American Artist: I'm Blue (If I Was █████ I Would Die)
On ViewKoenig & Clinton
March 1 – April 13, 2019
If you assign no sound to the redaction in I'm Blue (If I Was █████ I Would Die), it has the same amount of syllables as its referent, the first line of the chorus from Eiffel 65's 1999 chart-topping single, I'm Blue. The last word in that line is spelled out "da," but when you listen to Jeffrey Jey's compressed scatting, it sounds more like "die."
But the redacted word is there, as an absolute pretext to death. The unicode "full block" character repeats five times, presumably omitting the word "Black." This title epitomizes how American Artist speculates about—then levies a polemic against—Blue life as a political identity and the aggrieved subject of the Blue Lives Matter movement, a logical outgrowth of the "thin blue line" narrative of civil service.
In "Blue Life" by Tiana Reid and Nijah Cunningham, a 2018 essay published in The New Inquiry, Reid and Cunningham put forth a number of propositions about the concept of Blue life. They articulate how Blue life is a nefarious use of a legal vernacular of victimhood to further the ability of an already unaccountable police force to kill with impunity. These claims are revisited and visually elaborated on by American Artist throughout the exhibition.
American Artist transforms the gallery into a seminar room for six police cadets. On a monitor at the front of the room, in Blue Life Seminar (2019), we see the instructor, a 3D-rendered hybrid of two cultural figures whose words, like the immortal "da ba dee da ba daa," have already been widely circulated. The first is Jon Osterman a.k.a Dr. Manhattan, from Alan Moore's 1986 graphic novel Watchmen. Osterman, a military physicist, accidentally gets exposed to an experimental nuclear technology and re-emerges as a glowing blue all-American god with total control over the material world. The second figure is Christopher Dorner, the former LAPD officer who, in early 2013, shot and killed four people, three of whom were cops. In his manifesto, published on Facebook, Dorner refers to his own experiences of racism within the police department, and the gross abuses of power that he witnessed being carried out by his fellow officers as the main impetus for his actions.
The figure resembles Osterman insofar as he is blue, luminous, and has a hydrogen atom branded into its forehead; however, his build and his facial features resemble Dorner. He reads aloud a lecture in which the subject position is never stable; rather, it oscillates between the three figures of Dorner, Osterman, and Artist. At first, Osterman's voice is legible, as he recounts being employed as a weapon of mass destruction by the US Army. It then switches to an excerpt from Dorner's manifesto in which he castigates his former co-workers at the LAPD for their "misconduct." From there, the tone turns critical, and Artist's own voice emerges, lambasting the premise of Blue life: "you … sought to protect law enforcement officers as a social group, under the misnomer of Blue life . . . in search of a transcendent logic by which you all might find peace from the criminals you've created, semantically, by red-lining, racializing, and through incarceration."
During the latter half of the monologue, Osterman's character recedes, and Artist's structural critique alternates with the Dorner's retributive polemic against the LAPD. Dorner's text seems particularly useful for Artist's meditation on Blue life, insofar as it contains an impossible bundling of diametrically opposed positions—Dorner is a black man, but he is able to identify as Blue; he is at once cop, a cop killer, and a victim of police violence. He is alive, but he regards himself as already dead.
The cadets sit at classroom desks, each titled I'm Blue (2019), followed by numbers 1–6. The desks that have been outfitted with riot shields—part of the visual canon of uprisings in Baltimore and Ferguson, and the signifier par excellence of the militarization of the police. The cadets' assigned reading rests on the desks, and below their chairs in metal bins. They read what effectively amounts to the textual canon of Blue life: Heather Mac Donald's The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe, Ellen Kirschman's I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know, and Kevin M. Gilmartin's Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement: A Guide for Officers and Their Families build pathos for the police, repositioning them as the undeserving victims of a culture war. Under Artist's critical eye, this reactionary curriculum reaffirms the critique from the voiceover monologue—Blue life is an egregious assumption of victimhood, a pernicious coddling of society's bully-babies.
One theme put forth in Reid and Cunningham's essay is how Blue life renders the spectral authority of the state into pure corporeality, remarking how "'Blue Lives Matter' wants to give flesh to the ghostly presence of police power." In a sense, American Artist's project here can be understood not necessarily as fleshing out Blue life, but locating it symbolically within various cultural materials, such as a renowned graphic novel and a highly-scrutinized manifesto. However, as Artist does so, they also find Blue life's betrayal, either in Osterman's abandonment of the Earth or in Dorner's shooting spree. Therefore, Artist's avatars are a microcosm of the show itself insofar as they seek to undo themselves, just as Artist seeks to clarify Blue life in order to extinguish it.