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Issue 125

Bande a part / Kids these days
by Edwin Janzen

In a 1989 spoken word performance, former Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra quizzed his audience: “What does the American adult fear more than terrorists?” Answer: “Teenagers!” If perhaps glib, Biafra’s joke also neatly encapsulated adult society’s efforts to define and encircle young people with regulations and institutions. The recent exhibition Bande à part / Kids these days confronts and challenges this societal predisposition. The project of Montreal curator Zoë Chan, it brings together eight artists whose works examine adolescent strategies of survival and self invention amidst our capitalist, industrial society.

But before the visitor to Bande à part encounters a single artwork, she is confronted by two complementary, contextualizing installations: a table where people may write their impressions of youth on paper slips and stick them on a designated wall, and a collection of books related in some way to youth. The latter range from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita to Mary O’Hara’s My Friend Flicka, from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye to Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul, from S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders to Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, situating the exhibition within a society-wide discourse delimited by psychology, sociology, and youth and adult fiction. With the former – the slips of paper with visitors’ impressions – Chan foregrounds the idea of youth as personal and inscribed, marking the works in the show not as representations of youth but as interlocutions by subjective adult artists.

The written slips of paper also echo certain works in the exhibition. In Notes (2004), Kyla Mallett presents large-scale photographs of personal notes passed between high-school girls, which are astonishingly rich in craft and creativity. In sharp contrast to the pre-inscribed fields and formats of today’s Facebook and text messaging apps, the notes’ authors break away easily from the foolscap’s parallel lines, expressing themselves in sketches, spiral text and multiple ink colours. For coming of age stories 2: hooking up (2014), Kerri Flannigan asked her peers to share stories of their early sexuality, which she then interpreted with illustrations in a diary-like format. Though appearing documentary at first glance, Flannigan’s work is in fact a hybrid representation of an array of uncomfortable but often humourous sketches of sexual exploration.

For Le beau, le laid et la photographie (2011), Emmanuelle Léonard invited students at an all-girls school to share their ideas about beautiful and ugly imagery. Filmed sitting at their desks, some of the girls exhibit discomfort with verbal expression, yet their animated facial expressions and gestures acutely convey their struggles to form individualized notions of taste, aesthetics and, thus, identity.

Guillaume Simoneau’s work, Between Grass and Steel (2004–11), documents high school students from Lévis, Quebec at a rural drinking party on graduation night. Shot as formal portraits, Simoneau’s images evince a tension between official social ritual (graduation) and informal youth ritual (bush party). The graduating girls appear awkward and uncertain, their shadow doubles thrown onto the foliage behind them by the camera flash.

Three works in the exhibition explore music as a means to liberation and self-invention. In Screaming Girls (2005), Jo-Anne Balcaen presents a series of found black-and-white clips of screaming female fans at 1960s rock concerts. The video is presented in slow-motion, without an audio track, abstracting the girls from the musical performances they have come to witness and highlighting their ecstatic emotion and abrogation of self-control. Screaming fans like these inaugurated the post-World War II youth culture, and as such represent a break with the past, harbingers of a new reality in the history of adolescent self invention; you could now be, to quote the Velvet Underground, “saved by rock ’n’ roll.”

Sarah Febbraro and Althea Thauberger’s works tap this youth tradition of self-inscription through popular music. For Minor Threats (2012), Febbraro asked six amateur musicians each to select and learn a guitar solo from YouTube. She then filmed their performances in public locations, juxtaposing each musician’s clip against the footage of her online “tutor.” Recalling the now-defunct tradition of the social “debut,” Minor Threats underscores the emotionally charged threshold between being and performing in private and in public. Thauberger’s video, Songstress (2002), presents a series of amateur female singer-songwriters performing their own works against lush garden backgrounds. The young performers appear earnest and vulnerable, some of them fidgeting nervously, awkwardly playing with the foliage. Staged but not edited – the singing of birds and crickets is audible throughout – the authenticity of these performances contrasts sharply with today’s intensively edited, packaged and marketed youth culture.

Blue Moon (2014), a documentary-style video by Helen Reed, presents a teenage “wolf pack,” whose high school-age members adopt and perform a variety of lupine identities and rituals. Ill-served by mainstream institutions and religion, pack members draw from nature documentaries and popular conceptions of werewolves to create a new social milieu for themselves. Positioned toward the rear of the gallery, the visitor experiences Reed’s work as a kind of finale – and not inappropriately: the wolf pack is a sophisticated exercise in collective identity-making, perhaps a step beyond the individualized approaches explored in the other works. It’s not merely another youth gang, but an intentional community.

A key feature of Bande à part is the absence (excepting the interlocutions of the artists) of adults. Though but one among many of the books mentioned earlier, the spirit of Margaret Mead wafts about this exhibition; indeed, Chan’s curatorial statement, while acknowledging Mead’s failings, defends her importance, in particular the insight that “industrialized societies no longer had collectively agreed-upon rituals marking the passage from childhood to adulthood.” And such rituals as we do have – key coming of-age markers entitling us to drive motor vehicles and purchase alcohol – signify an inauguration into the realms of consumerism and addiction, though surely not to maturity.

Whether experienced inside or outside of institutional frameworks – such as the nuclear family, school or religion – negotiating adolescence in the labyrinthine context of industrial capitalism demands complex wayfinding strategies. Yet, even in a culture marked by dead ends like crass consumption, social alienation, self-destructive trajectories, young people continue to develop individual and collective creative strategies for survival and identity formation. As the artists in Bande à part show us, necessity is the mother of self-invention.

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