Features Q&A and Interviews Published 23 March 2012

Action Hero

Action Hero are Gemma Paintin and James Stenhouse, a duo of performance artists based in Bristol.
Diana Damian Martin

Frontman also attempts to negotiate a particular relationship with the audience in light of the rules of engagement of a gig or concert. “The way you negotiate your unconscious signals is crucial. For most people who have been at gigs, you put a certain amount of cues in place. In that sense, the audience know how to be that audience, and that’s something we build on. A visual cue is usually the formal construct of a gig”. This is inherently connected to the nature of the space in which they perform. “When we do a piece in a black box it’s a bit of a hurdle to get over some conventions, and that’s partly to do with our collective expectations and what sort of things we believe can happen in that space. If you come to a gig, there’s a different set of expectations, a looseness of freedom in the way people behave which can sometimes backfire too.” Yet James and Gemma enjoy constructing something together with an audience, collectively taking ownership of a space. “When there are no expectations, anything can happen.”

Comeback gig… Photo Robert Daniels

Sound plays a key part in their work too. “We wanted to make our own sound. It means it’s different every time, but there was also something about analogue which felt more exciting- unpredictable and problematic.” This passion for analogue, for the retro and DIY is something often associated with Action Hero’s work, yet they underline that at least in the beginning, it was less of an aesthetic choice than it was the reality of the circumstances in which they were working. “When we began making work, it was a practical approach; we had little money and not so much time. But it is absolutely our wish to control the means of production, to try and do as much as we can ourselves. We’re not regularly funded, but we have support and wish to remain non-institutionalized.“ Did success mean they had to relinquish some of that ownership? “For us letting go is a big decision, but the reality of the situation means we have to trust other people to handle aspects of our work.”

Frontman is the final piece in a trilogy exploring the iconography of masculinity, together with A Western and Watch Me Fall, yet that formal trajectory was more spontaneous than it would seem. It was not intentionally intended as a conclusion, yet it was a conclusion that emerged; it seems particularly apt that Gemma takes on the more traditionally masculine role in this last piece. “That sort of icon, we tried to kill it. The piece doesn’t round it all off really neatly, maybe it raises more questions, but we wanted to know how we might try to take the idea of an icon and push it to its logical conclusion or extreme. Frontman is quite aggressive, but there’s something about the inherent vulnerability of the protagonist which is pulling that icon apart.”

Their next piece will be about confrontation but also about sports, rules and game-playing. “We’re keen to take inspiration from American sports films, particularly sports we don’t understand.” With intent on introducing the idea of duration into their work, Action Hero want to “go crazy on extended metaphors and never allow ourselves to reach the fight.” That tension of never quite arriving, of deconstructing things along the way, is woven throughout their work, and whilst it’s often formally daring, it’s always infectiously entertaining and humorous too.

Action Hero’s Frontman is on at Jacksons Lane until 24th March. You can also read more about Action Hero on their blog


Diana Damian Martin

Diana Damian Martin is a London-based performance critic, curator and theorist. She writes about theatre and performance for a range of publications including Divadlo CZ, Scenes and Teatro e Critica. She was Managing Editor of Royal Holloway's first practice based research publication and Guest Editor for postgraduate journal Platform between 2012-2015. She is co-founder of Writingshop, a long term collaborative project with three European critics examining the processes and politics of contemporary critical practice, and a member of practice-based research collective Generative Constraints. She is completing her doctoral study 'Criticism as a Political Event: theorising a practice of contemporary performance criticism' at Royal Holloway, University of London and is a Lecturer in Performance Arts at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.



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