Good Boy Bad Boy marks Nauman's return to working with video after a break of twelve years. At the end of the 1960s he had been investigating the visual language of the body, using his own body in video tapes and slow motion 16mm films. He then began to make sculptural installations, creating situations in which the viewer would physically experience what the artist had been exploring alone in his video performances. In his corridor pieces of the early 1970s, such as Corridor with Mirror and White Lights 1971 (Tate T01753), Nauman turned a mirror and then a video camera directly on the viewer, forcing him into a confrontation with 'the connection between public and private experiences' (Nauman quoted in Bruce Nauman 1998, p.100). Using professional actors in Good Boy Bad Boy Nauman expands this confrontation.
In the work two monitors are displayed at head height on pedestals. The head and shoulders of a young black man appear on one; on the other is an older white woman. They both speak the same one hundred phrases, which are the repeated conjugation of the verb 'to be' linked with the term 'good boy': 'I am a good boy. You are a good boy. We are good boys…' and so on. They each go through the sequence five times, beginning in a flat neutral tone, and becoming increasingly animated and intense until by the fifth recitation they appear very angry. Their techniques of delivery are quite different, and result in a slippage of time, so that played on a continuous loop, the two tapes become out of sequence. 'Because they are actors, it's not autobiographical, it's not real anger, but pretending to be angry and they are pretty good at it, but maybe not really convincing.' (Nauman quoted in Bruce Nauman 1998, p.104.) Nauman exploits the different levels of reading experienced by the viewer who, coming in part way through the piece, will be confronted by a barrage of contradictory accusations. Despite the straightforward recitation of basic grammar, the actors' direct eye contact to the camera (and therefore the viewer) and the mounting emotional intensity of their delivery together suggest aggression and attack rather than education. As in much of Nauman's work, attraction and repulsion operate equally to disturb and disorientate the viewer.
Bruce Nauman, exhibition catalogue, South Bank Centre, London 1998, pp.99-104, reproduced pp.98 and 101
Kathy Halbreich, Neal Benezra, Bruce Nauman, exhibition catalogue, Walker Arts Centre, Minneapolis 1994, pp.39, 41, 58 and 95, reproduced p.162
Joan Simon: 'Breaking the Silence: an interview with Bruce Nauman', Art in America, September 1988, pp.141-8 and 203