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Clara Ursitti, performance photograph for Communication Suite

Communication Suite draws on the experience of Christine Borland during her research as a NESTA Fellow when she explored the work carried out at the Wolfson Medical School Building in the University of Glasgow.

The Communication Suite is situated on the top floor of that building and is comprised of 10 pairs of rooms. These units combine a ‘consulting room’ with an adjacent classroom, linked by closed-circuit surveillance cameras. Actors, playing the role of patients, encounter medical students in the consulting room.

Meanwhile, next door, the remainder of the class assess each student’s ability to cope with difficult one-to-one situations, watching their performance live on screen.

The exhibition is sited in these rooms and includes six newly commissioned works by Clara Ursitti, Alan Currall, Alastair MacLennan, Aileen Campbell, Kirsty Stansfield and Christine Borland, alongside already existing works by Mark Dion, Breda Beban, Douglas Gordon and Ulay/Abramovic.

The premise of the exhibition is based on the relationship between medicine and performance. This is steeped in history. The roots of anatomy and dissection are deeply embedded in the rise of the medical theatre and later, the operating theatre.

Performance offered a complex set of solutions to anatomists and surgeons attempting to distance their jobs from mere butchery. Theatre and enactment offered them a way to frame their taboo-breaking penetrations of the human body in a meaningful context. The more recent history of training young physicians to create the semblance of care and concern updates these scenarios for a modern, psychologically layered society.

Each of the commissioned and selected works reflects this history of theatricality and at the opening it was impossible not to be haunted by Alastair MacLennan’s veiled presence or convulsed by the spectacle of Clara Ursitti’s enquiring dolphin.

Other works such as Alan Currall’s quiet, sly meditations and Douglas Gordon’s melancholic dual monitor piece come into their own during the daily run of the exhibition when there is sufficient time and space to reflect on them.

There is another unspoken theme to this exhibition, however, and that concerns the role of theatricality and site in contemporary art. From Michael Fried’s landmark assertion in 1967 that installation art partakes of the theatrical (in the pejorative sense) through to Melanie Gilligan’s more recent claim that modern life is permeated by the theatrical, contemporary art has had to cope with this issue of performativity.

Communication Suite tackles this theme head on—highlighting the complexity of our relationship to performance in a world where doctors collaborate with actors to learn how to develop a more convincing response to patients. In a world where we all enact, and re-enact, our roles in an everyday life dictated by ‘reality TV’ and continuous surveillance, communication has reached new performative heights.

Many of the pieces in this exhibition highlight this perfectly in their reliance on the two room principle. Enacted in one space, the works are re-framed and perceived again in a second space. The viewers, drawn into the work, are reviewed in turn by their neighbours. True to life, perhaps, and a nightmare for Michael Fried.

Francis McKee is director of CCA, Glasgow