Over this past week, I have been obsessively following the developments in Ferguson, Mo., where the events following the shooting of an unarmed black teen have brought startling images of protest and even more startling images of the heavily militarized police presence — not to mention the detention of reporters doing their jobs.
All of this takes me back to an absolutely staggering work of art I saw a couple of years back. "Now he's out in public but everyone can see" was a video installation produced by Los Angeles-based Natalie Bookchin at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) in Hollywood in the spring of 2012.
It featured 18 monitors staggered around a darkened room, with cuts of video taken off video logs — vlogs — which Bookchin harvested from YouTube. The clips consisted of average Americans of all races giving their thoughts about incidents in the news involving African American men, all of whom go unnamed.
At times a single monitor would speak; at others, they would all light up and people would utter a shared phrase such as, "I'm not racist, but..."
The first time I saw the installation, I watched it four times over. (It is 16 minutes long.) Then I went back the following week and watched it again. I was so taken with it, in fact, that I called up Art in America and begged to review it. (Critic Christopher Knight wrote about it for the Los Angeles Times, praising how Bookchin "deftly avoids [the] traps" of sensationalism. You can find his review here.)
Bookchin's piece is remarkable for a number of reasons. There's the simple yet hallucinatory presentation, which makes it appear as if the walls are talking. But, more significantly, there's the content. It is a profoundly nuanced exploration of the spaces African American men are expected to occupy in our society.
Except those spaces are all over the map, with some vloggers opining at length on where black men should and shouldn't live, and others going on about the right time to "show your blackness." The piece is a stunning reflection of a society that is grappling with the notion of African American men as threats; that there might be places where they should and shouldn't be.
The fact that it went up at LACE roughly 10 days after the shooting of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida made Bookchin's work feel eerily prescient. The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. — and other unarmed black men since — gives it ever more urgency.
Yet beyond LACE's gallery installation, Bookchin's video piece has only ever been featured once in a museum — and that museum was in ... Australia.
This is a shame. "Now he's out in public..." has a lot to say about the moment in which we are living. And it is the rare piece of art about race that is not only smart, it avoids being preachy or melodramatic, allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions.
There are numerous institutions that have the space for this type of work. Certainly, there is the Museum of Contemporary Art here in Los Angeles (which currently has a lot of gallery space to fill). And in New York, it would draw the attention of the greater art media. The lobby galleries at the New Museum and the Whitney Museum would be a great place to start.
Right now, however, there is one place that should definitely be putting Bookchin on the speed dial. And that'd be the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis.