////// William Scarbrough at Michaelis Gallery //////
by Charles Maggs
William Scarbrough's exhibition at Michaelis Gallery, 'Reclamation', centres around media coverage of a series of child murders in the United States between 1979 and 1982 - a media event that Scarbrough, as a child, watched unfold. During this time, 63 young African Americans were murdered in Atlanta, Georgia. After a protracted investigation that included a variety of suspects, the police and the FBI identified Wayne Williams as the killer and he was sentenced to life in prison.
Scarbrough's show brings evidence to light that suggests Williams is not the murderer. In so doing, Scarbrough sets out to probe the structure of truth with his reframing of the media 'reality' surrounding the Atlanta child murders. Scarbrough says in his exhibition that he probes the relationship between truth and the information age in which we live. He further posits that the definition of truth has become 'conforming fact to practicality' as opposed to 'conforming fact to actuality'. Practicality in this age could be regarded as a number of things, from the motive for profit to the need to maintain power. In the case of Wayne Williams, practicality was the media's need to 'crucify somebody' to bring closure to this media event and for authorities to look effective.
At the core of the exhibition are two video works. The first is a documentary-style piece that greets the viewer as they step into the gallery; the other is montage of found footage from the broadcast media at the time of the Atlanta murders. These two videos operate in contrasting modes: the documentary piece is reflective, a post-event gathering of the details and facts presented in a manner that encourages the viewer to discover their own space. The latter is anodyne, instantaneous and sound-byte driven. Its 'truth' is clipped, instantaneous and projected and offers, in bits, a broadcast truth. This contrasting delivery contextualises the contemplation of the truth of the 'mediascape' and 'memory' to which Scarbrough also refers in his statement.
The video pieces are supported by a series of prints of details from the murders and the media event that paralleled it, including forensic images from Wayne Williams' house, details of his bedroom, microscopic pictures of fibres found on the bodies of the victims and stills from the news media. Journalists stand as if engaged in a midnight vigil projecting mock concern as they probe the surface of the events for the 8 o'clock news bulletins.
The manipulation of fact for the sake of 'practicality' has long been a modus operandi of those who are in power or have an agenda of some sort. Within our globalised info-savvy context, one might assume a certain degree of rigour in reading reality or the truth. But conforming to a singular, mediated, point of view is often preferred, as Bertrand Russell expressed in Roads to Freedom. He wrote in 1918: 'The great majority of men and women in ordinary times, pass through life without ever contemplating or criticising as a whole either their own conditions or those of the world at large'. Scarbrough is not one to shy away from his interrogative responsibilities: he scrutinises the truth, constructing an uneasy reality from the facts he gathers, and presents it in a claustrophobic, almost realist, manner.
There are a number of visual and physical cues that extend the tension of his enquiry, from the banally self-referential DV camera capturing footage off a PDA and relaying it to a projector, to the rigorous and controlled lighting system he has installed along with his almost manacled still images. The world of the carceral (prison), the one that Wayne Williams now occupies, is extended into the gallery space. A notice warns: 'This area is under constant video surveillance, your actions are being recorded'. The lighting is dim and the overall impression is of a contrivance for the means of control.
The exhibition is executed with unflinching attention to detail. While he intends the viewer to reflect on this, it is not possible to do this in situ. Instead, the viewer must digest this in time and space away from the show. For us to contemplate and even refigure our view of the media's power and its role in our society and to begin a process of reclamation requires both time and space. Scarbrough sets no small task for his audience. And he expects us to either accept or reject the interpretation of reality that he is presenting.
I am not sure that I reached this point with my several visits to this show. Initially, I was fascinated by Williams and his plight. But the more I heard him talk, the more I began to feel that just like the 'truth' the media excavates, constructs and projects on a daily basis, Williams himself is somewhat pathological. In this case, he may well be the victim of his own spin. And we as viewers join him as victims of the media's spin - or what Paul Virilio refers to in The Information Bomb as the 'accident' of truth executed at the speed of light.
Charles Maggs is a visual practitioner and a senior lecturer in Visual Communication. He recently completed his Master's in New Media at UCT