This article accompanies the inclusion of Devin Kenny’s Untitled/Clefa (2013) in the online exhibition Net Art Anthology
Aria Dean: Can you start from the beginning and describe the project Untitled/Clefa? What year was it?
Devin Kenny: 2013. I was working on that piece while I was in Mexico City. I was doing a program there called SOMA, and I was thinking a lot about the death of Malcolm Latif Shabazz, and the George Zimmerman trial, which was happening at the time, and also just having different experiences within Mexico City.
I should say that the name of the piece is a reference to this drug called clefa. It’s a painkiller, but also you don’t feel hunger and a variety of other pesky things about being a person. I was also responding to this, I guess, visual cultural trend that I was seeing on Tumblr called “Trayvoning.” It was maybe a twist on planking, except done by cruel assholes.
People would imitate the way that they imagined Trayvon Martin looking after being struck by George Zimmerman, and oftentimes they would also be wearing a hooded sweatshirt and they would have a package of Skittles in their hands as well. There was already this talk going around like, “What if planking is actually a reference to the way Africans made slaves were stored in the Middle Passage?” So I was already in a weird zone about planking itself. Then when I saw these images of “Trayvoning,” which was so much more directly anti-black and callous, I was like, “Wow, this is really intense.”
What you can’t tell from the documentation that I have is that it was a performance which started by me collapsing onto the floor. I had these two items in my hands, a big Arizona iced tea and a package of Skittles while wearing a sweatshirt, and I was frozen, not totally flat against the ground– I froze myself in a particular position. I fell, but I didn’t fall into a relaxed state, in other words. I was tense. My muscles were tensed for the duration of the performance, a centimeter or so above the floor for about 12 minutes, which corresponded with the duration of “Versace” by Migos feat. Drake. That song played three times.
Devin Kenny, Untitled/clefa, 2013
I chose that particular song because there was a section of Drake’s verse which I thought eerily echoed some of the attitudes that were held by Zimmerman. There’s a line where he’s like, “This is a gated community, please get the fuck off the property.” When I heard that, I was like, “Wow.” Firstly, it’s interesting because that is something that someone in a gated community or a neighborhood watchman might say to a person. Secondly, it’s so far from earlier subject positions in hip-hop historically, that it stuck out to me.
There had always been these kinds of self-aggrandizing moments or moments where you’re talking about great shows of wealth and things like that that you ostensibly don’t actually have, but in the current era it’s a bit different. I think some of that difference is exemplified in that line.
Anyway, so yeah, I created this performance where I wanted to take an image-creating practice which was circulating online, and a) slow it down, and b) charge it differently by having it happen in real time.
AD: Did you perform it just the one time?
DK: Yes. I only performed it the one time. Weirdly, during that same evening, I had done this other piece where I was serving these water cocktails to people called How to Become Invisible. So I went from behind the table to in front of it.
AD: Do you have any new feelings about the work, looking back on it from 2018, in terms of both the politics of circulating images of black death, and in terms of memes and viral phenomena at large?
DK: When I think about it now, I also think about the fate of Zimmerman, who basically was able to get away with this really egregious act, but who also used some of the strategies that people used for viral media to not only gather support but also to survive financially.
He was selling these weird paintings on eBay and putting out all these different statements etc.—controversial figures using the publicity machine that is facilitated through social media as a way to make their livelihood.
That’s all in addition to the fact that these kinds of, I guess what I would call a-legal killings haven’t stopped since that time. It wasn’t like, “Whoa, this is something we really need to address and change.” The same thing has been occurring hundreds and hundreds of times since then.
AD: Something that I think about a lot is the re-performance of those incidents. I think that in 2013 or so people were like, “We have to share these videos because we’ve got to get the word out there that this is happening.”
Then there was a shift, and now we’re pretty squarely located in this widespread mentality of, “No, actually, don’t circulate that.” “It’s re-traumatizing.” There is some recognition of those images as fetishistic, with people comparing them to lynching postcards, for example.
DK: Oh, the postcards, yeah. It’s strange, because it’s related to that, but also the emotional timbre is different, because ostensibly people are sharing the videos because they’re like, “Oh, this is terrible,” versus the postcards being like, “Well, we sure showed them.” You know what I’m saying?
