The Duvet Brothers
5–19 November, Visual Research Centre, Dundee
Now the ‘hard times’ revival is on, the slogan ‘The Rich Get Richer, The Poor Get Poorer’ is suddenly as relevant as rioting once more. As a new wave of disgruntled liberals becomes politicised as the rave generation did before them, what better time for 1980s agit-video double-act The Duvet Brothers to reconvene for the ﬁrst time in 22 years.
Over four years from 1984-88, Rik Lander and Peter Boyd Maclean pioneered Scratch cut-and-paste visual mash-ups that took existing footage from a multitude of sources to construct recoded narratives that were a world away from glossy MTV orthodoxy. The Duvets sound-and-vision collages were busy and brash, even as they took a politically oppositionist stance. Perfect, then, to style the jump-cut visual identity of Channel Four’s 1980s Sunday lunchtime yoof magazine Network 7, a programme exhaustingly all over the place.
Such provocations are captured best in their 1984 treatment of New Order’s groundbreaking 1983 indie/dance crossover, ‘Blue Monday’, which juxtaposes images of Margaret Thatcher and her cronies lording over the Conservative Party with picketing miners engaged in civil war with policemen. Post-industrial urban wastelands grow barren and nuclear disaster seems imminent. A Godley and Crème production this isn’t.
The ‘Blue Monday’ footage ends the second set of Lander and Maclean’s revisitation of their multi-screen based work. ‘The Long Commute’ by fellow Scratch video pioneer George Barber, and the science-ﬁction fun-palace of Jaygo Bloom’s ‘Arcade’ remain as iconoclastic as The Duvets, even as they’ve moved into different spheres. Utilising a wall of 21 screens and three video recorders, the ﬁrst half of the show is a replay of one of the Duvets multi-screen scratch shows, which toured hip joints such as the Wag Club, the Fridge in Brixton and Brighton’s Zap Club, before moving on up to London’s Royal Festival Hall and beyond. These trade test transmissions mix and match a panoply of pop-art trash iconography and low-rent cult movies to dizzying effect in keeping with the club culture that spawned it. Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson are in there, as is ‘Shaft’ star Richard Roundtree.
This ‘set’, which runs as an installation following a performance on 5 November, was ﬁrst performed on 30 September 1986 at London’s Soho-based Limelight club, the converted Welsh Presbyterian church that became the über-trendy haunt for the era’s art-pop fashionista. Presented under the saucily nudge-nudge ‘Wet Dreams on 25 Screens’ banner, the piece’s original context exposes the ﬁrst of its big contradictions. Here was radical chic in excelsis, making good out of the aspirational free-market ethic that had been opened up even as its creators purported to smash it up. Both men’s future TV careers would prove equally contrary. While Lander went on to direct post-pub shows such as ‘The Word’ and ‘Eurotrash’, as well as Turner Prize coverage and digital soaps, Maclean has worked on comedy sketch shows, by way of documentaries, for Jonathan Ross.
Yet the Duvet Brothers arrived at a crucial point in time artistically as much as politically. Pop culture was exploring its own parameters aided by hi-tech equipment that didn’t know what to do with itself. New technology had already allowed Factory Records to tour its ‘Video Circus’ concept around arts centres in 1982, while bands such as the Human League and Cabaret Voltaire had long explored the possibilities of multi-media.
With Lander and Maclean seated behind mixers, their passivity is concentratedly at odds with the hyper- activity onscreen. It’s a set-up straight off the backdrop of Tony Wilson’s seminal late-night TV magazine, So It Goes by way of David Bowie’s TV-addicted alien in Nicolas Roeg’s similarly fractured 1976 ﬁlm The Man Who Fell To Earth. A second set features material generated for the 1987 ﬁlm of Brett Easton Ellis’ novel, Less Than Zero as well as footage put together for the cyberpunk folly of Tony James’ Sigue Sigue Sputnik. Devoid of the overblown ridiculousness of the band’s image, the mash-up by any other name of Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, ambient dub and punk snarl on the Giorgio Moroder produced ‘Atari Baby’ now sounds like prophecy. Twenty-ﬁrst century boys indeed.
‘Blue Monday’ itself may now look like history, but then it was a living mass-media newspaper for the kids. What hits home is how shockingly recent such iniquities are, and, if the faces of Cameron, Clegg and Osborne were superimposed, how frighteningly current it is. ‘One more tune!’ shouts some wag at the end of the ﬁrst set, as we dance through dark times once more.
Neil Cooper is a writer and critic