Baltimore is a three-channel, DVD video installation that presents blaxploitation cinema as the provocative, controversial, culturally complex, and often humorous phenomena that it was, while critically commenting on it as a genre that continues to influence music and film.
The project originated while Julien was researching and teaching a film course in the African American studies department at Harvard. He subsequently produced a one-hour documentary about the 70's blaxploitation film phenomenon for the Independent Film Channel. However, he still wanted to create an installation that would take a more fictional and impressionistic approach to blaxploitation themes, and uses two characters: one to represent a 1970's analog world (Melvin Van Peebles, Director of Sweet Sweet Back's Baadasssss Song) and the other, the future of digital technology (Vanessa Myrie).
The installation consists of two environments. The first places the viewer in a documentary context: blaxploitation as cultural phenomena. The voices of director Quentin Tarantino, actresses Gloria Hendry and Pam Grier, and actor Fred Williamson stream from speakers in each of the room's four corners, bearing witness to the movement through stories of their own personal experiences. The second environment presents blaxploitation as critical commentary. A video tryptich portrays Vanessa Myrie, the character representing the future, entering the contrasting cultural/historical environments of Baltimore's Great Blacks in Wax Museum and the Walters Arts Museum, shadowed by the Van Peebles character, who represents the past. In the Wax Museum, Myrie passes the political and cultural icons of African American history, feeling the weight of what they represent. She then enters the Walters, haunted by the power of the paintings depicting the slave trade, feeling she is being pursued by an unknown assailant, or perhaps only a shadow of history, as she struggles to move into an independent future.
Baltimore marks Julien's first venture into creating digital effects for his work. After shooting on film and transferring his images to digital video, he worked closely with MID staff to create animated and composited special effects for his technologically mediated characters and backgrounds.
Baltimore was exhibited at the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT), in Liverpool, England in March 2003; it will also be presented in Eyebeam's 9,000 square-foot chelsea gallery space. The project was co-commissioned by the Contemporary Museum, Baltimore; Eyebeam; the Foundation for Art and Technology, Liverpool; and the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore; in association with The Great Blacks in Wax Museum, Baltimore.