Critical art reviews of Detroit galleries and museums weekly

Category: Video Page 1 of 5

Jefferson Pinder: Weapons and White Music @ Wayne State University

JeffersonPinder: Weapons & White Music – Colored Entranced, 2017  Neon on painted tin

In a lecture given a few years ago, Jefferson Pinder opened by speaking about two luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance: sociologist W.E.B. DuBois, who believed the only worthwhile art a Black artist could make was propaganda that advanced the cause of social justice, and philosopher Alain Locke, who believed Black artists needed the freedom to, as Locke’s biographer Jeffrey C. Stewart puts it, “produce a black subjectivity that could become the agent of a cultural and social revolution.” Weapons and White Music, a compact anthology of Pinder’s art from the last decade or so, on view at Wayne State University’s Elaine Jacob Gallery now through April 27, showcases a body of work that balances aesthetics and activism. It addresses issues of race not with unequivocal slogans but in an audiovisual language that prompts contemplation, investigation, and soul-searching. There are no handy wall labels here to coach the visitor, so inevitably, the nature of that contemplation will vary from one person to the next.

JeffersonPinder,  Bent Spear (after John Brown), 2024  Iron, steel, ash wood, and Head of a Man, 2015  Human skull, 24-carat gold-plated teeth, frosted plastic base.

Those averse to violence on principle, for example, might be discomfited by an exhibition that features spears, billy clubs, and Molotov cocktails (never mind that the collection of armor, swords, and firearms in the Great Hall of the nearby Detroit Institute of Arts is one of the museum’s most popular attractions). Some context might help; Bent Spear (after John Brown), a piece comprising a volley of pikes displayed across one wall of the Jacob gallery’s first floor, references weapons once commissioned by the titular white abolitionist, who intended to supply them to freed Black men for use in the uprising he hoped to provoke. The spears here are arrayed behind a vitrine containing Head of a Man — a human skull with teeth plated in gold. Drawings of a similar skull are superimposed over photos of Black Panther leader Huey Newton in a series of nearby screen prints.

The musical part of the exhibition’s title also appears on the gallery’s first floor. Facing the entrance are five monitors playing a 50-minute loop of videos featuring Black “singers” lip-syncing to a series of songs by white pop-rock bands. Some of the performers onscreen are expressive, some are deadpan, and each takes a different part of the harmonies. Entitled Revival, the piece is described on the artist’s website as a “virtual choir” that “reverses a longstanding tradition of mainstream cultural appropriation.” Some of the songs featured are more mainstream than others, but many share themes of violence that “hit different,” as the kids say, when apparently voiced by Black performers. Consider Born Under Punches by Talking Heads, with its haunted refrain, “all I want is to breathe,” that can’t help evoking Eric Garner’s dying words. (Pinder had incorporated the song into the piece before Garner’s killing.) Also featured are Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, about an imprisoned youth facing execution; The Flaming Lips’ The W.A.N.D. — short for “The Will Always Negates Defeat” — which boasts, “I’ve got a tricked-out magic stick that will make them all fall / We’ve got the power now, motherfuckers, that’s where it belongs”; even The Smiths’ Girlfriend In A Coma is included. It’s hard to know what someone unfamiliar with these songs will make of the piece, but for those who know, Revival will cast the music in a different light.

The curving stairway to the gallery’s second floor is cleverly incorporated into the exhibit itself.  Toward the bottom of the stairs is a weathered neon sign with a red arrow, that might be from a historical museum’s display about the days of Jim Crow, except that a “d” has been added to turn the phrase “colored entrance” into “colored entranced,” with connotations both of wonder and bewitchment. Hovering above the top of the stairs, where the visitor must pass under it to proceed, is Gauntlet, a menacing cloud of charred billy clubs that threatens to rain harm onto anyone below.

Jefferson Pinder: Fire Next Time, 2021 Glass bottles, graphite, fabric, matches, and catalyst.

