Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) hosts the first solo UK show by American artist Tony Cokes: If UR Reading This It’s 2 Late: Vol. 1. Cokes’ body of work is highly political, bringing together sound, music and texts quoting polyphony of voices such as Louis Althusser, Malcolm X, James Baldwin and David Bowie. Goldsmiths CCA is almost transformed into a big club with rooms to cater to different types of musical experience with the element of culture, politics, truth and its absence.
In the videos, hip-hop, rock, disco or pop music accompany bright solid-colour slides which constitute a background for animated text - first person testimonies, magazine articles, essays, news reports... Some of them are projected on a whole wall and some played on small TV screens. These are powerful works, reflecting some of the key moments in Western social history, with subjects varying from the torture methods in Guantanamo, mental health, race politics, gender, capitalism, US President Trump’s misogyny, to Aretha Franklin’s support for Angela Davis…
The exhibition starts with an open letter to Morrissey, whose recent support for a far-right party has left his fans in a ‘problematic’ state. The Morrissey Problem is an installation, backed with the Smiths songs. It makes you enjoy the piece with an element of guilt and almost an urge for protest. It is difficult not to feel like singing along and dancing, despite feeling a strong agreement with all points made on the video. The work reminds of other problems some of us have, such as Woody Allen or Michael Jackson problems…
The show comes at an extremely divided moment in Britain’s history. Amidst the Brexit deadlock and the second snap election in a row, the politicians’ use of language is widely criticised by being toxic and fuelling hostility across the country. Often artists, comedians and members of Parliament sit next to each other in TV studios and debate about whose responsibility in language is greater.
Cokes’ works question art, public and political discourse in a way that subverts the impact they may have in their isolated contexts, and how they overlap. He hopes that the idea of artists provoking questions - which may be a part of their historical responsibility - doesn’t dissolve into a particular political rhetoric or theatre. However, it is difficult to tell the difference nowadays. “Public statements excite controversy, then drive interest towards the work in some way. Social and political impact has begun to collapse on each other. You could even argue that politicians borrow techniques from television personalities or stand up comedy. In the US, people seem to get their political information from satire. Political discourses seem to be artificial, yet comedic approaches are not. However, this creates confusion. Some of them may be cultural people, some of them politicians; is there a difference between what they say, how they say it, the context in which their words are circulated? It is difficult to tell.”
A part of the exhibition feels like passing through dimly lit living rooms. You can sit in front of TVs that show testimonies and extracts from films, which have entered public space at different times. Such words and images go in and out of collective consciousness; words evaporate and we forget. Appearing on screens in the exhibition, they are also weirdly familiar. Not hearing the voices in a direct speech way, often you need to wait until the end of the video to find out about the owner of the words. The videos create a different type of familiarity with the material and allow a new critical reading that is stripped off from previous associations. Watching animated text of initially anonymous defence against sexual harassment allegations, really slowly creates a mental image of a man with orange hair, small hands and a long red tie, possibly living in a white house. Through often meaningless and repetitive language he tries to hide his misogyny, when talking about many talented female directors his companies have employed. Then unsurprisingly, he talks about their talent despite their gender.
There is a soothing contrast between the three floors of Goldsmiths CCA. As it gets increasingly depressing on the lower ground floor – although one could say that it is not misrepresentation of real life - works upstairs lift souls. The Queen is Dead is a moving piece on Aretha Franklin, who died in 2018. Her support to the civil rights movement, but in particular to its female figures, is emphasised by the narrative. We hear her singing Never grow old, which turns into a fascinating gospel-techno song in the hands of American producer Robert Hood. Franklin was a political figure symbolising, hope, power, and beauty, besides having one of the most amazing voices that we are fortunate to hear. This time, an artist’s political potential is exposed with many praises.
The works from 1980s to this day create a sobering archive of public reality and discourse, which makes one think about the notions of responsibility and progress. Cokes doesn’t see progress as a linear process but rather as a cycle of movements. The exhibition brings together such varied voices of people with high influence in parts of society. Perhaps, what it all comes down to is how people choose to use their power. We feel disgust, despair, inspiration, and hope all at the same time.