REVIEW: The Manic American Humanist Show
On View at Public Works Administration - 1627 Broadway - March 10-26, 2023
Review by Jak Ritger
The raucous political assailants responsible for art egregore, “Do Not Research” remap symbol-systems from within the heart of American spectacle: Public Works Administration gallery in Times Square. Sonic, The Hedgehog gives subway directions (in order to visit the show without going above ground) and explains the art collective’s “Downright Commitment to Fun!” in an Instagram Reel hyping the opening, edited by the show’s curator and the acerbic artist, Abbey Pusz. As an extension of Pusz past interrogations of mass-media spectacle, this exhibition brings together four artists exploring divergent paths to disintegrating the alienation baked into digital media by The Californian Ideology. By accessing the subtextual engines of populist images online the artworks tap into the sinking feeling that accompanies shifts in the Overton window and frustrations with political machines. This process finds agency within the binary logics of computation. Stories of revolt, desire, loss, exile and dangerous experimentation are burned into lines of videogame code, vector plots for laser engraving, spreadsheet cells and 13440-pixel video.
A mirrored obelisk centers the room as a symbolic resonator. Emma Murray’s hieroglyphs are loud and proud bumper stickers etched onto spectators’ selfies. The spectrum of slogans splinter out from reactions to wedge issues. Are you the COEXIST spelled out with all religions or guns? Or both? This artwork is anti-void, a whitehole of conflicting banners circling the drain of consensus reality. But, rather than comfortable nihilistic self-loathing that we expect from millennial art, “Yankee Monument” comes off as a hilarious rebuke of elite political totems themselves. The fringes have come back to haunt and taunt us. On top is the perfect id, Calvin pissing on your reflection and beliefs. But look through the poly-mirror to a bank of TV monitors forming an L near the ceiling of the gallery.
“Lack Loop” sprawls out over a seven-channel extreme horizontal crawl of vignettes. Observe the reverie of Tomi Faison’s descent to newfound realization or ascending virtual being. Hot off a knockout solo at Smack Mellon, the director, performer, and all-around sensation is in transit forever on an endless transition. She is a Sovereign Citizen of the universe returning to Hegelian dialectics. She is berating and filming a cop during a traffic stop, doing notes app critical discourse and failing to bite the apple of desire due to the lack of front teeth while ideal Ai-generated anime girls melt and blister in the background. By focusing on this lack and the political struggle for a healthcare fix, Faison places herself at the center of conflict. Join her crawling the Frutiger Aero desktop background dodging blood runoff from a culvert. This updated utopian project is a desperate fight for survival from the meaninglessness of depression in a society hellbent on our annihilation. Against this Faison builds an orgy of analysis cloaked behind digital spiral mattes rendered safe from recuperation into the superstructure.
The digital mania breaks the iceberg, with dopamine receptors now fully primed we turn to Filip Kostic’s “Fortnite 007: Merciful Angel”. The artist and technologist has painstakingly built a version of the popular battleroyale videogame, Fortnite from scratch. Kostic’s technical virtuosity is matched by his bold strategy of encrypting deep personal memory into mass cultural objects. This singular result is a virtual reconstruction of the artist’s childhood apartment block right before NATO’s bombing mission in Yugoslavia during the Kosovo war. A common local mistranslation of the mission, “Operation Noble Anvil” gives the piece its second title. Complex, painful and overlapping attempts at accessing the past structure the videogame. The player wanders Kostic’s memory palace, unlocking treasure chests that trigger soliloquys on a childhood mediated by technology and the erasure carried out by cultural products. The player’s avatar anchors these layers of cultural exchange. Its Dusko Popov! He is not the “Serbian James Bond'' but rather the original secret cold war agent that 007 was based on. Kostic reanimates the character for one last mission and in doing so, demonstrates the implosion of genre, intellectual property, history and folklore that constitutes contemporary storytelling. This hyper-pop “turbofolklore” supercharges tropes into a rapturous state. Suddenly I feel back in my body as the digital brutalist architecture turns blood red and air-raid sirens signal the approach of NATO stealth bombers. The death harbingers appear larger than life drifting more like alien invaders than a terrestrial military enforcing trade interests. As memory degrades into trauma we respawn on a hang-glider above a giant Scarlet Witch (from the Marvel Cinematic Universe) floss dancing and destroying the whole map. The madness of being made refugee in the very country responsible for your displacement is compressed into an addictive yet meditative playable artwork.
Below the shiny exterior of the video and mirrors, lies a trove of raw data that undergirds the negentropic pull of the show. This data dump arrives in the form of a sprawling spreadsheet by Holly Oliver. “Field Notes” is an archive of playful desires obsessively organized into a massive Google Doc of tabs within cells that maze through pastel shaders. Emoji assemblage is presented in conversation with ASCII art while “the museum of cute stuff” feels like a peek into your bestie’s costume closet. Presented as a long landscape print the work is a joyful challenge to decipher. Oliver subverts the efficiencies of the grid showing us that even the most banal corporate management tool has affordances for deep softness or blissful languidness. The payoff between the rows and columns are auto-fictions and internal monologues exposing fecund experimentation under the layers of neoteny. “Field Notes” nails the heart of contemporary longing, that aching for love, connection and meaning beyond hyper-partitioned transparency.
Do Not Research was formalized as a response to the death of left political imagination post-Bernie Sanders. While a new horizon for a left project has yet to emerge, it is hopeful to see that the artists working through these problems on the bleeding edge of discourse are making challenging work that is pushing the field forward. “Toward what?” remains a usefully contested terrain for speculation.
The Manic American Humanist Show is on view at Public Works Administration through March 26. Below are more install shots - unless otherwise stated, all images courtesy of PWA, photo credit: Courtney Kinnare 2023. - Jak
Video excerpt of "Fortnite 007: Merciful Angel" by Filip Kostic, via IG - video courtesy the artist