At the top of the stairs is Fire Next Time, a set of four shelves of varying widths arranged in an inverted pyramid, upon which are displayed 25 Molotov cocktails — improvised incendiaries made from bottles, rags, and gasoline, associated with what’s sometimes called irregular warfare. They appear both grubbily utilitarian and oddly compelling in the way weapons often are. Up close, they’re revealed to be adorned with wire, duct tape, packed mud, BBs, matches, hair, shards of glass, and other materials. The presentation is formal, its ascending shape suggesting escalating conflict or the rising flames themselves.

Projected onto a wall on the other side of the gallery is a new work, a video installation called Greatest Hits (violent pun likely intended); it’s a montage of scenes from movies and television programs in which white actors utter the N-word. The films range from earnest dramas (Roots; Do The Right Thing; In The Heat of the Night) and cop flicks (Dirty Harry; The French Connection; Starsky & Hutch) to satire (Blazing Saddles; a notorious Saturday Night Live sketch featuring Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor), broad comedy (Bad News Bears; The Jerk), and more, including the works of Quentin Tarantino, without which no such compilation would be complete. The montage closes with two musical performances: punk godmother Patti Smith belting her 1978 song “Rock & Roll N—,” adding herself to a long line of white artists who have tried to liken themselves to marginalized minorities in an attempt to set themselves apart from mainstream society; and a 1972 episode of The Dick Cavett Show, in which John Lennon and Yoko Ono remark on the abuse of women across the racial spectrum with their song “Woman is the N— of the World.”

JeffersonPinder: Weapons & White Music Greatest Hits, 2024  HD video (runtime: 23 minutes)

The creators of these films would presumably have justifications for their use of the offensive term, even if it was only for verisimilitude. For viewers familiar with these films, the contexts in which the slur is used will be understood, though not everyone will accept the justifications for its use from one film to the next, or at all. To anyone unfamiliar with them, the piece may not be much more than a litany of hate speech being ejected from anonymous white mouths. Throughout, though, there are intriguing juxtapositions within the montage, such as a scene from the Civil War drama Glory mashed up against one from Kubrick’s Vietnam picture Full Metal Jacket, drawing a line between the two conflicts. A theme emerges of white anti-heroes excusing their racism with the claim that they hate everybody equally. And while it’s unclear how Beastie Boys’ song “Sure Shot” relates to the scenes from The Jerk and Roots over which it’s played, putting The Moody Blues’ “Nights In White Satin” over a clip featuring Ku Klux Klan “knights” from Birth Of A Nation makes for a jarring audiovisual pun.

Jefferson Pinder: Weapons and White Music on display at the Elaine L. Jacob Gallery Wayne State University through April 27, 2024.

 

DIA opens a new exhibition: Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971

Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898 -1971 features nearly 200 historical items – including photographs, film clips, costumes, props, and posters.

Installation image at the entrance to the exhibit. Image courtesy of DAR. All other images courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) opened a new exhibition, Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971, a landmark exhibition exploring the profoundly influential yet often overlooked history and impact of Blacks in American film from cinema’s infancy, as the Hollywood industry matured and the years following the Civil Rights Movement. The exhibition, originally organized by the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, will also include a new, unique film series in partnership with the Detroit Film Theatre.

“We are honored to present Regeneration, a powerful, inspiring, and important exhibition that examines the rich and often untold history of Blacks in American cinema,” said DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons. “The exhibition explores the critical roles played by pioneering Black actors, filmmakers, and advocates to shape and influence U.S. cinema and culture in the face of enduring racism and discrimination.”

Dancers Performing the Cake Walk, 1887. Gelatin Silver Print. Culver Pictures. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Photographs & Print Division. The New York Public Library.

The exhibition opens with early cinema and explores moments of progress as other forms emerged in the early 1900s despite the prevalence of racism that permeated the culture. Many Black artists appeared in blackface and played roles subservient to their skills and interests. Performers like Bert Williams and Sam Lucas found work on stage that did not represent their full humanity in the roles cast would depend on adapting to racist tropes. The exhibition includes Newsreels.  Home movies, excerpts from narrative films, documentaries, and a selection of fully restored, rarely-seen films amplify African American contributions to the history of cinema in the United States.

