Andrew Uroskie – Group 3
A Discussion on Andrew Uroskie’s Presentation on Selma Last Year
Robert: Initial reactions to Andrew Uroskie’s presentation on Selma Last Year were varied. Heading into this presentation, I had many questions: why is there going to be a presentation on something that was neglected by the art community and ultimately forgotten? How am I supposed to understand this complex and emotionally exhausting exhibit by listening to someone describe it?
Alanna: It was difficult to obtain any background knowledge on the subject of Selma Last Year as there was such a lack of published information about the installation. When entering the lecture, the group knew little about what Uroskie was going to say and discuss.
Asma: Well, given the unique nature of the exhibit, the subject matter and the timing of when Selma Last Year was created, it’s understandable as to why there isn’t much information available, especially back then and even now. Viewers had no clue with what was going on or what they were experiencing, and art critics had no language or frame of reference they could use to understand how the work was operating on viewers.
Stefan: Ken Dewey, the artist behind Selma Last Year, stated, “Hollywood has created [the] contexts in which its films are seen.” With Selma he wanted to challenge the way film as a medium was viewed. He wanted to react against the placelessness of more traditional forms of cinema, which could be distributed and exhibited virtually anywhere, by creating an affective environment that could only exist in a specific time and place. Selma Last Year was itself an entirely fleeting, constantly changing work of art; the images and sound, which played on a loop, were two different lengths, meaning that every time the piece cycled it was a slightly different work of art that couldn’t be experienced twice.
Alanna: A big question is why Selma Last Year failed to be remembered? The New York Film Festival was trying to portray a different idea to America — that cinema was worthy of respect as art and not just as entertainment. The film festival was trying to legitimize cinema as a serious art form in the mid 20th century (specifically the 1940s through the 1950s). Taking a cue from the noted art critic Clement Greenberg, some filmmakers thought that only way any medium could establish itself was through specificity — what is specific to the cinema, and how cinema can be an art by expressing its own essence.
One reason why Selma Last Year failed to be remembered was due to the range of things going on in the installation. As modern spectators today we would think the integration of audio, projected photos, film and video is interesting but not abnormal and unseen. However, during the time that Selma Last Year was showing, art critics who saw Selma did not understand what it was doing or what it was trying to do. Selma Last Year looked strange, and there was no way of describing it. For this reason it was called a multi-media production.
Robert: In continuation with what Alanna stated, Uroskie calls the exhibit “one of the most formally and conceptually revolutionary works of its time.” This certainly wouldn’t be the first time that something “revolutionary” was disregarded by its contemporaries.
What role does expanded cinema have in the 21st century? How would someone notice the slight movements of the actors in Dewey’s exhibit, as an hour-long film played above him, and a cell phone buzzed and vibrated in his pocket? Does expanded cinema serve a break from the all of the distractions we have going on in the world around us?
Cristina: I think expanded cinema still has a potential to cause a reaction if it makes use of technology available now that we didn’t have before. To me, expanded cinema now is more of a term that defines when a story moves beyond the confines of the visual and auditory. Unlike an installation that seeks to create an expanded environment isolated to a confined space, using today’s mobile environment means taking it away from the confines of a room. It reminds me of what Caitlin Burns touched upon in her lecture. Expanded cinema now has more to do with creating a world in which the viewer can be immersed by using many portals.
Robert: Uroskie stated that emotional necessity is something that we are unable to communicate. I was drawn immediately to this theme because I feel that there is an affective disconnect when talking about important events and modern forms of media. Events will often dissolve from our memory as quickly as those memories are formed. The use of expanded cinema was meant to bridge the gap between the viewer and film. Expanded cinema challenges the spectator and dares him or her to become the subject. Dewey’s goal was to immerse the viewer in the exhibit, and the techniques he employed seemed to be effective. There was one instance where Dewey had staged live actors to stand still while an hour-long film was projected above them. During the film’s duration, the actors would make slight adjustments. This juxtaposition of movement and stasis was meant to encourage the viewer to notice smaller movements and further immerse themselves into the issues being discussed and displayed in front of them.
