“We did a test with stuntmen and it was so fake. I spoke to a director who told me that I’d never be able to replicate an assault with a stuntman—and I’d never want to. There’s the argument: “How is it real violence if it’s not a real person?” It’s real violence because I was applying real physical violence to the figure, despite it being made up of animated components. I wasn’t really interested in VR, but I was interested in taking a medium with a basis in interactivity and reducing its interactivity. I was interested in the mundane violence we see and the difference between seeing an ISIS video and watching a Quentin Tarantino film.”—artist Jordan Wolfson on “Real Violence,” his #VR artwork depicting an assault shown in the recent #WhitneyBiennial. Wolfson joined @rhizomedotorg curator Aria Dean (@lol_prosciutto) in conversation tonight as part of First Look, a digital art commissioning and exhibition program.
It’s no longer a surprise to see casual violence on the internet and TV, in newspapers and artworks. But what happens when violence is stripped of its political reality and reduced to a purely aesthetic form? Who has the privilege to make that choice?
These are the topics that arose at a screening of Jordan Wolfson’s work last week at the New Museum. The artist, whose videos and sculptures are mostly known for a spooky combination of violence and entertainment, showed three video works, followed by a conversation with Rhizome’s assistant curator of net art and digital culture, Aria Dean. When asked by Dean about white violence, Wolfson said simply, “It’s hard for me to talk about white violence, being a white person.” Audience members quickly challenged the statement during the Q&A session, and the night turned into a thought-provoking debate.
The three videos that Wolfson screened all incorporate images easily associated with current political trends and topics, but seemingly only for decorative purposes. In “Animation, masks” (2012), a clichéd caricature of an Orthodox Jewish man mouths a conversation between two lovers about their relationship. Despite Wolfson’s Jewish heritage, he always insists that his art is not autobiographical. For “Animation, masks,” he claims to have animated an “evil Jewish” image found on Google.
“Raspberry Poser” (2012) features CGI-animated bouncing HIV viruses, heart-filled condoms, a redhead cartoon boy repeatedly cutting himself up, and other random imagery. Wolfson manages to maintain a visual continuity, but it’s not to be confused with a greater political statement. As he admitted in a previous interview, Wolfson finds it most challenging and exciting to create formal consistencies. When talking about a previous piece, “Con Leche” (2009), he remarked that his work “isn’t about specific content.” Unfortunately, deprived of any real subject, “Raspberry Poser” comes off as somewhat superficial.
The third work, “Riverboat Song” (2017), is more sophisticated in its communication of a subject, but still not fully cooked. It starts with a short-haired protagonist dancing in high heels and voicing a narcissistic monologue. “I’d like you to understand that I’m not responsible for my rage, but it is instead a response to your correctable defects,” the character says. As the speech goes on, the protagonist is replaced by a crocodile, punk rats, and horses. Each iteration of the character seems to be an arbitrary choice. The video ends with screenshots of YouTube clips, including real footage of a white man beating a black youth.
After the screening, Wolfson sat down with Dean, who didn’t take long to ask him about his recent VR piece “Real Violence” (2017), shown at this year’s Whitney Biennial. In the controversial work, the viewer puts on a headset and sees a character — portrayed by the artist himself — bashing in another white man’s head, to the point where you cannot tell if the victim is alive. Meanwhile, Hanukkah blessings are heard at the beginning and the end of the 360-degree video. Dean pointed out that it wasn’t just the violence of the work that people found surprising, but also the race of the characters: white-on-white violence is rarely featured in the media.
She then asked Wolfson for his thoughts on white violence, but he refused to respond directly, instead stating that everything in his work is solely an artistic choice. “I’ve never really thought of specifically white-on-white violence. I’ve thought in terms of making the artwork, and I’ve thought of including what I thought was important in the artwork.” He continued: “If I made the decision that a white guy beating a black guy, or if it was a black guy beating a white guy, suddenly the information in the artwork would be carried and transmitted, and then hypothetically would take the work to another type of narrative path that wasn’t part of my intention.”
This suggests that Wolfson tried to neutralize any political connotations in “Real Violence” (and his other work) by eliminating potential racial, age, and gender differences between the two characters. But if violence as a political issue is not his concern, then what is his intention?
“What I was interested in is the mundane violence we see,” Wolfson said. “The witnessing of one subject losing their consciousness … the desire to see someone die … there’s something almost pornographic about it.” His focus appears to be the act of watching violence itself, and the mixed feeling of horror and fascination that brings.
A black man in the audience acutely pointed out the problem of Wolfson’s refusal to discuss violence and challenged him during the Q&A.
“Do you think about violence as a horizontal plane or hierarchy?” the man asked.
Wolfson hesitated. “Do you want me to answer how I think about it personally or artistically?”
“What’s the difference?”
After some evasion, Wolfson finally said, “I’m not my art. I let the world pass through me, and then it takes a shape.”
When Wolfson failed to fully answer the original question, a few other audience members started to confront him as well. Was it not his white male privilege that allowed him to separate his artistic life from his personal, if not political, life? The artist first asked, “what privilege?” and then admitted, “I don’t think of it as a privilege.”
But to many people, including myself as a woman of color, it is a privilege to not have to think about privilege. It is a privilege to make violence into art without being threatened by real violence. It is a privilege to imagine white men as neutral characters that could supposedly avoid political interpretations.
When asked again about his opinion on white violence, Wolfson reiterated his working method, which is to reflect the world as he sees it and supposedly strip any meaning in the process. “This is my artwork. This isn’t my opinion. The artwork doesn’t have a message. The artwork has a form. If the artwork takes a message, that’s based on the person looking at it.”
What at first seems like an innocent statement becomes naive, even terrifying, when said by someone who constantly uses violence as artistic material. Not only does Wolfson’s reluctance to discuss white violence enhance a public dismissal of the problem, but his formalist approach indulges our culture’s fascination with gore and death while ignoring its causes and consequences in the real world, from the workplace to the Middle East. Intentionally deprived of meaning, Wolfson’s seemingly political artworks ring hollow, and the characters, dialogue, and music — including all the Jewish references — appear as nothing more than an attention-grabbing ploy.
The Q&A unsurprisingly turned into two audience members arguing with each other about whether it’s the artist’s responsibility to make a political statement with their art. It’s true that we shouldn’t stake too much on one artist’s opinion or approach, but we ought to also be mindful that violence for violence’s sake contributes to the daily brutality we witness. Too frequently, oppression is justified by fear of an imagined threat. Talking about social threats when the speaker does not have to face them himself is a privilege, all the more so when he lacks awareness of this fact. As long as privilege remains invisible to the privileged, violence will continue to be more than a formal proposition to most people.
“First Look: Jordan Wolfson” took place at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) on June 15, 7pm.