Walking up to the clapboard rancher surrounded by a sod lawn in front of a brick building whose facing side was painted a sky blue, an uneasy feeling of displacement crept up my spine. On one side was downtown Detroit, the other was suburbia. Except it was some sort of self conscious version of suburbia, reminiscent of the prosaic childhood setting so many of us are familiar with, but with an almost mythic nature as a newly fetishized art object. Originally “launched” in 2010 as an intricately choreographed performative sculpture, Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead finally opened to the public on May 11, 2013 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit as a permanent fixture on the adjacent lot. As a recreation of the late artist’s childhood home in suburban Westland, MI, the resulting structure is fairly straightforward. As an art work, it is extremely complex, a nearly uncatagorizable masterpiece, wholly embracing major themes of his life’s work while barreling into new territory altogether in the most ambitious project of his far too short career. Mobile Homestead asserts itself as both public and private sculpture, focusing on community involvement and outreach, yet retaining a strong sense of privacy and secrecy inherent in homes by the elaborate basement labyrinth which will be kept off limits to the general public.
A small lending library greets visitors open entering the house, while in the room to the right an electric organ is tucked by the doorway leading to two back rooms furnished as offices of sorts, with donated or second hand furniture. This office vernacular continues through the back hallway and restroom, with overhead lighting and white walls, gray linoleum floor that denies the sense of warmth typically associated with a home. Having looped around to the back left of the house, the last two rooms before the garage contain the most engaging participatory elements of the house thus far. On wall pegs were thrift store items that could be “purchased” by creating money from materials provided on a nearby table. Visitors can determine the perceived value of the item of their choice, which were mostly fake food items, knick knacks and toys: objects of little use, or like the invented monetary system, items of play. While both a welcoming and generous proposal for a new economic system of exchange, it underlined an important critical perspective of the art. We are pretending that art can make an impact on a community that has little need in or interest of art. Kelley’s mistrust of public art is manifested in a contradictory work that both invites and refuses, both provides a platform for social empowerment and an expectation of failure. By paying for a sequined Mexican Wrestlers mask with hand drawn currency I am not helping anyone but myself, for something I don’t need at all or that will serve me any purpose except momentary enjoyment. Carrying it around the rest of the night, I felt stupid and a bit guilty, that I had taken advantage of the generosity of an invented system that could have bettered someone else instead. With the gift is the debt, and Kelley has specifically talked about this with works like More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid (1987):
“ ‘…we can make an art object that can’t be commodified.’ What’s that? That’s a gift. If I give you this art-thing, it’s going to escape the evils of capitalism. Well, of course that’s ridiculous, because if you give this thing to junior he owes you something. It might not be money, but he owes you something. The most terrible thing is that he doesn’t know what he owes you because there’s no price on the thing. Basically, gift giving is like indentured slavery or something. There’s no price, so you don’t know how much you owe.” – Mike Kelley in conversation with John Miller in 1991
Experiencing this sense of debt, an acknowledgement of worth arises. Art must have some worth in one’s day to day life, but to come at it through debt is to force its sense of worth on the indebted. Yet in the bowels of the house is a very private and crucial element of the art work that is off limits to the general public, harkening all the way back to the Tree of Knowledge in the Book of Genesis. The desire to enter the basement becomes even more significant. To be invited into an elite group that has access to the more private or sacred space of the artist. A twisted mentality develops of feeling slighted by the benefactor, that class or some social identifier has determined one’s limit in the consumption of the work. This sinister turn of emotional understanding complicates one’s position towards Homestead as a public artwork, while invoking the gothic nature found throughout Kelley’s art. The unattainable labyrinth basement sets the house as a sort of prison in which the inmate was just informed of his captivity after a lifetime of believing they were free. How would the programming develop, would it actually create community impact, would it fail, and quickly? What types of programming would be offered and when? From this comes the question, for whom? Would the programing be for me, or someone else? How am I included or excluded?
