Currently showing in Scarborough’s Art Gallery, is a new exhibition by artist Annabel McCourt, Suffering Arcadia (2019) which includes two new commissions ‘MAGA Grabber and ‘Happy Hour in the Harmful Factory’ and an existing work by the artist ‘Electric Fence’ (2017). This was first shown as part of Hull’s UK City of Culture 2017, before going on tour to Scunthorpe’s 2021 gallery and then to Senegal for the Biennale of Contemporary Africa Art, Dak’Art, in 2018.
‘MAGA Grabber’ takes the form of an arcade machine, a seemingly familiar presence in Scarborough, but none are perhaps as sinister as McCourt’s, which offers a direct response to USA President Donald Trump and a number of his brags and actions. Rather than another cheap shot at mocking the ‘Leader of the Free World’, through using a fixed odds arcade machine, it suggests how easy it is for people to buy into an illusion. The other new commission, ‘Happy Hour in the Harmful Factory,’ is a hand-written bright white neon sign of the work’s title, alongside a fridge stocked full of milk bottles. It offers a feminist response to the futile optimism of milk as a cure-all, and draws on multiple cultural inspirations in the process. The last work ‘Electric Fence’ was created as a response by McCourt to a hate speech given by a preacher in America, Pastor Charles L. Worley, about his shocking belief that LGBQTI+ communities should be locked-up behind a fence and ‘have that fence electrified ’til they can’t get out.’ McCourt’s electric fence responds directly to Worley’s words and in each of the wires of her work, there is an invisible speaker offering different sound frequencies when touched. It offers questions about the wider issues of borders, barriers and LGBQTI+ concerns and rights.
Below is an interview I conducted with McCourt exploring her current exhibition Suffering Arcadia and her wider artistic practice.
[MC] Can you talk a bit about the two new commissioned works in Suffering Arcadia and how they sit alongside your previous work ‘Electric Fence,’ which is also on display?
[AM] The new commissions have unleashed an unstoppable body of work, which combines my practice, interests and future ambition as an artist. I see Suffering Arcadia as a state of mind and an ever-growing collection. The Scarborough Museums Trust commissions are an unusually liberating experience, in that brilliant curator Simon Hedges gave me free rein – a massive vote of confidence that my instincts were right and I just ran with them.
I knew I had to have a piece of neon across the long wall. I didn’t want it to detract from the ‘Electric Fence’… The buzz of the neon and fridge in ‘Happy Hour in the Harmful Factory’ create a very sombre almost hospital-like atmosphere. The light of the ‘Electric Fence’ guiding you to the back of the room; tempting but macabre.
[MC] Contemporary politics obviously plays a large part within your exhibition, more widely what role do you think art has in communicating politics, and the role of the artist as a communicator of these contemporary issues?
[AM] I feel like a war artist tackling injustice and fake news, but in effect I’m simply a civilian creating counter-narratives on the home front. I feel empowered and utterly hopeless – all at the same time. I have a background in media, broadcast journalism (BBC), film education and production, so believe I have a solid understanding in the dissemination of information, storytelling and spin… however, I believe that art is the most genuine and pure form of communication. It’s coming from a different place.
Great art, in my opinion, should act as a catalyst for conversation, be open to interpretation and have the belief in the ability to change the world – even if that’s unattainable.
[MC] Participation is another important aspect to your works, in particular ‘MAGA Grabber’ and ‘Electric Fence’. How does this physical connectivity have in communicating the ideas of the installations?
[AM] It’s about making a physical connection Its horrifying that it is so easy for people to buy into the illusion, with the promise of a reward, and downright disturbing that women, fathers, humans can knowingly participate in a form of mass coercive control – with ‘MAGA Grabber’ there are no winners only losers.
An arcade grabbing machine ‘rigged’ to the core – yet we still buy into the illusion, want to win, suspend disbelief …. Indeed, the machine’s instruction manual ‘A player must fall under the spell of the game through the fact that the grab can pick up the merchandise easily, but they didn’t play accurately enough and wants to try again. They must have the feeling that they controls the game and the machine does exactly what they want. Don’t let a persevering player go home with empty hands. A lot of onlookers have followed the game and also want to give it a try.’ This insider’s secret is emblazoned on Trump’s suit for all to see and forms the design for the grabber machine – the colours black white and red nod to the traditional riddle, ‘what’s black, white and red all over?’ or in ‘MAGA Grabber’s case Trump’s answer to everything – fake news.
[MC] In ‘Happy Hour in the Harmful Factory’, you comment how it is ‘a feminist response to the futile optimism of milk as a cure-all,’ I wondered though if you had also considered the role of milk as a symbol used by the far-right?
[AM] Absolutely! And the irony of an oestrogen-filled lactation appropriated for their cause.
Then we have the ‘BREXIT milkshake’. The evening of the first milkshake ‘intervention’ I renamed our pub quiz team ‘My Milkshakes bring all the Fascists to the Yard’ – I think it was lost/ignored in a staunchly leave-voting small market-town demographic.
I couldn’t believe the timing of it all – but that happy/unhappy coincidence tends to happen a lot with my work. The work has to connect with the cyclical. I often think that it’s good for me that the work is relevant but thoroughly depressing for humanity!
The bare-chested milk-swilling machismo of the alt-right promoting their warped sense of supremacy/history via sexist, racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic rants. Take for example the social media hashtags, #MilkTwitter and the goading #SoyBoy nature of the human condition – a sort of soap opera ‘non-episodic closure’ concept.
[MC] Despite the overt reference to ‘Suffering’ in the title of the exhibition, there is distinct absence of visible suffering within the installations. It is rather represented in a more subtle way through signs, text or associations. Was this a conscious choice?
[AM] Suffering Arcadia I like to think of it as an elegant oxymoron – striving for an unattainable vision of perfection. More specifically, Arcadia referencing the Edenic form of life, a life lived naturally. The garden where all wild beings live together in peace and harmony… then throw in the LBGT+ context of the ‘Electric Fence’ and then biblical connotations where Eve/women become synonymous with shame… Suffering is everywhere in one form or other and often hidden – not deep, not profound but depressingly ordinary.
[MC] Is there any particular artists or cultural reference points that you inspired by in your practice, and for this exhibition in particular?
[AM] In short, I am inspired by everything. I love information, even if I don’t necessarily retain it, I like to read between the lines, try and understand a narrative I’m being led towards, manipulated by… then re-appropriate it or just own it.
The formative years of acquiring the ‘insider’ knowledge and workings of the media industry combined with ‘their’ utter snobbery and dismissal of media studies… has had a big impact on me.
The brilliance of Gillian Wearing and her ability to use the ordinary to transcend the ordinary… Oh, and worrying about what people will do when they realise that the only images they have of their children’s early years are covered with inane snapchat filters – then again I shudder at some of the early video effects I applied to my video work in the 1990s!
[MC] Lastly what do you hope audiences will get out of seeing the exhibition, and is audience reaction something you are conscious of when creating the works?
[AM] I’ve got your attention, now apply your own narrative. See: https://vimeo.com/239143973
Annabel McCourt, Suffering Arcadia, Scarborough Art Gallery. 11 May – 1 September 2019.
Martha Cattell is a curator and creative practitioner based in York and Peterborough.