Recently many have observed that current American film and television scenarios feel familiar, with offerings that appear diverse and multicultural, as they would have seemed in earlier decades. This is not to say that the struggles of marginalized communities have been overcome; just because a person is visible does not mean that person is liberated. However, media representations can illustrate experiences outside of dominant cultural structures and provide a welcome and necessary reprieve. Reviewing the sitcoms Fresh Off the Boat and Black-ish, the critic Emily Nussbaum notes, “[S]imply watching people of color having a private conversation, one that’s not primarily about White people, is a huge deal. It changes who the joke is on.”
The works in the exhibition Derrick Adams: Network, curated by Mar Hollingsworth at the California African American Museum, are based on aspects of U.S. television, which has profoundly shaped our understanding of culture since the end of World War II. Born in 1970, Adams explores television as both an object and a conduit: a product of 20th-century technological innovation and a medium that records and broadcasts the contemporary condition. Adams, a multidisciplinary artist, relies heavily on generational allusions: One reference is the show Sanford and Son, along with the rise of Oprah Winfrey, the advent of the music video, and the broadcast of the O.J. Simpson trial. (Though Adams is based in New York, Network’s appearance in Los Angeles seems apropos and timely. The exhibition is showing concurrently with No Justice, No Peace: LA 1992, which outlines the arc of that year’s unrest. As the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Los Angeles uprisings approaches, these shows offer an opportunity to reflect on the relationship of popular media and the larger culture, then and now.)
Adams’ artwork is visually coherent throughout the exhibition, and it’s likely a result of his fixation on color-bar test patterns. Founded in 1916, the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) is a professional organization that, since 1951, has utilized the highly recognizable pattern to calibrate the correct chroma and luminance levels for the analog video standard established by the National Television System Committee (NTSC). Though these standards waned in relevance around 1997, after the rising dominance of digital technology, the color bars remain associated with television. In the Colorbar Constellations series (2016), Adams creates two-dimensional television sets out of paper and fabric, with seemingly kinetic color bars; in one instance, the alternating, flashing bars appear smashed into smithereens. Strips of printed Kente textiles fall out of a TV frame, and aluminum foil antennae reach out to catch a signal. The Boxhead sculptures are three-dimensional busts in TVs, set atop cardboard-box plinths, featuring faceless, soccer-ball-like heads whose multi-planar surfaces are covered with the colors white, cyan, yellow, green, magenta, red, and blue.
In a smaller gallery, Network Guru (2016) consists of six yoga mats with cylindrical pillows on the floor, facing a wall with a handmade television screen showing thick color bars. By wearing the provided pair of wireless headphones, a visitor can enter a space of total immersion that mimics the experience of watching television late at night. Through the headphones, the crackling audio feed repeats the phrase, “channel to the sea,” over dial tones, synthesizers, and bells. The TV screen features several small portrait lamps, familiar from the notorious infomercial of the psychic Miss Cleo, who amassed a huge audience for the Psychic Readers Network. Miss Cleo’s persona, vaguely defined by her faux Jamaican accent and the nondescript tropical backdrops against which she sat, cemented the stereotype of the magical and mystical Black woman who offered answers and provided access to exotic wisdom.
Situated on a color-block carpet, three brightly colored recliners face On (2016), a twelve-and-a-half-minute-long multichannel video, which opens with and occasionally returns to a grid of nine competing vignettes, looking like the game show Hollywood Squares (broadcast from 1965 to the present) or the opening titles of The Brady Bunch (1969–74). With each segment, the performers in the video act out various recognizable TV formats: the morning talk show, the testimonial, the sales pitch. The work’s improvised dialogue plays with the conventions of hackneyed advertising and marketing language, which consistently espouses generic benefits of exercising one’s purchasing power: “…it’s improved my sex life…I’ve been cooking more…all you have to do is get it.”
During the exhibition’s opening-night performances, with a touch-screen tablet in hand, Adams scurried back and forth between iterations of Fabrication Station (2016) like a harried but confident producer. The three works were activated by several young actors who attempted to seduce the audience; the “Over the Top” performer, appropriately climbing up and down from a raised platform to make his pleas, seemed to be getting the most attention. The aphorisms spouted in the video On were repeated here: “…[it’s] changed my life…you need to get it…you need to try it today…one of a kind…better not walk away.” The language of desire, employed by those who want to profit by collecting viewers’ dollars, is awash with these slippages, in which the appearance of fulfillment can sometimes seem to satisfy one’s desire for it. By exposing the underlying consumerism inherent in the distribution channel that is television, Adams questions its promise-filled yet empty messages.
Derrick Adams: Network is on view through June 11, 2017.