in artistic and literary circles. At its most simple level a flâneur was a man-about-town who ambled through the crowds of European cities in search of bustle, gossip, and beauty. This figure was developed by Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) in the nineteenth century and was adopted by French Surrealists in the 1920s. They conceived the notion of the dérive (literally ‘drift’) as a walk through town that would strip away all of their conscious control over their destination by using some random means to decide which way to turn at the end of a block. They thought that the resulting merger between the participant's previous context and his or her new environment would reveal unexpected new aspects of reality. Dérive was later adopted and refined by Situationist International, an anarchist group that sought to overthrow capitalism through subversive cultural acts. Co-founder Guy Debord and his contemporaries developed the idea that ‘in the city one could create new situations by, for example, linking up parts of the city, neighborhoods that were separated spatially’. In 1958 Debord wrote, ‘In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.’ (Guy Debord, ‘Theory of the Dérive’, Situationist International Anthology, Ken Knabb (ed.), Berkeley, 1981, p.50.)
‘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.