PRINT May 2021


Bobblehead from Dave McKenzie’s While Supplies Last, 2003, performance, poly-resin figures, 7 × 2 1⁄2 × 2 1⁄2".

“I KNOW YOU ARE DAVE, but who is Dave?” Sixteen years ago, in these pages, the artist Glenn Ligon recounted how a stranger once posed this question to Dave McKenzie’s face. Or rather, she posed it to a papier-mâché approximation of his face, which McKenzie wore while he handed out bobblehead figurines of himself during an opening at SculptureCenter in New York. Ligon floated a few possible rejoinders: Dave was a dancing machine; Dave felt your pain; Dave wanted to be like Mike; Dave believed he could fly; Dave was a dime-store Jesus, for whom made-in-China tchotchkes were the bread and wine of a secular communion. These musings riffed on McKenzie’s various attempts to embody public figures, such as when he marched through Harlem sporting a rubber mask of Bill Clinton after the former president had made the symbolically freighted decision to locate his offices in the neighborhood. Rereading Ligon’s essay, what stands out is how dated these cultural references have become. No one calls Clinton the first Black president anymore, Gatorade’s “Be Like Mike” jingle has given way to the “And I took that personally” Jordan meme, and I don’t recommend playing R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” in mixed company. “Who is Dave?” now opens onto a bigger question: What were the aughts?

BORN IN JAMAICA and raised in the suburbs of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, McKenzie was a senior in the printmaking department at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia when, in 2000, he recorded the performance Babel. On the strength of that single work, he was admitted to the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. Two videos he made there, Edward and Me and Kevin and Me, debuted the next year at New York’s Studio Museum in Harlem as part of “Freestyle,” a survey of artists that curator Thelma Golden famously labeled “post-black,” a concept she credited to her ongoing dialogue with Ligon. In 2003, McKenzie returned to the Studio Museum as an artist-in-residence, and in 2004 he staged his first solo exhibition at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. In 2008, Babel was shown at the Renaissance Society in Chicago in “Black Is, Black Ain’t,” organized by Hamza Walker, who had earlier penned the catalogue essay for “Freestyle.”

That, at least, is the curriculum vitae that attests to McKenzie’s early success, without any account of his context. How, for instance, does a printmaking major move so assuredly into video and performance? In interviews, McKenzie himself has pointed to Vito Acconci’s Trademarks, 1970, for which Acconci bit his own skin hard enough to leave indentations that he then inked and pressed to paper, in effect treating his own body as a printer’s plate. As McKenzie learned etching and lithography in the studio, he also spent hours in the library poring over photographs of enigmatic rituals by Acconci, Chris Burden, and others who subjected their bodies to exhaustive repetition and the risk of real harm. In Babel, McKenzie sits before a video camera with a microphone crammed deep into his mouth and its cord wrapped around his neck. For fourteen excruciating minutes, he gestures in American Sign Language the phrase “I am talking to you,” as the mic picks up each gag and wheeze of his muffled throat.

Four stills from Dave McKenzie’s Babel, 2000, video, color, sound, 13 minutes 48 seconds. Dave McKenzie.

Babel is an early plot point in a principal aughts storyline: the institutionally sponsored recovery of 1970s body art, headlined by Marina Abramovic´. In 2005, Abramovic´’s re-creations of historic works by Acconci, VALIE EXPORT, Bruce Nauman, and others in the rotunda of New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum anchored the inaugural Performa biennial, and her 2010 retrospective, “The Artist Is Present,” curated by Klaus Biesenbach, was the Museum of Modern Art’s first blockbuster performance exhibition. If Abramovic´ exemplifies how body art was packaged, collected, and ultimately spectacularized, McKenzie demonstrates how its legacy was critically reevaluated. Writing on Babel for the “Black Is, Black Ain’t” catalogue, Huey Copeland argued that McKenzie’s self-lynching with a mic cord starkly outlined the white privilege that subtended Acconci et al.’s peculiar conjunctions of abjection and aggression. The impulse to “mine” ’70s performance likewise animated Clifford Owens’s remix of Acconci’s 1972 Seedbed for “Greater New York 2005” at MoMA PS1, Tell me what to do with myself; reversing the direction of electronically mediated harassment in Acconci’s onanistic original, Owens listened through a peephole for instructions from an audience observing him on live-feed television monitors.

