This article appeared in the June 15, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here

Installation view of Josh Kline: Project for a New American Century (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, April 19–August 13, 2023). From left to right: Disinformation, 2023; Personal Responsibility: Keith, 2023. Photograph by Ron Amstutz

Early in the summer of 2009, Walgreens marked the end of the Great Recession by rolling out a national plan of renovations intended to bring their brick-and-mortar locations into greater harmony with the curiously named ethos of “customer-centric retail.” If you live in the United States, you’ve no doubt experienced the savor of this project to “rationalize and rejuvenate the merchandise mix.” In the name of providing shoppers with nothing but the satisfaction of an efficient purchase, we find rows of identical products in name-, off-, and house-brand varietals, their neons and pastels arrayed under the grimly efficient blue light of endless LEDs.

Over the last decade, this aesthetic has sprouted numerous variations, from the relative refinement of the Apple store to the baroque lighting schemes of the modern vape shop. These stores all look, of course, like contemporary art galleries. This isomorphism—unsurprising, given how all these spaces finally serve the shared goal of facilitating purchase with minimal contemplation—provides the aesthetic and conceptual bases for the wide range of objects produced by Josh Kline as part of Creative Labor (2009–present), the first of the six discrete series of work the 44-year-old installation and video artist has undertaken to date. These are now gathered together as a mid-career survey, Project for a New American Century, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.

In classic modernist fashion, Kline works on the scale of grand, encyclopedic projects, each comprising dozens of pieces across a range of mediums. Creative Labor, oriented around the affective experience of gig work—with a particular emphasis on those laborers who take the first word of its title as a noun—consists of a number of sculptures, both 3D-printed and post-readymade (i.e., objects manufactured to look as if they’d been found), which sit alongside digitally tweaked photos and videos. The general mood might be summed up as “going to Duane Reade to get a Red Bull at three in the morning while on deadline.” Compared with the original displays of this work at Kline’s longtime Chinatown gallery, 47 Canal, the Whitney installation pushes further on the pharmacy analogy with a floor of white vinyl tiles that renders the room appallingly bright with the perfect, shadowless atmosphere of a deodorant aisle.

This sterile unreality curdles as it comes into contact with the objects housed within it. Take the series of oddly colored IV bags called the “drips”: Insomnia DripClean DripSleep Drip, etc. Each is affixed with a label, its design ripped from the once-ubiquitous juice brand BluePrint, which announces the ingredients brought together to form these homemade performance enhancers. The Overtime Drip, we find, consists of “espresso, adderall, deodorant, redbull, ritalin, printer ink, vitamin c, mouthwash, toothpaste.” These combine to produce the acrid yellow of dehydrated urine. There is a sort of deadpan Cronenberg gag here, somewhere between humor and horror: this is how we now modify the body in service of endless contract jobs.

I might have preferred to say that the color of the Overtime Drip recalled marigolds or late-season wheat had Kline himself not preempted this sort of comparison in an interview with filmmaker Laura Poitras for the exhibition catalog: “If the world is burning down and you’re choosing to take pictures of flowers—you know, as much as I enjoy beautiful pictures of the flowers, it’s a little odd?” As aesthetic theory, or even just artistic advice, this isn’t much. It does, however, articulate Kline’s understanding of what’s by now a relatively old problem: determining what qualifies as valid content for a work of art. His answer is that it should work directly on the forms in which contemporary struggle is most directly manifest. The titles of the series which make up Cycle (2014–present), the overarching meta-project that accounts for most of the Whitney show, point toward the scale and severity of his concerns: FreedomUnemploymentCivil WarClimate Change. Pictures of flowers might very well communicate something moving and profound about these watchwords of our moment, but only through metaphor. For Kline, the world must be spoken of directly.

