Seeing Through the Museum

On Dave McKenzie

Dave McKenzie, Disturbing the View.

Dave McKenzie: The Story I Tell Myself. Whitney Museum of American Art, May 1–October 4, 2021.

For Disturbing the View, his performance at the Whitney last summer, the artist Dave McKenzie washed some of the museum’s floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows twice weekly in the afternoon. As performance art goes, the piece was remarkably unspectacular, though in a recent interview1 the artist said he considered having himself lowered over the Whitney facade in rope and harness to perform the work, before legal issues forbade it. Prosaically equipped with only a bucket and a mop, McKenzie began near the ticketholders’ queue and the outdoor café, then took the elevator up to the eighth floor and worked his way downwards from the patio via the museum’s signature exterior stairs. Eventually he would return to the ground floor and go over some of the windows again, devoting what seemed like special attention to a pane etched with the list of the Whitney’s many benefactors.

But the twist was, McKenzie didn’t actually wash the windows. Whatever he was scrubbing on left a soapy, semi-opaque residue of whitish scum, recalling the windshield-washing efforts of the squeegee men of late 20th-century New York City—scapegoats in Rudy Giuliani’s racist quality-of-life crime campaign. In this sense, the traces left by McKenzie’s performance, partial occlusions of the million-dollar sightlines into and out of the building, were historical as well as indexical.

Disturbing the View, in which a Black artist seems to perform the role of a part-time maintenance worker on behalf of the institution where he’s currently having a retrospective exhibition, calls to mind a lot of related things at once: race, labor, and the spatial politics of the museum, for starters. The work may also be a meditation on perimeters, on being inside and outside the institution, and on what’s visible from each perspective.

Yet, in a cultural moment in which visibility and clarity are paramount virtues, Disturbing the View thematizes obfuscation, making it productively hard to say quite what cultural work the piece is doing. This begins at the level of plain description: is the artist washing the windows or not? What verb should we use there? It proceeds all the way up the interpretive elevator to: what exactly is the artist saying or showing about the aforementioned topics?

Provisionally, we could state that Disturbing the View, and McKenzie’s work in general, does what the title says it does: it fucks with our ability to see it, and to see what’s around it. Phrased more programmatically, McKenzie’s art examines, anticipates, and frustrates the sorts of meanings we give to works of contemporary art, drawing our attention to the limits and assumptions we bring to bear on them. He appears interested in a certain state of semi-opacity—much like that of the windows he treats during his performance—in which we, viewers, are made aware of both the framing of things and the thing framed.

One particular framing McKenzie contends with is white supremacy itself: the context in which his work inevitably operates, if only by virtue of being made and exhibited in the United States in the early 21st century. While maintaining a sense of timelessness and open-endedness that keeps its viewers productively disturbed, Disturbing the View also strikes me as a pointed commentary on its own immediate circumstance: that of the North American art museum in the year 2021, and the ways in which an artist might most productively interface with it.

McKenzie, who was born in Jamaica in 1977 and graduated from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia in 2000, has achieved a remarkable degree of visibility while still flying just under the radar. His performances and videos were included in key exhibitions of the early ’00s: Freestyle at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2001, and Black Is, Black Ain’t at The Renaissance Society in Chicago in 2008, to name a couple. His work was included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, making The Story I Tell Myself, a mini-retrospective of performance-based works that ran from May to October of this year, his second presentation at the museum.

If McKenzie isn’t quite a household name (or as close to it any contemporary artist could be said to be), it may be because his work rejects the signature visual stylings that tend to really put artists over the top. Instead McKenzie favors an aesthetic of understatement, drawing on the strategically neutral look and bare-bones production values of the performance art and conceptualism of the 1960s and ’70s. The most recognizable Dave McKenzie works are the ones that he appears in himself: a bespectacled Black man dressed in the unofficial contemporary artist’s uniform of dark a T-shirt and jeans, performing actions ranging from the banal to the outré—and often a striking combination of the two.

