Friday, January 28, 2011

out of sight, out of mind...

Sometimes I think that teaching is much like therapy, at least the kind of therapy I've been in. The mindless and aimless stream of consciousness at times leads one to the heart of the matter. In the classroom I aim to create an environment where, sitting together and facing one another, we all talk out our impressions on art works we see in class. Many of the works I show in class are deceptively simple but in fact quite complicated, thus requiring a working through in order to understand it, or at least arrive a some commonality (though in my classes the goal is never to make someone "like" something, but to get some sort of meaning from it, from anything actually). In this process I believe I learn as much as my students do, which makes teaching a wonderful experience.

I've also noticed that, for this blog, immediacy is the best strategy. There are about 3 or 4 entries I have begun writing and never finished. I spent so much time researching and fact checking that, by the time the entries took some shape, my excitement lost its momentum. So I've also learned that the best way to get something into art-sight is to get it out of my mind as quickly as possible. This entry is based on a classroom exchange and a conversation with a friend from this past week.

In my video art class we have moved to the second project, which deals with appropriation (vis a vis television). That course combines a set of working skills with historical screenings and related readings. These activities usually relate to the conceptual concerns of the project at hand. For appropriation I screen some of the works of Dara Birnbaum and Ant Farm. The latter consists of a collective that combined performance/public intervention with guerilla tactics in their practice. They were mostly active in the in the late 60s through the late 70s, though some of their works have re-emerged lately in contemporary exhibitions that examine the use of video and related (mass) media in art.

We watched in class three video works by Ant Farm: Cadillac Ranch, Media Burn, and Eternal Frame. They are not easily available online for one to watch, but there is some writing available, easily found via a Google search (while you are at it, look up Birnbaum as well, an incredible artist, which will remain greatly unmentioned here). Eternal Frame (1975) centers on the images of the assassination of JFK, its title an insightful pun on the eternal flame on display at his monument at the Arlington Cemetery. This is what Gregory Ulmer might call a "puncept." The video below, Media Burn, contains footage of the "artist-president," some of which were re-used (appropriating themselves) for Eternal Frame.

At its core, Eternal Frame merges historical footage with a public performance/reenactment taking place at the sight of the original event; footage of the impromptu audience, and their reaction, are also included. The effect is simultaneously bizarre, tasteless, funny, and touching. Ant Farm member Doug Hall plays JFK (in more than one art piece, I might add here). While done many years after the actual assassination, and many decades before now, the currency of this work attests to the fact that great art persists through time, though here such fact has a very sad note. The first media president of the US was both born and killed via television, bringing forth the immediacy of that medium. To paraphrase Ant Farm, his televised bodily death gave birth to his eternal life as myth and image, and that, to some extent, we all killed Kennedy.

The parallels to our times are uncanny: the powers of monopoly, militarism, and mass media (pointed out as the large contributors to the decline of American culture by the group) have only increased as time goes by. Seeing president Obama on a talk show, or photographed in a bathing suit on a tabloid cover, makes me think that we might have completely tipped the scale to one scary side -  president as celebrity, presidency as PR campaign or media event.

In our class discussion the notion of a pivotal image that marked one's generation came up, for neither one of us were born before 1963, and therefore can only relate to that event as history. My parents, who lived in Brazil then, in many ways recall the moment as somewhat marking in their lives (they still remember where they were). I brought up that for my generation the media image of tragedy that has persisted was the almost missed explosion of the space shuttle Challenger (1986), which strangely enough was also historical footage to my students. Their marking moment was the Twin Tower terrorist acts of September 11, 2001, those images being their eternal frames of their reference, continuously repeated and displayed for a very long period of time. Sadly enough, that terrible event ended a period of American life (at least to me), and began another one, which we still find ourselves in. That image, more so than anything that might ever be re-built on its site, might become the biggest marker for a generation. And perhaps the end of all public displays of tragedy.

Going back to the JFK assassination, I brought up a similar (though with a somewhat happier outcome) current event, the Tucson shootings of early 2011. In it a US senator was shot and gravely wounded, though fortunately the assassination attempt failed (though other bystanders were killed, and many wounded, most notably a young girl who was born on September 11, 2001, a twisted and ironic turn of fate). The major difference between these two events, and a true show of how much times have changed, is the fact that there are no images of the actual shooting in the public sphere. Isn't it interesting that, in 2011, in a supermarket with surveillance equipment, with a considerable number of citizens with camera-enabled mobile phones, no images have come forth? Of course the tastelessness of it (I do not wish to see such footage, believe me) has to play some role in it. But we also need to think of the fact that in this technological world we live in, the images we see and do not see have an important role to play. Very little footage of the current wars we are in come into the public sphere, which differs greatly from 1975 (think of all the audio media being made public with Watergate, for example). Even images from 2006, of Saddam Hussein being hung/executed, surfaced immediately, those images illegally obtained and uploaded via mobile technology in a "backwards" country. Why is that? Who decided that? Did we all kill Hussein too?

As the Patriot Act comes to its expiration date (will it be extended?), and the NEA once again faces budget cuts at best or total annihilation (let's hope not), we must keep thinking, and talking about, the way images become symbols, and what the lack of images in our culture truly represent.

Just like therapy, the talking out of things, and in my case this morning, the writing of my thoughts, brings forth some enlightenment. I had mentioned that the Challenger explosion was the media image that marked my generation. But now I take this back, and in its stead will replace it with another powerful image. In 1989, a few days before my 16th birthday, images of people climbing over the Berlin Wall, destroying and celebrating its fall, were all over the news, around the world. I choose to think of that image as one that truly marked my life through media, the in-sight (in mind) of my generation. We all can use it, and, like Ant Farm, re-purpose it, as our symbol, renewed, that will help us all climb over the walls that currently surround us all.

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