Let Social-Art Reign
by Shay Arick
It’s a widely controversial idea whether art can create a real change in society, either by building bridges between people and countries or by sharing new extraordinary ideas and reviving old ones. In the early 70’s video art was introduced as a new artistic act liberated from the necessity of an object. Since then, this medium has flourished and changed dramatically from a complicated though sophisticated medium, to a world-wide simple-to-use tool, which by clicking “upload” can reach millions of people on sites such as Youtube, Facebook, etc. It is the most influential and conceptual art language of our era. A new exhibition named Double Take Triple Give opened in the Museum of Bat Yam (MoBY) in Israel that raises awareness of artists who use video as an apparatus for social criticism. The exhibition is curated by Chen Tamir and combines different artists who have a strong bond between their medium and their motif.
According to Tamir, this exhibition investigates new modes of socially based art through experiences created not only by the artists, but by their collaborators as well as museum visitors. Talkback Stations are placed in the lobby of the exhibition, at the center of the round museum, when viewers first enter and try to make sense of the backwards projections on the eight large screens surrounding them on the second floor. In the Talkback Stations viewers are invited to video record themselves speaking about each of the works in the show, or the show in general. Viewers can hear other people’s thoughts and respond, creating a virtual yet physical forum for communication. These, coupled with the round layout of the show, create an interesting psycho-geographic experience, in which visitors are surrounded by video screens and can also take an active part in the exhibition by virtually sharing their opinions with each other. Let’s step into the reign of social video art.
When entering the museum hall one is struck by large video projections, which are situated in a spiral on the second floor. It seems as if the viewer walks around the bright projection lights, gets to nowhere, but gains a new perspective about this world. The first video to encounter is Watts House Project (2008), which documents an ongoing collaboration between artists, volunteers and residents from Watts, an underdeveloped neighborhood in Los Angeles. Together they clean, renovate and beautify the streets they live on. This work is a strong opening to the video sequence; it questions whether this action is either a piece of public performance art or documentation of shear altruism.
In another unusual public art project Reactor an anarchic artist collective, is building a new society with its own rules and inner mechanisms. For TOTAL GHAOS (2005) they recruit volunteers to participate in their new, temporary world. Every volunteer had to give up his cellular phone, and in return got a new identity. The people were sorted into different groups to diversify the microcosm. Participants took part in various rituals and made their way into tighter and tighter circles of inclusion, which purportedly got them closer and closer to being privy to a fictive secret, leader, or mascot (in this case a cartoon-like cat). As participants ascended the ranks of the odd, structured society, they began to induct other members or impose the rules of the game on newer recruits, to the point where the artists were indistinguishable from participants who were strangers to them until that day, and thus their control was ceded to others. The system, which includes activities and silly props, takes the form of structured chaos, in which labor distribution mimics both corporate structures and totalitarian regimes, and the activities and rituals mimic theme parks and adventure games. Reactor succeeded in creating a fascinating social experiment: TOTAL GHAOS has led to totalitarian rule.
In the work Available For You (2008) Gil & Moti, a gay Israeli couple that lives and works in Holland, offer themselves as free labor to Arab immigrants. Gil and Moti were asked to fulfill various tasks from cooking to painting a backyard wall to cleaning and construction work. They documented each encounter in diaries, photographs and videos. In this project it is the Israelis, who usually have power over Palestinians, suddenly are controlled and do the dirty work for Arabs. The flipped power-relations between Israelis and Arabs, and gay men and families, bring a fresh perspective on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Yossi Atia and Itamar Rose are artists who collaborate and create absurd slapstick videos. They ask people on the streets to participate in role-play of unusual situations. Compared to Gil & Moti’s work, their participants take a more active and performative role in the videos. In Coming Out of the Closet (2006) they ask middle-aged couples to pretend that their son (played either by Yossi or Itamar) is gay and is coming out of the closet. The work creates funny and simultaneously sad situations that bring the dark side of society and homophobia to the forefront. In the video Missiles in Ramat Gan (2006) they create a parody in which they ask passers-by to pretend that a missile has just landed nearby. Some participants pretend they were injured and some stay relaxed as if they are used to such violent situations.
Their best video Refugees from Darfur was released in 2008. In it, they ask bystanders on an urban boardwalk to pretend to be border patrollers with the power to decide whether or not to allow African refugees entrance to Israel. This is a hallucinatory scene with “armed” citizens standing behind “barricades” overlooking the beach. This work raises the xenophobic way Israel deals with the large number of refugees trying to enter the country. These three works can easily be part of a Comedy Central line-up, but they don’t just make us laugh, they also undermine the definition of art and its place in society.
The works in this exhibition range from simple operations of helping an underdeveloped neighborhood to an exceptional, even revolting action like those located at the end of the exhibition displayed by Teresa Margolles. Margolles’ work deals with the macabre. With a bit of dark humor the artist uses unusual materials like water from a mortuary in Mexico City. The extreme poverty and abundance of street crime in Mexico coupled with a lax legal structure allow for easy access to such materials. In Irrigation (2010) she reuses water used to rinse dead bodies to clean a rural road in Texas. For almost an hour, the video follows an irrigation truck pouring water on country roads. It appears as if it tries to irrigate the wilderness, where nothing grows with dead souls. Water from human remains is poured like tears on black asphalt and conjure the memory and sweat of those who may have paved this road or others like it. In her early work Car wash (2003) she created a manual car wash, with the help of hardworking Mexican laborers. Here the workers reuse water from the morgue to clean cars. It seems at first glance like regular drinking water, but once the viewer realizes the origin of the water the whole scene becomes disturbing. It resembles a kind of pre-historic bestial fest. In this morbid situation the guests can expect a dead-end in such peculiar bacchanalia.
When first entering to the exhibition Double Take Triple Give one feels a bit disoriented, dazzled by the flickering lights and drawn to it, like experiencing an exciting vertigo. Once used to it, one understand and feels it as added force. In this sensuous social realm one is enclosed in a different time zone. This is an isolated sphere that sheds a new perspective about our times, and can lead to self examination and maybe even to a better self and fortunately to a better world.