Joel Holmberg‘s You’ll Never Know If You Don’t Ask Yourself, at the Atlanta Contemporary through December 31, is a video installation incorporating and considering the terminology, visual language and meaning of cable news. The six-channels of video displayed on multiple screens consist of carefully culled and edited cable news footage and “observational films” made by the artist.
On a screen close to the entrance, we see various interview subjects, briefly shown and identified by name. A one-line bio printed underneath explains their relationship to the news story at hand. Cumulatively, the lines of text are comically reductive, even surreal. Everyday people, whom we see but don’t hear speaking, are identified as “Jerry Springer Fan,” “Found Owl in SUV,” “Concerned About Safety,” “Cat’s Owner,” “Met Gisele Bündchen” and so on.
A bank of screens on another wall shows a nonstop montage of the dramatic computerized graphics, deadly serious and ludicrously pompous, that introduce cable news programs. Another screen shows CNN footage of the Oval Office in lulling, repeating, smooth panning news shots. Devoid of people, the seat of power is elegantly appointed but blandly anonymous — unlikely to give offense or even leave an impression.
Audio of speeches of pundits and politicians edited from news programs wafts through the gallery. Addressing various thorny contemporary issues, each speaker opens with the phrase “Do I think?” (“Do I think that the United States should do more to address climate change? Of course I do, but I also hold the belief that…”; “Do I think that Obama has done everything in his power to deal with the problems of the nation’s poor? Not at all…”).
The innocuous and otherwise invisible grammatical construction becomes almost cosmic through repetition: an endless series of existential questions about thought, which often go unanswered. Do I think…? Do I think…? As the title has it, you’ll never know if you don’t ask yourself.
Best of all is a screen showing a squirrel filmed in a distinctly unsquirrel-like moment, lounging lazily and catlike in the sun on a support jutting out from a wooden telephone pole, seemingly unfazed by all the stressful noise and activity all around.
Although You’ll Never Know is a work that rewards contemplation, it doesn’t actually invite it. Re-edited news videos and graphics on screens aren’t pretty aesthetic objects, and the audio is intentionally noisome, even stressful, with its talking heads speaking in their urgent, three-alarm, listen-to-me voices about the insoluble problematic issues of our day. (Though not, apparently, to the squirrel, whom we glimpse sitting calmly, literally, on the line of communication.)
Holmberg’s intentions are intriguingly opaque — there’s no simple takeaway statement about the news or our problems — but his sense of humor about, and concern with, how we take in information to process pressing issues are perfectly clear. It’s witty and incisive without being preachy or one-note, and the work quickly and efficiently lays bare some of the ironies and absurdities of corporate cable news.
You’ll Never Know appears simple and straightforward. The room is sparse, the installation just a few screens showing familiar and easily digested images. But, like an effective political cartoon, there’s wit, complexity and even a somber warning behind the punchline.