Collapsed Locality

Kai Hatcher on Tony Cokes at Dia Bridgehampton, New York

August 27, 2023

Tony Cokes, DFAI.07, 2023

Site-specificity has been a dominant feature of Dia Art Foundation’s work since its founding in the mid-1970s. As the keeper of monumental in-situ artworks such as Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), Walter de Maria’s The Lightning Field (1977), and, most recently, Cameron Rowland’s Depreciation (2018), Dia has a sensibility for histories of land and site and for art that engages with place-based narratives. This year at Dia’s Bridgehampton location, Tony Cokes was commissioned for the annual installation, with Dia marketing the exhibition as one of the first in recent years by a “non-local” artist. In a contemporary art world that favors global circulation and translatability, what relevance does locality or intimacy with a particular community play? Artist and art historian Kai Hatcher reviews the installation here. 

Tony Cokes, Dia Bridgehampton, Bridgehampton, New York, June 23, 2023May, 2024.

Popularly referred to under its fabled townships, the Hamptons has a reputation for being a rural retreat on Long Island’s East End for those wanting to escape the bustling streets of New York City. Summer colonies branded with expensive property tags, these towns service and entertain an assortment of wealthy residents, with art being a central purveyor to their elitism. Situated at the heart of the Hamptons lies Dia Bridgehampton, one of Dia Art Foundation’s three exhibition spaces. Currently on view as a yearlong exhibition is an installation by Tony Cokes that takes up the material histories of the site as well as its permanent display of Dan Flavin’s artworks to cultivate new imaginations of the building’s legacies through incisive uses of color, text, and sound.

In the exhibition’s press release, Dia director Jessica Morgan celebrates the collaboration with Cokes for being Dia Bridgehampton’s first in recent years with a “non-local” artist, offering an “opportunity for meaningful engagement with the rich and layered histories of the site while also prompting new, critical perspectives on Dan Flavin’s work.”1 Cokes’s installation occupies Dia Bridgehampton—formally known as the Dan Flavin Art Institute (to which the acronym in the titles of Cokes’s exhibited works, “DFAI,” refers)—as well as a satellite location on Shinnecock Indian Nation territory on New York State Route 27. The building itself was first home to the town’s fire department (Hook and Ladder Company) and later to the First Baptist Church of Bridgehampton, until the historically Black congregation outgrew the space in 1979. Flavin purchased the building shortly thereafter. The exhibition’s offsite component utilizes the Shinnecock’s electronic billboards, which are a fairly recent—and initially controversial—addition to the Hamptons iconic landmarks. 

Tony Cokes, installation view, Dia Bridgehampton, New York, 2023 

Cokes activates the building’s legacies through colored window gels to filter natural light and a two-channel video installation that uses a palette inspired by Flavin’s light sculptures overlaid with text combining citations from Dia’s on-site archive, Flavin’s words, and scholars on Flavin’s work, such as art historian David Getsy. In conjunction with these visual elements, Cokes includes a timed soundtrack featuring genres such as soul, blues, and EDM to—in his words—engage in the sonic histories of “Flavin, fire, and gospel,” collapsing the temporal boundary of successive ownership into an invocation of all three at once. 

Standing in the foyer just outside the door to the exhibition, visitors are met with the sound of quickened ambient thumps. Without any view of the works themselves, sonic spillage hints at content through tempo, resembling a modern-day club. This amplification of the exhibition space tempts visitors expecting the quietude of the Hamptons and interrogates their responses through a phenomenological reaction to sound. This affect, created by an “outsider” to the Hamptons’ dominant culture, deconstructs the sound barrier and places locality at the forefront of a predominantly wealthy “non-local” patronage of art connoisseurs. It also further questions the loose definition of locality that Dia employs when referring to its engagement with “local” artists—including previously exhibited artists Leslie Hewitt and Maren Hassinger—who are, more precisely, based in New York City with no obvious relationship to Bridgehampton. In such a fragile construction, is Cokes’s work meaningfully “non-local” enough to bring new perspectives to Bridgehampton? And, if not, what would this mean for the majority population of wealthy residents who are just as loosely local as Dia’s denotation of the word?

Tony Cokes, installation view, Dia Bridgehampton, New York, 2023 

Installed in diagonal corners of the room, DFAI. 01-05 (2023) is split between two projectors on a staggered loop. While it’s a single work, it doesn’t appear as such, and with the unheeding pace of its vibrant text slides, there is little time to orient oneself in the overstimulating environment. Distinctive to Cokes’s practice is the manipulation of elements—color, text, and sound—to produce new meanings, a strategy that solicits attunement to different registers of legibility, requiring one to sit and endure what is at first illegible. The effect is an incisive probing of the politics of the attention economy. However, the site-specificity of the critique falters among an audience with little familiarity with Bridgehampton’s history.

