The Social Imaginary of MOCA’s “Bill and Coo” (Larry Bell)

Friday, April 17, 2020

Norman Klein’s THE HISTORY OF FORGETTING was the first book in which I encountered a particular aspect of the “social imaginary”: the role of erasure in the gestation and maturation of the infinite Venn diagrams of social identification. If Dodger Stadium is a symbolic realm in which athletes are extolled for their contributions to a city’s self-mythology, all representations or invocations of that stadium must completely ignore the demolition of a neighborhood to build that stadium, if the stadium is to retain the power of its symbolic substitutions. “Something must be erased,” Klein emphasizes, for the social imaginary to wave its magic wand of ideological hypnosis.

Klein’s social imaginary is not just an embargo on acknowledging the verifiable extractions that took place at the hands of known parties. His examples also include more indeterminate elisions: the erasure of knowledge that the mise-en-scene of yesteryear was not the way it is represented now. What was Main Street of “yesteryear” like? Must it not have been like the one in Disneyland? Klein all but scoffs with derision.

I thought of Klein’s rule of thumb for the social imaginary the other day, as I was clearing out a stack of mail that I had tossed in a pile of year-end appeals, I found a letter from MOCA (in DTLA) informing me that admission was now free, thanks to a donation from the President of the Board of Trustees, Carolyn Clark Powers. Free admission began on January 11th, but has obviously interrupted by the shelter-at-home policies brought about by the covid-19 outbreak.

In the letter, Carolyn Powers says she’s “thrilled to see the iconic Larry Bell on the Sculpture Plaza.” It’s been a while since I’ve been to the museum, and I don’t recollect this piece being on view. I hope the museum is open within the next four months, so that I can visit before the fall semester commences. Foreknowledge, however, is the aftertaste of context made visible. It will be a bit hard for me to see Bell’s sculpture without thinking of the plot behind the movie that is the armature extending from its imagined cultural armchair.

“Bill and Coo” sounds innocuous enough, but when one looks the film up, the story line is only partially represented on the plaza. It’s not just two parrots sidling up alongside heteronormativity; there is also the matter of the “antagonist”: a crow called “The Black Menace.” Oh…. Of course, “The Black Menace.” The racist ideology at work here needs no commentary, and I’m wondering if perhaps what might be appropriate is a reading of Wanda Coleman’s poetry at the Plaza. I can’t think of a better way to problematize the social imaginary of “Bill and Coo” than to read out loud “South Central Death-Trip.”

Coleman’s first major posthumous retrospective, WICKED ENCHANTMENT, has just been published by Godine. Edited by Terrance Hayes, this volume should be for sale in a special bookstall right next to Larry Bell’s sculpture. Or perhaps a more audible rebuke would be appropriate. Why not install a recording of Coleman reading her caustic perturbations on race, class, and gender so that the “cooing” of her voice counterpoints this idyllic lovenest of soothing surfaces.

One other possibility should be considered: in the fall, 2018, the University Art Museum at CSU Long Beach had a show by Lauren Woods, “American MONUMENT,” installed for public viewing, but upon hearing of the discharge of the person at UAM who had been instrumental in the development of this show, Woods silenced the tape machines that conveyed the testimony (or lack of testimony) about police violence in African-American communities. Woods’s show deserves an L.A. reprise, without reprisals.

In offering this commentary, I don’t want to make it seem as if I will regard Bell’s work as any less important to my own development as a cultural worker. His space-and-light pieces remain enormous influences on a couple of projects I have undertaken as a poet. Nevertheless, it would only make me complicit with the egregious effacements of the social imaginary if I were not to speak out about this aporia at MOCA’s plaza.

As if to confirm the pinpoint accuracy of “American MONUMENT,” here is today’s latest post reminding us of the disparities of racial profiling: