Tim Maul on Artist Keren Shavit’s “Broken Kayfabe”

2014 Light Work Artist-in-Residence Keren Shavit’s Rabbits (a.k.a. Oryctolagus Cuniculus) is part of AKIN: Keren Shavit & Eva Marie Rødbrom, the first exhibition in Urban Video Project‘s 2018-2019 curatorial program. AKIN will on view at the UVP Everson Museum of Art architectural projection venue from February 15 through March 31, 2018. Vanguard filmmakers Keren Shavit and Eva Marie Rødbrom will be present for an indoor screening of additional selections of work and a Q&A with the audience on Thursday, March 8 at 6:30pm in Watson Theater at Light Work.

UVP is a multi-media public art initiative of Light Work and Syracuse University, and an important international venue for the public presentation of video and electronic arts. For more event and exhibition information, please visit www.urbanvideoproject.com.

Given Shavit’s current exhibition with UVP, we decided to dig into our archives and share the following essay about her work, written by Tim Maul, and originally published in Contact Sheet 182: Light Work Annual 2015. Tim Maul is an artist and art writer who lives in New York, NY.

Keren Shavit’s forthcoming publication Broken Kayfabe will defy casual interpretative reading of its challenging assembly of images and text. Culled from her extensive archive of self-produced photography and video, Broken Kayfabe constitutes a metafictional tale centered on a cast of characters inhabit- ing a clique of young people working in a greasy, fast-food chain in Haifa, Israel. The ravaged individuals that populate Shavit’s images are not directed in any imposed mis en scene but function as puzzle pieces moving within a dense narrative concerning the group’s fixations on the Von Erich professional wrestling dynasty, which they fantasize joining. Peti, (“gullible” in Hebrew) the central female character, is the haunted peg this morphing story is hung upon. Her initial goal to attend the Von Erich match in Israel (an actual event) is thwarted, and she emerges as a mutable, tragic figure in a maelstrom of lurid and o en distressing photographic content. The symbols (fast- food employee cap) and markers (eating, food) dispensed throughout Broken Kayfabe are highly unstable signifiers exemplified by the Von Erichs themselves, their history fraught with deception, suicide, and internal struggles over legitimate use of the Von Erich name. Shavit has built an array of oblique documentation into a construct that, despite the seriality of any page, will deflect narrative by radically dissociating image and text.


Keren Shavit, from Broken Kayfabe

Attracted to hermetic clans, Shavit courts acceptance and inserts herself into family units and social groups that o en exhibit unusual behavior or militant disregard for conventional norms. Once within, Shavit documents and mediates events captured on a battery of cameras: moving, still, and iPhone. Shavit’s project originates more from cinema than still photography, threading through the documentaries such as Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Brother’s Keeper (1992) and primitivists like the Kuchar brothers, early John Waters, Harmony Korine’s Gummo, and the unsettling oeuvre of David Lynch. Lynch’s sumptuous dream film Mulholland Drive (2001) corresponds with the glamor-deprived Broken Kayfabe with its embedding of symbols like a blue key, an empty sign that, when pro red, returns the labyrinthian plotting back to mystery genre with its (false) promise of final revelations and a restoration of visual order.

Shavit’s still photographs, produced by a range of amateur technologies, are blunt and harrowing. Favoring raw texture and high contrast color, her reflexive in-camera compositions appear organized around our discomfort. While coy or voyeuristic portraiture o en maintains a self-preserving distance from its subjects, Shavit situates herself in the action located in unspecified claustrophobic settings. Unlike the supine addicted families of emaciated beautiful losers in Corrine Day’s or Jessica Dimmock’s photography, Shavit’s people, when not in repose, engage in hectic activities where aging bodies crowd into a frame awash in garish patterns amid accumulations of clutter. In both content and lurid coloration, a resemblance exists between Shavit’s images and British photographer Richard Billingham’s notorious 1996 body of work around his troubled working-class family. Billingham’s pictures cruelly recall a grotesque Monty Python skit depicting “the worst family in Britain,” with Mum ironing a cat with the son, played by fantasy director Terry Gilliam, screaming for baked beans from a couch.


Keren Shavit, from Broken Kayfabe

Shavit’s pursuit and integration with perceived outsiders are primary source material gathering repurposed, for the artist, into the unwinding tale of Peti and her circle. Scavenging her own corpus and deleting any explanatory backstory precedes an image’s enlistment into Broken Kayfabe performing a surrealist act of detournement upon her own production, and in this Shavit emerges as highly original. Shavit’s pageant of glistening bearded men, cavorting seniors, wrestlers, monstrous rabbits, and haggard fast-food employees may be interpreted as a dream world or alternative universe. Indeed, Broken Kayfabe is an amalgam of doppelgängers, tangential distractions (Hitchcock’s “MacGuns”), and enough recurring symbols to hold us in paranoid thrall. Employing multiple perspectives and imaging formats can suggest avant-garde cinema at its most hallucinatory, but I propose that Broken Kayfabe, in its structure, relates closely to the autism or Asperger’s condition, where the slippage between what is seen and what is named resists even temporal registration into contextual narrative. Individuals with these disorders may construct densely plotted, hand-rendered epics resembling storyboards or pictograph friezes not to express or communicate, but to slow reception of a delirious exterior world where language and appearance never align.

