Inspired by our current Cindy Sherman retrospective, the My Fake ID course for teens has centered around the development of constructed personas. Led by teaching artist Rebecca Goyette, and centered around in-depth discussions of Sherman’s work, as well a multitude of other artists who explore issues surrounding self image, the class formed fake identities that ranged from the very realistic to the fantastical. Here, Rebecca discusses the over-arching experience that the teens have had over the past 10 weeks.
—Calder Zwicky, Associate Educator of Teen and Community Programs
In order to begin to create fake personas, the class was asked to think of their own shadow—their polar opposite in ideology, and perhaps in gender/age/ethnicity. How would this opposite version of themselves answer certain personal questions? What actions would he/she take if no speaking was involved? With these questions in mind, each teen created an interactive performance to put these ideas into motion.
One student created a performance in which two women looked into a double-sided mirror and were asked to say everything that they hated about themselves. Because they were sharing a mirror and looking towards each other, their lists of bad qualities started to contaminate one another’s. They traded off between repeating each other’s thoughts and giving each other turns at speaking. This purge of negativity seemed somehow redemptive; we could all relate to their self-loathing statements, which brought the private into public view. It made us all laugh in recognition of the truth and the absurdity of our hidden selves.
We then sought out ways to expand on the desire to create fictitious characters that could somehow say things that we would not normally say. Costumes—woven out of bits of trash and coveted objects—were designed, hand-sewn, and assembled. Makeup was slathered on faces, wigs were used to cover heads, genders were bent, and some teens time-traveled to other eras.
One teen described her character as representing emotions she was not proud of, but were truthful. When another member of her basketball team died, she admitted to us that she didn’t feel sad. She hadn’t known the girl, so she couldn’t connect to the feeling of mourning, even though she knew it was tragic for someone to die so young. This feeling felt shameful to her, so she decided to design a tribute to the young woman and to give voice to her own disconnect with the tragedy.
A very bold hybrid was created when one student painted her face white like a Kabuki actor and then added a “Snooki” wig and a pink-and-white robe she had made. She had her picture taken in the bathroom, looking rebellious after having pulled all the toilet paper off of a roll. While we were working on the shoot, an older woman stepped into the bathroom and exclaimed, “Wow! This is a little shocking for me, a woman from the suburbs.”
The explosion of colorful textures and exciting materials used was a palpable force that sometimes trumped our original messages, and we had to ask ourselves if that was such a bad thing. We were having fun, lost in a new, imagined world that we tried to capture in our bustling photo studio. One student found a red, skin-tight bodysuit that covered him from head to toe. This obscured his individual identity entirely, forcing him to express himself entirely through gesture and movement.
Then Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, a renowned young playwright, came to talk to the teens about his work and the function of humor in art and pop culture. In his work, Jacobs-Jenkins deals with racial identity politics by incorporating blackface as a historical reference and a contemporary polemic. He appropriates the minstrel show-styled makeup, as historically used by actors and musicians like Al Jolsen, to let an air of discomfort arise, yet often giving way to fruitful contemplation and discussions.
Within the context of his work, Jacobs-Jenkins presented the class with a variety of YouTube videos including some classic Dave Chappelle skits, and the cult-followed trio “Sh** Girls Say,” “Sh** Black Girls Say,” and “Sh** White Girls Say to Black Girls.”
We examined these works within the framework of a simple question: “Do you think it’s funny?” Everyone chimed in with very strong opinions. It was found unanimously funny when a guy played a woman and spouted off stereotypical (and often shockingly true) things that girls say. However, the most troubling of the three videos for the group was “Sh** White Girls Say to Black Girls,” which featured a black woman in a blond wig playing both a black and a white woman. This skit seemed particularly derogatory to the majority of the class. It seemed that, for the diverse teens in our course, crossing racial lines was far more taboo than crossing gender lines in the name of humor.
We then investigated the work of Ryan Trecartin, who uses alienated characters with faces that are often painted bright colors to add to their already overpowering sense of otherness. The mood set by these works was not as polarizing as the others we had seen that day.
Trecartin’s artworks created the perfect entry point into our next activity: everyone in the room was required to paint his or her face, and then perform a quick action or explain why they chose the color(s) that they did. More personal risks were taken, and imagined personalities seemed to hit a little closer to the bone. This time it was hard to wipe off the greasy paint and slip back into reality.
I realized that, in all of the excitement of the course, our question had shifted from “Who can I be next?” to “How can this persona I have become mean something?”
Final student work can be seen in MoMA’s In the Making Teen Art Show, on view in the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Building through May 25. Applications for Summer 2012’s In the Making courses are now available.