Saturday, May 21, 2005

5/19 Race & Technology in Lower Manhattan, Part I

It's been a whirlwind. On May 19 we presented a listening of our 5.1 presentation of The Pink of Stealth and performed some of our new songs from 4-1-9, interspersed with questions from Mendi+Keith's Pop Quiz (more on the quiz later) for an event sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and The New Museum. Also presenting was the video artist and sculptor Rico Gatson, who showed a piece called History Lessons. The work was created for installation and several screens but we watched it on one screen. I was unfamiliar with Gatson's work, although once I looked him up I realized I'd of course seen some of it before.

I really liked "History Lessons". The piece has several different sections. One is sort of a music video for the Bob Dylan song ("Only A Pawn in Their Game"). The part I found myself drawn to, however, is the part from which the image above is taken. Gatson repeats a number of actions and images from a number of old movies with stereotypical images of black people. When we talked about his work a few days before the presentation, he spoke about wanting to recharge the images he used. I think that is a common idea among artists who use the archive in their work, but I think this method is rarely as successful as Gatson's work. Here's how "History Lessons" is described in a press release from his gallerist, Ronald Feldman:

History Lessons, consisting of one video divided into four separate episodes, creates a tension between humor and horror to powerful effect. Repeated as large projections and on TV monitors encased in a freestanding, wooden structure, the video flashes refractions of dazzling kaleidoscopic images, transformed from film clips and other source material. The four episodes include: the 1915 silent film, The Birth of a Nation; stereotypical depictions of blacks in films from the 30s and 40s; the Watts riot in Los Angeles; and A Bullet from a Bush, based on the murder of the Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers with a sound track of a Bob Dylan song on the same subject. The seriousness of the lyrics is betrayed by a comic presentation of images echoing the notion that history can be easily forgotten or deemed insignificant.

Watching the scene above, in which a black man holding an ax is frightened by the apparition of a devil at his window, I began to see a number of things in a different way. The ax becomes limp, which of course references an assumed weakness on the part of the man holding the ax. However, having this part of he narrative isolated leads us to see this image (the ax becoming limp) as a device. This part happens rather quickly, but then the image continues to repeat and it is presented layer upon layer, from different angles. The ax, bending in several different directions how, makes several shapes, and at some point they begin to mirror the symbols on the klan uniforms in images from other films.

I'm still making sense of what I saw, but I'm struck by several things.
  • Gatson made the images beautiful
  • This made me struggle with what I was supposed to take from the images (a) in their original context (b) in his critique of that original context and (c) as aesthetic objects
What I mean is that the representation of the objects cut up and layered and repeated allowed me to see the violence in the original representation, allowed me to see out of that violence (because the attention to the fact that they were made, crafted for a nefarious purpose forced me to step out of the initial viewing mode), and allowed me to even think about shape and color and this artist's attention to craft and his own choices.

In Part II of this series, I'm going to try to remember more about our conversation, which was moderated by Erika Muhammad, the curator of Race in Digital Space. Then I'll say more about the wonderful experience we had at @froGEEKS.


Blogger John K said...

Gatson's work sounds really fascinating, and I love how you frame it in terms of his working with the "archive," and your reading of what you took from the videos against what his aims were. I'm going to look for it online and elsewhere. I'm also sorry I wasn't back yet to catch you and Keith; the subsequent post, describing your performance and then the panel discussion, really makes me wish I could have been there. The question of did Theresa Cha put it, "The dream of an [ideal?] [understanding?] [engaged?] [open?] audience...."

1:45 AM, May 30, 2005  

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