DK: Back in the day, people were a lot more jovial about ...
AD: Killing black people.
AD: I remember reading this thing about how during the Civil War, and in the Antebellum period, white abolitionists would do these plays in town squares where an all-white cast would act out the horrors of slavery as an appeal to the white public to get on board with the abolitionist cause.
I always thought this was an interesting correlate to the emotional timbre of sharing police brutality videos. Like, “I’m sharing this because I care and this is terrible.” Of course, it is different in that it’s not replacing a black body with a white body and making it symbolic. It’s just the actual thing now.
DK: Before we go on: there’s one other thing that’s a super crucial part of the piece that I didn’t address.
The performance was done in Mexico City, and I wasn’t seeing articles about the George Zimmerman trial in Mexican newspapers. It wasn’t a big news story there.
But there was an experience I had while riding on a train to an art opening during rush hour where there was this kid who was just collapsed onto the ground on the floor of the train. I was like, “Okay, this kid doesn’t seem to be moving.” We went one stop. Then another stop passed, and then tons of people started getting on the train as they were leaving work, and I was like, “Yo, am I going to need to pick up this kid and take him off the train to try to find help, try to find a doctor or a police officer or something?” I was about to do that, and before I got a chance, these two businessmen almost stepped on him, and then one of them nudged the kid with his wingtip, and then the kid got up. He was totally still for five minutes. You couldn’t see his chest rising and lowering like he was breathing. He was either breathing very little or he wasn’t at all. I was like, “Is this kid just dead or something? What the hell?"
I asked my friend, who had been living in Mexico City for a few years. I was like, “What’s up with this kid? What the hell was that?” She was like, “Oh, he was probably using this drug. A lot of poor kids use this drug.” They huff this particular drug, (she didn’t mention the name) and you can pass out like that.
Yeah, so when doing the performance, I was like, “Non-American people are not going to get that it’s a reference to Trayvon Martin, but they might see it as a reference to people just being strung out on particular drugs or other kinds of prostrate or vulnerable persons on the street, which is a more common occurrence.” Undoubtedly, everyone has had some kind of experience seeing something like that.
One could ask “why are you talking about these American issues in Mexico City? The world isn’t your internet, Devin.” In making this I was like, “Okay, if they don’t get it from this angle, maybe they’ll get it from another angle.”
AD: So much work that tries to comment on blackness, anti-blackness, police brutality, et cetera, is modeled as critique, including Untitled/Clefa. But rather than making a piece that says, “Hey, this is bad, don’t do this,” you’ve chosen to embody the object of critique. Revisiting the work this time, it reminded me of this photo series called Heroic Symbols that documented a performance series (Occupations) by Anselm Kiefer. It appeared in this magazine, Interfunktionen, that came out in the ‘60s. Kiefer did these performances where he took photos of himself doing a Nazi salute in various locations as a critique of the lack of visual acknowledgment of Germany’s recent Nazi history in the decades following de-nazification. It was sort of this fuck you/criticism of German artists’ rush toward abstraction after the war as well as the somewhat unquestioned presence of former Nazis in regular society. Basically, Kiefer–along with students, leftist groups, and like, the Frankfurt School–were pissed at how the country was not-quite-dealing-with its own terrible stuff.
DK: That’s super hardcore.
AD: Yeah, it was really hardcore, and people were really mad and pulled their contributions from the magazine and stuff. I’m not saying that the “Trayvoning” thing is the same, but it got me thinking about works that aim to critique a social or political phenomenon through an embodiment of the thing. I think in your case, I think it’s quite successful. To me, it’s maybe more powerful than, say, writing a think-piece about how it’s bad to kill black people.
Do you have any thoughts on that sort of embodiment of the object of critique as a tactic?
DK: Yeah. I need to learn a little bit more about that piece that you’re referring to.
AD: I’ll look it up and send it to you, yeah.
DK: Yeah, that’d be rad. The first thing that comes to mind with it is that I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to show any direct, pro-Nazi gestures, flags, garments, things like that, in Germany, (not in Namibia though!) so to take on that kind of personal risk while also being ostensibly a beneficiary of that history or those politics.
