Saya Woolfalk is a New York-based artist who, for the last decade, has been building an elaborate and multi-dimensional narrative about alternate cultures. Woolfalk’s physical installations document the artifacts of these cultures—specifically the No Placeans (plant humans) and the future human culture that discovered No Placean bones, the Empathics—using ethnography-museum displays strategies that she populates with digital projections, elaborate costumes and mannequins, paintings, artifacts, and totems. With that intersection at play, Woolfalk offers alternative models for cultural exchange, societal hierarchy, and the way they mirrors many own conventional norms today.
Caroline Picard: What is No Place?
Saya Woolfalk: No Place is a project I worked on from 2006-2008 with filmmaker and anthropologist Rachel Lears. It was scripted and conceived by collecting the utopian desires of people in our communities. Through a series of ethnographic interviews, the story of No Place emerged. The No Placeans are plant humans who change gender and color, transform into the landscape when they die, and repurpose refuse into usable technologies.
CP: Did that vision of utopia continue to evolve in your work after 2008?
SW: Once this collectively imagined “utopia” was established I began to think about how people in the present could become the plant humans of the future. In 2009, I worked with a group of women dancers to create the first Ritual of the Empathics. Then in 2010, I collaborated with biologists at Tufts University to hash out how humans might actually become part plant in a project called The Institute of Empathy.
In 2012, The Institute of Empathy (IoE) curated and lent an exhibition of objects, dioramas, and videos at the Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, NJ. In this exhibition The Empathics describe how they find a group of No Placean bones into the woods of upstate New York. A fungus on the bones stimulates a physiological mutation that allows Empathics to easily cross species by integrating various genetic materials into their DNA. The nonprofit organization IoE was established to study this new morphology and distill the mutation process into a multi stage system so that any ordinary human can opt into becoming an Empathic.
CP: It seems like you’re talking about cultural exchange, where the fungus becomes a radical agent between Empathics, No Placeans, and the fungus itself. What was it about fungus that makes it a good multi-species ambassador?
SW: When I interviewed the biologists at Tufts, I gave them the backstory for the plant humans of No Place. I then asked what might make people from the present hybridize in such a radical way. One of the researchers offered the example of a fungus that implants itself inside of an ant. The ant is generally risk averse, but the introduction of the fungus alters both its behavior and morphology. Sprouting out of its host body, the fungus eventually kills the ant. When I saw an image of this violent rupture and subsequent transformation, it seemed to be the perfect inspiration for the origination story of the Empathics.
CP: I’m interested in how you borrow scientific, ethnographic, and artistic strategies to build not just new cultural narratives, but also objects and installations. Can you say more about how you incorporate and refract biological, anthropological, and artistic methodologies?
SW: In the visual art program at Brown, we were offered a variety of classes where we could explore combining the methods of art and science. After grad school, I moved to Maranhao, Brazil with my husband, cultural anthropologist Sean Mitchell. We lived in his field site for two years and this is when I began to borrow anthropological methods for thinking about and making my own work. I also got a Fulbright to do research into folkloric performance traditions in northeastern Brazil, which is how I met Rachel. When we got back to the States, she and I decided to collaborate to create the short film I mentioned, Ethnography of No Place. That was the first project I made that really blended artistic and anthropological methods into a single project.
CP: One of the things that struck me about the Empathics is that they are described as being plant/human hybrids; they are very adaptive and easily absorb different influences. I loved this idea because in some way I feel like you are articulating a bridge between nature and culture, which is typically difficult for Western philosophic and cultural frameworks to embrace. What was it about plants that made you interested in plant/human hybridity?
SW: I spent summers of my childhood going to elementary school in rural Japan were there was an emphasis on learning about plant systems in. We nurtured plants, learned about their ecosystems, and relationships with humans.
In 1999, when I was a junior in college, I went to my first Venice biennial. At the biennial I encountered the Kaki Tree project, in which a singe persimmon tree survived the bombing of Nagasaki in 1945. This mother tree emerged out of a catastrophic historic event and its human collaborators stimulated intercultural exchanges using her saplings. On their website they describe how “Art cultivates the imagination to help us feel others’ pain and creativity to build a new world. It goes beyond borders, religion, race and even language, and helps us feel sympathy for each other.” The structure and drives of this project impacted how I wanted to conceive my future work.
