An exhibition of works by and about young people at The New Museum of Contemporary Art provides a glimpse through a jagged window into the minds of today's youths. In hundreds of computer, print, video, and audio projects, the portrait of youths that emerges falls somewhere between Archie and Veronica and Beavis and Butt-head.
Until Nov. 5, the exhibition, "alt.youth.media," displays products ranging from high-tech Web sites, CD-ROMs, and sophisticated videos to amateur "zines," or self-published magazines. All were produced by teens and young adults.
The title of the show derives from alternative Internet sites dedicated to subjects outside mainstream interests.
The show, too, presents an alternative view of young people's concerns - a perspective generally absent in conventional media.
In a sense, this media-based youth movement is a throwback to 1960s and '70s activism, when counterculture youths cranked out protest leaflets on mimeograph machines. In those days of artistic and political upheaval, video collectives popped up to film guerrilla theater. College students fanned out across the country, tape-recording oral history and folk ballads.
Today, the same "power to the people" democratic impulse is at work. But, after a decade of schools pushing for computer literacy, the tools have become digital. With access to photocopiers, scanners, desktop publishing, multimedia software, and camcorders, a flourishing community-based media culture has sprouted.
The show displays the results of this grass-roots movement - predominately zines and short videos that express what kids really think.
Sociologists will find the show fascinating. With many of the projects a cross between high school yearbooks and the Harvard Lampoon, art lovers will be disappointed. The material is wildly uneven. Much of it is - predictably, given the age of the creators - puerile. It is also wildly funny, as irreverent, uncensored young minds can be. These fledgling media mavens have a flair for satirizing their elders and commercial products aimed at children.
Some titles of zines illustrate this anarchic bent: Fat! So? ("a zine about being fat and being OK"), J. Cruelty Catalog (offers "cultural insights, cartoons"), and Pretty in Punk (encourages girls to be independent, praises punk music). A zine called "Teen Mom" contains a "Table of Malcontents" that includes "taxpayers, the disenfranchised, the homeless." In a cynical blast at exploitative toy companies, it announces a marketing plan to sell 2 million Teen Mom dolls (which look like a pregnant Barbie) to girls.
Some zines spoof toys these teens have only recently outgrown. "Hey there, Barbie Girl" shows a '90s Barbie with a nose ring and spiky platinum hair. It advertises a coming "Apathetic Barbie," whose dialogue includes, "Do you think I care? Ken who?"
Other zines run the gamut of teenage concerns, from hip-hop music and skateboarding to serious issues of identity and values. Reminiscences of glue sniffing, essays by runaways, dead pet stories, diary entries on malls, and gossip about entertainment idols show the wide range of subjects.
The videos tend to deal more earnestly with big issues. "Guns and the Lives They Leave Holes In" documents two people whose lives were shattered by violence. "Stolen Innocence" narrates a story of date rape. In "Cultural Identity Crisis of an All-American Girl," Kimiko Roberts, a Los Angeles teenager who is half Japanese-American and half African-American, shows the difficulty of growing up biracial. Her closing shot pans a diverse crowd at an outdoor concert as she pleads for tolerance, saying, "You'd be surprised at how we're all alike."
If the works parody adult-dominated institutions, the print and video projects show how thoroughly young people have absorbed the styles of mainstream media, like commercials, music videos, cartoons, and cop shows.
A video called "La Fe" (meaning faith) makes sophisticated use of quick crosscuts between talking heads. It also relies on manipulated video effects like negative images, blurred focus, and alternating animation and text.
Taking a page from photo-text artist Barbara Kruger, a zine called Time Bomb combines photographs of Rush Limbaugh with the words, "Who needs gun control when we have thought control?"
"In My Room," a photographic series by Adrienne Salinger, sums up the hybrid state of these burgeoning media creators. The images display teens in their native habitats - their bedrooms, designed to reflect their identities. The kids are caught in the awkward transitional state of youth. Brad S., clutching a skateboard, plasters his room with snowboarding posters. In an accompanying statement, he mouths tough-guy nihilism in one breath, saying, "I don't think there is any purpose to life." In the next, he sounds touchingly like a little boy, admitting, "I have real good parents."
A photo of longhaired Karl B. is a classic double take of someone with one foot in childhood and the other out the door. On his walls are revved-up photos of skateboarding and hard-rock posters. On shelves behind him are rows of stuffed animals, including a Winnie the Pooh soiled from hugs.
The show is a forum for both personal expression and public concerns. Its aesthetic blends the weapons (and gifts) of youth: irony, originality, and rebellion.
What's clear is that kids today are far from passive consumers of mass media. They've appropriated the style of commercial entertainment. But the kids turn their media fluency against their elders to cut through the soft-focus distortions of their lives. Far from Generation X, this population of media-savvy, music-obsessed young people might be called M & Ms.