Standing at an edge of the world, or on Keanu Reeves’s beach deck, 18-year-old Penny Cooper, in a hot pink swimsuit, rests her camcorder over the Pacific. Her gaze rests somewhere beyond it. Her surfer boyfriend, Johnny Sanders Jr., enters from the house in striped swim shorts and leans over the rail beside her. It stretches out like the bow of a ship. Their hair is pushed back by the breeze. Behind them sit twin chaise lounges, white and unmoving. The sunset is both a convincing and otherworldly mix of lavender, pale orange, and green. The lines are clear. The image is specific.
The scene is from artist Alex Israel’s 2017 film, SPF-18, an American coming-of-age romantic dramedy. Like much Pop Art, his work probes the immediately identifiable and through its replication, makes it strange. Israel draws primarily from popular media interpretations of Los Angeles as a distinctly American hub of desire, fantasy, and false feeling. He identifies excessively with and reveals the fragility of this identification. Israel works intimately with the popular current order and, in his own twee way, embraces his implication by it. He spends time with the celebrity and the teenager, two types of bodies that help us think about the ways we yield and retract creative and moral license in others, and points to gestures that are so familiar they tend towards trivialization or glossy acceptance. In teenagers, it is easier to declare immaturity rather than to face, head-on, deliberate and age-appropriate acts of imitation and expression. Israel cares about teenage enfranchisement. Adolescence, a bridge and highly volatile period, is defined in many ways, in the U.S., by unequal access and information regarding sexual autonomy and reproduction. Given the stakes of being a so-called disenfranchised teenager in America, Israel’s work lacks any commentary at all. The film, instead, calls attention to the way in which value-systems and popular media intersect. It operates by the maxim, “There are no new stories,” and reveals the effects of excessive media repetitions of everyday images and gestures. The hyperconnected surfaces and unblemished images of Israel’s work are, if you take notice, propelled and disrupted by their currents.
In his talk show web series called As it LAys, named after the Didion novel and inspired by Oprah, Israel asks celebrities a series of banal questions, like “Do you have a good sense of direction?” or “Have you ever said, ‘Let’s do lunch’ and not meant it?” Questions of seemingly higher consequence, like “Given the chance, is there anything you would change about the Ten Commandments?” are made banal by their delivery. Israel creates a liminal space for the questions and answers to fall, without response or elaboration. It is the subject’s responsibility to fill this space, to reveal as much or as little as they decide. They are given considerable license within the interview’s constraints: question and answer in real time and on-camera.
Eve Kosofky Sedgwick and Michael Moon discuss the celebrity interview as a scene of creation in “Divinity: A Dossier, A Performance Piece, A Little Understood Emotion.” Their conversation rotates around the intersections of celebrity, filth, and the drag artist Divine. About the celebrity interview, Sedgwick writes:
It ushers audiences onto an exciting and nauseating scene of creation: the creation of the closet. Public scenes of self-misrecognition are a staple of human relations with the gods; a divinity with self-knowledge, on Olympus, on Sinai, couldn’t be expected to have much in the way of world-creating or narrative-inducing powers. But the opacity of gods to themselves used to be a property of their own strength, rage, willfulness, lust, and jealousy. Now, a fascinated, vengeful calculus about who has the power to enforce or exact this spectacle energizes the public age of the celebrity.
As it LAys makes bare this scene of creation, as its title suggests. It troubles the opacity that celebrities can do well to cultivate. The celebrity, who in this case is closer on the spectrum of visibility to passé, is always subject, never guest, reinforcing that while they might be welcomed they are, more importantly, observed. Israel, seated directly across from the subject, is observed as well. His sunglasses and deadpan (if sometimes juvenile) delivery do not draw attention away from him, but ensure that he’ll deliver a consistent performance each time. When the viewer looks for a reaction to whatever surprising, commonplace, or surprisingly commonplace opinion the subject has revealed, they find little more than a characteristic break of his voice as he leans into the next question.
