There is nothing new about video artists working within a documentary or faux-documentary tradition. Some of the earliest video art pieces are essentially mere video presentations of what we’d now call performance art. Others, such as the collective Ant Farm, have used documentary footage as the jumping off part for video art that is part mockumentary, part performance, and/or part social commentary. (Ant Farm’s 1975 The Eternal Frame is a fine example.) In Miami last week, World Class Boxing showed Aeronaut Mik, a Dutch artist who employs similar strategies.
Which brings me to the Spanish collective Democracia, which exhibited its most recent installation, Welfare State at Tomorrow in Seoul. (The work was also recently exhibited at the Istanbul Biennial. For more on Tomorrow, see below.) Welfare State is a four-channel video installation that chronicles the bulldozed destruction of a shanty town. In addition to showing people evicted from their shacks, it shows a group of onlookers watching the heavy machinery move in and tear down people’s homes. The ‘fans’ appear to be gleeful: They cheer, they sit on the edge of their seats, they raise stadium-style beer cups, and they seem to discuss the ongoing razing with delight.
The obvious question is: Is the scene real, or is it entirely constructed by Democracia? On its website, Democracia describes Welfare State as a “staging,” but leaves alone the question of whether part of the spectacle was staged or if the whole thing was. (There’s a pretty clear hint below, and another in the jump…) No matter, the ambiguity isn’t the most interesting part of the piece, the ‘fans’ are.
The first thing I noticed about Welfare State is the way it is installed: The screens face wooden benches on which viewers are meant to sit. Viewer seating echoes the way the ‘fans’ in the video watch the destruction from similar bleacher-style seating. The razing of the shantytown feels like a spectator sport that takes place between the ‘fans,’ who do nothing but have a good time, and us, who can do nothing but watch. The violence that they applaud from the stands is reminiscent of a bullfight, or, in American parlance, a football game.
The fans split video-time with the destruction itself, which is sudden, brutal, and incredibly loud. The message of the destruction scenes is all-too-clear: Mechanization equals progress, industrial might equals power, those with the ability to destroy the less fortunate or those who live on the margins of society may — and will — do so, the little guy gets screwed. As political theater it is extraordinarily direct, almost too much so.
That leaves the ‘fans’ to make the piece, to make the spectacle more than just a brutish socio-political cliche. They make “Welfare State” into theater, and they remind us that we’re a part of the video — even if we’re not sitting in the front row of the actual video, wearing a ‘Welfare State’ t-shirt. I found myself occasionally bored with the shots of destruction — we’ve all seen buildings get torn down. But every time the ‘fans’ were onscreen, I couldn’t look away.
Related: Introducing Tomorrow. Inhwan Oh. Xu Zhen.