Owens conceived of Tell me what to do with myself at Skowhegan in 2004. Four summers earlier, those same environs provided the backdrop for McKenzie’s Edward and Me and Kevin and Me. Both videos drew inspiration from scenes in ’90s films that reveal a character’s double life, respectively Edward Norton’s spasms of self-flagellation as he hallucinates sparring with a hypermasculine alter ego in Fight Club (1999), and the sequence in The Usual Suspects (1995) in which Kevin Spacey sheds his palsied stride and transforms into criminal mastermind Keyser Söze. McKenzie inhabited and expanded these actors’ gestures, interlacing serial repetition with flourishes of expressive choreography. As “Edward,” he throws himself onto and up from the pavement of a supermarket parking lot in a cyclic break-dance routine that lurches between ebullient and enervated. As “Kevin,” he drags his foot over the wooden slats of a bridge, then changes shoes to conclude with a tap dance.

Dave McKenzie, Kevin and Me, 2000, video, color, sound, 3 minutes 8 seconds.

It’s no coincidence that both Owens and McKenzie came away from Skowhegan with pieces subsequently featured in zeitgeist-defining exhibitions. In the United States, this single institution in rural Maine has played an outsize role in advancing Black artists—a quirk of history attributable in part to the legendary David Driskell, who served variously as a Skowhegan teacher, governor, trustee, and advisor before his death from Covid-19 this past year. (The school’s grounds also feature in Pope.L’s Sweet Desire a.k.a. Burial Piece, 1996–97, and in Kalup Linzy’s videos Ride to da Club, Julietta Calls Ramone, and Ramone Calls Julietta Again: Booty Call, all 2002.) At Skowhegan, McKenzie met, among others, Daniel Bozhkov, Carrie Mae Weems, Paul Ramírez Jonas, and Michael Smith. Though I hesitate to claim any direct influence, these artist-pedagogues demarcate different avenues McKenzie would explore in the years to come. For instance, next door to the supermarket where McKenzie recorded Edward and Me, Bozhkov took a job as a greeter at the local Walmart for his project Training in Assertive Hospitality, 2000–2004. However faux-friendly the superstore’s policy of welcoming every customer may have been, Bozhkov’s on-the-clock commitment to making eye contact and saying hello reflected a deep preoccupation with the same question that runs through McKenzie’s career: Where and how do we encounter strangers?

AT HER MOST SUCCINCT, Golden defined post-black as “characterized by artists who were adamant about not being labeled as ‘black’ artists, though their work was steeped, in fact deeply interested, in redefining complex notions of blackness.” Whereas Weems’s generation had emerged from the ’70s Black Arts Movement, and Ligon’s from ’80s multiculturalism, the artists of “Freestyle” had come of age during the “globalist expansion of the late 90s.” At the turn of the millennium, McKenzie, Rashid Johnson, Julie Mehretu, Laylah Ali, and others were “post-Basquiat and post-Biggie,” poised to grapple with the breadth of Black culture while also asserting their own exuberant individualism. On the catalogue’s cover, a blue-tinted still from Edward and Me caught McKenzie in the middle of a cartwheeling flip, a veritable emblem of the freestyle dancing alluded to in the exhibition’s title. Three years later, when Edward and Me appeared in McKenzie’s first solo show, the press release stated that his work “examines the terrain between the private and the public, more specifically he is interested in the difficulty to communicate between the two realms.” This dry framing is difficult to reconcile with the boisterous rhetoric of “Freestyle,” but the two have a common denominator: Declining external labels and expressing internal feelings are both decisions that impact our position within that strange, spectral arena known as the public sphere.

The public sphere remains a naggingly indispensable fiction, as central to liberal democracy as Santa Claus is to Christmas.

