Video Mutants: Guiding light

Pub date January 23, 2008
SectionArts & CultureSectionVisual Art

>Click here to view some Kalup Linzy vids

A phone interview is a routine aspect of writing an article, but there’s a uniquely rich comedic irony to conducting a phone interview with Kalup Linzy. Since 2001, Linzy has been making soap operatic short videos in which a host of characters, most played by himself, converse by phone. In Conversations Wit De Children IV: Play Wit De Churen (2005), for example, one of Linzy’s personae, or churen, budding art star Katonya, is fired via phone by her boss — then dumped via phone by her boyfriend when he finds out she lost her job.

"I grew up watching soap operas," Linzy says when asked about the soapy underpinnings of pieces such as Da Young and Da Mess (2005), As Da Art World Might Turn (2006), and the installments of his All My Churen series. "I was raised by my grandmother, but it goes back to my great-grandmother — she used to listen to Guiding Light on the radio. When it switched over to TV she was going deaf, but somehow she would sit and watch soap operas all day long. We couldn’t turn the channel, and if we were playing and went to one of our aunt’s houses down the street, the same soap opera would be on. [The soaps] sort of inspired me to act and write. They struck that chord in me."

Whether set in the South or the Manhattan art world, Linzy’s videos dig deep, past the generic surfaces found in Springfield, Pine Valley, Genoa City, or any other fictional TV town. Cumulatively, his recurrent video presentations of phone conversations satirize social power plays — and unexpectedly create and illustrate familial and romantic bonds. Like the filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, though in a less languid manner, Linzy is capable of lacing his affection for the soaps’ dramatic pleasures with sharp referential observation: Da Young and Da Mess features a shot of Linzy’s woebegone character Taiwan that updates Édouard Manet’s Olympia, for example.

Linzy has stolen the show at a number of New York group exhibitions, and he’s represented by a gallery in Manhattan, Taxter and Spengemann. But his work and creative identity extend beyond traditional art spaces via YouTube, an official Web site, and two different MySpace accounts. Collectively, they present video excerpts, performance clips, and songs. One highlight on Linzy’s Web site is a clip of him (as Taiwan) at New York’s PS1 Contemporary Art Center performing the gospel-inflected dirge "Asshole," accompanied only by keyboard. "Asshole, asshole, asshole, why’d you do this to me?" Taiwan bellows in the chorus, his blunt question arriving with gut-busting comic impact after a melancholy and poetic intro. As the song goes on, Taiwan shifts the focus to his body, wondering, "Why did my asshole fuck it up for my soul?"

Returning to the subject of rich ironies — or in this case paradoxes — none other than Modern Painting magazine published perhaps the most incisive recent piece about new waves of video art activity. Author Michael Wang uses work by Linzy and this week’s Super Ego star Ryan Trecartin to assert that queerness is perhaps the preeminent form of postmodernism; his opening salvo suggests that the old dialectical relationship between experimental video and commercial television has effectively exploded in the Internet era. Considering this, it’s hard not to note similarities or connections between the outrageously popular — or perhaps antipopular — gay YouTube phenom Chris Crocker (see Trash, page 24) and figures such as Jonathan Caouette, Trecartin, and Linzy. Crocker’s housebound, familial acting out forms dozens of tiny sequels to Caouette’s performative diary feature Tarnation (2004). When Crocker asks "What’s your tea?" he might as well be wishing he were on a party line with a character from one of Linzy’s videos.

More evocatively, the helium-high and macho-low voices of the characters in Linzy’s videos are similar, though not of a piece, with the manic munchkin voices of the Day-Glo "streaming creatures" (to use the Jack Smith–inspired title of Wang’s article) who cavort through videos by Trecartin; and like Trecartin’s art, though again in a more casual manner, Linzy’s has strong connections to club culture. In fact, Linzy’s currently working on a project that, framed by original and dance versions of "Asshole," translates Taiwan’s misadventures, as well as a scathingly funny cameo by Labisha, another Linzy alter ego, into songs.

"Basically, [the album] tells the story of someone sad at home who goes out to the bar and ends up getting laid by trade and wakes up the next day with a hangover," Linzy explains with a laugh. He drops hints about a couch-potato parody of Otis Redding’s "(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay," adding that whenever he tells people he’s making a video anthology for the album, they mistakenly "ask if it’s going to be like R. Kelly."

Based on tracks such as "Melody Set Me Free," with its drag-ball life-as-an-awards-show lyric, and "SweetBerry Shuffle," with its baton passes between feisty female Labisha and depressive gay boy Taiwan, Linzy’s debut album might be an American cousin of the amazing, unjustly obscure Dislocated Genius (Get Physical, 2006) by Chelonis R. Jones. There and on singles such as the fierce "Black Sabrina" (sample lyric: "Black Sabrina never pushes or shoves / She’s a foot up your ass / She then questions why you walk so funny / And utters ‘Punk bitch’ under her rum-tinted breath"), Jones embraces and expresses a multitude of voices, transcending prejudicial diagnoses of schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder. (You could also draw a line from a cover version of Klymaxx’s "Cherries in the Snow" by veteran artist Vaginal Davis — like Jones, an American expat living in Germany — to "Asshole." Or, in return, from Linzy’s videos to "Gossips," a scandalously hilarious YouTube excerpt from Davis’s most recent show, Cheap Blacky.)

Betty Davis, Dorothy Moore, and Dionne Warwick are just three of the ladies of song who’ve provided Linzy with inspiration recently. Though some of his recent video projects — especially the offhandedly brilliant black-and-white linguistic mystery The Pursuit of Gay (Happiness) — have lampooned old Hollywood, lately he’s been looking at ’80s music videos when he isn’t visualizing his music. "Back then the medium was new to [bands and video makers]," he says. "They were excited and it came across, even though some of the videos are cheesy." Today Linzy represents a new wave of audio and video excitement — hold the cheese. (Johnny Ray Huston)

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