Descriptions of Tony Cokes’s videos often start with what isn’t in them. Over the past two decades, he has eschewed representational imagery in favor of white text, excerpted from journalistic sources, presented on monochromatic screens, typically red or blue. The videos could be mistaken for examples of some strain of minimalist cinema or artifacts from the heyday of stripped-down Conceptual art. Yet in Cokes’s hands, text-driven videos are remarkably expansive in the topics they address—and more generous to viewers than typical conceptualist interventions. The vibrant pop soundtracks that Cokes selects complicate the experience of reading the text onscreen, while invariably drawing crowds.
The videos that Cokes has produced over the last two years exemplify just how adaptable—and timely—this approach can be. Between a retrospective exhibition at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University, new commissions at The Shed in New York, and major pieces featured in group shows in Europe and the United States, Cokes seemed to be everywhere just as the pandemic brought the art world to a halt.
His web video series, “Of Lies and Liars” (2020), is based on an Atlantic article by David Frum about Trump’s failures during the early days of the pandemic. With a soundtrack of ska, reggae, and Top 40 rock songs, the work presents a complex blend of journalistic analysis and musical nostalgia. Both critically oriented and personally affecting, the series is one of the first great artworks of the pandemic era.
Cokes’s working method enables him to respond to current events while continuing his long-standing investigation of race in popular culture. Recent works have employed critical essays on the bile of Morrissey as well as soaring appreciations of Aretha Franklin’s civil rights legacy. “Della’s House,” a 2019 exhibition for Hannah Hoffman Gallery, featured what Cokes calls a “site-sensitive” installation about Blackness and cultural production at the house that modernist architect Paul Revere Williams designed for himself in Los Angeles.
In a fundamental way, Cokes’s work transforms the experience of reading. The private act of reading becomes something more communal and public when done in a gallery standing together with others. This effect even extends to the Web-based work he has produced for remote viewing. A professor of modern culture and media at Brown University, Cokes recently spoke with me about this experience from his home in Providence, Rhode Island.
SMITH “Of Lies and Liars” is a five-part series of short videos all based on David Frum’s essay “This Is Trump’s Fault.” Published in April 2020, the piece summarizes the Trump administration’s failures on public health up to that early point in the pandemic. The videos present passages from Frum’s essay in white text on blue and red screens. Did this work represent a typical process for you or was it driven by the pandemic in a new way?
COKES I should describe my general methodology. I couldn’t really call it traditional research in the sense that I often compile articles that I come across, which happens mostly on social media these days. And sometimes friends or colleagues will suggest something, and I’ll [save] a PDF copy of it on my hard drive. I pick texts that are related to ideas I’ve been thinking about or want to think about or might be interested in talking about. I’m constantly collecting material.
I’ve been looking at a lot of articles that seek to historicize or explain the phenomenon that we’re going through. I selected the Frum article mainly because it’s a seemingly straightforward take on the pandemic and seeks to define a particular historical moment. I’m often interested in magazine timelines—those pieces that try to step you through a sequence of events. Sometimes I collage multiple sources together, but, as in this case, I also sometimes take most of the material from one source.
SMITH The soundtrack includes pop songs by the Postal Service, the Specials, David Bowie. How does this music transform Frum’s text?
COKES The soundtrack is a collage of tracks that hover around the theme of lies and lying. These themes appear in pop songs frequently, usually having to do with romance but sometimes also with politics or culture. I often choose music from a period different from [that of] the textual material. I try to exploit a displacement or gap between the elements. I tell people I don’t do period soundtracks, though I sometimes break my own rules.
In this case the text deals with very contemporary events, and I thought it would be interesting to take an archaeological approach to the audio materials. I wanted to trace out certain resonances between our period and the Iraq War–era of the early 2000s, as well as the late ’70s and early ’80s. I selected the Specials’ “Ghost Town”  because the lyrics describe sensations that people might feel in the pandemic, with public spaces, especially musical and cultural spaces, being shut. I like the idea that there’s a thematic connection between text and image despite decades of separation. It suggests an uncanny recurrence of events. But I also want to deploy sound as a way of opening up other reference systems. There’s a desire in my work to make matters more complex and less located in the specific contemporary moment.
