Mariam Ghani’s Universal Games (2001-02) focuses on the relationship between heavy politics, the world of sports, and war, all through a language of media spectacle. Her piece addresses a whole week of a strange episode in American prime time television in October of 2000, in which the two top stories of New York network news—the Yankees-Mets World Series and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—were covered at the same time, suggesting certain similarities between the topics, the pose of the players, residents, and insurgents, and the tone of the reporters covering both stories.
Kenn Bass’s video Fire Moth (2005-07) comments on the fragility of the human psyche in contrast to superhuman demands of warfare, technology, and stress. His video footage is from a U.S. Navy exercise conducted in the 1950s, with pilots training to learn to land on aircraft carriers using curved mirrors as a guidance system. The artist realized that the use of light in the footage seem to follow a similar blinking pattern reminiscent of Morse code, which related to earlier pieces used in telegraphs to control projectors, or to respond to projected images. The history of telegraphy is inherently tied to its role as a military tool for communication. Developed in the 1830s and 1840s, 15,000 miles of telegraph cable were laid purely for military purposes during the American Civil War. Another part of the piece that creates a distressful focus is the text that pops up in the middle of the screen. The text is adapted from tests at Ross Institute’s Dissociative Experience Scale in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, exploring the mental and physical conditions experienced after a traumatic event.
Jim Finn shot in Hi-8 analog to sustain its amateur quality, suggesting the fragility of the human mind when shaped by an extremist collective ideology. The Shining Trench of Chairman Gonzalo, 2007, depicts one day at the Canto Grande prison in Peru, where guerrilla women from the Maoist Shining Path movement bring to life the performances of their brutal indoctrination. Filmed at the New Mexico State Fairgrounds, this fictional film mixes guerrilla poems and interviews, writings and sayings from the Shining Path’s leader, Abimael Guzman, Macbeth, Marxist rhetoric, and Finn’s own writing, emphasizing how extreme movements in the 21st century are in tune with their patriarchal histories and expansionist ideologies.
Not all extreme groups live in poor, marginalized conditions. In fact, extreme ideas are more powerful when their sources are invisible and their methods are articulated beyond their frontiers. Carlos Motta’s Memory of a Protest, 2007, is a documentary shot during a public protest by a Chilean human rights’ organization, Kamarikun, against the School of the Americas in Santiago, Chile, in late 2006. The institution has been an important asset for US foreign policy in Latin America throughout and after the Cold War. It was established in 1946 in Fort Gulig, in the Panama Canal region and relocated to Fort Bening, GA, in 1984. The school changed its name to Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in 2001, but its methods and ideologies remain the same. Opponents of the school claim that it has trained more than 61,000 Latin American soldiers to perpetuate torture and violence and to continue fomenting a disregard for human rights.
A growth of radical nationalisms and xenophobic policies can seem as out of control as a cancer. How can fear of being “invaded” co-exist with the so-called “free” economy or with any political rhetoric of freedom? Jamil Yamani’s 375 Watery Graves, (part one of three: journey), 2001, exposes the official slaughter of October 19th, 2001, at the shores of Australia, when Prime Minister John Howard, running for re-election, maneuvered his xenophobic political campaign through the media, allowing the boat called SievX (Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel X) to sink with 352 people, including women and children, from which only 45 survived with the help of a fishing boat.
El Espetáculo, 2007, by Karina Aguilera Skvirsky, appropriates footage from oft-videotaped celebrity trials and daytime talk shows, choreographing celebrity gestures with those of military marches with an original 5.1 soundtrack composed of sounds from a variety of sources—the paparazzi, the fanatical fans, Oprah’s audience, disasters, and the occasional musical riff—emphasizing the media’s role of manipulating public awareness through the obsession with banal culture, as a strategy that creates collective numbness, and politics of war as fictional mechanisms of spectacle.
Shalom Gorewitz’s “I Want You,” 2007, is a video with images of the Military Recruitment Center and its surroundings at Times Square. “I want you” is Uncle Sam’s pointed finger and cruel eyes, but also the cry from the glut of the radiating media escape. The result is a post-pop implosion of signs and symbols at the country’s cross roads. The flux of formal colors and lights, are as violent as they are sexually indulgent.
