Samson Young, To Fanon (Resonance Studies I) 02 Doloroso, 2016, mixed media, 11 3/4 × 16 1/2". From the series “To Fanon,” 2016–.

Samson Young, To Fanon (Resonance Studies I) 02 Doloroso, 2016, mixed media, 11 3/4 × 16 1/2". From the series “To Fanon,” 2016–.

Steffani Jemison and Samson Young

Organized by Amsterdam’s De Appel contemporary arts center, Steffani Jemison and Samson Young’s double bill “Decoders-Recorders” took as its starting point the violence inherent to and resulting from the systematization and standardization of communication. Mobilizing artistic strategies—such as intuitive mark-making, erasure, nonsyntactic repetition, and layering—as tools of negation and transgression, the show expanded its critical gaze onto the tyranny of all bounded and binding systems.

The exhibition opened with the series “To Fanon,” 2016–, Young’s rejoinder to the optimization of information (and therefore the loss of its excess) in the Western musical notation system. Held together by metal paper clips, each framed A3-size collage consists of an original score from one of Young’s own compositions made between 2005 and 2015, “vandalized” with abstract marks and silk-screened and photocopied images, on top of which a sheet of tracing paper features a word lettered in gold. The imagery obscuring the musical notation features military trumpeters—often serially reproduced—from different eras, and may, in turn, be blocked out or highlighted by frenetic scribbles in white or gray pastel. Young thus endows his act of self-erasure with orchestral depth through a permutation of inscriptions that are in and of themselves musically inconsequential. The (mostly Italian) words hovering on top, among them cantabile (in a singing manner) and doloroso (sorrowful), are musical directions anchoring nuances that might be lost by a dependence on notation alone; here they metonymically stand in for a microcosm of affect bolstered by the artist’s own visual interventions.

Young’s more spacious and lighthearted series “Ancillary Motion,” 2018–, was presented nearby inside a wood-paneled booth. In this series, the artist reverses his strategy and pushes fragments of musical notation (such as empty measures with the G clef or a free-floating fermata mark, and stems of notes without “heads”) out of conventional musical circulation, alienating them from their original context. Connected in a diagrammatic fashion with dashed or jittery lines to other text or image fragments, these signs are released to participate in the poiesis of nonorthodox modes of signification.

Although Jemison’s new drawings in acrylic on polyester film from 2019 hit a similar chord with gestural flourishes and the development of an esoteric set of signs, the strictly partitioned exhibition layout did not allow for a flow between the artists’ works. As a result, Jemison’s contribution fell flat due to a lack of recognizable visual cues introducing her politically motivated interest in Arabic calligraphy and in the writings of the marginalized and supposedly illiterate. Despite comfortably filling the main hall of the space, the works retained an airtight self-reflexivity, collectively reading as modest and self-indulgent exercises in de-skilling. (In fact, the preserved walls of this former cardboard and bottling factory, beautifully chipped and replete with posters of celebrities, also competed with the seductively spare materiality of the drawings as well as of the Plexiglas sawhorses that served as supports for some of them.)

On the other hand, the basement housed a stirring juxtaposition of two of Jemison’s videos. The older of the two, Escaped Lunatic, 2010–11, showed four men in white T-shirts and jeans diligently performing a drill of sorts by sprinting across various cityscapes, including playgrounds, empty lots, and an underpass. When the performers run in the opposite direction halfway through the video, the nonnarrative and circuitous choreography confronts anxieties around masculinity and race. The work shifts from static wide shots (where the men individually appear and disappear) to tracking shots and finally to shaky handheld footage, which here functioned almost as a prelude to the tightly cropped images of bodies in the newly commissioned black-and-white video In Succession, 2019. In this work, four young men of color can be made out as they build acrobatic formations that require a great deal of stamina, trust, and interdependence. Disconcertingly similar yet noncoinciding close-up shots—perhaps extracted from the same source or shot on side-by-side cameras—continuously pan or tilt across the held poses on both sides of the split screen. The video left an uncannily plastic impression of concentrated energies momentarily converging at great cost in the construction of solidarity.