So taking on that kind of personal risk while also ostensibly being the face of that kind of violence, too, is a weird twist. Whereas, I guess, in my case it was primarily white-passing or white-appearing subjects “Trayvoning.”
Untitled/Clefa is a performance that’s responding to a piece of static media, and then it’s returned back to static media in the documentation. I didn’t have video documentation of it, and I decided that having this photograph would be a more potent way of trying to inform people about the piece than had I just had a video recording, which I think actually would be a little bit grotesque, the more I think about it.
Anyway, reflection as critique thing is something that I have been thinking about and working through for a little while now. I’m interested in this notion of implicated critique, where the critic tries to understand their place within the thing that is being looked at or analyzed rather than seeing themselves as being an entirely separate, objective entity.
AD: Yeah, I’m interested in that sort of thing as well. Maybe there’s some way in which also contemporary media culture rewards positioning yourself–as a critic–outside of the thing and being like, “I’m an ethical and good person, and these things are bad,” versus really acknowledging your own situatedness within a system or something.
It’s also interesting that you mention that these people doing this Trayvoning thing were white. Re-inserting a black body into the image or event that it retraces is an intriguing concept. It’s sort of testing what it looks like or the meaning that it carries when it’s returned to that original configuration or something.
DK: Yeah. It also makes me think about choreography. 10 different people can do the same choreography, but they have different bodies, and presences, so it may feel different.
AD: Another thing that the work brings up is the “semiotics of the hoodie.” The hoodie became such an emblem of the Trayvon Martin murder, and has taken on an over-determined position in relationship to blackness. Okay, sure, semiotically, hoodies have taken on some relationship, obviously, to black culture or something like that, but I think that they became, in the years following Trayvon Martin, this weird thing where hoodies and blackness and anti-blackness got really, really sutured together in this very strange way.
DK: Rocky wore a hoodie. I feel like it started to become iconic from there–like from boxing culture. Then someone like LL Cool J, brought it into hip-hop, because he had that song “Mama Said Knock You Out,” and he’s wearing a hoodie throughout the video.
Then it goes into the hoodie being worn to obscure your face, like if you’re going to rob someone. I think that’s brought up in Wu-Tang videos. But at the same time, it’s also just straight-up a garment that keeps your head warm. It’s weird that wearing athletic apparel becomes a signifier of potential criminality if you’re black or brown, you know? It’s like, “Oh, you’re not really training."
AD: Yeah. “Where’s your gear?"
DK: “Why do you need to run so fast, huh?"
AD: Yeah, it’s also funny thinking about post-American Apparel. I associate hoodies with the American Apparel hipster moment too.
DK: Oh, yeah. People wearing hoodies is just a college thing, too. You wear a hoodie and some shorts and some flip-flops or something.
AD: Yeah, or Silicon Valley Mark Zuckerberg vibes.
DK: Yeah, so it’s like the garment itself means so many things, but obviously it, like many objects, means something different when accompanied by a black body.
AD: Yeah, it’s a really great example or great object lesson for how blackness sticks to things or things can stick to blackness or something and create another semiotic charge.
DK: I wonder what the hoodie meant when David Hammons used it for that sculpture. It’s hard for me to imagine what that particular thing meant then and how that piece felt then, you know?
In the Hood, David Hammons, 1993
AD: Yeah, that’s true. That’s interesting. Yeah, that’s such a great piece, and I think it was 1993 that he made that.
DK: Okay, so I guess that’s hip-hop, it’s in the hip-hop era, I mean. Maybe I think that because he had the Jesse Jackson “how ya like me now?” piece, which I associate with Kool Moe Dee, so it doesn’t seem farfetched.
AD: LA riots, just post-riots moment.
AD: Even the superficial language thing of the ‘hood, neighborhood the ‘hood, the hoodie, this weird ...superficial link.
DK: Totally. Shoutout to Hoodie Allen haha.
AD: Yeah. Oh my god, Hoodie Allen.
DK: Lucky, lucky boy...