The “public sphere,” or Öffentlicheit (“public openness”), denotes a specific theoretical concept that became a hot topic among North American academics during the ’90s and early aughts following the belated translation of Jürgen Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962). The book narrates how in the eighteenth century discussions of art and literature conducted in newspapers and coffeehouses trained the bourgeois to form consensus opinions and exert influence on government. Private individuals bracketed their personal concerns to engage in rational-critical debate over public affairs, ignoring differences in social rank so that the strongest arguments took precedence. This is a fable masquerading as history, a distillation of liberal ideals that have been alternately critiqued (e.g., by feminists rejecting divisions between the personal and the political) and abused (e.g., by conservatives disingenuously invoking the “color blindness” of formal equality). Nevertheless, the notion that we all participate in something called the public sphere remains a naggingly indispensable fiction, as central to liberal democracy as Santa Claus is to Christmas. In Publics and Counterpublics (2002), Michael Warner explains that a public is a commonality among strangers. It exceeds the knowable boundaries of kin, community, or professional network to encompass anyone and everyone paying attention to a given “text.” When we hear a speech, read an article, or view an artwork, we are suspended between our concrete individuality and the text’s projected addressee, aware on some level that our experience is more than an act of purely private consumption. Publics let us believe, however deludedly, that we belong to a body politic—that our opinions matter and that our voices can be heard.

Dave McKenzie, Open Letters (detail), 2004, ink on paper, two sheets, each 11 × 8 1⁄2".

Among artists, public-sphere theory has helped to switch the criterion for an artwork’s “publicness” from its presence outdoors to its function within civil society. Ramírez Jonas, for instance, has experimented with bells, bunting, bulletin boards, and keys to explore how publics sustain themselves. The Yes Men infiltrated public forums like business conferences and news programs to disseminate satirical critiques of corporate power. McKenzie’s investigation of the public sphere is most legible in Open Letters, 2004, a pair of epistolary texts he composed following a day when he was nearly run over by a car and then, hours later, absentmindedly jaywalked in front of another. Addressing both drivers as “Dear Sir or Madam,” he explains, “I write this letter to you knowing that you may never read it, but also with the knowledge that you may read it.” The first letter calls the driver to consider their actions: “I think you should realize that we are both human beings and as such my life and your life are equal.” The second offers an unqualified apology: “My life is equal to yours, but I did not act accordingly.” Why does McKenzie feel compelled to make such overt appeals to liberal universality? Why would there be any doubt that the parties involved in these everyday traffic mishaps adhered to the self-evident truth that all men are created equal? McKenzie matter-of-factly describes himself in both letters as “5' 5", 170lbs, with black hair, brown eyes, and a complexion of medium brown.” Though no characteristics of “Sir or Madam” are given, the question of whether McKenzie’s skin color inflected these episodes dangles overhead. American life is shaped by two fictions: that of the public sphere, and that of race. In McKenzie’s practice, encounters between strangers become tests of whether these two fictions can coexist.

The radically democratic potential of addressing a public lies in never knowing for sure who will respond.

Much of McKenzie’s work is devoted to staging such encounters. The aforementioned bobbleheads, a component of While Supplies Last, 2003, depict McKenzie in jeans, a zip-up jersey, and an orange T-shirt atop a base that reads DAVE—an everyman persona reminiscent of “Mike,” the character that Michael Smith has affably assumed in videos and performances since the late ’70s. By wearing a mask and the same outfit as his figurine, McKenzie presented himself as what Uri McMillan has called an “embodied avatar,” straddling the poles of personhood and objecthood. One of these “Dave” bobbleheads came into my possession several years after McKenzie first distributed them at SculptureCenter. Its continual presence on my shelf is the primary means by which McKenzie has held my attention and made me a member of his public. However, as the work’s title intimates, “Dave” is also a commodity and, as such, an ethically compromising object for a white art critic to own. Dave’s pursed lips lack the broad grin of the blackamoor sculptures that Fred Wilson exhibited that same year at the US pavilion of the Venice Biennale, but he nevertheless nods obligingly whenever prodded.

Dave McKenzie, While Supplies Last, 2003. Performance view, SculptureCenter, New York, June 21, 2003. Photo: Anissa Mack.

