Critical Discussion

Critical Writing

The Infinite Mix by Dagmara Genda

The Infinite Mix

by Dagmara Genda

London’s Hayward Gallery’s year-end offsite video show, The Infinite Mix, was a fitting farewell to 2016. With its blur of found and staged images, entertainment and contemplation, the exhibition set a foundation for a new year where concepts like “post-fact” already enjoy regular circulation. The only characteristic linking the videos together was their use of image and sound, which owed much to the online mash-up. In this way the show seemed possible only after YouTube, whose advent, along with social media, has created a panoply of competing voices and perspectives. This discursive cacophony is reflected by the pop-up gallery location itself—a Brutalist building undergoing renovation located on the iconic “Strand.” Nestled amidst naked drywall and metal beams, the videos spread over three floors as well as to the musty dank of the parking garage. One often encountered the works unexpectedly, at times jarringly, creating an atmosphere of discovery and confusion, as well as entertainment.

Of the ten videos, two acted as bookends to this wide-ranging show. The first, and perhaps the highlight, was Ugo Rondinone’s THANX 4 NOTHING, an immersive installation featuring iconic beat poet John Giorno reciting a poem written on his 70th birthday. Four projections surround ­the viewer with countless televisions lining the borders of the room. On every screen Giorno is pictured from a different angle. The abrupt cutting keeps pace with Giorno’s characteristic spoken word style while the David Lynch-like music creates an ominous soundscape. Giorno performs barefoot in a tuxedo—sometimes black, sometimes white—and is theatrically spotlit against an opaque background. The pristine theatricality, coupled with the poem’s content, makes the piece seem like an eulogy. Unintentionally, it also feels like a valediction to the world of 2016, a time before the US Trump presidency and its looming aftermath. “America, thanks for the neglect,” proclaims Giorno, “...thanx 4 nothing.”

Where Rondinone struck an elegant balance using John Giorno’s cheeky wit to oscillate between meaning and the lack thereof, the other works tipped into provocative territory that sometimes seemed voyeuristic and superficial. The work that moved furthest in that direction was Cameron Jamie’s Massage the History, a surreal combination of found footage and performance documenting an Alabama sub-culture of male erotic living room dancing. Jamie is known for exploring fringe rituals of suburban American culture. This particular video felt disconcertingly voyeuristic not only for the blandly proper suburban interiors, which felt obscenely exposed, but because the culture was exclusively black. Set to the Sonic Youth song of the same title, young African-American men grind their groins into plush wall-to-wall carpeting, caress the curved surfaces of living room furniture and rhythmically thrust their pelvises around a Christmas tree. Tropes of propriety and respect are mixed with bizarrely insular eroticism.

In between these two poles is a work by British artist Jeremy Deller and Paris-based Argentinean choreographer Cecilia Bengolea. Their collaboration functions as a counterpoint to Jamie’s work. Instead of grinding men we are presented with a typical view of twerking women, though also with a surreal twist. Bom Bom’s Dream documents the participation of a Japanese woman, Bom Bom, in a Jamaican dancehall scene. Coupled with kitschy dream sequences depicting, amongst other things, Bom Bom being eaten by a giant talking iguana, the video shows the dancer (who in Japan works as a children’s book illustrator) performing acrobatic feats alongside Jamaican women. And though I later learned that the choreographer Bengolea met Bom Bom through her own participation in dancehall, I nevertheless felt that the culture was presented to me, a European, as a surreal, exotic and even downright weird spectacle. Although Deller describes in an online interview the surprising lack of misogyny in a dance culture that focuses almost solely on a woman’s behind, the camera’s eye, with its intermittent CGI animations, bordered on mockery.

For Deller and Bengolea, the exotifying effects of the European gaze have already functioned as a point of convergence. Their 2015 collaboration Rythmass Poetry depicted an older rich French man narrating a self-mocking dialogue as he swims in his pool, watches the Tour de France on television and observes black women, dressed for the dancehall, twist and twerk on his lush green property. At the end of the video one of the women places a cover on his pool while he is still swimming. It is unclear to me whether Bom Bom’s Dream had a similar point of contrast or whether it simply indulged in wholesale fun and curiosity.

In contrast, Rondinone’s work emanated a sense of intimacy—Giorno is his lover as well as an iconic part of the artistic tradition in which he engages. The other two works presented non-European cultures, perhaps often marginalized cultures, as mesmerizing spectacles. As such, intimacy and ownership of a particular tradition played no role. Jamie’s use of an art-punk soundtrack distanced the images with a sense of cool, perhaps all-too-cool, irony. Further research online did nothing to dislodge this impression. An interview with Jamie revealed that he discovered this sub-culture as he searched YouTube for gang member self-documentation. He became immediately fascinated. Later I came across enthusiastic reviews of Massage the History from Harmony Korine, whose film Trash Humpers superficially parallels Jamie’s work and, in the light of this comparison, also detracts from it.

Like Jamie’s research, my Google search became an immersion into the infinite mix of YouTube recommendations, which eventually proposed the latest in home vomiting videos. During the process I felt the same as when viewing Massage the History: a titillating sense of embarrassment for sitting alone and watching people perform private acts, even though they knowingly uploaded them online. As I continued to watch related videos, I saw recordings that could have just as easily found their way into The Infinite Mix had they had the support of a major gallery or if the recommendation algorithm was commissioned as curator.

In the end, I am left with questions about what I saw, though not questions that the artworks necessarily raised. I cannot decide if Rondinone’s work leaves artistic values safely intact, while Jamie subverts them. Or perhaps the latter work eroticises the subject at a voyeuristic remove—and through the gallery structure legitimises this gaze—while the former intimately engages its artistic foundation. Similarly, I don’t know if following Bom Bom’s “fantastic adventures,” as the advert describes, is only more interesting than YouTube dancehall videos by virtue of the Japanese dancer’s well-cultivated slapstick appeal, or does it perhaps show us a fantastical case of cross-cultural pollination. The ambiguity left by these works, and their relation to each other, may very well be their strength. Though softened by their entertaining appeal, the works begged the question of how we can position ourselves in relation to our culture, as well as the cultures of others. As for the exhibition as a whole, it had an addictive quality not dissimilar from browsing the internet—pathos juxtaposed with farce, the same way cat videos find their way beside the latest terror attack—leaving me to feel simultaneously overwhelmed and strangely undernourished.

Dagmara Genda is a Polish-Canadian artist and writer currently living in Berlin.