American Artist’s Blue Life Seminar
In this exclusive two-week screening, watch the artist’s meditation on identity, state power, and implicit bias.
Jul 20, 2022
American Artist’s Blue Life Seminar screened here July 20–August 3, 2022. The video is no longer available for streaming. Join us for the next Hyundai Card Video Views screening, beginning August 24, 2022.
Since legally changing their name in 2013, an act that made them both anonymous and ubiquitous, American Artist (b. 1989) has been producing what they describe as “thought experiments.” These interdisciplinary artworks propose alternative realities that examine the implicit biases pervading contemporary culture and technology. In a body of work from 2019, the artist turned their attention the American law enforcement system. The video Blue Life Seminar, which became part of MoMA’s collection in 2021, is shown in a constructed classroom environment prepped for a fictional police-training seminar. An otherworldly “talking head,” drawn from science fiction and recent historical events, addresses a room of imagined cadets from a digital void, invoking the one-way address of television and the instant engagement of social media. This online screening extends the figure’s reach, allowing him to take over our personal devices and infiltrate our domestic spaces. Recently I spoke with American Artist via email about this character’s layered story and the many meanings of blue.
American Artist’s video 2015 (2019) is currently on view in Pervasive Light: Works from MoMA’s Media and Performance Collection, the Museum’s partnership exhibition with Hyundai Card in Seoul. Join us in August for the next edition of Hyundai Card Video Views, as the series continues its consideration of how artists engage with the technologies that have become central to our daily lives.
—Erica Papernik-Shimizu, Associate Curator, Department of Media and Performance
Erica Papernik-Shimizu: Blue Life Seminar consists of a monologue delivered by a metaphysical avatar modeled after two figures from very different worlds—Dr. Manhattan, the blue super-being from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s graphic novel Watchmen (1986–87), and Christopher Dorner, the former LAPD officer who claimed he was fired for reporting police brutality, and who later killed four people and wounded three others, including police officers and members of their families. Why have you combined these two figures and their ideas, and who is the resulting entity? What does it represent?
American Artist: I think it’s necessary to circulate stories like Dorner’s. When the police were conducting a manhunt for him, it was mentioned in the news only to encourage civilians to call in and report if they saw Dorner on the run. But as soon as he was killed, the press never really talked about it again. Most of my friends on the East Coast had never heard of him. Dorner was a Black cop before Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter were a thing. I imagine he couldn’t reconcile those identities. In the video, my character is speaking about his blue skin as something that makes him alien and abject, which is rhetoric that has been used against people with Black skin. My character is struggling with these two identities, “blue” and Black, and the tension between them. I chose to use Dr. Manhattan because of his blue skin. He was an average man but a freak lab accident left him with blue skin and different abilities. Imagine that! I thought—what would it mean for an actual blue man to appear onscreen and interrogate the police for identifying as “blue,” and for enacting a hate-crime law to protect their “blueness”? After all, that is exactly what they did. I felt that the only way to address absurdity was with absurdity.
The relationship between the two figures is tangential, but I think they’re more similar than different. Christopher Dorner was an expert marksman and Dr. Manhattan was a super-powerful being. For their military acumen both were used as weapons of the state—Dorner by the LAPD and Dr. Manhattan in the Vietnam War. Both became disillusioned with these roles. Dr. Manhattan offered to save the world, but he didn’t understand the need for so much killing. Dorner wrote that the LAPD had more racial violence internally than externally. They both reached breaking points: the difference is Dr. Manhattan retreated to Mars to be alone, while Dorner decided to hunt down the police officers that he said had betrayed him.
American Artist. I’m Blue (If I Was █████ I Would Die). 2019
American Artist. 2015 and Untitled. 2019
In recent works you have addressed the role of technology—specifically, AI-driven predictive policing software—in perpetuating patterns of racially biased law enforcement. Users can ask your Sandy Speaks (2016) chatbot, named after Sandra Bland’s video series, a series of questions about Bland, her death, American policing, and individual rights. And your video 2015 (2019), titled after the year in which the NYPD began using predictive policing software, depicts fictionalized police dashcam footage. As in these works, it’s significant that the protagonist in Blue Life Seminar is a digital fabrication. Can you speak about the tools and the process used to create him, and to what extent he was conceived as the embodiment of technologies that reinforce the very systems of injustice he is here to dismantle?
The video 2015 was a remainder of an idea I had while working on the installation I’m Blue (If I Was █████ I Would Die), in which Blue Life Seminar was originally shown. I was doing a lot of research into police negligence—I learned this great phrase, “crisis of legitimacy,” from the author Jackie Wang, who uses it to describe the police’s feeling of ineptitude in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has condemned them as racist and ineffective. One of the arguments she makes is that the police’s adoption of algorithmic systems is a method of promoting themselves as an objective institution that relies on “police science” rather than individual bias. As anyone who’s used Google will know, the problem is that the data that informs an algorithm comes from a small number of technicians and will inherently reproduce their biases. It’s the same with policing. If all the data that a predictive policing system is informed by is racist, then the algorithm will also be racist. The way it happens might be a bit more nuanced—a bias toward a zip code rather than an individual’s facial features—but the impact is similar.