In addition to certain structuralist theories, a lot of my thinking is grounded in James Baldwin’s notions of history, and especially his idea that Black people are closer to history than they are normally seen as being. There are certain continuities, certain structures that continue from one historical era to another. Baldwin once said that for Black people the words “daily” and “historically” are synonyms. Like Walter Benjamin, Baldwin questioned the notion of historical progress. For example, multiple long-standing structures of inequality (health care disparities, underpaid “essential” labor, police brutality impacting communities of color) apparently have achieved sharp intensity and visibility in the COVID crisis. These structures might change their surface forms, discourses, and modes of address, but they are always about very similar things with regard to inequality in race and class.
SMITH You mentioned wanting to allude back to the early 2000s, to the moment of the Iraq War. Frum played a fairly central role in that endeavor as a member of the Bush administration. Frum is decrying Trump, but what is the history of Frum’s own complicity in previous tragedies?
COKES I wasn’t thinking terribly consciously about it, although I was aware that he is one of the authors of the phrase “Axis of Evil,” and I had done an earlier series about that rhetorical construction—about the explication of evil in the context of the Iraq War as well as its broader implications, ripples, and recurrences in the history of regime change that predates the early 2000s conflict. I thought that there was something interesting about Frum’s specifically coming out to denounce Trump and his policies. I didn’t make a specific argument about it, but it’s a position that might complicate the seemingly straightforward character of his article. Some people have told me that “Of Lies and Liars” is a clearly positioned denouncement of Trump and Trumpism, but it’s more complicated than that. It is clear in a certain way, but I think there is also complexity stemming in part from the person delivering that critique.
SMITH You’ve also edited Frum’s text to eliminate direct references to Trump, choosing to replace his name with “T.”
COKES I often like to go from the specific to something more general or conceptual. That sometimes involves removing proper names from the texts. The article already specifies who “T” is. Do I actually have to restate it in the exact same way? I’m less interested in him as an individual than in the conditions, the institutional contexts, that allow for his legibility. Rather than isolating this single, specific person, I want to ask what this figure represents. How is his rhetoric constructed?
SMITH Is the elimination of proper names, then, related to your avoidance of representational imagery? The recent exhibition “Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011” at MoMA PS1 in New York included your [2009–11] video Evil.16: (Torture.Musik), which features accounts of “enhanced interrogation” sessions and the pop songs, from heavy metal to Britney Spears, that US officials played in an effort to antagonize detainees. It was a striking contrast to other works in the show, many of which reproduced traumatic images of violence and warfare.
COKES In the wake of 9/11, I became more attentive to how certain events were presented rhetorically rather than [visually]. I had already done some work with historical footage and other archival materials, but I found myself questioning whether there were other approaches to large and complex histories. Was it really necessary to reproduce certain iconic images, especially those of violent actions like the 9/11 attacks? What would it mean to concentrate on the discourse around these images, as opposed to repeating them? It also seemed that text and music alone would allow for the use of the viewers’ imaginative resources and preexisting knowledge.
With the “Evil” series, I try to complicate and displace the known visual vocabulary of war, terrorism, and torture. I had previously done a series of works about then-current conditions of production in pop music that caused me to both listen to a lot of contemporary music and think about its form and the way it positioned listeners and producers. By foregrounding text, I found a way to raise these questions while avoiding the iconic images associated with pop and its key visual mediums, like the music video. It seemed logical to continue exploring other topics in that way, exploring the rhetoric around weapons of mass destruction and “mission accomplished.”
SMITH Do you think of yourself as a critic of pop music?
COKES I guess I’m a divided subject on the topic. In some ways I am critical of the devices and market forces and categorizations that underlie pop culture. At the same time, I think pop music allows for possibilities for personal development and social cohesion. Historically, pop music has allowed certain positions to become socially legible and for people to find community. If I were only critical and saw no potential, I probably wouldn’t deal with pop music as a form and as a subject matter.
