FRANKLIN STREET WORKS | SEPTEMBER 22, 2018 – JANUARY 6, 2019
Rumors of mind control and impending destruction are continuously propagated in the darker corners of society, but in times of heightened anger and division paranoia seeps into mainstream rhetoric, permeating even the most reasonable political discussions. Tracing the movement of what he calls “the paranoid style” through similarly contentious moments in American politics, historian Richard Hofstadter notes, “It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomena significant.”1
Looking for evidence of this mindset, curator Jeff Ostergren brings together the work of some thirteen artists in False Flag: The Space Between Paranoia and Reason, a group show at Franklin Street Works in Stamford, Connecticut. In conspiracy theory parlance, false flags are acts of violence covertly staged as diversions by governments which then blame terrorist groups. As the exhibition’s springboard, the concept is used to lure the viewer into a state of mind in which no one is to be trusted and nothing is as it seems.
The feeling of being watched permeates the show. Close to the gallery ceiling, Tim Trantenroth’s small painting of a surveillance camera, Camera Remake 2 (2018), has been pasted to the wall. In S-Camera (2006), Trantenroth paints a different camera model, this time installing it above an elevator door. A third painting, Predator (2013), shows a sleek little drone with a lens attached to its underside. The three paintings, which are done to scale, are placed in spots where such tools of surveillance are commonly found—yet easy to miss—calling attention to the constant scrutiny of our comings and goings and how willingly we accept this.
All Together Now (2008), a video by Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn, intercuts hooded figures making explosives, abandoned children, and a cultish family led by Dodge that calls to mind Charles Manson and his followers. Midway though the piece, Ringo Starr’s distinctive voice is heard as a scene from the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine (1968) appears on a television. It is tricky to incorporate something so iconic within a video; the uplift of the Beatles’ clip overshadows the larger message of counter-culture run amok.
In a corner of the gallery, James Benning’s video installation, Two Cabins (2011), reconsiders self-reliance and reclusiveness by projecting a window inside Thoreau’s Walden Pond dwelling perpendicular to a similar view from the hut of Theodore Kaczynski, a.k.a. “The Unabomber.” Tiny speakers on the floor emit ambient soundscapes for each of the images. Bird songs, distant cars, and wind lightly moving through trees intensify the feeling of seclusion. The installation’s projector is positioned at a distance which causes the viewer’s own shadow to appear perfectly aligned in the windows. The effect is disquieting: I instantly realize I do not wish to be in either location, as Kaczynski’s history of murder overruns my associations to Thoreau.
In Violet Dennison’s 0013283005 0013283004 0005334936 0000835427 0013283057 0013283054 0201608618 0013283011… (2017), casts of genetically modified corn seeds in copper are fitted with a tiny tracking device. Dennison sprinkles the kernels over the gallery wall, mapping its radiation levels, and I suddenly wonder whether we might be in need of an aluminum-foil hat.
In Untitled (2017), Juliana Huxtable confronts the fanaticism behind the call for a homogenous American identity by examining processes of duplication. Huxtable—a transgender Black artist—hangs two sets of magnets, one decorated with a grinning selfie, the other containing snippets of her hair, on a sheet of metal. Both varieties of magnets assert the reproducibility of Huxtable’s image: the selfie photograph is easily copied, while her hair holds her DNA, the code from which she can be cloned. I notice my own reflection in the sheet metal, but the image is murky, fleeting in contrast to Huxtable’s unflinching presence.
I find Melvin Way’s works the most compelling because of their directness and sincerity. Works on paper, they consist of chemical equations, chains of molecules, and the face of a hooded figure scrawled in fervent ball point pen and colored marker on tiny scraps of paper which are fastened together with scotch tape. In his three assemblages, CHC00CH2 (2016), AgN03 (2015), and Physiologics Histolygy (Respirate Hydra’s Histology Resusitations) (2010), urgent if indecipherable messages appear to have been pulled out of an old coat pocket; notes-to-self that make sense to no one. I react to the precision of Way’s handwriting and the care with which color is applied to the compositions. Yet there is something tragic about it. The well-worn edges of his paper and the ordinariness of his material speak to the lonely underpinnings of the paranoiac mind, reminding us just how much isolation and alienation power the collapse of the space between reason and paranoia.
- Hofstadter, Richard. “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Harper’s Magazine, vol. 229, no. 1374 (Nov 01, 1964): 77 - 86. ProQuest, http://proxy.library.nyu.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy.library.nyu.edu/docview/1301526856?accountid=12768.
ContributorAnn C. Collins
Ann C. Collins is a writer living in Brooklyn. She is a graduate of the MFA in Art Criticism and Writing program at the School of Visual Arts.