M(other)land: Works by Lauren Woods
In M(other)land, lauren woods’s exhibition at the University Art Gallery at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), appropriated film, video, sound and still photography provoke inquiry into American perceptions of Africa. Woods, a Bay Area-based conceptual artist, is known for her video and sound installations that probe questions of race and popular culture. M(other)land, in curator Lisa Henry’s words, allows viewers “to sift through their own projections about a continent still primarily glimpsed through the veil of social crisis, Hollywood movies and television news.”1 Drawn from woods’s larger project, The AFRICA Archives, much of the work in the M(other)land exhibition also emphasizes the role of Africa as a distant, imagined homeland for many Americans. The repercussions of this long, shared history between Africa and the United States are also central to debates that have raged on the San Diego campus since February of this year.
Less than two weeks after woods’ exhibition opened in San Diego, the university became the focus of national attention. on February 15, students hosted an off-campus party dubbed the “Compton Cookout,” the theme of which was a mocking interpretation of Black History Month.2 They posted a long invitation on Facebook, describing a “ghetto chick” dress code for female attendees and listing watermelon and “40’s” among the items to be served at the party.3 The next week, following a student’s use of a racial slur on campus television in defense of the party, a noose was hung in the University’s Geisel Library. Later a statue outside the same library was dressed in a makeshift Ku Klux Klan-style hood. The party and the ensuing actions highlight the persistent problems of racism and racial insensitivity on the campus, where of 23,143 undergraduate students only about 1.6% are black.4
Sanctioned institutional organizations at UCSD, however, seem to point to a celebration of racial difference. The University Art Gallery, for example, is located nearby Thurgood Marshall College, a small college housed within the larger UCSD campus. A sign announcing the entrance to the College bears a handwritten addendum after the Justice’s name. The sign now reads: “Thurgood Marshall was black.” However, as the spate of racially intolerant incidents illustrate, the social climate at the school cannot be determined by institutional naming opportunities alone. Speaking to a Los Angeles Times reporter in March, a UCSD student of Nigerian and white heritage said of the noose and hood found on campus, “Those are symbols intended to instill fear. It makes you wonder how far it will go.”5
A UCSD student has since claimed responsibility for hanging the noose in the university library and issued a public, though anonymous, apology. In the apology, the student explained that the rope had been found on campus and the student’s friends played with it, using it first as a jump rope, then as a lasso. Tying it into a noose, the student insisted, was done “without thinking of any of its connotations or the current racial climate at UCSD.” Leaving it in the library, the student insisted, was also a “stupid mistake.”6 While the apology maintains that the rope was just a prop in a game, the student later—too late—became aware that, hanging in the library during a period of intense racial upset, this rope would take on symbolic meaning and carry with it the reality of a threat.
The use of symbols to communicate ideas about race is central to the debate at UCSD and also to woods’s exploration of culturally received ideas about Africa in the M(other)land exhibition. As Michel Foucault wrote of the statements that make up a discursive formation, each utterance carries “a weight relative to the field in which it is placed.”7 Placed in the electric environment of UCSD in February, the jump rope-cum-noose bore a much heavier symbolic load than an anonymous apology letter could hope to alleviate.
Foucault’s conception of the archive in the Archaeology of Knowledge is vast, much like the idea of the archive that woods interrogates in The AFRICA Archives. Foucault’s theory of the archive includes not only written documents—those material objects that one typically imagines spilling from the precarious and dusty shelves of a physical archive—but also the entire discursive field, excluding only that which is un-thought or un-spoken. Likewise, The AFRICA Archives expands beyond the material realm and onto a much larger discursive field by implicating viewers’ preexisting ideas about Africa and highlighting the constructed, contingent nature of these perceptions. The Archives, for which woods started collecting material in 2003, are currently arranged into five thematic groups. Four are on display in M(other)land: …all over… (After the Crucifixion (After P. Pfeiffer (After F. Bacon))) (2008); Portrait of the African Shore (2008-ongoing); Inkblot Projective Test #1 (Darkest Africa 1936/2006) (2005); and several pieces from i dream of Africa… (2009). Curator Henry estimates that the source materials for these installations may number upwards of 100 items, including film and video clips, sound bytes, photographs, and other objects.
Western devotional music that woods added to looped video footage of the hip hop artist Ludacris in …all over… dominates the front gallery space. The choir fills the gallery, doubling as an incongruous soundtrack for the installation of Inkblot. The effect is reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s selection of choral music to accompany his 1989 documentary Wodaabe: Herdsmen of the Sun. In the back, a black box gallery features an hour-long projection of clips from Hollywood films with soundtracks intact. The terrifying cacophony of the creaking ship and clanging leg irons drawn from Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film Amistad spill out of the gallery and into the viewing space of three still photographs from the i dream of Africa series. The collision and interaction of these works in the gallery space is suggestive of the co-constitutive nature of cultural production and popular thought. Images may be influenced equally by earlier cultural productions and by firsthand experience of the continent. As each viewer brings his or her own record of experience to these projects, the work recombines in connection with these new interpretations, thus seeming to open out onto an infinite discursive field.