SMITH Does a figure like Morrissey represent the breakdown of that potential? The Morrissey Problem  addresses his xenophobic commentary and reactionary politics.
COKES Well, he’s not alone in being a populist against the public. Morrissey presented queered, classed, complex, and literate subject positions via pop vernaculars. He seemed to be in pop, but not totally of it, and also able to explicate pop’s forms, operations, and structures. Morrissey, as a fan turned critic turned performer, often wittily staged the layered co-creations of artist, audience, and music industry. The songs seemed to offer liberatory potentials in their heightened, poetic approach to politics, desires, pop culture, and daily life in ways that I felt were similar to the détournements of Situationist International. Perhaps it was my desire for productive differences that intrigued me, but I viewed his construction of speculative, desiring meanings as a way to the future (and to encounter personal and social pasts in new ways). These factors drew me to redeploy fragments of Morrissey’s writing or music in works like Black Celebration, the Pop Manifestos series, and Evil.27: Selma. Morrissey interests me because he represents possible futures—and their erosion. There are multiple ways in which these possibilities for connection between performer and audience can go wrong.
When conservative or racist or sexist things are expressed in pop music, it’s often a plea for a certain type of visibility or recognition more than it actually is political content. People sometimes go through phases, and sometimes they recant the horrible things they say, and then sometimes maybe say them again. I wish I could say it’s a one-way trip and that if you ever do or say anything inappropriate, that will close down your possibilities and your audience possibilities forever, but it’s more complicated.
I made The Morrissey Problem in response to a conversation that started after a presentation I gave in the UK. A colleague in the audience asked for my thoughts about Morrissey’s controversial recent statements. The same person later sent me an article written from a position of a Black fan of Morrissey, which I felt was authoritative, and I deployed elements of that text in the piece. You could read Morrissey’s recent utterances as a recanting of some of the possibilities of his earlier work. And it seems as though, for now, he’s quite comfortable with that, but there might not be a guarantee that he will stay in the same position. I don’t know if that means you must now forgo listening to the music or all of the music. Some people have designated [his former band] the Smiths as a safe zone, while Morrissey’s production as an individual is more soaked with contradictory elements. But there are still weird echoes even in some of the Smiths’ material. The song “Panic” includes the refrain “Burn down the disco, hang the DJ.” At the time, it was read as a rejection of certain forms of pop music, not as a critique or disavowal of people of different ethnicities and cultural habits. But now, if you choose to read it in retrospect in relation to his recent comments, you might find objections there as well.
And, of course, I didn’t use the Smiths as a soundtrack to The Morrissey Problem. I used McCarthy, a different British band that some people think sounds like the Smiths. They have a more explicitly left political position. I had heard of them but not . . . in the ’80s. Then I found a cover of one of their songs, recorded in the early 2000s by Manic Street Preachers. Something leads to something else, then back to an alleged point of origin that diverges from the thing you thought it was originally about.
SMITH You recently installed a major series of works in the Los Angeles home that modernist architect Paul Williams—one of the most prominent Black architects of the mid-twentieth century—built for his own family. The house was undergoing renovations, and you installed a number of screens ranging from small monitors to huge LED displays in what had been the living and dining rooms, as well as a kind of enclosed interior patio that once opened up onto the backyard. Some of the videos featured autobiographical texts by Williams, while others analyzed the life and career of Aretha Franklin. Do you consider this a site-specific work?
COKES I think of my work as being not so site-specific in the historical sense, . . . I’d probably term it something like “site-sensitive.” In the case of the Paul Williams piece, which I called “Della’s House,” I knew a little bit about the history of the specific site. I was intrigued by how little, relatively speaking, I knew about Williams himself versus the information that I had seen about the buildings he had built. I had found one set of texts, edited by his granddaughter, . . . autobiographical expositions of incidents from his life. I was drawn to the material because it was hybrid in a certain way. There were also passages that were less anecdotal and more theoretical—about racism and society more generally. I found that juxtaposition to be really interesting.
