Work & Playby Mira Schor
"For the inaugural exhibition of its satellite location in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the artist Emily Katrenik is eating the wall that separates the gallery's exhibition space from the bedroom of its director [...] Video of her ingestion is included in the exhibition; she also removes some of the plaster and bakes it into loaves of bread, which are available for gallery visitors to sample."
—Mia Fineman. "Feat: The Munchies," "Directions," New York Times, Sunday February 6, 2005.
What really matters, I mean, really, beyond the rhetoric of it mattering, is having something to say that can truly reinvest familiar materials and forms with cultural energy. What makes something at least temporarily uncategorizable in relation to history and to ambient cultural language may require a criticality that in some artists takes decades, not months. Yet now there is no time for the slow aesthetic growth that used to be one of the standard myths of origin. Meanwhile every stroke, blob, or pixel has been analyzed, recycled, branded, as every trope has been trumped.
The question is where to look for the work that really alters your world, not just the work that tells you why this world is so mutantly oriented to the commodification of tropes. Or, having had my methamphetamine, my hit of the latest re-articulation of the near-past and the "next-modern," I need something I would describe as real food. I walk into a museum and have an intimate relationship with a random artwork from the past that suddenly speaks to me—if I am in a museum that still allows for private experience. Or I take advantage of the exit conveniently gnawed open by the artist ingesting or regurgitating the possibly toxic confines of the spaces of art, step outside, and turn to other modes of expression and cultural action than high art.
In the past year I have been most compelled as a consumer of culture and a spectator of visual interventions by animated political cartoons, "viral videos" that come into my computer through emails and the political blogs like dailykos.com and rawstory.com where I have spent most of my time since the 2004 election, when not listening to or watching Rachel Maddow, Al Franken, the Stephanie Miller Show on Air America, Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, and the Daily Show.
To track down one such video sent to me in March 2001, "A Night at the White House"—a singalong with the (animated) Marx Brothers, "Dubya O Dubya Say Have You met Dubya, The wag from Texas, Dubya O Dubya don't let I.Q. trouble ya." —I googled "Dubya," This led to a treasure trove of comic material, much of it at www.peacecandy.com and angrycandy.com. For example, in Asleep at the Wheel, Bush, snoring all the way, crashes his USA-shaped motorcycle into everything he encounters, waking only briefly amidst the wreckage to say, in his real voice, "God Bless America." The best part is that the snoring doesn't stop until you remember to close the browser window.
Sometimes these animations are crudely drawn, such as Scott Bateman's animated-film-a-day-for-a-year project at www.batemania.com/bateman365, which includes President Bush drawn as a spinning & bobbing death head, and Stoner Dude, his heart in the right place but, well, stoned since the 1960s, among other characters real and imaginary. Yet, unlike the slightly cartoon-y, sort of narrative drawings by artists such as Marcel Dzama, The Royal Art Lodge, and their many followers, all ubiquitous at major art fairs, no institution is asking me to think this is great drawing.
Political art and even more so political cartoons are said to have a short shelf life, while art's more metaphoric approach and the complexity of its referential languages may outlive the details of a limited polemical moment. Bateman's project may be the most overt in its ambition to discursively stay on top of the news, and not all of the videos and animations I enjoy appear in such instantaneous relation to current events, but the general impetus is to respond to the political moment. They were about the election when that was part of our collective experience, they address the war and the villainies of Bush, Rumsfeld, and Cheney, as well as reveling in whatever colorful characters and outrageous details emerge from the political narrative stream.
These works are not earnest. They exude a blithe joy that occasionally eludes—highly committed and equally necessary—political art. They are not particularly beautiful or original -- the humor often comes from the alteration of highly recognizable and beloved cultural tropes like Star Trek or Dr. Seuss. Among my favorites are the brightly colored, boldly black outlined caricatures at www.toostupidtobepresident.com: for example, Star Trek: The Wrath of Condi."Petroleum, the final reserves. These are the voyages of the Star Ship Enron's Prize. Four year mission: to explore pristine worlds, to lay pipe amid old civilizations, to boldly drill where no man has drilled before. Captain's Log, Star Date August 6, 2001." The text is like a bad play: all exposition and no action, read by anonymous actors who sometimes sound like they are recording the whole thing in a bathroom, or a tin can, but always like they are having a lot of fun: in a bored voice, "Condi" as Uhura, says, "Captain, I'm picking up a transmission from Israeli intelligence to the CIA. It says buildings that symbolize American government, military might, and commerce are at risk of kamikaze attacks using hijacked U.S. planes." The Captain leaves the mess for his cronies to fix while he vacations on the Holodeck. Get Stupid riffs off of James Bond movies and cultural take-offs of Bond movies such as Get Smart and Austin Powers. In McClellan, hanky panky at the White House literally takes place in a series of untoward appearances in back of the Press Secretary who refuses to answer questions about "ongoing investigations" into matters completely visible to an increasingly horrified White House Press Corps.
These works share techniques such as the rhythmic film and sound clips montages with artworks by Christian Marclay or Douglas Gordon, but right now I prefer the sedition of "Read My Lips" at www.campchaos.com/show.php?iID=645—where slightly slowed down moments from Bush and Blair's joint appearances, set to Lionel Richie's "Endless Love," highlight the homosocial, erotic subtext of this nefarious international alliance. When they stare into each other's eyes, the effect is quite convincing. "Gay Bar by Electric 6 (Lo)" (iID=647) pushes the relationship further.