CP: What continues to draw you to the Empathics? Do you think of their narrative as a kind of medium?
SW: I always wanted to create a project that would allow me to think about cross cultural relationships and hybridization but did not want to use my personal story or standard tropes of multiculturalism.
CP: ChimaTEK is a corporation developed for the Empathics, by the Empathics, to help with their individual pursuit of self-improvement.
SW: ChimaTEK is the corporate branch of the IoE; through this corporation, the Empathics have patented a multi-step process with home-use technologies that make interspecies and intersubjective hybridization available to all.
CP: Am I right in thinking that the corporation is an ambiguous and even distopic figure in your narrative. Would you say the corporation is kind of dark mirror for the Empathics?
SW: The corporation is intentionally ambiguous and distopic. When I first conceptualized the project in 2006, ChimaTEK was in my notes as The Land of the Pleasure Machines. In this early iteration of the project, the Pleasure Machines are humans who give up their flesh and take on robotic bodies. As No Place and the Empathics developed their own logics, I revised the story to explore what happens when research that seems to be utopian gets coopted into a corporate logic. ChimaTEK allows users to wipe their identities clean and download specially configured identity algorithms. What do we self-select if we are capable of this kind of transformation?
CP: That makes me think about the power of fictional narratives, somehow, as a method to imagine alternative realities and mirror one’s own reality, without implicating a specific, individual biography. Still, I think it’s interesting that empathy plays such a big role in your work. Why is empathy so important?
SW: In graduate school I was inspired by Afrofuturist feminist Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series. In these books a race called the Oankali go through the universe seeking organisms to trade genetic information with. Empathy plays a complex role in this story, from the perspective of the Oankali they are being empathic, they are saving humanity from the brink of destruction. However, humans lose their autonomy once integrated into the Oankali genetic order. The protagonist, Lilith, establishes a blended family out of her relationship with the Oankali and the books trace her personal and social conflicts with being a trader to her humanity as well as a desire to integrate into a new genetic and social order. The series has been described as an exploration of the trans-Atlantic slave trade; Butler uses science fiction to consider forced familial relationships forged out of slavery that resulted in generations of African Americans having conflictual relationships with their integration into American culture.
CP: It seems significant that you haven’t written a novel (as yet) but instead make objects, installations, and performances, almost as secondary artifacts that viewers apprehend like archeologists…we don’t access the direct text-narrative, but instead connect the dots via artifacts that narrative produced.
SW: Octavia Butler’s fantastical and psychologically complicated myth fueled my desire to tell a story. As a visual artist, I knew it would not only be told through words but through a physicalization of objects, places, and by building new realities. So, for me, the objects and installations are very important, they are the material manifestation and physicalization of another place. They are the things that make the place real, that allow us to have access to that place.
CP: You are able to hit a lot of registers at once and seem comfortable with the seams between digital/material/nonhuman/human mediums; that’s part of what makes your work take on such a cohesive feeling of artifact. How did you develop that process?
SW: I started playing with digital technology early on in my work. I made digital collages with costumed figures using early versions of Photoshop in the 90s. I was trying to use the newly available digital technologies to combine real people and places with new imagined possibilities.
CP: What about the difference between mannequins and live bodies? Does that difference matter?
SW: I gravitate towards the utopian potentials of digital space (post race, post gender, post human etc.), but understand that people live in real bodies that experience real consequences based on how they are gendered, sexed, raced and classed. As I currently explore things like augmented and virtual reality, I constantly bring us back to actual bodies in space, real dancers that have physical manifestations not just phantoms that exist in digital space.
CP: What would the Empathics say about the Anthropocene?
SW: The Empathics are initially ordinary humans and do their work in human centric systems. I imagine they would not be opposed to the current geological epoch being characterized as the Anthropocene. However, I don’t think they would want ChimaTEK or the work of the IoE to be limited by a human centric vision of possibility. I teach at Parsons the New School and a number of mu students last semester worked on projects that centralized birds or rocks as the consumers of the work. I think that the Empathics would be interested in this kind of exploration.
