Did you know that "cool" is a West African philosophical concept from the 15th century?
I resisted the idea when I first encountered it at the fabulous Cool Remixed exhibition in Oakland last weekend. But a text didactic smacked down my eurocentrism in a few short paragraphs discussing the relationship between the words for "cool" (the temperature) and the concept of ltutu or detachment. The didactic showed a photograph of a statue whose face demonstrates ltutu, looking like a jazz musician at rest, and a list of words for "cool" from west African languages that mean both the temperature and the philosophy. I remembered that before the twentieth century the word "cool" in English denoted a lack of humanitarian virtue rather than a virtuous detachment, and a new view of the nature of American hybridity opened up for me.
But the whole exhibition put a different complexion (pun intended) on "cool." Cool Remixed: Bay Area Urban Art + Culture Now, which opened at the Oakland Museum last weekend, was created as a counterpoint to the traveling show Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture At Midcentury, which originated at the Orange County Museum of Art. Cool Remixed offers a direct contrast to the traveling exhibit at almost every point: SoCal vs. NorCal; mid-century commercial design vs. millennial community and street art; private houses and interior furnishings vs. public uses, transportation, and murals; middle-aged aesthetics vs. youth culture; suburban vs. urban; lifestyle vs. flavor; minimalist vs. profuse; elite vs. diverse.
And this exciting and vibrant exhibition delivers not merely contrast, but context. A visually arresting decade-by-decade timeline of "cool," and a loop of videos by Youth Radio remind us that urban communities of color are the vectors of fashion, and that fashions always start with youth and then age radially outward. Without ever directly addressing race, Cool Remixed finds elements of urban youth culture that originated in different ethnic communities (e.g.: skateboarding and b-boying) and pulls them into the mix. The result is neither muddy melting pot nor multicultural salad, but a hybridity as textured as a graffiti mural.
The main gallery is an experimental space for work by young artists using "urban" objects -- such as hubcaps, skateboards, car hoods, etc. Although many of the pieces veer into macaroni-crafts territory, explosions of energy, smarts, and sharp aesthetics are sprinkled throughout. One of my favorite pieces in the show was a simple square of wood with a pair of metallic-painted sneakers nailed over a spray-painting of five-pointed stars. The subtle modulation of the spray paint and the arrangement of the stars displayed an aesthetic that was simultaneously do-it-yourself, meditative, and commercially viable.
Not surprisingly, the strongest work was the outfits, displayed on dressmaker's dummies, made of clothing and objects. These were conceptual pieces, but they could also easily be worn, clearly suggesting that the makers were already conversant with the idea of pushing fashion forward by recontextualizing the things closest to their bodies: safety pins, tuning pegs, paper and plastic sheeting. The young artists' selves -- as happens with all artists -- come through most clearly when they are focusing on their projects and materials rather than on their self-presentation (as in a weak lounge/installation of action photos by the organization EBAYC).
Curatorial grace notes bracket the exhibition. A large magnetic poetry set featuring Oakland slang words against a corrugated tin wall welcomes the viewer. The show closes with a wonderful installation breaking down the fragmentation of time and space using bodies and beat sampling. A video of popular Oakland TURF dancers on a street corner is rewound, cut, and looped to create a mobius strip of time and physical performance. Underlining and surrounding the flat monitor are fragmented and collaged photographs of the performers disposed along the street, watching themselves dance.
This last image of immensely talented youth shining their lights on street corners -- and watching themselves do it -- is the best metaphor for Cool Remixed. Never think that they don't know exactly what they're doing. Never pretend that the cool is appropriated from a blind source. Never imagine that any corner of our shared culture, be it ever so tribal or athletic or exotic, is anything but the highest of art, sometimes made by the lowest of artists.
Cool Remixed runs at the Oakland Museum through August 17, 2008. The museum presents a youth arts festival related to the show on Saturday, May 31 from noon to 9 pm. Curators Evelyn Orantes and Christine Lashaw offer tours at First Fridays After Five on Friday, August 1, from 5 to 9 pm.