Kline’s videos, in particular, depend on the expressive possibilities afforded by an understanding of the ways in which conventional communication can be torqued by form into memorable shapes. Universal Early Retirement (2016), a pair of short advertisements for universal basic income made as part of the series Unemployment, are generic, indistinguishable at first glance from commercials that might be selling anything from political candidates to insurance to medications for obscure ailments. In one video, the cast goes blithely about their days—gardening, studying, renovating a garage—as text reading “time to love,” “time to learn,” and other variations on “time to…” materializes on screen. In the other, each character speaks briefly about the flourishing life that UBI has afforded them: the time to care for a neighbor, write a novel, cure cancer.

There is no reason to doubt that Kline’s advocacy here is sincere; these videos argue for a world in which they would not be relegated to the category of art. At the risk of pessimism, there seems to be little danger that these videos will themselves change the world. Kline has, on more than one occasion, spoken of his exhaustion with what he sees as “art about art”—that is, with work that delights in its own uselessness. His statement about taking pictures of flowers in a burning world is a local instance of a general position. If art must not be useless, what should it do? Project for a New American Century proposes a now-common possibility: it should do criticism. That is, art must dedicate itself to illuminating the inadequacy of every available form, every available content, every available synthesis of the two. It will show that all the old ideals of absorption and transcendence must be set aside until some future moment when less urgent concerns demand our attention.

The core of the Climate Change series, the installations and videos collected as Personal Responsibility, radiates with an awareness of the many ways in which art fails to meet the world-historical moment. The room is covered in the reds and oranges of wildfires and the color-coding of charts and graphs, and filled with a number of flimsy structures drawn from the stock imagery of climate disaster: tents, huts, and lived-in cars, with incongruous traces of life inside. The counter of what might be a pizzeria, complete with iPad and magnetic-stripe reader, is squeezed into the space of a two-person tent.

The videos in Personality Responsibility are direct in their engagement with climate disaster, placing one or two interviewees in front of a printed backdrop to address off-screen questions about their experiences of a heating world. Kline’s characters here are cartoon types, and they run the demographic and political gamut, from personal trainers stranded in a migrant camp in Orlando to a libertarian sales bro refusing to leave his McMansion in the Phoenix suburbs despite a lack of potable water. Their stories, a mix of fiction and the existing testimony of survivors of this century’s growing list of climate-related horrors, are effective elaborations of worst-case scenarios: a man recounts throwing up Krispy Kreme donuts after days without food; a woman shrugs at the fact that she occasionally finds dead bodies while making the rounds on her 70-hour-a-week gig scrapping flood damage.

In the exhibition catalog, curator Christopher Y. Lew quotes the philosopher Timothy Morton to label climate change as a “hyperobject”—that is, an object “too huge in both space and time to be readily understood from a human perspective.” Quite a lot of stress rests on that “readily.” We might also wonder what understanding entails in this context. The number of images which communicate something meaningful about the global climate is already at least functionally infinite; we’re under no obligation to assent to the technocratic claim that we simply need more, and better, data.

Kline’s approach implicitly acknowledges this: his art is not visionary, but works by sampling. The testimonies delivered in Personal Responsibility attempt to map out and account for the various social, political, and economic forces that will shape daily life in an era of rising catastrophe. Though the word “speculative” appears often in writing on Kline’s work, the forces he isolates and describes require no speculation: they already undergird contemporary life in the United States. In Personal Responsibility, a West Coast professor, glibly certain of her own ethical conduct, dismisses the suffering of others as the result of their own actions. A hotel clerk stays behind to mind a half-flooded building at the demand of the cops, even as his employers refuse to pay him. Both individually and as a whole, the videos of Personal Responsibility tell us nothing we don’t already know. The orange skies which recently covered New York were a more alarming sign than anything Kline manages; they were more beautiful, too.

Imagine a single bottle of shampoo, the last item left in a looted Walgreens, its lights somehow still running on the fumes of a brave generator. This is, in its way, a moving image. Kline’s best work—the Teletubby-headed riot police in Freedom, or the sculptures of accountants and managers in Unemployment, curled into fetal positions and bagged in plastic—is shot through with this same unnerving sentimentality. But is being moved, however strangely, all that we have left?

Phil Coldiron is a writer living in New York.