On a quaint, bookshop-lined side street in Soho, something strange is afoot. One shop front, eschewing the dusty monographs and various literary paraphernalia characteristic of Cecil Court, has become host to a kaleidoscopic collage of foreign objects: construction paper, fleshy insulation foam, synthetic foliage and hasty, unfinished paint jobs cover its walls. Small planets of coagulated junk and nonsensical apparatuses serving no obvious task hover in front of the ex-shop window. They seem to patiently lie in wait for some cryptic function, or maybe remain as the hangover of some bizarre performance piece.
This elaborate installation is the ‘absurdly complicated’ stage-set for the newest piece of ‘Gesamkunstwerk’ by Berlin-based artist collective CONGLOMERATE, presented at Tenderpixel as their first London-based project. The group comprises a core squadron of 5 artists and filmmakers including Sol Calero, Ethan Hayes-Chute, Derek Howard, Christopher Kline and Dafna Maimon, converging and disbanding at will in different cities and contexts in order to produce 30-minute ‘Blocks’ of programming that make a mess of traditional genres.
Sticking like toffee to the manic cluster of happenings accumulated over the course of the collective’s existence, this iteration is no exception: ‘Station ID’ simultaneously exists as an online exhibition, IRL installation, a now-defunct production studio, looped video work and a performance apparatus, both set inside and presented within Tenderpixel. Drawing inspiration from the Rube Goldberg Machine – an intentionally convoluted machine that performs a mind-numbingly simple task – the stage set of ‘Station ID’ expands, frantic and half-finished, across both floors of the gallery, ultimately collapsing underneath the polished on-air appearance.
Following the contraption down the tight winding staircase, visitors will find the new video work cosied up in the back room with ‘Shrine’, a glitzy, silk-lined buffet table of miscellaneous ‘Block’ props from various episodes. Next door runs a looped screening of ‘Block One’ and ‘Block Two’, two collaged collections of video content produced by CONGLOMERATE’s core team that is infused with guest contributions including Jeremy Shaw, Molly Lowe, and The Institute for New Feeling, as well as ‘commercials’ for Christine Hill’s ‘Volksboutique’ and Constant Dullaart’s ‘Dulltech’.
Coordinated to mimic the information overload of channel surfing, the ‘Blocks’ include the telenovela ‘Desde el Jardin’ (directed by Sol Calero and Dafna Maimon), shot at David Dale Gallery in Glasgow and which stars Berliner Caique Tizzi in a genderfluid leading role supported by a cast of local Glaswegian Latino community members, while Shaw’s ‘Introduction to the Memory Personality’ lulls viewers into a state of pseudo-psychological hypnosis. A cushioned, pastel pink playground of Brutalist geometry carved from reconstituted foam provides the perfect paradoxical setting to view these equally surreal ‘Blocks’.
Puritan divisions between segments, ads and shows are abandoned as the skits bleed into each other and across genres. From cripplingly self-aware, anxiety-inducing game shows that appear like a Beckett play transported into some supersaturated 80s game show interior, to existential woodshop demos and Lynchian-inspired schizophrenic sex scenes, CONGLOMERATE zooms in on the bizarre aesthetics of TV programming while contemplating the value of collaboration and new viewing platforms within the digital age.
By exposing the artifice of its own making, ‘Station ID’ forces viewers to reconsider the reality of their perception as well as the limits of art’s ability to work as an illuminating force against, or whether it should be charged with that task at all. But there are moments of hard-hitting criticality amid the insane, teetering, hyper-sensory skits. In the process of almost sawing off a finger to teach us how to make a microwave in ‘The New Domestic Woodshop’ (directed by Hayes-Shute and Howard), CONGLOMERATE pokes fun at middle class DIY culture but also taps into the global housing crisis in subtle ways, with its protagonist’s suggestion that “the condition of living is homelessness’ amid his gripes over rent.
Meanwhile, ‘Desde el Jardin’ draws on the Latino community in Glasgow to create a soap opera whose hyperbolic ‘rags-to-riches’ story nonetheless puts forward gender-binary disruptions. Hill’s ‘Volksboutique’ stretches two decades as an infomercial-style auction house glitzing up junk to experiment with traditional understandings of value, commercial and otherwise. The programme’s anchor, ‘Telethon’, jumps in every now and again to implore us to donate and phone in to a call-bank of exhausted volunteers, using an all-to-familiar, anxiety-inducing rhetoric that never reveals its motives, location or currency.
The ‘disruptive’ commercials like Dullaart’s ‘DullTech’ and ‘Repossession Services’ end up hitting the hardest in their blatant critiques of neoliberal hypercapitalism. By inverting our expectations of ‘valuable’ TV versus hollow commercial sound-bites, the incoherent superstructure of CONGLOMERATE’s ‘Blocks’ doesn’t need to make sense in order to make a point. Its competing voices are well heard as a single incantation toward the insanity of our contemporary condition – from politics to the media – and a testament to those rare moments of lucidity to be found within the delirium.