Duncan Marquiss on Copying Errors and his DCA show

Duncan Marquiss presents a solo show at DCA, with moving image, drawings and paintings. He discusses his take on radical evolutionary science and its relationship with American pop music charts

Feature by Adam Benmakhlouf | 09 May 2016

This month, Duncan Marquiss formally returns to Dundee. After completing his undergraduate at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design and continuing his practice in Glasgow, he’s now presenting a solo show in Dundee Contemporary Arts. At the centre of the exhibition of drawings and moving image works, there’s his Margaret Tait Award film. Titled Evolutionary Jerks and Gradualist Creeps, radical evolutionary biology overlaps with recent American pop music history and his own footage of fossils and vinyl records.

One of the interviewees, Armande Marie Leroi recently wrote a paper about the evolution of music, trying to apply the tools and ideas of biology to studying culture. Says Marquiss, "It’s a sort of number crunching look at the data, and a total step away from ethnomusicological study, which would be a much more meticulous approach of living and studying where people make music and what music means to those people.”

For Leroi, Marquiss suggests this kind of hands-on approach isn’t as interesting as looking at the numbers. “He would say a certain drum sound came in the 80s and a lot of people copied it… He talks about hip-hop… There’s a moment when it comes in and suddenly becomes the most influential music.” These findings come from Leroi’s analysis of the American music charts from the 60s to 2010.

Dividing music history between similar-sounding periods and short bursts of new developments, Leroi’s work applies the evolutionary theory of punctuated equilibrium. In the 70s, scientist Niles Eldredge radically (and controversially at the time) broke with the Darwinian idea of slow and gradual evolution, Eldredge studied fossils to find “change happens suddenly then you have millennia when species don’t change that much. There’s a kind of criticism of Darwin for being Victorian and English, and his theory of slow change reflecting a certain school of economics.”

(Continues below)

More from Art:

 Bill Hare and Andrew Patrizio on their Scottish Endarkenment

 Jupiter Artland: Scotland's only contemporary sculpture park

In some ways, however, Eldredge is pitted against Leroi, the former voicing suspicion towards blending the humanities (studying music) and the sciences (his biological theories). Not setting out to identify any winners, Marquiss clarifies, “I suppose the film could arrive at many conclusions but I find the broader subject really fascinating. Maybe the film was an attempt to learn more about it and meet the scientists first hand… to ask them questions with my own kind of thoughts.”

Getting into a more personal genealogy, and perhaps tracing back some of his own research interests, Marquiss remembers his own undergraduate experience of Dundee when “music was a huge influence and the thing that brought a lot of people together.” More broadly, “loads of people came out of the college and they went on to make great work. .. that’s the thing I’ve taken from Dundee, a lot of really strong friendships with peers. People who I learned a lot from as artists, and seen their practice develop beyond Dundee. It’s tricky for artists to stay in Dundee, with Glasgow and Edinburgh being so close.”

Despite the reminiscing and discussion of the high level theorising in Evolutionary Jerks and Gradualist Creeps, the title’s a nod to the continuing “mistakes” and material experimentation that pushes at and makes up Marquiss’ practice. He doesn’t think of this error-chasing as distinctive to his own practice, or even the arts. It’s “playing about with the tools that makes the ideas work. Thinking beyond even any single species, for all organisms it’s mutations or variations that result from copying errors, these kinds of mistakes in the reproduction of information.” As a succinct summation of his work: “I’m trying to copy happy accidents.”

Duncan Marquiss, Copying Errors, Dundee Contemporary Arts, 14 May-3 Jul