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Teen Paranormal Romance.

Teen Paranormal Romance

Atlanta Contemporary Art Center

Atlanta, Georgia

October 25, 2014-January 17, 2015

Though organized by the University of Chicago's Renaissance Society, Teen Paranormal Romance found a perfect exhibition space when it traveled to the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. Though spacious, the Contemporary's open layout made it difficult to know where to begin parsing the show. In an interpretive essay posted online and distributed as a brochure at the site, (1) "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Hamza Walker, Renaissance Society associate curator, outlines the exhibition's inspiration in contemporary young-adult literature (YA lit), particularly series like Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games. According to Walker, "YA has transcended the world to become image, exponentially increasing its market share within popular culture," because "adolescent drives cannot help but serve as a crystalline cypher for the panoply of ideological positions." As a character from the YA genre might say: well, duh.



Accordingly, Teen Paranormal Romance sags under a pop-cultural weight of appropriation. There are, however, some lively works in the show. Two sculptures by Chris Bradley, Grease Face #3 and Grease Face #4 (both 2011) are simulacra in Jean Baudrillard's sense. (2) Both look as though a pizza, since eaten, has soaked the cardboard box leaving phantom grease stains. Yet these apparent pizza boxes are actually composed of metal, paint, and colored pencil. From each, an eerie stare is reinforced with red push pins for eyes and heads defined by a plastic strap or huh cab ring. The conceit is whimsical, the sell accomplished; only close study reveals that the Grease Faces are not actually pizza boxes. Through the lens of YA lit, though, Bradley's sculptures call to mind the principle of ghosts in J.K. Rowling's Wizarding World: they are, in practice, simulacra of people, mere impressions left behind, missing the ephemeral quality of a person's self.

In the sixteen-minute video Even Pricks (2013), Ed Atkins substitutes a chimp for the likeness of an actual person. The effect falls into the "uncanny valley," in which human-like features on synthetic or non-human faces produce an "eerie" feeling in viewers; scientists have observed uncanniness in primates, which are biologically close to, and yet not, human beings. (3) This plays upon the sci-fi/fantasy standard of animals rising up to take the place of humans. Within the YA lit paradigm, supernatural creatures blur the line between human and not human, like the ghosts in Harry Potter books. Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series, though few take it seriously as a work of literature, puts forward communities of vampires and werewolves as if they are humans, except that they are not. In Atkin's video, the look on the chimp's face is upsetting, both knowing and judging, emotions you expect and prefer to see only on the faces of other people. Even as this aspect of the video is effective, the entire work is muddled, with too many nonsensical bits to pull apart, as if many things were thrown at a wall and every one of them stuck.

The argument that this sensory overload mimics the confusion of adolescence is too easy, just as it is too easy to interpret the five painted mattresses contributed to the show by Guyton/Walker (all 2013) as a reference to the possibility of burgeoning teen sexuality. It is possible to read Atkins' video as another tract on appropriation. Buried within the muddle is a sample of the Eagles' 1977 single "Hotel California." The song may be a paean to the cult of celebrity and excess, but it was styled as a gothic threat: "You can check out any time you like / but you can never leave." Is this paranormal? It depends on one's definition of normality.

While Walker writes that YA lit is burgeoning in popularity, the essay undersells the genre's use of, even dependence upon, appropriative tropes and beats that readers come to understand and anticipate. Many successful YA novelists were part of the culture of participatory works, that is, they wrote (or continue to write) fan fiction, in some cases for the very YA series for which their own works are the successors. Walker alludes to this when he writes that YA lit's popularity is "undergirded by the Internet and social media." The creation of transformative works is a valid creative practice which is legally protected by fair use. In early 2015 the College Art Association issued a Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for the Visual Arts, establishing rough guidelines for the working artists and academics who increasingly appropriate and transform as part of their practices. (4) YA lit and the art it inspires are, respectively, a commercial and a cottage industry built on employing and recycling images and types to deconstruct and reconstruct the same stories and ideas in perpetuity.


In the debate over whether appropriation constitutes art, or whether derivative works can be good, the determining factor is not whether an artwork appropriates but, rather, how it transforms the thing(s) from which it borrows. J.K. Rowling cobbled her Potter series together from disparate sources, and most readers find that a boon, rather than a detriment. When the film adaptation of Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments series was released in 2013, however, it was a critical and financial failure, an "almost random collection of sexy-supernatural teen signifiers aimed at squeezing the penultimate dollars out of a declining trend," according to Andrew O'Hehir at Salon. (5) O'Hehir called the film "supernatural hoo-ha imported from other sources--the Potterverse and 'Twilight,' most obviously, but also 'Star Wars,' 'Avatar,' 'Lord of the Rings' and the 'Blade' and 'Underworld' series." Clare got her start writing Harry Potter fan fiction, and, before publishing original YA novels with Simon & Schuster, she was embroiled in multiple plagiarism scandals. (6) It is worth noting that her Mortal Instruments books were for sale in the Contemporary's shop in conjunction with Teen Paranormal Romance.

