The place is a dark basement. The air is thick, there is a strong odor and dust floats about the stuffy room, intensifying the sensation that we’re in the underground of something. Tony Cokes’s works at the 10th Berlin Biennale are displayed in the basement of the ZK/U on several tube TVs, strategically positioned in the corners of the room, as well as on a projection screen in the center where a selection of two videos (Black Celebration, 1988, and Mikrohaus, or the black atlantic?, 2006-08) plays on loop. This setup increases the noise between the videos and produces a strong web of overlapping senses. Lights that interfere with each other, colors and texts that, surrounded by the atmosphere presented by the installation (entirely put forth by the curators), cry out for a process of interpretation in which understanding is not so much the focus as is being affected. If these works assert a position deeply involved in the production of theoretical knowledge, they also create a consistent epistemic and performative jolt to our conception of what a text is, and what it means to read theory.
Cokes is Professor of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University (Providence, RI, USA), and moves through various contemporary art production circuits with his audiovisual work. His work dovetails an unusual archive, comprised of cultural studies, pop music and historical images, and questions, by critically repositioning the elements of this archive, the ways in which media devices engender the representational field from which both forms of power and struggles for liberation against power organize themselves. The strong presence of text as a subject matter in his films, though it may be considered as simply hyper-valuing words as a tool of deconstruction, seems to be much more indicative of an attempt to decentralize the image in the establishment of the post-modern representational regime, or at least upend its effects, dismantling the continuity between image and truth and, ultimately, free the imagination from its captivity in contemporary visual culture.
Of the works included in this Biennial, Evil.27: Selma (2011) is the one that perhaps best addresses the limits of visibility and the power of collective processes not exclusively mediated by images. In discussing the under-documentation of the actions by Rosa Parks that led to the Montgomery (AL, USA) bus boycott against racial segregation in the 1950s, Cokes is not interested in discussing the invisibility of black social performance, but precisely the importance, “as a structuring event of the boycott”, that these actions brought about as “non-visible mythical material” rather than “evidence”. What happens instead is that, in escaping the system of visual verification defined by the grammar of media, which tends to organize what we see as reality, Parks’s act of refusal engendered a process of political imagination that cannot be confined to an iconic image, and for that reason is capable of proliferating beyond the limits established by the representational field of the time, so that “those who created the boycott would have perceived themselves as continually surprised by what they were provoking”.