by Agne Cimermanaite

Imagine listening to the most popular and diverse music all day and night. It might seem fun at first and very festive like, who wouldn’t enjoy some famous pop hits or the most popular Queen, Metallica and Eminem tunes? Well, this would not be the case if you are an inmate in Guantánamo or Abu Ghraib prisons. And definitely not if you are forced to listen to this ongoing soundtrack on the highest volume and for 24 hours.

Propositions for Non-Fascist Living

BAK is a contemporary art space in the centre of Utrecht. As of 28th of February, a new art exhibition has opened up — Tony Cokes: To live as equals. It is a part of the museum’s long-term project Propositions for Non-Fascist Living. “Tony Cokes critiques capitalism, systemic oppression, racism, sexism, but each of his installation has different topics, depiction methods, and sounds. Being quite prolific, the artist often produces different kind of works at the same time,” explains the artist’s work background BAK’s curator of public practice Rachael Rakes.

In the exhibition Tony Cokes: to live as equals there are not many images that directly show shameful events of the past. Instead, we are prompted to evoke imagination through words and music and reflect on the experiences of several tragic historical incidents. Through unbearably loud sounds, upsetting messages we can experience the situation of the highly oppressed. The world lacks justice and Tony Cokes proves this in his art. He refuses to forget the past and the exhibition invites us to perceive cruel past experiences through the words and music. Maybe we shouldn’t forget the past either, but try to rearchive it instead?

The exhibition first briefly opened at the end of February, just before the Covid-19 lockdown, and now it’s reopening on 16 & 17 October 2020, ready to welcome visitors again. During the time from February until this day, massive protests took place around the world against racism and inequality. The uprisings that disrupt our societies show that we still need a change in the world, and this is also the message that Tony Cokes presents in his artwork. History repeats itself, and that is possible to see in the exhibition: the video materials from the mass racial violence scenes from 1960s will remind you of the Black Lives Matter anti-racist riots that occurred earlier this year. 

Evil.16 Torture.Musik

As you enter the Evil.16 Torture.Musik room you see a blue-red colour-changing screen that writes down the story of prisoners tortured by Western music. Not only were the prisoners deprived of sleep, but also suffered from the psychological and physical trauma of being exposed to the music for such long periods. When visiting the room, one can imagine what it is like to be constantly listening to those extremely catchy songs for days and nights. “The soundtrack was not randomly selected by the artist. It was the exact music played for the prisoners,” explains the museum’s artistic director Maria Hlavajova. The video containing loud pop music goes on for 16:27 minutes. Take the challenge and imagine yourself as a prisoner by staying in the room with non-stoping catchy songs for the whole time of the installation. “The idea of cultural imperialism and imposition of Western culture for prisoners is a really sad chapter in the history,” says Maria Hlavajova.

The Black Celebration 

What if we were in one of the 1960s riots in Detroit, Watts, Newark or Boston? The Black Celebration installation places us in the streets together with damaged buildings and beside the marching armed soldiers. A crucial piece for the exhibition, according to the curator Rachael Rakes, where Cokes used live videos from 50-60 years ago and together with his selected music offers us to look at the upsetting events with empathy and understanding. The mainstream media perceived black communities as criminals and blamed them for all the damage that was done to the cities during the riots. But the uprisings should not be seen as a criminal act, as the rioters were fighting against inequality, injustice, poverty and most importantly, against the oppression of black communities. We should re-inscribe the riots in history not as criminal acts, but as important moments in the history of emancipation, just like the Tony Cokes overwrote the media propaganda with music.

How can we live as equals?

While visiting the exhibition, it is interesting to notice the relationship between sound and image — they produce something unexpected and constitute a fundamental part of Cokes’ work. Music helps to experience what is expressed by visual art. The exhibition is not only about the critique of society. Let’s try to look at art as a way of imagining the world differently: how can we live as equals?