What does an archive of generational love, loss, and fortitude look like? “We are the [Hackers], Baby, [Hackers] are we” is Ariel René Jackson’s and Michael J. Love’s attempt to answer this question. Their exhibition at Big Medium is a culmination of a dynamic collaboration as 2021 Tito’s Prize recipients. Its namesake hails from the band Chic’s 1980 track “Rebels Are We,” which sets the cadence for their endeavor: “We are the rebels, baby / Rebels are we / We want to be free / My baby and me.”
Walking into the exhibition is like walking onto a stage. In the virtual opening, Jackson described their project as a set design, denoting its theatrical influences. Temporary walls have been painted and wallpapered, framing what looks like a living room. Family memorabilia adorn one side of the room. Suitcases, pots, and various containers hold house plants that add an aura of vitality to the space.
Three monitors facing outward from the set play a multi-channel video of Jackson and Love performing as their alter egos, Confuserella and Babé. They are both dressed in retro configurations of themselves: Confuserella wears high-waisted pants and suspenders over a white button-up, red bowtie, glasses, and a moustache, while Babé is dressed in bell bottoms, a white tank, gray fur coat. On screen they dance, laugh, and mix music in the same faux living room we see in the gallery. Their specters are suggested by two plush, pink chairs that face outwards towards the viewer.
Voices of two women — the artist’s grandmothers Juanita Brunson and Cora Sutton — fill the gallery alongside the beat of Babé’s tap dancing, which Confuserella fuses together on their mixing console. The women speak of their well-fought triumphs and realities of hardship. Archival photographic and video footage of the artist’s families are spliced in between this visual and verbal mashup.
A gallery wall features a series of comic strips elucidating the scene, though not with an aim towards certainty. Rather, the comics seem to set the tone and zone somewhere temporally beyond our current location. The introductory panel reads, “It feels like forever since we left all these oppressive spaces. Since Confuserella and I focused purely on Black joy we have been self-sustaining-no!-THRIVING in this in between stasis of the wormhole we discovered in our familia’s living room…”
It’s a clue to this exhibition’s topsy-turvy quality. Wormholes? Naturally, it’s easy to feel uprooted amidst the artist’s time-traveling method and their speculative lingo. But perhaps uprooted is where we are supposed to be. The “in between stasis” that Jackson and Love present is where their challenge lies; again, what does an archive of generational love, loss, and strength look like?
Their answer emerges from the drum of tap shoes on wood, the cacophony of words on the page, and the clashing of patterns and chords and fabrics and family photographs and people. “We are the [Hackers], Baby, [Hackers] are we” is an ensemble that is authored by multiple generations but rendered here by Jackson and Love.
Soil and plant life are, literally, grounding elements in the show. They sprout throughout the set and even play their own roles: a microphone points downwards toward a curved dirt configuration, demanding that we listen (to whom or what is unclear). Dirt here is a passageway that tethers the gallery to its place of origin, which we do not have access to physically, but is implicit.
Imagination is a key element of this exhibition: or in scholar Saidiya Hartman’s terms, critical fabulation. The idea is complex, but simply appeals to the potential of research-based imagining to liberate suppressed histories and peoples. This is, in short, the work Jackson and Love have set out to do. Hartman’s “Scenes of Subjection” rests on a coffee table alongside Katherine McKittrick’s “Demonic Grounds” and a copy of “Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry,” a sign of Black scholarship’s importance to the exhibition’s conception.
The final exhibition is a deeply reverent endeavor, but one guided by the playfulness of creative expression. Each detail furnished by Jackson and Love provides a passageway between the past, present, and future of their familial narratives. Viewers watch and listen as the artists travel those paths and present their findings. We are also the hackers, baby, in this act of witnessing.
In the show’s virtual opening, Love’s grandmother said that she went into her interview for the project “with bated breath.” This strikes me as a meaningful summation of the way viewers might engage with Jackson’s and Love’s archival project — with caution, care, and a sense of anticipation.
“We are the [Hackers], Baby, [Hackers] are we” continues through Jan. 8 at Big Medium, 916 Springdale Road, bigmedium.org/hackers