Featured in
Issue 228

Tony Cokes Thinks You Should Dance

Shiv Kotecha profiles an artist whose practice has challenged US imperialism and anti-Blackness through language and music

BY Shiv Kotecha in Features , Profiles | 08 JUN 22

When I met the artist and DJ Tony Cokes last month, he showed me a way to watch his videos I had not  considered before: by dancing to them. We were in the lobby of the Maritime Hotel in New York after Cokes had finished installing a suite of new and reworked videos as part of the 2022 Whitney Biennial, titled ‘Quiet as it’s Kept’. When I asked Cokes about ‘SM BNGRS’ (2022), a series of videos about club culture and nightlife, he recalled their conception: focused reading, conversations with friends and social-media footage of children cutting a rug to one of his own videos. ‘She can’t read’, wrote one proud parent, ‘but she can respond.’

For nearly 40 years, Cokes has been making videos and installations that appear deceptively simple in their display – like an informal slideshow presentation, or a Spotify ad. Cokes’s texts appear in sans serif font against bright, solid colour-scapes, patterned backgrounds and, occasionally, found imagery. The language derives from a wide range of sources: dense theory (Alain Badiou and Judith Butler, for example) to interviews with other artists (such as David Hammons and Martha Rosler), to snippets of news articles, transcriptions of civil-rights oratory and so on. Words flicker, strobe, slide across Cokes’s screens, accompanied by music, much of which would be familiar to most Western ears (Christina Aguilera, Morrissey, Bruce Springsteen), though he sometimes includes eclectic deep cuts (2000s-era German math-rockers The Notwist, to name one) or some one-off dubstep track discovered on Bandcamp. His wall-sized projections and LED screens take up little space, so that his audience has plenty of room to read, listen and, when possible, reflect.

Tony Cokes, HS LST WRDZ, 2021, installation view, ‘Whitney Biennial 2022: Quiet as It’s Kept’, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Courtesy: the artist, Greene Naftali, New York, Hannah Hoffman, Los Angeles, Felix Gaudlitz, Vienna and Electronic Arts Intermix, New York; photograph: Zeshan Ahmed

Take, for instance, HS LST WRDS (2021), a video that plays in a street-facing window of the restaurant at the Whitney as part of the Biennial, where visitors typically see admission prices and adverts highlighting the perks of museum membership. This video displays the last words spoken by Elijah McClain, the 23-year-old massage therapist whom Colorado state police murdered in 2019, after restraining him in a chokehold and then dosing him with enough ketamine to induce a coma. First, the music: the Welsh indie-rock outfit Manic Street Preachers’ ‘Between the Clock and the Bed’ (2014), which trots out its white subject’s complaint with stereo clarity: ‘Shapes move inside my head / Colliding with shared desperation’. The singing is full throated, trailed by a slight echo.  McClain spoke to the police in short sentences and, as in ‘SM BNGRS’, Cokes drops the vowels in each of the  words. They blink one at a time, unspooling a knot of pleas and explanations: ‘I JST CN’T BRTH CRRCTLY’, ‘I WZ JST GNG HM’, ‘TRY 2 4GV ME’, ‘LL I WZ TRYNG 2 DO WZ BCM BTTR.’

‘There’s nothing rocket-sciencey about [my work],’ remarked Cokes, who was in New York from Providence, Rhode Island, where he teaches in the Department of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University. We shared a tacit understanding of the absurdity of our contemporary moment and the hideous cliches and limitations of a city like New York – also, our love of it. Police brutality, anti-Blackness, American war crimes: these are some of the violences that Cokes’s videos explicitly address – and that make dancing, for viewers like me, a difficult thing to imagine doing.

Tony Cokes, Black Celebration, 1988, video still. Courtesy: the artist, Greene Naftali, New York, Hannah Hoffman, Los Angeles, Felix Gaudlitz, Vienna and Electronic Arts Intermix, New York

I am reminded of Yvonne Rainer’s evening-long performance, The Mind Is a Muscle (1968), in which she observes: ‘My body remains enduring reality. This statement is not an apology. It is a reflection of a state of mind that reacts with horror and disbelief upon seeing a Vietnamese shot dead on television – not at the sight of death, however, but at the fact that the television can be shut off afterwards as after a bad Western.’ Like Rainer, with whom Cokes would later study while completing his MFA in sculpture at Virginia Commonwealth University, the artist is sceptical of narrative storytelling, especially the tales spun by the media and the state. His works are never moralistic. Instead, they invite viewers to think critically alongside and through them, in real-time.

