New York

Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, CLEANER, 2019, 4K video, color, sound, 27 minutes 10 seconds.

Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, CLEANER, 2019, 4K video, color, sound, 27 minutes 10 seconds.

Jennifer and Kevin McCoy

When the textbook history of contemporary art at the turn of the twenty-first century is eventually written, Jennifer and Kevin McCoy will likely appear under the heading “From Critique to Creative Disruption.” Citing the magazine Adbusters, Naomi Klein’s No Logo (1999), and Nato Thompson’s The Interventionists: Users’ Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life (2004), the chapter will explain how the critical postmodernism of the 1980s morphed into a neo-Situationism that advocated culture jamming and off-kilter annexations of public space. In part, this change flagged a reshuffling of art-school syllabi, with Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan taking a back seat to Guy Debord and Michel de Certeau, but it also reflected a new, more playful sensibility. Artists such as Reverend Billy, Pope.L, and the Yes Men embraced humor and pranksterism while Jon Kessler, Rubén Ortiz-Torres, and Krzysztof Wodiczko deployed technology with Rube Goldberg–esque flair. The McCoys belong to the latter tendency, devising contraptions made up of miniature cameras and whirling dioramas that demonstrate how the manipulative emotional effects of Hollywood films are achieved through rudimentary montage techniques—a deconstruction of spectacle conducted through tactical whimsy.

But what comes after “creative disruption”? This question hangs over the McCoys’ recent video, CLEANER, 2019, the outcome of their residency at Kickstarter, a corporation that maintains an influential online crowdfunding site for “creative projects.” Filmed at the company’s headquarters in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the piece stars dancer Magdalena Kaczmarska as a jumpsuit-clad janitor anonymously wiping door handles and tidying a sink. A voice-over, delivered alternately in Polish and English, tracks her thought process as she pushes through fatigue, frets over small lapses in her duties, and wonders what all the laptop-toting employees oblivious to her presence are actually doing. Thus, in its opening minutes, CLEANER pits the highly remunerative immaterial labor of a successful tech corporation against the physically demanding reproductive labor that sustains it: Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s “maintenance art” for the venture-capital era. Gradually, however, this quiet critique gives way to creative disruption as Kaczmarska turns her repetitive movements into a furtive choreography. The act of sweeping is replaced by a succession of sweeping gestures. She rolls over tables and wedges her body into corners, inhabiting space with the kind of socially unsanctioned aplomb that de Certeau celebrates in his book L’invention du quotidie (The Practice of Everyday Life, 1980). The camerawork becomes more daring as well: In one memorable sequence, the McCoys use their knowledge of editing tricks to orchestrate an apparently seamless tracking shot where Kaczmarska appears to occupy several rooms at once.

In the video’s climax, Kaczmarska changes into a sheath dress, covers a security camera with tape, and hosts an after-hours dance party. This clandestine takeover of corporate facilities should feel more liberating than it does. In contrast to the inventive interventions of the prior section, the blowout signifies “fun” with all the originality of a pharmaceutical commercial: throbbing lights, glow sticks, a DJ cupping her headphones. Kaczmarska’s rebellion culminates in her mingling with well-coiffed members of the “creative class,” to use urban theorist Richard Florida’s notorious term for the shock troops of gentrification. Shortly afterward, she resumes her janitorial tasks. All traces of the carnivalesque outburst are scrubbed away, and the building’s operations carry on, unhindered. Could CLEANER have concluded otherwise? The video avoids contemplating how individual experience connects to broader struggles. For instance, Kaczmarska’s voice-over nods to Greenpoint’s large Polish population, but her casting as the solitary protagonist forestalls any reckoning with labor’s racial politics. Kickstarter itself also merits further scrutiny. Though legally organized as a socially progressive “public-benefit corporation,” the company has recently made headlines for its resistance to an employee-led push for a union. Creativity becomes truly disruptive when it becomes collective.