Stefan: Consider the section of Selma Last Year where a video camera recorded audience members watching documentary footage of the violence committed against protesters at the Selma march. Professor Uroskie sees this part of the exhibit as a way for the viewers to see themselves in relation to the other: “The video monitor was not a simple mirror: his viewers did not see themselves seeing themselves. Rather, they saw themselves from outside, as another might see them” (p. 229). This creates an effective bridge between self and other; the viewers watch the violence of racism and then watch themselves being affected by the images of that violence. This double-looking creates a sense of involvement with the work of art and the event that work of art represents.
Asma: Expanded cinema’s narrative style is not as limited as that for traditional film. Given the subject matter, the language traditional film is embedded in makes it difficult for the story about the other to be told without gimmicky stereotypes and cliche storylines. Dewey knew in order for viewers to really comprehend the violence of racism against African-Americans in the United States, this story needed to be experienced outside the traditional film space of a movie theater. Viewers are forced to be challenged and uncomfortable through the awareness of their physical presence and participation in the exhibit and how the violence of racism within the United States affects all of us.
Expanded cinema relies on technological advances that make it possible for artists to explore ideas and topics with very few rules or form compared to traditional film narratives. Cristina mentioned earlier how Caitlin Burns in her lecture discussed how films today are relying on expanded cinema to gain bigger audiences and diversify the cinematic experience using interactive video games, internet games, scavenger hunts, etc. Films are now extending the cinematic experience outside of the theater to engage with viewers to connect and immerse them into the story. We are in a world where we are constantly bombarded with moving images, whether it be commercials, our cell phones, the subway, etc. Films need something more to excite viewers, so creating that extended experience and bringing the filmic experience outside the confines of a movie theater is what expanded cinema is providing spectators.
Stefan: One of the things that stand out to me about Selma Last Year and other expanded cinema and site-specific art is the lack of access a potential audience has to it. Traditional forms of cinema can be duplicated and screened across many different platforms. It seems a little problematic to me because expanded cinema and site-specific art are traditionally made for and seen by a privileged audience because they tend to exist in high art institutions that are usually located in large metropolitan cities. However, I also feel that the most important aspect of site-specific art is that it requires the viewer to be present in an affective situation, which doesn’t exist anywhere else. Site-specific art creates an affective experience that is felt by the body at the site where the work of art exists. This creates a way for viewers to attach themselves to the work of art and the issues that it deals with. Selma Last Year does an incredible job at of capturing the events of Selma because it creates a fleeting experience that can’t be captured or recreated outside of the time and place that it occurred.
Asma: But isn’t that the case with high art, institutions and privilege? The exhibit deals with the “other” in a displaced location for the viewer, which leads to the issue of access and information for marginalized groups. Initially, the exhibit was shown at a church in Hyde Park, Chicago, which is a predominantly black community. This is pretty important to note given where the marches took place and the location where Dewey chooses to first show the exhibit: in a Hyde Park, Chicago, church and what it means. By contrast, the violence blacks experienced in the south and the discrimination the blacks experienced in the north were on two different playing fields. The great migration during the 1920’s to the 1960’s relocated millions of blacks from the south to the north and the west. The primary motivations for blacks migrating away from the south were fueled by the combination of economic opportunities and to escape the oppressive conditions of the south. Northern blacks may have had an idea of racism and what southern blacks experienced, but not the full severity of southern racism, which encompassed the Jim Crow laws, bigotry and lynching. We still hear stories about how northern blacks would travel to the south during Jim Crow and were mortified of the violence their southern brothers and sisters were facing. W.E.B Dubois often mentioned his first encounters with southern racism when he left the north to teach at Atlanta University.
