As part of The Tetley’s Wednesday Lates series, on 29 March 2017 audiences were invited to witness Crime World. Brainchild of Leeds-based artist David Steans, Crime World consisted of an ongoing, 2-hour performance by artist-collective non and a reading by Steans.
A cryptic blurb promised ‘an evening celebrating controversial 1990s publishing press Crime World’. The blurb was accompanied by the foreboding image of a black leather glove and dog-eared ‘CRIME WORLD’ paperback, inside that must-have-accessory for all budding criminals, a roomy holdall. Potential visitors were warned: ‘contains content that may upset or offend, visitor discretion is advised.’ All signs hinted that something delightfully sinister awaited.
Milling around with other spectators in the foyer, a scream is heard from the 1st floor, heralding the start of the performance. We tentatively make our way upstairs. Upon arriving, the artist-collective non, clad in full-face ski masks, are tracing the outline of a limp, prostrate body with white tape. This is the first in a series of simulated crimes involving masked ‘criminals’, a sheet of tarpaulin, outlined ‘victims’ and several overly attentive camera-people. The action takes place amongst Dora Garcia’s These books were alive; they spoke to me! exhibition, a juxtaposition that heightens the air of uncanniness which has settled over proceedings. The audience follow non through Cluedo-esque wood-panelled rooms, past volunteers who, seemingly unmoved, are concurrently performing Garcia’s work.
Curiously, I never witness a criminal act ‘mid-blow’, and observe only the aftermath. At one stage I join a slightly bemused crowd, now huddled around two doorways, to peer into a room where, post-murder, another ‘body’ is being disposed of. The voyeuristic nature of the event is disquieting, only reinforced by the fact that some audience members have silently started to take photographs and videos on their mobile devices. Feeling entertained and thus a little uneasy about our collective morbid curiosity, at 7pm we take a seat in a large room, ambience provided courtesy of moody red lighting and soft background music.
Wearing a jacket adorned with the familiar red-white Tommy Hilfiger badge (albeit with the brand name replaced by the words Crime World Ltd.), Steans takes a seat behind a table, ready to speak into a sports-pundit style microphone: “Hello. Welcome to Crime World. I want to talk to you about Crime World” begins the artist, in his dead-pan tone, now something of a trademark, “I’ll start from the top…with the boss.”
Over the next 30 minutes we are introduced to the output of Crime World Publishing Ltd, spearheaded by shady boss ‘Tommy Hilfiger’. Steans tells a convincingly grim tale of the ‘unique and peculiar cultural phenomena’ of Crime World. Like the artists’ past works, Crime World is the outcome of a process of deconstruction, remix and re-appropriation of both pop-cultural iconography and the everyday mundane. In contrast to Dora Garcia’s Joyce-heavy performances, Steans borrows from pulp as much as he does from high art. The satisfyingly dark humour at play reminds me of mockumentary TV series such as Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place and Brasseye.
Steans artistically intervenes in the cultural grammar of a specific place, time or situation – in this case pulp fiction, tabloid sensationalism and horror genres. In doing so, he creates a vision which feels both culturally and politically subversive. The work itself defies easy categorisation. Text, script and spoken word are often at the heart of Steans’ output, whether lifted from a scandalous newspaper article or more critical source. There is also an emphasis on experience and communication. The key lies in carefully setting a scene for nurturing relationships between performer/reader and audience/receiver.
It is in the precisely written, and often funny, details that Crime World really comes alive. For instance, we are privy to a press release which proclaims: ‘ACID NIGHT NEW PAPERBACK ATTACKING NEWSAGENTS SOON. ALL CRIME WORLD LTD PAPERBACKS PUBLISHED WITH THE PROCEEDS OF CRIME. BUY ‘EM NOW AND SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL CRIME WORLD. SIGNED, TOMMY HILFIGER.’ There is an initial, sincere laugh from the audience at the absurdity of a publishing company funded by crime (somewhat ironic in light of recent fake-news) and the irreverent use of the Tommy Hilfiger brand, which is currently experiencing a revival of its own. There is also a discernible undertone to the laugh; we are in on the joke but realise that we too are now complicit in supporting our local Crime World. Unsettling, engaging and dare I say it, entertaining.
David Steans: Crime World, The Tetley, Leeds, 29 March 2017.
Bethan Hughes is an artist currently based in Leeds.