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Pulitzer Arts Foundation debuts new work by noted author Claudia Rankine and John Lucas

John Lucas and Claudia Rankine whiteness, inc., 2016 Video projection Duration: 5:10 minutes
Provided by Pulitzer Arts Foundation
John Lucas and Claudia Rankine's whiteness, inc.

This weekend The Pulitzer Arts Foundation will display its first commissioned video poem for an exhibition. The video, titled "whiteness, inc.," critiques media presentations of whiteness as more beautiful than other skin colors.

“'Whiteness, inc.' is an attempt to begin to understand how some of those beliefs are put in place and what’s at stake for those that don’t hold white skin,” said critically acclaimed poet and cultural critic Claudia Rankine, who made the piece with filmmaker John Lucas.

The video is the first piece commissioned by the poet and filmmaker for extended display in a gallery or museum setting. They’ve previously produced work that’s been shown in institutions, but have never previously made a specific work for extended display as part of a show at a major institution. Assistant Curator of Public Projects Philip Matthews commissioned the work after Rankine displayed a collaboration, "Situation 7," with Lucas for one night at the Pulitzer in 2014. The Pulitzer will display the video as part of their new exhibition Ellipsis which opens this weekend and runs through early July.

“Cultural institutions have an obligation to their communities to be not only be a place where world renowned art can be encountered but also where extremely local issues can be discussed and where diverse communities can come together, and I feel this piece will be a catalyst for some of those conversations to happen,” said Matthews.

Rankine and Lucas’ video shows black woman moving through a gallery space as products marketing skin-lightening products are displayed on the walls before her. Another image shows a white person covered in ice cream eating it off the top of her head.  A third screen shows Claudia Rankine laughing, a critique of the other two screens. The writer also provides narration that plays throughout the piece. Rankine documented the woman in the piece as she walked  through a gallery at the Tate Modern in London. The commercials on the “wall” of the gallery space are taken from real advertisements for real products. The poet and filmmaker both felt it necessary to incorporate media that already exists into the piece.

“I thought it would be more powerful, instead of creating something out of my own work, to use found content out there in the world,” said Lucas.

Rankine elaborates.

“Every magazine we open, every time we turn on the television, we’re being told that whiteness and blonde-ness is epitome of beauty and perfection,” said Rankine. “Why not just go to the source and critique the very thing that’s presenting the false equation [that whiteness is more beautiful] that suddenly lands in people’s bodies as a truism and creates a kind of aspirational living that is actually not possible?”

Rankine and Lucas’ collaboration fueled the piece allowing each artist to expand ideas and pull the project in unexpected directions.

“I love collaborating with John or with other people because it feels like we’re always coming up against our limits and it’s nice when that happens for someone else to step in, and the piece ends up doing things and making turns and doing things you hadn’t imagined,” said Rankine.

They didn’t always agree on ideas but John said the collaboration was natural.

“We’re kind of seamlessly able to work together, call each other from the other room and say ‘hey, wait, what do you think of this,’ or she’ll say ‘what do you think of those lines,'” said Lucas, “In this way it really happens organically.”

The video is an extension of themes appearing in both Rankine and Lucas’ other work. Rankine’s book "Citizen" was lauded by critics for its searing and insightful analysis of racism in America. Lucas' The Cooler Bandits documents the effect of prison on the lives of four black men who committed a series of robberies in their youth. 

The video will be on display as part of the Pulitzer’s exhibition Ellipsis, through early July.