Public art and social practice typically engages a community by attempting to fill a need which is usually seen from someone outside of that community. They rarely give the community the chance to discuss if these actions of altruism are actually beneficial to them or not. In essence, the underprivileged remain unrepresented, denied agency to speak while seen without agency to overcome their perceived situation. Slyly cynical as a suburban home entering the city of Detroit as a reversal of White Flight, Mobile Homestead can potentially become a carefully disguised form of oppression like many other public art and social practice works. As Kelly has stated in his essay accompanying Mobile Homestead for the 2012 Whitney Biennial, “…public art is always doomed to failure because of its basic passive / aggressive nature. Public art is a pleasure that is forced upon a public that, in most cases, finds no pleasure in it.”
Throughout the house and walls of MoCAD on opening night everyone wondered how the programming would unfold, and thus what would the fate of Mobile Homestead be. Without the guidance of the artist, it is up to the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts and MoCAD to do the best in executing the artist’s wishes. Thus Mobile Homestead is not at an end point but just a new phase of its ongoing development. As MoCAD is encouraging public suggestion and development of supported programming in the house, it seems then that even though Kelley believed that it wouldn’t work, he may have wished for it to, that Homestead was an honest attempt at public art performed in “bad faith,” as the artist put it. It will continue an unwieldy yet potentially revealing choreography as one of the best artworks of its time, a harsh critique of power, public art and social engagement that challenges its audience to prove it wrong by embracing it as a tool for community enhancement while remaining an autonomous work of art.
More information on Mobile Homestead, including visitor hours and programming can be found on MoCAD’s website:
We have made it so that actors are playing themselves as the ultimate fictional character. My Dinner with Andre famously did this in 1981. Being John Malkovich (1999) was self propelled by having the notable actor play himself, despite the already original script. Neil Patrick Harris reignited his career playing a bad boy version of himself in Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle (2004), while Mike Tyson tries for the same thing in The Hangover (2009) franchise, but just further becomes a parody of himself. A perfect example of this phenomenon may be James Franco, who is in the forthcoming This is the End (2013) as himself, had a cameo as himself both in Knocked Up (2007) and an episode of 30 Rock (2010). To complicate matters, his reoccurring role on the soap opera General Hospital is as a performance artist, which is another “self” in his real life, and the role was treated this way by the actor; not as an acting job, but as performance art. Fiction becomes confused as reality, while reality is fabricated via the democratizing of cultural production on the web.
Thanks to reality TV, YouTube, Facebook and countless other social media sites, the best character to play is the self, as our selves are now divided into two or more incarnations, real and fictional. Perhaps thats why James Franco was accused of playing real life rapper Riff Raff in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (2013) as a version of identity theft. If there is anyone who should capitalize from our constructed selves, it should be ourselves, right? In My Dinner with Andre, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory (who both wrote the script and based it from their own lives), refer to the essence of viewing and perceiving as reality and action itself, while having a conversation over dinner about our loss of understanding of reality.
What does it mean, then, when Steve Coogan plays himself — Steve Coogan, actor — traveling and eating with his actor friend, Rob Brydon, played by Rob Brydon in The Trip (2010)? Every conversation deteriorates into celebrity impressions, endlessly repeating in a loop throughout the movie. This revamp of My Dinner with Andre might be brilliant if it wasn’t so painful to watch. Has meaningful content eroded into emotion deprived tweets and retweets, and continuously recycled ideas, so that only content itself is important? It only seems logical that our consumer culture obsession of quantity over quality would extend into cultural production, information and identity.
Reality TV and YouTube are now established parts of our entertainment culture, providing instant celebrity status or notoriety. By always trying to make reality, how are we actually interacting with it? We are constantly posting and reposting, recycling videos, content, news; in essence, information we are trying to process as reality. This blends in with all the fictional stuff. How do movies become the stand in for experiences not personally had, influencing our actions and their expected outcome? Do we envision our lives cinematically, possibly as a result of our experiencing through media?
