Boys to Men
I first encountered America's Army two years ago when I was hanging out, jobless and drunk, at a buddy's house. Addiction was instant.
America's Army is an online shoot-'em-up game created by the U.S. Army. It was designed, according to its Web site, as "an entertaining way for young adults to explore the Army and its adventures and opportunities." The game's "adventures and opportunities" don't include doing push-ups in the mud or cleaning latrines with a toothbrush, but you do get to shoot guns and hunt down faceless terrorists in black masks. This ingenious piece of propaganda boasts more than two million users and is, in all honesty, fun as hell.
It's also about as realistic as a video game can get (at least for this nanosecond). On the shooting range, would-be snipers have to be sure to squeeze the trigger between breaths, lest they miss the mark; machine guns are a helluva lot more difficult to aim than movie stars make it look; and, most important, once you get shot, you're dead -- game over. There are no second lives in America's Army.
I was 25 years old when I signed up for my first addictive mission. I teamed up with countless teenage boys in the online fight against terrorism. For all I know, one of my brothers in arms could have been artist Barbara Pollack's son Max. (Well, considering that he's only 16, he probably would have been more of a little brother in arms.) He's the focus of all three of his mom's works on display at DiverseWorks' latest exhibition, "PG-13: Male Adolescent Identity in the Age of Video Culture."
Pollack filmed her son playing America's Army for her video-installation of the same name. America's Army is a split-screen projection in which one half shows the game's action while the other half shows Max's simultaneous reaction to it. In short, you get to see the look on Max's face every time he blows something up.
You have to watch the projection for only a few minutes to grasp its message: Teenage boys are desensitized to violence. As Max pops off round after round, his cold-blooded poise would make any drill instructor proud. In fact, he shows signs of real emotion only twice in the game. The first instance comes when he purposely fires a grenade straight up in the air, and the second comes when he is shot on the battlefield. Both instances result in virtual death, and both times Max responds the same way: with a sheepish smile.
And it's that sheepish, self-conscious smile that hints at the conceptual depth lurking beneath the camouflaged facade of America's Army. Pollack's manner of presentation can really screw with your notion of who's looking at what, otherwise known as the subject-object relationship. Despite hundreds of years of philosophical treatises offering up alternate theories, we generally conceive of the subject-object relationship as a straight line between subject and -- no big surprise here -- object. But when we look at Max looking at the game while it seems like he's looking at us -- and we then look at the game he's been looking at -- the whole relationship becomes oddly triangulated. Granted, this conceptual twist has been explored time and time again in works that are pictures of people looking at pictures, but Pollack's piece offers a fresh take on the theme. And you get to see shit blow up.
Teenage boys might be deadpan when it comes to media violence, but nothing gets their facial muscles (and other things) twitching faster than images of sex. Witness Pollack's Stronger, another video projection in the "PG-13" exhibition. This one's all about sex, and nobody says sex better than Britney Spears. For this piece of art (and tail), Pollack recorded her son and two of his friends while they watched Britney's "Stronger" video. Her technician, Nick London, then spliced the footage of the boys into the video.
In Stronger, all isn't quiet on the adolescent front. These young men are into it. Their eyes bug and they mouth phrases of longing. (My favorite: "She's so hot!") They joke with each other and bounce to the music. They stare in awe. They look happy.
Part of Stronger's success lies in its use of the pop-up style so prevalent in recent music videos. The editing is superb. The boys actually look like they belong on-screen with Britney. (They've always been there, if you think about it.) While the unfaltering split-screen of America's Army helped convey that piece's sense of sangfroid, the editing pyrotechnics of Stronger really bring home the upbeat reactions of the boys and the subject matter. Killing, after all, is far less sexy than sex.
Sex and violence get tangled up in Janet Biggs's Chamblee, another "PG-13" piece. Chamblee is a video of three pairs of teenage boys locking limbs at wrestling practice, an ironically heterosexual activity. The images of these boys tugging and sweating on each other are incredibly appealing. But before anyone out there gets an icky feeling, let me explain: The boys are dressed in bright blue and yellow spandex, almost exactly matching the colors of the gym floor on which they tussle. As the three pairs of wrestlers move back and forth across the gymnasium, they create a hypnotic dance. And, on top of all that, the audio component of the installation is outstanding.
Chamblee is backed by a quirky drumbeat and intermittent treble tones. Mixed into this fractured wall of sound are interjections by spectators, including taunts from mothers and other students. But the most striking voice of all is that of the coach, who yells, among other things, "What the hell was that?" and the locker-room classic, "You look like a queer!" Come on, coach. Haven't you ever heard of positive reinforcement?
Sex, violence and asshole gym coaches -- the "PG-13" exhibition has got it all. And it's all displayed very well at DiverseWorks. Images and noises abound in the gallery space, quite often competing with and overlapping each other, just like the sensory noise of our postindustrial society -- and just like the urges of the adolescents who grow up in it.
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in Houston.