In 2007, New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art invited McKenzie to “Initial Public Offerings,” a lecture series in which artists present their work and produce a multiple, an “offering” to the audience punningly pitched as both a gift and a stock investment. McKenzie bought two hundred day planners and stamped in each a set of appointments, e.g., in the front car of the A train heading downtown from Forty-Second Street on March 20; by a Jeff Wall photograph at MoMA on May 6. The multiple’s title, I’ll Be There, served as an invitation to anyone in attendance that evening or whoever might peruse the planners thereafter—in other words, to no one in particular. McKenzie has never documented the encounters instigated by I’ll Be There (unlike, say, Acconci, who posed for several photographs to memorialize his Following Piece, 1969). More important, McKenzie explained to me in an interview, were the appointments’ open-ended possibilities. Though fully aware of the social barriers that restrict a museum’s audiences along lines of class and race, McKenzie arrived at each rendezvous with the mentality that any passerby might be there to meet him. The radically democratic potential of addressing a public lies in never knowing for sure who will respond.

 Dave McKenzie, I’ll Be There, 2007, hand-stamped day planner, closed, 6 1⁄4 × 3 3⁄4".

For On Location, a project sponsored by the New Museum the next year, McKenzie taped letters to lampposts and doorways throughout the Lower East Side. Printed on sheets of neon paper, they resembled the flyers production companies use to alert car owners about an upcoming film shoot, beginning “Dear Residents and Visitors”:

For weeks now, I have been roaming these streets alongside you. You may have seen me turn away when you caught me staring, but it wasn’t and isn’t my intention to make you an object or to be a nuisance to you. I am, however, trying to learn to see a place. For a tourist, the task may have been simple; these sights would present themselves as new, but I am neither a tourist nor a resident of this neighborhood.

Under the guise of announcing location scouting for a film, McKenzie described feeling both distant and proximate to his surroundings. “The stranger is close to us insofar as we feel between him and ourselves similarities of nationality or social position, of occupation or of general human nature,” wrote sociologist Georg Simmel in 1908. “He is far from us, insofar as these similarities extend beyond him or us, and connect us only because they connect a great many people.” For Simmel, the growing presence of strangers in society coincided with the increased financialization of the economy. “Restriction to intermediary trade and often (as though sublimated from it) to pure finance gives the stranger the specific character of mobility.” McKenzie’s notices were dated September 10, 2008. Lehman Brothers crashed five days later.

“FREESTYLE” OPENED IN APRIL 2001, in advance of so many decade-defining events indelibly associated with their televised representation: the spectacular trauma of 9/11; the shock and awe of the Iraq invasion; the scenes of devastation and deprivation following Hurricane Katrina, punctuated by Kanye West veering off-script during a celebrity fundraiser to announce, “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.” “Black Is, Black Ain’t,” which drew its title from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) to describe a moment “when race is both rejected and retained,” opened in Chicago during the presidential campaign of Illinois’s then junior senator, Barack Obama. In the introduction to the exhibition’s catalogue, which was published after Obama’s victory, Hamza Walker wrote, “We should take stock of where the discourse was sixteen years ago following the video-taped beating of Rodney King. Regardless of how you vote, you have to admit, watching history being made is better than watching it repeat itself.” These are hard words to read now, with the retrospective knowledge that the ensuing decade would be convulsed, again and again, by footage of Black men and women being maimed or murdered by police. That said, Walker’s reference to videotape does point to at least one change: media.

A constitutive element of publics is the uncertainty of their address.

Endemic to public-sphere theory are proclamations of the public sphere’s demise. Habermas himself considered the German government’s management of opinion through television and radio as rational-critical discourse’s death knell. Positing a rupture in the public sphere circa 2010 would thus be foolhardy, but this much can be said with certainty: From the first decade of McKenzie’s career to the second, encounters between strangers became more cautious. In 2011, McKenzie was a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin when he found himself at a reception for the Henry A. Kissinger Prize with the award’s namesake in attendance. For McKenzie, the occasion posed the ethical dilemma of whether to shake hands with someone so intimately associated with US foreign policy’s worst atrocities. As Kissinger worked the room, McKenzie took out his phone and started recording. The resulting footage became the basis of the five-minute video Camera, 2012. Over the footage of Kissinger being greeted, a series of subtitles sets the scene: “I reach for a camera / and a wall is created / and I never have to answer the question / Do you shake his hand or don’t you?” The screen goes black as the subtitles continue, imagining a scenario where a younger McKenzie washes a feeble Kissinger in a bathtub. Whitney Houston’s 1987 hit “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” comes on as the subtitles suggest an alternate set of lyrics: “I wanna feel the heat with somebody / I wanna take a bath with somebody.”

