Sue Dodd: Hot Gossip - Art Collector

Issue 30, October - December 2004

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There is a new wave of performance art surging through Melbourne. You find it in the galleries – on video projections, or at exhibition openings – but also in bars and nightclubs and at one-night garage or house parties. Sue Dodd’s Gossip Pop performances built around electro-pop renditions of celebrity news from magazines such as New Weekly are at the wave front.

Melbourne is a festival city now, almost 12 months of the year. The calendar rotates between fashion, visual arts, design, music, film; along with their fringe components and seasonal manifestations. There is always some cultural event, opening or party – but usually several – going on in the city just about every night of the week. Since the turn of millennium, Melbourne seems to have attained critical mass. A huge boost in inner-city residential accommodation has transformed the CBD which, along with the nearby cultural districts of Prahran and Fitzroy, now have a feral street life and a bar scene that rival Berlin. With this much activity going on, it’s not surprising that there are initiatives and opportunities in abundance for performance.

Increasingly being dubbed live art, this new milieu for performances like Sue Dodd’s gigs is closer to the catwalk and to MTV clips than to the models of performance art taken from Artaud’s theatre, abreaction therapy sessions or even Dadaist interventions. When we invoke that older genre of performance we inevitably imagine either harrowing scenes of bodily mutilation or drearily sustained endurance pieces, quite often boosted with exclamatory rhetorical commentaries on sexual politics, or at least the gritty, visceral identity of the body. The sort of performance art that flourished throughout the later decades of the twentieth century was intended – either through techniques of boredom or violent assault – to confront its audience’s boundaries of good taste and propriety by asserting, with at times slapstick exaggeration, the authenticity and reality of the performer’s body behind its appearance.

But, today, in a culture that dedicates perhaps half its media broadcast time and internet bandwidth to reality TV, doco-soaps, to amateur porn and domestic webcams, the performer’s body hardly testifies convincingly to so-called bedrock values of authenticity and reality. The term hyperreality may sound like a trendily overused and even empty buzzword, but we all recognised the potency of this cultural phenomenon when watching with simultaneous horror and familiarity the jets crashing into the World Trade Centre towers, coordinated for US prime time media coverage. Hyperreality implies not so much the power of media imagery to manipulate illusions (like a magic trick) as it describes a plateau state of hallucination or ecstasy. An ecstatic state of appearance, like the overexposure and celebrity of the Big Brother householders.

“I’d rather look like a manga character than a real person,” says Sue Dodd, and at times she manages it. She calls her website <psuedodd>. Appearances may be deceptive, but not because they form a shallow screen over a real body or personality. The superficiality of appearance is not trifling or trivial. We are our images. “I cannot not wear make up. Everything is make up. Everything is fake. The stories about celebrities that are made up are just as interesting as the truth about them. And what is the difference between the true and imaginary celebrity? If it’s imagined then it may as well be real. Celebrity is an addictive fakeness that becomes real or has real effects on our lives. I like the phrase that one columnist had, describing celebrity gossip pages as ‘the magazine equivalent of crack’.”

The lyrics to Dodd’s songs are deliriously prosaic, abbreviated recitations of celebrity scandal reported in gossip magazines. Her brother Phil Dodd provides the electro score to the lyrics, adapting his Game Boy so that it becomes a sequencer. The beats are similar in idiom to Sue’s delivery: steady but driving, they are reminiscent of the techno-romanticism of early 1980s German synth-pop. Cool, remote, architectonic and subtly celebratory of sleek metal functionalism and consumerist élan. “At a drive-thru chapel in Las Vegas/in a lime green limo…/Britney’s drunk wedding/Britney’s drunk wedding…”. Chanting in an almost elegiac drone, Dodd relates the story of how pop princess Britney Spears “shamed her family and shocked close friends by marrying an undesirable childhood friend”, as if this was an edifying mythological tale sung by an ancient bard. A song resonant with moral dilemmas and with the hero’s struggle against destiny and human failings: “Insiders say the horrified star wailed, ‘Oh my god, what have I done!’”

