Lead image: Mike Kelley, Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #8 (Singles' Mixer), 2004-2005, Mixed media with video projection and photographs, 112 x 300 x 169 inches. Art © Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts. All rights reserved/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.
Recently, Luhring Augustine’s Bushwick outpost has had a rare treat on view: Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #8 (Singles’ Mixer), 2004-05, one of the thirty-one “reconstructions” from the late artist Mike Kelley’s ambitious 2005 project Day is Done. In each of the Day is Done works, Kelley sourced high school yearbook photos depicting clubs or activities and then worked meticulously to reconstruct the setting and the people as video pieces. He applied narratives of his own devising and then utilized elements of his video sets to create sculptural tableaus within which viewers would experience his projective reinterpretations.
Upon entering the Luhring Augustine, one sees a three-channel video projection partially obscured by the backs of several framed photographs sitting atop two long folding tables. A dry erase board with “WELCOME / ANNUAL SINGLES MIXER” and flowery doodles scribbled upon it sits as a sort of pinnacle to this unmonumental barrier. Its backside, or more accurately its viewing frontside, features photos of a bleak potluck spread that includes buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken, various brands of soda, a bowl of candy, and mismatched flatware covered in cookies, donuts, chips, and cheese curls. Small towers of red Solo cups sit on a scrap of carpet upon the tables. Behind the cups is another framed photograph of denim-clad legs boasting dirt-soiled, bare feet. It’s a flat reproduction of the snacks table featured in the video projections--save for the cups, though no beverages are offered.
In the three-channel, roughly twenty-minute video piece, a group of “singles” enter a windowless, nondescript space reminiscent of a night school classroom at a community college. Each is a social caricature, a reductive “type” of a person: computer nerd, hillbilly, Kiss fanatic, a few witches and ghosts, and four Black women. They drop plates of food on the table and then take a seat in a semicircle of writing desks. But before sitting down, a handful of them hang upon the walls paintings they've made of famous men from various parts of popular culture: Garth Brooks, Gene Simmons, R. Kelly, Brandon Lee, and Kobe Bryant. An awkward conversation begins that quickly turns into a stereotype-laden debate about the attractiveness of the men in the paintings. From somewhere behind the pink curtained wall that frames the projection screens, one hears a looped recording of someone yelling, “You SLUT!” and then chaos ensuing every few minutes. The presence of a second audio source makes watching the video all the more disorienting.
The hillbilly farm girl, naturally, made the Garth Brooks painting and finds him to be an absolute dreamboat. Her painting, it’s worth noting, is the only one that features subject matter beyond simple amateur portraiture. There is an exposed breast that the country star seems to be staring at dejectedly, the model for which the girl explains was her own mother. I’m paraphrasing here, but she argues that the painting had some negative space that needed to be addressed, and that it would have been impossible to paint her own breast. The young woman with the full face of Kiss makeup, the artist responsible for the Gene Simmons portrait, quickly becomes disgusted with the hillbilly’s lack of sexual inhibition. The Black women go back and forth about whether Kobe Bryant or R. Kelly is a more desirable man, a conversation that’s uncomfortable not only because of the painful and predictable dialogue, but because both men were facing sexual assault allegations at the time the piece was made. When these questionable trysts are brought to light, tensions rise and a nerdy white man in aviator shades jumps to Kobe Bryant’s defense, citing a conspiracy of some type angled at destroying his basketball career. Unexpectedly, one of the Black women offers that she finds Garth Brooks to be kind of cute and the other Black women roll their eyes dismissively.
The entire ordeal is difficult to watch in its reductiveness, but that’s the point. Kelley’s work has always borrowed liberally from popular culture, and the script and representations he’s produced in the video are uncomfortable precisely because of how comfortably they’re able to exist on mainstream television or in film designed for mass consumption. Of course (as writer Emily Colucci noted in her excellent take on this show for Filthy Dreams), Kelley’s populism is explicitly linked to the everyday of a primarily white, blue collar American lived experience. Even now in 2018, that demographic is seen as the “default” in the United States, especially when it comes to the marketing of media. The perceptions about others that white working class people concoct in their minds produce reductive stereotypes, stereotypes that are then sold back to them through their portals to the outside world: the living room television. And because that type of white person makes up much of its audience, they’re given a disproportionate amount of empathy and airtime by the media as a whole. How many more profiles aimed at explaining why Trump supporters are the way they are will we need to stomach?