Excerpt from Something Good, Negro Kiss, 1898, Director Nicholas Selig, the National Library of Norway.

“This critically important presentation chronicles much of what we know on-screen but shares so much more of what happened off-screen,” said Elliot Wilhelm, DIA Curator of Film. “Our community will learn how each generation of these pioneering actors and filmmakers paved the way for the following generation to succeed and how they served as symbols and advocates for social justice in and beyond Hollywood. The museum’s beautiful Detroit Film Theatre will help further share this history with a wide-ranging film series that ties together the exhibition and Detroit’s cinema history.”

Lime Kiln Club Field Day, Excerpt for the film, Museum of Modern Art. 1913. American black-and-white silent film produced by the Biograph Company and Klaw and Erlanger.

This archival assembly of one of the oldest surviving silent-era films featuring an all-black cast was created by the Museum of Modern Art in New York after seven unedited film reels were discovered in its collection. Based on a popular collection of stories, Lime Kiln Club Field Day features Black stage performer Bert Williams, actor Abbie Mitchell, and hat designer Odessa Warren Grey; many cast members were recruited from the popular Harlem Musical Darktown Follies.

Among the artifact highlights on view, Regeneration presents home movie excerpts of legendary artists such as Josephine Baker and the Nicholas Brothers; excerpts of films featuring Louis Armstrong, Dorothy Dandridge, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, Paul Robeson, Cicely Tyson, and many others.

Installation image, Opening room to the exhibition. Detroit Institute of Arts. 2024

The famous contemporary Artist Kara Walker presents the viewer with The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven, created using cut paper and adhesive on the wall, which stretches out 35 feet long. Her well-known silhouettes recall and interpret the trauma of slavery, restating historical memory and forcing the viewers to bear witness to her world of racial oppression and suffering on pre-Civil War plantations. The curators from the Academy of Motion Pictures in the image above are, starting from the left: Doris Berger, Co-Curator of Regeneration; Jacqueline Stewart, Director and President of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures; and Rhea Combs, Co-Curator of Regeneration. The first exhibition of Regeneration opened in Los Angeles as part of its parent institute, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Image from Up From Slavery, An Autobiography, Booker T. Washington. 1901.

Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington is the 1901 autobiography of the American educator Booker T. Washington (1856–1915). The book describes his experience of working to rise up from being enslaved as a child during the Civil War to help Black people and other persecuted people of color learn helpful, marketable skills and work to pull themselves, as a race, up by the bootstraps. He reflects on the generosity of teachers and philanthropists who helped educate Black and Native Americans and describes his efforts to instill manners, breeding, health, and dignity into students. Washington explained that integrating practical subjects is partly designed to “reassure the White community of the usefulness of educating Black people.”

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Life Among the Lowly, Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852. Published by John P. Jewett and Company.

One of many artifacts in the exhibition is the famous book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an anti-slavery novel by American author Harriet Beecher Stowe, which is said to have “helped lay the groundwork for the American Civil War.”  Stowe sent a copy of the book to Charles Dickens, who wrote her in response: “I have read your book with the deepest interest and sympathy, and admire, more than I can express to you, both the generous feeling which inspired it, and the admirable power with which it is executed.” Some modern scholars criticized the novel for condescending racist descriptions of the black characters’ appearances, speech, and behavior, as well as the passive nature of Uncle Tom in accepting his fate.

Movie Poster, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, Epoch Producing Co. 1915.

The film made in 1905, The Birth of a Nation, is a landmark silent epic film directed by D.W. Griffith. Its plot, part fiction, and part history chronicles the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth and the relationship between two families in the Civil War.  The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is portrayed as a heroic force necessary to preserve American values, protect white women, and maintain white supremacy. The story that many recall is that Birth of a Nation was the first motion picture to be screened inside the White House, viewed there by President Woodrow Wilson, his family, and members of his cabinet.