Eteam’s To Go for a Song, 2007, parodies the uniformity and conformity of the military march, its exaggerated body gestures and lack of individuality, with one of the artists portraying the cloned soldiers, as a background voice sings the children’s song, “Ten Little Indians,” in German. Made as an animation, the video uses absurd solutions to infer issues of erasure and cleansing.
Barbara Pollack’s America’s Army, 2003, is a video of the U.S. Army’s interactive internet-based game targeted to teenage boys, www.americasarmy.com. On a split screen we follow Pollack’s fifteen year-old son and his actions playing the game. These two separate screens allow us to see both the objective rules of the game, and the subjective split between playing it and being played by the game. Pollack writes: “In the course of ten minutes in real time, Max goes through basic training, enters a war zone and is killed in action.”
Janet Biggs’ Performance of Desire, 2007, is a nod to Busby Berkeley’s lavish musicals and the US fascination of military enactment. It depicts cadets performing a silent drill, relinquishing individuality to become part of the choreography of war. Paired with ethereal images of weightless synchronized swimmers suspended in slow motion, the piece suggests new relationships between beauty and strength, as well as age, desire and power.
Rona Yefman’s 2 Flags (2006), is an experimental fiction based on a street game called 2 Flags, with the goal of taking over rival territory, and stealing their flag. The film’s characters are stereotypes of Israel’s early nation builders, and here they are fighting a gang war between The Hoods and The Stripes. The story takes place in various areas of Tel Aviv, modern, historic, deserted – portraying the city as a war zone. Some of the dialogues and monologues are taken from famous political speeches, resulting in a sense of loss of hope and values, and having to resort to destruction and chaos.
Matthew Suib’s Cocked (from the ReVisionist Cinema series), 2003, is a video produced during the peak of the international debate regarding the United States initiative to invade Iraq. It is an anti-war statement in the guise of a minimalist Western, borrowing dozens of short segments from several Cinema classics of the genre. Cocked expands and sustains what is usually a brief, tense, cinematic moment—the showdown—and implodes the quintessential American mythology of the Western by denying the characteristic redemption of its protagonists through acts of violence, and instead, here nothing is resolved.
Maritza Molina’s Conquering Space, 2004, is a multi-layered piece where the artist is fighting against everything and nothing at the same time, fighting an invisible battle with the reality that surrounds her, and the impermanent reality of her own self. The artist writes, “Fueled by my own energy, I enter into all of those other energies that oppose me, and struggle to retain the space I occupy. The space that is attacking me is a palpable entity, and I resist its power to defeat me.”
Liz Magic Laser’s Globe (2007) plays with the dichotomies of a master/slave relationship, in which the voice of a woman (the artist herself) commands a young man to perform destructing actions on a globe. The commands and the actions in the video are full of sexual overtones, revealing the fine line between power and bondage.
Finally, Michael Paul Britto’s Cool-Pose #1 (2007) deals with issues of race and stigma, commenting on how society shapes the behavior of young black men, who on their side play the role created for them as a way of responding and challenging that same society that marginalizes them. Inspired by the book by Richard Majors and Janet Mancini Billson, Cool Pose: The Dilemma of Black Manhood in America, the video compiles “collected behaviors associated with portrayal of cool, disaffected, or gangsta-hip lifestyle,” as the artist states, using the shadow as a metaphor to “blackness.” As a projection, the video fosters interaction with viewers, who also become part of the piece.
This exhibition is made possible with public funds from the City of New York Department of Cultural Affairs and the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency, and with generous support from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, The Greenwall Foundation, Agnes Gund and Daniel Shapiro, Jerome Foundation, Richard Massey, Judith and Donald Rechler Foundation Inc., Eve Sussman and Smack Mellon’s Members.
Smack Mellon also receives generous support from the National Endowment for the Arts, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, City Council Member David Yassky and the New York City Council, Bloomberg, Foundation for Contemporary Arts, The Greenwich Collection Ltd., Independence Community Foundation, Jean and Louis Dreyfus Foundation, Inc., Lily Auchincloss Foundation Inc., Milton and Sally Avery Arts Foundation Inc., New York Community Trust, Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, Inc., The Starry Night Fund of Tides Foundation, and The Roy and Niuta Titus Foundation, Inc.
Space for Smack Mellon’s programs is generously provided by the Walentas Family and Two Trees Management.