Bodies move about and are heard. There is whispering, turning upside down, meowing, running in and out of the vertical concrete lines, disruptive subjects inherit European avant-garde Dada as they encounter the brutalist architecture, and reveal its structure and materiality, as a utopian vision.

Entitled ‘Paper Tiger Whisky Soap Theatre (Dada Nice)’ the exhibition draws a link between jazz scat (a jazz vocal style created at the turn of the twentieth century in the United States, that favours rhythm and phonetics over the meaning of words) and the legacy of the avant-garde movement Dada, whose first multidisciplinary and anti-art event occurred exactly a century ago (on 7 February 1916) in Zurich at the Cabaret Voltaire, opened by Hugo Ball.

This dialogue is a continuation of Sonia Boyce’s work with vocal performers for ‘Exquisite Cacophony’, a video that was featured at the 2015 Venice Biennale.

For Sonia Boyce, jazz scat and Dada fulfil an identical function in the avant-garde, that of facing a major “social trauma” (see the filmed conversation with Sonia Boyce): the trauma of slavery, the rise of fascism, wars in Europe, and then the economic crisis framing the period between the two world wars. Both gave rise to spontaneous, impromptu gestures. The uproar, the frenzy and the noise of bodies clamoured against war and condemned attempts at an academic formalism. From this legacy of defying the hegemonic discourse, artists created the conditions for the sudden birth of a shared language. This system of dissenting signs, revealed by the practice of improvisation, acts as a signal inscribed in the nonsensical.

A proponent of collaborative practices, during her autumn 2015 residency, Sonia Boyce brought together choreographer Vânia Gala, hip-hop singer Astronautalis and students of the art school for an improvisation workshop built around the architecture of the Villa Arson. Filmed by a crew directed by Michelle Tofi, the visual and sound elements resulting from this participatory performance are shown in the Galerie Carrée in an installation that includes videos, drawings and wallpaper. The composite and autonomous videos participate in breaking up any attempt at a story in favour of situations. Their running time never exceeds that of the projected video ‘The Circle’ (18 minutes). Beginning with the repetitive words ‘Paper Tiger Whisky Soap Theatre’ it creates the impetus for the entire sound and rhythm.

One of the characteristics of Sonia Boyce’s approach is an inclusive framing that reveals the shooting team.

In this way her work does not document the performances as much as it reveals what is at stake today when capturing reality through an image, or reveals the various ways of seeing encouraged by the specific installation and the screening of images (John Berger, ‘Ways of Seeing’, 1972). The framing also implicates other onlookers or ‘actors’ inside the image, for example the spectator and the passer-by. Although the spectator has agreed to be there, the passer-by might unwittingly be made to feel uncomfortable. Thus the visitor to the installation finds herself/himself involved in a game of enunciated situations where she/he has to choose between laughter and unease.

At the heart of Sonia Boyce’s work, it might be said, are questions about the production and reception of unexpected gestures. Particularly when it questions the nature of laughter, a locus for worry, fear and joy emanating from the gap or distance between the subject and a norm that might be considered obvious.

Sophie Orlando
Curator of the exhibition, art historian, researcher and associated professor at Villa Arson. She has been developing research on British Black Art since 2006.