Desiree Fairooz ‘s laugh was the self-described “chortle of disdain” heard around the world. When the activist, a member of the antiwar group Code Pink, laughed during Senator Richard Shelby’s (R-AL) statement of support for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, she was charged with two misdemeanors: disrupting Congress and unlawful demonstration on Capitol grounds. The arrest was so absurd that the Attorney General’s own office decided to dismiss the case in November 2017, 10 months after Fairooz’s giggle fest.
This anecdote of chortles and charges is stage dressing for Smack Mellon’s newest show, Laugh Back, an exhibition that aims to convey the transgressive potentials of humor to briefly disrupt or destabilize power structures while undoing the myth of humorless feminism. Curated by Lindsey O’Connor, the show is regrettably off in its comedic timing: punchlines often fail to land and viewers are left wondering if absurdist violence against the political system is appropriate, if leveraging aggression is ever an ethical way to achieve catharsis.
Jan Mun’s “Comic Relief” (2018) exemplifies the show’s timing issues. Ironically, “Comic Relief” simulates the setting of an office waiting room, complete with a shoddy lamp and magazines for reading. A satire of fake news, Mun includes phony tabloids like National Geologic, whose bogus cover story hints at dirty jokes found in Anne Frank’s “hidden diary pages.” The article inside is exactly what one would expect: it details the alleged nonsense entries alongside a fraudulent response from the Anne Frank House that confirms the child’s lusty prose. In 2018, does a fake article about Frank really pique anyone’s interest? (Rumors about her family’s story being false have intrigued Holocaust deniers for decades while disgusting most everyone else on the planet.) In an exhibition that claims to be transgressive, Mun surely follows form instead of breaking the mold.
Good comedy is about tension and release; it requires the use of satire, exaggeration, impersonation, observation, clowning, pausing, and a multitude of other strategies to create an actually funny joke. Trump’s presidency has prompted many artists to reinvest in comedic forms to criticize or refute the hateful rhetoric he has upchucked on the American people. Philosophers and activists have long seen comedy as an instrument in quashing hatred and nationalism before it starts. Scholars, like architecture theorist Keller Easterling in Extrastatecraft, describe comedy as indecipherable by bureaucracy because of its nuance, sarcasm, and insinuations. In fact, counter-protesters have successfully sapped power from Neo-Nazis in the United States and Europe by arriving to their marches dressed as clowns. Humor can avoid escalation by highlighting the absurdities of power structures like ethno-nationalism. Executed properly, humor can deflate puffed up notions of testosterone-induced heroism that foreground so much hatred.
Laugh Back‘s first mistake is opening with a work that so efficiently blurs the difference between slapstick and sadism. It would be entirely facetious to label Deborah Castillo’s “Slapping Power” (2015/18) as funny. A performance-sculpture, “Slapping Power” begins with Castillo attacking two male busts representing patriarchal authority. With each slap, Castillo deforms the clay sculpture’s face until nothing but a blank visage remains. An impactful work, but perhaps inappropriate for this particular exhibition. Sure, I understand her work as a brutal “fight fire with fire” attack on the violence of masculinity in its many forms (misogyny, colonialism, totalitarianism, Trumpism, etc.) but is the work funny? Are simulations of violence ever funny? And how is violence supposed to “correct” another form of violence? As the first work seen when entering Laugh Back, the ethical dilemma of Castillo’s “Slapping Power” influenced my interpretation of the exhibition.
Or maybe it’s my own taste in comedy that needs correcting. I seem to have no problem with Dyansty Handbag’s “FASCIST DICTATORSHIP MAKEUP TUTORIAL” (2016), a hilarious sendup of the YouTube genre that mixes foundation tips with a step-by-step tutorial in transforming your face into a horrifically clownish Trump mask. Created just days after the 2016 presidential election, Handbag’s video is an absurdist expression of liberal mourning. Hers is a self-inflicted violence, applying blush with great force or smudging mascara across her face with a high-pitched, psychotic “Goodbye!” Whereas Castillo presents an unvarnished performance of rage, Handbag funnels her anger into a deeply coded yet hysterical performance of apocalypse. How can we perform everyday tasks, like applying makeup, when democracy is crumbling before us? Handbag isn’t necessarily interested in answering that question, but she empathizes with the situation.
Would I say that any of the works on display are genuinely funny besides Dynasty Handbag’s video performance? Probably not. One bright exception is Jesse Harrod’s “Touchie Tender” (2018), which is porbably the strangest dollhouse I have ever seen. Harrod has painted the walls of her structure with a myriad of synchronized swimmers — all nude save a bathing cap — who present a derpy smile as they engage in an orgiastic routine of near-perfect symmetry. Here, the artist is actually paying homage to Esther Williams, a competitive swimmer turned movie star in the 1940s who starred in a number of “aqua musicals” that featured synchronized swimming. Harrod’s send up transforms the actress from an all-American sex symbol to a queer dream mermaid. Williams, presumably the work’s central figure, looks only mildly confused as the surrounding women grab onto her body. She must be thinking: When did this swim routine become so, well, nude?
Nearby is an installation by artist duo INNER COURSE (Rya Kleinpeter and Tora López) called “The Agony of It All” (2018), which returns to my earlier stated issue with how Laugh Back appraises systems of violence. The artist duo’s installation recreates the bedroom of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo from the 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy. Dressed as bedtime versions of Lucy, Kleinpeter and López present a subdued version of the notably madcap icon: a well-read feminist whose nighttime studies into feminism are revising the canon of women’s liberation materials.
Their piece is actually named after a 1988 book by psychologist Joy Davidson who, at the time, was seen to have “liberated” women from self-destructive behaviors catalyzed by the gendered conditioning of homebound life. Read in today’s context, though, many regard Davidson’s research as caustic because it pigeonholes ambitious women as “overly aggressive.” Accordingly, the artists lounge in their bedroom installation from Thursdays to Saturdays, beckoning visitors to sit with them and read a book. When I visited, López was reading Robin Lakoff’s important 1975 book, Language and Women’s Place, which brought gender politics to the field of linguistics. She was one of the first persons to investigate how women have been conditioned to use the language of “hedging” when speaking to men — words like “sort of,” “kind of,” and “it feels like.” Reading through excerpts from the book, López acknowledged the persistence of this “hedging” today, and how women are continually criticized for the way they talk. She sighed in disbelief that issues raised in the 1970s still remain.
Even if speech patterns can be corrected, would it be just as easy to correct our political present? And if comedy is just another idiom of language, is there truly a road to recovery for us when the options presented are either humor or aggression? If being transgressive involves the violation of set boundaries, then why does Laugh Back continually fall into a binary spectacle? Laugh or die. Leaving the exhibition, I feel less clear about humor’s effective role in downsizing dictators and ameliorating danger. So close to violence, I fear that what’s happening to America is no longer a laughing matter.