Max Almy’s “Perfect Leader” (1983) satirized the making & marketing of an American president

By on May 14, 2019

In 1983, award-winning video, digital media and installation artist Max Almy’s animated short Perfect Leader satirized the making and marketing of an American president.

Watch Perfect Leader and other short video art pieces in Night Flight’s “Third Anniversary Special, Part II” (airdate: June 9, 1984), now streaming on Night Flight Plus.

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Perfect Leader  was a satirical commentary about how the circus-like political playground found on cable/network TV news was being used to define who was, and who wasn’t, an acceptable candidate.

This 4-minute video piece — the first in her series of computer-created social satires — was produced to coincide with the Ronald Reagan vs. Walter Mondale presidential campaigns, leading up to 1984’s general election.

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We watch a monitor where a futuristic sentient computer runs a “prototype development program” to the sounds of percolating ’80s electro-pop.

The program creates the perfect candidate for President of the United States (we’re going to assume this is something American voters are still obsessed with in the year 2019).

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Right at the beginning, we watch the computer selecting the “white” and “male” prototypes (decades ago, those apparently were considered the only valid choices, but that’s part of the continuing satire, isn’t it? We hope we can get something different someday).

The computer program progresses through a series of candidate archetypes (dictator, evangelist, Orwellian Big Brother figure, moderate, etc.).

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At first, the computer selects “something a little stronger, more dominating,” and we’re shown a candidate slashing at the air like a fascist Hitler-esque Commander-in-Chief.

“Whoops!”
— the computer says out loud — “That’s too much. That really didn’t work last time… Let’s try morality.”

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The computer continues blending personalities together in order to create the ultimate mass-marketed leader who is ultimately finished off with “a little charisma.”

In the end, we’re left with a completely synthetic, artificially-created Bible-waving politician with a short, clean-cut hairstyle, wearing a conservative blue polyester suit & tie combo.

He’s a true-blue red-blooded American hero, the very embodiment of of authoritarian reassurance.

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The program runs a few more tests, automatically displaying grid charts, symbols and pictographs onscreen as were shown various physiological modifications.

Little tweaks are made here and there, displaying projections for his “media impact” and other pertinent factors like “multi-national profit” and “global leadership strategies.”

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“We want to have the perfect leader,” a female voice chants insistently against the sound of that synthetic synth drumbeat.

This is coupled with rousing cheers — “We NEED to have the perfect leader!” — while bold, familiar graphic symbols scroll by in the background, representing multinational power: technology; economics (including dollar $igns) and nuclear warfare.

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Finally, we’re shown our resulting composite character, a well-groomed politician with a telegenic face, as seen inside a TV-screen template, looking like a faked-up Max Headroom-style anchorman, i.e. what the computer considers the “perfect leader.”

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Read more about Max Almy below.

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Max Almy in front of Montgomery Hall, the home of the School of Digital Media at SCAD (photo courtesy of Max Almy)

Max Almy (b. in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1948) received her BFA in Fine Arts in 1970 from University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and her MFA in 1978 from California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland (she studied Experimental Film & Video).

Levi’s “Movin’ On Workwear” (Max Almy)

Influenced by the experimental theater and performance art scene in San Francisco, her first video installations in the 1970s grappled with life’s everyday problems.

By the 1980s, Almy was employing computer technologies to produce boldly stylized video narratives, pushing the boundaries of art and technology.

The Thinker (Max Almy & Teri Yarbrow)

Works like her multi-monitor and projected video installation Deadline (1981) and Utopia (1994) — which posed as an interactive video game exploring the social and environmental crises of the modern city, featuring performance artist Rachel Rosenthal — mirrored advertising techniques and television technologies back onto themselves as a commentary on the values of our post-modern, consumer-based, and media-saturated culture.

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For her Museum of Disappearance, a haunting science exhibit within a fictional museum of the future, Almy — along with her partner Teri Yarbrow, a painter who works in a range of media, including video projections and site-specific installations — focused on environmental issues and displayed artifacts of animal species that no longer exist, using paintings, video projections, large graphics, and a sound score.

Leaving the 20th Century (Excerpt), featuring music composed and performed by Gregory Jones (Max Almy)

Her work has been exhibited at major museums throughout the world, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

She has been awarded an NEA Visual Artists Fellowship, an AFI Independent Filmmaker’s grant, and production grants from Sony, Apple, and Philips.

In 1994, Almy and Yarbrow were awarded the 1993 News & Documentary Emmy Award in Graphic Design for their work on the short-lived Fox news magazine show “Front Page.”

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Max Almy is the Dean of the School of Digital Media at The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Savannah, Georgia.

She has studios in both Los Angeles, CA and Abiquiu, New Mexico.

Night Flight’s “Third Anniversary Special, Part II” from June 1984 — which also features video art pieces by Will Powers; Philip Glass; Laurie Anderson; Michel Jaffrennou & Patrick Bousquet (“Videoflashs“); Kit Fitzgerald & John Sanbord (Heartbeat, with music by King Crimson), Nam June Paik & Shigeko Kubota’s Allan ‘n’ Allen’s Complaint; and, WTV’s Dean Winkler, Tom DeWitt and Vibeke Sorensen (“Tempest“), among others — is streaming on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.