Dave McKenzie, Camera, 2012, video, color, sound, 4 minutes 55 seconds. Henry Kissinger.

Camera’s concluding fantasy contemplates reconciliation with even most the reprehensible among us. (In this regard, the video stirs up the same maelstrom of attraction and repulsion as Rachel Mason’s mock-classical sculpture Kissing George Bush, 2004.) Yet for reasons beyond McKenzie’s control, a number of his works may now mark the limits of any such reciprocity. Dear reader, did you raise an eyebrow when I earlier mentioned Kevin Spacey? Or consider McKenzie’s Attunement, 2009, a reedit of the pilot episode of The Cosby Show, in which Bill Cosby’s character Cliff Huxtable teaches his son Theo a home-economics lesson with Monopoly money. Spacey and Cosby are both powerful men whose sexual predations were open secrets in the entertainment industry, yet it took years for the accusations against them to gain public traction. However inadvertently, McKenzie’s works have become confrontations with the films and television programs they left behind. Kevin and Me lands differently when everyone knows that Keyser Söze wasn’t Spacey’s only double life. McKenzie’s video spotlights the unsettling menace underneath Cliff’s punch line “I brought you into this world, and I’ll take you out!” To be honest, any scene from The Cosby Show is unsettling now, even and especially if it still makes you laugh.

During that same fellowship, the American Academy hosted a lecture by Eric Schmidt, then CEO of Google. “You’re never out of ideas,” he proclaimed. “We can suggest things that are interesting to you, based on your passions, the things you care about, where you’re going, that sort of thing.” Afterward, McKenzie felt compelled to submit a rebuttal to the academy’s journal, denouncing Schmidt’s speech as “nothing more than a quasi-religious advertisement for Google and the companies that hope to shape how we relate to one another.” A constitutive element of publics is the uncertainty of their address. “Run it up the flagpole and see who salutes,” writes Warner. “Put on a show and see who shows up.” I’ll Be There seemed to take this suggestion literally, asking members of its public to step forward and say hello; the structural conditions that enabled those encounters are entirely different from the ones that facilitate a Tinder date. Schmidt’s dystopian boosterism promised a world not of strangers brought together by mere attention, but of users whose attention has been quantified, monetized, and microtargeted.

Dave McKenzie, Watch the Sky (Aspen), 2010, inflatable parade float. Installation view, Aspen, CO.

In the past decade, McKenzie has emphatically avoided social media’s pseudo-publics—“No, we cannot be friends on Facebook,” he quipped in one performance—and has stuck to experimenting with faintly antiquated vehicles of publicity. In 2010, McKenzie contributed a balloon of his bobblehead likeness to an annual parade in Aspen. For an exhibition at the Bass Art Museum in Miami, he hired a plane to fly marriage proposals over the beach: DYLAN WILL YOU MARRY ME? XOX MORGAN. In the entrance hall of the museum at SUNY Albany, he hung banners of photographs appropriated from a cache of slides he had purchased secondhand. In each instance, McKenzie’s mediums courted ambiguity or opacity: Aspen residents unfamiliar with the artist puzzled over which Black celebrity or cartoon character the inflatable promoted; the proposals used names that left the gender of their addressees open to conjecture in a state that had not yet sanctioned gay marriage; the found imagery of the banners was overlaid with cryptic slogans like THEY DON’T KNOW IF YOU ARE LAUGHING OR CRYING AND THEY DON’T CARE. Whatever their phrasing, the banners beat out the same frustrated message McKenzie had signed in Babel: “I am talking to you.”