Much of Kelley’s output reveled in the agitating territories between astute satire, an unsettling perpetuation of stereotypes, and the casual meanness of just making fun. It results in very complicated comedy, to say the least. In the video, the hillbilly woman seems momentarily to transcend being a cartoon as she confidently begins narrating a parable about a long lost race of membrane-dwelling proto-beings who act an awful lot like humans. But the story goes practically nowhere and takes way too long to tell, giving no more nuanced a metaphor or parallel than somebody scrawling “sheeple” on a bathroom wall. We won’t be surprised by her hidden intelligence after all, much like we won’t be surprised by any of the mannerisms scripted for the Black women (save for the preference for Garth Brooks, I suppose). Following the hillbilly’s story, the Kiss fanatic screams, “You SLUT!” and attacks her physically. Everyone else jumps out of their chairs to cheer on the fight. The repetitive and chaotic second soundscape suddenly makes sense.
Off behind the the pink curtained wall that frames the projection screens is the original yearbook source photo in black and white, and then a careful near-duplicate color still from Kelley’s projective reconstruction. In both, the blonde hillbilly clutches a pair of stuffed bananas, surrounded by a young woman in Kiss makeup and other members of the video’s cast. Those prop bananas are mounted on the back of two of the projection screens. The rear of the pink curtained wall is paneled with wood and adorned with the five portrait paintings. A small writing desk sits facing the looped projection of the fight that makes watching the original video so frustrating.
In Emily Colucci’s aforementioned review of the installation, she smartly highlights that the piece possesses an interesting kind of timelessness; despite being made more than ten years prior, the stereotypes it presents are still archetypes we see in much of traditional media and in the online personas that populate social media. Indeed, many of us are performing a predetermined “type.” It reminds me of a Chuck Klosterman essay, “When People Stop Being Polite,” from his 2003 “low culture manifesto” Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. Therein, Klosterman describes first watching The Real World on MTV in 1992 and being reminded of people that he knew in his real life. Five years later, he claims, people he was meeting in his real life instead began to remind him of those that he’d seen on The Real World. Viewers, over the course of several years, began to adopt the ostensibly authentic personas that they saw on television as readymade identities. Klosterman cites the obvious personalities including the “Angry Black Militant,” the “Gay One,” or the “Naive Virginal Southerner Who’s Vaguely Foxy.” While intentionally overly-simplified, they still sting. He then attempts describing more nuanced versions of personas that can't be articulated exactly, but argues that we all know them when we see them. These archetypes were developed by “real” people on the shows who weren’t “acting” in the traditional sense, but rather synthesizing audience expectations and then modifying their own behavior to fill out the necessary roles for a successful season. A generation of viewers, many of them from blue collar, white households in the flyover states, got much of their exposure to different types of people through these broadcasts and formulated perceptions of reality based upon them.
Watching Kelley’s video, I chuckled as I imagined the singles’ mixer it portrayed as a stand-in for an art school critique, one of those end-of-semester sessions where everyone begrudgingly brings half-assed contributions for a potluck because there isn't going to be a lunch break. No doubt, this was prompted by the debate about the paintings and how predictable different characters’ responses were to them (predictable per my own perceptions of reality groomed by mainstream television, that is). Art school is absolutely an academic version of The Real World filled with familiar character archetypes that are almost too easy to make jokes about. The White Selfie Feminist. The Black Guy Whose Work is Always Perceived by His Classmates as Being “About” Being Black. The Gay Man Whose Problematic Performances Appropriate Black Women Pop Icons. Reflecting back on my own art school experience, I played plenty of readymade roles both in my own work and in my responses to the work of others. The Theory Bro Who Doesn't Make Objects Anymore. Good lord, how painful it is to actually reflect, no?
Part of why Kelley’s work is so searing is that while it appears to put onto parade that which we feel we’re smarter than--gross stereotypes, mainstream entertainment, jerkwater politics--it’s actually holding up a mirror to a bunch of bozos (us, the art world) suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect. We like to fancy ourselves as intellectually-advanced, operating on a higher plane. But to the rest of culture, we're also caricatures. Art itself is widely perceived as an extracurricular area of focus (not unlike debate or rowing) within public discourse on academia, or as a snobbish club of pseudo-intellectuals and bohemian cosplayers within public discourse on culture at-large. Day is Done in its entirety is an epic and mind-bending project that is difficult to take in without suffering from overstimulation begetting numbness. What’s successful about the staging of a single Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction at Luhring Augustine is that it gives the work some breathing room. Subsequently, its art-viewing public gets room to experience a whole roller coaster of emotions: superiority, discomfort, identification, alienation, and that sneaking suspicion that each of us is as much of a cartoonish poser as we fear we are.