Kayfabe (pronounced kay-fabe) is a term pro wrestling insiders use for active plot, storyline, and events inside the ring. A broken kayfabe applies to an incident in the match that temporarily ruptures the fourth wall between the wrestlers and an audience that expects a continuation of the agreed action that the sport’s emotional and physical content is real. Aficionados of wrestling have detected a growing trend of these, perhaps, intentional lapses within the ring and speculate online how it will alter the future of the industry. Keren Shavit’s Broken Kayfabe project occupies a similar, convulsive space between the documented fact and the elaborate action it purports to illustrate.

Wangechi Mutu, Non je ne regrette rien, 2007

Urban Video Project: Excerpt from Tiffany E. Barber’s “Cyborg Grammar?”

Light Work is pleased to present the second in a series of special posts from our affiliated program, Urban Video Project (UVP). UVP is a multi-media public art initiative of Light Work and Syracuse University, and an important international venue for the public presentation of video and electronic arts. Operating on the Connective Corridor cultural strip in Syracuse, NY, UVP’s flagship site UVP Everson features year-round, outdoor public projections onto the facade of the I.M. Pei designed Everson Museum of Art. UVP is one of few projects in the United States dedicated to continuous and ongoing video art projections. For more information about the Urban Video Project, please visit UVP’s website.

As the culminating event to its 2014-2015 curatorial program, Celestial Navigation: a year into the afro future, UVP will be presenting a full day of afro-future inspired and related events on April 7, 2015. These events include an artist lecture by Cauleen Smith; a workshop with Rasheeda Phillips; the Speculations performance, conversation, and screening; and the world premiere of Cauleen Smith: Crow Requiem. For more information, please visit urbanvideoproject.com.

Cauleen Smith: Crow Requiem will remain on view at UVP Everson from April 7 through May 30, 2015, screening every Thursday through Saturday from dusk until 11p.m.

Below, Tiffany E. Barber presents an excerpt from her unpublished essay, “Cyborg Grammar? Reading Wangechi Mutu’s Non je ne regrette rien through Kindred.” Barber’s essay will be included in the forthcoming book Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astroblackness, edited by Reynaldo Anderson and Charles Jones and published by Lexington Books.

Barber will be co-moderating the Speculations event with Jerome P. Dent and Anneka Herre at the Everson Museum of Art on April 7, 2015.

“A maimed figure – part human, part animal, part machine – is suspended in the middle of a grey and brown, cloud-like background. Severed from its upper half and projected into a cumulous abyss, only the lower limbs of the figure remain, separated like scissors. The bottom leg extends and the top leg bends at the knee, reaching upward like a scorpion’s tail or a morbidly elegant arabesque. Instead of a knee joint, the top leg is equipped with a motorcycle wheel that connects to spinal tubing. Green and grey-scaled tentacles cover its pelvic region. The right half of the picture plane is bisected by the figure’s bottom leg. Instead of a foot, the end of the leg is fitted with an amalgam of animal hoof, stiletto, and blooming flower. The left half of the picture plane is dominated by a coiling serpent whose skin is imbued with violet, red, and other earthen hues.[i]

The center of the image is the most visually arresting. Occupied by black root-like structures emerging from the figure’s lower excised torso, the grey background is spattered with colliding color fields of ochre, green, and pink spewing from the figure’s top leg from which its foot appears to have been violently amputated. The composition is arranged in such a way that it is hard to tell whether the coiling serpent is responsible for the figure’s ruptured state, or if the plant parts have caused the body to breach internally. The collage, Non je ne regrette rien (2007) by artist Wangechi Mutu, confronts the viewer with a complex scene that is repulsive yet seductively compelling, and the arrangement of human, animal, plant, and mechanical parts suggests a type of mutualism that results in a dismembered body. Known for her grotesque representations of black female bodies that exist between the cyborgian and the Afrofuturistic, Mutu’s Non je ne regrette rien offers a unique approach to black female subjecthood, what I call transgressive disfigurement.[ii] It pictures ways of being that are not predicated on wholeness but which instead incorporate alternate, at times violent or “undesirable” forms of transformation that serve to produce dismembered black female bodies.”

