Tony Cokes (b. 1956, Richmond, Virginia) is an influential and pioneering media artist who tackles diverse themes and subjects. His work connects contemporary politics with popular culture, mass media, and entertainment while foregrounding theoretical questions of racial and sexual difference, enunciation, and history.
Cokes has created an extensive body of video artworks since 1988, which have been exhibited at the Louvre Museum, Walker Art Center, Media City Film Festival, Bronx Museum of the Arts, Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. He has received grants and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and the Getty Research Institute. Cokes is professor in the Department of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island.
Ad Vice, Tony Cokes, USA, digital, 7 min, 1999
Ad Vice consists of a succession of colored projection surfaces with segments of text from the worlds of advertising, sport, and popular culture. These projection surfaces in turn alternate with images of a rock band whose music continuously frames the whole. The video looks like a commercial, an advertising spot for SWIPE country, with fast-changing images, music, and credits that refer to it. The viewer is greeted with the words: “Welcome to SWIPE country ... enjoy the sound ... make contact ... we’ll bring good things to your life.” But leaning back and enjoying it just doesn’t seem possible. The catchy slogan is undermined by probing questions that appear on the projection surface: Do you feel good? Why do you feel so lonely? Am I a stranger in my own world? Cokes seems to question the essence of our individual existence. Who or what are you? A product of present-day consumer society? So are you happy with that? Are you really happy?
–Anita de Groot
No Sell Out, Tony Cokes (with XPRZ), USA, digital, 6 min, 1995
No Sell Out employs desktop video to position images of Malcolm X in tension with commercial culture. It is a result of a series of loaded questions we ask ourselves, and now wish to impose on viewers. Mr. X is the serialized signifier that sparks problematic readings and profits in rap music, “political art,” and fashionable sportswear. Is X the sign of a meaningful difference, or just another hip style thang? Appropriating an MTV-like format to critique and question the capitalist commodification of Malcolm X’s subversive politics, X-PRZ sets computer-manipulated imagery of Malcolm X against advertising logos, archival footage, TV imagery, and a propulsive soundtrack of rock music by REM and Nine Inch Nails.
Co-presented with Video Data Bank, School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Three Fold. Image credits: all artworks, stills, and portraits courtesy of the artist © Tony Cokes and Video Data Bank, School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Special thanks to Emily Martin, Zach Vanes, and Eduardo Sotomayer.
View next: Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, as part of Media City Film Festival: Spotlight Series