America at a Crossroads (Again): Bruce High Quality Foundation and the Whitney Biennial

America is at a crossroads. Yet again.

It used to be that these metaphoric crossroads were rare occasions in our country's life, moments built up to over decades, generations. They were something seen years down the road, and an equal number of years in the rear-view mirror. They were the exception, the abnormal, the culmination -- the decision made that would carry America forth into the future.

A war. A judgment. An assassination. An invention. Rights given. Rights taken away.

But something changed somewhere along the way. "Crossroads" starting popping up every generation, then twice a generation, then every five years -- less. What's more, the shifts stopped sticking and the decisions carried less weight.

By all accounts the 2008 presidential election was a crossroads. It was the boiling point of the "culture wars," and the supposedly final battle between the warring Red States and Blue States.

Obama was our decision. We punched our ballots, swung the car into high gear, rolled down the windows, and said we were never looking back.

Yet soon enough, the scenery started looking eerily familiar. Didn't we already drive by those houses? Haven't we already passed this McDonald's? I swear that's the same gas station.

And then, like an old horror film, we found ourselves right back where we started, staring down the same path that just took us out of town.

Health care. Unemployment. The economy. Tea parties. Birth certificates. A broken government.

We were supposed to be beyond these. We voted them away, or so we thought.

Instead the only thing that has truly changed is that we are now seemingly unable to change. We appear to be destined to reflect and analyze in perpetuity with scant action.

Which brings me to this year's Whitney Biennial.

While the show's curators Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Murayari claim that there was no specific theme to this year's edition, there's no doubt that America is at the heart of the show.

From Nina Berman's heartbreaking photos depicting a disfigured soldier adapting to life back in the US to Stephanie Sinclair's series on Afghani women recovering from self-immolation (after all, is Afghanistan not part of America now?), America can be found in shouts and whispers.

Like the pundits on TV, the job-seekers waiting for a nibble, the young sinking deeper into debt, and the politicians grandstanding, the artists in this show are taking part in the nationwide discussion.

Bruce High Quality Foundation's "We Like America and America Likes Us," arguably the best piece in the show, doesn't just join the discussion, it is the discussion.

Using a mashup of cultural images, from our most cherished films to the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan to the latest viral video, the five-member artist collective tells the story of our relationship with our country, beginning at the beginning, and ending at the impasse we now find ourselves (perhaps the end).

The film itself is projected onto the windshield of white ambulance/hearse that's right out of Ghostbusters (a movie and a theme that appears throughout the piece).

BHQF's use of narrative tropes and clichés, referencing vague stories and plots we all know by heart, makes the bitter pill they present easier to swallow. Yet it is no less affecting or beautiful.

The piece couches the discussion in terms even the most apolitical of us can understand. America is anthropomorphized in a way that Uncle Sam cartoonists could never compete with.

In the film, America is the beautiful woman who withered with age and the man of too little, too late rolled into one. America is what we read and what we watch on TV.

There is no more myth-making in America, only the tearing down of heroes. Reality television, punditry, and cynicism saw to that.

What we're left with is an America we're not sure we want to love, even like, but that looks more like us than we care to admit.

Bruce High Quality Foundation's "We Like America and America Likes Us" shows us what we once were, what we could have been, and what we still may become. Our Ghostbuster hearse is stalled at a sad crossroads.

What comes next?


The members of Bruce High Quality Foundation have graciously allowed us to show their work on the Huffington Post. Please watch it for yourself, and if you can, see the whole installation at the Whitney.

(Some possible NSFW-imagery)