Where does this leave the creator? Is it that creation becomes, through instantaneous and never ending reposting and fractured retelling of actual events, a nuanced evolution of the event itself? A more immediate reaction of trying to make sense of the information thrown into our faces like bugs hitting the windshield of a speeding car on the highway. Collecting and throwing in all these mashed up bits on our palette that are equalized in their desiccated state, stuck on a slab of glass in front of our faces, blocking our view of the real world. Creation becomes commenting, and commenting becomes an affirmation of existence.
By playing versions of themselves, actors and the culture industry are acknowledging that the construct of fiction is also reality; that reality is just as intangible as anything else provided to us while we sit and watch something from a screen. As My Dinner with Andre proclaimed over thirty years ago, our perception of reality has grown false in our modern lives. The question remains if we are getting even further from reality by our inclusion of the digital world into the physical, or if we are colliding the worlds together for a fuller picture of all that is real, that “real” is just a state of mind.
Film dates were found through IMDB.com.
Though you don’t have to search out art exhibitions about love in February, let’s not totally dismiss a love-based theme around Valentine’s Day. Whether in or out of a relationship on February 14th, each year we are forced to look at our love life and define it within a few rigid categories. It’s not Valentine’s Day that is stupid and childish, it’s the way we are pressured to enter into it that is. Remember in First Grade when you had the same juice box as another kid of the opposite sex? You were in love, and there were “Ooohs” all around the lunch table for about three seconds, and then some kid would realize their mom gave them cheese curls instead of fruit snacks and everyone’s attention would shift there. Your romantic partnership with your juice king or queen was over as suddenly as it began. This is how society wants to define your love around Valentine’s Day: make it fit into an easy to read category, point at it, crap on it, and throw it into the back of the closet until the next year. As people, we think about love year round, and understand its complexity, or at least try to. Artists, unsurprisingly, have thought about love since the beginning of art: The Venus of Willendorf was a symbol of fertility. Cave paintings had copulating couples in them. The columns of ancient Greece and Rome were phalluses holding the stone vulva towards the heavens. The incorporation of Two Point Perspective in art was an attempt to see the other as equal to the self. (Three point Perspective was crushed early on by the Catholic Church due to its kinky nature.) Mondrian made his grid paintings over love letters he never sent to his mistress. OK maybe none of this is true, but love has been on our brains forever.
So then, Butter Projects, in downtown Royal Oak, MI mounts a show in February to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Except it isn’t really love that the artwork in the show explores. The artists chosen are left to follow their own muses. Instead, it is the curation and framing of the exhibition that talks about love. Real 24/7 warts and all kind of love, even if it doesn’t appear flat out in the work. Already, this is a better take on the Valentine themed art exhibit. Curated by Alison Wong, “I Like You and I Together,” on view until March 16, allows our experience with love to be the biggest thing in the room, in the air around us instead of plastered on the walls. Interestingly enough, Wong, who has been running Butter Projects solo for the past several months, will soon be joined by her partner John Charnota. She will continue her role as director and curator, while he implements new programming for the gallery. This adds to the overarching theme of love in the exhibition, with the gallery now helmed by an artist couple. It is no surprise then that the idea for this exhibition had been in her mind for quite some time. Though timed for February, perhaps the logistics made it a longer reaching project, as the typical studio visit becomes a negotiation of the partners’ work in relation with each other as well as the fit with the gallery’s mission. In the case of the ten artists on view, or five artist couples, Wong presents a way of seeing the work of artists in context with their partner as a means of fully understanding their work individually and the influence that their relationship has on their work.
