WASHINGTON—Hailed as a sign of renewed government transparency when they began airing last year, President Barack Obama's weekly video addresses have grown increasingly experimental in recent weeks, raising eyebrows nationwide.
Videos like the one that aired Tuesday morning, which begins with Obama outlining his new plan to provide healthier school lunches to the nation's children, but soon devolves into frantic editing, unsettling imagery, and dissonant audio effects, have left many wondering about the president's ultimate message.
"I found the whole thing a bit confusing," said New York resident Abe Klein, who added that he has watched Obama's videos transform over time from informative to aesthetically challenging to just plain bizarre. "I don't know if I was supposed to come away thinking that childhood obesity is our nation's next major health crisis, or if Obama wanted us to take the jarring black-and-white footage of a rooster getting its head chopped off literally."
"Don't get me wrong, I'm all for these weekly addresses," Klein added. "But the president is starting to freak me out."
Obama, who sources said has been more introspective and isolated in recent months, made his first foray into the avant-garde last March, when he posted a video titled "Red, White, and Doom" to the White House website. In it, the president, seated in the Oval Office with a skull-and-crossbones banner where the American flag would normally be, stares unblinkingly into the camera as the phrase "in God we trust" loops for four minutes and 33 seconds.
While it was initially dismissed by the public as a technical error, White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer was quick to clarify that the video in fact reflected Obama's changing vision for the country.
"The president still wants to continue his dialogue with the American people," Pfeiffer said. "However, he's been getting really into Nam June Paik lately, and is passionate about using new technologies and techniques to communicate his message of hope and progress."
"And if he smashes the very foundations of modern consumerist culture while he's at it, then all the better," Pfeiffer added.
Though the videos are a continuation of the fireside chat tradition begun by Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s, they mark the first time a president has used weekly addresses as a form of artistic self-expression.
Obama's early pieces primarily played with structure: Our Long-Term Strategy In Afghanistan employs Brion Gysin's cut-up technique to reorder the words in a major speech on foreign policy, eventually creating a shocking sound collage that, according to the White House, reveals "a truth previously buried beneath layers of intent."
Since then, the president's work has grown more abstract and drawn mixed reviews. Citizens reacted favorably to the absurdist slapstick of Reshaping Wall $treet, which features a man in a pig mask rooting through a garbage pail filled with currency, but were less satisfied with (S)Mother Earth, in which Americans ranging in age from 6 months to 90 years are submerged in oil and found guilty by a clown-faced judge for their role in the recent BP oil spill.
"This is an abhorrent waste of federal funds," Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform said of Obama's May 13 video, timestamp. "How can a man overseeing the largest deficit in history justify spending our hard-earned money on some artsy video of him signing the same bill over and over again for 14 straight hours as the distant sound of children's laughter grows in intensity until it becomes unbearably loud and then the entire thing ends with footage of an atom bomb going off? It's just despicable."
"Do we really want our tax dollars going toward something so clearly derivative of Sadie Benning's early works?" Norquist added.
Nonetheless, a number of critics have embraced Obama's edgier productions. Artforum magazine referred to Obama's oeuvre as "a winking indictment of the institution of the presidency from none other than the president himself," and cited in particular his wildlife conservation video Meat Play as "the direction the office needs to go in if the executive branch is to remain relevant."
Though he hinted that his current work-in-progress would be his most ambitious and challenging to date, Obama has largely refused to comment on the controversial material.
"My work speaks for itself," Obama said as he applied blackface makeup to prepare for the shooting of a new video called Ask/Tell/Die. "I can't tell the people of our great nation what to think or how to react. That's up to the viewer. All I'm looking for is an honest reaction— something that shocks the bourgeoisie out of its mind-numbing, plastic complacency for once and causes them to sit up and scream from the depths of their rotting bowels, 'Ahhhhh! Who are we and what is the nature of our existence?! We are like cockroaches marching into a bowl of spoiled milk to drown! We are all drowning!'"
"That's all," he added.