Michael Fortune: We Invented Halloween, PEER, London, 9 February – 2 April 2011

Emma Cummins

Emma Cummins is a London-based writer and artist currently studying for a MA in Contemporary Art Theory at Goldsmiths College.

 Michael Fortune: We Invented Halloweeen, installation shot; photo Chris Dorley-Brown
Michael Fortune: We Invented Halloweeen, installation shot; photo Chris Dorley-Brown

We Invented Halloween is a strangely compelling celebration of everyday people and places. A collection of single- and multi- channel video works, it is a compendium of day-to-day rhythms; of conversations, colloquialisms and communities. Without comment or romanticisation, this deadpan display of the ordinary – characteristic of Michael Fortune’s idiosyncratic approach to documentary video – is a modest and mildly emotive monument to life in its various guises.
Replete with moments of utter triviality, such as a family unpacking their weekly shop, this is a remarkably unpretentious exhibition. Filmed with a hand-held (and occasionally shaky) video camera, or from a fixed viewpoint, Fortune’s films are somewhat of a rarity. Refusing to offer a motive, they offer the viewer a series of snapshots with little by way of explanation. The only ostensible framework – as seen in works such as Hunter Gatherer – is a sincere fascination with life at it is. Devoid of any wider economic or political context, Fortune’s films have a dry objectivity which resists any straightforward narrative logic.
At times unashamedly boring, Fortune’s work is quite difficult to conceptualise. Hunter Gatherer is a case in point, as it seems to provoke agitation. Without any apparent agenda, Fortune positions the most routine, domestic activity in the charged confines of a contemporary art gallery. Literally put on a pedestal, the work incites a bemused kind of boredom which is quickly replaced by impatience. Why, you might ask, is this video here? And what, you might wonder, is the artist’s intention?
Those familiar with Fortune will be aware of his work as an Irish community artist. With a focus on local engagement, his work is often created through a process of social collaboration. At PEER, however, his works are detached from their original locality and form part of a much bigger, conceptual project. Shown for the first time outside of Ireland, works such as Hunter Gatherer can be read as fragments of an ongoing artistic ambition: to seek art in the haptic arrangements of everyday life.
At PEER, Hunter Gatherer is situated amongst a myriad other ordinary situations. In Terminal Communication, for example, the artist presents a bird’s eye view of a dysfunctional road layout in County Wexford. The impulsive reactions of drivers – hazardous swerves, confused manoeuvres and farcical last-minute U-turns – are accompanied by a soundtrack of kitsch accordion music. In this context, Fortune’s work takes on a humorous, slapstick quality which imbues reality with an air of absurdity. In turn, there is little need for the artist to over-edit or embellish his work - as Sarah Tuck explains, his work can be seen as “a document of the carnivalesque of the everyday.”
In videos such as Terminal Communication or Bingo, Fortune’s use of a fixed camera angle allows him to work with a minimum of intervention. Shaped by a process of looking, of searching for moments of intrigue, the everyday rhythms of people become a readymade artistic medium. In turn, the visual quality of Fortune’s work often seems secondary to his overriding, conceptual schema.
In Bingo, Fortune observes a group of bingo players who, in response to the government-imposed smoking ban, have transformed a car park into an outdoor bingo hall. Viewed from behind, in the early evening, we see a collection of cars and the occasional billow of smoke. Interspersed with faint murmurs of activity and conversation, the cries of the bingo caller echo loudly across the scene, creating a surreal evocation of an interesting social phenomenon.
In other works, such as We Invented Halloween, Fortune’s use of a hand-held video camera breeds a sense of spontaneity and informality. This five-screen video work, which follows the artist’s mother on her annual trick-or-treat outing to his grandmother’s house, is little more than a process of documentation. Full of aural and visual imperfections – like the incessant rustling made by cheap Halloween costumes – this is an awkward, yet honest, portrayal of a peculiar family tradition.
 Michael Fortune, still from We Invented Halloween, 2005-2010
Michael Fortune, still from We Invented Halloween, 2005-2010

Less about aesthetic quality and more about the act of perception, Fortune elevates the idiosyncrasies of human behaviour into the realm of art. In turn, he encourages a more contemplative or inquisitive appreciation of what normality actually is. In this sense, we can draw parallels between Fortune’s work and the idea of reality television, where the objective observation of others is intimately bound up with desire, a desire to find meaning in routine social and spatial practices.
As if watching the world from a distance, both artist and viewer are complicit in series of voyeuristic scenarios, where the banal, the mundane and the downright insipid are approached with the same fascination as the unique or extraordinary. Less about spectacle or escapism, Fortune’s deliberately dispassionate standpoint encourages a more balanced appreciation of life in all its glorious shades of grey.