With that in mind, how did the show succeed or fail at addressing these dynamics? With all the borrowing in the show, and as full as the Contemporary felt, some of the art fell flat, with select works feeling conceptually vacant. Two photographs were displayed, and neither did more than hint at teenage sexuality. Commercial/fashion photographer Roe Ethridge's Louise with Red Bag (2011) shows a waifish blonde in a bathing suit staring away from the viewer. The white background and equipment cut off by the frame hint that this is a model on set, maybe an off-print from a roll Ethridge shot for a client. The problem with its inclusion here is that without additional context there is little to link the image to anything else in the exhibition without forcing it. A second photo, Jill Frank's Bong (Shawn) (2014), presents a profile view of a young man in drawstring pants and a yellow t-shirt rising to offer a salacious view of hair creeping over the waistband and the curve of his back. The subject is alone, his face obscured as he tips the hose of a beer bong into his mouth. Teens have a dangerous, tempting sexuality. Also, they like to party. Or are teens sexualized by society, acting out the roles pushed upon them? Absent better context, the viewer has no way of knowing what to do with these works, and their thematic contributions lack weight.

This contextual vacuum extends to other installations, notably Kathryn Andrews' Friends and Lovers (2010), in which the faces of two gap-mouthed grinning cartoon bears have been rendered in black on white-painted concrete brick walls cordoned off by chain-link fence. Impenetrable, the installation can only be viewed by squeezing around the fence on the other side of the room. The performative/participatory nature of Andrews' work is complementary to the rest of the show, which demands nothing from the viewer. It is frustrating, though, that Friends and Lovers takes up so much space and attention while offering little else.

The largest conceptual issue is that teen angst as an aesthetic is too broad and too often the subject of artistic interrogation to really make an effective exhibition. Yes, the condition of adolescence is universal, at times--not infrequently the same time--both exhilarating and horrendous. Effective works about the teen experience cast in an arguably gothic light are ubiquitous; think of Nirvana's music video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (1991), the Arcade Fire album The Suburbs (2010), or the oeuvre of film director and photographer Larry Clark, all efforts to examine the burgeoning identity of teens against the framework of a restrictive consumer society. There are instances in Teen Paranormal Romance that show similar aspirations: empty pizza boxes with ghostly visages, empty costumes waiting to be donned or maybe just removed, empty spaces it would be difficult to fill with people, access denied.

It is straightforward to read this through-line as a clue to the development of personal character, meant to emerge sometime after age twelve and before a person turns twenty. Unfortunately, the emptiness also suggests that these spaces will be filled with the detritus of consumer waste and the expectations of a relatively cheap society. A charitable interpretation might conclude that the appropriative elements of Teen Paranormal Romance address the building blocks Western society uses to construct citizens over their teen years. Grimly, there exists a parallel between the physical emptiness of the show filled with found objects and the emptiness of the endeavor. In trying to be too much at once, Teen Paranormal Romance failed to be much of anything. This is a dynamic that applies effortlessly to art--appropriation art especially. Borrowing and quoting, as creative approaches, can be enormously successful. The issue with Teen Paranormal Romance is that the exhibition was content merely to quote and failed to transform.

Rachel P. Kreiter

Emory University


(1.) Hamza Walker, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," 2014, http://www.renaissancesociety. org/exhibitions/teen-paranormal-romance/ essay/.

(2.) Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Glaser (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994).

(3.) Shawn A. Steckenfinger and Asif A. Ghazanfar, "Monkey Visual Behavior Falls into the Uncanny Valley," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 106, no. 43 (October 27, 2009): 18362.

(4.) College Art Association, Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for the Visual Arts, 2015.

(5.) Andrew O'Hehir, '"The Mortal Instruments': Methadone for Twi-Hards," Salon, August 21, 2013, com/2013/08/2l/the_mortal_instruments_ methadone_for_twi_hards/.

(6.) Avocado, "The Cassandra Claire Plagiarism Debacle," Bad Penny, August 4, 2006,; Anne Jamison, Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World (Dallas, Texas: Smart Pop, 2013), 233-236. Clare changed the spelling of her pen name when she transitioned to original fiction.
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Author:Kreiter, Rachel P.
Publication:Southeastern College Art Conference Review
Geographic Code:1U5GA
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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