Recalling work by Millee Tibbs in her 2007 series “This is a Picture of Me,” Zachariah Szabo’s photographs recall his childhood by re-staging snapshots taken of him by his parents. He recreates clothing and settings through a combination of craft materials and what is on hand, allowing for both planning and spontaneity. Symbols of adolescence and young adulthood enter in as props, like a cigarette or a beer in hand. The photos lament the loss of childhood for sure, but they also are brimming with camp: the elaborate outfits he was dressed in as a child result in satisfying costumes with a homemade sensibility that become lyrical to the photo. A previous work has him clutching a raw chicken in front of his face with a seductive look. Here, with “Zachariah,” he reclines in something from the Von Trapp Family wardrobe, complete with socks longer than his shorts. What appears as his birthday party ends up as a fashion shoot while pining for lost youth as self portrait. His partner, Ben Schonberger’s “Untitled Perpetrator Self” shows the artist in black face with carelessly open legs and glitter on his crotch, receptive to the $ sign print to the left (Green Field Gold Shop). That black face can be momentarily de-politicized by sparkle crotch is brilliant, as they cancel each other out as transgressive symbols of far more complex issues. The racist history evident in black face is countered by queer politics: while one seems a dark part of our past, the other is still a pressing issue that is no longer willing to be ignored, both far too often unjustly seen as suspect. Ben becomes a new character, a combination of forgotten and fringe, caught in the wrong spot at the wrong time, but definitely not us, who are able to view the images. By showing exploitable characters as fantasy versions of the self, both artists allow the viewer safe access into that person, tinged with anxiety, and transgressive erotica. (What’s more erotic than a giant red $?)
Focusing on the beauty in the everyday are Ashley Allen Short and Travis Roozee. The couple have been tracking the sublime moments that are possible from attention to one’s surroundings for some time, through separate studio practices. Seeing their work together allows similar themes to be strengthened. Shorts’ reverent gouache paintings of balloons that washed up on Lake Michigan’s shore contain a sense of dreamy longing. Deflated, they are like glass bottles with messages that arrived too late. The bright colors she uses only reaffirms the sense of loss and pathos. Conversely, Roozee’s Spilled Pills is mostly grays and white, with just a hint of washed out pastels. Scattered across a bathroom sink top, the pills are on parade, dissolving in the splashed water on the top of the sink. What could be a moment of anguish becomes an acceptance of things beyond one’s control. The pills lose their ability to function, as they cannot control any condition in their disorder.
Seth Farnack uses repurposed objects to create new narratives within a closed system, in this case, Snow White. Digital technology is translated with analog in Dwarfs. Nocturnes for Snee Whittchen. His Seven Dwarves are synthesizers which he circuit bent, and Snow White is a Facebook page avatar perpetually sleeping on the internet. The page is populated with music with the altered synthesizers, as the score for Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves re- imagined in seven sections. They are spontaneous sounding songs recorded on a smart phone and then played back on one in the gallery. While interesting in theory, the sounds the synthesizers produce are brash and unrefined, and so many of them lack longer listenability. The music is improvised but unlearned, and poorly recorded due to the use of the smart phone. Potentially endearing, the missed notes are far more than occasional, but not consistent enough to be purposeful, as it is clear that the sections want to fit within conventional song structures. Only “Makin’ Pies” hits the mark, turning the other’s negatives into success by achieving an of the moment lo-fi bliss that improvisation occasionally offers us. Bridget Mae Farnack also repurposes found objects, shifting them out of their original form or function. Most interesting is the consumer function: marble and wood that might be sold at a home improvement store return to their traditions as art materials through the DIY market filter. Other objects are abstractions of consumer products made from plastic, ceramic, paper and food. Good Fortune is a collection of charms, and though seen as individual works, offer a one to one relationship to each other. They are precious in their simplicity and tactility, yet, as their title suggests, carry a sense of the knick knack. This dual role keeps the viewer engaged to determine their own relationship to them, while enjoying the object’s rewarding presence.
