By Tucker Neel
Originally published in Artillery Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 4, March, 2007, 40.
With his recent video installation entitled Juke at G Fine Art, Jefferson Pinder not only exhibits a penetrating knowledge of America’s schizophrenic fascination with race and identity, he proves himself to have an ear for music as well. The beauty of Pinder’s installation is that it utilizes a popular form of entertainment, the music video, in a poetically minimal way to address larger, more pressing issues of race, class, and power.
Upon entering his installation viewers are faced with ten monitors accompanied by headphones hung in a row at eye level spanning across two walls of the darkened gallery. Each monitor displays a looped video of an “Afro-American”(the term provided in the gallery’s literature) man or woman filmed head-on in white t-shirts, against a stark white background. While the videos appear silent at first, the surprise comes when viewers don headphones to discover that each subject is lip-syncing to popular contemporary American music by “white” musicians.
In Anna (Rock and Roll Nigger), a young woman emphatically lip-syncs to Patti Smith’s controversial anthem Rock and Roll Nigger. She really gets into the lyrics, emphasizing the word “nigger” as it repeats during the song’s crescendo. We know that Patti Smith, a white artist, is singing the song, but the shocking repetition of the “n word” is doubled when we see an “Afro-American” face mouthing it on screen. At this moment questions about authorship and identity come to the fore. Much like other videos in the installation, this work asks, “What does this song mean when sung by an ‘Afro-American’ person? Who gets to claim blackness and otherness? How black does one have to be in order to really be black?”
Move to Juliette (Big Yellow Taxi) on another monitor and you see and hear a slightly older woman grooving to Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi. At the end of the song the woman on the screen laughs along with Mitchell, only to have her smile fade into a grimace that lasts a fraction of a second, as if to say, “No, this really isn’t that funny.” This sudden mood change reinforces both Mitchell and Pinder’s critique of gentrification. Is it possible to read in her spontaneous scowl the frustration of the life-long Washingtonian residents of 14th street, just outside the gallery, who are being priced out of their homes by an endless stream of, in Mitchell’s words, “boutiques and swinging hot spots?”
Juke is more than a quick joke about racial stereotypes. In having black faces parody white music, Pinder replicates what white people have been doing for years. From Al Jolson to Vanilla Ice, white entertainers, and their economic backers, have used song and dance lifted from African-Americans to make a buck. By sampling everything from Mitchell’s ruminations about progress, to Johnny Cash’s Mercy Seat, about capital punishment, to Queen and David Bowie’s Under Pressure, about poverty and detachment, Pinder pushes us to question how this legacy of appropriation connects to other abuses of power which, in turn, lead to social alienation and greater injustices.