My limited time in jail—several hours in Anaheim and a half-day in Washington, D.C., with federal police—did little to prepare me for the heaviness in my chest as I looked at Jimena Sarno's installation Booking Bench Made from Memory at Grand Central Art Center (GCAC). Suggested by the artist's visit to Wilshire Community Police Station in Los Angeles, the seat, made from a plank of wood on a metal base, isn't designed for comfort. Five single handcuffs on chains dangle from an attached bar, strange stainless-steel fruit waiting to grip their teeth into naked wrists. The top of the bench is sanded and shellacked, but run a finger or palm against the edges, and you'll come away with splinters.
The wall facing the bench is blank, mind-numbingly white. On the distressed concrete floor sits a portable phonograph straight out of the 1950s, its long black electrical cord plugged into a nearby outlet, no intent to tape it down, hide it from view or even prevent someone from tripping over it. A limited-edition, white-labeled vinyl record spins on its turntable: the sounds of the building of the bench manipulated in a studio to sound like a David Lynch soundtrack. When the needle finishes playing, sliding into the groove at the end of the recording, the arm lifts and places it at the beginning, the plaintive wail beginning yet again.
Nearby is Sarno's companion piece, the equally disquieting Homeland. The clackety rhythm of tap dancers is heard before you enter a doorway constructed of thick, black plastic sheets. (Every time a cinematic mobster rats out his friends and is dismantled with a chainsaw, it's always in a meat locker with the same black plastic.) There's a wall-sized projection of a body of water, the sterile peace of the picture reminiscent of the euthanasia montage in Soylent Green. A lifeguard tower, sans ladder, faces the projection; painted the same amnesiac white as the wall in Booking Bench, it hovers like a gun turret, nobody inside. Spread on the floor are tentacles of cable for a dozen speakers, slithering their way across the semi-dark room, even more of a threat to the safety of the unmindful patron than the phonograph cable. Subtly referencing slavery, the tap dancing (an early coded communication between slaves) and the wide expanse of water representing distance from one's home country, Sarno's idyllic “beach” and Bench simultaneously speak to concerns about surveillance, imprisonment and lack of social justice. The work is so richly diffused with meaning that nobody viewing the two installations—and when you go, don't walk in, glance about, then leave; instead, sit, listen, watch and let it speak to you—will walk out with the same impressions.
Smaller in scope is xtine burrough's (her lack of capital letters, not ours) equally thoughtful Mediations on Digital Labor, a deceptively simple take on low-wage jobs. burrough solicited work from faceless online workers via Amazon Mechanical Turk pages, an addictive website that offers piecemeal “HITS” (Human Intelligence Tasks) to anyone willing to do often inane “jobs” for a pittance (often as low as a penny per task, with more experienced workers earning a few dollars per gig). She offered workers a quarter to take five minutes off work, and then send her a short comment about the experience, offering others 75 cents for videos of themselves chanting meditatively. The comments have been chalked out on the floor of the gallery, using the natural lines of the black utility tile to provide something akin to a giant piece of lined paper, with the worker's feedback done in cursive or block letters. The Oms have been cut and edited, placed on more than 200 hard drives hung about the gallery walls like the rise and dip of a winding roller coaster.
The now ephemeral quality of work (and lack of security that comes with it) reveals itself on the installation itself. Patrons have to interact with the misery of the workers represented: If they want to read what has been written, they have to stand on other words to do so. Those words—and the work represented by those words—slowly becomes an indecipherable blur of white chalk dust after enough people have shuffled through it.
With rumors floating about Facebook in the past couple of months that some local artists feel rebuffed by GCAC curator John Spiak's taste in international pieces with a political twist, one has only to step foot in the exhibitions currently on display to realize that it doesn't matter if Pablo Picasso himself came back from the dead to troll the OC native. The work Spiak programs is consistently of the highest quality, reasoned, imaginative; the artists he commissions probe the conscience of their audience, demanding they be as smart as he gives them credit for. If local artists want to whine about not getting enough support from him or GCAC, perhaps they just need to be . . . better.
Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.