‘I kept ending up in odd places,’ Cokes told me, describing the circuitous route he took to becoming an artist. He attended several professional schools and liberal arts institutions, where he would experiment with still photography and performance, mining his own family history for material. He used recordings of his mother singing, for instance, and choreographed simple gestures to reflect his father’s working-class background. ‘He was a janitor, so I made a mess with coal and then cleaned it up,’ recalled Cokes. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that video became Cokes’s primary medium, as it allowed him to ‘gather evidence’ to contextualize the live aspects of his practice. In Black Celebration (1988) and The Book of Love (1992), Cokes’s technical background in analogue videography and documentary photography, his scepticism of either’s claim to truth, is conspicuous. The Book of Love is a portrait of his mother – in the form of an interview and a song – perforated by questions, insistences and doubts that scroll by in lengthy ribbons of text. Long, abrupt silences puncture her narrative to create an uncertain sense of who his mother is. She is perceived in fragments and magnifications, exceeding the frame of the video.

Tony Cokes, Evil.16 (Torture.Musik), 2009–11, video still. Courtesy: the artist, Greene Naftali, New York, Hannah Hoffman, Los Angeles, Felix Gaudlitz, Vienna and Electronic Arts Intermix, New York

Perhaps Cokes’s best-known work is his ‘Evil’ series (2003–ongoing), which he began in response to the depraved rhetoric used by the George W. Bush administration to justify its ‘War on Terror’. Evil.16 (Torture.Musik) (2009–11) continues to haunt me. It was shown again recently at MoMA PS1, New York, as part of ‘Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011’, an exhibition which closed in March 2020, right before COVID-19 shut down the world. The video projection spanned the entire back wall of one gallery, so that the strobing blue and red backgrounds splashed across the floor and out the door. (If it were not for the soundtrack, which played at maximum volume, a passerby could easily mistake the lightshow for a work by Dan Flavin.)

The text on screen reworks journalist Moustafa Bayoumi’s article ‘Disco Inferno’ – first published in The Nation in 2005 – about ‘advanced’ torture techniques deployed by US troops in Abu Ghraib, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay and lesser-known places on the Syrian border, such as Al-Qaim. Here, in a room they reportedly called ‘The Disco’, US soldiers blasted deafening music into the ears of Muslim detainees for hours, sometimes for days on end. Cokes remixed the songs Bayoumi referenced, including Barney the Dinosaur’s ‘I Love You’ – a staple of American children’s television since the early 1990s and the first of many voices chosen by US torturers to destroy the sanity of their prisoners. Barney’s voice is crudely spliced with Britney Spears’s ‘…Baby One More Time’ (1998), followed by a jarring cut to Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’ (1991), then Limp Bizkit and back to Metallica.

Tony Cokes, studio, time, isolation: reconstructions of soul and the sublime, 2011, video still. Courtesy: the artist, Greene Naftali, New York, Hannah Hoffman, Los Angeles, Felix Gaudlitz, Vienna and Electronic Arts Intermix, New York

Over the past several years, Cokes – whose studio consists only of a desk and a laptop – has worked on a series of videos that prod at contemporary artists’ skewed relationships to labour and urban space, and at how their studios have an afterlife in real-estate development, ultimately contributing to the pricing out of working-class people from major metropoles, such as New York and Los Angeles. A video from 2011, studio, time, isolation: reconstructions of soul and the sublime, which Cokes dedicated to Vito Acconci and Bruce Nauman, plays three reggaeton tracks by Cornel Campbell over long citations from the art historian and critic Tom Holert’s essay ‘Studio Time’ (2006).

Cokes redacts the chief example Holert uses to make his argument – Mathias Poledna’s Western Recording (2003) – to build a comparative through-line of studio-based practices in music, cinema and televisual industries, as well as the effects these traditions have on their immediate surroundings. ‘I’m not obsessed with representations of studio practice per se, but I’m interested in their migration and circulation in society,’ Cokes told me. ‘Why, for instance, did the artist’s loft became a default lifestyle? Why does everything have to turn into a creative enterprise? Why is it that artists have to say all these crazy things to gain visibility in a highly mediated context?’