Dave McKenzie, Declaration, 2012. Performance view, Miami, December 6, 2012. Photo: Dave McKenzie.

A change from one decade to the next is also apparent in McKenzie’s presentation of his own body. During a lecture-performance at Columbia University in 2013, McKenzie stated, “I am Trayvon Martin,” signaling his identification not with Ed Norton or Bill Clinton but with a Black teenager murdered by a self-appointed community watchman, George Zimmerman—an encounter between strangers turned deadly by the virulent fiction of race. For Furtive Movements, 2018, McKenzie moved among the gallery booths at Frieze New York repeating a set of gestures that, according to the New York Police Department, were sufficiently suspicious to justify a stop and frisk, among them fidgeting, going in and out of pockets, and looking back and forth. McKenzie described the NYPD’s list of furtive movements as a word score, the performance genre that provided the basis for Clifford Owens’s brilliantly crowdsourced exhibition at MoMA PS1 in 2011–12, “Anthology,” which drew inspiration from Fluxus’s sole Black member, Benjamin Patterson. The enactment of a Fluxus score can occur before an audience or pass along unnoticed in the flow of everyday life. Though a few ’60s street performances by Fluxus artists were indeed curtailed by police, it is doubtful that those artists ever had to consider whether their innocuous gestures might get them killed.

Dave McKenzie, Furtive Movements, 2018. Performance view, Frieze New York, May 6, 2018. Dave McKenzie.

CARDS ON THE TABLE: I taught public-sphere theory in seminars a few times before I started questioning whether it actually described the world I lived in. It wasn’t until I traced the arc of McKenzie’s career that I recognized my loss of faith as the symptom of a broader shift. If I were a different kind of scholar, I might focus on the legitimacy crisis that followed the 2008 financial crash; the failure of an ardent Habermasian like Obama to comprehend the nature of his opposition; the apparent powerlessness of nation-based public opinion to influence globalist institutions like the International Monetary Fund or the European Union; or the inconvertible fact that, when pushed to decide between liberal democracy and white supremacy, a plurality of US citizens chose the latter. As it is, I am an art historian, and thus in the business of seeking out what Erwin Panofsky calls the intrinsic meaning of the singular artwork. What are we, and where are we going? Ask Dave.

Dave McKenzie, Disturbing the View, 2021. Rehearsal view, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, March 2020. Dave McKenzie. Photo: Alex Munro.

This month, “Dave McKenzie: The Story I Tell Myself” opens at the Whitney. Curated by Adrienne Edwards, the exhibition pairs McKenzie’s videos with a selection of works from the museum’s collection by, among others, Bruce Nauman, Trisha Brown, and Pope.L. On Fridays and Saturdays, McKenzie plans to be on-site to “wash” the exterior of the museum’s floor-to-ceiling windows with a viscous mixture that will do more to obscure the view than clear it up, recapitulating how “squeegee men” used to soap up the windshields of cars stuck in traffic before a Giuliani-era crackdown in the mid-’90s. (McKenzie originally proposed lowering himself down the facade in a harness, but post-9/11 city legislation explicitly forbids it.) Aggressively, violently, broken-windows policing eliminated the inconvenience and introspection that arose from encounters between squeegee men and those drivers nervously gripping their steering wheels, unsure of how to respond to the human being standing before them. How, I wonder, will museumgoers react to McKenzie’s presence? Might someone alert a guard to the stranger lurking outside?

“I really am interested in institutions like museums, less for their holdings than for what the museum exemplifies,” McKenzie told me. “You cross this threshold into a space where you’re open to the possibility of looking at, thinking about, and experiencing something that someone you don’t know has made—maybe two years ago, maybe forty years ago—and you give yourself over to that encounter.” Museums are strange things, entangled in plunder and plutocracy, yet exemplary of civic life. What role can they play in repairing the plot holes in this patchy fiction we call the public sphere? As he enters the third decade of his career, McKenzie will be testing the possibilities.

“Dave McKenzie: The Story I Tell Myself” is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, from May 1 through October 4.

Colby Chamberlain teaches art history at Columbia University and The Cooper Union.