On Alex Bag and Patterson Beckwith’s, “Cash from Chaos/Unicorns & Rainbows”

— Robert McKenzie


Alex Bag and Patterson Beckwith, “Cash from Chaos / Unicorns & Rainbows”
Team Gallery, New York
March 29 – April 28, 2012

Alex Bag and Patterson Beckwith, Cash from Chaos / Unicorns & Rainbows, 1994-1997, 2011, still

Alex Bag and Patterson Beckwith attend a promotional event for BMW. Pierce Brosnan is the highlight attraction. Mail art and collage have found a higher purpose. The miniature designs of LSD blotter paper have been affixed to a greeting card and posted from Switzerland. With forced perforations the acid is liberated from the greeting card. With the miracles of video recording and a play of camera angles, Bag and Beckwith drop acid “with” Brosnan. Gag shop voice-changing technology is used for prank phone calls before the advent of instant caller ID. Ricki Lake is interviewing a self-identified vampire who takes the astute position, “I’m not a blood drinker because aids is going round.” A Domino’s pizza guy comes to the door offering plastic appendages and hand jobs. An oven mitt is transformed into a celebrity chef with his own cooking show. As if channeling Warhol, the oven mitt states that, “It just goes to show anyone can be a star if they just cook.” Krist Novoselic, the bassist from Nirvana, is captured in mid-sentence. On repeat he keeps saying (the title of Bag and Beckwith’s show)… “Unicorns and Rainbows.”

This is a different time. Puppets and costumes seem funny, relevant. Club culture exists in the same temporal frame, not wedged between the covers of a coffee table book. Limelight is still open. Drugs are still fun/funny. The Internet is too slow for video.

The material described above is part of an edited archive of Alex Bag and Patterson Beckwith’s two public access television programs, Cash from Chaos and Unicorns & Rainbows. Screened at 2:30 am on Wednesday mornings between 1994 and 1997, the footage collates some sixty hours of television program into eight hours of edited video split over eight monitors throughout Team Gallery’s two main spaces. The work has been given the dates 1994-1997, 2011, with the first date relating to the original production and the second to its editing for the current exhibition format. It is offered as a single installation with a small edition size.

Although the original material is less than twenty years old, this work must be considered historical in nature. It is, though, certainly in the vanguard for the excavations of our very recent art-historical past. It seems as if the mid-1990s has finally accrued some sort of historical clarity. The conditions by which we currently operate are now sufficiently removed from this place and time to begin formal analysis. The footage from Bag and Beckwith offer a very idiosyncratic retrospection. What to make of the attitude, the ideologies, politics, aesthetics, and personal perspectives here?

The recurring iconography of their television shows is symptomatic of their time. Found television footage from low-brow sources is crudely edited, often utilizing repetition to accentuate the bizarre nature of televisual communication. Not quite appropriation, the technique might be, for want of a better term, cultural “mash-up”.  It is no coincidence that MTV, a New York invention, was at the zenith of its influence. The flagrant on-screen drug use can also be seen as a reflection of that particular New York moment. As Bag recently said in interview, “Remember the mid-1990s were E years for many” [1] (E being short for the drug ecstasy). The fabled New York nightlife rotated around a long list of late night and after hours dance clubs including Limelight, Red Zone, Sound Factory, and Save the Robots. In 1999, Mayor Giuliani invoked the 1926 cabaret law that required venues to have a license for dancing, shutting down many of the city’s nightclubs. In 2004, the owner of the Sound Factory, a haven for dance and drug culture, was indicted on drug charges (later dismissed) and the venue was closed. The myriad use of puppets and costumes in Bag and Beckwith’s television show might even be seen as an extension of the costume culture among the New York club kids of the time.

The details of Alex Bag’s and Patterson Beckwith’s art careers also provide a fascinating sliver of the very recent history to New York’s contemporary art. Bag, who is now represented by Team Gallery, found fast success as a video artist in the 1990s. She often uses herself as an actor in her films. Her approach to film oscillates between spoof/parody and reflexive self-interrogation, always dwelling on the nature of identity, character, personality, and livelihood. Initially showing with 303 Gallery (the gallery that launched careers, including that of Karen Kilimnik), Bag later moved to American Fine Arts, a New York institution that has already received the first rites towards full canonization. The recurring interest in Bag’s work—in 2009 she received a commission from the Whitney Museum of Art and in 2011 was the subject of a major exhibition at the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst in Zurich—seems closely related to the major impact she had on the art of the 1990s.