 Edward and Me (2001), perhaps the artist’s most recognizable work as well as one of his earliest, is exemplary. Made during a residency at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, the black-and-white video captures McKenzie executing an agitated dance outside the automatic doors of a grocery store at night.  From the vantage point of a wall-mounted security camera, we see the artist spasming, twitching, knocking himself over and picking himself up, a lone performer without an audience.

Edward and Me exhibits many of the qualities that would go on to characterize the rest of McKenzie’s oeuvre. First, it takes place within the frame of everyday life, rather than in a constructed, theatrical setting or within the confines of an exhibition space. In this, it evokes a directive of early performance art: to take art directly to the viewer, out in the real world, where social boundaries can be more effectively explored and transgressed. With McKenzie as the protagonist, Edward and Me, like many of his works, could be classified using two categories developed to describe early performance art: “body art,” in which the performer is both the material and the object of the work of art; and “performance for the camera,” where the documentation of the work is either anticipated in the construction of the performance, or takes the place of its live audience. 

The work is also highly referential; a strength of McKenzie’s approach is his open-handed relationship to art history. Edward and Me recalls performance-art precursors like Bruce Nauman’s videotaped walks and dances of the 1960s and Tehching Hsieh’s experiments in self-surveillance from the early 1980s. But it’s also maybe about Fight Club, via its titular reference to Edward Norton—which positions McKenzie as something like a double or understudy to the actor. Still, if the piece is allusive, it’s also elusive: it oscillates between, but never settles into, a few different emotional registers. It’s playful and ominous, about the creative misuse of everyday spaces2 but also about the terror of being out of control—or simply of being Black and alone at night in the middle of rural Maine.

The Story I Tell Myself interweaves Edward and Me and other of McKenzie’s videotaped performances and videos from 2000 to 2013 with works by others chosen by the artist—a multigenerational group including Nauman, Chris Burden, Trisha Brown, Felix Gonzales Torres, and Pope.l. The exhibition’s structure reminds us that, for artists of McKenzie’s generation, this body of historical and contemporary material is fully available for referential use: the neo-avant-garde forms a kind of playbook, which he and others draw from to generate new works and meanings. It also offers a perspective on McKenzie’s overall intervention into his chosen tradition—an intervention that often foregrounds the racial politics of performance and its interpretation.

As art historian Huey Copeland noted in a 2013 text on the artist,3 the logic of whiteness vouchsafes the free play of experimentation and transgression enacted by the mostly white men of first-generation performance art. Thanks to that privilege, the most idiosyncratic of acts could be interpreted as neutral aesthetic propositions, floating free of any social or political valence. This is not the case when the experimentation and transgression is enacted by artists of color. To render Copeland’s nuanced argument crudely: it’s one thing for Vito Acconci to make a work of art in which he stalks a stranger on the streets of Manhattan; it would be a very different prospect if Acconci had been Black. The Story I Tell Myself invites these kinds of comparisons: Bruce Nauman’s videotaped studio walks may evoke Beckett, Chaplin, and modern dance, but the security-camera-like footage of McKenzie’s own dancing in Edward and Me inevitably also suggests surveillance and the policing of Black people—a reading baked into the piece by its (and our) historical context.

Similarly, a black-and-white documentary picture of a Gordon Matta Clark performance from 1971, in which the artist is strung up by his feet from rafters of a pier, doesn’t necessarily prompt reflections on the interplay between racial violence and its photographic representation. On the other hand, McKenzie’s Self Portrait (Piñata) (2002) emphatically does. Filmed at the Queens Museum, the video shows the artist in the center of a multiracial crowd of children and parents, hanging a child-sized piñata made in his image: a cartoon effigy dressed in khakis and a blue button-down shirt, McKenzie as everyman. As the kids gleefully pummel it with a bat, we find ourselves watching to see when the penny will drop for the audience in the video—the moment when the prosaic ritual returns the historical echo of lynching. Self Portrait (Piñata) is about the violence encoded in play and representation, but it’s also about the different vantage points from which that meaning is constructed. In this, it demonstrates McKenzie’s deft exploitation of certain features of performance art.

