In a cultural moment where global narratives are twisted to serve the interests of demented political figures and movements, video art gains a heightened importance due to its visually enrapturing storytelling capabilities, which in turn allows crucial narratives to flourish. Though not aiming to be explicitly and exclusively political (beyond the unavoidable politicalized nature of our time), COMM | ALT | SHIFT, a video art group show curated by Larry Ossei-Mensah and Dexter Wimberly, on view at New Jersey's Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art, is a resounding answer to the turmoil and tribulations of 2017.
The Cleanse, Delphine Fawandu, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.
The works of the 12 artists and two artist duos on view span a wide spectrum of visual style and thematic breadth, often taking from different cultural experiences from around the world, becoming like something of a global snapshot of our cultural landscape. In some cases, these cultural fragments take problematic legacies and turn them into lighthearted explorations, like Spanish artist Carlos Aires' video of two riot policemen slow-dancing to a tango rendition of "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" inside of an opulent Madrid museum, a smart reflection on Spain's history of fascism and class struggles.
The Rotten Ones, Federico Solmi, 2017. Courtesy of Sherry and Joel Mallin, New York and Luis de Jesus, Los Angeles.
Federico Solmi, an Italian artist, plays with similar ideas in his animated video The Rotten Ones, where leaders and dictators across different cultures and moments in history are shown to party together like wild celebrities, all united together in their exuberant debauchery.
MEASUREMENTS/ARROWS, Jillian Mayer, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and David Castillo Gallery, Miami.
Not every video is a reflection on international politics or historically problematic figures. Jillian Mayer's MEASUREMENTS/ARROWS engages with capitalist issues of surveillance and advertising in relation to our own bodies. In the short video, Mayer presents her own face mapped out with specific dimensions between her features, highlighting how our measurements are used by corporations to exert control over us, but also encouraging us to "take control" of our own measurements, empowering ourselves with the same tools used to dominate us.
In the eyes of curators Ossei-Mensah and Wimberly, the thematic diversity of the works in COMM | ALT | SHIFT are a response to a world crashing down on all fronts: "I think that taken as a whole, all the artists in the exhibition are either thinking about their place in the world or observing the political and social climate," Wimberly tells Creators. "Everything from what's going on in Washington D.C right now, to climate change, to violence against unarmed citizens by the police."
Though these are glum happenings, the show aims to approach them from a different angle: The intent was never to create this sort of heavy show that makes everyone depressed. I think we can just watch the news and do that," Wimberly adds. "We were really thinking about it from the perspective of 'OK, this is the world we live in. How can we express it and create a platform to have a conversation about it'?"
This notion of art-as-platform seems central to an exhibition that deals with so many societal issues simultaneously. In this moment in history, it can feel almost impossible to keep up with the sheer mass of atrocities happening everywhere and on many different fronts, but COMM | ALT | SHIFT helps viewers glimpse into issues that may escape them: "We hoped to create a space for people to think about things they might have questions about and things they might not even be aware about," explains curator Ossei-Mensah.
"It's important to be able to learn from history, use it as a tool, and apply it to rethink of our current moment, and to figure out what we could do to be of service, whether it's about our own politics or issues of social justice, climate change, technology, or something else."
COMM | ALT | SHIFT will be on view at Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art in Newark until September 23.