Multimedia Artist's Work Offers Provocative Critique of Popular Culture

By Donna Longenecker

Release Date: February 7, 2003

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- It may have been the broken black-and-white television set that was never replaced during her childhood. Perhaps it was the neighborhood spy clubs and intricately kept code books, or the Super 8 film camera purchased for $2 at the Salvation Army that fueled a future filmmaker's imagination.

Today, Caroline Koebel, multimedia artist and assistant professor of media study, finds creative impetus in themes that are inherently political, sexual, often racial and almost always concerned with gender and identity.

While her work is not always overtly political, it is always fresh and pungently rich, frequently offering a provocative critique of mass media and popular culture's depictions of gender, feminine sexuality, religious experience and relationships.

Unlike so much media-savvy, heavily edited and digitally enhanced multimedia art, Koebel's work, which ranges from installation and performance projects to quick-time movie images manipulated by a touch-screen computer, isn't easy to dismiss-even as its often humorous and novel surfaces provoke laughter or a disconcerted gasp. Viewers aren't likely to walk away easily or quickly. Her work is mesmerizing -- you're not apt to shake its effects any time soon.

Koebel's work has premiered around the world and for more than 10 years has received notice and acclaim in places like The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and The Village Voice.

Just back from Cuba and the premiere of "Paraiso" -- a project featuring Latino salsa dancers in a Columbus, Ohio, nightclub of the same name-Koebel is readying the work for its national debut at the Carnegie Art Center in the upcoming exhibition, "Art of the Encyclopedic," opening Feb. 15 in North Tonawanda. This Friday, CEPA Gallery in downtown Buffalo will debut her video installation, "The Vent: Flurry." The work will appear in the gallery's public art window and will be available for viewing around the clock throughout the winter months.

"Paraiso," says Koebel, is an attempt to break dance down into isolated moments of ecstasy.

"I wanted to try to get to the erotic underpinnings of the dance, if that's even possible. I wanted to create some kind of artwork around the idea of couples dancing and examine the differences in how one feels when dancing, verses how one is perceived by the so-called outside observer and try to put a finger on the eros of that. Certainly, that's the point of dancing -- it's like a life force that's highly erotic and also forms the pleasure of someone watching the dance," she explains.

Koebel says the editing process wasn't going quite right, so she began to break the film up into many minute parts, making it a more interactive work so that the viewer is allowed to watch the couple dancing in very short clips. Viewers manipulate the dancers by touching the arrows on a computer screen, moving the dancers in one direction or another -- the effect is like witnessing pure, orgasmic energy; yet the images possess a certain grace in their powerful, looping arcs of florescent-lit flesh.

She has captured on film the way light fingers the tongue of a female dancer whose wide-open mouth and head rock back upon her neck like a high-speed pendulum. And then there's the delightful, ecstatic moment when her partner's rapturous smile threatens to swallow his face. The dance, not sex, is the lingua franca, the salsa a text of formalized erotic frenzy.

"What was kind of special about that couple was how much they were enjoying themselves. It's a good example of how, for the most part, I tend to make work that isn't overtly political-more of my work has the underlying sensibility of "Paraiso," says Koebel.

In "Proud to Be an Atheist," which Koebel calls a performative piece, she sent t-shirts bearing that phrase to people in about 10 major cities across the country and asked them to wear the shirts on a day of their choosing, then report back to her any reactions or encounters with the public as a result of making such an overtly provocative statement. Many of the participants posted photos of themselves wearing the shirts and emailed brief essays about the experience, which Koebel later posted on a Web site.

"I felt like I needed to do something that very directly addressed the aftermath of Sept. 11 and the exploitation of loss by the powers that be," says Koebel.

In her artist's statement about the project, she points out that "especially since Sept. 11, 2001, Americans are more and more uniformly represented as flag-waving, God-fearing Christians -- at least 'good Americans,' that is."

"I very much wanted to do a project that was an alternative way of taking action, but that also was very politically engaged." And, she adds, "this project was very atypical of the way that I normally work."

All of the participants in "Atheist" had interactions in their own communities, and the t-shirts provoked a wide array of responses. Koebel tells the story of one business owner, an African-American coffee shop owner competing against Starbucks in a section of Pasadena known as largely Republican and wealthy.

