Precious Illusions: A suspicious look at the value of horror

Joseph McCarthy

Susana Cook, an Argentinean butch-dyke political performance artist whose past works include 100 Years of Attitude (2004) and Dykenstein (2003), is the writer and director of (The Values Horror Show, which was performed in New York City during the 2005 Dixon Place HOT! Festival, a festival of 'in-progress' performance pieces that are queer-oriented in nature.

Dixon Place and the HOT! Festival (originally performed in the sauna-like living room of director and festival founder Ellie Cova) offer an excellent venue, a living room, and a queer 'framing' for Cook's piece, for it challenges the United States government's policies on bigotry, terrorism, and family values. Cook's press release to the HOT! Festival, a point of entry into the performance for others and me, states: "War is bringing us together. Paranoia makes life all the more exciting. Have you been seeing things? Do you find yourself singing Christmas carols in the shower? Do you masturbate afterwards? Do you believe in sanctity and global heterosexuality? This is not a show. Do not bring any suspicious packages. Argentinean Butch Political Performance Artist Susana Cook welcomes you to a suspicious world, in which she combines political satire and dark humor to create this tour de force of biting social commentary."

Cook's "suspicious world" is not an entirely unfamiliar one. The performance begins with a representation of how much of the outside world is mediated to the masses — television. A series of slides are shown with the same familiar instructional tone found in Cook's and the U.S. government's press releases: "Beware of suspicious packages" and "Alert authorities if anyone seems dangerous." The heavy orchestration of the soundtrack which Cook layers over these messages not only increases the tension of the moment, but also adds an almost cinematic quality to the presentation. Gradually the series of slides has more distinctly religious mandates: "Pray" and "Be rapture ready." Thus, Cook states the thesis of her performance: the othered body, whether queer, minority, or "foreign", is being watched and is at odds with a "suspicious" and vigilant world which is becoming increasingly more religious.

This type of shift in politics to the religious right is nothing new for Susana Cook, who in her teens awoke one morning to hear bands playing military marches instead of the morning news in her native Argentina. How could Cook not grow up to be "political" as she watched Argentineans living in fear enter into the epoch of the "Dirty War", led by bible-toting dictators, and the subsequent loss of tens of thousands of left-wing activists, intellectuals, students, and so-called "terrorists"? How can Cook sit idly by now, as a new genesis of similar events begins to unfold here in the United States as the government makes its citizenry live in fear and lean more toward the voices of the religious right? Cook is deft at drawing such parallels between the incidents of her youth in Argentina and the present situation in the United States. Once again, referring to her initial images in her slides, she illuminates the ways in which religious rhetoric, largely that of evangelical Christians, has an overbearing tone of preparedness, particularly spiritual readiness. A true believer/citizen should be ready for the rapture, the second coming, and religious/spiritual warfare at any moment.

In her performance Cook humorously maintains that we need to always be ready because we are always being watched and judged. The way in which the piece creates a feeling of an observed ambience, in my opinion, has direct relevance to the work of theorist Michel Foucault1 and his thoughts on the panopticon, the principle that everyone is not only physically under the surveillance of power, but that surveillance is most powerful as it becomes internalized by those being watched. Frequently the theory of the panopticon is used in queer and performance theory alongside the work of Jacques Lacan2.His theories on the ego ideal and the ideal ego also question why we perform certain behaviors or identities, and who we believe is or is not watching us perform said behaviors or identities. Cook takes these theories down a comic but revealing path as she applies this to perhaps the most recognizable figure of the most celebrated Christian holiday in the United States: Santa Claus. Although Santa has been used for everything from a subversive metaphor for soulless, out-of-control capitalism to an anagram for Satan, Cook uses the lore of Santa Claus3 to demonstrate how we are taught as children that there is an invisible, omniscient, and omnipotent force which is always watching us to see if we are "naughty" or "nice". If we are "naughty" we will not receive the gifts of capitalism at the end of the year. Cook and the butch-dyke battalion that marches onstage after her are certainly the cliché for "naughty", portraying archetypal "militant" lesbians dressed in army fatigues and invoking such queer icons as Marlene Dietrich4, another expatriate, queer, political subversive, famous for wearing men's military dress.

One women of this battalion, the "pooping lady", gives a particularly jocular portrayal. She demonstrates that living in this panoptic cage has a neurotic effect on its detainees; she develops a phobia of contamination. As she convulses about onstage, tongue protracted, nose upturned, legs akimbo, she almost literally tries to jump out of her skin proclaiming it is impossible to walk anywhere without stepping in "dog shit!"

This motley crew of militant lesbians, as a whole, provides the external and internal chorus of quotidian voices that surround Cook. As they enter the stage they verbally and physically battle over various political, social, and religious contradictions, much as such rhetoric swirls around us and Cook everyday as an endless stream of news mixed with opinion and debate from multiple media sources. Much of the information is inaccurate or misinformed, yet it is metaphorically represented onstage as being under the control of those in military power; this is a powerful and ultimately frightening theatrical technique used by Cook, as she renders the audience completely lacking in agency. Furthermore, the moment is particularly unsettling because the audience is seated in couches in a living room setting, not entirely unlike the couches on which they found themselves in the days following September 11th. Cook could not have hit a deeper nerve if she had done a site-specific performance in each of our own living rooms.

Although keen at hitting the audience close to home, Cook's tone is not threatening nor overbearing. She merely lays out the way she sees the world, and an admittedly comic vista it is. Her usual deadpan delivery stands in stark contrast to the loud, affected ranting of present political and religious leaders. The Brechtian political style of theatre is also employed by Cook and crew, as costume changes, dressing rooms, low-tech sound effects, etc. are in plain view of the audience — once again in contrast to the grandstanding and showboating of politicians as displayed in the nominating conventions and general campaigning by both political parties during the 2004 presidential election.

Cook is not out to create "illusions" or frighten her audience as the title of her piece might suggest. In her peroration she states her opinions in a non-confrontational, but humorous and awareness-raising manner. The value of horror for the government may be that it keeps us in our place, but for Cook it is the disillusioning of this horror that is most valuable in aiding in a positive resistance to oppression. Near the conclusion of her piece she perhaps sums it up the best: "I'm not going to tell you of the horrors I grew up with, you have your own."




1. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (1975).

2. Jacques Lacan, "The Ego in Freud’s Papers on Technique of Psychoanalysis." Seminar 2, translated by Sylvana Tomaselli (New York: Norton, 1988).

3. This reference to Santa Claus in Cook's work is also made in a July 2003 performance, Sermon of Seven or MoreWords, at the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics's 2003 Encuentro in New York City, entitled Spectacles of Religiosities.

4. Marlene Dietrich, (1901-1991). Actress, Witness for the Prosecution (1957).