EPISODE 7: YOU’VE GOT TO WATCH THIS!
Abbi on video: I don’t like you, you’re blue. You’re too blue… [FADES UNDER]
OK… what you’re hearing right now is me… I’m leaning over a piece of paper and I have two markers, one in each hand. A red marker and a blue marker. And my markers are engaged… in battle.
Abbi on video: The blue marker says: “red marker, I’m going to color on top of you!”…
Let me explain what’s going on here… That was me in college.
I went to art school, Maryland Institute College of Art, otherwise known as MICA in Baltimore. And I studied general fine arts so I did a lot of drawings and paintings but I also minored in Video. And I made a lot of these character studies.
Abbi on video: “I’m going to color on top of you again!”
So after school, I started doing stuff at the UCB, the Upright Citizens Brigade, which is this improv sketch comedy theater here in New York. And one thing led to another… and the result is Broad City. On the show, I play a girl named Abbi, who is trying to be a successful illustrator and live the dream...
Broad City Excerpt: (Music fades up) Ma’am. Ma’am. Ma’am. Ma’am!
Bank Teller: You didn’t sign the back of the check.
Abbi: I’m sorry. You know, I wasn’t sure if there was a special teller I should go to for checks that are this large?
Ilana: OOooo 8k, uh! You know how she got it, dude? This bitch right here, drew this illustration and a sexy ass new dating website bought it for eight thousand dollars!!
Thomas Lax: You and your own work kind of make use of a character that has some resemblances to yourself but is obviously not you. Your character on Broad City is an artist.
This is the MoMA curator Thomas Lax.
Thomas Lax: How do you see the line between who you are and who your character is in Broad City?
Abbi: I mean, you’ve spent a little bit of time... I think that I'm different when you actually meet me, hopefully everybody here. (laughs) Just because I play this like hyped up version of myself I sort of like amplify my insecurities on the show, I amplify everything that I find kind of funny about myself.
Thomas Lax: Yeah.
Abbi: Listen a lot it is me, but people think that they know everything about me when they see me.
Thomas Lax: Right.
Abbi: Maybe I should have changed the name. Should have changed your name.
Thomas Lax: I love that it’s, I love that it’s Abbi on the show. So… we should watch this.
Abbi: They want us to watch the video... We’re getting in trouble at the MoMA. (laughs)
Thomas Lax: I’m used to that!
I’m Abbi Jacobson and this is A Piece of Work. This episode is all about video -- video as art. It’s one of the newest forms of art -- it’s only been around just since the 1960s when artists could first get their hands on cameras and recorders. But since then, they’ve been really pushing it in a lot of different directions. So we’re going to cover the funny kind, and the serious kind. The sweeping aerial shots… and also the stuff you capture right on your phone.
Abbi: We're standing on like a balcony looking over the atrium now.
Thomas Lax: Exactly...
So we’re looking down into a large white room, and in the middle there’s a huge screen hanging... MoMA is under construction, I should say, so you’re gonna hear some of that noise too. But the helicopter sound… that is part of the art.
Thomas Lax: So we're looking at Steve McQueen’s “Static” which is a video installation that he made in 2009...
Steve McQueen -- the Oscar-winning director.
Thomas Lax: And we're watching a two-sided screen with speakers all around it. And there's footage of a helicopter as it circles the Statue of Liberty counterclockwise.
It’s striking to me that it’s a black British artist taking on The Statue of Liberty -- which is one of the most iconic images of America. The video is shot from a helicopter and you’re able to get really close to the Statue of Liberty -- you see the metalwork of her shoulders and the folds in her dress. And it seems like everyone who sees this video has some sort of strong, personal reaction to it.
Visitor: Is this called “Static”? Because it isn't. It gives the sense of motion…
Visitor: It looks like she's moving and the world is going around her. It's such a beautiful piece really.
Visitor: I'm from Washington D.C., but I moved here nine months ago and I'm struggling to adjust to the city. But images like this are magnificent and will always make us proud of New York.
Thomas Lax: After 9/11 because of security concerns, tourists were no longer able to go to the crown anymore.
Abbi: Why? What do they think people are going to do up at the crown?
Thomas Lax: You know I don't, I wasn't in that homeland security meeting..
Thomas Lax: But I do know that in 2009 right before this work was made, Barack Obama, President Barack Obama. (Abbi laughs) Let's be clear. Um, made...
Abbi: I didn’t know who you were referring to, thank you for clearing...
Thomas Lax: POTUS. For all the viewers out there, listeners, that, you know, he decided to bring it back onto public accessibility. So this space that we're looking at here the crown of, you know, Lady Liberty was made recently accessible again. And so you know you kind of are looking at the different ways in which... federal power is performed in this public monument and statue. So today what does it make you think of?
