Advertisers know how to sell a product, most of the time subliminally, without the viewer being aware of the power these images create in their mind that lead them to consume. But advertisers are not the only ones who control the images to get messages with second intentions, create impulses and spread a certain image of the world. So do politics, economics, and culture. This is what African-American artist Tony Cokes has been advocating since 1988, when he began creating his peculiar “video essays”, a kind of short film created as collages in which it unites texts, music and colored backgrounds. With them, in no subliminal way, he vindicates themes and characters beyond his most widespread image and what has made them popular.
Like singer Aretha Franklin, considered by all to be the queen of soul, who is also a prominent black rights activist in the United States, from perspectives such as the Black Lives Matter (‘black lives are important’). And what are, if not, songs like Think, I Will Survive i Respect, which sound in one of the rooms of the Macba hosted by Tony Cokes. Music, text and politics, the first major exhibition in Spain of this artist, until February 7. “Cokes says that his ideas, which speak of the ideological abuse of music, texts and images, can be danced to,” explains the museum’s curator and curator of the exhibition, Anna Cerdà Callís. It has been made of stone so as not to end up moving the body in this room where it is shown and felt The Queen is Dead… Fragment 1, from 2019, focused on the black diva.
Of what there is no doubt is that the works of Cokes, short films, simple and repetitive at the beginning, “although they always hide several layers”, clarifies the curator, invite the viewer to be more critical of what he hears and listens to. and to change the way information is processed when a text is read, an image is seen, and a song is listened to, questioning the scant critical attitude of what one reads, sees, or hears. “It explores the limits of the documentary, but questions our way of watching films, television journalism, video clips and commercials, showing the connection between viewing and commercialization,” continues Cerdà.
The exhibition requires the visitor – in addition to wearing their own headphones and downloading by QR codes the translation of the texts of the 20 videos and three large light boxes – to take their time to see the works that add up to four hours of video …. It helps the soundtrack that accompanies since the first works of 1988, as Black celebration, which includes images of racial unrest in several U.S. cities, until the very last, of 2019, in which Cokes continues to critique racial issues, showing how Hollywood makes the African American community visible or invisible. “The essence of his image essays has always been the same, but he has been distilling the form,” sums up the curator, who describes these works – in which he subverts hierarchies, questions the concept of authorship, explores the roles of reader and editor and demands the involvement of the spectator ”- of“ precise, reduced, but powerful ”.
Cokes denounces the ideological use of music in war contexts or as a form of torture in some of the 70 pieces of The Evil Series. One of them explains how US President George Bush used, at his convenience, the different degrees of anti-terrorist alarm that was activated after the 9/11 attacks, which were identify with the color yellow, orange and red, with which the behavior and emotions of the population were modulated. On the other you can see and feel how the US military used disco music at full volume as torture during the Iraq war, based on the essay by professor and writer Mustafa Baioumi.
According to Cerdà, Cokes considers himself “rather an editor who unites and juxtaposes, just as a DJ punctures and mixes in his air the music composed and performed by other authors”. Cokes lets you see the tricks on how he builds his works to make visible the trap behind his videos. “So that the viewer can reflect on whether what he consumes daily is also built and not true,” says Cerdà.
Defining himself as a “postconceptualist”, Cokes acknowledges the influence of conceptual artists such as Art & Language, Paul Gilroy, Adrian Piper, Louis Althusser, Malcolm X, Lawrence Weiner and Jenny Holzer, whom he cites alongside musicians Aretha Franklin, David Bowie, Public Enemy and Morrisey, who also invite visitors to this show to dance.