The Light, by Lauren Rice, continually tries to contain chaos within material and architectural frameworks, ultimately succumbing to the organic shapes that have crumbled to the floor below the work. Pastel washes and spray painted soft edges evoking Frankenthaler co-mingle with hard edge stenciled borders. A loose rectangle of hot pink spray paint creates a frame to mimic the lavender wall. Also incorporating the gallery architecture into his work is her husband Brian Barr, whose installation Heavy is the Head involves many framing elements to work with formal concerns inherent to materials and methods in the works. A leaning sheet of plywood framing an eerie gray photograph of a marble bust, the camera shake featuring as a prominent aesthetic element. An altered book page about Greek Mythology is centered on a generously large area of the wall lightly demarcated by a sheet of duralar, echoing the canvas covered in black gaff tape next to it; the tape being framed by the size and shape of the canvas.
Also on view is Shannon Goff’s Cuckoo, a painstaking rendition of a cuckoo clock made out of corrugated cardboard, alongside her husband, Tom Lauerman’s wood and paper laminated small scale sculptures (Parquet Building Block, Frustum and Building Block #3). Together they re-enforce obsession and virtue of crafted objects while evoking Pop Art and Minimalism. Goff often re-creates quotidian objects out of cardboard or clay, while her husband, Tom, continually leans towards architectural forms in abstract languages.
“I Like You and I Together” will be on view until March 16th, 2013 at Butter Projects, 814 W. 11 Mile Rd, Royal Oak, MI
Hours: Open Fridays 1-5pm and Saturdays 1-3pm during the run of the exhibition. Additional hours available by appointment, email to schedule.
Note: A previous version of this article stated that Zach was holding a chicken in front of his chest near a jungle gym, which is just plain wrong. Also, that Ben had pink lipstick on instead of glitter on his crotch. While pink lipstick is often like a glittery crotch, a glittery crotch is so much more than pink lipstick. Critics often do not know what they are talking about. Many thanks to Alison Wong for making me aware of these over sights.
Hollywood films follow very easy to read trends. They would be dumb not to, as they only have a few genres to regurgitate the same plots out over and over again: westerns, dramas, teen melodramas and coming of age films, the romantic comedy, slapstick comedy, the action flick (which is further broken down to either the Stallone, the Willis or the Marvel), martial arts / wire work films, social horror, traditional horror, stoner flicks, family friendly animated films (which often double as stoner flicks), the Tom Cruise Vehicle and Lord of the Rings. What allows the movies to be current is not just the stars they choose or the ever increasing quality of special effects, but how they tackle (or avoid) social issues. Looking at a few standout films from 2012, (as well as one from 2010 and one from 2004), a somewhat alarming trend seems to be emerging.
Django Unchained is Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, and reprises similar themes as 2010’s Inglorious Bastards, giving history a wedgie, replacing what actually happened with maybe what SHOULD have if this world we lived in was fair. Both films present themselves as fun, which is an accomplishment, considering the gravity of the subject matter. This is the key to its success: it takes history for a ride in what is to be seen as just fantasy, so everything should be taken lightly. At the same time, its treatment of its subject matter (in Django, slavery in the South; and Bastards — Nazi Europe) shames the viewer into being morally supportive of the violence turned against the villains of history. Within these themes, violence can be easily justified: when an actor portraying a slave is viciously abused and beaten, we feel it is our responsibility to witness it, that the atrocity is historical fact and to turn away would be an injustice to those who endured it. When Django (Jamie Fox) unleashes extreme punishment on the slave owners, we can’t help but enjoy every moment of agony they endure, even wanting it to extend further and become more extreme, as no amount of sympathy should be, or could be rendered to them. This occurs throughout Inglorious Bastards as well, all the way up to the gleeful killing of Adolf Hitler by Eli Roth’s character. While watching this in a theater a few years back, there were joyful cheers as Hitler was shot to pieces like a dog. It seemed wrong NOT to cheer. Here at work are elements of the very propaganda films that Bastards condemns in its plot, just twisted a little to be only somewhat satirical. Hitler can be an Osama Bin Laden, as Tarantino’s Hitler, while satirical, is also symbolic in the final months in the search for Bin Laden.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t any value to these films, that the plots to kill Hitler in Inglorious Bastards aren’t an acknowledgement to the many attempts during WWII, or that Django’s revenge isn’t a nod to slave rebellions and their impact on the eventual abolition of slavery, especially considering their erasure from history books and the propaganda to say that they hurt the abolitionist movement. Rightly so, but Django Unchained is primarily Tarantino’s homage to Django, the 1966 Spaghetti Western starring Franco Nero, proving his success lies in deftly adapting great under appreciated films and covering them in magic Hollywood ooze. The attempts to re-appraise history become secondary to entertainment, assuring us the violence is all in fun, but it really means something.
