Jim Swill Brings Revolutionary Angst to the CAC

The Contemporary Arts Center, through its 2013 Summer Performance Series in “The Living Room” of The Living Room exhibition, kicks off the season with a fascinating performance, Screenage Wasteland, from Jim Swill, an artist known for his s

Jun 5, 2013 at 9:13 am

What would a contemporary American Revolution look like? We have television commercials today that play with the notion that Paul Revere would be able to look out his window, assess the British-invasion situation and then make a quick call on his cellphone to alert his compatriots before returning to a friendly game of charades. 

Social media is credited with spreading the word during the various people’s revolutions that took place in the Middle East a few years ago. 

What did we “gain” from the Occupy Movement, in terms of real impact on the political and economic system? 

The voices in the media take sides, but mere imbalance is nothing next to the real problem: the complete and utter breakdown of these modes and models, making it seem like no one is talking about the larger issues, the real change that needs to take place. 

We need new, clear eyes with perspective, but free of bias, and articulate voices to raise the alarm, to break us out of the murky mental malaise that dulls our senses. 

It is not surprising that we might look to the arts for an alternative reflection and perspective. The imitative power of art, in its myriad forms, can expose cracks in the foundation.

The Contemporary Arts Center, through its 2013 Summer Performance Series in “The Living Room” of The Living Room exhibition, kicks off the season with a fascinating performance, Screenage Wasteland, from Jim Swill, an artist known for his spoken word riffs, short films and collage work, which has been featured on TEDx, at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art and at the CAC.

His press release for Screenage Wasteland reads in part, “I will be showcasing my video works composed over the last two years traveling the United States along with narration from my latest and upcoming publications. These video works were created using cellphone cameras and free editing software as to display the emerging potentials with newer technology and DIY filmmaking. The narration to each work is a composition from various publications, compiled into specific pieces that correlate directly with the images on screen.”

The YouTube clip of his TEDx address captures his quietly unsettling stream of higher consciousness that is rooted in the recitation of social ills. What drew me in was the sense that Swill doesn’t take the position of an observer separated from the society; he accepts his own role in the surreal reality show that is modern life. In addition, Swill weds his words to screened life we take for granted thanks to the proliferation of smartphones and apps that allow us to snap up every moment to share as if each instance is somehow invaluable.

Watching him reminds me of Madonna: Truth or Dare, the 1991 documentary that followed the Pop star during her Blonde Ambition tour. There’s that moment backstage with Warren Beatty, when he offers up the astute observation that, for Madonna, the moments off-camera aren’t real. It is the same impression I got from the HBO Beyoncé documentary, Beyoncé: Life Is But a Dream, which takes us beyond peeking behind the curtain; this is life from the perspective of an omniscient observer, an all-seeing voyeur, but it provides little to no context, as if this life is all that matters.

Except Swill knows that the big picture, the larger frame, matters. He’s not concerned with mere visual storytelling, so his filmed elements drop us into a current of hard-wired upstream phrases and frames. It is part myth, part memory, side-by-side, set to a theme.

My YouTube introduction to Swill exposes me to another — secret — aspect of his appeal that will certainly emerge in person. These videos allow viewers the opportunity to perform a modified call and response interplay with him, to leave messages that echo and expand upon the subject at hand. In the case of Wasteland, that would be death. 

“These video works and narration,” as his press statement continues, “are consistently relative to the subject of transformation, technological alienation, expansion and ritualistic behavior. American rituals related to death and compassion become a frequent reference as the works revolve on the idea of consistent motion and internal dialogue. How I personally view death thru (sic) different screens, both fictional and factual, alters with time and place. The barriers between entertainment and introspection are purposefully dissolved as most of the work uses the medium of collage and montage.” 

Jim Swill’s SCREENAGE WASTELAND kicks off the Contemporary Arts Center’s 2013 Summer Performance Series in “The Living Room”

8 p.m. Monday. More info: contemporaryartscenter.org.