One Thing: Untitled Fall '95
by Cason Sharpe
I didn’t go to art school. Instead, I opted to major in political science, thinking it to be the more practical decision, only to realize upon graduation that the job market cares more about who you know than what you studied. I ended up in the arts rather than politics because the art school kids threw better parties.
As a political science major, I learned about the Socratic method and its desired outcome of aporia, a state of perplexity meant to clarify and challenge presumptions. At art-school parties, I often found myself taking on the role of studio major interlocutor: “Why do you think your crit went so badly?” I’d ask. Responses were almost always impassioned, fuelled by a frustration with professors, peers and, oftentimes, the artist’s own scattershot ability to express themselves.
In Alex Bag’s Untitled Fall ’95 (1995), the camera is the artist’s interlocutor, its presence the catalyst that pushes her to question what she thinks she knows about art. The cult classic video piece, required viewing for any newly enrolled art student, sees Bag adopting the persona of an undergrad transplanted to New York City to pursue a degree in studio art at SVA. Split into eight segments, each set at the beginning of a new semester, the video charts the progres- sion of Bag’s alter ego from starry-eyed freshman to world-weary senior, her naive idealism eroding into disillusionment by graduation.
Each segment is shot confessional style, Bag talking directly into the camera. With each semester comes a new haircut and fresh set of revelations. She’s an instantly endearing hero, her youthful lack of self-awareness as charming as it is cringeworthy. In her first semester, she’s chuffed to be around like-minded people, “unlike my mom and dad,” she says, “who like, just do not get me at all.” It’s hard to watch her without the uncanny recognition of a younger self.
As the video progresses, we watch the development of an artistic consciousness. “Advertising is so evil,” our hero says during her second semester, her first foray into criticism. “It’s like, I don’t care if I ever make money with my work.” A sour critique in her sixth semester triggers an awareness of the institution’s thinly veiled misogyny. At this point, we notice a shift in the artist’s speech; still punctuated by “ums” and “likes,” her thoughts are now fully formed, her jabs a little sharper, the subjects of her critiques more precise. She notes the uselessness of her studio professor, who sits on the sidelines “groov- ing on, like, any speck of dust because it reminds him of his own work.” She describes the painter she assists over the summer as “all on his cellular, bitch- ing about every artist on the face of the Earth while I’m making his paintings for five dollars an hour.” The final sequence shows the artist, hair shorn into a DIY pixie cut. She holds a single tulip, her gaze fixed to a spot just beyond the camera. Is this our hero’s graduation? After a few minutes of steely-eyed com- posure, the artist breaks down and sobs, perhaps for an innocence she hadn’t realized she’d lost.
This Bildungsroman is punctuated by a series of vignettes that interrupt the narrative with the regularity of commercial breaks, the artist slipping in and out of enough wigs, costumes, voices and embodiments to make a character actor blush. Bag hangs quilts as backdrops to create makeshift sets, and casts a series of action figures, stuffed animals and other bits of childhood detritus as her co-stars. It’s as if these sequences were filmed in the artist’s teenage bedroom at her parents’ house over the winter holidays, every shot kept tight enough to keep a princess canopy out of frame. The intimacy of this staging lends itself to the thrill of voyeurism, the viewer watching Bag play alone in front of the camera as though through the crack of a door left ajar.
In one scene, reminiscent of a Punch and Judy skit, a Hello Kitty plush toy (manually operated and voiced by an off-camera Bag affecting a squeaky soprano) sidesteps the obnoxious advances of a Ronald McDonald puppet (Bag in a gravelly tenor). Another features an oft-circulated clip of Bjork explaining the science of television, presented split-screen alongside footage of a wide-eyed Bag, who nods along with the awe of a devotee (“You shouldn’t let poets lie to you,” advises the Icelandic songstress, which is coincidentally the same advice Socrates gives to his followers at the end of Plato’s Republic). In yet another vignette, this one a parody of an adult chatline ad, the artist dons a blond wig and white camisole to seductively goad viewers to call her, but instead of erotic missives, Bag’s operator uses the promise of validation as bait (“Are you tired of being overworked, underpaid, under-appre- ciated, devalued, humiliated day after day after day after day?” she asks), only to antagonize her callers once she gets them on the line (“Well she’s right,” the operator sighs into an orange land-line receiver, presumably addressing one of her clients. “You are selfish and inconsiderate”). My favourite vignette stars two UK shopgirls (Bag in a neon-green wig and Bag in straw-yellow wig, respectively), who toss potential lyrics for their punk band back and forth during a slow day at work. “What do you think of this?” the green-haired retail associate asks her colleague-bandmate. “Boring boring / buy this dress / boring boring / world’s a mess…” The shopgirls’ anthem points to an argument that Bag builds throughout the vid- eo, that perhaps the important work of art-making happens outside the classroom or studio, in the dull, looping hours an artist spends at her minimum-wage job or alone in her tiny, overpriced apartment. These vignettes drag on, the camera sometimes capturing a second or two on an operator’s leg before abruptly cutting back to our regularly scheduled programming.
The episodic cable TV structure of the piece is no coincidence, given that Bag’s satire targets pop culture as much as it does the art world or the academy. The result is a video that shows an artist learning to wrestle with the competing elements of the world around her, from pretentious professors, precarious employment and the still-lingering trauma of adolescence, to the ubiquity of pop stars, network TV and the incessant advertising that attempts, as she puts it, “to sell [her] culture back to [her].” The diaristic direct address of Bag’s art-school student is reminiscent of a reality TV confessional, a convention that was just establishing itself in the mid-’90s with the rising popularity of shows like The Real World, later to be adapted by YouTube vloggers in the internet era. It’s a piece very much of its time (in one scene, the artist espouses the virtues of Beavis and Butt-Head while wearing an X-girl shirt), resulting in a double-layered hindsight for me, 25 years later, watching the cultural artifacts of a bygone era presented by the proxy of a younger self (I was a toddler when this video came out, but am now older than the artist was when she made it). These Gen X signifiers don’t dilute the video’s contemporary potency; in the specificity of her references, Bag hits upon the universal, allowing her to reach across time to a new vanguard of artists as if to say “Don’t worry, I too struggled to find my voice.”
By her last semester, Bag’s character trusts her critical instincts enough to begin dissecting these various influences on her own terms. “I know I’m not stupid,” she declares in her final monologue, “because, y’know, I work really hard every day to learn, and to put things together, and find allies, and change, and grow, y’know?” By the apex of this speech, the artist achieves the clarity of aporia: “I don’t want to be stupid,” she says, “but I also don’t think that any one person can, y’know, know the answers to everything.” A quarter century later, the sentiment still rings true.