Googling Dubya also led to "Don Knotts Is Dubya," a short film put together from clips from Don Knotts movies such as The Shakiest Gun in the West and The Incredible Mr. Limpet? (www.dubyamovie.com) Knotts's movies, which turn on his signature persona—a quivering coward—being placed into situations that call for machismo, turn out to be a treasure trove of uncannnily apt opportunities for satirizing George Bush: the composite character is named George, has a "spunky" mother, a war hero father, he avoids the military, he lands on an aircraft carrier. My favorite moments emerge from Knott's trademark quavering vocal delivery of his lines: "I have been called brave. [voice cracks] What is brave?," and, drunk in a saloon, "failure, failure, failure, failure, failure, failure, failure, failure, that's the story of my life, you know." The cherry on top of this filmic appropriation is that while the subtext of Bush's macho image and hypermasculinist policies of pre-emptive war is his own avoidance of combat, Don Knotts, on film the epitome of pusillanimity, was actually a decorated WWII veteran! Suddenly I am dying to Netflix his movies and think he should replace Jerry Lewis in the hearts of the French.
These works are not art because they don't chose the context of art. Their context is a field of communication potentially as large as the Internet, thus with an audience that far exceeds any that might go into an art gallery or museum, but as private as personal correspondence between friends. Yet there are interesting similarities between the Fake State of the Union Address (www.peacecandy.com/gwbush/stateofthe.html), an actual speech edited to revealing effect— "Every year by law and by custom we meet here to threaten the world" —and Maria Friberg's memorable video No Time to Fall, shown at Team Gallery in 2001, where the artist edited everything out of Bush's State of the Union speech except the standing ovations and Bush's preening reactions. Similarly, two of the funniest videos I've seen recently were Tamy Ben Tor's "Women Talking About Adolph Hitler" at P.S.1 and Ze Frank's "Red Alert" at www.zefrank.com. Frank portrays a relentlessly cheerful young man from "Wakeesha, Wisconsin" who helped design the Homeland Security Advisory System ("HisAss"), "to let the general public know how close they were to dying." His and Ben Tor's differing career tracks indicate the perversity or randomness of someone's cultural address. Both are terrific actors who are able to use and alter their appearance and intonation in order to brilliantly portray a wide range of social stereotypes for political effect. But Ben Tor has placed herself in the art context and the art world—recently Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz—has already singled her out for stardom, while at the same time suggesting that she would do wonders for Saturday Night Live. Frank who has not chosen the art world, may be too independent to work as a regular actor, and has not (yet) come to the attention of Jon Stewart, who could use him to replace the boring young white men who have replaced Stephen Colbert on his indispensable political satire Daily Show.
The art world does occasionally provide a home for acts of dÃ©tournement of hegemonic power structures—for example the interventions of the Yes Men, recently included in If It's Too Bad To Be True, It Could Be DISINFORMATION, at Apex Art. Their work usually takes place in the world of international media and finance and have actual if temporary effects on corporate malfeasance, (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Yes_Men) but these "cultural jammers" do not need the art world for their practice. Nor does Will Ferrell, reprising his great Saturday Night Live 2000 election impersonations of Bush, here in a short video of Bush shooting a "down-on-the-ranch" political ad while fearfully trying to avoid the harmless attentions of a friendly horse (peacecandy.com/gwbush/ferrel.html) or Andy Dick's "Harlan McCraney, Presidential speechalist," a high production value comedy short whose premise is that a guy actually writes Bush's mangled English, including as his greatest accomplishment Bush's ... silences (as witnessed during the 2004 Presidential debates when Bush appeared to be waiting for audio instructions to be piped in through a mysterious box visible under his suit; here, the "speechalist" instructs him to not answer for inordinate amounts of time). (andydick.com or www.ifilm.com/ifilmdetail/2675149?htv=12).
It's obvious by now that I don't want these works to be considered art, or "non-art" or even "un-art" even though I reflexively am led to consider them in relation to art because art has been my context. I want to protect them from art's pretensions, its high priests and zero-sum game of success or failure. I am even loath to call them agit-prop because that term has its own marginalizing art historical baggage. These videos are joyful acts of generosity by people who have something to say that must be said about this outrageous, absurdist, dangerous political moment.
My enjoyment does not change my professional appreciation for much contemporary art, but the intensity of my consumption of this alternative news analysis and humor indicates that, in a world where there are few if any dissenting voices in the center of the media, I need somewhere to feel at home. These works address pressing concerns and relieve my sense of political isolation. In a non-branded section of culture (not much $ in it, yet), the people who are doing this seem to have cathected cultural experience to forms, media, and a mode of distribution that suit the necessity of the time.
Can they transform the body politic? We are haunted by the contested legacies of 1960s political activism and cultural revolution. The Reagan-Bush regime, curiously echoed by Baudrillardian visions of no-exit hegemony, has done such a good job of destroying both social progressiveness and belief in political activism, that everyone seems to turn away from activist models from that earlier era, fostering the idea that political activism is futile. But these short comic interventions and their means of infiltration through the Internet, acting synergistically with courageous alternative journalism and with other forms of comedic political commentary, are part of a pushing back whose cumulative effect is now being seen in slight stirrings of political courage at top levels of government and media. This is one of the new faces of political activism.
MIRA SCHOR is a painter and writer living in New York City. In recent years she has had one-person exhibitions at CB1 Gallery in Los Angeles and Marvelli Gallery in New York City as well as at Momenta Art in Brooklyn, NY. She is the author of A Decade of Negative Thinking: Essays on Art, Politics, and Daily Life and the blogA Year of Positive Thinking, as well as the author of Wet: On Painting, Feminism, and Art Culture and she editedThe Extreme of the Middle: The Writings of Jack Tworkov, for Yale University Press. She is the co-editor, with Susan Bee, of M/E/A/N/I/N/G Online: they published a 25th Anniversary Edition in 2011. Schor teaches in the MFA in Fine Arts Program at Parsons The New School for Design.
Her website is www.miraschor.com