REDCAT, Los Angeles, USA
Tony Cokes’s ‘Retro (Pop, Terror, Critique)’ featured 45 videos and text animations from 1997 to the present. By breaking the show down to eight week-long programmes, the exhibition offered an inventive solution to the all-too-familiar curatorial problem of a video art retrospective. REDCAT’s main gallery was turned into a large black cube where each week’s looped programme was simultaneously projected onto two walls (one in front of the entrance and the other in the back with a seating area), and played on a group of three smaller flat-screens and a single larger one, offering a variety of display options. The space had the feel of a night-club-cum-videotheque, where the installation created an immersive spectacle of critique as scrolling and/or flashing bars of texts – culled from a variety of academic and journalistic sources and sometimes his own writings – ran on the screens and twinkled to the beat of minimal pop soundtracks and house mixes. In the lobby, three monitors on pedestals showed a selection of videos from each of the exhibition’s three categories of ‘Pop Manifestos’ (1997–ongoing), ‘The Evil Series’ (2001–ongoing) and ‘Art Critique Series’ (2008–ongoing). Moreover, all the works on the checklist were available on the gallery’s website for the duration of the exhibition, saving Angelenos from the prowl for Downtown parking.
In leeds.talk (2008), from the ‘Art Critique Series’, Cokes traces Rosalind Krauss’s oeuvre, recounting her disillusionment with Artforum’s promotional scholarship – where texts only provided what Boris Groys has recently called ‘textual bikinis’ in service of the art market – that prompted her and Annette Michelson to found October in 1976. Cokes notes (or rather quotes) that this shift instead emphasized the aesthetics of the scholarly text itself, giving rise to critical and academic performances of contemporary art theory and history. Taking cues from this piece, Cokes’s works explore the aesthetics of criticism and academic writing (Cokes himself is a professor of Modern Culture & Media at Brown University), and examine video as a venue for scholarship where the text becomes image and adopts the conditions of viewership.
Cokes’s videos highlight the economy of circulation in discourse, from art criticism to contemporary politics, and how, across disciplines, dispersion defines content. In the ‘Evil Series’, ploughing through documents and reports on the War on Terror, Cokes is not preoccupied with making the invisible visible or in revealing the unknown, as in exhausted representational strategies of much so-called political art. Rather, he shows the monstrosity of what is already visible and known, but conveniently de-circulated. For Cokes, this impasse is not limited to politics: ‘There is nothing to critique, we only need to marvel at the things we already know,’ a text bar reads in leeds.talk.trailer (2008).
In the works on view at REDCAT, music functioned on at least two levels. It was posed analogous to academic discourse as both media follow traditions, referential palettes and methodologies that govern their respective forms. Moreover Cokes uses the ‘remix’ in contemporary music akin to ‘quotation’ in academic writing. As such, he shows that discursive interiority is not exclusive to academia and is shared across disciplines including popular culture and music. For Cokes, neither pop music nor critique is safe from commodification. He uses the reach of the former as a vehicle for the distribution of the latter, and applies critical theory to pop music to détourne it into something more than mere prop for product placement. Here the collective nature of music comes together with the individuality of the critical position, providing a common soundscape for an otherwise idiosyncratic practice. Further, by turning the gallery space into a kind of dance floor (‘a mobile assemblage of bodies’ according to the crawler in Cokes’s 1!, 2004) the artist appears as an absent DJ and the viewers as club-goers.
While examining the potential of bringing together the idiosyncrasy of critical practice with the collectivity of music, Cokes is under no delusion about the contemporary critical cul-de-sac, the market value of critique and its recuperation by the culture industry. Yet he does not make his scepticism instantly consumable, giving the savvy audience a pat on the back by gift-wrapping critique with irony. His strategy is more akin to the post-rock music of his soundtracks in its refusal to deliver the ecstatic climax of the chorus refrain.