The videos of Tony Cokes, who teaches at Rhode Island's Brown University and has been exhibiting for over two decades, wring a variety of moods and messages from consistent means, always using text (scrolling, crawling or flashing) and music (electronic, pop or rock) against a backdrop of appropriated or original video clips or graphics. The texts, mostly found, range from editorials to academic treatises, advertising slogans to cultural criticism.
The title of Cokes's REDCAT show, "Retro (Pop, Terror, Critique)," according to an interview printed in a handout, refers to the artist's hesitation to call the show a retrospective. The parentheticals name some of his perennial subjects.
The show included over nine hours of video in four dozen works from 1999 to the present. These were divided into "programs," which played in succession. For example, "Pop Manifestos" screened during weeks one and two, "The Evil Series" during week six. (All videos were viewable online throughout.) It was a brutal quantity. As Cokes put it to me, it's like the modern condition: you're simply never going to take it all in, and that's okay. But the result was exciting rather than enervating.
The works in "Pop Manifestos" deconstruct pop/rock music, pointing out its consumerist complicity despite its rebellious poses. In 1! (2004), text highlighting rock music's formal rigidity crawls beneath an antique military training film on how to use a film projector—the moving image, the very medium of Cokes's questioning oeuvre, placed in the regimented hands of soldiers.
Two works from the "Art Critique Series" (both 2008) set a lecture by art historian Andrew Perchuk, in white text on a black ground, to a ferocious Martinez Brothers dance track. In leeds.talk, Perchuk contests the assumption that artists provide visuals and scholars offer objective analysis, and posits publications and slide lectures as esthetic performances in their own right. Underlining Perchuk's challenge of scholarly objectivity, a vocal track slyly comments, "You can't get away with the things you say." The shorter leeds.talk.trailer examines the complicity of glossy magazines in a market-driven dumbing down: "The ‘feature article'/interview with an artist/band/filmmaker displaces criticism in favor of anecdote, and a false familiarity." Cokes nods to his own entanglement in the capitalist-entertainment complex by releasing a "trailer" for his own work.
Cleverness gives way to sadness and outrage in series like "Shrink" and "The Evil Series." In the "Shrink" videos, Manhattan vistas shot during a boat ride float across the screen. The soundtrack: the German band The Notwist's moody 1998 record "Shrink." The texts include Walter Benjamin on the inequities of capitalism, philosopher Alain Badiou on the notion of evil in post-9/11 rhetoric, and reporter Jill Nelson on New York police brutality; the city onscreen, beloved and despised, is both victim and perpetrator. Torture.Musik (2009-11), part of "The Evil Series," sets a recent article from The Nation about the military's use of music as an instrument of torture to a playlist of music so used. For a music lover like Cokes, that abuse of the art form must be one of the many painfully ironic realities of the post-9/11 world.
Photo: Tony Cokes: 1!, 2004, digital video, approx. 24 minutes; at REDCAT.