Devin Kenny: rootkits rootwork
On ViewMoMA PS1
June 9 – September 2, 2019
Interdisciplinary artist Devin Kenny uses art as a unique language to articulate systemic structures: invisible logic and motives that dictate power relations as well as recognized narratives. His work shows us the dark tentacular world of these structures, be it played out in the urban terrain or on the internet. With precise references and cogent metaphors, Kenny lays bare the desires and transgressions driving the displacement of peoples and cultures. In his recent show, rootkits rootwork, eerily attractive objects, quotation-packed paintings, and inventive videos condense layers of insights.
The objects in the show, dispersed in and clutching the floor space, often have several stratified levels of meaning, merging visceral evocativeness with cryptic mundanity. Do You Even Talk To Your Neighbors? (2018) is a 35-gallon BBQ smoker grill which Kenny turned into a faraday cage with aluminum foil. Some illegible photo negatives are scattered beneath the crate, suggesting memory or personhood. The piece’s title forms a kind of collage with the object’s multiple identities: grill and Faraday cages conjure up completely different neighborly attitudes. Grills, often playing a central role in familial, social, and political gatherings, cohere and strengthen communities. Faraday cages are enclosures that block electromagnetic fields, (some examples are cars, airplanes, elevators, MRI scan rooms, and a bug-proofed Sistine chapel during the 2013 papal election) sought after by survivalists and doomsday preppers who seek to insulate and protect themselves or their families. Functional grills and faraday cages thus flank a wide sociological spectrum, marking issues of connection, territory, societal units and community forming.
While the grill points to group psychology, Bam bam. exclusive drip (AKA turtle power) (2019) comments on ramifications of popular culture. It is a green anti-suicide smock which the artist customized with manga scenes. Kenny mentioned in a conversation that the idea of the piece came from a widely circulated photo in which Tay K, the 19-year-old rapper who’s been sentenced to 55 years in prison for murder, wears a red anti-suicide smock in jail. The discussion that the photo instigated is an example of bodies of knowledge pivoting and colliding, as a rapper’s fame directs popular attention to murky practices in the prison system.
Out of all the works on view, the paintings are the most limpid and least magnetic. Groups on aluminum flashing, Off Emancipation (2019) and untitled (Addresses removed to protect the innocent) 1-4 (2018), apathetically depict the monotonous facades of buildings developed under gentrification, echoing the manically pasted “Buys Houses” signs atop one wall to remind us of the humdrum yet coercive forces driving displacement.
Music videos shown on TV screens see Kenny juggling alter-egos and stage personas derived from distinct subcultures. Drag Lomax is a somber folk musician who relates his own life experiences to larger issues of marginalization and exploitation through music and intimate, diaristic videos. Wieder Care’s lonesome shadowy figure lingering around chain stores in Tomorrow Came Yesterday (2015) examines an alternative, emo mode of black masculinity overlooked by mainstream culture.
The projected video game piece tellem (fairplay) (2019) is a central pillar of the show, as viewers revel in a chance to revisit hundreds of vintage games in an unconventional setting. For a short period in 2018, rapper Souljia boy sold this emulator counsel, filled with unlicensed games, before his IP-infringing endeavor came to an inevitable halt. Few would not doubt that SouljiaGame is too good to be true to begin with, but the astounding simplicity of the scheme and outright disregard of the law remains intriguing especially as it’s predetermined by and contributing to a rap persona.
Metro Card Song (2018) by Blue Hundreds, shown in the backroom, pushes such psychological probing of outlawness even further. After Blue Hundreds posted this video instructing people how to evade train fare by swiping a bent two-trip metro card, it was heeded by passengers and the authority alike. Many people started emulating this trick while the police more actively enforced its punishment. The production of this song could be considered either altruistic or fame seeking, highlighting the many ways people use their online platforms. The tension of escape and control in the aftermath of the song re-appears throughout the show, including Ain’t nobody seein’ me (IR mask) (2014), a baseball cap capable of eluding certain CCTV cameras, and more or less (2016), a video showing Kenny maneuvering through a room while avoiding a motion-activated light.
Scattered in the space, sometimes without labels, are symbols and props that either extend or escape the edge of the viewer’s attention: a bent metrocard, a piece of blue foam rubber titled yantras yiking (2015), a shelf with a curated selection of books, a screen grab from the bodycam footage of the shooting of Philando Castile inserted into a police hat, and a computer continuously mining cryptocurrency to support Bail Bloc. As the show’s title suggests, everyone is implicated in numerous networks that interact and evolve at any given time. We are subject to their scrutiny and tyranny, synced to their momentum.