In my time experiencing this work through two twenty-three-minute cycles, a majority of visitors did not stay long enough to endure just one of the five phrasal subsections, each punctuated by the same quote from German graphic designer Otl Aicher of the 1972 Munich Olympics: “Doing politics with color.” As the press release narrates, Aicher chose blue as one of the primary colors of the games over colors that are more traditionally associated with power. Like color, text carries its associations to power not just through content but through comprehension. It is the viewer’s choice to idle long enough to grasp the totality of the work, however, among a mostly wealthy audience whose time spent is measured through a return on investment (i.e., art’s primary vocation as commodity in the East End art scene), the installation’s duration impedes its ability to be understood upon initial encounter. A slide emphasizes this point: “Time is Life. Don’t Murder It.” It’s a rejection of the transformation of time as capital, an idea that comes up again in a citation Cokes includes on another slide that “Art is never a commodity,” and, despite its valuation, “art is far more secure and clear and truthful than all of this conjecture about the actions of human beings.” The work additionally discloses the uses of art among “commoditicians” (private collectors, public institutions, and art socialites) who encounter art first in its circulation as property rather than privileging its aesthetic experience. Against the predominantly consumerist and transactional habits of the Hamptons’ art scene and its clientele, Cokes’s work exceeds the bounds of art’s expected modalities, where contemplation of the work comes secondary.

Adjacent to the two projectors is DFAI.06 (2023), which consists of colored gels on the room’s four windows. Red, green, blue, and yellow gels filter natural light to take up the specters of luminosity that Cokes refers to in a slide with a quote by Flavin from a 1965 issue of Artforum: “Now the entire interior spatial container and its parts—wall, floor and ceiling, could support this strip of light but would not restrict its act of light except to enfold it.” Flavin’s nine sculptures in fluorescent light (1963–81) exhibited on the floor above demonstrate light’s capacity as a reconstructive medium. Cokes cites texts throughout the video that mark the shift from Flavin’s play with the rigidity of physical structures through illusion to his relation of the works to people, designating them as objects of memorial with color as a referential element. Cokes mirrors this practice through dedications to local establishments and organizations such as DePetris Food Market, Tiffany’s Pharmacy, or the Silverleaf Club of Bridgehamptonsituating the work firmly in the context of the community it resides in.

Tony Cokes, installation view, Dia Bridgehampton, New York, 2023 

With color as a throughline, the installation activates the site’s racial context in relation to the Baptist Church that previously owned the building—whose congregation is comprised of mostly Black members—and by the exhibition’s offsite location, which is managed by the Shinnecock Indian Nation. However, the exhibition does little to address the issues of race in the Hamptons and instead engages with it only as a memorialization of the site’s history. Bridgehampton’s present-day Black residents are mostly descendants of migrants who fled the Jim Crow South. Given this demographic of multigenerational residents, race would appear to be in dialogue with the politics of chromatics, but it is scantily addressed through Cokes’s uses of enacted diasporic sonic history and the subtle insertions of religious language such as “The soul enters Heaven when Heaven enters the soul.” It isn’t until one goes upstairs to Flavin’s dedicated memorial to the church, that the history of the space becomes visible.

Cokes’s extension of his installation to the Shinnecock Monuments—two vertical, sixty-one-foot electronic billboards straddling the only major highway on the South Fork—is announced through Dia’s official press release, in language reminiscent of an advertisement opportunity, to “welcome many visitors arriving by car to Dia Bridgehampton.”2 Additionally, it is almost impossible to see the final piece of Cokes’s installation, DFAI.07 (2023), on display there. With no formal place to park, there are only a few seconds while driving by that a visitor may be able to read a word or two—that is, if they’re lucky enough to catch it among the rotation of commercial advertisements. DFAI.07 is also only a bookend for the exhibition, appearing only during its opening and closing and making the opportunity to see it remote. However, the slides presented are extractions from DFAI. 01-05 (2023), so it doesn’t offer anything that isn’t also exhibited at Dia Bridgehampton. The monuments themselves were heavily contested upon their construction by East End homeowners who were concerned about the depreciation of the area’s aesthetic value—and thus property value—despite the Shinnecock’s right to land. With this in mind, the billboard site, although not owned by Dia, could function as more than a marketing opportunity; it could expand on the dialogues with which Cokes is engaging and situate them more resolutely within the composition of the Hamptons, its varied populations, and its shrouded legacies.

Without additional reference to the site in relation to the communities in which it’s situated, the work’s internal historical focus ultimately misaligns with predominantly wealthy visitors who are too “loosely” local for a site-specific history to resonate. Disregarding all criticisms, Cokes does something that Dia had not yet reckoned with in their typical rotation of artists and in their inclusion of a “non-local” artist: the revelation of the ambiguity of the word “local” in the Hamptons and the determinism of property ownership against permanent inhabitants. While many visitors may be distracted by the fun tracks the exhibition blasts through its doors, Cokes’s approach does not heed the expectations of the Hamptons; he coaxes a critical dialogue upon the composition of place across temporalities rather than completely collapsing them, giving proper exposure to the changed landscape of the Hamptons and its dichotomous body of residents.

All images © Tony Cokes. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation.

Kai Hatcher is a Long Island–based artist, art historian, and writer. She is a graduate student in SUNY Stony Brook’s Art History & Criticism program.

This text was supported by a Public Humanities Grant from Humanities NY