The liminal space the celebrity interview creates bears relation to Pop progenitor Andy Warhol’s approach to video. Several of Warhol’s subjects were famous, some more so than others. Their reactions to being observed and manipulated, varied between discomfort, resistance, and tears. In his biography of Andy Warhol, Wayne Koestenbaum writes, “Warhol’s camera could torture men and women, but not drag queens: their appearance was already an arduous performance, in which they played director and star.” In As it LAys, it is Angelyne—singer, actress, and pink and blonde Billboard Queen—who interviews particularly well. Because of her arduous performance as Angelyne, she cultivates opacity, most noticeably by holding a fan in front of her face, and commands more control over the interview than most. Marilyn Manson on the other hand, wears sunglasses and lets his answers spiral into puerile misogyny. His resistance is not a cultivated performance but of a boy who wouldn’t mind being punished. The series is a display of varying shades of opacity and transparency. Israel’s manipulation of the spectacle of celebrity interview might feel revealing, but it is always sympathetic and never dishonest. It is too simple.
As it LAys is about celebrity insofar as Israel’s choice of subjects puts a time stamp on the project, illustrating the shifting nature of public illumination. Celebrity is not the focal point of the series because, on its own, it is not all that interesting. Instead, it is used as a vehicle to say more about self-creation, performance, and human relationships. Koestenbaum writes that Andy Warhol’s work is not “a theory of fame but a theory of relationships, a query into the texture of human bondage—the web of interpersonal affiliation that includes, and surpasses, the ties that bind the not-famous to the famous.” Israel’s work is similarly about bodies and bondage. In the interview, it is about two bodies: one more famous than the other, although not as famous as it once was. His work is about spectacle, by which I mean it is about positing authority and responsibility for entertainment and living in others. Recognizing that the work is sly but never malicious encourages a leveling of relationships in order to see them in a new way, making the work resonant, personal, and self-implicating. As it LAys draws from a genre of spectacle not to energize it, but as a medium useful for its familiarity. Israel nods also to the circumstances of its familiarity through its evocation, drawing from the immediately recognizable in order to pressure the points at which the image will fracture without breaking.
In interviews, wherein he is the subject, Israel refuses to express anything but appreciation for his subjects. It reflects his work’s balance of admiration and commentary. He expresses an inarticulation similar to that of not explaining a joke. As it LAys and SPF-18 are free from irony or parody for this same reason of not wanting to explain the joke. Nudging the audience would not be true to the forms. Irony and parody would create too much distance between subject and viewer. It is only in pushing the genres to their limits without breaking form that this can be expressed. This method requires that one pay close attention.
In SPF-18, we look at teenagers, the beach, and the surf. Co-written by Michael Berk (Baywatch) and produced by Kristen “Kiwi” Smith (Legally Blonde and 10 Things I Hate About You), SPF-18 is cemented in the genre that spawned it. It reads and feels like a teenage romantic comedy, but it is not quite generic. Israel pressures the tropes as he humors or replicates them, pushing them to their borders and reinforcing their being. Penny Cooper’s free-spirited cousin, Camilla Barnes, mimics Cameron Diaz’s square pout, to which all attention in her face is drawn, as if instructed by a young girl’s magazine. She whips up guacamole in the kitchen by literally topping it with whipped cream. When Johnny asks hopelessly if he’s tied his tie correctly, the camera takes a close look as Camilla adjusts it, by which I mean she doesn’t do anything to it at all, except tug at the ends and satisfactorily sigh, “There.” His question is a stand-in for a display of intimacy, and Camilla’s non-adjustment makes the gesture hollow and clear. The hyperreality and visual specificity of SPF-18 work to achieve this as well. You don’t have to work very hard to “see” what’s going on in each scene. Girl rolls her eyes at her mother, girl and boy have safe first-time sex, girl doesn’t feel very different, girl likes a boy other than her boyfriend, boy is troubled, rides a motorcycle, boys and girls make a music video, boys and girls go to the beach, etc. Because the film balances on benevolence, much can be learned from its currents. How does it move and where does it take us? The off-key gestures are sympathetic while highlighting the futility of the genre’s leanings and tendencies. Israel takes the inherent flatness and hygienic cleansing of the genre and manages to make this image of the teenager, as a real-life cut-out figure, starkly apparent.