Also when talking about the civil rights movement, the role of religion as bedrock within the black community is extremely crucial to understand. The black church throughout history has served as site for more than just spiritual worship, but also as a place for political and economical leadership and strong community organizations. The significance of Christianity within the black community dates back to slavery and was used as a way for blacks to rebel against the absurd notion of slavery as morally acceptable as they had been told to believe by southern white slave owners, to present blacks as full humans and to provide spiritual strength. After the civil war and during reconstruction, the church served as the headquarters for developmental activities that promoted cooperative economic, political and educational advancements organizing institutions such as schools, banks, insurance companies and other social service organizations. We can’t mention the civil rights without talking about Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. or even Malcolm X (the nation of Islam’s doctrine is built on providing independent social, economical and political support for black communities), their participation within the movement and how the black church was at the forefront promoting equality. Dewey had to have known and understood this, and when we ask the question of representation, intentionality and who can tell the other’s story, we must take into account how the other will react to the art work. I wonder if on some level he was asking for support or even permission by showing the exhibit in Chicago first.
Robert: Selma Last Year does do a great job of documenting the events. In Uroskie’s book, he mentions that photojournalism was imperative to the Civil Right’s Campaign (p.209). He mentioned in the lecture that one reason people did not accept this exhibit was because they were too oversaturated with images from the event that took place one year prior to its showing. But who were the people that had access to private televisions at the time? Who are the people stating that they were oversaturated by images from Selma? Why was the exhibit only featured for a few days at more accessible sites in Chicago before moving on to museums in major cities?
Alanna: If Selma last year had been kept in Chicago for an extended period of time, I feel that it would have had a bigger impact within the art world. The fact that it was only accessible for a few days is not giving it enough time to claim the audience and hype that was needed. Despite moving to New York, the capital for upcoming artwork and artists, the audience it needed was in Chicago. There the audience would have a stronger connection with the racism and violence that took place, leaving a bigger impact.
Asma: Authorship is important because it leads to the question of why the author chose to explore this particular theme or idea? An artist has a signature style and needs to be able to articulate at some point what the work is attempting to accomplish and understand where and how intentionality can shape the work. I understand authorship is tricky because it’s a collaborative effort, and filmmaking depends on a group of individuals helping to create the work. But still there is a group consensus on what the work is exploring, and usually it started with the auteur (maybe not all the time but usually) — in this case, Ken Dewey. Selma Last Year is important when talking about intentionality, especially due to its sensitive subject matter. Ken Dewey, as a white man, creates an installation about the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march on behalf of equal voting rights for minorities, specifically blacks. His privileged position within society affords him the ability to create an installation about the “other” and have it exhibited at the New York Film festival the following year. We must acknowledge the location of where the installation was exhibited (in New York and in an art gallery) and where the location of the work was created (Selma, AL).
Cristina: I agree that authorship is an important aspect of art in general. That Ken Dewey was not a black man in Selma means that while he could empathize with the obvious aspects of the problem, there is a point of view that he would have missed. For example, I think that who he thought should see Selma Last Year was different from who the groups in Selma might have chosen. Like Alanna said, had it stayed in Chicago for longer it would have made a bigger impact. In Chicago it would have not only reached a white audience but also a large African American audience. It might seem like it’s better for a privileged audience to see it because of their place making it easier for them to “help.” But by creating a stronger bond with those in the actual community it means a larger front and more people who can talk of the different issues present and move beyond a superficial and rather disconnected view of the problems brought to light in the installation.
Asma: Academic critics tends to be elitist when critiquing new avant garde art work. It is only later in hindsight that we see the art community either accepted and appropriated the art work or disregarded it. Without a language to understand what the community is seeing or in this case experiencing, exhibits such as Selma Last Year are not given the proper respect they deserve in their present day. Questioning the legitimacy of art and what is constituted as art only blinds us from allowing artists to create spaces where aesthetically radical works can exist, and, in the process, to potentially reframe the traditional modes of aesthetic production within media.
Cristina: I agree. If the modern mobile technologies are really used it would be possible to go where Selma Last Year went. And it could be possible to go even beyond, instead of creating an even more immersive environment. That art now can transcend the gallery space itself is something that should be embraced. One of the main issues we keep bringing up is how the limited exposure it had was an issue in Selma Last Year being remembered. Moving beyond that space, not just immersing the viewer but the art itself immersing itself into the world beyond the gallery makes it reach much farther. And a wider audience should be the end of a work like Selma Last Year. After all, it wants to call attention to an issue that needs to be brought up. A small select group of people seeing it doesn’t do the impact that the artist, in this case Dewey, might want.