Tony Cokes, Shrink! 1.1-4, 2001, installation view, ‘Whitney Biennial 2022: Quiet as It’s Kept’, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Courtesy: the artist, Greene Naftali, New York, Hannah Hoffman, Los Angeles, Felix Gaudlitz, Vienna and Electronic Arts Intermix, New York; Photograph: Zeshan Ahmed

At the Whitney Biennial, in addition to ‘HS LST WRDS’, a triptych of videos from Cokes’s ‘Shrink’ series (2001–02) plays on a loop in a sixth-floor window overlooking the Hudson River. Taking its name from The Notwist’s 1998 album (and no doubt also riffing on the informal term for a psychoanalyst), the ‘Shrink’ videos depict text overlaid on found footage of a pre-9/11, Rudolph Giuliani-era New York skyline. The same four songs – ‘Chemicals’, ‘No Encore’, ‘Shrink’ and ‘Your Signs’ – score a panoply of texts ranging from Susan Buck-Morss’s tome on Walter Benjamin, Dialectics of Seeing (1989), to a 1988 interview between art historian Kellie Jones and Hammons, whose blunt rejection of white cultural imperialism plays against The Notwist’s strummy guitars and rattling electronic beats. This sensory overload of music and text illustrates Cokes’s own media politics and his ideas about labour and creativity. ‘Don’t you know’, reads one of Hammons’s responses, scrolling a bit too fast, ‘chasing these stories is what it is?’

One video in the ‘Shrink’ series features a 2002 article by Jill Nelson from The Village Voice about the decision by the New York State Court of Appeals to overturn the conviction of three of the four NYPD officers involved in the torture and rape of Abner Louima in 1997. In this video, the sentences run slower than in Cokes’s other works, decelerating the rate of reading. Set to The Notwist’s Markus Archer crooning ‘Say: face me, embrace me / Take all these friends away from me’, Nelson’s text flashes in two- to three-word fragments and advances with a minor lag – eerily, reading and waiting become simultaneous activities. The anachronistic pairing only emphasizes how directly Nelson’s article still speaks to today’s New York, stifled by the unsparing policies and garbled platitudes about ‘public safety’ and ‘civic discipline’ spat out by the city’s current mayor, Eric Adams. In the last year, Adams – who served as an officer for the New York City Transit Police and the NYPD for over two decades – has reinstated a maximum police presence in all five of the city’s boroughs as a means of harassing and unfairly incarcerating Black and Brown people, and to effectively disappear the city’s poor and homeless population. Nelson, as broken apart by Cokes:

‘Whether or not / we choose / to recognize it, / we live / in a cityscape / that has for decades / been littered / with the dead bodies / of citizens / killed by the police / under questionable / circumstances.’

Tony Cokes, Black September (Evil.2/3), 2003, video still. Courtesy: the artist, Greene Naftali, New York, Hannah Hoffman, Los Angeles, Felix Gaudlitz, Vienna and Electronic Arts Intermix, New York

Cokes, a 2022 recipient of the prestigious Rome Prize, is currently planning a dual exhibition of works in Munich at the city’s Kunstverein and Haus der Kunst. ‘It will be series of snapshots’, he told me, about the things that happened in Munich between 1937 – the year Paul Ludwig Troost, Hitler’s favourite architect, inaugurated the Haus der Kunst, home to the Nazi party’s inventory of ‘racially pure’ art – and 1972, the year 11 athletes were brutally murdered in Munich’s Olympic village days before the city hosted the Summer Games. The playlist he’s making, however, seems like it may veer far from Bavaria’s sordid past. ‘Giorgio Moroder is an obvious pick, but it might be more interesting to find music that isn’t recognizable fully, as such, like international disco produced in Munich in the 1970s, or techno from Berlin and Dusseldorf in the 1990s.’ When I ask Cokes whether he would consider making work for public spaces, such as a bar or club, he tells me that he finds those venues useful: ‘It’s not just fun that you have,’ he says, speaking about clubs, ‘it’s a model of how you might be in the world that becomes thinkable.’ ‘What happens to my thinking when I’m compelled to dance?’ I ask. ‘People say you can’t do both at the same time,’ he replies. ‘But I think you can.’

This article first appeared in frieze issue 228 with the headline ‘Tony Cokes’.

Tony Cokes. Fragments, or just Moments is on view at Haus der Kunst, Munich and Kunstverein München until 23 October.

Main image: Tony Cokes, HS LST WRDZ, 2021, video still. Courtesy: the artist, Greene Naftali, New York, Hannah Hoffman, Los Angeles, Felix Gaudlitz, Vienna and Electronic Arts Intermix, New York

Shiv Kotecha is a contributing editor of frieze. He is the author of The Switch (Wonder, 2018) and  EXTRIGUE (Make Now, 2015), and his criticism appears in 4Columns, Aperture, art-agenda, MUBI’s Notebook and BOMB.