[i] Nicole R. Smith notes, “[M]uch of Mutu’s work[s] [. . .] often include a central female creature. Sometimes such figures are flanked by smaller and even more fantastical creatures—part fairy, puck, and insect. In some instances, they merely surround the main figure, while in others they take on a more sinister appearance, acting out in devilish ways” (Smith, “Wangechi Mutu: Feminist Collage and the Cyborg,” Art and Design Theses Paper 51 (2009), 13). A portion of the left side of the female figure in Non je ne regrette rien is flanked by a serpent. For the purposes of this essay, I focus on the central female figure in Non je ne regrette rien in order to underscore the intervention into representing black female bodies that my reading of Mutu’s collage makes.

[ii] A portion of this chapter was presented at the 35th Anniversary Conference of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute at Concordia University in April 2013 in Montréal, Québec. Special thanks to my colleague Rachel Zellars for the many conversations that helped me clarify this notion of “transgressive disfigurement.”

Image: Wangechi Mutu, Non je ne regrette rien, 2007. Ink, paint, mixed media, plant material and plastic pearls on Mylar, 54 x 87 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and Victoria Miro Gallery.

Tiffany E. Barber

Tiffany E. Barber

Tiffany E. Barber is a scholar, curator, and writer of twentieth and twenty-first century visual art and performance with a focus on artists of the black diaspora living and working in the United States. Her essay on artist Wangechi Mutu and Octavia Butler’s 1979 novel Kindred is forthcoming in Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astroblackness (Lexington Books).

Urban Video Project: Interview with Curators of Black Radical Imagination

Light Work is pleased to announce a series of special posts from our affiliated program, Urban Video Project (UVP). UVP is a multi-media public art initiative of Light Work and Syracuse University, and an important international venue for the public presentation of video and electronic arts. Operating on the Connective Corridor cultural strip in Syracuse, NY, UVP’s flagship site UVP Everson features year-round, outdoor public projections onto the facade of the I.M. Pei designed Everson Museum of Art. UVP is one of few projects in the United States dedicated to continuous and ongoing video art projections. For more information about the Urban Video Project, please visit UVP’s website.

As part of UVP’s 2014-2015 curatorial program, Celestial Navigation: a year into the afro future, UVP, parent organization Light Work, and the Community Folk Art Center recently hosted Black Radical Imagination I and II, a two-part screening of experimental short films and video works curated by Erin Christovale and Amir George. Inspired by the emergent discourses of Afrofuturism and Afrosurrealism, Erin and Amir have organized three programs of films by contemporary black filmmakers that represent a radical departure from mainstream cinema.

UVP’s current exhibition at UVP Everson, Jeannette Ehlers: Black Bullets, is one of many works included in the Black Radical Imagination (BRI) programs. Jeannette Ehlers: Black Bullets will remain on view at UVP Everson through March 28, 2015.

Tiffany E. Barber and Jerome P Dent, Jr. are scholars who engage with Afrofuturism and its critique. They conducted a brief interview with BRI curators Erin and Amir over email to learn more about their curatorial approach and future projects. Below is the interview transcript.

Tiffany E. Barber: How did Black Radical Imagination first come about?

Erin Christovale: Black Radical Imagination first came about when a mutual friend introduced Amir and I because we are both young, black film programmers in our respective cities, Los Angeles and Chicago. Being in this unique position, we started a conversation about our love for black independent cinema and emerging visual artists who use new media to create film and video works. At the time, we were also reading Freedom Dreams: Black Radical Imagination by Robin D.G. Kelley, which chronicles various liberation movements by black folk and suggests that without the concept of imagining a new future these historical movements would not have been possible. We wanted to apply that philosophy to the cinematic realm, in hopes of creating a new center of thought-provoking and experimental cinema outside of the larger entertainment industry that typically casts black characters as harsh stereotypes and takes ownership of their stories. From there, we created a program of seven short films that challenge normative ideas of blackness and that also celebrate the philosophy of Afrofuturism.

Black Radical Imagination logo

Black Radical Imagination logo

BRI II Screening at Community Folk Art Center

BRI II Screening at Community Folk Art Center

Jerome P Dent, Jr.: How do you two define Afrofuturism? It’s such a broad term now; how did it shape your first series, a celebration of the philosophy of Afrofuturism as you say, and open onto the second group of films you two curated – Black Radical Imagination II?

EC: Afrofuturism is a term first coined by Mark Dery and is essentially “recreating the past to imagine new futures.” In Black Radical Imagination, we adopt this term in a cinematic way, selecting shorts that defy a mundane or oppressive future by inserting black bodies in space, time travel, and new dimensions. I think the narratives presented in our first program really align themselves with the experimental nature of the program we wanted to highlight.

Still from Mae's Journal by Amir George

Still from Mae’s Journal by Amir George

Still from Black Bullets by Jeannette Ehlers

Still from Black Bulletts by Jeannette Ehlers

 

JPD: The second iteration of BRI centers on Afrosurrealism and the third iteration is a move away from the thematic structure of the first two. Can you tell us how you two conceive of Afrosurrealism and about your approach to the current BRI program, which isn’t explicitly linked to terms like Afrofuturism and Afrosurrealism?

