At the CalArts MFA Show, Video Art Delivers Biting Social Critique

All of the 32 artists in this show engage with strategies of resistance, but it is the audio-visual art that commands attention.

Gwenmarie White, “Skjemt Blod” (“Bad Blood”) (image courtesy the artist)

LOS ANGELES — The title of the CalArts 2018 MFA show, Rattlesnake Bells in the Desert, curated by Daniela Lieja Quintanar, is lifted from Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector’s metaphysical novel, The Passion According to G.H. (1964). Lispector’s book chronicles a breakdown and its resolution: ecstatic epiphany. The text culminates in an evocative scene in which the narrator, in an instance of existential dread, is tasked with facing her greatest fear, presented in the symbolic form of a cockroach. As she attempts to dispose of the insect by slamming its body in a closet door, her revulsion, quite unexpectedly, transforms into rapturous compassion: she scoops its oozing entrails into her mouth in a ritualistic act of communion. For Lispector, immanence is manifest only by leaning into the void; the 32 artists in this show seem to agree.

In the main space we find mostly wall work — large paintings hung high, video, and sculpture — distinct but simultaneous. Themes of the body, as a site for negotiation, conflict, and care, and histories of violence and resilience underpin the show. “Strategies of resistance strongly resonate as sharp knocking sounds throughout the exhibition. Colonialism and systems of power are examined through memory, meditation, intimate experiences, and critique of the social and political present,” reads Quintanar’s curatorial text.

Installation view of Rattlesnake Bells In The Desert: CalArts MFA Graduation Show 2018 at The Box (photo by Andrew Cunningham)

The smaller rooms of audio-visual offerings, where works command their own architectural space, arguably foreground some of the strongest work in the show. Annie Render’s “Predictive Text! Backscratcher! Stacks! Light Touch Heavy Handed! Biohackin’!,” a two-channel video installation replete with a display of padded, ergonomic furniture fills a small diagonal walkway. As a transitory space that bridges the main room with its more intimate antechambers, Render’s piece serves as an obstruction as much as it’s a requisite.

“Predictive Text! Backscratcher! Stacks! Light Touch Heavy Handed! Biohackin’!” refers to the five games continuously enacted on screen by five human participants, whose bodies are manipulated by Render’s hand-crafted furniture, concealed by a marquee of tartan fabric punctured with holes for their hands to emerge from. The furniture forces their bodies to perform in a particular way, establishing “an index of capabilities and limitations within the individual’s body,” as Render explains it. In one instance, the five participants attempt to connect a pipeline of wiener-dogs on skewers with only their hands visible through the marquee, meaning they’re blind to one another’s progress; they must operate as multiple but interconnected mechanized limbs attached to a singular mind-body. Render cites Benjamin Bratton’s The Stack as a touchstone here, a text which proposes an architecture of internet sovereignty in which the “user” is caught in a paradox between incentivized hyper-individuation (profiles, Instagram, curated identities) and ultimate pluralization (the algorithms that dictate their currency).

Annie Render, “Predictive Text! Backscratcher! Stacks! Light Touch Heavy Handed! Biohackin’!” installation view (photo by Andrew Cunningham)

What makes this work so appealing is the confidence with which Render incorporates her process; she lets us in on the behind-the-scenes of the setup, including shots of the reverse of the screen and the loose, casual conversation of the participants in situ as they work through their collective game-tasks. Render seems to insist that instability is inherent in human engagement, calling out the dubious corporate structures that bind us in relation to one another. With humor, Render tactfully exposes the ease with which the rhetoric of “the community” and “the individual” alike has been harnessed for corporate profit-making.

Jinseok Choi likewise places structural constraints on his (and the viewer’s) body in “Let Me Pant You Something.” The multi-channel video piece is shown on three standalone television sets arranged in an insular triangle so that they function like barricades, forcing a lone viewer to enter into the geometry of screens.

Jinseok Choi, “Let Me Pant You Something” (image courtesy the artist)

The story narrated on-screen by Choi is one of powerful emotional resonance, that of a soldier who took his own life after a strict regime of military training. Choi wants us to witness the effects of an industrialized, systematic rhetoric of violence, not only with regards to the military industrial system but the geopolitical dynamics surrounding South Korea, which Choi describes as a “contamination” of civil society. On screen, we watch Choi performing a regimen of intense physical training until his breathing is labored; he’s sweating and panting, unable to continue his narration. The strain of physical labor literally overrides his ability to communicate.

Gwenmarie White, “Skjemt Blod” (“Bad Blood”) (photo by Andrew Cunningham)

The exhibition culminates with Gwenmarie White’s video “Skjemt Blod” (“Bad Blood”), which fills the back wall of an isolate room. The title is a nod to the lineage of Norwegian Black Metal and to Taylor Swift’s infamous pop tune, of which White’s video is something of a complicated homage. White’s video opens with a scene of rosy, jubilant cheerleaders receiving gifts of folded pillowcases. Since the video has been slowed, the handling and caressing of these material offerings reaches a near-sacred intensity. All the while, a shrill but ambient soundscape is mounting to fever pitch. As the primary cheerleader slowly raises a flaccid pillowcase to her powered face, looking like Mother Mary in a baby-blue pleated skirt, the sound shifts: a choir of female voices rush in and the scene cuts to a stained-glass window depicting a robed, black-metal queen before panning to the heavily made-up choir. Suddenly, the choral voices play backdrop to a new lead vocal (Bridget Galanis), who pelts out the first audible line of Taylor Swift’s hit tune, but shriller, laid down in minor key. Then hell, quite literally, bursts through: a Norwegian black metal cover of “Bad Blood” crackles the amp in the corner of the tiny room. The choir of angels turn satanic, the cheerleaders begin a pillow fight which mutates into a violent act akin to tar and feathering, the black metal band keeps on playing.

White’s images are both sexualized and seductive, beautiful and bloody; visions of powerful “women” laced with overt expressions of vengeance occupying spaces they shouldn’t (the pulpit, the rock arena). These are not the neat, comfortable categorizations of female power we like to believe in. The implicit suburban whiteness of these caricatures is both critiqued and reinforced as integral to the devotional teen-girl narrative. Unlike Swift’s army of bad girls who are clad in revealing black-leather catsuits, the women and girls in this video embrace and subvert so-called “basic” femininity, asking us to confront less obvious, and perhaps less “perfect” representations of empowerment.

Gwenmarie White, “Skjemt Blod” (“Bad Blood”) (image courtesy the artist)

Like Clarice Lispector’s novel that audaciously takes an unexpected turn — the character struggling to reconcile her metaphysical yearnings with her physical presence — Rattlesnake Bells in the Desert does not default to a simplified, monolinear narrative. Instead, the CalArts graduates in this show engage with the complex messiness of our present reality, revealing how a death rattle may also be a talking drum.

Rattlesnake Bells In The Desert: CalArts MFA Graduation Show 2018 was on view at The Box (805 Traction Avenue Los Angeles) June 1–13. 

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