Focus Groupby William Powhida
Curated by Eric Heist for Minneapolis’s The Soap Factory, Focus Group previewed for three weeks at Momenta Art and rewarded viewers with a timely and compelling case for the defense of the individual in corporate America. The show takes on freedom of speech, privacy, and information in the context of increasingly aggressive corporate and governmental intrusion into our daily lives. Despite the dire warnings, the artists all engage the ideas with humor and intelligence.
Tana Hargest’s series of "Network Affiliation" screens in her "Bitter Nigger Broadcast Network" are filled with a deadpan rage that uses irony like a knife to cut through the corporate 7-Up sanitizing of black culture. When BET was sold to a corporation, television lost its only black owned entertainment channel. Hargest’s retro designs are happily colored in pastel hues featuring speakers, a goofy black-face character, an exclamation, a question mark, and a star. The symbols imply a carefree naiveté to the apparent exploitation of blackness that marks sitcoms like My Wife and Kids. The color bars under the station titles change from black to peach all the way to white, reflecting the filtering effect of television on black culture. Hargest is a sharp and funny satirist, and her unrepentant lack of political correctness is the best thing about the work.
Directly across form Hargest’s designs are Perry Hoberman’s excellent digital prints of simulated Mac-OS-like dialogue boxes, priceless indicators of a future that is just around the corner. His copyright infringement dialogue box is darkly hilarious because it is a beautiful simulation of an event that seems immediately possible, despite our supposed freedom of speech. The dialogue box alerts the user of copyrighted slogans in the middle of sentences, and options like "Save as is" are qualified with remarks like "may result in fines, jail time, or both." Hoberman also offers a "terrorist activity alert" and "unknown activity that can never be cancelled" boxes. These images are brilliant, funny, and unsettling.
With his series "New Homes for America," George Kimmerling presents another dystopic vision of America that may be even closer to the truth than Hoberman’s. By mimicking cheap real estate brochures, housing for registered sex offenders becomes a profitable market share like retirees, another population segregated from the middle class ideal. Without venturing into the pragmatic reality of registering sex offenders, the implications of the government’s ability to decide who or what groups have a right to privacy is the most disturbing aspect of Kimmerling’s commentary.
David Opedyke’s "Vote Your Subconscious" paintings are funny enough, but they lack the sophistication of the other artists. The idea of corporate influence is touched upon in one or two of the works, yet they oversimplify the widening divide in American politics in which there is less and less room for smart satirists of hypocrisy and greed. Peter Scott’s afterimage paintings of happy consumers express a sadness that comes from the hollowness of commercial imagery promising happiness in the form of yet another product. Jacqueline Smith’s video of a CIA agent revealing sensitive and potentially embarrassing information to a montage of Playboy images comes across as didactic and boring, basically because the artist is right: we know the CIA does bad things, but we are too busy reading dumb magazines, listening to pop music, and going to the movies. Unfortunately, Smith’s video isn’t going to change that.
Focus Group is a stinging indictment of American politics and is a useful reminder that neither big business nor the government has the people’s best interests in mind, especially if they do not happen to fit the mold of white, middle class America. The show is part prophecy and part mirror, and deserves an encore in New York after Minneapolis.