I thought a lot about the role dashcam footage has played in the last decade while I was working on Sandy Speaks. It was important for me not to reproduce the violence against Black people that is often displayed ad nauseum in the news. I understand how witnessing these acts can motivate people to action, but I’m also aware of how demoralizing it is as a Black person to witness another person being killed by police. I became interested in the dashcam footage as a technical artifact; it’s usually long, mostly uneventful, and ambivalent in what it shows. The nature of the dashcam is not one of spectacle, but the way it is presented in the media can make it seem that way. In the exhibition My Blue Window at the Queens Museum in 2019–20, where the film 2015 was first shown, viewers sat in stadium bleachers to watch fragments of simulated dashcam footage taken on a single day, but it isn’t just any footage, it involves state-of-the-art predictive policing software. The film is quite ominous and uneventful. You don’t see explicit violence, but it is implied that, off screen or in the near future, something may happen.
The Dorner/Manhattan character was created with the assistance of Tommy Martinez and Matthew Mann while I was in residence at Pioneer Works. It’s a 3D model that has been mapped onto motion data recorded from a voice actor named Christopher Grant. The script combines statements in Christopher Dorner’s manifesto alongside thoughts Dr. Manhattan has as a blue person that were written by me. It is important to distinguish this from an AI. This character isn’t learning, it’s a predetermined thing. I will say that Christopher Dorner was a very proud and loyal police officer prior to being taken off the force; in that sense, I do see him as also representing the thing he was created to critique.
When it is shown as part of the installation, the video is displayed on a flat-screen monitor in a modified classroom. Spectatorship is crucial here, as well as in 2015, where visitors watch simulated police dashcam footage from stadium bleachers. Can you speak to the significance of collective spectatorship to this body of work?
The installation is meant to represent an educational environment, whether that be a classroom, conference room, or police academy. I wanted to make a point about the design of those spaces and the aesthetic they employ—one we often find in classrooms, court rooms, and municipal spaces—that conveys punitive control and authority. In this classroom, the students are police officers. Each desk has reading material that might represent the Blue Lives Matter movement. At the top of each desk is a riot shield in an upright position, to defend each seated person. The effect of this design is that it’s not possible to see what’s happening on the screen from the seated position. I see this as a defensive strategy of the seated persons towards any critical information that might be shown to them. When it was installed, viewers were located throughout the gallery: against the back wall behind the row of desks, in the seats, or between the desks and the flatscreen. In each of these positions they occupied a different role and a different relationship to the video.
In My Blue Window, I intended to put viewers in a challenging position. They watch collectively as spectators. They expect something big to happen, but most of what they see are subtle cues about what could be happening. For people victimized by police, it’s hard to watch because they have an expectation of violence, or they can see through the subtlety to what it implies. Others have come away from the video saying, “That was so boring, I can see why police get short-tempered, they want to see some action happening,” which I was surprised to hear.
American Artist. Still from 2015. 2019
American Artist. Screenshot of A Refusal. 2015–16
In an earlier piece, A Refusal (2015–16), you replaced the images on your social media profiles with blocks of a particular shade of blue. In the body of work from 2019 of which Blue Life Seminar is a part, blue refers to a group of people who enforce state power as well as to their chosen identity. We also have lyrics from the 1998 Europop hit “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” appearing in titles of those works—and then on the simplest level, there is the association of the color blue with melancholy. Could you share more about the various implications of blue and how they come together in this video?
I’ve been using blue in my work for several years and I’ve played with its different meanings. This has been a way of reconciling how complex it is as a color. In my early work, blue represented a left-leaning political possibility. I made an argument that it is an update of the old dark blue in the American flag, a color made from indigo and harvested by enslaved people. The digital-only blue is agile and elusive, like people organizing. And it’s the color you see on a screen before an image is present, implying a potential for the representation that we ought to see. After seeing the way blue was taken up by the right, I decided to embrace the complexity of blue and investigate its multiple faces. That was around the time I learned about the Blue Lives Matter movement.
In Blue Life Seminar the melancholy isn’t imposed by me. Something that struck me about Dr. Manhattan, and why I wanted to include him, is that he’s a melancholic figure. He’s pensive and struggles with being asked to represent the United States in a military capacity. To me this didn’t align with his origins as a white physicist. I began to entertain the idea that Dr. Manhattan had been Black in his past life as a human.
Media and Performance at MoMA is made possible by Hyundai Card.
Major support is provided by MoMA’s Wallis Annenberg Director’s Fund for Innovation in Contemporary Art.
Generous funding is provided by the Lonti Ebers Endowment for Performance and the Sarah Arison Endowment Fund for Performance.
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