A group show entitled ‘Devil’s Advocate III’ brings five visual artists together in works which feature underground London iconoclasts, Renaissance characters, and common people. We met with the artists to see what ‘playing the devil’s advocate’ means to them, and why in the contemporary world of social media, it’s important for challenging art spaces to exist.
L - R: Terry Palamara, Scarlett Saunders, Jamiu Agboke, Conrad Armstrong, RJ Davis
You could mistake Bermondsey’s Biscuit Factory complex as nothing more than an afterwork fitness hub. Situated amidst ageing brutalist estate blocks, the apparent buzz on this Tuesday evening mostly comes from the conveyer of Lycra legged ladies ferrying in and out of a PureGym. Opposite, an orderly queue of young professionals in office casual-wear and backpacks forms for entry to the climbing wall; a member of staff noisily beckons ticket-holders forwards. It is safe to say that in this gentrified health-conscious dreamscape, biscuits are probably the last thing on anyone’s mind. But this £500 million redevelopment luckily includes more than the obligatory cookie-cutter gyms and shoebox ‘built-to-rents’ flats, by incorporating a good deal of studio, workshop and exhibition spaces within the development, providing a vital balance in a city evermore constricting for artists. Just around the corner outside the innocuous ‘F’ building, I meet the five artists involved in one upcoming exhibition at the ‘Many Hands’ space in the complex, entitled Devil's Advocate III. This is the third exhibition in the series, following previous group shows in Birmingham and at London’s Fever Gallery, but Midlands-based painter RJ Davies, who started the series, and has worked with Italian artist Terry Palamara on bringing this iteration to life, admits that any notion of continuity has happened as an organic accident. “The name was borne out of the original group of artists in Birmingham” she explains. “We realised, as close friends, we were often debating each other’s ideas, which created a tense but fantastic dynamic. It would make us feel inspired to run off and try to create something new, we were each other’s devil’s advocate.”
The group I meet for this show are less close friends (yet), more digital acquaintances, who have come together through a shared appreciation and acknowledgement of each others’ works and methods mostly via social media. “We actually connected through instagram,” RJ tells me of Scarlett Saunders who is also exhibiting, in an all too familiar tale of young artists connecting with one another through DMs. Likewise, Jamiu Agboke (JJ) portends that though he’s Nigerian born, facebook and instagram is what has raised him. Whilst finishing smokes, deliberating journeys and discussing the potential setup for the show, it is clear that whilst this group may come from different backgrounds, artistically, geographically and socially, they share a collective resonance with the contemporary times and prevalent technologies at their disposal. And I wanted to ask how the notion of the ‘devil’s advocate’ might inform these times for them, and play into their works, processes and experiences. We find an area in the building nearby the exhibition space to sit down and discuss; a unextraordinary rectangular white coffee table, perfunctory yellow plastic chairs, nondescript beige sofa flanked by plastic potted plants, even a slab of carpet I forget to remember the detail of. All the affectations of an ergonomically characterless 1990s office suite, made to order. Apparently, this prop set we sit in in had recently been used to film a music video. The verisimilitude of this office meeting is only occasionally ruined by reverberating shouts from nearby studio rooms, not to mention the conversation on saints and devils.
“To play the devil’s advocate is to be mischievous,” explains RJ. “It’s about taking a contrary position for the sake of testing an argument, and that’s a wonderful thing. It might not be comfortable but it forces me to acknowledge the limits of my knowledge through skepticism and doubt.” All agree that taking the contrary viewpoint is a necessary obligation in the creation and development of their work and thought. JJ explains that it plays a crucial role in recalibrating ourselves and the environments we live in by challenging those agendas which enforce segregation of thought between people. Terry expands by saying that, in her own approach, it pushes her to inhabit a character or impression contrary to herself. “I want to be the side of the wrong, the pervert, away from my experience, and support the dark thoughts by becoming the devil myself. That was my initial approach to this name.” And it is an interesting and purposefully ambiguous name for an exhibition series, as RJ explains that the relationship of playing the devil’s advocate can be inferred through the artist to artwork, or viewer to artwork, relating in many ways from a micro to a macro scale. It’s a suggestive title, but it’s not necessarily forceful or constrictive in its interpretation.
Scarlett notes that playing the devil’s advocate is in line with the way we all produce art and the reasons why. “You are working with the subconscious, not necessarily thinking. That’s something we might traditionally associate with the devil, primal thoughts which are generally constricted by society. Although nowadays religious dogma is less powerful, less relevant. Nowadays, we worship our iPhones.”
The notion of worship and religion permeates our discussion, because whilst the idea of playing the devil’s advocate has entered the English lexicon as a dialectic, argumentative stance, it originally stems from the Catholic church and the Christian tradition of canonising saints. An individual elected for sainthood would have their life and character questioned by a ‘devil’s advocate’ as a way of critiquing their actions in the eyes of the church and challenging the validity of the claim for canonisation. Lambeth-based artist Conrad Armstrong feels that this is particularly poignant in the context of the narrative portraits he is exhibiting for this show - individuals he considers contemporary ‘underground iconoclasts’ such as trans burlesque performer Rose Wood and British fashion stylist Judy Blame. “In my paying tribute to these people, I have ended up depicting them quite classically, almost with an air of idolisation and in some cases sainthood. Where the mainstream has not idolised these people for their outstanding services to underground culture, I am making the case in my deeply held belief of how awesome they are by venerating them through painting.”
