Excerpt of Torture, Terror, Digitality: A Conversation with Tony Cokes, from Afterimage Vol. 43, no. 3
Post-conceptual artist Tony Cokes’s Evil series (2001–present) interrogates the ideological underpinnings of the War on Terror. Through the critical reframing of appropriated texts and images, Cokes infuses a new legibility into material that has remained largely “hidden in plain sight.” Refunctioning streams of poorly read/forgotten information, Cokes creates an architecture of “wreading” for the digital age.
Cokes is Professor of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University and lives in Providence, Rhode Island. His works have been exhibited at such venues as the Museum of Modern Art; the Whitney Museum of American Art; the Guggenheim Museum in New York; Centre Georges Pompidou and La Cinémathèque Française in Paris; Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona; the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT) in Los Angeles; Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM) in Karlsruhe; and Documenta X in Kassel, Germany. He has received grants and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council for the Arts, Creative Capital, and the Getty Research Institute.
What follows is taken from a series of exchanges, via email and in person, begun in February 2015—when Cokes presented his work in the context of Distracted Wreading [From Structural Film to Digital Poetics], an exhibition at Union College in Schenectady, New York.
Jenelle Troxell: I’d like to discuss your Evil series and how it relates more generally to your extended body of work. Could you say a few words about the series in terms of how you conceived of it and some of its overarching themes?
Tony Cokes: The Evil series came about in the period after the events of September 11, 2001. Besides feeling inundated by seeing more American flags than I recalled from any earlier period in my life, I was struck by the “return” of the concept of “evil” to contemporary political discourse. The repeated use of the term (often in juxtaposition with its alleged opposite) seemed to be puzzling, yet highly rhetorically effective during the years of the George W. Bush presidency. Phenomena like the ongoing “War on Terror,” the USA PATRIOT Act, and the Department of Homeland Security’s color alert system really frightened and angered me and required a response. I began collecting articles, mostly journalistic, some theoretical, to map these things as they happened. I was particularly interested in these texts as “already read” or “hidden in plain sight.” I was also aware that other artists were working with similar materials (multiple projects based on keyword searches of Bush’s speeches, for example), and I wanted to align with those practices as a small act of solidarity and resistance. My premise is that a different reading protocol and context might produce new conditions of possibility and legibility for these already widely, yet poorly, read events/histories/articles.
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