The Best "B-Sides"
On the monitor screen, ten young men scream at the top of their lungs. It's the kind of testosterone-fueled yelling that happens when guys watch college football — college football they bet money on. But they aren't watching a game. All members of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity at Yale (whose rosters include George W. Bush, his father, Gerald Ford and Dan Quayle), they're performing in photographer Richard Mosse's 2007 video Fraternity.
Mosse's video is a part of the exhibition "B-Sides: A Dialogue with Contemporary U.S. Photography" at FotoFest. The show is filled with mostly new or never-shown-before work by artists who were included in FotoFest 2010's "Contemporary U.S. Photography" extravaganza. "B-Sides" was curated by Jennifer Ward, FotoFest's exhibitions coordinator, and it's filled with interesting and unexpected work, all of it relating in some way to "themes fundamental to the current state of affairs in the U.S."
Mosse gave the fraternity members a keg of beer in exchange for their participation in the video. They were each instructed to yell as loud as they could for as long as they could, and when they stopped, they could no longer start again. Each man appears in his own video, all ten images arranged in a grid. As the video plays, individual participants stop shouting and their images disappear from the grid. Finally the video is down to the image of one beefy, thick-necked guy in a backwards camouflage-print baseball cap. He just keeps yelling and yelling. With his face beet red and beads of sweat running down his face, he looks like he's about to pop. You know this guy, everybody knows this guy. Some version of him attended every keg party you ever went to.
So in one way the guy is this laughable Animal House Blutarsky archetype, but in another, Mosse is showing how these men embody frightening aspects of male pack behavior. We all know people are more likely to do bad things in groups, and so does Mosse. He's worked in Iraq, and in FotoFest 2010, he showed gorgeous but apocalyptic images of bombed-out cars and U.S. troops hanging around the empty swimming pool of serial rapist Uday Hussein's hilltop palace. And Delta Kappa Epsilon pack behavior has been making news for decades.
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In 1967, The New York Times covered a DKE hazing scandal in which pledges were branded. Then-DKE president George W. Bush described the pledges' wounds as "only a cigarette burn." And the fraternity was back in the news this October for another ritual, which involved pledges shouting, "My name is Jack, I'm a necrophiliac, I fuck dead women," along with "No means yes; yes means anal," near the freshmen women's dorm. This latest scandal gives Mosse's 2007 video added impact. Imagine being an 18-year-old girl and having a pack of these guys yelling that shit at you. Imagine those pledges as the next president of the United States.
Tim Davis's 2002-2004 series "My Life in Politics" captures images of places the artist visited or wandered into with no special access. It's a portrait of the American political landscape anyone, in theory, could have taken. Davis photographs an Anti Flag Burning Rally from above. We see the rally consists of three elderly people at a podium with seven people, mostly cameramen, facing them. It's not hard to realize that the camera angles would give no hint of the rally's complete lack of attendees. In Abortion Clinic, a man in a white dress shirt raises his arm (to the Lord?), his mouth open in prayer or invective at the security guard standing in front of the door to the family-planning clinic. In another work, Napping Anarchist, a woman is stretched out asleep on a black leather couch with her arms over her head, displaying an unshaven armpit; an upside-down American flag hangs on the wall in the cluttered office. And in The Lobbyists, Davis captures fiftysomething white guys in blazers talking on their cell phones, surrounded by binders and soft drinks.
Davis captures some strong images, but in a number of them you begin to feel that he is illustrating stereotypes. It is the unpeopled photographs, like his image of a beat-up portrait of George Washington in a thrift shop or the shot of the red state-dominant U.S. election map on a worker's computer screen, that are strongest, giving viewers room enough to draw their own conclusions.
The Internet is the found object of the 21st century, and Emilio Chapela uses it to great effect in incredibly simple but incredibly provocative work. "B-Side" features his new series of works derived from Google search suggestions, based on the most popular web queries. Chapela presents these lists of suggested searches as white text on a black background. In description, it sounds like some last-minute undergraduate art project, but in reality, it's riveting work. People searching Google in the comfort of their home are completely unguarded, and they ask questions that reveal their insecurities, stereotypes, ignorance and downright racism. Other than reading minds, I don't know how you could get a more uncensored look into the thoughts of millions. I'd encourage you to play along at home, but you should definitely check out Chapela's work as well. He's got an exceptionally deft hand with search phrases.
For example, Chapela typed in "How not to be...," and Google offered up "shy," "jealous," "seen," "lazy," "bored," "nervous," "clingy," "boring" and "awkward." Among the results for "Why are artists...," "crazy" is at No. 1, with "depressed" and "weird" running second and third. Things got disturbing and racist when Chapela typed "Why are Mexicans..." into the search field. "Short" comes in at No. 1, followed by "so ugly" and "dirty" on down the list. When he typed "I dislike...," "black people" was the first suggestion, followed by "my child." But Googlers are equal-opportunity stereotypers: "Why are Americans..." gets "so stupid" as the first suggestion, with "so fat" next; synonyms for "stupid" and "fat" follow. Chapela has 20 works from the series with 20 different queries on view.
My fellow "stupid" Americans, let us all have the fire department cut us out of our houses so we can waddle over and check out "B-Sides." Those "crazy," "weird" artists are up to something good.
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