Atlanta

Paul Stephen Benjamin: God Bless America at Poem 88

Paul Stephen Benjamin’s current video installation at Poem 88 in Atlanta, Georgia, God Bless America (2016), is a monument to the ambiguous relations between cultural achievement and state patriotism within the contemporary African American political experience.[1] Read against the traumatic history—and current iterations—of racial terror, state violence, and surveillance leveled systematically at Black Americans throughout our nation’s history, God Bless America’s synthesis of flickering and fragmented sound, song, and image gives form to the restless, beautiful, subversive vibrations and tensions that underpin Black dissent in the era of Black Lives Matter.

Paul Stephen Benjamin. God Bless America, 2016; 3-channel video installation, 69 video monitors, DVDs, cables, and cords; installation shot. Courtesy of Poem 88, Atlanta, GA. Photo: Robin Bernat.

Paul Stephen Benjamin. God Bless America, 2016; three-channel video installation, sixty-five video monitors, DVDs, cables, and cords; installation view. Courtesy of Poem 88, Atlanta, GA. Photo: Robin Bernat.

There are several immersive conditions provocatively employed by the artist that encourage viewers to engage with the work as if it were a religious shrine. Sixty-five video monitors form a towering assemblage organized into ziggurat-like configurations within a corner of the gallery, enclosing the space in a blanket of sonic reverberation. The screens shine luminously with intermittent, strobing rhythms of red, blue, and white light. In front sits a smaller cluster of monitors, one large and three small—a kind of altar protected by the radiant shell of colored light and sound that surrounds it. Aretha Franklin’s powerful 1977 video broadcast of God Bless America, My Home Sweet Home, which she performed for President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration, sits front and center like an icon, yet her voice—rich and booming in celebration of the presidential election—remains caught in a binding, repetitive sample of the song’s title, disallowing her song to be sung in its entirety. Franklin’s regal image is interrupted again by the pulsing, monotonous echo of rapper Lil Wayne, whose tripartite image forms a pedestal for the “Queen of Soul,” and whose own repetition of a phrase from his 2013 single “God Bless Amerika” punctures the uplifting narrative and melody of the national hymn, turning it into an ironic, questioning, politicized chant. Together, Franklin’s and Lil Wayne’s voices pulsate in discordant simultaneity and transform the space of the gallery into a strange spiritual arena where the communal experience of worship intersects with a pointed interrogation of American political ideology and belief.

Paul Stephen Benjamin. God Bless America, 2016; 3-channel video installation, 69 video monitors, DVDs, cables, and cords; installation shot. Courtesy of Poem 88, Atlanta, GA. Photo: Robin Bernat.

Paul Stephen Benjamin. God Bless America, 2016; three-channel video installation, sixty-five video monitors, DVDs, cables, and cords; installation view. Courtesy of Poem 88, Atlanta, GA. Photo: Robin Bernat.

The tone of these repetitive, chanting voices is rendered unclear. Their words, and the cadence with which they are presented, could be a call to prayer, the enunciation of a wish, a rigid command, a meaningless compulsion, or a subversive joke, and this is precisely the point.[2] For many African Americans and people of color, the “blessedness” of America and its assumed embodiment of democratic values, equality of opportunity, and protection of human rights is a difficult pill to accept and swallow. The line between pride for and loyalty to one’s country alongside the reality of being Black in America is one ridden with tension, skepticism, and deep rage for the inhumane indignities of slavery, segregation, mass incarceration, racial profiling, the draining of socioeconomic and educational opportunities, and state-sanctioned violence against communities of color.

Paul Stephen Benjamin. God Bless America, 2016; 3-channel video installation, 69 video monitors, DVDs, cables, and cords; installation shot. Courtesy of Poem 88, Atlanta, GA. Photo: Robin Bernat.

Paul Stephen Benjamin. God Bless America, 2016; three-channel video installation, sixty-five video monitors, DVDs, cables, and cords; installation view. Courtesy of Poem 88, Atlanta, GA. Photo: Robin Bernat.

A thoughtful acknowledgement of America’s historical treatment of African Americans renders as a passionate truth Benjamin’s desire to respond ambiguously to the issue of Black patriotism, and “calls attention to the violation of these black lives that don’t matter”—that have never mattered.[3] By collapsing Franklin’s voice—a voice so associated with the hopes and struggles of the Civil Rights movement—with the cold, dissenting enunciations of Lil Wayne’s scathing album I Am Not a Human Being II, Benjamin forces us to consider the legacy of the 1960s alongside our contemporary moment. Ours is a moment in flux, reeling and reorganizing the principles of a multifarious concept of “Blackness,” intersectional politics, resistance movements, and new or future coalitions of resistance and reform. Standing in front of Benjamin’s altar to the Black voice, one is reminded of the ways in which Black voices have been shut down, interrupted, ignored, or manipulated in the past—the fragmented speech trapped in an endless cycle of permanent unfinished-ness—and the persistence of Black voices rising up to disturb the subjugation of voices of color in American culture.

God Bless America will be on view at Poem 88 in Atlanta, Georgia, through October 29, 2016.

[1] My thanks must go to Ms. Robin Bernat, Owner and Curator of Poem 88, and Mr. Jon Ciliberto for their assistance with the research and writing of this article.

[2] See curator Robin Bernat’s short curatorial statement “Paul Stephen Benjamin: God Bless America” (September 2016), written for the opening of the exhibition at Poem 88 in Atlanta, GA on September 17, 2016.

[3] See Dr. Daphne A. Brooks’s essay “Second Coming: Daphne A. Brooks on Modern Protest Pop,” in Artforum, vol. 54, no. 10 (Summer 2016), 123–128.

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