Amir George: Afrosurrealism is a term coined by D. Scot Miller, a writer based in the Bay area. It revolves around a mystical and spiritual context. Our approach to the current program expands on the reclamation of the black body.

EC: Yes, the term was inspired by Amiri Baraka who describes Henry Dumas’s stories as Afro-Surreal Expressionism. Baraka says, “Dumas’s power lay in his skill at creating an entirely different world organically connected to this one…they are also stories of real life, now or whenever, constructed in weirdness and poetry in which the contemporaneity of essential themes become clear.” In this spirit, the films we screened as part of BRI in 2014 program revel in the transfer of African spiritualities to the Americas and how that relation continues to shape our Diasporic culture.

Still from Moonrising by Sanford Biggers and Terrance Nance

Still from Moonrising by Sanford Biggers and Terrance Nance

Still from Field Notes by Vashti Harrison

Still from Field Notes by Vashti Harrison

Still from American Hunger by Ephraim Asili

Still from American Hunger by Ephraim Asili

TEB: You’ve said that BRI was inspired by Robin D.G. Kelley’s work, and UVP is hosting a panel discussion on Afrofuturism as a platform for social change in a few weeks. Given recent national protests – #BlackLivesMatter for instance – do you two consider BRI a way of life that has political implications now?

AG: I think BRI is more of a school of thought that has gathered audiences interested in discussing the themes being presented within the films. Our platform has given other voices the chance to be heard and allowed for open political conversations about the current state of things.

EC: In LA earlier this year, we were able to use our platform at the LA Book Fair to facilitate a conversation between Black Lives Matter and Printed Matter (the non-profit that hosts the book fair). With the films in the program as a backdrop, I think we continue a black radical tradition as artists and creatives who support larger direct action of community organizing.

TEB: What’s next for you two – individually and collectively?

AG: We have a new program that we’ll be screening throughout the year, and I’m working on a new short film.

Amir George and Erin Christovale at Community Folk Art Center for BRI II screening and Panel

Amir George and Erin Christovale at Community Folk Art Center for BRI II screening and panel

Black Radical Imagination Curators Amir George (left) and Erin Christovale (right) with featured artist Jeannette Ehlers (center) with UVP Everson projection of Ehlers' </em>Black Bullets</em>.

Black Radical Imagination Curators Amir George (left) and Erin Christovale (right) with featured artist Jeannette Ehlers (center) with UVP Everson projection of Ehlers’ Black Bullets.

Erin Cristovale is a curator based in Los Angeles focusing on film/video within the African Diaspora. She graduated with a B.A. from the USC School of Cinematic Arts and currently has an exhibition at the MoCADA Museum called a/wake in the water:Meditations on Disaster. She also works with a collective of creatives called Native Thinghood promoting emerging artists of color.

Amir George is a motion picture artist and film curator from Chicago. His video work and curated programs have been screened in festivals and galleries across the US, Canada, and Europe. In addition to founding The Cinema Culture, a grassroots film programming organization, Amir George was founding programmer of Black Cinema House, a residential cinema space on Chicago’s south side. He currently teaches and produces media with youth throughout Chicagoland.

Tiffany E. Barber is a scholar, curator, and writer of twentieth and twenty-first century visual art and performance with a focus on artists of the black diaspora living and working in the United States. Her essay on artist Wangechi Mutu and Octavia Butler’s 1979 novel Kindred is forthcoming in Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astroblackness (Lexington Books)

Jerome P Dent, Jr. is a graduate student at the University of Rochester whose work sits at the intersection of critical race theory, philosophy, and speculative fiction and film with a special focus on black imaginative labors.

Event photography by Matthew Pevear.

Barber and Dent will continue this series of afrofurist posts for Urban Video Project on the Light Work blog in coming weeks. Please stay tuned! Barber and Dent will also participate on the Speculations event panel on April 7 in celebration of the world premiere Cauleen Smith: Crow Requiem at UVP Everson. Join the event on Facebook.

TONY 2012: Transforming Video at the Everson Museum of Art

Transforming Video

Anneka Herre, Carl Lee, Jennifer Hsu, Mike Celona, and Yvonne Buchanan

November 4, 2012 at 2:00pm

Free and open to the public

TONY: 2012 video artists use single-channel and immersive installations to explore issues related to the environment, culture, race and our relationship with technology. Join the Everson Museum of Art for Transforming Video, an artist screening and discussion of what inspires these artists and how they transform their ideas using the medium of video.

Presenting artists include Anneka Herre, Carl Lee, Jennifer Hsu, Mike Celona, and Yvonne Buchanan.

More info at www.everson.org