Israel’s approach can be pressed further by a mode or principle described by Hal Foster in his book, Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency, as mimetic exacerbation. Foster describes an untitled work by Robert Grober in 2005: Amidst religious iconoclastic images are bowls of fruit, clippings from the New York Times on September 12, 2001, intersexed bodies, and cracked open doors to peer through. Foster writes,
Gober updates this move with the cultural kitsch of post-9/11 America, which he treats as a political program imposed on us. Yet he does not merely mock it; for all the ambiguity of his installation, it projects none of the sophisticated superiority found in camp, and little of the secret support advanced in parody. Although kitsch trades in false sentiment, it can possess a damaged authenticity of its own, and Gober is sensitive to the pathos in the expressions of loss after 9/11 (the fruit bowls on the mortuary slabs call up the flowers, candles, and other mementoes left from Trinity Church to Union Square in Manhattan.) …
Yet again, Gober does not treat this American kitsch ironically; he evokes the pathos even as he questions the politics.
Israel is also sympathetic to the teenage experience, as portrayed by the rom-com, even as he questions the source of the performances and feelings. His is a damaged authenticity that realizes a kind of humor, but does not draw from the practices of parody or camp. He draws out, for better or worse, hyper-masculinity and -femininity in his characters. Take the following conversation between surfing coach, Steve, and Johnny:
STEVE. When you’re out there, you don’t want to force your will on the waves. You want to accept whatever they’re giving you.
JOHNNY. Hard to believe you’re still spouting that crap.
STEVE. It’s all scientific. Waves aren’t just water, they’re energy generated from thousands of miles away. And the waves we’re riding today were started by an eruption in the Marianas Trench…the deepest known spot on the planet.
JOHNNY. The whole “one with the wave” thing is a waste of time. You have to impose yourself on them. That’s what my dad taught me.
STEVE. Your dad taught me that surfing’s like making love … it feels good no matter how you do it.
CAMILLA. I’m ready to absorb some primal energy from the Earth’s core.
STEVE. Far out.
Johnny’s hyper-masculine response is pointedly tragicomic and knowing. In the film, it goes unchecked, staying true to the Johnny Sanders Jr. experience, and reflecting the genre’s limits. Johnny’s growth, however, is rooted in the feminine. A lucid dreaming experience, suggested by Camilla, reveals to him that cutting down his board, is what will help him get back into surfing, after his dad’s fatal accident. In the process, he manages to drive Camilla to tears by suggesting that her affections are widespread and, therefore, not to be taken seriously. She turns to surfing coach, Steve, for consolation. When she asks, wiping her face and rolling her eyes to the top of her head if he, “takes her seriously,” the pathos and familiarity of it is enough to make a feminine viewer look away. Steve assures her that he does and offers the following:
STEVE. When you’re out there waiting, you can tie yourself up into knots, trying to figure out what moves you’re gonna pull. But once you get on the wave, everything becomes pretty simple. You know who you are. You know what to do.
CAMILLA. What if they hate me?
STEVE. Just face up to how you feel.
There is nothing ironic about this portrayal. Israel goes so far as to provide decent advice. Notice, Steve doesn’t say, “Be yourself,” a maxim so empty that it can only ricochet like a digital square that changes colors as it bounces around a screen. The film continually reasserts its flatness, but on a tilt. When Ash Baker, an on-the-road, pop country musician,- asks Penny Cooper why she records everything, she responds, “Sometimes things feel more real on video than they do in real life, you know?” Israel looks to what life, Hollywood, and the internet have created and replicated, together. The relationship between art, media, and real life is mimetic. What Israel examines, then, is the rate at which media consumes itself in the digital age. Unchecked, it filters and refilters to a point of cleanliness, or removal from consequence. Attention is paid more fully to the minute surface of the image. Affectations swim even closer to, and act in service of the surface. Imitation and recreation via screens are not inherently good or bad. What might be poor, is a persistent feeling of having seen it all before or losing sight of the source. Depending on which way you look at it, a focus on surfaces can be conventional, perverse, or perverse in its conventionality. As illustrated in the work of Alex Israel, the last is of great, if not the greatest, consequence.
