Gold Finger

Nick Pinkerton on Jacob Ciocci

Jacob Ciocci, FREEDOM ISN'T FREE/I'M NOT CRAZY, IN AN INSTITUTION, SOCIETY IS CRAZY, IN AN INSTITUTION, 2016, digital video, color, sound, 5 minutes.

THE WONDERFUL, HORRIBLE WEB 2.0 YEARS, with their bounty of image, information, and emotion, have been accompanied by the emergence of a pervasive satirical style whose basic tenets are overkill and gluttony. Like the parent who finds you with a cigarette and makes you smoke yourself sick on the whole pack, these are works that say “So you like garbage, huh? Well open wide, ’cause here comes the whole landfill!” Some of the more popular manifestations can be found in the Adult Swim aesthetic (exemplified and transcended by Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim), the ZOMFG mashups of TV Carnage and Everything Is Awful, and the not-too-distant vogue for novelty records by the likes of Girl Talk and Dan Deacon. We might refer to the phrase “accelerationist aesthetics,” coined a few years ago by Steven Shaviro, who, amid a dense thicket of “neoliberalisms,” identifies the tendency in Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s Gamer (2009) and an obscure Alex Cox film, works that display “enlightened cynicism” while “they also revel in the sleaze and exploitation that they so eagerly put on display.”

This brings me to videos that Jacob Ciocci will be presenting at the Microscope Gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn this Friday night, work that is fraught, a little nerve-wracking, and certainly rich with the alluvium of pop junk. (That they revel in the detritus they present is undeniable, but that “cynicism” shoe doesn’t quite fit—he’s slipped off the ironic-sincere grid.) Ciocci has been around since the days of the Zip disk—beginning in 2000 he was active with the art group Paper Rad, making up the core of the loose coalition of collaborators alongside his sister Jessica and their friend Ben Jones. In addition to keeping up homepage, the IRL activities of Paper Rad—“an Internet art Wu-Tang,” per Cory Arcangel—included touring bands on the noise circuit and the publication of old-fashioned zines. Paper Rad’s existence as a collective entity tapered off sometime around 2008, though their candy-colored doggerelist publishing activities were given the posh hardcover treatment last year by the publisher Delema as The Zines of Paper Rad, and at least one of the affiliated bands labors on: Extreme Animals, comprising Ciocci and David Wightman, who’ve known one another since high school in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Wightman also releases brilliant, nauseating mixtapes from deep-dive research into unfashionable subgenres under the pseudonym DJ George Costanza.)

Born of a scene which put a premium on difficult and forbidding work, Extreme Animals developed a hooky, insidiously accessible sound—among the influences they’ve cited for their combination of MIDI synch crunch and imperious chugga-chugga thrash are Andrew W.K. and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Ciocci is no gnomic obscurantist, nor is he a minimalist of any kind, as should be evident in the title of the evening of screenings at Microscope: “Inside the Box: People Don’t Actually Like Creativity aka F.E.A.R.=False Evidence Appearing Real aka Un-Boxing The Box from Within: Everyone Has Problems (55 likes and 43 shares) aka I’m not crazy, Society is Crazy: #hope #struggle #planetfitness #chipotle, aka This Is Dedicated To All The People Who Have Had Their Lives Wrecked by Computers, the Internet, or Social Media.”

Jacob Ciocci, The Urgency, 2014, digital video, color, sound, 33 minutes.

