Violence and necessity of context

I visited the Whitney Biennial in 2017 knowing that the exhibition consists of work that reflects racial tensions, polarized politics and economic inequities. After checking out an installation about forest and mythology my friend was monitoring, I saw from a few feet away a long table with metal bars with people in VR headsets and a long queue around. Intrigued by why visitors were queuing up for that one particular piece, I walked over.

While waiting in line, I saw multiple warning signs in effect of violence and 18 year old age limit. As someone whose background was in fine art and have never tried out any VR games then, I thought the warning signs were odd knowing that many artists have been producing work of graphic content since decades ago. When it was finally my turn, I put on my headset and headphones. It started with a blue sky and a street view. Shortly after, the scene cuts to a man kneeling on the sidewalk. Another man enters with a baseball bat and began hitting the kneeling man. Blood gushes. He continues to beat him until he was basically dead. The scene cuts back to the sky with Hebrew chant. That was the end of the piece. I took off my headset and realized I was one of the few people from the group who stayed through the whole experience. My friend who was there with me commented right after, “How did you manage to stay through the time? I took off my headset within the first 10 second!” Was I a cold blooded animal who would be a passive bystander letting violence unfold in front of my eye? Absolutely no. I couldn’t quite put my feelings in words but I thought Jordan Wolfson’s Real Violence was an abusive use of technology. It is crucial for us artists to voice about difficult topics through our praxis yet there was something about Real Violence that seemed wrong.

As I began my studies at ITP, Jordan Wolfson’s Real Violence was a reoccurring topic in several classes I attended. I was finally able to realize why I was so disturbed by his piece not because of the bloody graphics but rather the lack of context. It was a direct reaction to obsessing over the simulation power that VR possess. There was no further investigation in the context of violence as if it was equivalent to a screensaver serves purely for aesthetic pleasure. Violence is a real issue that appears in our everyday life. Wolfson’s interpretation regards violence as a meaningless subject which is insensitive and irresponsible. In fine art education, we put in a huge emphasis on our conceptual development. Our ideas don’t always speak to everyone but they are complex enough to generate a range of discourses. We create work with means. I was surprised initially by how little the ITP curriculum asks us to think before teaching us technical skills. Learning new technology surely is not easy but it is dangerous to obsess over these emerging tools that will expire anytime. Wolfson’s Real Violence is a reflection of the work ITP produces. If we continue to produce content-less work that is cool and beautiful now, we will have an empty portfolio in the future.

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