Installation image, Early Movie Posters

The exhibition Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971, now at the Detroit Institute of Arts, came from Los Angeles and was organized by the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in 2022 to help people fully understand how people of color participated in the motion picture industry from the very start.

Seeing this exhibition is the perfect experience for the people of Detroit to take their family to the DIA (at no cost to those living in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb Counties) to view the chronology of events as they unfolded despite the challenges of reconstruction and the everlasting racism that permeated the culture for a century. The DIA is the first stop; in an attempt to educate people across the country with truth, facts, and evidence, this exhibition is bound to make an impression. It is critical today, more than ever, that we embrace our history. In current events across the country, there are plans to erase black history forever. At last count, 44 states have started debating whether to introduce bills that would limit what schools can teach about race, American history, gender identity, and sexual orientation.

One of the most articulate writers on this topic is James Baldwin, who writes, “It is the utmost importance that a black child sees on the screen someone who looks like him or her. Our children have suffered from the lack of identifiable images for as long as they were born. History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”

Museum Hours – Tuesdays – Thursday- 9:00am – 4:00pm
Friday – 9:00am – 9:00pm
Saturday – Sunday – 10:00am – 5:00pm

The DIA exhibition Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971 February 4 – June 23, 2024.

Lillian Schwartz: Whirlwind of Creativity @ Henry Ford Museum

When Diego Rivera came to the Detroit Institute of Arts to create the Detroit Industry murals, the communist painter formed an unlikely bond with arch-capitalist Henry Ford over their shared fascination with technology. Ford had zero interest in art, but he was an avid collector of obsolete machinery, relics of the only sort of history he respected. When Rivera heard of Ford’s collection, he had himself driven to Dearborn early one morning and stayed until well after dark, poring over the metal menagerie that would eventually become the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.

The intersection of art and technology is on display throughout the Henry Ford Museum: in Charles and Ray Eames’ playful “Mathematica” exhibit; in the quirky product designs of Michael Graves and the Apple graphical user interface created by Susan Kare; and in the array of works displayed in the Modern Glass Gallery. It’s a connection that’s further explored in Lillian Schwartz: Whirlwind of Creativity (open through March), the inaugural exhibit of Ford’s new Collections Gallery, a space that will feature some of the museum’s more ephemeral objects that seldom go on display.

World’s Fair, 1970, Kinetic sculpture and,  Proxima Centauri, 1968   Kinetic sculpture

Schwartz is a pioneer in the field of electronic art. Beginning in the late 1960s, at a time when computer-generated art was still something of an anomaly, Schwartz collaborated with numerous engineers, programmers, and fellow artists to use the emerging technologies of the day in off-label ways to create her work. The Henry Ford recently received Schwartz’s archives and is still in the process of sorting through it all, but the current exhibit of 100-plus items is an exciting distillation of her life story. It features paintings, prints and drawings, sculptures, short films, plenty of ephemera from Schwartz’s long career, and, true to form for this museum, some of the gadgets she worked with, such as film editing equipment and projectors. It’s especially fortunate that this celebration of Schwartz’s work should be mounted while she’s still with us — born in 1927, the artist is now 96 years old.

Art supplies were hard to come by when Schwartz was a child, so she made use of whatever she could get ahold of — scraps of wallpaper, salvaged bits of sidewalk chalk, even leftover bread dough for sculpting. Some of her earlier artworks, from the 1950s, are on display here. Bright and colorful, they are decidedly analog, but hint at the improvisatory ethic of her childhood, and at the boundary-jumping approach Schwartz would apply to her art throughout her life: some feature collaged elements, others are painted onto overlapping layers of repurposed thin, translucent fabric rather than canvas.

On display nearby are some of her sculptures from the 1960s. They look wonderfully retro-futuristic, like they’d be at home on the set of a classic science fiction movie. In fact, one object called Proxima Centauri, a translucent globe that rises from inside a dark pedestal and flickers with colorful light when the viewer steps on a pressure pad, was used as a prop on the original Star Trek TV series (as well as appearing in the 1968 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, The Machine As Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age). Another work, World’s Fair, a glowing box full of spiraling glass tubes that siphon up multicolored fluids, could be the circulatory system for some cybernetic organism. The tubes were trash-picked from a glass factory, and the red and green liquids coursing through them were originally cough syrup and creme de menthe!

