During his 2009 performance to video Chip Mountain, Campbell Patterson sits in Auckland’s busy Queen Street Burger King chewing his way through multiple packets of french fries. Instructing his camera minder to wear sunglasses covered over with tape, Paterson’s furtive action is only witnessed by the surveilling eye of a lo-fi video camera. Periodically spitting out mouthfuls of potato, Patterson sculpts them into a lumpy tower that grows taller and taller, slowly emerging into the frame of the film. After a full 11.58 minutes of chewing, regurgitating and sculpting, Patterson furtively hides the results of his work, piling his masticated fries into a brown paper Burger King bag.
Throughout Patterson’s performance, the mound of chewed up fries rises transcendentally upwards in the fashion of a cenotaph, pillar or skyscraper. When the mound topples over, Patterson re-sculpts it as a potter would, manipulating his “raw” materials with bare hands. In the emerging totemic and even phallic formations of Chip Mountain, Patterson toys with the symbols of aspiration, growth and infinite expansion, reducing them to an anemic pulp of fast food. His sculpted entity becomes a pathetic monument; a humorous take on the civilising and monolithic ideals of Victorian era statues, or council commissioned “public sculpture” seen proliferated around the parks of Central Auckland.
While he works his way through countless mouthfuls of fries, Patterson repeatedly sighs and directs looks of exhaustion towards the camera. This display of fatigue recalls in a tongue-in-cheek manner the extreme acts of self-inflicted pain and bodily endurance explored by burgeoning performance practices of the 1960s and 1970s.(1) What Chip Mountain seems to suggest, though, is a more subtle and perhaps more insidious register of bodily endurance. His performance work in part, evokes the feeling of mild lethargy or inertia that consuming large amounts of fast food can give. Chip Mountain also uses the body as a kind of conveyer belt, where Patterson’s repeated actions of chewing up and spitting out, quite literally parallel the workings of the fast food industry in which ingredients and materials are “chewed up and spat out” into highly processed and modular food items for consumers “on the run.”
In conversation with the artist he spoke of the way in which his body became a kind of filter that absorbed large quantities of oil and salt from the fries. By reimagining his body as a mulching and filtering apparatus, he resists the habitual and compulsive act of swallowing. In his exteriorisation of a bodily function Patterson also departs from formalities of hygiene and decorum that eating in a shared public space might demand. In light of the pressure placed on the individual by lifestyle industries to continually “self improve” through regulated conventions of purchasing, Patterson in Chip Mountain plays with these force-fed ideologies. Evoking anxieties around fashionable diets, and neuroses around food choices he pushes the actual act of eating or consuming into a state of abjection.
Auckland’s Queen Street Burger King with its constantly blaring pop hits and fluorescent lighting provides an apt backdrop for Patterson’s video work. In its opportunistic extraction of labour from minimum waged workers in order to capitalise on custom at every hour possible, the open late ethos of the Burger King franchise and many others like it lend Chip Mountain an uncanny atmosphere of timelessness. His performance takes place within a space of homogenised culture and cuisine in which the 1950s “Americana” style décor amplifies his work’s dislocation from any specific geographical markers. In this way Chip Mountain could be located pretty much anywhere in the word at any time of day or night, unfolding in a space of globalised insomnia where "producing, consuming, and discarding occur without pause, hastening the exhaustion of life and the depletion of resources."(2)
The themes of consumption, anxiety and exhaustion that emerge in Chip Mountain also engage with wider conditions of life and work in our contemporary era, in which precarious living and work situations and increasingly diffuse forms of labour demand from us a performance at all times. By setting up seemingly aimless or absurd tasks in his works Patterson ruptures the fabric of "business as usual" disrupting the routines that enmesh the body with the imperative to produce under a framework of capital. His peculiar act in Chip Mountain then becomes an "I can’t" – a rejection or slight refusal to perform within what Jan Verwoert describes as a culture of compulsive high performance.(3)
The demand to perform is amplified and sustained by the growing use of social networking sites that produce an ever-present online audience. This sphere of mediatised surveillance and the anxieties of watching and being watched also arise in Patterson’s work.(4) In Chip Mountain one cannot quite escape the feeling that the artist might be “caught out” amidst a strange or anti social act at any moment. As viewers we become implicated in this performance anxiety, but are also let off from a sense of responsibility or forced reciprocity that might stem from a live performance. Patterson’s private performances instead evoke the act of watching via undetected surveillance apparatuses, reminding one of the unblinking eyes of street cameras and webcams that populate everyday spaces.
As with the familiar amateur aesthetic of homemade YouTube clips, most of Patterson’s furtive performances take place behind the closed doors of bedrooms, bathrooms and studios and are recorded from an arbitrarily fixed viewpoint. In Clean Loop (2007) we observe Patterson in a small domestic bathroom with two windows side by side. Wearing only a towel he clambers out one bathroom window, where he is momentarily on the outside of the house, he then awkwardly he climbs back in through the other bathroom window. In Soapstealer (2004) we see Patterson surreptitiously inhabiting a more public space—however similar anxieties around being caught are played out. Wearing only ill-fitting leather pants, with his face painted in black and white face paint, we observe Patterson pumping hand soap from a public bathroom into a plastic ice cream container. At points in the video, during his vaguely masturbatory act Patterson grins manically into the bathroom mirror at himself.
In these three video and performance works: Chip Mountain, Clean Loop and Soapstealer, Patterson carries out acts that are obviously not spectacular, nor are they feats of physical prowess. These acts instead dissolve into the soft and fleshy edges of life, the morose and somewhat humiliating terrain of things one might do in private and alone. Patterson's work cultivates what I like to term a “bachelor aesthetic.” The partially confessional or diaristic bent of his practice embeds his work within scenes of domesticity and the everyday, exploring the lived experiences of sleeping, eating, trawling the internet and flatting. In this way, decision making in Patterson’s work is often deferred to the inherent scales of bedrooms, studios and bathrooms.
Similarly the quotidian measures of foodstuffs found around the home such as muesli bars, sultana bran or tobacco crumbs can dictate the parameters of a work. Patterson’s practice then works with a certain process of adaptability; it deals with living and making art on a day to day basis, as well as working with the constraints placed on artistic practice in terms of the wider political economy of the everyday. In Chip Mountain we observe Patterson as he experiments with a readily available food item. Playing with the regulated quantities and inherent logic of modulated potato strips he chews, regurgitates and sculpts his material into a pale and lumpy mountain. Patterson’s actions are furtive, quiet and in the end his "monument" is left behind—wrapped up in an inconspicuous brown paper bag. In Chip Mountain Patterson playfully engages with the limitations and parameters of everyday materials and spaces, he ekes out the latent potentialities in routine, in which "there is always something unformed in the everyday, something that exceeds and escapes both commodity and power".(5)