The content of her songs is melodrama. But Dodd’s low alto register sounds deadpan, with a zoned out, robotic repetitiveness. “I was so inspired by the German techno band Kraftwerk,” she remarks, “when I saw them early last year on tour here. They hardly need any movement to generate their music. Just moving a hand or finger. So their bodies emphasised that by their blank rigidity. I do my New Weekly stuff with the same gravity, as if I’m taking the material absolutely seriously. No laughing, ultra cool.” Yet her voice isn’t flat lining. It can drift lazily from the throat and also rise up on the verge of a pout. There’s nothing facile in this voice, no easy simulation of air-head banality or suburban boredom. It flickers with moments of insistence, as if to persuade us that – sad or mad as it sounds – yes, Britney was seen eating a double double cheeseburger. After all, “The one time health fanatic/ Ended a recent shopping trip/ With a visit to a junk food drive-thru…”

And there are controlled, thin tremors of urgency and concern in pace as well as tone. “Robbie’s drug depression hell”, lifted from an article on Robbie Williams’s notorious drug abuse, is intoned with the sort of world weariness of Peggy Lee’s famous cabaret lamentation, “Is that all there is?”, in which the chanteuse slides into a jaded nihilism. If that is all there is, then I may as well have more of it. But is this a sarcastic jibe at entertainment culture, or acquiescence to the commodification and trivialisation of human values? Dodd makes it clear that there is an element of irony in what she composes. “It’s really Gilbert and Sullivan for me, or even Rolf Harrris,” she says, describing the refrain from her song about one of Kylie Minogue’s former lovers: “I sing the lines, ’James admits/ I cheated on Kylie/ I cheated on Kylie …’, and then I turn to the audience and repeat with an evil relish, ‘He cheated on Kylie!’ The audience loves it. They cheer!” At the villainy of the cheating lover? It’s a kind of revenge against the privilege of celebrities whose misdemeanours as well as the injustices they suffer become both more dramatic than our own turmoils and also more banal in that they have so little moral impact on us.

This pantomime elocution isn’t just an affectation. In her teens Dodd gained ample experience in amateur musical theatre, along with tertiary training in cello and piano and playing in productions of Oklahoma and Paint Your Wagon. Then at Monash University she majored in art history and literature, devoting spare time to the Shakespeare society. She is no stranger to performance and its overstatement of personality. In art school at RMIT she majored in painting, only to end up producing video art. “After three years of doing awful abstract expressionist painting I realised that my approach to painting was as a performative action, and when I jumped into video work I found that I didn’t need the kind of ego that conventional theatre demanded.” And yet, in many respects, her art is a particular kind of consumer fantasy of the ego: the personality defined by its mirror in the entertaining fictions of celebrity.

Entertainment has had a lot of bad press throughout twentieth century modernism. Modernists insisted that the value of art is in its capacity to provide a critique of culture and society. Modernist aesthetics endorsed art that made an advance – in the sense of a critical development – upon its predecessors. This progressive art was expected to be critical of other art; and modernist art and aesthetic theory were especially condemning of art that failed to be critical. This failed art was called entertainment. It was kitsch, or a phoney culture: art that collapsed into a commodity. And this concept of entertainment persists even today. It is aligned, pejoratively, with décor, fashion and with junk food. It’s found in home improvement shows and in the promotion of celebrity chefs. In this form, entertainment – notably in pop music – is allegedly uncritical because it serves up pre-digested material that is inoffensive to taste. It has no irritating or challenging edge. Undemanding, comfortable and characterless. Needless to say there is an aloof moral seriousness behind this kind of view.

Sue Dodd’s work, however, is steeped in the culture of entertainment. It is fuelled by a cultural environment that has for some years unapologetically embraced the creative convergence of music, fashion, cinema, design, multimedia, Djing and Vjing. In its lyrics and musical form it comes close to what Malcolm McLaren has recently dubbed “chip hop”, that “folk” level of electronic consumer culture found for instance in six-bit samples of antique Atari and Game Boy musical motifs. For Dodd, celebrity journalism has a similar folksy and almost primitive quality. It is a substratum of the superficial. “My songs are more like karaoke than rap,” explains Dodd, “and my DVDs and CDs are very basic, almost D-I-Y in style. They are pseudo-merchandise, simulated forms of merchandising. Maybe I’m trying to disappear into those false, consumer images, like a celebrity.”

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