PHILADELPHIA — Banal Presents is the third and final chapter in Colored People Time, an experimental exhibition in three parts curated by Meg Onli at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. Stretched over the course of one calendar year, this exhibition attempts to represent the ways that colonialism and slavery have permeated the United States’ past, present, and future. Central to this exhibition is an insistence on the common, every day manifestation of this legacy. As Onli writes in the exhibition pamphlet, “it is through the coerced labor and violence against black bodies that an American future has been able to unfold.” The meaning of “colored people time” undergoes many mutations in these chapters: the stolen time of slavery and imprisonment, the mechanical, capitalist metering of time for labor, the time yet to come, and ways it may be conceptualized within a black imaginary, and “colored people time” as an affirmation that a person’s time is not earned, but just is.
During the entirety of 2019, a small, one-room gallery on the second floor of the ICA has played host to these chapters. This exhibition unfolds not only in space, but through time. Its length grants ample opportunity to revisit its contents (there is no financial barrier to entry, since the ICA is free for all), and Colored People Time in turn demands rigor from its viewer: each chapter is accompanied by suggested reading lists. This year-long format transforms the smallness of the space into an ethical directive to think carefully and thoroughly about its shifting contents — fast conclusions are neutered by the knowledge of more parts to come.
The first chapter, Mundane Futures, (February 1 through March 31) presented historical and current imaginings of a black future, without reduction to simple utopias. Quotidian Pasts (April 26 through August 11), which was co-curated with Monique Scott, Director of Museum Studies at Bryn Mawr College, and featured objects from the Penn Museum’s African collection, explored colonial ethnographic practices and their impacts on how African art and culture is consumed today.
Whereas Mundane Futures and Quotidian Pasts both utilized fiction and speculation, Banal Presents is firmly grounded in reality: With resounding denunciation, it presents the exploitation of Black-American bodies through both slavery and mass incarceration. It shows how this legacy has permeated the most mundane aspects of American society. It posits all of our contemporary lives as inheritors of this theft. This exhibition demonstrates that such exploitation is embedded in legal texts, in registers of prisoners-as-test-subjects hidden in dusty archives, in the land upon which slaves toiled. This exploitation is embedded in the reams of microfiche that detail financial holdings, in the formulas of medicines which preserve us, and in the paychecks of employees of big pharma and hallowed academia alike.
Banal Presents is the most succinct and austere of the three chapters. It contains precisely four contemporary artworks by Sable Elyse Smith, Carolyn Lazard, and Cameron Rowland. These works have a documentary leaning, and are all made of real materials from our legal and prison-industrial systems.
Sable Elyse Smith’s “Coloring Book 33” (2019) consists of a large, screen-printed page, appropriated from a coloring book meant to teach children about the justice system. While other works from this series contain disturbing passages about a “Judge Friendly” who guides children through courthouse waiting rooms and metal detectors, this page merely states, “Draw your own picture.” It is an oxymoronic command for a child to perform their agency. On this loaded, white page, Smith wields oil stick in a child’s scrawl. A rainbow is turned on its side and accompanied by the phrase, “not my father, not my brother, not my cousin, nor a cheap fuck, not friend, teacher, neighbor, acquaintance, not my fiction.” This phrase is a double entendre: It is both a pleading and a denial.
Smith’s sculpture, “Pivot,” (2019) plays a similar trick of drawing parallels between children’s activities and carceral systems. Here, unwieldy prison stools are welded together to resemble a monumental toy jack. Beyond the innately disturbing transformation of these stools into a cavalier game piece, this sculpture turns the utilitarian prison stool on its head, allowing the viewer to evaluate the discomfort of its design, and imagine the kind of space where it would typically exist.
That this exploitation is embedded in the most boring of bureaucracies hinders human stories from being told. The desire to unveil the personal is at the core of Carolyn Lazard’s video “Pre-Existing Condition” (2019). The video directly implicates the University of Pennsylvania (which owns the Institute of Contemporary Art) as complicit with a series of horrific medical experiments by Albert M. Kligman, a doctor of dermatology. The experiments were conducted on incarcerated people at Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia for 20 years. They were not ended by choice or conscience, but instead were declared a violation of the Nuremberg Code of 1947 — rules meant to keep scientists from doing what the Nazis did.
