White Trash / Phobic, 1993

By Billy Rubin
Published in Vox Vernacular
Feb. 25, 2014

Tony Oursler and Mike Kelley collaborated for many years after forming the legendary protopunk music/performance group the Poetics at California Institute of the Arts in 1976. Importantly, Oursler invited Kelley to participate in his early 1990s dummy series, an invitation that resulted in White Trash/Phobic. Recorded in NY and LA in 1992, the starkly dramatic installation confronts two contrasting figures who interact as much as they interrupt one another, bisecting the room diagonally, droning ever on. 

A comment on the sprawling, chaotic, intoxicated and escapist landscape of suburban America, the two scripts take distinctly different approaches. Kelley strings together a series of tales, each culminating in a claustrophobic, anxiety-drenched dilemma. His performance causes the viewer to empathize with the conditions of the phobic through a form of direct address, specifically using the pronoun "you" to provoke and to beseech the viewer to identify with his psychological state. Oursler points out the fusion of the generic suburban domestic setting with the harsh narrative structures of media culture that permeate the underbelly of the American landscape. 

Police chases, drug abuse, criminal and paranormal activity, and family psychodramas blur the boundaries between reality and screen space. Behind the emerald lawns of cookie-cutter suburban America is revealed a decaying American dream. Reality and fantasy become confused in a vapor of hallucinogenic scenarios as the text, written with transformative attention to detail, allows the viewer to move fluidly through this world, identifying with the different characters with the omniscience of a floating camera.

In an interview with Elizabeth Janus, Oursler states, "I was thinking a lot about how movie time, media time, the camera and narratives have really punctured our world, how it is the fourth-dimensional space of our time. I tried to make figures that could exist in between the interior and exterior worlds, literally like seers that we can't see and can't see us. You can begin to see this in White Trash and Phobic."