Early writing on the performance art of the 1960s and ’70s often emphasized its directness and economy. For Adrian Piper, performance represented the possibility of concentrating the potential of art to affect the viewer, by eliminating the unnecessary mediations placed between artist and audience by object-based aesthetics and the “art context.”4 In identifying the work of art with the body of the performer, artist and audience were brought figuratively or literally face to face, in a privileged experience of live interaction. “It’s an attempt at a new communication. But the only people this art exists for are the people who are there,” remarked artist Terry Fox in a 1979 interview.5

This apparent streamlining generated its own complexity. By necessity, artists working in performance in the late 1960s usually played multiple roles in the systems generated by their artworks; they were at once directors and actors, experimenters and test subjects, art makers and art objects. They were also participant-observers, regarding their audience while they themselves were regarded: a piece of performance art, unlike a painting, has the capacity to watch you watching it.

The question of documentation introduced still more variables. Photography and video quickly became the standards for documenting live performances and ensuring their future visibility, and brought home the fact that performance-art audiences were, in a sense, adjacent performers—re-presented to future audiences via the framing effect of the document. Many canonical works of performance art—Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964), for example—hinged on an audience’s responses to the actions of the performer.

These and other features have made performance art a powerful vehicle for examinations of racialized surveillance—a fact of contemporary life that relies on asymmetries of optical power, and a theme that percolates through McKenzie’s oeuvre.6 However, the question for the artist isn’t only: Who gets to see whom? But: Whose perspective comes to determine what a performance—in life or art—means?  

Furtive Gestures, McKenzie’s performance for the 2018 edition of the New York Frieze art fair, posed the question directly. In it, he acted out a series of simple bodily movements—putting his hand in his pocket, bending down, turning abruptly—that had each been cited by police as grounds for stop-and-frisk searches. The rhetorical punch of the piece lay precisely in the difference between what one saw and what it was alleged to mean. McKenzie’s actions were slight and fleeting: barely discernible as actions, let alone as probable cause. And yet each gesture had been read (by police) reductively, as signs only ever capable of signifying aggression.

The relationship between sign and interpretation also figured in An Intermission, a 2017 solo exhibition at the University Art Museum at the State University of New York at Albany. For the show, McKenzie filled the gallery space with large, printed banners that suggested both protest signs and the more quotidian, functional signage of the university. Rather than featuring political slogans or advertisements for campus services, McKenzie’s signs presented different elliptical propositions combined with images sourced from found photographs. Several, which conceptually anchored the group, posited the interpretation of images as an arena of social and political conflict: the words THEY WILL SEARCH AND SEARCH FOR IMAGES OF YOU over a jeans-clad torso in a wicker chair; THEY DON’T KNOW IF YOU ARE LAUGHING OR CRYING AND THEY DON’T CARE over a Black man’s mouth, chin, and cardigan.​​

Taken together with Furtive Gestures, these works evoke white supremacy as a framework at once vindictively concerned with the dispensation of Black bodies and sadistically indifferent to Black inner lives. In a paranoid demand for the total legibility of its subjects, white supremacy uses a kind of reductive, interpretive violence as a prelude to physical brutality. With this in mind, the other banners in McKenzie’s grouping—those that were either captionless (a mylar balloon, a loaf of white bread on a newspaper) or with texts so elliptical as to remain fragmentary (a statue’s head topped by a pigeon, against a lavender background with the word NO above it)—became highly charged, ambivalent emblems, perhaps of unreadability itself.

In the Albany exhibition, McKenzie’s choice of commercially printed banners (prosaic, functional, produced for the public announcement of some kind of information) seemed to flaunt the idea that art is predominantly in the business of conveying direct and easily legible social messages. Instead, he offered a commentary on a politicized interpretive situation in which some degree of illegibility seems to be desired or desirable. But in problematizing communication, in refusing the (implied) directive to announce a univocal meaning, what kind of work is the work of art doing here?

