Aleesa Cohene Whoa (1 and 2), 2017, installation views, I Don’t Get It, Gallery 44, Toronto, 2017.
Photos : Toni Hafkenscheid, courtesy of the artist

“What’s in the frame and what’s out”: Storytelling, Representation, and Black Quiet in Aleesa Cohene’s I Don’t Get It

Zoë Chan
Critique can sometimes remain frustratingly in the realm of the negative, ­framing and reflecting hegemonic ideology rather than overturning it, highlighting problematic issues rather than proposing alternatives. Take, for instance, the prestige TV series The Handmaid’s Tale (2017–ongoing). Accruing accolades as a clear-eyed ­critique of patriarchy, misogyny, and fascism, it has been celebrated as a cogent allegory for the political present in the United States under Trump. But beyond its slick production values, striking costume design, and excellent cast, The Handmaid’s Tale could almost be read as an aestheticized how-to guide for state-sanctioned violence against women — reiterating the control and denigration of its female subjects in gruelling scene after gruelling scene.

In her video project I Don’t Get It (2017),1 1 - The exhibition Aleesa Cohene, I Don’t Get It, was presented at Western Front in Vancouver, May 25–July 27, 2018. Aleesa Cohene adeptly transcends such limited uses of critique. In previous works, she rejected the tropes of heteronormative storytelling by remixing them as queer narratives; here, she turns her gaze to the pervasive racism undergirding Hollywood cinema. Throughout her practice, Cohene has consistently employed a rigorous methodology, involving the intense study and categorization of many hours of footage, to create her composite characters. She selects video clips of an actor featured alone in a shot; from these she finds small recurring actions that she organizes into categories and then edits together: a character who hesitates by a door, enters a room, and so on. For I Don’t Get It, Cohene stages two composite characters in dialogue with each other presented on two separate screens. In the first video, she has gleaned dozens of clips of black actresses from American films made in the 2000s, and in the second, has done the same with footage of white actresses. Through this literal black-and-white juxtaposition, Cohene underscores the hegemonic normalcy of white faces that represent not only twenty-first century white aesthetics and body norms but also a default baseline for “universal humanity.” Using her ongoing approach of editing together new narratives from a dizzying myriad of film clips, Cohene engages with the very structure of cinema, famously defined by director Martin Scorsese in uncompromisingly categorical terms: “Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.” Through choices in casting, filming, and editing, directors literally decide who will be framed and how. As viewers, we must ask ourselves, who are we consistently asked to focus on? Who are the characters that demand our attention and affection, compassion, or concern? Often, the answer is simple: white people.

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This article also appears in the issue 96 - Conflict

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