PRINT March 1988


By “popular” . . . was meant a certain range of reference, a style of delivery, and a claim—mostly implicit, but flaunted on the right occasion—to be addressing one kind of audience and excluding several others. . . .
—T.J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life

HOWARD BEACH, a predominantly white, working-class neighborhood in Queens, dominated New York City headlines in late December 1986. A group of white teenagers there had beaten a black man named Michael Griffith and his two companions with sticks, baseball bats, and other weapons. Fleeing his attackers, Griffith ran onto the Belt Parkway, where he was killed by an oncoming automobile.

Shortly after this time, in 1987, I conducted an interview for my videowork “Charming Landscape,” the last section in my Damnation of Faust trilogy. In this interview, while discussing their own neighborhood, the two white teenagers attempt to relate to “larger’ issues, including Howard Beach and Vietnam. Howard Beach was then a present tense. Now, at this writing, it has resurged as ”headline news”—the Turner Broadcasting System advertises “CNN Headline News” as a “habit”—and has been ”resolved“ through a court decision reached December 21, 1987. Vietnam was then—as it is now—a ”recurrent“ past tense. Reemergent, and repackaged as ”the Vietnam Experience," it has become almost a household cliché in the ’80s.

Few comments from this interview made it to tape (the final version of which was broadcast on WNET in 1986, reaching an estimated audience of 187,500 per night, and on WNET and WGBH in 1987, reaching approximately 412,500 viewers per night). How and why did other comments get away during the editing process? Were they replaced—their space taken by other, more vital information? Or did they simply stay hidden—perhaps remaining as the “unseen”?

I’m curious not only about how these “exclusions” and “inclusions” relate to one another, but also about how these choices have real effect (real here meaning larger and more visible) on the audience. Had I, on my side of the dialogue that I desired between artist and audience, committed the same error that I feel presently prevails in the arts: acting on the assumption that art is capable of maintaining a history divided and separated from the “daily events” of our time and culture?

To consider the action of editing is to reemphasize process over product, or the continuously shifting and under certain event over the definitive object and statement. Since the foregrounding of process still seems to provide the greater possibility for effecting change, I find it imperative at this time to look at my own most recent activities, my own art-making practice.

How does exposure to information, obtained through the interpretations of mass media, contribute to our formulating of perspectives? What mass media information had the jurors of Howard Beach been continuously exposed to prior to the time of the trial? What was the cumulative impact of the television shows they had seen? What determined their perspectives, enabling them to perform a critical function: to take actions and make decisions that could determine the life of another? A 1984 study projected that the average American child will see over 75,000 30-second television commercials by the age of ten. What exposure did the teenagers in my interview have to Howard Beach? How much were they able to identify with its mass-media representation, or with the even more distanced and dislocated representations of “the Vietnam Experience” (Time-Life’s “What did you do in the war, Daddy?”).

In an effort to explore these questions, I desire to reclaim the following extracted statements and images, which were originally “edited our—which, in fact, had never been ”edited in."

DB: What about something which affects you which is larger than your own neighborhood, like Howard Beach?

GD: When I found out about How- —about that racist story, where the white kids beat up on the blacks for supposedly no reason, I thought it was very uncalled for. Everyone knows it wasn’t right. There may be a white guy sitting home and watching TV who’s saying, "That’s good for him!”—you know, for the black kid. But inside he knows he’s wrong. Everybody really knows what’s right and wrong—you feel it. What if it was one of theirs, if that was them or someone else, you know what I’m saying?

PH: Since I’m originally from another place, I can say that when I lived in California I went to school with a lot of black kids and there really wasn’t much racism at all. Oh, there was a little bit, it’s always there. There was a tension, but nowhere near what it is here in New York, in either direction. I never got beat up by blacks and blacks never beat up on the whites.

GD: The kids I grew up with in New York have never been anywhere but here. There were other kids who thought that this fight at Howard Beach was wrong—that is, for the three white guys to do it. But me and PH, we’ve been other places, different places. These kids haven’t been anywhere, they only know the neighborhood. That’s all they know, so they were brought up with what they had, it was very close-minded, just themselves with their own race. I was brought up like that too, but I went here, I went there, I explored and I talked to other people just to find out, out of curiosity, how they are. Here it’s like being stranded on an island with the same people and they’re all the same, ’cause that’s all they know.

DB: Do you think there’s any way either of you could change that?

PH: I think that it’s, uh, oh God, no. [laughsI You have to—I understand a lot of where that attitude comes from, and so not only do they have to change, but the other side has to change too. Both sides have to change at the same pace. Otherwise nothing’s ever going to really work out. The reason I started getting prejudiced is I went to school uptown with a lot of black kids and I saw what they saw. You’re really thrown into it, you know. It’s an instant battle. I got beat up. I got beat up here too, and then I didn’t like guineas, I didn’t like blacks, I didn’t like anything. I liked myself—well, I didn’t really like myself either.

GD: That’s where we started judging people as individuals. Because we got abused from both sides, really, where everybody’s wrong.

PH: I think that maybe you can change it on an individual basis but as a whole group, no. I don’t think you can change the whole group.

DB: Do you realize that in the years in which you were born there was a movement to actively protest the war in Vietnam, that sometimes millions of people united in demonstrations in the streets? What would happen if you didn’t agree with actions which this government is now committing, like continuing to engage in nuclear weaponry? As an individual, do you have any feelings about this—the way you seemed to express your feelings about racism? Have you brought these issues up amongst yourselves?

PH: Well, we talk about it, but my views on government are still very confused. I don’t always know how I feel. I do, but I don’t. Sometimes I think in certain ways but I don’t always know why I feel those ways.

DB: Well, do you see yourself as capable of having a direct relationship to current events now that you’re of an age to vote? Does it concern you what your country’s policies are? Do you see a way of directly playing into and affecting the policies of this country? In the ’60s there seemed to be a belief that individuals united together, for a cause they believed in, could effect change. With a larger, more visible group it seems that you can begin to see the extent of people’s reactions, for example with the demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. What do you think happened in Howard Beach? Is there any relationship we can draw? It seems that when similar conflicts, clashes on issues, usually occur it’s typical to try to gain power by getting a larger number of people around you for support, or even protection. So, as an individual, how do you assert yourself? Let’s say that if you were in a group whose thinking was, at times, different from your own—would you feel that you could still express yourself? Could you still maintain your identity in the group?

GD: That’s where you lose your identity. That’s where you say to yourself, “Well, should I let them know? How should I act?” Sometimes I say, “Oh well, if they don’t like it, that’s all right.” Sometimes you split your personality and think, “I’ll just be with them and be like they are for now.” You’ll talk to this person that’s a certain way and you’ll try to be that way, and that’s the way you wind up for that few minutes or however long you’re there. Then when you walk away, you become yourself again. I really don’t know who I am yet because of these split personalities which I’ve created. But I have an idea. Even though I didn’t find myself yet—I didn’t find my one self, me.

PH: When I’m with a group of people, if they’re very prejudiced, I’ll let them know that I’m not. And if they don’t like that, I’ll leave. If they don’t mind, then I’ll stay with them and continue talking with them, but to myself I say “Well, that’s the way they are. That’s too bad for them. They’re losing out and I’m not.” But I will express how I am different from them—I can’t let that go by. I can’t fake it! In that way I feel comfortable. I wouldn’t feel comfortable hiding my real feelings—I don’t think I could.

GD: See, I have to. Because—there’re too many of them. And there’s just me. I’m one with them ’cause I grew up with them, and I can’t really come out and say “Well, I’m not prejudiced.” I can’t be open enough. I can be, but I don’t want to, ’cause I don’t want the hassle.