Grandma and Grandpa, Etching,  1975

In 1968, Schwartz was invited to come to Bell Labs, the storied incubator of tech innovation, as part of an initiative to humanize computers in the eyes of the public. Technological pointillism!” she declared upon seeing an image at Bell of a reclining nude woman comprising a grid of hundreds of computer code glyphs. The nude had been printed out by a couple of Bell programmers as a joke, but Schwartz saw the real art-making potential in the technology. Hopping back and forth between the analog and digital worlds, she first drew faces onto graph paper, fed them into computers to be encoded, then made silkscreen prints of the resulting pixelated portraits.

Later, using Bell’s circuit etching equipment, Schwartz rearranged the mazes and starbursts of circuit boards to create two figures she named Grandma and Grandpa; appearing both high-tech and primordial, they suggest totems erected to ancestors yet to be born. She used the same technique to create a streamlined variation on a Marcel Duchamp masterwork; hers is called Nude Ascending a Staircase. It doesn’t function as a circuit board anymore, it’s “merely” art, an homage that the Dadaist disruptor and creator of Fountain would no doubt have appreciated.

Still from Olympiad, 1971, Film transferred to video.

In the center of the exhibit is a small black-box theater showing a number of short animated movies Schwartz made in collaboration with technicians and fellow electronic art and music innovators. Again, she melds the physical with the nascent digital technologies; one film includes abstracted images of a brain scan, while another juxtaposes matrices of growing crystals with distorted laser beams that waft around onscreen like deep sea creatures. In Olympiad, Schwartz animates digitized photos of a running man borrowed from Eadweard Muybridge’s groundbreaking motion photo series of the late 1800s (another technological advance that effected the art that came after). She later created a life-sized analog image of this pixelated athlete using a grid of black and white thumbtacks, once more swerving across the boundaries of different media.

In an era of sophisticated CGI, when video games are nearly as realistic as blockbuster movies and the “uncanny valley” gets narrower every day, it may be too easy to regard Schwartz’s films, with their chunky graphics, vivid color and bleeping soundtracks as quaint baby steps toward modern computer animation. But they deserve to be appreciated on their own merits. They are by turns whimsical, hypnotic, and disorienting, sometimes like racing at warp speed through a Color Field painting exhibit, other times like drifting into a psychedelic dreamscape in which the acid-colored eyes of swirling galaxies seem to stare back at you.

Olympiad, c. 1970,  Mixed media collage.

There’s much more to explore in this exhibit: how her bout with polio while living in post-war Japan effected Schwartz’s art, and how scar tissue in one of her eyes caused her to see “Picasso-like” visions; her pioneering TV spot for MoMA, the first computer animated advertisement to win an Emmy; her attempt to use computers to prove that Leonardo’s Mona Lisa was partially a self-portrait (a dubious theory, but an interesting use of the software). There are also her run-ins with sexism, and her sometimes awkward relationship with the suits at Bell Labs. In the mid-1980s, after many years of involvement with Bell, Schwartz was finally given a job title of sorts — resident visitor,” an appropriately sci-fi-sounding designation. She was also called a morphodynamicist,” in order to make her seem sufficiently scientific to visiting Bell shareholders. Schwartz once half-jokingly referred to herself as a pixellist.” But whatever her name badge reads, and whatever high- or low-tech media she takes up, Schwartz is an artist through and through. In the midst of current debates over how artificial intelligence will disrupt the art world, Lillian Schwartz: Whirlwind of Creativity is proof that it’s the human being  wielding the tools that will always make the difference.

Lillian Schwartz: Whirlwind of Creativity at the Henry Ford Museum on display through March 2024.

