Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Whitney Museum of American Art: Alex Bag

Written by Alan Reid
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Alex Bag’s first solo museum presentation is currently on view at the Whitney Museum. Bag rose to prominence in the mid-1990s with a video satirizing art school. She is well-known for her low production values and political criticism, and perhaps best-known for mocking things she hates but can’t quite stay away from. Television, for example, which is at the forefront of her disdain in her current installation at the Whitney.
Alex Bag's first solo museum presentation is currently on view at the Whitney Museum. Bag rose to prominence in the mid-1990s with a video satirizing art school. Describing a Bag video has pitfalls, like recounting a dream. One sees a muddle of seemingly inconsequential jumps, evaporations, and dislocations. In this particular video, Bag plays the host of a children’s educational program. Not just any educational program but The Patchwork Family, a 1970s children’s broadcast that her mother hosted. It is this show that largely inspired Bag’s modern video installation.

Her co-host in the faux program is a sarcastic dinosaur puppet with a voice like Cheech Marin. Bag seems to be in the midst of a mental breakdown. She rambles; the puppet mocks her. In starts and fits we are directed to a blitzed animal wrangler who discusses the history of the symbol of the snake, a military veteran in a wheelchair singing songs from David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, and footage of Alex Bag’s real mother from her Patchwork Family days.

Centered on the tension between philosophic freedom and dispossession, the presentation is a forty-five minute video projected on the wall of what seems to be a children’s television program set. It is a fully matured, sustained critique that looks at our relationship to the world and the anxieties that stem from it, through the form of educational television.

The scenes in the film are populated with school-age children awkwardly standing around. They look into the camera, dance, or appear confused. The kids are a poetic manifestation of a participating audience. It’s here that Bag perfectly stages our relation to her video: we are the children. The work is installed in the Whitney’s lobby gallery, and museumgoers mill around, echoing the children in the video.

The gallery is painted blue, a reference to color key bluescreen, the cinematic device that enables images from separately filmed environments to be layered onto each other. The room is a generic prototype, a pre-space. In the vacuum of this potential space are some props from the video. There are primary-colored boxes to sit on, an enormous shag carpet, a wheelchair, and the puppet. In effect, we are cast as an audience being educated by an Alex Bag video. And we could be anywhere.  
 
So, what is our host proposing to teach us? Where does she take us? We are drawn into a melancholic world and to the fixations of the psychedelic set: David Bowie, occult phenomenon, the sublime. Bag satirically presents herself as a damaged youth leader looking for words. She asks the philosophic question: what are we without language? To find the words, she channels script from beyond the grave, verbalizes Pink Floyd lyrics, and in one scene, reads an anxiety provoking excerpt of Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée to button-nosed youths.

As we experience the video, the room, and the performance, Bag toys with notions of theory. (Note that the word “theory” has its root in theoros: a person in the audience who speculates on actors performing.) The video demonstrates theatrical awareness and, as such, Bag’s presentation of Bowie as a hero makes sense. While Bowie offers a model of counterculture coming-to-awareness, he also represents the loss of an individualized self to the search. And this, a character’s lost access to an emotional self, is the video’s thesis.

From the puppet, we learn that the host has recently discontinued her medication. A chemical imbalance is one way to consider the crisis of being dispossessed, or perhaps the model of a wounded self. Consider, for instance, dispossession at the hands of another, possibly an authority. The video makes mention of the host having been prosecuted for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The crisis invoked in this vague delinquency is targeted at youth and enforced by law.

Likewise, the wounded self is made visible in the wounded, wheelchair-bound veteran dressed in camouflage. Bag, acting as host, says this man is a bum living outside her house; thus, it can be deduced that he is a wounded veteran left uncared-for by the military bureaucracy. The video goes on to explore tensions in the wounded self brought to the surface by nature, parental legacy, and ultimately through philosophic nausea. Our host’s crisis is one of inauthenticity.

The form of the video speaks to notions of the authentic; Alex Bag seems to love the abject  aesthetic of no budget, cobbled together video production. The low-resolution stock photography at all times shifting in the background—like a metronome, keeping pace, providing an emotional tempo—attempts to fill that metaphoric non-place (the bluescreen) with substance. That is, Bag draws our attention to the anxiety of saying anything, or doing anything, in the vacuousness of a world of possibilities.

Bag’s video is concerned with consciousness in search for meaning. As our host searches for a means to speak truth, the puppet mocks her captivity. Here we can begin to experience our own existential dilemma and consider how this will influence future generations.

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