The video consists of scanned lists of experiments, their nameless, numbered participants, their minimal rates of compensation, and the sponsoring institution. Against this cycling backdrop, is the voice of Edward Yusuf Anthony, who survived Kligman’s experiments and likely endures the long-term health repercussions to this day. Yet Anthony does not directly discuss his memories of Kligman’s experiments, which are so easily sensationalized. Instead, he speaks to his current experiences with the medical and legal systems: how these industries meant for caring continue to fail him, and why he cannot trust them.
I am immediately struck by the intimate, conversational nature of Anthony’s voice, which holds the kind of blunt honesty that is rarely given without a promise of confidence. It is like a testimony, only without the presence of an adjudicator. There is no interviewer with an agenda, no line of questioning designed to extract the most relevant narrative marrow. Listening to this video, it’s hard not to feel like Anthony is speaking directly to me. He describes how his doctor prescribed a blood pressure medicine with a carcinogen, and how his preexisting condition means no lawyer will help him sue. He describes his side effects: nervousness, joint pain, an inability to ball up his fists, fatigue. He talks about how he wishes his doctor would give him something they know is safe, rather than samples of this or that. Kligman’s experiments are just one example of how America’s medical-industrial systems have exploited black bodies, and repaid that debt by continuing to provide many black people with subpar care. Juxtaposed with archival documents from those experiments, Anthony’s words are a searing indictment of this continued failure.
Cameron Rowland’s work, entitled “Depreciation” (2018), appears in the gallery as two thin black frames with legal documents pasted in neat rows. One consists of a deed, and another of a property appraisal.
In the gallery notes, Rowland describes the implementation of “40 acres and a mule” as reparations for slavery in 1865, and the rapid rescinding of that order within about a year and half. The land was quickly repossessed by white Southerners and black people were folded into the share-cropping system. Maxie Place plantation on Edisto Island, South Carolina was one such repossessed property. Rowland created 8060 Maxie Road, Inc., a nonprofit company formed to purchase one acre of that land at market value ($38,000), and through a restrictive covenant, render this land legally unusable and worth $0. Such restrictions will remain for all the time that our current systems governing private property are still in place.
Part of the power of Rowland’s work lies in his demonstration that our most obscure laws can be navigated and subverted. “Depreciation” affirms that in our culture of mutual exploitation, laws can be exploited for poetic purposes too. Rowland’s gesture is a bit like Heidegger’s description of a hammer, which goes unobserved when useful, but becomes an object for thought upon breaking, losing its utility. By essentially breaking this legal system, Rowland lays bare its absurdities. The last paragraph of his gallery notes begins, “As reparation, this covenant asks how land might exist outside of the legal-economic regime of property that was instituted by slavery and colonization.” (The full text can be found on page 8 of the gallery notes.)
I know this exhibition does not seek to satisfy anything, since nearly any satisfaction art can give to real, urgent, ethical, social problems is at best a little trite, an aesthetic bandage for a gaping wound, and at worst a totalitarian illusion. Satisfaction can become satiation. Yet of this group, “Depreciation” is the work that leaves me the most satisfied; it does not solve anything, but it does a good job bearing witness. It represents a different kind of justice through the legal system. There is no commutation, settlement, or reparation that will feed somebody, but there is the redress of a clever monument. Rowland molds the law into a monument made of earth, air, paper, and the social contract itself.
Colored People Time flips the forward motion inherent within a novelistic structure; nobody gets their just desserts. This trilogy ends right here, and right now, with all of our failings. Although in Onli’s own words, this exhibition is “not a roadmap towards ‘justice’,” and is “not even optimistic,” Banal Presents does the important work of providing examples of resistance, and a final note of urgency. If the language surrounding Colored People Time — its many gallery notes, press releases, conversations with the curator, referenced texts, etc. — feels overwhelming, that is likely because this exhibition is not meant to be conclusive, or to uphold any singular narrative. Onli arms her viewer with ample opportunities for learning. While “Banal Presents” marks the end of Colored People Time as an exhibition, the project re-commences in the form of a reader to be released in 2020.
Colored People Time: Banal Presents continues at the Institute of Contemporary Art (118 S 36th Street, Philadelphia) through December 22. The exhibition was curated by Meg Onli. All three chapters of Colored People Time will travel to the MIT List Visual Arts Center where they will be on view through April 12, 2020.