Laura Magnusson, “Blue” @ Flint Institute of Arts

Laura Magnusson, Blue, 2019

Water is a paradoxical thing, both sustaining and dangerous; it’s our origin, our literal lifeblood, yet it has a hundred ways of eroding our foundations and pulling us under. Canadian interdisciplinary artist, University of Michigan grad, and trained scuba diver Laura Magnusson considers water her collaborator: supportive, receptive, restrictive, indifferent.” Her eleven-minute silent video Blue (2019), on view at the Flint Institute of Arts through December 30, is set entirely underwater — 70 feet below the surface of the Caribbean, in fact, off the shore of the Mexican island of Cozumel. Down there, the horizon disappears into an azure haze that hangs over the cyan-tinted sand of the nearly featureless sea floor. It’s an abstract environment, an open stage for a performance that Magnusson describes as a voyage through the afterlife of sexual violence” and “the impact statement (she) was never permitted to give before a court of law.”

The video opens on Magnusson crouched on the seabed, wearing a winter parka with a fur-trimmed hood and matching snow boots that seem less incongruous than one might imagine in this alien environment. Magnusson begins to trudge through the course sand, leaning into the water’s resistance, carrying in one hand the large tank that’s providing her with air, and in the other a model of a corrugated metal building complete with pine trees and a porch. In the doorway stands a figure in black underwear, a miniature version of the artist.

Laura Magnusson, Blue, 2019

First, Magnusson tries to bury the model building (which looks to be broken, a corner or fragment rather than a complete structure), scooping sand up over it. She makes a few attempts to leap upward toward the surface, but sinks back down each time, descending to the sea floor in slow motion. She wrestles to remove the parka before appearing half-buried in the sand, still wearing it. Eventually we see the coat fluttering free through the water like a diaphanous sea creature. Magnusson crouches again, nude now but for underpants and a diver’s weight belt, encircled by the arc of her air tube.

Magnusson alternates between standing, crouching, and self-burial until the cycle is interrupted by a shot of the artist wearing a pained expression above the scuba regulator stuck in her mouth. The hood of the parka is pulled up over her head, and she’s framed by a black void as silverfish dart around her. Crouching again, she screams silently into the sea, bubbles streaming from her mouth. In a close-up, we see her fingers attempting to pry the miniature figure of herself from out of the doorway of the model structure. It feels like a breakthrough, but it’s followed by a literal reversal: the film starts moving backward. Air retreats into Magnusson’s mouth and she retraces her steps as if pushed back by the current. In the end, the broken building remains planted in the sand, and the black void returns, minus Magnusson, with only the silvery-blue fish remaining. The video loops and begins again.

Laura Magnusson, Blue, 2019

 

Speaking in a YouTube video on Blue, Magnusson reveals some of the thinking behind the piece. The model is based on the inn in Manitoba where Magnusson was assaulted; its small scale allows her to better grapple with the place, though she fails to completely bury it or wrest her miniature self from its doorway. The multi-layered construction of the handmade parka, which the artist describes as clamshell-like,” was inspired by the shell of Hafrún,” a living clam discovered in Iceland in 2006 that was 507 years old — when it was killed by scientists who pried it open to determine its age. If the coat is protective, why shed it, unless it’s a hindrance as well? Why does Magnusson bury herself? Some sea creatures cloak themselves in sand as camouflage; does the artist want to protect herself, anchor herself, or disappear? Magnusson explains that her actions in Blue were not scripted, but developed during the performance and organized in the editing process. This is not a tidy, linear narrative of someone whos conquered adversity, with a satisfying resolution and a prescription for a clear path forward; its a metaphorical document of a continuing journey toward healing, one Magnusson calls circuitous,” “wandering” and, appropriately, fluid.

 

Laura Magnusson, “Blue” on display at the  Flint Institute of Arts through December, 30, 2023.

Shouldn’t You Be Working? @ MSU Broad Museum

Shouldn’t You Be Working? 100 Years of Working from Home installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2023. Photo: Vincent Morse/MSU Broad Art Museum.