This returns us, finally, to Disturbing the View—which concerns labor undertaken at the perimeter between two zones: the museum and the street, the world of signs and the world of things. In one sense, the piece signals a symbolic alignment with maintenance, manual labor, and essential work—a category which, in 2021 New York, is inescapably tied to race and class dynamics in the city. But this reading is slightly troubled by the fact that McKenzie is not actually performing maintenance work in the piece7—suggesting that we may have to look elsewhere for its full significance.

As with most of McKenzie’s art, the performance offers a host of ready comparisons; in this case, he riffs on many works of art dealing with architectural perimeters. Disturbing the View calls to mind Mirele Laderman Ukeles’s Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Outside (July 23, 1973), in which the artist scrubbed the front steps of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford; Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle’s Le Baiser (1999), where he squeegees the iconic windows of Philip Johnson’s Glass House; and most recently, Looted (2020–2021), American Artist’s digital project for the Whitney which intermittently replaced all the images on the museum’s website with JPEGs of plywood boards.

In parallel to the retrospective’s clear-eyed citations of 20th century performance art, these references lead us to Institutional Critique, a branch of conceptualism concerned with an analysis of the art institution—often via interventions in the physical architecture of the exhibition space itself. In canonical works of the genre (which emerged at roughly the same time as performance art itself), walls were removed or added, floorplans reconfigured, and works of art displaced, in the name of making visible something about the ideological, political, and economic situation of the museum.

In its focus on an aspect of the infrastructure of the Whitney itself, Disturbing the View signals a degree of engagement with this pursuit. But where the metaphorics of Institutional Critique often positioned transparency as a core value (consider Michael Asher removing the walls between the exhibition space and the office of the Claire Copley Gallery in Los Angeles in 1974, highlighting the unity of its aesthetic and commercial functions), McKenzie would seem to be working in the opposite direction. Instead of lifting the veil or laying bare the inner workings of the museum, he is, quite literally, occluding things. We can then ask the perennial art-school question of Disturbing the View: Is this a critique? If so, of what? What is the critical function of the occlusion happening within it?

Perhaps we can look for the answer in the context of the work: that of the North American art-institutional field at present. We could say that this field is currently undergoing two closely related but distinct critiques (or two phases of one critique, or one critique happening simultaneously at different scales and exhibiting some internal tensions), articulated from a variety of positions, both inside and outside the institution itself.

One strand of this critique attempts to address and transform the persistent homogeneity, and endemic whiteness, of contemporary art as a symbol system and field of cultural production. Its goal is an expansion, at the level of the symbolic, of the representation of different lifeworlds particular to subjects outside the normatively (straight, male) white perspective that typifies contemporary art. At the level of the field, it seeks to increase the presence of historically marginalized voices across the entire institution : not just those of artists but of curators, educators, museum directors, and so on. Another strand aims at structural change to the institution itself as a political and economic entity. It is most often conceptualized as a movement that begins with changes to the funding structures of the institution, and ultimately seeks a reconfiguration of its relationships to cities, states, and political systems.

While both anti-racist in orientation, the two strands of critique differ in terms of the scope of their objects. The first is primarily concerned with changing the curatorial and collection practices of museums and institutions: with who and what appears in the spaces of exhibition, with which types of works of art and artists are made visible, financially supported, and given institutional legitimacy, and with who is empowered to make these and other decisions. For the second, the particular kind of art a museum exhibits is of secondary importance to the work that the museum itself, as a cultural agent, is performing within a political economy. If the spirit of the former is one of diversity and inclusion, the latter is more directly aligned with decolonization and divestment.

These differences in scope result in different attitudes toward the status of art production. For example: from the perspective of a movement to uplift works of art that represent marginalized perspectives (and marginalized artists themselves), the tactics of strike and withdrawal proposed by advocates of the second approach could be considered counterproductive effectors of change, as they aim at a disruption (in some versions, permanent) of the business-as-usual of the institution, which includes the business of exhibiting works of art.  Conversely, from the vantage point of a movement that seeks a fundamental rethinking of the museum itself, progressive changes to exhibition practices may appear to mitigate the need for more systemic transformations, substituting symbolic changes for material ones.