That final dedication is lifted from The Urgency, the centerpiece of the evening, a magisterial video-album suite of nine tracks/chapters first released on VHS by Thunder Zone Entertainment in late 2013, since which it’s been making the rounds. (It played BAMcinématek’s Migrating Forms festival in December 2014.) The strobing collage of found-footage images, which Ciocci refers to on his website as “my most recent attempt at grappling with life in contemporary USA,” is cut in tune to songs that try on and discard idioms including nu metal rap-rock, video game Bonus stage, and ’90s German techno. Throughout its thirty-three minutes The Urgency returns periodically to a vexed humanoid figure trapped in a red-and-blue dungeon cube suspended in space—all rendered with ultra-primitive computer graphics—while the album proceeds through various tracklist subsections (titles include “Surfing/Suffering” and “The Puzzle of Life”) which taken altogether have the character of a spiritual journey, impending breakdown, or both. Flashes of mall kiosk T-shirt sloganeering are accompanied by a soundtrack medley that includes appropriated and distorted snatches from Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the U.S.A.,” Drowning Pool’s “Bodies,” and Ke$ha’s “We R Who We R,” setting the tempo for a blizzard of crosscut or layered found-footage images, a regurgitation of undigested Internet from Angelfire to YouTube. In the disgorging you may recognize viral phenomena of years past—Torontonian nutter Steve Spiros’s on-camera rant to an aghast reporter (“All those people who called me a sleepwalker… I woke up”) and Tea Party Republican Christine O’Donnell denying her allegiance to Wicca during her Delaware senate campaign—alongside Ciocci’s cut-and-paste animated GIF paintings from his “New Expressions” series, clip art, and images of unknown provenance, like that of girl hiding under a blanket of MacBooks, which exude profound exhaustion and genuine pathos.

Ciocci has a knack for scooping up the effluvium of psychic disturbance that collects around the square-hole templates of various pieces of folk art: the so-called “digital vernacular” or old-fashioned community theater and arts-and-crafts. The Urgency concludes with a montage of direct-address videos in which multiple confessions of vague discontent (“Something’s not right… I’m failing… Screwed up… Alone…”), apparently culled from video diaries and anti-depressant commercials, build to a climactic psychic break/enlightenment, in which generic expressions of depression and repression gives way to generic expressions of liberation. Ciocci doesn’t disdain clichés, however—he’s fascinated by them, and the metaphor through which many of the speakers in The Urgency describe their entrapment, that of being closed into a box, is the same that he’s been reiterating and repurposing for years. In The Zines of Paper Rad, one can find several analog-pixelated “Box Eye Scrolls” ’toons by Ciocci dating back to 2001. (Sample dialogue: “YOU HAVE THE POWER… TO TURN SHIT INTO GOLD.”) A 2006 animated short titled How to Escape Stress Boxes (also playing Microscope) features two mischievous Troll dolls (another favorite motif) pulling a man from his meditation to lead him down a primrose path of Geocities junk and urge him to self-actualization via auto-decapitation. Finally, the 2015 essay “Some Thoughts on ‘Shadows, Boxes, and Computers,’” published on the platform NewHive, is a freewheeling rumination of fixed identity and “transformative rupture” that exemplifies Ciocci’s protean style.

The Urgency paradoxically envisions “transformative rupture” through stereotyped means of transcendence—i.e. red pill/blue pill, “Think Outside the Box”—not atypical of Ciocci’s peculiar deadpan kitsch-optimism, which routinely turns shit into gold. (A 2006 video set to a deconstructed version of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” is also on the menu at Microscope.) However, one of the two new works that Ciocci is premiering on Friday, titled at the time of this writing FREEDOM ISN'T FREE/I'M NOT CRAZY, IN AN INSTITUTION, SOCIETY IS CRAZY, IN AN INSTITUTION, skirts straightforward pessimism. Over a spindly, repeated keyboard melody that recalls something out of a giallo, Ciocci, speaking in the style of intimate, late-night webcam confessional, mocks the prospect of rebellion. (“You don’t have to be a genius to realize that the more free you feel, the less free you actually are.”) The meandering speech is matched to the recurring image of a road at night, intercut with Internet ephemera, one recurring theme of which is large inflatable objects run amok: Camera-phone footage of a massive Minion rolling down a street outside of Dublin, a bouncy castle bounding along a beach, a velour Eeyore slowly losing air, or a mortally wounded Barney the Dinosaur flapping in the breeze at the 1997 Macy’s Day Parade while his handlers hold on for dear life. (The last-named clip has previously featured in a video loop by Ciocci called Why Are So Many Americans So Powerless?, titled after what looks to be a sidebar bit of targeted advertising used here.) The music swells and dies, the road arrives at its destination, a spreading forest fire, and all the while intertitles pose insoluble questions: “Who Really Has the Answers?” You certainly won’t find them here—just a powerful distillation of the present mania for apocalyptic thinking amid great prosperity.

A screening of works by Jacob Ciocci runs Friday, July 22 at 7:30 PM at Microscope Gallery in Brooklyn.