In 1896, Michigan State University opened the doors to its School of Home Economics, one of the first in the nation. The school even contained a fully functional practice home where the students cooked, cleaned, and hosted events. The home was demolished in 2008, and the Broad Art Museum was erected in its place. Taking its former school of home economics as its reference point, through December 27, the Broad presents Shouldn’t You Be Working? 100 Years of Working From Home. Curated by Teresa Fankhänel, the exhibit features photography, digital media, and installation, and it explores the intersection of work and home life, focusing on how technology and artificial intelligence are shaping the future of both.

This exhibition pairs ten contemporary artists and architects with a selection of photography and ephemera, including archival photographs from the university’s former School of Home Economics. These are paired alongside iconic photographs of workers in their homes, taken by the likes of Walker Evans and Marion Post Wolcott, who, on behalf of the Farm Security Administration, famously documented the lives of the rural workers and sharecroppers who struggled to maintain their livelihoods during the Great Depression.

Records of the MSU School of Home Economics. Courtesy Michigan State University Archives & Historical Collections.

Marion Post Wolcott, A member of the Fred Wilkins family making biscuits for dinner on cornhusking day, Tallyho, near Stem, N.C., 1939. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University, purchase, funded by the Emma Grace Holmes Endowment, 2006.33.1

The visual epicenter of the exhibition space is a partial recreation (at a 1 to 1 ratio) of the Paolucci Building, the former home economics practice house that once occupied this site. This interactive structure serves to frame a selection of photography, digital art, and an installation, which explore contemporary intersections of work and home life. Inside, there’s a mock-up of a home office replete with all the trappings of a television studio; a sight which will resonate with any of us who have been on a Zoom call. It also recalls the home studios of the social media “influencers” who ironically manage to create lucrative public careers from the privacy of their homes.  This office installation, Cream Screen, by Marisa Olson, also serves to confront and dismantle the assumption that the technology to work or study remotely is accessible to everyone.

Shouldn’t You Be Working? 100 Years of Working from Home installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2023. Photo: Vincent Morse/MSU Broad Art Museum.

Shouldn’t You Be Working? 100 Years of Working from Home installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2023. Photo: Vincent Morse/MSU Broad Art Museum.

Also inside this recreation of the Paolucci Building is a selection of photography by Korean artist Won Kim. His series Living Small shows the cramped living quarters of Tokyo’s pod hotels. Unlike the city’s chic capsule hotels (more refined, but still not for the claustrophobic), these pods are little more than plywood boxes; there’s not even a door or windows. These spaces offer very low-income housing for individuals in between jobs, and are the ultimate expression of minimalist living. These images call to mind the famous photograph Five Cents a Spot taken by Jacob Riis, which shows the crammed tenement housing of some of New York City’s poorest residents.   

Won Kim, Enclosed: Living Small, 2014. Photo print © Won Kim

Several monitors screen short video works that specifically address how technology shapes our work/home balance. Theo Triantafyllidis’ Ork Haus applies a sort of dark, absurdist humor in his digital portrayal of a dysfunctional family of orks (yes, orks) at home during lockdown. All are hopelessly addicted to their screens (VR headsets, TVs, and phones). The papa ork dabbles in cryptocurrency, and his little orkling learns to code; meanwhile, the family is oblivious to real-world catastrophes that surround them, such as the out-of-control fire in their kitchen.

Theo Triantafyllidis, Ork House, 2022. Live simulation video © Theo Triantafyllidis

Merger, a video by Keiichi Matsuda, presents us with a dystopian future in which artificial intelligence has taken over all corporations. The film’s unnamed protagonist has resigned to this digital takeover, acknowledging her status as a human is obsolete, and ultimately makes the decision to transition into a digital entity.

Keiichi Matsuda, Merger, 2018. Video © Keiichi Matsuda

For better or for worse, the boundaries between work and home are shifting. And COVID certainly accelerated the process, turning our homes into workspaces, at least for those of us who were fortunate to have the means to work remotely. This exhibition doesn’t necessarily criticize the advent of new technologies in the home, though it does invite us to pause for a moment and consider what this brave new world will look like.

Shouldn’t You Be Working? is on view at the MSU Broad Art Museum through December 17, 2023.

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