Courtesy: Nao Bustamante
Nao Bustamante, Deathbed, 2010.

Step and Repeat

81_bustamante_00_sm
Nao Bustamante, Deathbed, 2010.
Courtesy: Nao Bustamante
Nao Bustamante on the Red Carpet.
Courtesy: Nao Bustamante
wilmer and Esai: True professionals.
Courtesy: Nao Bustamante
Guin Turner Shows how it's done with mastery.
Courtesy: Nao Bustamante

Much of my work, my matter, and my expression come from emoting through body shape and, primarily, my face. The face becomes a moving mask—registering expression, or the avoidance thereof, to suggest a narrative. My talents (toned modestly) lie in the live and the in the moving image. Even the photographic work I’ve done, like “Deathbed” has been retranslated as a moving image. As it goes, I found the process of creating the still image more intriguing than the art product itself. At the moment I’m in Los Angeles, presenting at the Outfest Film Festival. LALA Land, which is the ultimate in the face-as-mask culture, has presented me with a problem of sorts. As an artist in the festival, I have an opportunity to walk the red carpet. People always say THE red carpet instead of a red carpet, perhaps harkening back to the 5th century when the red carpet appeared on the stage, with Clytemnestra triumphantly holding an axe aloft as Agamemnon's body. But now, those in “the Biz” refer to the red carpet as the “step and repeat.” Named for the sponsoring logo repeating over and over on the backdrop, or maybe because you step onto it (the carpet), and repeat your spiel over and over. My main lines are “Everybody loves a freak show, right?” and “Don’t judge me till you’ve walked a mile in my Vagina.” Both statements were universally cut from edited interviews. While waiting to “step and repeat,” I was in awe of others who seemed to have their face for the still camera worked out. It was incredible. They would be breathing and moving—and yes, stepping—yet presenting a consistent mask that “told” who they were. I’m the perky fun one, with a big smile! I’m the sultry sexy one, with an open mouth. I could have had a modeling career, but I chose acting. I’m the intellectual, and you can’t expect me to know how to give face on the red carpet, etc. I began to question my own face. Surely I had not rehearsed enough. Part of me just wanted to trust my face. Wouldn’t that be enough to impart a look of artistry? I hurriedly began asking people around me. How is this face? What’s your face? It seems that everyone had a face but me. Once I “stepped” I realized it was too late. I felt and I’m sure looked, over-posed. I couldn’t tell what my face was doing. I felt toothy, but wanted to exude exuberance as I thought it more appealing and honest. Later that night I ran into Wilmer Valderrama at a party and I asked him about this phenomenon. He told me that he didn’t have a face, but he knew how not to look like a total idiot. I didn’t believe his false modesty. At a later party, I spoke with Esai Morales. (Wilmer and Esai are two brothers that get too many thug roles. They both look good in a tank top, but por favor!) He showed me pictures of his new baby from his phone, and I asked him to take a picture with me. My direction to him was “Pretend that you like me.” He obliged by giving me a kiss on the cheek. But then wanted to take another picture. I looked at it later and realized, here is someone who really knows what his face is doing. He’s looking into the camera, I’m looking at who-knows-what. His smile is white, confidant, pleasant. My smile is too big, my teeth are open, and I look maniacal.When I saw Guin Turner (Writer/Director/Actress) at the same event, I also quizzed her on the still face. She not only acknowledged my concern, she gave me five different options. My two favorites: The Julia Roberts and the Chloe Sevigney.

Courtesy: Nao Bustamante
"Fear grin"
Photo: Lorie Novak
Nao Bustamante, America The Beautiful, 2002.
Photo: Lorie Novak

In spite of my discomfort with the celebrity photo experience, or more accurately in my case, “the relatively well-known photo experience,” the real question is what is projected on the blood red carpet? No matter how beautiful, can there be any doubt that an animal barring teeth is anything but an aggressive a show of territory? Step off of my red carpet! Or is it related to a phenomenon called the “smile-leniency effect.” In a court room, judges give lighter penalties to smilers. Is the smile a plea for leniency? This phenomenon may be more closely related to the “fear grin” found in most primates. What is it about the celebrity photo that can only exhibit such a narrow range and do we relegate all our images of pain and suffering to the art world? Even an artist depicting suffering is still privileged when compared to those who are truly suffering. Here’s a question I get repeatedly, “Aren’t you afraid that your work won’t be taken seriously?” Everyone can assume that we clowns are emotionally dark—the audience can laugh, while we are crying. It would appear that an over simplification has been made between the mainstream celebrity and the serious artist. That difference is in a smile.


Nao Bustamante's work encompasses performance art, video installation, visual art, filmmaking, and writing. Bustamante has presented in Galleries, Museums, Universities and underground sites worldwide, including the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, the New York Museum of Modern Art, Sundance 2008, 2010, and the Kiasma Museum of Helsinki. In 2001 she received the prestigious Anonymous Was a Woman fellowship and in 2007 named a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow, as well as a Lambent Fellow. Currently, Bustamante holds the position of Associate Professor of New Media and Live Art at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Essays

Dossier

Book Reviews

Review Essays