Born 1987, Baltimore, Maryland/ BA, Lincoln University, PA; MFA Cranbrook Academy of Art/ Lives in Detroit
Entering the former industrial space of 333 Midland’s Annex Gallery, visitors can make out a magenta and turquoise-lighted dance floor peeking from behind a partition of silvery mylar streamers. Within, participants dance together to techno and ghettotech beneath door frames reminiscent of street stoops, and are encouraged to use the video cameras that interdisciplinary artist William Marcellus Armstrong—inspired by Latin America’s democratic, revolutionary, moviemaking movement known as Third Cinema—has provided. Prizes are awarded to the best dancers, all of whom are children. This live-taped event and performance-cum-social practice video is The 48203 Dance Show (2018).
What connects much of Armstrong’s multimedia work is his interest in black media culture and its often overlooked place in the Western canon. This piece began as an homage to The New Dance Show, a live-taped dance program that aired in Detroit from the late 1980s through the ’90s on WGPR-TV 62, the first black-owned and operated TV station in the country. The impetus for creating The 48203 Dance Show was the artist’s feeling that, “a lot of people look at The Dance Show as kitsch, and I just don’t see it that way. I see it as a very beautiful framework for showcasing people in a certain time that will never come back.” Armstrong utilized the framework of the former program to create an entity all its own due in part to the social participation that he encouraged at every stage of its production. The final video, edited in a community workshop, is now publicly accessible online. Ultimately, The 48203 Dance Show both commemorates the original program, and by recreating it in a present-day context asks us to question contemporary narratives.
That piece, and Armstrong’s site-specific installation Where the World Comes to Play (2016) were inspired in part by set design. In the latter, exhibited at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, an iron door and two columns appear to float above the floor. These architectural components are modeled after a porch in Pontiac, where Armstrong lived for a time upon moving to Michigan. In his elegantly minimal installation, the aesthetic contrast between the iron porches of economically struggling Pontiac and the grander homes of affluent Bloomfield Hills are used to reflect a socioeconomic gap amongst people in close proximity. The piece is ironically named after the poorer (and less visible) city’s curious civic slogan.
Narcissus and Candyman (2017) is a complex work that synthesizes installation and dual channel video to investigate the theme of duality in human nature. In the installation at Cranbrook Institute of Art, two videos create a right-angle on adjoining walls of the gallery. On the left, a video of a table-sized iron frame being built is interspersed with clips of an air mattress; vulnerable in relation to the sharp tools used in the preceding frames. On the right, Armstrong sits with his back to the viewer in a deserted, post-industrial lot, looking down at a material reminiscent of pool of water—an evocation of the Narcissus story. On the floor, beneath the videos, seemingly discarded items become sculptural objects. Water bottles support an iron frame—the same one present in the video on the left—whose inlaid mylar top evokes another pool of water. An orange mattress pad, contorted around a cylindrical cement piece, is constrained by cable ties. The orange reads like a prison jumpsuit, and the cable ties are reminiscent of disposable handcuffs.
The “Candyman” in the piece’s title references the ’90s slasher film about a white woman who researches the urban legend of an unjustly killed black man—whose murderous ghost is allegedly conjured when his name is said five times in the mirror. Similar to the Narcissus story, gazing at one’s reflection has repercussions in Candyman; in both cases, protagonists participate in the symbolic act that will lead to their demise.
While the piece at first glance confronts stereotypes of black men and a corresponding fear of the urban environment, it also elicits an intrapersonal struggle. In Narcissus and Candyman, Armstrong conflates the two stories and, and uses the common element of the mirror, to analyze the binary nature of identity (public/private), and opposing notions of self-knowledge and narcissism.
Armstrong’s artworks are the means to complete gaps in the story of a people whose culture has been marginalized. The seemingly disparate pieces The 48203 Dance Show, Where the World Comes to Play and Narcissus and Candyman all form a coherent whole to reflect meaningfully on overlooked narratives.
Olivia Gilmore, October 2018
Copyright Essay’d 2018