You are eavesdropping. If we all spoke honestly to an unseen documentarian about gender, race and class, our diatribes would be manipulated by the seer's conceptualization of us. But it'd be little more than a schizophrenic filmstrip of whom we are when no one's looking and whom we assume we're projecting when we're certain someone is.
Is the gaze half full or half empty? Regardless, does it depend on the truth for fulfillment? Whose: the looker, subject or recorder?
Una-Kariim Cross opens shutters, presses "record," leaves nothing but residue in Prometheas' Visual Inversion: A Life Less Ordinary, her master thesis show currently in ArtWorks' Time Warner Cable Gallery downtown. (The show closes Friday with a reception at 6-9 p.m.)
"It's an examination of what it would be like if people communicated without the filters of stereotypes, materialism and fear," says Cross, a Lansing, Mich., native getting a master's degree in fine art from UC's College of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning.
She's a photographer who stalks reality with a cocked lens, making pictures revealing what the subject tried most to hide, a la Diane Arbus. Rather than studies of the mentally ill, nudists, twins and circus freaks, Cross delivers strivers, students, millionaires and mammies (including the images in last week's Women's Issue).
"We're lacking a lot of depth that could get us past where we currently are," she says.
All this hankty talk from a black woman who walks around singing theme songs to life's uh-oh incidents and who makes up her own language. She wakes up too early, always wanting to know if she should "bring coffee." Then there's the over-the-top telling of the monkey dream.
If she lets you, you'll know her. Otherwise, shut up and smile for the birdie.
Cross is for her to know and you to find doubt.
She's ebullient, that rare artist whose cynicism does not overtake her natural joy. They balance.
Still, there are snide asides, rib pokes. Her eyes aren't squeezed completely shut from laughing that she can't see the truth.
When I ask about her bachelor's degree in electronic media from the College-Conservatory of Music, she does that customary Una-Kariim one-two.
"I think all degrees are b.s., but it's a BA," she says, smirking over the rim of a thrift store coffee mug.
Do not think that because she's twice come through the other side of white male institutions she's confused or sending mixed media messages. Don't call it a sell out; neither call her an ingrate.
Likewise, her show gives us these textures, these now-you-see-it/now-you-don't truisms of America like freedom, identity, equality and character. Seeing the show in toto is like watching and trying to fixate on images appearing (flip) and reappearing (flip) in a mirror spinning end over end.
Add the literal self-projection onto the world each time we try and catch a glimpse of ourselves, and it looks like humanity's trying to figure out how to live with itself and everyone who comes with it. And the livin' ain't easy.
Trust. To prove and disprove that notion, Cross snapped a selection of elegantly off-kilter black-and-white photographs crisp around their edges, her photographic trademark. The transgender, multi-sexual and ethnic group comprises the cast of the corresponding video.
And while the photos are intriguing unto themselves, it's the video that, at turns, is hilarious and disconcerting. Like, is the 50ish white woman in the Chanel-looking suit serious when she says African Americans tell her she has "walked the walk?" Braggadocio or validation?
What of the young white guy who needs to say "nigger" to make his point about white racists but who's too coiled up with political correctness? When he finally whispers it forth, is he being sensitive or uptight?
Then there's the 20ish black woman young enough to be spoiled by entitlement yet also jaded by its pitfalls. When she says she doesn't know what freedom looks like, is she being ironic or honest?
At the Cross, Una-Kariim first saw the light by shedding some on herself. She is daring. She is implicated.
"I'm not above reproach," she says. "I'm guilty of some of the very same things that I tell people to check themselves on. I can't ask people to do something that I myself am not willing to do."
This is who she is.
Kathy's collection of columns, Your Negro Tour Guide: Truths in Black and White, is available in bookstores now.