Recognizing this consequence requires a sense of paranoia that mimetic exacerbation can activate. Paranoia, that is, as a heightened sense of awareness and connection. The work requires that the viewer become alert to the tropes and the ways in which they are embraced as well as the ways they are made strange. Hal Foster writes that Gober’s untitled work both resists and elicits interpretation; SPF-18, similarly, fits into its genre (resists interpretation) as much as it might not (elicits). The hyper-connectedness and hyperreality of the surfaces in SPF-18 contribute to the possibility of paranoiac reception. Mimetic exacerbation works to show how ingrained the imagistic rituals are in daily life. There are small but consistent moments throughout the film. Johnny lowers his voice, wiggles his wrists and asks, “Do you guys, uh, want smoothies?” When Steve fingers a string of beads as he offers them to Johnny, it makes you think. L.A.-raised teenagers spend the night in Keanu Reeves’s Malibu beach house, drinking virgin daiquiris. Something is not right. SPF-18 is not niche. It works to fit into a widely recognized genre. It speaks to teenagers in a language they are familiar with, and through the channels (iTunes and Netflix) they access. Israel planned for a high school tour to accompany the release of the film during which, he would distribute his own brand of sunscreen. (Israel also produces his own brand of sunglasses and says it’s important to know that not everything he does is art.) The work doesn’t so much achieve a shift in conversation as it tilts so far into reiterating the conversation that it passes 180 degrees and reaches 270. Israel celebrates the subjects he works with. “This is the risk of an excessive identification with the corrupt condition of a symbolic order, Hal Foster writes. “Nevertheless, if maintained as a strategy with a degree of distance created not through withdrawal but through excess, mimetic exacerbation can also expose this order as failed, or at least as fragile.” Foster draws more favorably from artists like Thomas Hirschorn and Isa Genzken in order to put forward this principle, not the Duchampian ready-made or Koons’s shiny objects, which are relatives and integral to Israel’s work. Israel’s work may tip, at 270 degrees, into what Foster suggests is the risk of this method, a “capitalistic garbage bucket.” Either way, the key and value of Israel’s work lies in its excess and a refusal to withdraw. This is achieved, I believe, by always recognizing a piece of yourself in it.
In SPF-18, the characters are excessively cast and true to their types. Perhaps the most consequential character is Ash Baker: Vocal about his religious beliefs, he initiates himself into Malibu and renews his faith in the lord with a Pacific Coast baptism. With his acoustic guitar, button down shirts, and a van strung with lights, Ash calls to mind the historically contentious and uniquely American intersections of evangelicalism, celebrity, and youth culture.
In the Muse article, “The Rise and Fall of the Pop Star Purity Ring,” Hazel Cills examines the early 2000s trend. In the sexed and sexy pop world initiated by artists like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Destiny’s Child, and Justin Timberlake, Disney sought a way to utilize the young stars they had at hand in a way that was unambiguously teenaged, yet to which the market term family-friendly could be applied. To fit into the template of pop while reinforcing sexual immaturity, Disney stars like Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato and the Jonas Brothers were vocally chaste, wore purity rings, and reinforced their Christian upbringings—and they were all brought up Christian. They would eventually abandon the rings and the next wave of Disney stars Rowan Blanchard, Zendaya, and Bella Thorne would display decidedly active and open views about sex.
Cills traces patterns in government funding for abstinence-only sex education with this popular trend in teen music. Until 2005, Silver Ring Thing, an evangelical virginity pledge program, established in 1993, received half of its funding from the government under the Bush administration. Once the ACLU filed a lawsuit regarding this funding, and once Barack Obama entered office in 2009, government funding for abstinence-only education programs was nearly eliminated. That is, until a portion of abstinence funding was signed into law under the Affordable Care Act. Still, vocal chastity was no longer a mainstream event. While Cills does not cite causation, she does get at a meaningful cultural shift and the connection between federal funding, value-systems, and teen pop culture—namely, how purity movements are accelerated by federal funding. A little over a decade later, a new era of purity, religious fundamentalism, and moral conservatism has surfaced under the Trump administration. Without notice or warning, Donald Trump cut $213.6 million in pregnancy prevention and sex education programs, and today his budget devotes $277 million to abstinence.
Sara Moslener, in her book, Virgin Nation: Sexual Purity and American Adolescence, illustrates the way fundamentalist Christian purity movements continue to surface and reinvent themselves to serve the needs and the moods of the mainstream and the teenager. She traces purity movements back to psychologist G. Stanley Hall who, in 1904, first identified adolescence as a cultural category, a period of great potential for religious conversion or political manipulation. Hall was one of the first to make an opportunistic identification of the white adolescent as a group useful for addressing anxieties of declining Anglo-Saxon power and nationalism by encouraging marriage and intentions to have a family as a prerequisite to sex.
