The Artist in the Dressing Gown: Encounters with Richard DeDomenici
The Counterpoints Arts’ team reflects on the politics of curation and the ebbs and flows of creative production with many of the artists and cultural practitioners in their network.
I first met Richard DeDomenici at a retreat on arts and social change organised by Counterpoints Arts at Dartington Hall. He made an impression by announcing he would attend the following morning’s activities in his dressing gown… and then actually doing so.
I also remember Richard’s rapid-fire presentation of his work (he took the three minute time limit very seriously), which took us from boybands and Channel 4 to shopping centres and balloons – avenues not always visited when journeying in the ‘art world’.
Four months later, I was welcoming Richard to the Refugee Week 2017 Conference, where we’d invited him to deliver what had become bizarrely known in our office as a ‘balloon icebreaker’. Stood on stage in front of 200 Refugee Week organisers and supporters from around the country, Richard presented Free Balloons, a work which sees him giving away balloons emblazoned with subversive messages in public spaces, ranging from the queue at Dismaland to a newly-opened mega shopping centre in Liverpool.
The concept, he explained, came from a frustration with traditional protest, alongside a realisation that ‘people will always take a free balloon’ – even if it says ‘bored of shopping’ and they are gearing up for a day of serious retail therapy.
We were bleary-eyed after long journeys and (in my case) late nights, and perhaps a little shy, but Richard soon had us all creasing with laughter in our seats (the slogan “my Marxist feminist dialectic brings all the boys to the yard” read out with poise and finesse by a delegate from Northern Ireland was one of my favourite moments of the day).
It wasn’t long before the ice was well and truly broken and we were working together to come up with our own balloon slogans, before voting on a shared favourite, which Counterpoints’ co-director Almir had boldly promised would be printed on real balloons for Refugee Week (‘They’re Here Because We’re There’ won the top spot).
The session exemplified what is great about Richard’s art: it was subversive and funny, it came from a political place but was unintimidating and felt easy for everyone to engage in and come together around.
What I like about Richard’s work is the way it blurs boundaries between art, activism and popular culture. It says: Art and activism can be funny; engaging with popular culture can be political. It is that wild or ‘silly’ thought you have while sat on the train or watching daytime TV, played out in reality: What if I founded a boyband of asylum seekers? What if I gatecrashed the Olympic torch relay with a homemade replica torch? What if I protested gentrification by reimagining London’s skyscrapers as satirical sex toys?!
For Who Are We?, Richard is exploring a new ‘what if’, one first imagined at the arts and social change retreat where he wowed us all in his bathrobe: What if, in the context of deepening social divisions, we facilitate encounters in a shed, where people are invited to share their fears through the protection of a dividing wall? What if, after the conversation, they are given the choice of walking away through their separate doors, or daring to meet face to face?
I, for one, am very excited to find out.
Richard DeDemenici will be running Shed Your Fears throughout the week of Who Are We?
Who Are We? is a collaborative project seeking to provoke questions around identity, belonging, migration and citizenship through the Arts and Public participation. Collectively, we aim to exchange stories and data on how values are performed and rights can be enacted in meaningful ways and across material and digital modes. Who Are We? Project is running Tuesday 14 – Sunday 19 March, from 12 noon each day, as part of the Tate Exchange on the 5th Floor of Switch House at Tate Modern, London.
Author Emily Churchill Zaraa, Counterpoints Arts