Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, Broker, video, 2016 1440x690

Courtesy of Jennifer and Kevin McCoy/Cornell AAP

October 22, 2017

Progress Undone

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What exactly are the implications of something that is undeniably of fiction, yet that is frighteningly familiar? Is it the fiction that approaches the reality or perhaps is it a truth that has become divorced from itself?

Inhabiting the World We Made offers a space of navigation for these types of conversations. Currently located in the John Hartell Gallery in Sibley Hall, Jennifer and Kevin McCoy have created this exhibition as an intersection of architecture, environment and psychology within the context of technological progress.

Assuming the forms of both film and sculpture, the works tell of a fictional narrative of development, beginning in the heartlands of America and radiating outwards as progress — the connotations of this contentious term itself being a point of artistic and conceptual subjectivity within the context of the exhibit — globalizes.

The story begins in Discovery of Freedom. Set in a desolate South Dakotan town, this video work interposes fragments of footage of houses onto a barren winter landscape. The brusquely juxtaposed houses, along with the background, appear to be oscillating as if at the mercy of the chilling winds that run through the sparsely populated plains. Toward the foreground are two animal corpses, presumably those of livestock. These juxtapositions, harsh as they may be, establish a visual vocabulary to not only describe the spaces to which they are endemic, but to also introduce to the viewers the idea of a nether space. The latter concept deals intimately with intervals in a geographic continuum, which does not conform easily to conventional notions of space in the context of development.

Culminating the exhibition’s narrative is Broker, a work that is set in futuristic visualization of New York City. It centers around a real estate agent’s showing of a luxury apartment in Manhattan. The work incorporates the sterile luxury of both the apartment and that of the language used by the broker, yet this is periodically interrupted with jagged breaks in the filmography. This utopian continuum of a cosmopolitan space is perforated by harsh interstices in the work, which evoke a sort of terror. During these ruptures, the broker and the viewer enter a state of trancelike horror. The causes of these schisms are ambiguous, but perhaps this is by design, alluding to a much larger threat to the façade of glittering cosmopolitanism. The broker’s descent from the immaculate professional is best enshrined by the scene in which she frenetically tears her suit to shreds and claws at her well-kept hairstyle. While she is linked to the apartment and the urban exterior by virtue of her job, the broker eventually divorces herself from the affiliated social constructs imposed by the surrounding context of globalized and ravenous cosmopolitanism, a resolution that comes at the expense of her own constitution.

Beginning and ending in America, the exhibition’s narrative assumes a nature that is cyclical in some ways, but linear in others. The congruence of the beginning and the conclusion (at least with respect to their location within the same nation) appears to evoke an aspect of return. Yet, the trajectory delineates an obvious path from rural to suburban and then to the cosmopolitan megalopolis of New York City. Or, at least it appears to do so. Could it be that what was originally a radiating linear progression simply happened to loop around its course? Or, if linearity as a construct is to be problematized, perhaps it is that the works seek to represent the progression of history as an intrinsically spatial process, with each work representing various tessellating spaces experiencing divergent and convergent behavioral trends.

Perhaps the most compelling point of ambiguity is the temporal relation each piece has in relation to the rest, if such a relation exists. While Discovery of Freedom is the start of the narrative, one could arguably interpret it as a space that was simply left behind in the hysteria of development. Going further, the broker’s transformation could alternatively be construed as the beginning of a futuristic civilization being undone, culminating in a now desolate South Dakotan town and, in doing so, bringing into sharp acuity the paradoxes that are all too often the escorts of progress.

Staff Writer Varun Biddanda is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at vdb22@cornell.edu