Patterson Beckwith operated in a related milieu, although without quite the fanfare or critical success of his collaborator. He achieved a certain level of art-world recognition as a member of Art Club 2000. The collective had been the brainchild of American Fine Arts gallerist Colin de Land and initially comprised of seven students from Cooper Union.  They held solo exhibitions at American Fine Arts and garnered art media attention before disbanding/becoming inactive in the late 1990s. Known for their photographic works that picture the members experimenting with different lifestyle and identity formations, they also did video and installation work. Appropriate to the time which also spawned Adbusters, the group and their gallerist were almost sued by The Gap because of an exhibition that focused on that company’s advertising.[2] While no longer a real element of contemporary art-world discourse, they remain important for art-world participants with long memories, such as Wolfgang Tillmans who did a small survey exhibition of their work at his Between Bridges space in the foyer of his studio complex in London in 2007. After his time with Art Club 2000, Beckwith has published and exhibited his photography in numerous places. This work has ranged from conceptually styled still life to celebrity portraiture, and featured “downtown luminaries” from Beckwith and Bag’s scenes—Colin de Land, the performance artist Kembra Pfahler, actress Chloë Sevigny.

Despite this material largely fading into the recesses of the recent past, it remains with us as some sort of originating DNA for our current art world. The strategies of the 2012 Whitney Biennial participant K8 Hardy feel like a riff on the “culture jamming” philosophy behind the photography of Art Club 2000. The neurotic YouTube-esque videos of Ryan Trecartin, which were given immense square-footage at New York’s MoMA PS1, are clearly indebted to the equally neurotic invocations of Bag’s video work.

It is the art-world participation by Bag and Beckwith that makes this otherwise offbeat and eccentric television show relevant to current art-world debates. What is critical to the work, though, is that much of the material in the videos is truly engaging. The chosen extracts from popular television continue to reverberate into the present, at least with this member of the audience. Copious footage of small cute animals, whose allure must be a glaring question for any perceptive art critic, seems prescient considering the Internet’s profusion of “talking” animals and cute “memes”. And the lingering question of whether it is entertaining to watch people take drugs on amateur television footage is given disturbing, positive affirmation.

So what then of historical hindsight? How might one begin to assess the successes and failures of this unique ideological moment? For me it is impossible to separate the contents of the exhibition from my experience with people whose ideologies originate in this time. One example comes from my first job in New York City at a junk store that sold books, records, clothes, and everything else. The proprietor was an East Village “survivor” whose unmitigated admiration for the punk spirit was his blessing and his curse. He had had a public access TV show at roughly the same time (perhaps a few years before) and on quiet afternoons in the shop he would sometimes replay the old VHS tapes to liven the mood. The blue screen mishmash of dance and song did in fact brighten the atmosphere. His stubborn insistence on the “freedoms” of his past were not always best for business and he was forced to close his store a couple of years later. The freedoms of yesterday are very rarely the freedoms of today.

Alex Bag recently acknowledged that times had certainly changed. In interview she explained that, “[b]eing a mother means the end to a kind of nihilism that’s been near and dear for so many years. You simply can’t be a sociopath with a stroller. It’s the end of an era or something—but change is good, and I’m trying to look on the bright side.”[3] While motherhood has not affected all of us, it might function as a metaphor here. Many of us at least feel like we have been left holding the baby. This has caused a unique difficulty for art practice today. How might one achieve the optimism and experimentation of Bag and Beckwith when we already have our arms full? Whatever the answer, lets hope the task is embraced with the enthusiasm and magnanimity of these two droll, costumed, drug addled, trash-culture-loving, 1990s heroes.

Alex Bag and Patterson Beckwith, Cash from Chaos / Unicorns & Rainbows, 1994-1997, 2011, still

Alex Bag and Patterson Beckwith, Cash from Chaos / Unicorns & Rainbows, 1994-1997, 2011, still

  1. [1] Scott Indrisek, “Cash, Chaos, Unicorns: Video Artist Alex Bag’s Adventure in Public Television,” Modern Painters (April 2012).
  2. [2] Glenn O’Brien, “Into the Gap: Art Club 2000,” Artforum (February 1994).
  3. [3] Scott Indrisek, op. cit. 
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“Please cremate my body. Loathing.” in May #5