Dave Cooke

at Link’s Hall

April 24

Dave Cooke must have seen some performance art somewhere and figured, “Hey, I can do that–a little video, a few slides, a bit of dancing around and being weird. No problem!” But there are problems galore in Twentieth Century Angst: A Celebration, starting with the fact that it has no purpose whatsoever, other than to give Cooke a chance at some gratuitous attention.

In the nine short pieces that make up Twentieth Century Angst: A Celebration Cooke revels in simplistic or outmoded notions of hipness. He doesn’t seem to have a clue that his cool-to-be-nerdy approach to bowling is passe. His attempt at skewering 12-step programs is embarrassingly obvious at best and stupid at worst. His exploration of homelessness is both condescending and voyeuristic.

Perhaps because Cooke is a physicist by trade (he has a PhD from the University of Chicago) I expected the work to be intelligent and imaginative. I thought he’d be good at working with concepts, with absurdities, with possibilities. But what Twentieth Century Angst: A Celebration employs is not the scientific or professional Cooke but a horrifyingly stereotypical dweeb trying desperately to prove that there’s more to him than slide rules.

Only two of the nine pieces are performed live; the others are video and slide collages. The first live piece, “Mad Dance,” is more or less just that–a frantic little run from one end of the room to the other, then back again. For this piece Cooke has drawn some sort of design on his face. We don’t know the reason. The design is not repeated or explained. This bit of choreography is breathlessly performed to Sonic Youth’s version of Iggy Pop’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog”–employed, I think, to show us how cutting-edge Cooke is. Again, he doesn’t seem to have the faintest idea that he’s about ten years too late.

In the second live piece, “AA,” Cooke pretends to go to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. Reading from scripts and cue cards, he walks through the various characterizations like a somnambulist. Although he keeps introducing himself as different people, there’s not a shred of change in his attitude, accent, or posture–nothing. The punch line is way too obvious: every single character, after detailing his or her descent into alcoholic hell, finds God, then heaven in AA. My question is: So?

With the exception of “Penis Poster,” which literally explains a poster of animal penises and their sizes relative to the human penis, the video/slide segments all use the same simple declarative structure. In “Bowling” Cooke shows us a video in which he goes to a bowling alley and does what everybody else does at a bowling alley: he rents shoes, bowls, eats, drinks beer. Slides in the background show us the marquees of scores of bowling alleys across America. Again I ask: So?

The video in “Religion” shows different preachers on street corners while the slides show us different houses of worship across America. In “Displacement,” the video captures barely audible conversations between homeless people while the background slides show picture after picture of–surprise!–homeless people.

It’s in “Displacement” that Cooke’s insensitivity really comes to the fore. With less than a handful of exceptions, Cooke’s portraits of the homeless are no different from his shots of churches and bowling-alley marquees. He takes them from a distance, placing the subject dead center in the frame–the pictures serve more to document (“See, see, I was really there!”) than to comment. What they actually achieve, however, is a frighteningly impersonal objectification of these people.

The most blatantly exploitive piece is “Sex.” Apparently Cooke has no acquaintance with irony: this is almost straight porn. He frames an occasionally speeded-up video of a pornographic film with a series of garish sex photos. Some of the photos appear to be of him masturbating on a bed. The last of this series shows semen sprayed all over his belly.

I found it of interest that while Cooke was working the controls during the video/slide sections of Twentieth Century Angst: A Celebration he kept his back to the audience. It shouldn’t have surprised me: this guy has a lot of gall, but not enough nerve to look us in the eye.