While not directly tied to fundamentalists, Hall’s work fell quickly out of popularity because of his use of religious rhetoric and fervor. Christian fundamentalists suffered a loss in stature and influence after a verdict in favor of evolution in the 1925 Scopes Trial. To compensate for it— and to re-enter the mainstream–fundamentalist purity strategies shifted from a religion of fear to a religion of accommodation, without completely shedding notions of separatism. In 1944, Torrey Johnson founded Youth for Christ, an organization that embraced youth culture and sociability, employing the charismatic twenty-four-year-old Billy Graham to preach a masculine heroism and chastity agenda to a theater of adolescents on Saturday nights.
In the 1960s, purity movements took hold of the countercultural rhetoric of feminist, anti-war, and civil rights groups because they were not yet aligned with Republican interests. “The use of countercultural rhetoric allowed them to defy mainstream mores of sexual freedom and promiscuity,” Moslener writes, “and to assert a traditional sexual identity as the avant-garde of the sexual revolution.” Sexual purity was positioned as transgressive to a mainstream culture of sexual revolution and hedonism, and therefore a potentially individualistic and transformative identity.
Christian fundamentalist movements continuously reflected a “willingness to dissolve the boundaries between religious and nonreligious cultures.” During this period, this willingness evolved into new paradigm churches. Calvary Chapel was a new paradigm church founded by Chuck Smith, “a Hawaiian-shirt-wearing, fundamentalist preacher from southern California who helped former drug users shift their hope for transcendence from LSD onto Jesus Christ. Known for his laid-back preaching style and for conducting baptisms in the Pacific Ocean, Smith recognized that the hippie generation, with its penchant for political and cultural protest, was ripe for religious conversion.” Another pattern of fundamentalism that began to surface during the mid to late twentieth century was finding these ripe (or vulnerable) groups and co-opting their language, dress, style, even values, in order to assimilate mandates for marriage and no premarital sex relations. It was around this time that the Christian music industry emerged. Moslener writes that the use of music in particular “exemplified the syncretism of the movement and reflected the desire to reinvigorate Christianity with the enthusiasm and creativity of a youth movement.” While still expressing overtly Christian values, the movement borrowed from cultural markers of popular media targeting those who could identify with it and who might take up the counter-message.
Guiding evangelical purity movements in the 1970s were stronger calls for family unit restoration. According to Moslener, it was during this period that rhetoric of evangelical leaders found a closer affinity to the rhetoric of Republican politicians. Conservative evangelicals had, over time, refocused their efforts from the Cold War and nuclear threats to more domestic concerns regarding families and parenting. Sexual purity as a central practice of Christianity, as opposed to social causes like racism and poverty which were broadly addressed by 1960s evangelicals, inevitably draws all attention to the teenager, appealing to, relying on, and leading them in the right direction. Under the guise of guidance and self-determination that prioritizes sexual purity above all other feelings and experiences in the teenager, evangelical movements achieved a sense of providing an outlet for teenage autonomy.
In 1981, the United States government started funding abstinence-only education programs. The American Jewish Congress filed the first lawsuit in 1983 against this funding, claiming that religious-based abstinence programs violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. While the American Jewish Congress originally won their case, it was overturned in 1988. A settlement in 1993 allowed religious organizations to continue receiving funding for abstinence education after the American Civil Liberties Union made an appeal, as long as they abided by the following: “abstinence education must not include religious references, must be medically accurate, must respect the ‘principle of self-determination’ regarding contraceptive referral for teenagers, and must not allow grantees to use church sanctuaries for their programs or to give presentations in parochial schools during school hours.” Christian evangelicals were granted access by the government to carry on with the same value-systems and education programs as before, as long as they avoided religious rhetoric—as long as they modified it. This persistence of the purity movement under thinly-veiled guises parallels with movements in popular media appeals beginning in the 1990s with organizations like Silver Ring Thing.