Abbi: I just feel like, like the old symbols for the United States of America. Like don't do it for me anymore. Like we need new symbols.
Thomas Lax: Yeah. And I feel like that's what I love about this installation is that like that ambivalence or that sense of contradiction are being pulled in these different directions is all made physical in the installation... So it's called “Static.” So it's like meant to be this thing that doesn't move.
Thomas Lax: But then like you're moving all around it, the sound that you're hearing is really loud.
Thomas Lax: And makes you feel like almost dizzy. So it's like that same experience of going between like, yes, like we're going to band together, you know we're going to have solidarity and from that place of groundedness we're going to fight back, to a place of like, WTF? Like why is this, what's happening right now?, is all kind of made into a physical space in the installation.
This video is really cinematic. It reminds me of those disaster movies, where a giant wave or bomb or like an earthquake is about level New York. And the Statue of Liberty is like the last remaining stand-in for America. It’s really suspenseful.
Thomas Lax: Can I ask you a question, Abbi? Did you feel at one point in your life like, oh the flag like, yes like America. Thank you.
Abbi: No (laughs). I was never like: U-S-A!!… You know, like but I wasn't the opposite either. I feel like all these symbols now represent something very different.
Thomas Lax: Something I love about, thinking about a work like this or this moment in terms of Steve McQueen's other work as a filmmaker, you know, he's the same artist that made 12 Years a Slave. So another work obviously that's thinking about the question of freedom and liberty, but in a historical frame, you know, I think something that Steve is really attuned to is the specific ways that you know the American project has for a long time been confused about its own relationship to freedom.
[HELICOPTER SFX FROM STEVE MCQUEEN VIDEO]
Abbi: When you were a kid did you go to museums?
Hannibal Buress: No, not really, I’ve gone to galleries a little bit. I’ve been to… I used to have a joke about going to art galleries, just to drink free wine.
This is my friend, the well known sommelier Hannibal Buress.
Abbi: We’re going this way. Oh yeah.
Hannibal Buress: Just to drink and just act like you, just walk act like you know about stuff. My art critique is usually “Oh, that’s dope.”
Hannibal Buress: Or “I don’t like that.” What about this one over here? (laughs)
Abbi: Yeah that is pretty dope. It is like, the ultimate, the ultimate test is is it dope or not?
I brought him over to the atrium to check out “Static.”
Hannibal Buress: Oh Steve McQueen, okay. That's pretty cool.
He had a few notes.
Hannibal Buress: Take out the helicopter noise, put in some smooth jazz or something though.
Abbi: (laughs) It would be a totally different thing.
Hannibal Buress: Yeah. I don’t need to hear that… I get it. I get how you got the shot. I don't need to hear it. Just put in a song everybody likes. Let’s get some Bruno Mars in this shit.
Abbi: (laughs) Bomp (singing), like bomp bomp…
Hannibal Buress: (singing) That’s what I like, that’s what I like… Nuh huh nuh.
Next up, how video art gets personal and direct. This is A Piece of Work.
Abbi: So OK so what's the next one we're watching?
Thomas Lax: So we're going to watch Howardena Pindell “Free White and 21” which was made in 1980. So what's interesting about this video, it's actually the first video that the artist ever made.
Thomas Lax: And it's one of the only performances that she's ever done.
You see Pindell, a black woman, looking directly at the camera -- telling a story about her life.
Pindell: When I was in kindergarten I had a teacher who was not very fond of black students. There were very few of us, possibly two in the kindergarten class out of a class of perhaps forty. During the afternoon hours we were given a time to sleep. Each of us had our own cot. And we were told that if we had to go to the bathroom, we should raise our hands. And one of the teachers would take us to the bathroom. I raised my hand and my teacher flew into a rage, yelling, “I can’t stand these people.” And took out sheets and tied me down to the bed.
As she continues her story, Pindell takes out this roll of gauze and she starts wrapping it around her face, like a bandage.
Pindell: She left me there for a couple of hours. And then finally released me.
By the end of the scene, her head is covered up completely. But she keeps telling this horrible story straight into camera, and you can almost feel her looking at you through the bandages. And then the camera cuts to another character. It’s still Pindell, but she’s dressed up as a white lady with a blonde wig, powdered face, and these cat-eye sunglasses.
Pindell: You know you really must be paranoid. Those things never happened to me. I don’t know anyone who has those things happen to them. But then of course they’re free white and 21 so they wouldn’t have that kind of experience.
Thomas told me more about what it was like when Pindell first showed this video.
Thomas Lax: She showed it at her gallery, she was part of a feminist women-run co-operative gallery called AIR, Artist In Residence and she showed it there the year it was made and there were a number of white feminists who responded, some of whom said, you know, thank you for making this work to, you know, illustrate and exemplify the experience of you're going through, others of whom were like, no that's inaccurate. I don't believe… they basically...
