The work of Kendell Geers was born out of the turbulent political revolution in South Africa which resulted in the replacement of apartheid with democracy. Geers is part of a new generation of young artists, both black and white, whose work fuses the experiences of this traumatic period in South Africa’s history with a strong awareness of, and engagement with, broader international cultural issues.
Geers’ development as an artist took place during the 1980s in Johannesburg, in relative isolation from the major shifts taking place in European and American art. His influences were forged first through the world of underground music, in particular British punk bands, radical bands such as Throbbing Gristle and Test Department, and the Yugoslav music group Laibach. The early, subversive phase of techno music in Detroit, which addressed the disillusioned black youth of the broken-down motor city, was also a strong influence. The emergence of this music out of urban decay, working class alienation and feelings of anger towards the system reflected Geers’ own sense of alienation as a young white South African male inside a collapsing colonial, dictatorial, apartheid regime.
After running away from home and living on the street, Geers developed his kinship with the politicized rebellion of underground bands into an interest in art. Both the title of Geers’ new video installation made during his residency at ArtPace, T.W. (Shoot), and its content, a barrage of violent commercial film clips of gunshots, have emerged out of the influences of anarchic underground music and the transgressive work of Chris Burden, Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman and Nikki St. Phalle, as well as Guy Debord’s writings on spectacle. Through reading art magazines, Geers discovered avant-garde actions such as Chris Burden’s Shoot (1971) and Nikki St. Phalle’s performative shooting pieces. For Burden, being shot was a conceptual act, in which a sculpture was created by a split-second event, while St. Phalle’s painterly shootings operated as a cathartic purging of her feelings of hatred towards her sexually abusive father.
Through observing these artworks, Geers discovered the transformative possibilities of the violent action which he had hitherto witnessed only in literal terms. Johannesburg, arguably the most violent city in the world, was ridden with racial politics, street fighting and armed gangsters modeling themselves on the anti-heroes of violent American films. But if this background created the literal source for Geers’ gunshot sequences, the transformative possibilities he saw in the act of shooting as it appeared in American art of the 1960s and 70s were those of the transgressive social statement, rather than of cathartic healing. Geers’ work is informed by a political activism, whose questioning of broad political and social assumptions, including those of capitalist democracy, has taken place within a society for whom repression, racial and social inequality, persecution and violence have been a daily reality. Consequently, Geers’ approach has a harsh directness that confounds our desire for reflective viewing.
In T.W. (Shoot), a network of video monitors, hung at various heights and angles throughout the darkened gallery, show commercial film clips of men, and occasionally women, shooting each other in a rapid staccato sequence which abruptly shifts the viewer’s attention from one part of the room to another. All the monitors play the same fifteen-minute loop at different times, creating a sequence of juxtapositions. Collaging extracts from films such as the Terminator series, Scream, Indiana Jones, Quentin Tarantino films and John Woo/Hong Kong movies, Geers uses the repeated and isolated act of shooting to transform the dramatic into a banality which drives the viewer from one image to another and, eventually, from the room. The gallery loses its contemplative role and becomes a metaphor for the media-saturated tension of the street. For Geers, video is a street medium—democratic, everyday, cheap, accessible, banal and easy to manipulate. Its use requires no special training or skill, and its origins lie firmly within popular culture. Moreover, his interest in video’s potential to create feedback, electronic white noise and sampling is rooted in his interest in underground music.
Geers’ attempt to transform the gallery into the street is influenced in part, by John Cage’s use of everyday sounds in his musical compositions and by Allan Kaprow’s writings on the blurring of the boundaries between art and everyday life. As Jeff Kelley points out, Kaprow’s arguments deal with “the changing nature of experience with the rise and proliferation of mass ‘communications’ technologies, and the corresponding ascendancy of the ‘image’ in both art and communal—or at least commercial—life.”1 Kaprow is critical of the formalism of the fragmented video image presentation in gallery spaces, seeing it as a metaphor for interactivity rather than the real experience of interactivity itself. Although Geers’ video installation follows a conventional formalist format, its self-reflexive critique of American mass culture and the banality of its attendant violence refuses interactivity altogether.
The noisy repulsion of T.W.(Shoot) recalls Bruce Nauman’s aggressive installation Get Out Of My Mind, Get Out Of This Room (1968), in which the viewer is pushed out of an enclosed space by the sound of Nauman’s voice angrily instructing them to leave the room and his mind, for which the space becomes a metaphor. But unlike Nauman’s spoken aggression, Geers’ alienation of the viewer takes place on an impersonal level, via the mass-media language of commercial television and MTV. The threat of individual invasion is replaced by the literal intrusion of contemporary media culture, in one of its most violent forms.
The contents of T.W.(Shoot), gathered from local video rental stores, arguably reflect both the film-viewing habits of the local Texan community and the broad tolerance of firearms which has traditionally characterized America, particularly states such as Texas. The power of such violent imagery to affect the nature of experience recalls Marshall McLuhan’s prescient comment that “Man is beginning to wear his brains outside his skull and his nerves outside his skin; new technology breeds new man…Man is being transformed into technology.”2 In other words, violent social behavior and the acceptability of guns are, by implication, directly connected to the repeated absorption of, and imperviousness to, the violence of American commercial film and television.
Geers’ aggressive video space is part of a history of violence and destruction in contemporary art that began with the Dadaists and Duchamp and was epitomized in the violent, usually performative, works of Yves Klein, Yoko Ono, Niki de St. Phalle, Chris Burden, Marina Abramovic, Ulay and many others, which took place in the 1960s and early 1970s. The issue that unites these early works and Geer’s saturated video space is what Maurice Berger has described as “the nexus between sexuality, repression and pain.”3 Berger argues, quoting the radical psychiatrist R.D. Laing, that in a society conditioned by violence and repression, “What we call normal…is a product of repression, denial, splitting, projection, introjection and other forms of destructive action on experience.”4 Socially-approved violence belies a suppression of sexuality, for which the macho act of shooting provides an all-too-clear metaphor. But perhaps the most disturbing quality of Geers’ autistic video space is the absence of the possibility for transformative recovery from this repressive state. If Geers’ art is closely bound to his activism, perhaps the nihilism of T.W. (Shoot) reflects, more than anything, Johannesburg’s particular stage of social and political transformation, caught somewhere between the old system of violent repression and the heavy responsibilities which accompany its new democratic freedom.
Chrissie Iles is the Curator of Film and Video at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
1. Jeff Kelley, “Introduction,” Allan Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Everyday Life, Jeff Kelley, ed., Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993, p. xiv.
2. Essential McLuhan, Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone, eds., London: Routledge, 1997.
3. Maurice Berger, “Forms of Violence: Neo-Dada Performance,” Neo-Dada: Re-defining Art 1958–1962, Susan Hapgood and Brian Wallis eds., New York: The American Federation of Arts, 1994, p. 72.
4. R.D. Laing, “The Schizophrenic Experience,” in The Politics of Experience, New York: Ballantine, 1967, p. 27; quoted in Berger, ibid., p. 80.