Performed at the Hemispheric Institute for Performance and Politics Encuentro. Bogotá, Colombia, August 21, 2009.
In his first incursion into filmmaking, French poet and multidisciplinary artist Jean Cocteau presents the world of the artist as masochistically caught between an intrinsically violent humanity and the pleasures of the creative exercise.1 The surrealistic layering of sound and image in Le Sang d'un poète (1930) also initiates Cocteau’s formalist experiment with the medium of film and its relationship to other genres such as painting, sculpture, and poetry. Le Sang d'un poète showcases an unabashed investment in the erotics of fear as the artist juxtaposes sexual desire to the existential interrogative of the artist’s role in society. Fear and pleasure coexist in this film in anxious and titillating proximity.
Phobophilia, Montreal-based media performance duo 2boys.tv’s latest piece, draws much of its energy and visual repertoires from Cocteau’s film. They similarly engage angst about the arts, but do so to engage the spectacular disiplays of sexualized violence that entered abruptly into the representational economies of the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at the beginning of the 21st Century. At a time when the casualties of these wars were absented by mandate from public view, the sexual assault on Arab bodies at the hands of U.S. army torturers, captured in the infamous photographic set of Abu Ghraib, emerged as explicit displays of the fleshiness of violence. The documentary function of the photograph served as an instrument of torture by extending the humiliating scenario of the forced sexual encounter. At the same time, the widely circulated photographs also provided the needed evidence that exposed the atrocious acts that they imaged. And it is precisely at this crossroads between the injurious and redemptive potential of the image, between the disgust and arousal it might perform, where Phobophilia addresses the perverse interconnections between fear and desire. Most importantly, Phobophilia queries these relationships relative to the status of the artist as a figure endowed with the tools, and perhaps the responsibility, to engage this violence and its ensuing erotics.
Much like Cocteau’s Le Sang d'un poète, Phobophilia is invested in, but purposely ambivalent about this relationship. This ambivalence is enacted from the very opening of the piece as audience members are brought into the performance space blindfolded. They walk in line, directed by the sensed motion of the body in front upon whose shoulders they rest their hands. One by one they are taken to their respective seats by one of the performers (Aaron Pollard) who is dressed in a black suit, white shirt, and black tie that references popular images of covert yet recognizable governmental surveillance and law enforcement. As their blindfolds are removed and as they witness the ritual de-hooding of the rest of the audience, spectators encounter a man (Stephen Lawson) center-stage standing atop a cubic platform that is covered by a black cloth. He also wears the black suit-and-tie uniform making visual binarisms between the two performers difficult to sustain.
Lawson’s body is spotlighted, lit from the front by a video projector that extends his size to the backdrop of the room, in a visual play that renders the material body minute before its screened representation in shadows. We are made palpably aware of the economies of looking by the blinded journey into the room, the hooding of the actor before us, and the playful abstraction of his body as shadow. Lawson’s body, present as it is as the live substance of this performance, becomes aestheticized in the amplified rendering of shadows. The intimacies of proximity that the audience experiences upon arrival—from touching to sitting closely together in a small group—are abruptly challenged by the magnitude of the image. That is, while the journey into the piece is one characterized by the interiority of a group of insiders that constitute the audience (only 24 spectators are allowed to witness the 45-minute performance at once), the first formative image of the performance abruptly introduces the scale of the spectacle and its easy identification in the very public theatres of war. The preamble to the performance—governed by the depravation of the blindfold, the subtlety of touch, and the small size of the audience—stages a perverse intimacy that at once endows the performance with its sensual charge (we literally ride along the epidermal surface of others) and disturbingly intensifies the acts of witnessing that we encounter in the iconic spectacle of violence.
The iconicity of contemporary violence, especially the photographs of Abu Ghraib and the narrated scenarios of interrogation (so popularized by the debate over waterboarding and other torture techniques), are cited at the opening of the performance. After the last of the audience members is properly seated, Lawson extends his arms to the sides Christ-like and self-hoods his head with a black cloth that recalls the disturbing images of Abu Ghraib. The performance space goes dark as the actor is interrogated by Pollard’s disembodied deep voice over the sound system (he stands at the back of the room where he manipulates the media for the performance). Lawson is asked in French and then in Spanish for his name, parent’s names, and place of work. “Esta es mi historia y es la verdad” (This is my history and it is the truth) states Lawson as Pollard cuttingly rebuts, “Mientes!” “Nothing to hide,” answers Lawson and Pollard again casts suspicion by calling him a “liar,” this time in English. Lawson is commanded to take off his shoes, his feet standing for an exposed, even naked, materiality that disappears in his narrative incoherence as he reveals very little to his interviewer.
Lawson steps down from his platform, hooded still, delicately removes his shoes, and removes the box’s hood (the black cloth that covered it from the beginning). At this moment of unveilings, obeying the forceful command to bare his feet, Lawson also becomes physically, maybe erotically, present. But this unveiling of the body is paralleled by the inauguration of the representational framework of film as the platform opens at the top to become the projecting surface for the duo’s beautifully executed micro-projections.2 This layered degree of interiority, an intimacy mediated by the sensuous exposure of the body and its downscaling by visual technology, performs contradicting affects that attribute the force of the performance to the juxtaposition of the tease with the violence of the interrogation.
As the performance space goes dark, Lawson’s body appears in the miniature projection, donning the same suit of his live presence. He slowly gestures his arms to his sides in a coordinated dance between the projected image and the live body. At this point the micro-projection ventures into a citational tour-de-force that centerstages Cocteau’s Le Sang d'un poète in both narrative and visual language. The live actor remains with his back to the audience while within the small projection screen a light comes on from above, a white chair appears, followed by a white sketching easel, as the actor approaches them slowly and in attentive but cautious wonderment. A window appears in front of the actor and frames the projection as an indoor scene. Immediately the camera zooms out to expose the exterior of a building followed by a full cityscape. The projection quickly exceeds the surface onto which the miniature images have been projected and bleed onto the rest of the stage as the camera continues to zoom out projecting the image of the city onto the back of the live performer. The camera zooms in again in a return that darkens the background where the live actor continues to stand and exposes the projected actor facing the audience behind the window frame and into the indoor scene (with chair and easel returning to view). The actor turns to face the easel as the camera zooms further into its surface. Drawing on the easel, directly referencing the first episode of Cocteau’s film, “The Wounded Hand or the Scars of the Poet,” but in a mirrored reversal of its original composition.
While Phobophilia showcases the duo’s often humorous divertissements, which range from a penchant for absurdity as in the random presentation of animal characters performing Bing Crosby, to their investment in the tradition of queer cabaret as the drag lip-synched performance of Mahalia Jackson’s “There is a City Called Heaven” demonstrates, it is in their homage to Cocteau’s film that their performance is most critically engaging. The artist draws an image of a hand that comes to life (a mouth does the same in Le Sang). He falls into the frame of artistic representation as he is projected flying above the city and then falling along the empty space of the live performer’s back and onto the projection screen (in Le Sang the artist enters a mirror—a visual effect achieved by the framing of a pool of water—and similarly falls into a black background). In both Concteau’s film and 2boys.tv’s performance, the artist—in search of what could be his inspiration—ends in a hotel hallway and proceeds to peek through the keyholes. While the images in the original film include the shooting of a Mexican revolutionary (dressed with zarape and sombrero) and the sadistic commandeering of a gravity defying child, the performance returns us to the contemporary by reintroducing Pollard’s re-performed image of the Abu Ghraib prison, first hooded and then fully naked, in the projection screen. The disturbing erotic force of this image is further extended as the image behind the following door showcases the doubled image of a man with his buttocks exposed in leather fetish regalia.
The images of torture that Phobophilia presents point to the conflicted relationship between a representational economy that seeks to evidence truth (the juridical force of the photograph) and the more ethically ambivalent erotics of spectatorship. Here, the potential for arousal is not only born out of the exposure of the body (the foot, the buttocks) but out of the pleasure of approximating the fear of violence: phobophilia. The spectacle of torture is here staged within the intimate context of performance, forcing audiences into the position of both witnesses and complicitious consumers of the visual archive of war. And while the duo seeks to perform an intervention by performing the very instance where the image splits along the axis of fear and desire, their affective exploration, much like Cocteau’s, never arrives at a resolution. The piece closes with a return to the beginning. Lawson stands once again on the platform, arms extended, head hooded by the black cloth, as audience members are directed one by one out of the performance space by Pollard. And this is perhaps the most disturbing moment of the performance: the realization that this scenario is infinitely repeatable and that the affective ambivalence and excess of the spectatorial encounter with violence haunts our experience of the image despite our own commitments, political or otherwise. In 2boys.tv’s dystopian dream, Cocteau’s film is rendered uncomfortably relevant.
1 Naomi Greene, “Deadly Statues: Eros in the Films of Jean Cocteau,” The French Review. 61. 6 (1988): 890-898.
2 For a description of this convention of the performance see my review of 2boys.tv’s Zona Pellucida in e-misférica 4.2: Body Matters / Corpografías.