This past spring, the story of an unarmed black teenager being shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer in central Florida generated saturation media coverage all over the country. The death of Trayvon Martin also drew the attention of legions of video bloggers (or vloggers), who took to YouTube to share their opinions on every subplot related to the case. These informal filmed commentaries channeled varying levels of made-for-the-Internet histrionics-from a conservative white commentator pronouncing aspects of the case a hoax, to a black man dressed as a superhero asking emotionally, "What the hell is going on?"
All of this had the effect of making Natalie Bookchin's video installation at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) seem eerily prescient. (The show was up as the Martin killing made national headlines.) For Now he's out in public and everyone can see (2012), Bookchin spent approximately two years poring through hundreds of hours of vlogs related to sensational news stories about African-American men. She then distilled these into a 16-minute, 18-channel loop that was displayed on monitors staggered around a pitch-dark gallery. Monitors came on and clicked off. At times, the voice and image of a single vlogger was featured. At others, it was a cacophony of shouting. The effect was disorienting-as if the walls had sprung to life.
But it was Bookchin's masterful editing that made this more than just clever. On their own, each of these vlogs might seem comically rambling or straight-up unhinged. An older African-American man bellows, "You draw attention to yourself, black man, when you go living in an all-white neighborhood." Across the room, a young white woman casually explains, "They are physically wired in a totally different way than we are." In Bookchin's aggregate, however, the videos reveal peculiar American questions about race. Namely: What types of spaces (professional, social and geographic) are black men expected to occupy? And what constitutes authentic black identity? The piece doesn't provide definitive answers-these are as murky as the opinions of each talking head-but the concerns crop up on every side.
Bookchin, who is based in L.A., has been creating these found-video works since 2008, when she put together more than 60 minutes of YouTube driving footage to create a piece called trip. Since then, these montages have grown thornier in their subject matter (prescription medication, gay identity) and increasingly complex in their installation (the LACE piece represents the first immersive environment). But they all have a way of taking seemingly irreconcilable voices and finding the odd commonalities.
In her piece, all the people depicted seem to passionately believe that they are in sole possession of the truth. But there is an instant when almost every TV monitor in the room flutters on and each individual, in chorus, utters the same beat-up phrase: "I'm not racist, but . . ."
Even as people stand divided, their instincts can be much the same.
Photo: View of Natalie Bookchin’s Now he’s out in public and everyone can see, 2012, 18-channel video installation, 16-minute loop; at LACE.