How Courtney McClellan Mocks the Mock Trial

Since its founding in 1985, the American Mock Trial Association (AMTA) has adjudicated thousands of imaginary legal cases in the fictional state of Midlands. College students—many of them preparing for careers in law—compete in variations on courtroom scenarios taken from “case packets” written and distributed by the organization. In text slides from her three-channel video Midlands, which premiered in New York at SculptureCenter’s annual “In Practice” program in 2018, Atlanta-based artist Courtney McClellan described the eponymous fictional state with a series of paradoxical yet matter-of-fact phrases: MIDLANDS OCCUPIES NO LAND OR TERRITORY. MIDLANDS IS GOVERNED BY US FEDERAL LAW. . . . IN MIDLANDS, ALL EVIDENCE MUST BE BELIEVED TO BE TRUE. ALL EVIDENCE IS FABRICATED.

Midlands inaugurated McClellan’s ongoing investigation into the relationships between performance, fiction, and the law in mock trials. Drawing on her degrees in both journalism and art, McClellan observes how practicing the conventions associated with various professional fields—especially the law—itself constitutes a form of performance. With their combination of overt theatricality and academic instruction, mock trials—and, thus, Midlands—emerged as a whole imaginary world for her to explore and document. The 2018 installation juxtaposed footage of a practice courtroom with video showing text from one of the scripted legal scenarios used in a mock trial. On a third screen, a digital scan of a man’s blazer—a sartorial signifier of professionalism in many fields—materializes briefly before disappearing, then reloading. Although subtle, the reversal of McClellan’s conceptual orientation as an artist serves as the foundation for this work. Instead of using art to imitate the real world, McClellan’s mock trial project breaks the fourth wall, emphasizing the elements of artifice and performance that many future attorneys, judges, and politicians master during their professional training.

Courtney McClellan: Midlands installation view, at SculptureCenter, New York, 2018.

“Simulations,” McClellan’s solo exhibition on view earlier this year at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, featured photographs she has taken at law schools over the past six years. Many highlight the visual connections between practice courtrooms and theaters, perhaps best exemplified by the plush red velvet seats shown in one image. Aside from the mostly white male jurists shown in painted portraits, the images are entirely devoid of human figures. Instead, objects such as microphones and mounted screens used to present cases become stand-in characters. The gallery had white wainscot like that seen in some courtroom images, drawing attention to how such architectural details are often used as set dressing to imbue spaces with institutional authority and gravitas. In her 2019 performative lecture Legal Simulation and Non-Linear Time, McClellan suggested the term “applied fiction” as a framework for understanding mock trials. “The primary question is: how much is this legal simulation like the real thing?” she said.

Professional Identity Formation, McClellan’s installation in the 2021 Atlanta Biennial, frames a stark material and visual contrast between text printed on a sheet of blue vinyl and a black-and-white monoprint of a wrinkled blazer. The text lists “effectiveness factors” for good lawyers (NEGOTIATION SKILLS, STRATEGIC PLANNING) compiled by two law professors in a form reminiscent of work by Conceptualists such as Joseph Kosuth. Laid against the antiseptic-feeling vinyl, the monoprint shows the blazer’s folds in nearly fleshly detail. Signaling a shift in McClellan’s work toward a broader examination of legal training, the installation raises questions about how professional “best practices” become a social script naturalized through collective performance. But there is a conspicuous absence from the list of qualities that make a lawyer “good”—personal ethics. The realities of the case and of the law, McClellan’s work suggests, often matter much less than a lawyer’s ability to perform a part.

The Atlanta-based conceptual artist probes relationships between performance, fiction, and the law.Read MoreArt in America, Features, Courtney McClellan, First LookARTnews.comRead More

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