Review: Units of Measurement (2020)

We are all house cats now in new film by Frankie Symonds that considers emerging taboos of the Covid-19 lockdown

Review: Units of Measurement (2020)

By Jak Ritger

        For the first time in my adult life, I am living in the present tense. No events to look forward too. No deadlines to meet, no parties to FOMO about. I try to remember what it felt like before, I know the shows, screenings and dances happened, there are pictures to prove it, but it just all feels like a dream. A couple months ago (or maybe it was last summer) I went to a premiere of films by Frankie Symonds. The night was filled with complicated and jarring compositions, evocative images and stories with uneasy silences; all the stuff I love. After the intimate screening in Symonds’ Charlestown studio space, the artist got up and monologued about their process and ideas. Behind each image and editing decision, a hidden agenda: a taboo to break, a line to cross, a formal challenge to master. Afterwords, I picked out three paintings from a stack to form a triptych, then we all went back to Symonds’ place to watch Kate Bush and SOPHIE music videos. I know it happened, I remember it vividly, I’m just not 100% sure I wasn’t dreaming.

Painting triptych by Frankie Symonds: Mickey, Mayor Menino's Summer Boat Ride, Par, (2011-2012) - Acrylic and collage on paper - courtesy of The Punctr Art Collection

        Frankie Symonds is a prolific and dynamic artist. Producing a near constant stream of films, experimental TV, paintings, drawings, sculpture, and theremin performance. They curated a show titled “They Figured” that brought together non-binary artists working figuratively to imagine self, others, and togetherness. Around Symonds orbits a community of talented artists and dreamers drawn in by Symonds’ uninhibited practice. My apartment and political ramblings were featured on their SCATV Show: Queer Cats “Episode 6. If I had to describe Symonds’ work, it would be a mix of abject mumblegore, no-brow dry tragedy, and post-cringe documentary played for laughs. They know better, but as a pissy house cat they can’t help but knock your grandma’s china off the table. Ever since I was first introduced to Symonds and their art nearly ten years ago at MassArt, their films have become a yardstick with which to measure all other “really provocative art”.

"They Figured" - work by Lenny Schnier and Jamieson Edson, curated by Frankie Symonds (bottom right) August 17th, 2018 at The Green Room, Somerville, MA. Photos by Jak Ritger.

       Symonds’ films excavate the layers of taboo prevalent in American society. Rather than simply rejecting taboo and embracing a faux-liberation as cheap spectacle, Symonds unravels how we are all implicated in the codes we project. The goal is not necessarily to dissolve taboo, but to use unease and shame as a point of departure for radically vulnerable stories. Much of the fodder for Symonds projects come from what sociologist demeaningly refer to as “low culture”: The revery of daytime TV, pornagraphy, car culture, blue collar life. In A Foreword To Negation, Symonds delves into sexual awakening, gender crisis and the subconscious through TV’s obsession with the murder of child beauty queen, JonBenét Ramsey. As a Boston born and based artist, Symonds is perennially grappling with local love/hate: the cities endearingly aggressive vernacular and ugly ingrained macho homophobia and racism. A recent Instagram performance, He Wanted to Design Cars, saw Symonds don a Red Sox poncho, paper-maché masks, and put on a psychedelic film-noir puppet show: a cop searching for his lost gay son as a spooky theremin weeps. A denial of academic visual language and strategy gives Symonds approach a realpolitik that works against institutional alienation. In their feature film, Carbonated Projections, Symonds spins a tale of narcissistic millennial Vloggers whose obsession with a seltzer drink devolves into bubbly sexual fetish and murder. The taboo of incest, the vapidness of hustle culture, lesbian competitiveness and the grossness of heterosexuality are all turned upside down and uncorked. The kinetic crassness and visceral libido of Symonds’ work resists the reductive headiness of “International Art English” (the indecipherable jargon of gallery wall text). The work operates on a more vibrant frequency, one that flaunts our stuffy civility.

Stills from the work of Frankie Symonds: (clockwise from top) A Foreword To Negation (2019), He Wanted to Design Cars (2020), Carbonated Projection (2019)

        Frankie Symonds practice and body of work serves as a perfect vector for responding to our current situation in real time. We are now trapped inside our homes as systemically disadvantaged communities are forced to labor under the banner of “essential service” and thus contracting the virus at the high rates. Aging populations hidden away from society in long-term care facilities face a similar fate as a result of societal neglect. Meanwhile every institution from city-state governance, colleges, landlords, to massive corporations, art centers, food delivery services transition to “disastertising” about how much they care for us and how we will all get through this together. Missing, of course, is any mention of increased resources. This dissonance between feel-good stories and our increasingly atomized reality is creating all sorts of new taboos. Mask politics. No more handshakes is a loss of intimacy. Not being busy during your time off is wasting your time, but also focusing on productivity is capitalist. Crushing on elected leaders who do the bare minimum in a crisis. The “women’s work” folk art of homemaking turned into fake news health tips or cultish bread baking posted to Instagram. The fatigue inducing 2D substitute for socializing: even moving family stories become flattened by virtualization. Digital platforms become meeting places for a “financial domination” kink. Monetary violation serves as stimulation in the absence of touch. We are losing our shared reality. now more than ever we need honest, uninhibited artists to create time capsules for what it was like before the whole experience is re-contextualized for institutional gain. Symonds’ new film Units of Measurement is in someways an antidote to global narrative collapse, a study of our new baseline experience, a diorama of collective fears, a vision of what we have lost and a story of sexual desperation.

       I have not learned any new skills in lockdown, but I have learned a new term: “log level” - the temporal mode of constant monitoring of data flows (coined by Venkatesh Rao). We are glued to the logs of new Covid cases & deaths, our Facebook and Twitter feeds, stock market chaos. Because we can no longer make sense of the world, we are left to read tea leaves of raw data. My obsession with the visuals of viral transmission through water droplets, colorful deadly clouds floating through the air, has become my personal log level hell. I cannot unsee these airborne connections floating person to person. The data tables have taken on a similar quality, death masquerading in innocuous digits. A new understanding of our species emerges, our interior biology becomes linked through invisible packets of DNA and RNA silently swapping; every human being becoming one inextricably connected organism destine to be forever immiserated unless we find a vaccine for a deadly virus called capitalism. Never before has counting felt so causal, so carnal, so bloodstained, so fecund. With this idea running in the background, like an unknown infection or GPS location tracker, something clicked while watching Symonds film: I believe the final scene offers the first ever artistic representation of “log level” thinking.

Watch Units of Measurement (2020) by Frankie Symonds below: