“Obscenity is our name for the uneasiness which upsets the physical state associated with self-possession, with the possession of a recognized and stable individuality.” Georges Bataille
Yesterday I was asked to present some work and write a little something for an event at Ludwig in Berlin called Pixelspace: The Women of Internet Video, hosted by Ceven Knowles (who you may remember as a performer and producer in my film and web project Other People’s Mirrors. I thought it would be nice to share it here. Below is the short essay I wrote with reference videos.
I was born into video. My parents did video production and even at age 14 and 15, my friend Ceven and I would borrow my dad’s analog video camera and do performances. Fast-forward 15 years from that. It was 1998 and I was in a web art class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and instructor Jon Cates brought up a website called anacam.com. It inspired me to take on a whole new direction.
I already fancied myself a filmmaker, and was deeply rooted in the long history of women in video art as well. Cosey Fanni Tutti’s recent interview in the Guardian brought to mind the women performers who inspired me (from Carolee Schneeman to Lung Leg). In some ways I relived the same stories in my own way.
By the mid-70s, their performances often involved nudity, live sex acts and bodily fluids: crowds of entranced children were noticeable by their absence. Tutti thinks her increasing fascination with and involvement in the world of pornography had something to do with it. She’d been including images from porn magazines in collages, she says. “I just thought: ‘It’s a bit rotten using them like this.’ I’d sooner get in there and do it myself, so I know the background behind it and how it’s made. And then, once you enter that world, things do change, they get less playful.”
But anacam was a new iteration – this live performance that could be seen by anyone with a computer anywhere in the world, and I would never even have to see their faces. I didn’t have to edit anything or send it to galleries to be accepted or rejected. I was an artist who was all about subverting the art business. And I was an actor by necessity – as a survival mechanism having come from abuse. Plus, when you can’t find an actor willing to pull off the crazy shit you want to see, you just end up doing it yourself. On web cam I could be as graphic as I wanted to be and no one could touch me. My sexuality could be both public and safe. As a filmmaker too, it allowed for multiple layers of narrative – the live “making of” performance as a companion to the film itself. Not only live interactivity with an audience, but the blurring of reality and fantasy.
As a woman in art (and especially in film) there has always been this sense that you have to work harder to be seen. And throughout the history of women in video art, you will find this common theme. This is my body – my corporeal existence. SEE ME!!! I am here. Video has always been a kind of safe space for women to be obscene. To playfully poke porn in the eye by taking it to weird extremes that make you say, “what did I just see?” To make the jerk-off material of the male gaze turn weird and confusing. The web made that anonymity and the potential for creating sexy dissonance even richer. The web became porn’s favorite domain after all.
The web also became the ideal place for creating a Bowie-esque collection of identities. One of my web personas was Echo, named after the mythological character who only wanted Narcissus to see her, to hear her. But he was too busy looking at himself. One of my web sites was called Objectifyme.com. Again that theme: LOOK AT ME!!! SEE ME!!! It’s a command. Make me a symbol, but let me be recognized.
Two women have stood out to me as having picked up the mantle in this regard. Showry who swims deep in the physicality of performance that is equally sexy and gross. She’s successfully takes obscenity to the absurd extreme.
And then there’s Poppy.
If YouTube were alcohol, Poppy would be 200 proof. So pure, refined, distilled down to the essence. She is entirely new but also the Max Headroom of millennials – the mirror of celebrity in the Internet age. She uses sexuality without even showing cleavage, without ever shaking her ass. She’s the nerd boy’s cute, virginal, kawaii fantasy.
She is a robot. An inevitable offspring of Ana Voog’s Mother of the Future Robots. Not only has she commanded, “Objectify Me!” But she’s taken it further. She has removed all but a few hints of personality to become whoever you want her to be. Just her, pretending intimacy, talking to you directly, but remaining untouchable against a clean plain white backdrop. And yet she’s still able to accomplish that one important thing: she makes the viewer, the consumer, ask, “What the fuck did I just watch?” She’s also adds the intrigue of Illuminati symbolism, and has repurposed every Internet video trope in existence. She is the perfect smirking, winking, pretty container of capitalism’s last gasps.
And that’s where we’re headed. When something that was an outlaw land of chaos starts to form its very own themes, tropes, even genres – it’s then that the artists really start to play. To use it as a medium.
Take for example the make-up tutorial, so ubiquitous on women’s YouTube channels. What happens when that is seen by a four-year-old girl and she begins to interpret it and create with it in her own manner, as my daughter Mun has done? The new “norms” now become something to bend and shape and subvert. What becomes hegemony must always be flipped, twisted, and made new.
On that note, I’ll leave this with my last thought. I have been seen enough. As an older woman I’ve had enough of being seen. I’m refocusing myself on writing, producing and filmmaking. For some, continuing to be seen is important and even revolutionary as they leave youth behind and offer something the young women can’t even imagine yet. As women, we all find out how much of the audience turns away once we pass a certain stage in life. To continue to command being seen after that is brilliant and inspiring.
But for me, I’m content to step down and let the next wave have this fractured faceted spotlight. For as I’ve always said – and this Cronenbergian refrain has been a motto of my art practice for so long –
“long live the new flesh.”