Abbi: It’s inaccurate?
Thomas Lax: They said the same things that, you know, the fake white lady, the nice white lady…
Abbi: So she’s playing this white woman, and she questions Howardena... About every anecdote she says.
Thomas Lax: Yeah.
Pindell: You ungrateful little… after all we’ve done for you.
Then you see Pindell as herself again -- and she tells another story.
Pindell: When I graduated from graduate school, I proceeded to look for a job because I had not been able to find a job, although I had applied at 500 schools for teaching positions I received approximately 500 rejections… so I decided to come to New York and go door to door... (FADES UNDER)
Abbi: We hear about these huge racial injustices that happen in the news all the fucking time. Like but she's talking about everyday life like, this is what happened to me then. This is what happened to me the next week. Oh this little thing happened to me in a car... like it's like those things need to be said as well. And I thought this piece was really wonderful in that way.
Thomas Lax: Yeah, I totally agree that there's a way that politics is supposed to be like these big events or like these moments where you can point to where there's a spectacle of violence and she's talking about the everyday ways that people as you said invalidate who she is and her everyday life and experience which is the kind of stuff that eventually makes you go crazy.
Thelma Golden: When I look at this work I see it within a long history of work particularly by African-American artists.
This is Thelma Golden. She’s the Director and Chief Curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Thelma Golden: This video and this retelling of these experiences really brings to mind, for example, the slave narratives, right? Where slaves had to tell the story of their bondage. And so I think that this work kind of exists between the past - of a kind of personal narrative...
Thelma Golden: As a means, right, of sort of political action and a present in which the codes of video and sort of performance art and conceptual art really privilege the personal narrative as the source of art. In many ways It feels like in this work Pindell wants that to be the experience, she is looking directly at them and the idea that they are hearing this from her, her direct truth being spoken directly to the viewer I think is also some of the power of the work.
Abbi: Yeah. It feels like if this was put out right now, I wouldn’t question it at all.
Thelma Golden: I think watching this work of art now certainly brings up the way in which it predicts media could be used to understand the personal story, right? The accessibility of it that allows people to tell their story and put it out there.
I wanted to watch this video with an artist who is making work now…. So, I got in touch with Martine Syms. Over the years, Martine has created websites, videos, installations… She’s also run a bookstore, an event space, a small press... She’s launched so many different things, she calls herself a “conceptual entrepreneur.” And if that sounds very LA, it’s because it is. Martine grew up there, she works in video, and she also teaches it too. We sat down together, with a couple cups of coffee while the mics were being set up...
Martine Syms: (slurp) Oh, I shouldn't drink though, right?
Abbi: No, I love it. I like the sound effects of the drinking coffee. This is like, I'm taking over Jerry Seinfeld's like Comedians in Cars Drink Coffee...
Martine Syms: I’m actually starting a radio show myself.
Martine Syms: That is kind of just like drives...
Abbi: I'm literally driving to L.A. This is what I'm doing.
Martine Syms: I’m just going on drives with people in LA.
Abbi: I'll do it… I’m inviting myself.
Martine Syms: I'm aware there's a show called Car Talk though, because people keep being like, you know, there's a Car Talk.
Abbi: Wait, what is Car Talk?
Martine Syms: It’s a show with Click and Clack where they talk about cars, it’s a public radio show.
Abbi: Oh, I don't know what that is.
Martine Syms: It’s a classic. Classic NPR.
Abbi: You're naming yours, Car Talk LA?
Martine Syms: Yeah. (laughs) It’s totally different though.
Abbi: It’s so close in title.
Martine Syms: You know, it's fine, it's like a smaller radio station.
Abbi: You should do it with a k.
Martine Syms: That's what I was thinking!
Abbi: Kar Talk. Yeah.
Ok ok ok, back to Howardena Pindell and the video at hand.
Abbi: So in school did you study video?
Martine Syms: Yeah I was a real film nerd.
Abbi: And you're still going to school for film.
Martine Syms: I’m still going Jesus Christ...
Abbi: I don't understand how why you need to do that. But I really admire it. (laughs) Um, I wonder was Pindell part of...
Martine Syms: No.
Martine Syms: And that’s something I always think a lot about is throughout all of this film education, me finding, like especially women of color making video art was very much self-directed. Still very like a lot of white men doing things...
Abbi: Yes. In most areas.
Martine Syms: Yeah.
Abbi: Of… yeah. Um. Does your work relate to her work?
Martine Syms: In a way a lot of earlier works of mine were thinking about this kind of direct address, which is something I still use though I'm trying to be less in my own work, as more resource...
Abbi: Right, the direct address even if you’re using someone else.