Like the racist actions at UCSD, woods’s work depends on symbolic representations to generate meaning. Through her collection and reworking of cultural productions that make reference to Africa, woods fractures the apparently stable meanings that are offered by popular films and documentaries. The exhibition as a whole, with its proliferation of video clips, still images, and sound, explodes any possibility of attaching a singular meaning to the idea of Africa as a whole. The AFRICA Archives reveals the multitude of cultural imaginings that contribute to any contemporary picture of Africa. Still, neither this nor any archive can include all of history. The sheer abundance of references to the continent, compounded by the impossibility of recovering historic cultural productions as they fade into technological obsolescence, guarantees that discontinuity will be a persistent feature of The AFRICA Archives.
Indeed, the Foucauldian conceptualization of the archive depends on this kind of discontinuity. Comparing the archive to discourse, Foucault wrote: “The discursive formation is not therefore a developing totality, with its own dynamism or inertia…; it is not a rich, difficult germination, it is a distribution of gaps, voids, absences, limits, divisions.”8 The gaps and voids in The AFRICA Archives are equally important in determining the structure and meaning of the archive.
Woods inserts visible signs of absence into her i dream of Africa series; black rectangles reminiscent of video censor bars occupy familiar African vistas from the beach in Vortex #1 (Flamingos) to the savanna in Vortex #2 (Acacia Tree) and Vortex #4 (Hills) (all 2010). Vortex #3 (Beach) (2010) offers the viewer a choice between three sets of headphones, each playing a different audio track. Listening to The Meters, a 1970s American funk band, then ToTo’s 1980s American pop, and finally a track by the hip-hop producer DILLA, the imagined narrative into which the image fits is radically reconfigured by each new soundtrack.The mutability of the image of the Kenyan landscape is surprising; it seems to fit just as “naturally” with each of the three music tracks, no matter how greatly they differ from each other. As a praxis by which to view the rest of the show, Vortex #3 (Beach) is incredibly powerful. Like the rope displayed in the UCSD library, Vortex #3 (Beach) offers evidence of the degree to which historical and situational context can alter the interpretation of a cultural symbol.
Similar strategies of recontextualization are deployed throughout the exhibition. Analyzing an entire genre of African images, A Portrait of the African Shore underscores the narrowness of visual tropes associated with the African coastline. Five screens of video clips culled from contemporary and historic feature films and documentaries are mounted end-to-end to create a panoramic view of the horizon. Military vessels sailing or flying into the frame frequently interrupt scenes of breaking waves and animal life. All of these scenes feel familiar; as woods suggests, they are the frequent backdrops of films about Africa. However, their repetition and combination in A Portrait of the African Shore drives home their striking similarity. Seeing them side-by-side makes clear the degree to which they have likely influenced each other, and subsequent thought about the region.
Like Vortex #3 (Beach), Inkblot Projective Test #1 (Darkest Africa…1936/2006), can be thought of as a lens through which to view the rest of the exhibition. The looped black and white footage of men in ethnic dress draws from a 1936 fictional safari film, but the image is reconfigured. As woods writes in the exhibition materials: “For me it was a formal challenge of taking this charged imagery and making a formal statement. I was in this in-between space of always making socio-political statements and wanting to make something formal and optical.”9 The installation underscores the importance of the viewer’s positionality. In Inkblot, the same clip is projected onto two walls in the corner of the gallery, so that one side of the projection is a mirror image of the other. The resulting effect is that as the men run towards the camera down a path dense with foliage, the two mirror images merge. Just as they are about to meet each other and the viewer standing in line with the vanishing point, the men disappear into the corner. In their final moments onscreen, the figures are no longer recognizable as individuals; instead their features blur and come to resemble the inkblots made famous by Hermann Rorschach’s psychoanalytic examinations. In this way woods makes visible the question that is asked throughout the exhibition: What do you see in Africa? What do these images mean? The meaning of The AFRICA Archives is determined, like most archives, both by the reader and by the archivist. Woods’s project is a reminder that the material contained in the archive, while highly culturally determined, is also extremely malleable, and its meaning is continually constructed and reconstructed by new viewers, in new contexts.
Kim Beil is a PhD candidate in the Visual Studies program at the University of California, Irvine, and a frequent contributor to art ltd. and Photographer’s Forum.
- “M(other)land: works by lauren woods,” University Art Gallery, http://universityartgallery.ucsd.edu/exhibitions/2009/motherland.shtml (accessed May 2, 2010).↵
- Following the widespread coverage of this event and the official ucsd response, a black entertainer, Jiggaboo Jones, claimed responsibility for the party in a series of YouTube videos. His actual involvement is unverified.↵
- “UCSD Frat Denies Involvement in ‘Ghetto-Themed’ Party,” 10news, February 17, 2010, http://www.10news.com/news/22588063/detail.html#invitation (accessed May 2, 2010).↵
- Larry Gordon, “Students Walk Out of UC San Diego Teach-in,” Los Angeles Times, February 25, 2010, http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-ucsd25-2010feb25,0,4256213.story (accessed May 2, 2010).↵
- Sandy Banks, “Students are Channeling their Anger,” Los Angeles Times, March 6, 2010, http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-banks6-2010mar06,0,7776818.column (accessed May 2, 2010).↵
- “Apology from UCSD Student Who Hung Noose,” UC Regent Live (blog), March 1, 2010, http://ucregentlive.wordpress.com/2010/03/01/apology-from-ucsd-student-who-hung-noose/ (accessed May 2, 2010).↵
- Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972), 105.↵
- Foucault, 119.↵
- Didactic panel, lauren woods, M(other)land, 2010. University Art Gallery, University of California, San Diego.↵