Django Unchained wasn’t the only film to come out in 2012 to morally justify violence, whether imagined or based in reality. While Zero Dark Thirty is a great example, enough has already been said about this film in regards to how it politicizes violence. Many of the comic book adaptations from the past 12 years have used the idea of confronting terror through larger that life heroes that stand up for America. This is especially important in a mega blockbuster like The Avengers. The interesting thing about The Avengers, though, is that even though it was nearly two hours of battle scenes pasted together with horrendous dialogue to move the plot along (just like a lot of super hero comic books), it still involved very little killing, employed relatively few guns, and the guns were no stronger than, and even weaker than many of the other weapons and fighting tactics employed in the film. The guns became knives, billy clubs and even toys compared to other weapons, or against such awesome powers. Is this a message that guns aren’t the answer to ending terror, or is it that only really BIG guns (NOT those on the Hulk) can stop terror? Can any pro – assault weapon propaganda be read from The Avengers? Maybe. But maybe its like trying to get meaning from the back of a cereal box. What if, the idea seeps into our brains subconsciously, like the idea that cereal is good for us because of all the vitamins pumped into it artificially.
Lincoln. Its almost unmentionable: Spielberg, Daniel Day Lewis, possibly the most loved president of all time — a PATRIOT and HERO who freed the slaves with his bare hands — on the silver screen spewing golden kittens at us. If you don’t like this movie you are clearly a racist freedom hating communist who makes baby E.T. cry, right? I am not criticizing the film so much as the psychology behind the film and the mentality of making a movie that few could ethically or morally be against. While not to be compared side by side, lets not forget about Mel Gibson’s barf fest The Passion of the Christ: Many Catholic Church leaders who may normally have condemned the violence in the film urged their parishioners to see it, some even organizing large screenings for their flocks. Making over $370 million dollars, it is the most financially successful R Rated movie of all time.1 The violence in this film, we were assured, was not gratuitous, but the actual bloodshed that Jesus endured. It became a mini pilgrimage for some to see this film during Lent and be touched by Christ’s selflessness. It was only a couple years later that Gibson made an obviously anti-Semitic comment to a police officer. Was the violence really justifiable, or just opportunistic?
Tarantino’s recent outburst to an interviewer regarding his stance on violence in entertainment didn’t help his cause or anyone in a similar position. Kathryn Bigelow did a much better job of laying out the argument against blaming entertainment and art as the source for real life copy cat violence. Artists cannot be responsible for the people who are so out of touch with reality, that they might be inspired to violent acts based on a movie, video game or music. However, we seem to be caught in a loop of real and imagined violent events, both regurgitated to us through the same media outlets, often one right after the other, with little or no break between them. At what point does art become reality? Does it? By producing films that promote the idea of justifiable violence, Hollywood is contributing an opinion to when extreme violence can still be ethical, a suitable time while we have reservations about drone strikes. By not allowing the audience to sympathize to the receivers of violence, they say that the only victims are those justly dishing out the violence. After more than ten years of war on other’s soil, do we still see ourselves as the victims? By making the movies entertaining, they are towing the line of an ethical abyss, conveniently choosing when to take a stand. Make a statement or don’t; people are listening, they are watching, they are in rapt attention.