Martine Syms: Yeah, but as a technique of like having the viewer sort of participate in that conversation, um, as well as using sort of autobiography.
Abbi: You have an exhibit up at MoMA. This is crazy.
Martine Syms: That I have a show at MoMA it’s crazy.
Abbi: It's just wild in that... one, most of the artists that I go to see in museums are not...alive anymore. And you're only 29. That's fuckin dope, dude!
Martine Syms: Thank you.
Abbi: That's huge.
Martine Syms: Yeah, it’s just really hitting me…
Abbi: Have you felt the gravity yet?
Martine Syms: No.
Abbi: It’s hitting you right now?
TOGETHER: Ahhh! (laughs)
Her show is called “Projects 106: Martine Syms.” You walk in and the walls are an amazing shade of purple. It’s sort of an homage to the book and the movie “The Color Purple.” There are also images that look like movie posters up on the walls, and if you download this app she that created -- when you hold it up to the posters, you see layers of text messages and gifs and memes over that image. Which is kind of wild. And in the middle of the room are three screens with videos...
[MUSIC FROM PROJECTS 106: MARTINE SYMS] There are ugly words….
Martine Syms: There's like three characters. One is named Girl the way you would like talk to your friend like, girl. Oh my God. Like that’s her name. (laughs) And then the second character is named Queen White and she’s sort of like a motivational speaker and she's giving this kind of direct address like, um, monologue about carrying yourself right and walking into the room confidently and talking like this.
AMBI OF VIDEO: When you use a positive word, the corners of your lips go up go up go up go up and makes you smile….!!
Martine Syms: She's inspired by a few people one of which is like Maxine Powell who was at Motown. She was the Director of personal development which was like all the artists had to meet with her about how they are...
Abbi: Like presenting themselves?
Martine Syms: Yeah.
Martine Syms: Yeah. Like kind of what we would call like media training now a little bit. But it was like a bit more than that. Because they had to work with her a lot and it was about how they would sit and how they would stand and she worked with like, the Supremes and the Vandellas a lot like the female groups. But she's of the same generation as like my grandma and my great aunt who I grew up spending a lot of time with. And they were always very like “Martine! you can't go out dressed like that!” like this kind of like instruction…
Abbi: It was kind of like an at home version of that.
Martine Syms: Yeah exactly.
[SOUND OF FILM]: You’re going to be positive, you’re going to be positive. You are a great unique human being, you are a great unique human being, you are... a great unique human being.
Martine Syms: And then the third character is named W. B and he's like the love interest of Girl. He's like constantly mediated kind of through text message and sending videos and they're like sending videos to each other and songs and things like that. (AMBI OF VIDEOS) And I was just thinking about how you sort of control these like images of yourself in a way that previously only like a select number of people would have done. How does that affect like the way you think about yourself.
Abbi: Yeah, everyone didn’t always have a public image.
Martine Syms: Yeah.
Abbi: And now everyone does.
Martine Syms: Exactly.
Which all connects to what Howardena Pindell was doing back in 1980 when she made her video, “Free White and 21.”
Martine Syms: There's a sort of immediacy to it. It’s something she's doing in her studio. It's just her, set up the camera on a tripod...
Abbi: It almost feels like a confessional. Things that should be told.
Martine Syms: Yeah, and I think there's a… something in the way the immediacy of her presentation and the stories that she's telling that also engenders a desire to share one's own stories or kind of encounters with the institution which is kind of mostly what it’s about, is like the systematic racism within the institution every time you're encountering that structure. Or this larger structure, you're having these horrible experiences over and over again.
And Martine also told me about this really cool thing that’s happening online in response to “Free White and 21.”
Martine Syms: Like when you were looking up this video on YouTube or something, there’s like a bunch of remakes, like people making the video….
Martine Syms: Yeah like oh, wow, people are wanting to make their own version of it.
There are all of these reaction videos on Youtube.
[VIDEOS FROM YOUTUBE] VIDEO 1: In a conversation with my mom, I was asking her when the first time she realized racism exists from first grade… (OVERLAPS WITH NEXT AUDIO)
VIDEO 2: When I was 5… I remember learning really what it means to be American and white… (FADES UNDER)
There are all these reaction videos on YouTube.
Martine Syms: Whatever response that you have is like a valid reaction…
Abbi: You know I think that's a thing when people go into MoMA or museums they’re like am I getting, am I getting what they were doing?
Martine Syms: Yeah I feel like the desire to like, “get it” yeah gets in the way of people just viewing art because it's like whatever you're getting from it, is fine.
Abbi: I know.
Martine Syms: It's whatever resonates for you.
And that was A Piece of Work. Special thanks to Martine Syms, Thelma Golden, Hannibal Buress, and Thomas Lax. The show is a co-production of WNYC Studios and MoMA. I’m Abbi Jacobson.