The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2019

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APR 2019 Issue

Refiguring Binaries

Installation view, Refiguring Binaries, Pioneer Works, New York, 2019. Photo: © Dan Bradica.

On View
Pioneer Works
February 22 – April 21, 2019
New York

Billed as an exhibition, Refiguring Binaries offers a looping selection of 18 screen-based works by ten non-male-identifying artists, who engage with digital technologies as old as animation and GIFs, and as new as the latest developments in virtual and augmented reality. As the title suggests, binaries—referring both to computer code and to simplistic and oppositional framework—are queered, a verb which has come to describe not only subverting categories in gender and sexuality, but also the testing of limits more generally. Drawing on language from broad, buzzy discourses on contemporary globalization and decolonization, the exhibition aims to establish how new media practices subvert the hegemonic American, white, and male-dominant narrative of Silicon Valley today.

Some of the works were originally intended as multi-channel installations, but in Refiguring Binaries, they're all screened in a modestly sized room whereby viewers are planted in front of one projection at a time. This 65-minute film rotation tests one's shortened attention span. Oddly enough, such a linear experience mimics the behavior of watching television in the mid-to-late 20th century prior to the advent of consumer video-recording devices and on-demand programming. As such, the exhibition is accidentally anachronistic, preventing viewers from crafting a personal viewing narrative.

The single-channel works intended to be displayed as such are the most successful. Meriem Bennani's mock reality series, Fardous Funjab (2015-2016), conflates absurd hijab designs and Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Bennani's ridiculous creations make a weird world weirder: hijab "extra hair," which features multiple levels of hair that rise like a tower when a character presses buttons on a remote control, and a tennis "funjab," which collects tennis balls in a basket on top of the head, are two examples. Such hilarity appeals as a farcical display of cultural diplomacy in a time when reality is much stranger and markedly less funny than fiction.

Lu Yang's frenetic Electromagnetic Brainology (2017) also functions successfully as a stand-alone work, despite its original five-channel iteration. The video presents the artist's avatar as genderless and sexless, and masterfully merges past and future in an imagining of Hindu and Buddhist elements—earth, water, fire, and air—as futuristic deities. Styled as superheroes, each god is introduced as a video-game character whose job is to extinguish the pain of human suffering, all accompanied by an ear-candy soundtrack by J-Pop producers Invisible Manners.On my visit, two small children stood mesmerized by Yang's confections and had to be pulled away by their parents twice, a testament to the addictive nature of the screen, no matter what the size or content.

Interspersed between the longer works, Faith Holland's 15-second GIFs, Visual Orgasms (2013–2015), play the role of refresher, their sexual undertones performing as noncommercial ad breaks for the brain. In this sense, they bring video back to a singular idea—soothing waterfalls, champagne corks or popcorn popping, fireworks exploding—and function as simple movements, their wholly enjoyable motions strangely antiquated in our times of excess.

Other works, however, fared less well in their pared-down states from multidimensional to single-channel video. Moreshin Allahyari's She Who Sees the Unknown: Huma (2016) seems stripped of its original power when presented without its literally (re)figured counterparts: models of Middle Eastern female goddesses, jinns, and monsters that examine modes of oppression in contemporaneity. Here, literal multidimensionality flattens onto one plane, revealing the underlying challenge in transforming installation works into video by way of their screen-based components. How well do such fragmented works then function as films? The heavy curatorial hand of oversight forces ideas into a literal box—that of the screening room—limiting a viewer's further engagement with artists' larger visions. In so doing, issues of translation arise, preventing works from being seen in their truest, most critical form.

Although the exhibition's participating artists read, in part, like a list of United Nations delegates, the accompanying literature avoids any mention of how the exhibited works handle ideas of race and religion. Instead, the cursory exhibition text offhandedly offers up new media practices as a cure to the existing problems of the world. What the show fails to do is to specifically name how the context for such practices can expand beyond a U.S. centric perspective, and critically examine globalizing culture in relation to rapidly developing technologies. Without this, it may well be renamed "Non-male and QIPOC artists make new media art." Rather, how might the exhibition artists and works subvert Silicon Valley's narrative grip and realign with technological innovation in Asia, for instance? Despite its claims, perhaps all this is too far beyond the purview of a screening that surveys the works of so many heterogeneous practices. It might even call for an exhibition.


Charlene K. Lau

Charlene K. Lau is an art historian, critic, and curator who has held fellowships at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, Parsons School of Design, The New School and Performa Biennial. Her writing has been published in Artforum,, the Brooklyn Rail, Canadian Art, Frieze, Fashion Theory and Journal of Curatorial Studies, among others.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2019

All Issues