Matt Stokes

Arthouse, Austin

Through April 5, 2009
by Dan Boehl

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      Matt Stokes
      these are the days, 2008-09
      Two projection installation, 16mm film and audio transferred to harddrive
      6:26 minutes
      Courtesy the artist and Arthouse, Austin

      View Gallery

      Lately I’ve been walking around like the newly freed, happy to live in a transformed America, yet waiting, like the child of abuse, for the tormentor’s fist to fall again. And I don’t think I’m alone. So, what happens to us now that things are purported to change, yet the men who orchestrated the grandest heist of America’s freedoms and economic wellbeing, admitted liars and torturers, are allowed to return to their mansions, consciences clear and wallets stuffed? The political rhetoric of the day is reconciliation, but I’m still angry.

      With his film these are the days (2008-2009), Matt Stokes has elevated this feeling of righteous anger into a high art, streaked in sweaty beauty and ritualized violence. Produced by a Brit about an insular Austin music genre, the film operates like real democracy should. Shown on two side-by-side screens, the projection on the left features the roiling leather-clad and pin-studded crowd of punks filmed at the Broken Neck on the Eastside. On the right screen stands the 5 piece punk combo Stokes put together as a kind of Austin punk super group. Stokes showed the edited Broken Neck footage to the newly minted band and gave the musicians 36 hours to write a song to, get this, live up to the expectations of that festering audience.

      This audience is made up of the disenfranchised suburban youth of Texas. They should be the inheritors of the middle class American boon. But like the rest of us living in a hijacked America for the past eight years, they’ve inherited nothing of value. They’re angry and need their release.

      Though the entire film offers a window into the process of group catharsis, one moment in particular sticks out. During a lull in the song, the band hangs limply to their instruments, seemingly exhausted, while on the screen beside them a group of men take advantage of the lull, raising their beer cans in near perfect unison. They finish drinking, and the band, as if on cue, secures their instruments, and thrash back into the song. The moment exposes the raw fellowship and community inherent in punk as a movement and a way of life. It also offers a simple analogy of the plebian punk aesthetic: music for the people and by the people.

      Before creating the film, Stokes interviewed more than 80 people instrumental in Austin punk over the last three decades. Many shared with him the ephemera of the movement: records, posters, beer cups, articles and zines. For the exhibition, Stokes filled the majority of the gallery space with an archive composed of all this stuff. The archive is Stokes’ attempt to contextualize the movement and pay homage to those who created the punk community, a community that shaped the liberal Austin of today.

      But in the end, the archive is merely baffling. It looks like an historical overview, the likes of which you find in at the Ransom Center, though without any label copy. There’s no overarching order or purpose to the display and no way for the visitor to contextualize the materials. Still, the archive will help sell catalogues to the SXSW crowds that will flock to the show. And that’s okay.

      But I worry because most visitors will spend a minute watching the film, then spend an hour perusing the cases, wondering just what the hell those records on the wall sound like. Akin to collecting ubiquitous political stickers, posters and snapshots, this is an American problem: we’re more interested in the ephemera surrounding an idea than the substance of a movement. Cheney and Rumsfeld are safe because we prefer objects to action, relics to actual ecstasy. But Stokes’s film features pure catharsis, born of community and action. It’s through this kind of fellowship that we subdue our anger, transforming it through creativity into some kind of art.

      Dan Boehl lives in Austin, where he is working on a post-petroleum children's novel.

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