Silver Ring Thing was founded in 1993 by Denny and Amy Pattyn in response what the couple considered unhealthy obsessions with sex among teenagers. They developed a series of high school tours comprised of two-hour performances including music, lights, and sketch comedy. Like new paradigm churches, the organization puts forward a religion of accommodation, providing a familiar environment and using popular nonreligious narratives in order to garner widespread appeal. Moslener writes, “The organization communicates to its audiences that they are known—their desires, interests, and means of expression are recognized as legitimate and are addressed with great sophistication. In short, SRT recognizes its audiences to comprise individuals whose agency is best displayed by their practices of media consumption.” SRT embraces media representations and capital that teenagers can recognize within the limits set by their moral goals. Their agenda is made clear through parody.
SRT’s most recent promotional videos skip between audiences of teenagers, who might be at a Diplo concert with glow sticks swinging, and sound bites of peer leaders in jeans with hands-free microphones standing head on, legs evenly apart, palms clasped, and eyebrows raised, communicating: real. The sketch comedy bits of the show borrow from popular films, music, and shows, like The Avengers, Usher’s Confessions, or Saturday Night Live, as a means of social identification. Pending participation, the show goes on until the parody reveals a break, and the popular characters to be misled, careless, or unattractive because of their wanton and godless sexuality. SRT identifies with the media to the point that teenagers decide to take up their mandates to be moral agents, able to determine between right and wrong; right being abstinence, and wrong being pre-marital sex. SRT concedes that the material is entertaining, but only at a remove. Unlike Israel, SRT withdraws, guiding the teenager down a new avenue. Their parody insists the moral viewer rejects mainstream hook-up culture. The viewer wants to fight for individuality, not STDs; the viewer wants a second chance. “The use of media, and parody in particular,” Moslener writes, “is employed to cultivate social identification among the adolescents, to help them recognize SRT as a grouping of peers who share their vernacular, interests, and desires. The group selects films, celebrities, narratives, and tropes that create a short-hand for interpersonal intimacy. In doing so, SRT begins to develop their moral economy by inverting familiar meanings while maintaining the original meaning-making devices.” SRT’s strategies are dependent on a popular media for its familiarity, like Israel. But unlike Israel, they are also dependent on a value-system that nudges the viewer in a particular, in this case more pure, direction. In other words, SRT employs parody because it is useful as a conversion tactic. If a teenager attending the show identifies with the original meaning-making devices, or with the other teenagers in the audience and on-stage, the final message might be confusing, but nevertheless persuasive given the environment. Alex Israel doesn’t invert familiar meanings as much as he makes them stark. At the end of an SRT show, the teenager is expected to make a promise and put on a ring. Parody guides in a certain direction. In SRT’s case, it breaks, not completely, with the source, but it withdraws and prohibits.
There is a Wikipedia page that, however lightly I tread, I like for its concision: Relationship between avant-garde art and American pop culture. Since the 1970s, the avant-garde has blended and become intricately intertwined with pop culture. Since the 1970s, so have evangelical purity movements. In some instances, they assimilate and drop religious sentiment altogether. While both movements find significant value in the present, popular, and immediate order as represented through the media, they utilize it in different ways. Both movements move towards non-recognition in their distinction from pop culture. This non-recognition blurs boundaries between reality and fantasy, right and wrong. Hal Foster writes,
Not heroic, this avant-garde will not pretend that it can break absolutely with the old order or found a new one; rather, it will seek to trace fractures that already exist within the given order, to pressure them further, to activate them somehow. Neither avant nor rear, this garde will assume a position of immanent critique, and often it will adopt a posture of mimetic exacerbation in doing so. If any avant-garde is relevant to our time, it is this one.
To sit at length with SPF-18—during “our time” when politics blend with reality tv—is to recognize the images, the values they represent, their centrality in the narrative of the American teenager, and their futility. To watch it is to recognize the mannerisms of the everyday. It is to take notice of what the teenager is given and what the teenager gives back. It is to notice, not “the absence of diversity”, but the whiteness; that Noah Centineo and Bianca Santos play Johnny Sanders Jr. and Camilla Barnes, respectively. It is to recognize the ways in which we internalize gestures, even the ones we reject. It is about having a general proximity to things. Like Penny Cooper says, “Sometimes things feel more real on video than they do in real life, you know?”
Melissa Hutton is a writer living in New York.
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