The two strands of critique came together in a particularly vivid way around the 2019 iteration of the Whitney’s Biennial of American Art. Following a succession of Biennials marked by controversies around the representation of Blackness in contemporary art (in critiques of works by Joe Scanlan and Dana Schutz included in the Biennial exhibitions of 2014 and 2017), the 2019 Biennial was initially praised for its inclusivity—and curatorial redress of previous instances of racial insensitivity. In March 2019, the activist group Decolonize This Place began a campaign for the removal from the Whitney’s Board of its Vice Chairman: Warren Kanders, CEO of (among other things) the teargas producer Safariland. Many Biennial artists sympathetic to the call were faced with a dilemma: do you stay in the show, and draw attention to the issue, or refuse to participate? The confluence of two critical movements posed a question, for artists, about the relative efficacy of different strategies available to them—one of which is to withhold the symbolic power of the work of art in order to exert a different form of political power over the institution.

To be an artist having a museum show in 2021, then—and at the Whitney in particular—is to attempt to navigate this field: to be made particularly conscious of the symbolic stakes of participation itself, and of the transactions of different kinds of capital occurring in both directions between artist and institution whenever an exhibition occurs. In its focus on the perimeter of the museum, McKenzie’s Disturbing the View draws our attention to the topographical thinking we bring to bear on these issues, where inside and outside map onto different relations of inclusion and exclusion, endorsement and withdrawal, symbolic and real. In making a circuit of the museum that traverses its various zones (exhibition spaces, commercial spaces, spaces of labor and maintenance), and disturbing our sense of where artistic production should properly occur, the artist may be calling on us to think about these distinctions in more dynamic terms.

More broadly speaking, the play of transparency and opacity performed in the work may itself signal the desire for a degree of withdrawal (on the part of the artist) from the circulation of signs and meanings in contemporary art—a way of being both present in, and absent from, one’s own exhibition. This attitude is at odds with a prevailing tendency in contemporary art to consider transparency, visibility, and legibility as self-evidently positive political values. But in resisting interpretive closure and stable signification, McKenzie’s approach signals a mode of resistance to other closures, particularly but not exclusively vis-à-vis the topic of race in America. If hypervisibility (in Sadiya Hartman’s term) describes the state of being Black under a totalizing and oppressive regime of optical power, then we can imagine hyperlegibility as an analog: the condition of suffering under the demand for interpretive transparency, of being asked to be totally clear and unambiguous in the performance of self.

McKenzie’s latest work is not only a rejection of this demand, but perhaps also a structural step toward its overcoming: an attempt to detach labels from objects, to sever bad connections between words and images. It’s an operation that might be necessary for both the project of contemporary artmaking and for a project of social transformation in which the work of obscuring, of disturbing the view, plays a vital role. The anti-heroic, anti-spectacular approach that McKenzie takes to his art suggests that this labor may be tedious, like washing windows, but is also essential.

  1. “Dave McKenzie with Maddie Klett,” the Brooklyn Rail, July–August 2021. 

  2. In the Rail interview (ibid.), McKenzie called the site of the grocery store “an obvious stage for counter programming. Much like suburban kids trying to make something out of nothing.” 

  3. Huey Copeland, “Babel Screened: On Race, Narcissism, and the Predication of American Video Art” in Black Is, Black Ain’t (Renaissance Society, 2013). 

  4. especially in her 1970 essay “Art as Catalysis.” 

  5. As quoted in the introduction to The Art of Performance: A Critical Anthology (1984), edited by Gregory Battcock and Bob Nickas. 

  6. In her 2015 book Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, Simone Browne looked to performance-based works by artists such as Adrian Piper and Robin Rhode for figures of what she terms “dark sousveillance”: the set of procedures by which enslaved peoples could counter the optical operations of power. In a similar vein, Fred Moten, in In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, describes Piper’s projects as one of “finding, elaborating, and enacting objections to the various ways of averting one’s gaze.” 

  7. In the Rail interview (ibid.), McKenzie is scrupulous in describing the difference between Disturbing the View and the routine maintenance work undertaken by the museum’s staff. 

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