1 Information courtesy of Box Office Mojo. Used with permission.
“Planet Earth [is] about to be recycled. Your only chance to evacuate is to leave with us”
Culturally defining moments are happening exclusively through mediated images dispersed through multiple sources, indefinitely available, detached in time from their sources. They are regurgitated in various forms upon release so that they become a hybrid of event and iteration. Whether it be the fall of the Berlin Wall, the police beating of Rodney King and subsequent LA riots, the O.J. Simpson trial, the Branch Davidians’ standoff in Waco, 9/11, or countless others, all of these events were dispersed to millions of people as televised media. They all have a second life on the internet, able to be endlessly revisited, and as such become mass cultural experiences shared by all through a camera lens and privately controlled news source. More recent events, like the shootings in a Colorado movie theater this summer, are instantly consumed via social media. They are tweeted and retweeted, collecting a slime trail of likes, comments and threads. Events get dissected into a series of images, each one garnering more popularity via clicks and tags; a popularity contest that is once democratic and circumstantial. Everything is voted on, but seems to resemble American Idol more than American politics. The constant digestion of feedback explodes the event like a tumor, no longer allowing it to be actual event, but something more threatening in our daily lives until it is eradicated by the next event.
“Camera memories” are the ones we form from only knowing an event from broadcast images. They supplement the “real” feeling that they are happening live, and their location is somewhere tangible, yet exotic compared to our homes. Recognizing their location as site for the event allows us to see ourselves in the same timeframe, which connects us to others, in many ways promoting social media feedback of the event. The real locations they transpire in allow them to resonate with us much more than the sets of Hollywood films, yet their presentation and constant reiterations lock in key images, camera angles and even storytelling and point of view. As they age over the course of days and weeks, many of these events get swept up as quasi-fictional dramas and tragedies, erasing themselves from their actual potential impact on us. It is as if Hollywood has moved into our daily lives, presenting its dramatic fiction as our nightly news.
Both David Koresh and Marshall Applewhite were able to convince their followers separately that they were the Second Coming of Christ as told in the Book of Revelations. Applewhite (the leader of the “Heaven’s Gate” cult that infamously committed mass suicide believing their souls would be able to ride a space ship traveling behind the Hale-Bopp comet in 1997) used the name “Do” (pronounced: dough) to differentiate his human body from that of Jesus Christ, but with the same divine mind. Though his insistence that God was more alien than human, fundamentally it remained similar to Christian teachings such as otherworldly transcendence via the Rapture. While the rest of the country watched in horror and disbelief during these separate culminating events (as they both had been building slowly and mostly quietly for years before hand), these two men were God in human flesh to their followers, all the way until their deaths. Whereas Jim Jones frantically held his followers at gun point forcing them to poison their children and themselves, Applewhite’s followers carried out their suicides for days after his own in a calculated manner. Some of Koresh’s flock ran back into the burning compound to be saved from the physical world and its evils.
The video tapes these men made appeared to the media as a weapon against society. They were appealing to the world as alternative media. The problem, of course, is that they were being filtered through mainstream media. In all instances, they looked crazed, deranged, and psychotic. The tapes of Osama Bin Laden have the same effect: the idea that there is a threat out there to the way we think, act, live, believe. That our world is different from how we perceive it through our established news sources and entirety of media. All three men strategically shot videos with a nondescript background, both essentially (perhaps tellingly) against a wall. Applewhite once used a cheap video mirroring effect to promote the otherworldliness of his message and being, but otherwise was shown in softly lit close ups. Koresh was taped in front of a blank wall of sheetrock, Bin Laden in a generic cave space, so foreign from anything western that it may as well have been outer space. He become like the evil Max Headroom,(1) a digitized human against a non distinct background, permeating every channel sporadically for a few moments each day thanks to 24 hour news coverage. Without a sense of place, it is hard to determine the truth of the broadcasts existence. In the years between the release of his 9/11 tape to the time of his execution, there was skepticism as to if he was already dead, or if he was somewhere else entirely. During that time, Bin Laden could have appeared as an avatar alive only through the recorded image. Without a true location, he was immensely powerful in a GPS controlled planet. Much like Brian O’Blivion in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, Bin Laden and Applewhite still exist in these tapes, and are still able to recruit new followers.