"She (the shop owner) said it was a key example of democracy at work-by wearing that shirt to work that day, she was putting her business on the line," says Koebel, "She's African-American and her business has to be palatable to a diverse community." A customer of the coffee shop voiced obvious displeasure over the shirt, prompting a conversation about the Pledge of Allegiance and anger about those that might take "God out of the pledge."

The coffee shop owner also wore the shirt to an Independence Day celebration, where, surprisingly, many people responded positively. Yet one white man in his 30s said that although he was an atheist, he would be afraid to wear the shirt, especially around the Christians with whom he works, fearing they would judge him immoral or that he could even lose his job.

"All of the work I do is always political, but it doesn't always speak so directly to the main forces of politics in the world. Even if I feel like the work I do has absolutely no impact, then I'll have these surprises which convince me of the opposite," says Koebel.

She decries what she sees as monolithic representations of what it means to be an American, which she believes is offensive for those Americans who hold differing viewpoints.

This point is underscored, she says in her artist's statement for "Proud to Be an Atheist," by those like George Bush and others who "are so frustrated by Americans who criticize the blanketing of America into a 'Christian Nation.'" How, Koebel asks, "does this lend any credence to their own attacks on other governments for disallowing religious freedom?"

"If one government legislates as if its citizens are of a single religious persuasion, then how is it different from another government's policies failing to acknowledge religious freedom?

"At this point, the difference is merely a question of degree. With the right-wing agenda rapidly advancing, however, the gap is narrowing. 'Proud to Be an Atheist' is a nominal, yet necessary, intervention into this coercion of the American national identity," she says.

Several weeks ago, Koebel made the trip with thousands of others to Washington, D.C., to protest the possibility of a war with Iraq.

"The organizers of the march estimated that some 500,000 people attended. Police departments even acknowledged that it was the largest march they'd seen in a very long time, yet no one wants to go on record saying that," says Koebel. The Washington Post put crowd estimates anywhere between 30,000-500,000.

Among those attending the march, she notes, were Holocaust survivors and throngs of veterans.

"Some of the people I felt the proudest of were the vets. They were out in full force at this peace march. They had their banners, they chanted anti-Bush sentiments," she says. The protest included a large contingent of World War II veterans who, Koebel says, were quite elderly but also appeared to be physically very strong, as opposed to some the Vietnam veterans, who appeared very frail, although fully engaged in the protest.

"I don't think I'll forget the look on the face of one Vietnam vet who looked like he had been through hell and had survived. It looked like he had just stepped out of the jungle a few hours before. He was extremely gaunt, yet he was one of the main persons carrying a banner. He was fully present, yet it was clear that he was still so traumatized and he could have easily been one of the many homeless Buffalonians who I see all the time in my neighborhood in Allentown, who are walking the streets shouting with no one around.

"I know that's the type of person the Bush administration does not want the general public to know about. That's exactly the voice they want to keep obscure from the public eye," says Koebel, "and they want to push forward the cliché of the protestor as the dangerous young man."

But at this march were people from all walks of life; "it was strong; it was unified," she says.

Koebel herself went to jail as a film-studies major at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1980s while protesting what she and others viewed as the university's economic involvement in South Africa's apartheid regime.

Much of Koebel's work challenges what she considers the commercialization of common experiences-like being in a relationship or being a young girl coming of age-yet the type of work she does is very far removed from any semblance of commercialism.

In an earlier installation piece also featured by CEPA gallery, titled "pupspindanceslow," the target is "pop love songs, teen dances, grooming trends, and side-long glances, (and) revolves around the kid-come-adult's vows to resist marketplace-driven conceptions of sexual desire and romantic expectation and how the capitalist ordering of the social hardly skips a beat in the face of any such attempt on the part of the individual." Plaster-cast poodles spin around on the tops of vinyl records, some smooching, some alone -- a uniformity and conformity expressed in the repetitious "doggie" ritual of another kind of dance, one in which Koebel mocks the very thing it reveals.

For more of Koebel's work go to http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~cgkoebel/projects/ and http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~cgkoebel/links/index.html.