In her video installation, Who’s Coming to Save You? artist Christy Chan undermines what has become a too-familiar impulse in the population at large. That is, as her title suggests, the assumption that salvation, either political or something stronger, is our only hope for the future and so must be coming. On television, rescue comes weekly, even daily, in the form of a hero or band of mavericks (!) that neatly intersects our too-many villains and saves the day.
In 1982 — and yes, vigilantes have been the answer at least that long — one such paragon was Knight Rider, a cyborg policeman played by David Hasselhoff, who was linked on a cellular level to a futuristic muscle car. Chan apparently chose this version because she knew it to be a favorite indulgence of a known community of white power advocates, and also because, whether by accident or deliberately, knight riders were part of the post-Civil War legacy of the Ku Klux Klan. For those interested, there’s a great deal of commentary on this subject, going back to Mark Twain, who traced the influence of the Scottish novelist, Sir Walter Scott, author of Waverley, Ivanhoe and dozens of other Romantic fables, on the ideals of Southern culture and masculinity.
For her version, the artist hired an actor to replace Hasselhoff and dressed him in an authentic Klan robe. Which offers some thoughts about her experience, as a woman, of being able to tell a man precisely what to do: she says “jump” and he does jump. She went on to insert his image into the 40-year old TV program, making whatever artistic changes she chose. In essence it’s a parody, and for some, the problem with parodies is they must become like their precedents. That said, fans of ’80s adventure TV, especially those who enjoy holding both an original and a travesty in mind simultaneously, may find this a hoot.
To the customized episode, titled ”As Seen on TV,” Chan has attached “Long Distance Call,” an appendix that may be even more intriguing and rewarding. In order to guarantee the authority of her video parody, she chose to track down and acquire a genuine Klan robe. Her research led her to a contact, identified only as “Miss Anne of Alabama,” who was reachable only by phone, and who agreed after several contacts and invasive, even torturous conversations, to provide her with the sought-after garment. She recorded their conversations and, in a separate video, she and an anonymous actor perform these conversations. It felt somewhat like a double standard was in operation here: while the commentary mentions that Miss Anne did not give a last name, no mention of the other actor was given, either.
That said, the dialogue, delivered in dry monotones, is fascinating. Unlike in various European countries, where it is illegal to display Nazi insignia, it is legal in the US to dress in Klan regalia, though in certain circumstances it is illegal to conceal ones identity by covering the face. (The hoods of KKK robes are therefore sometimes modified to permit showing the face without removing the hood.) What’s interesting about Chan’s pursuit of a robe from Miss Anne is the effort the latter, who has at least one assistant, goes to in concealing her identity and location without surrendering control of the transaction. She seems determined not to sell her merchandise to someone she wouldn’t consider worthy to buy it, though without stating her standards. At one point, she does remark categorically that she would never ship a robe to an address in San Francisco. Yet this is a conversation in which what is not said reverberates far more than what is, wherein the viewer can speculate about Miss Anne’s motives as she twists and turns under the straightforward efforts of Christy Chan to get past her caution. As Miss Anne turns inquisitor, going so far as to cross-examine the caller about her identity and even her handwriting, Chan plays it straight, allowing Miss Anne to go on assuming she is what she has not said she is — a member of the Klan — and so moves on steadily towards her goal.
In the end, as one can see in “As Seen on TV,” Chan succeeded in liberating an authentic KKK robe from Miss Anne of Alabama. Her efforts paid off, as the combination of correct materials and traditional details show. Whether it was worth the effort — whether an untrained eye would have been able to detect a substitution — is no longer the question. The conversation that makes up “Long Distance Call” reveals so much, to use an old-fashioned term, about the “souls” of the participants, and does so in a way directly experienced by the viewer, as to bring the entire project to a most satisfactory conclusion.
Christy Chan: Who’s Coming to Save You?, Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Salt Lake City, through Jan. 7, 2023.