Abyssinian Gold 2011

[Vexations, After Horace De Vere Cole]

Performance videos, live performances and interventions

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The “Abyssinian” princes about to tour the HMS Dreadnought, with their faces painted black and wearing theatre costumes.

One of two new performance videos that I worked on during the winter of 2010-2011 in the UK and as artist in residence at KINO KINO Senter for Kunst og Film in Norway. They are very different from each other, and from ‘Magickal Realism’ or ‘Nowhere Plains’. Both Stendhal Syndrome and Abyssinian Gold [Vexations, After Horace De Vere Cole] were shot and edited in HD using the studio, facilities and equipment at KINO KINO.

HDVC_PortraitWilliam Horace De Vere Cole, usually known as Horace, was the son of an army officer and an heiress. He spent at least fifteen years of his life and most of the fortune he had inherited on playing pranks that ridiculed the upper classes, authority figures and the conventions of polite Edwardian society. Eventually he married another heiress (i.e. not his mother!) and when he had spent all the heiress’ money he married a waitress instead. His sister married Neville Chamberlain, who became Prime Minister after Cole’s death.

Most notoriously of all, in 1910 Cole conspired with a number of Bloomsbury Set cronies (including the writer Virginia Stephen, later Woolf) to fool the British Navy into providing an official reception and tour of a state-of-the-art battleship, HMS Dreadnought. They achieved this feat by simply painting their faces black, dressing in theatrical costumes and wigs, talking gibberish and claiming to be princes from Abyssinia, hence the film’s title.

The Navy officers didn’t even twig that one of the “princes” was a woman, Virginia in blackface [far left of the photograph shown here; Horace is on the far right looking respectable as their English liaison]. This stunt was an elaboration of a similar one from Cole’s university days, in which a crudely blacked-up face and his ridiculous comments somehow convinced the mayor of Cambridge that Cole was a VIP visitor related to the Sultan of Zanzibar. ‘The Sultan of Zanzibar’ is also the title of Martyn Downer’s informative biography of Cole, in which the two contemporary photographs on this page appear.

Abyssinia covered territory in modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea, and the real Sultan of Zanzibar at the time controlled not only the East African archipelago of that name but also large parts of what is now called Tanzania reaching almost to the Congo, and the cities of Mombassa and Dar es Salaam. Although England could not be called multiracial or integrated by any stretch of the imagination, people of African origin were not unfamiliar to most ordinary people in cities like London or Bristol. There were sufficient numbers of them to produce celebrities like the writer Olaudah Equiano (a former slave who eventually “bought” [sic] himself and then played a large part in the 1807 abolition of the slave trade in Britain) and several well-known boxers, to mention only a few obvious examples.

Hopefully this gives some idea of the depths of ignorance involved in supposedly educated Naval officers at the dawn of the 20th century mistaking a white man (or a young white woman) with a wig, a glued-on beard and their face painted black for a member of the Ethiopian aristocracy. “Abyssinian Gold” is not actually gold at all, but a cheap imitation alloy made of copper and zinc.

An interesting aside is that Cole could apparently convince almost anyone of anything and he was born at Blarney Castle, home to the famous Blarney Stone that supposedly grants “the gift of the gab.” Abyssinian Gold wordlessly re-enacts some of Cole’s stunts and provocations. See below for more information on the sources and inspirations for the imagery in the film.

The soundtrack in this video is based on the aptly named ‘Vexations’ by Erik Satie; a short, repetitive theme of which Satie wrote “Pour se jouer 840 fois de suite ce motif, il sera bon de se préparer au préalable, et dans le plus grand silence, par des immobilités sérieuses” (“For playing the theme 840 times in succession, it would be a good idea to prepare beforehand, and in the greatest silence, by serious immobilities”.) When John Cage took Satie’s characteristically enigmatic text literally and staged 840 uninterrupted performances of ‘Vexations’ in 1963, it took over eighteen hours. Satie’s most experimental works were roughly contemporary with Cole’s own “vexations” of the British Imperial elite.

The social class that Cole was born into and the access it granted him to the British establishment simultaneously protected him and gave him opportunities for behaviour that would have ended badly for most other people, if they dared to flout society’s rules in the first place:

    • He sometimes walked around with a cow’s udder protruding from his trousers; he would then take out a pair of scissors in some public and respectable place, apparently snipping off the penis that he had indecently exposed.
    • He provided a large number of free theatre tickets to bald men. When viewed from the dress circle, their hairless scalps spelled out the word “SHiT”.
    • He took dummies into taxis and carriages, pretended to argue with them and then threw them out of the moving vehicles, in front of policemen.
    • He was excluded from ‘Who’s Who’ after he submitted a biography that listed “fucking” as his favourite hobby.
    • He arranged a party where he left strangers to introduce themselves. All of the guests had the word “bottom” in their name.
    • He would challenge people to races, or surreptitiously put watches and other valuables into their pockets. When they moved away from him, he would announce that he had been robbed and the thief was escaping. One of Cole’s victims was a Tory MP; Cole had him arrested as a pickpocket.
    • Cole somewhat resembled the MP (and later, Prime Minister) James Ramsay MacDonald. Whenever Cole was mistaken for the politician he would play along but do and say things that brought MacDonald into disrepute.
    • He drove a herd of cows down Piccadilly and had a picnic surrounded by them in Leicester Square.

At the time such antics were unheard of, rather shocking and frequently humiliating or disturbingly inexplicable to his victims. Nowadays tactics like these are incredibly widespread and hackneyed due to their frequent employment in either performance art (or things claimed as performance art, to make a fine but important distinction), as internet memes, flash mobs, on YouTube, as viral advertising or as fodder for TV comedy shows.

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My performance restages some of Cole’s pranks with a view to understanding the impact they would have made upon Cole’s participants/victims a century ago. It’s important to note that Cole seems to have been (at best) grudgingly tolerated by the people who knew him, and never regarded with much amusement, respect or affection. No less a figure than Winston Churchill said that Cole was “a very dangerous man to his friends.”

Cole himself was never more satisfied than when his victims felt angry, bewildered and humiliated. He certainly did not intend to make his victims or audiences laugh or feel included in his subversive acts except as horrified and helpless observers. Like his spiritual successors, the Italian Futurists, Cole wanted to “introduce the fisticuffs to the artistic battle.” He literally succeeded in achieving this after his Dreadnought caper: some Naval officers abducted him from his house one day so they could beat him up.

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I’m particularly interested in exploring the grey area between on one side acts that could justifiably be called pranks, protests or artistic interventions and on the other side acts that may be claimed as subversion or critique but are in reality merely antisocial, sociopathic, narcissistic or otherwise ethically unjustifiable acts carried out purely for the maker’s private gratification and without regard to those people whom he or she has involved in their work. This is obviously still very much a live issue in performance and video art, given the worryingly large number of artists and curators who seem to think that a work is subversive, avant garde or artistically valid just because it involves public exhibition of bodily functions and fluids, gratuitous nudity and sexual acts, creating needless offence or mindless confrontation, or some other expression of arrested psychological development.