Whilst this group of artists have been known to work in different discursive visual mediums before, the works at this show are all paintings, with the focus on figurative representations of faces, bodies, which might portend or nod towards other eras or other traditions but which are firmly situated in the contemporary period, subverting traditions of iconography, status and idolisation. This could be seen as a common thread amongst all of the works being presented. For example, RJ chooses to illuminate the background characters of Renaissance-era paintings as the subjects of her chosen works (“usually the ones you look past”), whilst Scarlett reflects on the characters from her upbringing moving around rural Suffolk in an attempt to deify the most common people. It might seem an empty aphorism to emphasise that most artists often look for inspiration from the most commonplace sources, particularly characters and scenarios around them. But in a social-media-driven world, and arts world especially, where the onus is always on representations of exceptionalism - the most talented, the best (or worst) looking, the extraordinarily visible - it’s true that presenting people that are removed from this realm, whether underground icons or commonplace everyday figures, could be seen as rallying against the cause or position of celebrity culture on social media, in itself an allegory for playing the devil’s advocate.
The conversation segues into the world of social media. Instagram. Facebook. How we use it, how it is abused. The itinerant problems and concerns which it forces us to contend with. I suggest that due to the mechanics of these platforms, people are now less likely to accept frissons or discomforts that they experience. Anything can be silenced, unfollowed, and effectually removed from one’s frame of reference forever, on the basis of maintaining safe-space, or committing micro-aggressions or gaslighting. Words which I don’t feel confident enough to use sometimes. And in a world of one’s own making, opinions calcify and individuals potentially hermetically seal themselves off from any opinions or voices that they might find distressing, creating their own echo chamber. “We fight for the right to free speech, because it is all we have,” RJ tells me. “When the walls go up, that’s when we lose free speech and no one can challenge anything. With art, you are on the threads of a narrative and it is about challenging the history and yourself and everyone who witnesses that art.”
Scarlett suggests that because we are losing such a sense of our physical world, that it is all being experienced through a filter or a screen, that this is precisely why visiting exhibitions and confronting physical art which may be challenging is more relevant now than ever before. “Visual art is about seeing and analysing and taking in, and it is a space which is not created as much now, because we are sheltering ourselves against anything which we might potentially find distressing.” It should be noted that social media, instagram especially, has been lauded for mobilising a positive shift away from physical art spaces which are often dominated by pre-existent hierarchies and biases. Marginalised groups are able to establish their own narratives on social media, their own powerful voices, exhibiting their work and potentially reaching a far wider audience in the process where this might not be possible in traditional physical spaces. But the consequence of the mechanics of these social media platforms means that these ‘safe spaces’ are often maintained through a nullifying of voices which hold an ulterior viewpoint. It is impossible to establish a safe space for every opinion, on every front, simultaneously - it is something of a paradox.
Could playing the devil’s advocate in art as a position be in jeopardy? As a consequence of how we use social media, is it becoming harder for us to legitimately challenge each other for the sake of discussion? Conrad doesn’t think so, because there is always a need for people to challenge the consensus of the time. But he does think that, in a political context, the left is losing the ability to unify as a consequence. “The rise of fascism in the West is real, and there is so much infighting between left and liberal leaning people on social media. I wonder how much that has given space for the far right to grow so unchallenged as we are seeing now. Divided, we are already conquered.” JJ adds that oftentimes playing the devil’s advocate is a necessary facet for society to maintain a balanced thought process, “breaking down our programming, the hardware, software and computer algorithms which govern how we see ourselves in our environment.” Hence the emphasis on entropy in his work; “Dismantling and destroying my ideas of self, being my own devil’s advocate is important, to take apart those things which formulate my own perception.” He suggests that the reason people get so easily offended these days is because they are spending too much time with The X Factor judges and The Only Way Is Chelsea characters, perhaps jokingly. Perhaps not.
Nevertheless, as a conclusive exercise, I ask the group how far art should be committed to go in the guise of playing the devil’s advocate. Is there a limit - does an artist have a moral obligation to protect their viewers? What if a viewer is mentally damaged or permanently distressed as a reaction? I used the knee-jerk reactionary outrage of Daily Mail critics to playwright Sarah Kane’s 90’s play Blasted, as an example. A play so thoroughly shocking in content, that many forgot the context of the times. RJ mentions the initial responses against Francis Bacon’s raw figurative imagery as another signifier. “If it negatively affects someone, then it means my art is powerful” Terry says, laughing as she adds, “I wish my art does that! But I think that in those instances, the mentality in the viewer was already there, dormant in that person in some way, and perhaps it needs to be faced, it needs to be challenged.” She adds that some people only make art to challenge, to shock, to get a reaction, “just for an instagram story, but art needs to possess or say something other than simply being reactionary. A viewer needs to see something as well as feeling challenged.”
Conrad agrees, looking back to the precedent set by the prevalence of the YBAs in 90's British art, which he feels wouldn’t happen again right now. “The stuff happening in the world is so shocking now, people don’t need to be shocked by artists anymore. People are looking to artist instead for affirmation, narrative, strength, identity, beauty and healing. We're not looking to get shocked out of our good times, like they were in the 90’s and early 00’s, as we're not really having good times.”
Devil's Advocate III takes place from 4th - 11th October 2018
at Many Hands, The Biscuit Factory, 100 Clements Road, SE16 4DG.
The opening is on Thursday 4th October 2018, from 6.30pm.
Untitled David Lynch, RJ Davis
Rose Wood, Conrad Armstrong
Was I Bad?, Scarlett Saunders
Mother Chant, JJ Jamiu Agboke
Oh For a Muse of Fire, Terry Palamara
Words: Ashby Field