The piece was to be sited in an underrecognized architect’s home, and there are tropes of presenting an underrecognized artist figure. Without being fully conscious of it, I began thinking about a comparison that would complicate or destabilize those tropes. And it just so happened that when I was out in LA doing my first site visit to the Williams house, Franklin died. And that had massive personal impact on me. In the immediate wake of her death there were a number of texts written that specifically placed her music in relationship to both Black struggles and feminist struggles. Here is someone who is phenomenally well-known whose work brings out in listeners a particular set of social and cultural resonances. I thought it would be interesting to contrast Franklin’s story with Williams’s, to think about their contrasting personal histories and contexts and the gender divide.
SMITH How did these dual narratives come through in the form of the installation?
COKES I began thinking about juxtapositions of scale as well as of indoor and outdoor spaces. In some ways the pieces about Williams and those about Franklin, all displayed in the house, are mirror images of one another. I took the opportunity to do something new with the background imagery in the videos. I wanted to . . . reference . . . the interplay of indoor/outdoor in the home, especially in the way the garden and house connect. So the large-scale LED videos have backgrounds that . . . refer to nature, but a hallucinogenic kind of vision, an undulating faux water pattern. The indoor/outdoor divide became a recurring theme, and I even considered reprising a Dan Graham piece, proposed in the 1970s, that would feature a video screen out on the front lawn of a suburban home. But I don’t think the neighbors would have gone for that.
SMITH Your work in general heightens the tension between private and public space: the private or isolated experience of reading suddenly turns into a group activity when you’re with a group of people all focused on the same screen.
COKES That complication between public and private reading is something that I’m thinking about a lot. I’m looking for potential ways to short-circuit the atomized and privatized experience typical of media consumption. Part of the potential tension arises because I’ve become interested in working at what could be public scale—with large LED screens, for example—but within interior spaces.
When I was a student and a young maker, there was a whole tradition of providing context for work in order to mitigate any possible misreading. I thought it was useful to be present to introduce or answer questions about the work. But then, as my work began to circulate, I realized that it would get into contexts that I wasn’t sure I needed or wanted to be in. Maybe it’s because I took a kind of detour into performance that this question became even more acute for me. I’m not sure I want to be a living embodiment of the work, or to be responsible to answer questions about and answer for the work. I found that showing work in festivals or group shows could deconstruct the notion that I needed to be there or that I was expected to be there, or that there was some value [in] being in proximity to the work. This question about my relationship to place and audience is recurring now, in a strange way, where it’s not possible to be physically present, period.
SMITH What are you working on now? Do you have future projects you can talk about, broad areas you’re investigating?
COKES I am producing four new large-scale videos to premiere weekly in February 2021 for Circa on a huge screen at Piccadilly Circus, London. Each 150-second video will redeploy words written or spoken by activist John Lewis, theorist Judith Butler, musician John Lydon, and Elijah McClain, a young Black victim of police violence. In addition to their display once per day on the Piccadilly screens, the video works will stream via Circa’s online platform, with enhanced programming. The project, tentatively titled “4 Voices/4 Weeks” will be my most publicly accessible work, yet it innovates via a distinct, abstract, coded visualization. The videos trace a movement from anger to nonviolence, from the unfolding of an unjust death to a politicized mourning. I “translate” the original texts into a code I devised–mixing dropped vowels and simple abbreviations and symbols.
Also, I want to further explore ideas about the studio and its afterlives. People often ask to do studio visits, but I don’t actually have a studio in the conventional sense. It’s not a place where I do my practice every day. I’m not attached to a specific configuration in space. But some of my peers and colleagues are very much connected to their studios. So I began trying to think through what a studio is. How does it function and what does it represent? How does this relate to the history of the post-studio and post-conceptual approaches to making work that I may identify with? The concept of the artist’s studio has also had an impact on popular culture and ideas about lifestyle, the creative classes, and immaterial labor. Artists have been performing creative labor for generations, and now everyone seems to be modeling themselves after them.