Ben Coonley & Kevin Bewersdorf

Austin Film Society: Avant Cinema

January 15, 2009
by Mary Katherine Matalon

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      Kevin Bewersdorf
      Photograph from series Stock Photos of American Life, 2008
      Courtesy the artist

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      As a verteran of more artists’ talks than I can possibly count, I can say with confidence that the lecture cum performance format is tricky to pull off. In the best case scenario, the audience leaves with a new appreciation for the artist’s work (think Walid Raad’s presentation of his work under the aegis of The Atlas Group). In the worst case scenario, the audience leaves absolutely baffled (think the Art Guys on an off day).

      In No Drinks Allowed in Screening Room, Austin Film Society’s latest installation of their Avant Cinema Series, new media artists Ben Coonley and Kevin Bewersdorf delivered up two examples of why the performance-lecture is such a difficult format. While both artists showed some genuinely smart work, their performance personae—particularly in Bewersdorf’s case—did them a disservice.

      “Now that’s America.” As he clicked through his Stock Photos of American Life (2008), Bewersdorf would periodically pause and then utter this declaration with mock solemnity. Bewersdorf’s refrain cut to the bone of his performance persona: the earnest artist utterly consumed with capturing the “truth” of American life. As the title Stock Photos of American Life (2008) suggests, Bewersdorf’s photographs are purposefully banal shots of suburban vignettes; many capture people at work or rest in the parking lots of big box super stores. The point—that America is defined by these suburban spaces—is well taken, and his photographs simultaneously convey both the vacuousness of the suburban landscape and its occasional, unintentional beauty. However, Bewersdorf’s over the top performance persona destroyed the delicate balance he achieves in his photographs. His unending proclamations, provoking laughter in the audience, transformed these works into condescending spoofs on conventional landscape photography.

      Ben Coonley’s performance began with what at first appeared to be a conventional lecture entitled “Remapping the Apparatus: Cinematographic Specificity and Hybrid Media.” However, Coonley’s computer “broke” in the first five minutes of the lecture and he was then forced to rebuild his power point presentation from scratch with disastrous, yet humorous results. Coonley’s performance was infused with a staged, mock earnestness akin to Bewersdorf’s and at some points it was all a tad too cutesy. For instance an on-screen cat named Otto Content helped him reconstruct his power point (Coonley points out that Otto Content is a pun on the Auto Content Wizard, in case the audience somehow missed it). Nonetheless, Coonley’s performance is a spooky reminder that Power Point is not a neutral container for content; the program is steeped in the logic of corporate capitalism.

      In the end, both Coonely’s and Bewersdorf’s ironic over earnestness felt slightly dated given that actual earnestness has returned to America with the triumphant election of Barack Obama. While the artists can’t be blamed for being on the wrong side of America’s emotional sea change, their posturing ultimately simplified complex body of works. Perhaps these days earnestness is grace.

      Mary Katherine Matalon is pursuing her Ph.D. in history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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