The power of putting a face to the attacks of 9/11 were instrumental in mobilizing a country towards war. Hollywood cinema has adopted this effect, particularly in super hero genre films, where a larger than life threat is represented in the form of the post human mutant. There is a clear distinction between good and evil, and these forces are otherworldly, beyond human and costumed, all distinct between those who live in society and those opposed to it. Most notable of the recent comic book movie adaptations is “The Dark Night Returns,” where the terrorist Bane has fully committed himself to the destruction of society, and is immune to capitalism, which is our society’s most powerful weapon. It is hard to create a character more opposed to our ideas of freedom and democracy. Yet the film was bracketed by two events in American culture: it was promoted during the dwindling Occupy movement and then was immediately overshadowed by the tragic shootings in Colorado, which provided the country with a real domestic terrorist. Here the threat perceived from the film is from life (loss of power through the sterilization of capital), but the horror comes to life as real terror. The actual events swallowed the film and re iterates Hollywood’s action movie premise: there always will be a menace that needs to be eradicated. Will it come from real life or our digitized other?
At the end of James Cameron’s Avatar, Sam Worthington’s character delivers his final monologue to his video journal, where he suggests the end of his earthly body to exist as something else: death in order to have a new life. That shot, which is a close-up of his head to his upper chest facing the camera, as well as the text and implied meaning, even his somewhat sick excitement, is eerily similar to the video farewells of the Heaven’s Gate cult members found near their lifeless bodies after their mass suicides. Heaven’s Gate, although still in existence, is largely considered to be beyond rational thought. Besides its handful of still living followers, few people believe that they were able to attain their goal of transcending their human bodies for a new kind of conscious existence. We either mourn them or dismiss them. Avatar, while obviously fictional, proposes a very similar idea only thirteen years later as a possibility within the story. Worthington, established as the hero of the film, is successful in leaving his body for another, thus it is shown as a heroic act instead of an insane one. The most financially successful film of all time,(2) Avatar proposes an impossible and irrational thought as part of cultural desire. Its obvious analogy to the internet and digital technology and culture allows us to speak what should be laughable, lamentable in its obvious failure, but it was just seen as the end of the movie.
Is this then a possibility or just a fantasy? Is it desirable either way? The McLuhenian dystopia of Videodrome proposed an evolutionary shift in the human race (or annihilation), to combine humans with broadcast TV signals, and be linked to each other through the signals of Videodrome, becoming “The New Flesh,” and enslaved by TV broadcast signals that caused hallucinations and physical transformation. As surveillance becomes more commonplace, social media champions GPS technology, helping it become a seemingly friendly giant looming over us. Google maps become further defined, there is less and less of our lives that is notrecorded thanks to this friendly corporate entity. We can connect with anyone at almost anytime thanks to Facebook, Twitter, Four Square and other social media outlets, or on a mobile device, or video chat with Skype. All of which can be intercepted or recorded by anyone with the tools and capability. We can be googled, and our photos that we’ve posted on Facebook are available for the world. They can be taken and placed somewhere else, maybe even someone else’s profile page. We are living at a time where most Westernized people have avatars. Though rudimentary now, this was only science fiction a few years ago. What type of significance this will have on how we live and perceive reality can only be speculated right now. Someone else can be us, or they can be someone new, and we also can be this new person as a digital phoenix rising from the ashes of physicality.
1 Max Headroom was a computer simulated avatar played by actor Matt Frewer wearing prosthetic make up in the mid 1980s. Though short lived, he had two simultaneous TV shows and did commercials for Coca-Cola.
2 Avatar’s world wide gross is $2,782,275,172 to print date, which does not include secondary release revenue. (boxofficemojo.com/alltime/world/)