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A fountain of commentary on race: Lauren Woods exhibit uses video to contemplate the modern black experience

Luke Quinton

When an old piece of metal spontaneously popped off the wall above a fountain at the Dallas County Records building in 2003, it revealed two words scored into the marble underneath: "White Only."

This event unleashed predictable bickering . Some wanted the words expunged from the wall, others wanted it preserved as a prompt to the city's collective memory. So the city declared all such signs historical markers, to be left untouched. But also left without context.

Two years later an artist named Lauren Woods appeared in front of county commissioners with a proposal.

It was an elegant solution. When the water fountain is pressed, 15 seconds of video footage will appear on a screen above the fountain before water is released; shots of civil rights protesters being pummeled by fire hoses, for instance.

The court had just finished a heated debate over a "billion" dollar budgetary issue, Woods said, over coffee, recently. "They were yelling, and then it was like `And now we have a person who wants to make some art.'" She deadpans. When they heard Woods would raise her own money, the plan was waved through.

"I'm an artist first, before I'm this historical negotiator/kiosk-maker," Woods says. Nevertheless, the project has very public demands: plumbing work, historical documentation and fundraising.

But Woods has begun to make a career of acting on visions that, for the rest of us, just pass through. "Everybody told me `This project can't happen,'" she says. But, funding willing, the project will be completed next year.

Woods is an artist who swims in her thoughts. She makes videos that consider and upset larger issues of our society, especially the modern black experience. Stepping past the curtain of her exhibition at Women and Their Work, you begin to swim alongside.

Images are projected on each of the room's walls. A row of pews faces a slow and sputtering image of the rapper Ludacris. In the corner, a mirrored image loops over and over.

In this work, "Inkblot Projective Test #1 (Darkest Africa… 1936/2006)" African men run and disappear into one another, like there's a secret portal where the walls meet.

"Inkblot" is an ethereal comment on Western imperialism. It's originally footage from an early TV show of African actors retreating comically from a lion as a heroic white man emerged to save them.

The footage moves in a loop, the most entrancing of Woods' visuals, but, like all of her footage, it's been sliced and slowed to send a very specific message, mining a clever response from the original source material.

"I'm interested in these weird histories that are still kind of here, but we don't pay attention to," Woods says.

"Teenth of June" messes with the Miss Texas 2006 competition, the first won by an African American, Shilah Phillips. It was an awkward ceremony. A botched hug/kiss caught Woods' attention when it first aired, and she re-airs its closing moments in slow motion, exposing facial movements that suggest hidden emotions and motivations.

Not content to torture you with awkwardness, Woods adds music from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" that makes you jolt and then grin for having been scared.

Woods moved to Houston when she was 2, then near Dallas when she turned 9.

She's also lived in Madrid, Denton, San Francisco and Puerto Rico, and it gives her the cosmopolitan confidence of someone who feels at ease in any city on the planet.

Her interest in politics was piqued at an early age. Woods was one of two black students in her new class. "It was so very white. Not only white, but very racist. I think that point is what marked and informed my life," she says.

She's restless, always gauging her surroundings. She's considering her next move, and Austin has crossed her mind. But as we stood to leave the coffee shop, Woods looked around and offered a lingering question: "Where are all the black people?"

"Lauren Woods: Notes of a Native Daughter"

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays through Aug. 31.

Where: Women & Their Work,

1710 Lavaca St.

Cost: Free

Info: www.womenandtheirwork.org