Mar 13 2012: Beyond The Suspension of Disbelief (Surface Gallery, Nottingham, March 2012)

Baldassare Castiglione, a diplomat at the Italian court of Urbino in the late 15th and early 16th century, began writing The Book of the Courtier around 1508, as a kind of aspirational lifestyle guide for those intent on making their fortunes and careers in the field he had succeeded in himself. When the book was published in 1528 it quickly became essential reading, and it’s not too much of a stretch to consider Castiglione something like the great grandfather of today’s business gurus and corporate consultants: the go-to man who offered to unlock the secrets of success.

If Castiglione can be seen as a precursor to the lifestyle coach and motivational speaker, then, the prevalence of these guides in the early 21st century perhaps suggests that where courting the favour of princes and warlords was essential to building fortunes in the 1500s, courting the favour of CEOs and corporate raiders is essential to the same process in 2012: in both contexts, modes of rhetoric play key roles, as language adds its gloss to the realities of power. It’s through rhetorical language that both Corporations and aristocratic Courts maintain their entitlements, manipulating perception, bending subjects to their requirements in exchange for privilege, status and renumeration.

It’s this interest in rhetoric as the tool for reshaping reality that connects the humanist courts of Urbino and the Medici with the present day corporate training video, and both to the film and performance works of Alice Gale-Feeny and Katherine Fishman, as gathered at the Surface Gallery last week under the title Beyond The Suspension of Disbelief. There’s a strong sense that these works, like Castiglione’s prescription of skill with letters as a key trait in any ideal courtier, explore the language and behavioural patterns that naturalise the corporate authorities of our own day, and encourage us to internalise its values as our own. The territory, in other words, is the analysis of propaganda and the language that embodies and conceals it.

The nature of propaganda, of course, is that to be effective, it has to feel like something else: a way of perceiving the world that operates insiduously and unconsciously on those subject to it. Easier to perceive it in publications from the past (all those portraits of the wealthy as embodiments of stability, wisdom and culture that were painted in the 1500s) or in other places (for instance, East Germany and the Soviet Union) than when it appears in exactly the same formats in our own cities and media landscapes posing as the unexceptional truth: the heroic figures of Medici paintings or Stalinist posters seem more absurd and transparent, somehow, than the photoshop enhanced musculature of our own sporting heroes, whose extended fingers nonetheless point to the same implausible utopias.

Perhaps this why the figure of the gymnast is prominent here, as a cipher for ‘performance’ whose confidence and skill we might aspire to. She appears in Katherine Fishman’s Figure Cut Before, her movements and mannerisms analysed for their effective way of concealing the mistakes and ‘flusterings’ that might otherwise give away the uncertainty lying beneath her displays of prowess. Meanwhile, in An Image Of The Real Thing Or The Real Thing, Alice Gale-Feeny acts out a set of instructions on how to give public presentations, though the confident and authoritative facade belies the nature of the exercise: Feeny is reading direct to camera from an autocue script (by Fishman) that is not only someone else’s words, but a script she’d never seen before the camera began to roll.

The end result is a kind of illusion, a performance of authority rendered partly transparent by its context. But if we see the ‘flusterings’ occasionally in Feeny’s presentation, these too might be deceptive. Fishman’s corner projection, A More Neutral Front, consciously exploits nervous tics and uneasy postures to fake a superficially more honest address, seemingly refusing the games of confident projection seen in An Image Of The Real Thing Or The Real Thing but, in fact, adding a further layer to the manipulation of her audience by professing a modesty and embarassment at her apparent ‘superiority’ that is designed to reinforce the authenticity of the voice she projects.

There’s a gender point here, too: where Feeny’s presence is businesslike, subtly masculinised in a plain black dress, slicked back hair and confident bearing, Fishman plays on traditional female self-effacement as a tool for winning an emotional identification between speaker and audience. “I’m a bit embarrassed to be saying this…”, she implies, “you can see this by my uncomfortable hand gestures and shifting of weight”. But behind this, there is someone exploiting rather than concealing that earlier gymnast’s ‘flusterings’, a move to compound the effect of her effort to win her viewers over. Just as propaganda is only effective when not perceived as such by its intended audience, so this studiedly nervous delivery barely conceals an overt manipulation of the viewer.

It’s a point crystallised in Feeny’s The I In Team, where the speaker addresses us on the subject of winning success by capitulating modestly to power (or, as she puts it herself – only slightly paraphrasing the sentiment “don’t resist” – “be with the change”) in two distinct modes: first, on a camera set to one side of a conference table, then face-on to the camera. The first mode seems naturalistic,  perhaps aiming to create a feeling of informality, while the second adds force to the key points in her address. This sense of her speech making its audience responsible for their own subjugation to the unidentified  authority on whose behalf she speaks is palpable: resist the message, don’t act on the opportunity being offered, and you’ll only have yourself to blame for the failure you’ll experience.

As a body of work, Beyond the Suspension of Disbelief follows on from material produced with Medium Rare (especially the three part performance for Hatch: NEAT at Wellington Circus in 2011, when Feeny and Fishman were among a five-strong company of gym teachers bossing groups of participants through a series of strangely ritualistic exercises in team-building and sports appreciation) and a sequel at Hatch: Fresh, where the duo performed as motivational speakers acting out the content-free rhetoric of their profession, complete with banners, bouquets of flowers and fixed smiles. A short, scripted interview with Fishman and Feeny by Michael Pinchbeck on the opening night made similar points about spontaneity and authenticity, as the three read from a transcript of an actual conversation in a stilted, second-hand way: a photocopy decaying with each reproduction it underwent.

The work throughout Beyond The Suspension of Disbelief feels like part of the same ongoing exploration of the rhetoric of corporate authority and persuasion, its dependence on faking authenticity, a sense of naturalism in otherwise highly artificial modes of speech and behaviour. In The Book Of The Courtier, Castiglione notes that the ambitious courtier must be aware that “the sences of oure bodye are so deceyvable, that they beguile many times also the judgment of the mind”. The use of verbal and physical language to deceive is the subject here, too, from that gymnast’s concealment of the flaws in her performative armour to the various instructions on offer in the arts of modified self-projection: a veneer of authenticity; a bag of physical tricks.

Just as we now see privilege affecting anti-elitism to secure its own future, and ideologues affecting pragmatic resignation to the man-made weather of market forces, so it seems necessary to unpick the strategies of twenty-first century public language in some of the ways seen here. So far, the implicit political agenda in Fishman and Feeny’s work seems submerged, though there are links to the strategies used by Carey Young in works like Speechcraft and Win-Win, where aspects of the corporate reshaping of everyday language and life are made the explicit subject. It’ll be interesting to see how this body of work develops and whether that political dimension, or some more general exploration of performance techniques, emerges into the foreground of any future collaboration.

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