December 28, 2011 · Print This Article
In thinking about hybridity, performance artist Sebastian Alvarez seemed like an important person to talk to. For instance, I saw a piece of his at the Hyde Park Art Center in which a series of different people looked up at the camera, their faces surrounded in a sea of dirt. They seemed to be part of the earth, speaking through it, while nevertheless remaining distinct. In other work Alvarez has done, he photographs the body mid-flight, sometimes it is ascending, sometimes it hovers almost perpendicular to the ground, frozen impossibly in defiance against gravity. I find his work to be tremendously hopeful, walking a line between the tension of consumer audiences and transformative experience. Where do we position ourselves? Are those distinctions (between body and earth, self and other) as vivid as we would like to presume?
Caroline Picard:Â What happened to your impression of dirt once you ate it in public?
Sebastian Alvarez:Â Soil is always hard to grasp. Especially if it comes from Central Park in New York. The first time I tried eating soil was, like many of us, at a very early age. Unfortunately, I do not have a clear memory of that moment but I remember seeing a photograph of my face decorated with dirt around my mouth. Perhaps it was really chocolate but I prefer to think that it was soil because I was in a park. Years later, my second interaction with this organic matter happened in a desperate situation as I was hitchhiking to Cuzco, Peru from the south of Brazil. It was in a late afternoon after not being able to find a ride nor anything to eat. Upon arriving to a small farm in an isolated area, I stole some potatoes I found laying on a piece of burlap fabric. After franticly running without any reason â€” since nobody saw me â€” I stopped away from the farm and contemplated the three little sad potatoes in my dirty hands. Having no utensils to boil the rather miniscule potatoes, I gave a bite to one of them, realizing that I could not even chew it. Obviously, they were hard as rocks due to the cold weather. So after spitting the tuber out, I craved something soft and tasty. Without thinking it twice, I grabbed a bunch of soil with my left hand I took it into my mouth, and I clearly remember thinking that I wanted this soil to be delicious and nutritious. I thought it so emphatically that I could no longer pay attention to the particles going through my throat. Its texture was actually soft and pleasant on account of the fact that it was topsoil and it did not contain any pieces of rock. One handful was enough to bring me into a silent state of mind where I began perceiving my surroundings as a nurturing space. Seconds after this peaceful sensation, my mind started sending me the common human thoughts that would populate any civilized person’s mind: What am I doing? I really need to find something to eat, and am I going to get sick or die? All these questions kept reconfiguring themselves in my head as I felt the satisfactory sensation of having experienced something transformative. Hours later after walking on a small road again, I was picked up by a generous farmer with an old truck and driven to the nearest town, Mirador Caracoto. During this micro-road trip, I kept the soil incident to myself. Once in the town, I was able to sell a couple of jackets I had in my backpack and eventually made it to my “final destination.” I tell this story because it reveals values that are central to my art practice. Journeying as an exploration of the unknown, acknowledgment of ignorance, and transformation are points that guide and organize my understanding of what I do as an artist.
Five years later when I became acquainted with performance art I thought of contextualizing my experience with soil in a “performance video.” However, when I did it for the camera I became very conscious of the situation I was creating and how contrived it was. The scenario I constructed was completely different. This time I was in New York, and created a prologue to accompany the act of eating dirt. The first part of the video was about the occasional nauseous feeling I have when being overexposed to advertisements and consumer culture. The second part is about entering a public park (Central Park) to eat soil. The area where my friendly cameraperson and I spontaneously decided to shoot was actually closed for maintenance. I obviously felt tempted to jump the fence and ended up removing a piece of grass to eat a small portion of the aforementioned substance. A few pedestrians walking their dogs saw me and noted the presence of the camera, creating that typical mediated environment/situation that weakens the authenticity of such normally undocumented events. I never felt the same serenity as that first time at the farm again because I became too aware of my actions, and slightly paranoid to be penalized for jumping the fence and defacing public property.
Being born in a culture that has always defined Earth as a mother and the Sun as a father, I developed an appreciation and respect for these beliefs. However, when the Mother Earth icon was imported into western culture, it became a component of the linguistic structure of patriarchal dominance. Thus, perpetuating the image of the mother as unconditionally generous, fertile and inexhaustibly abundant.Â When I moved to the United States, one of the things that I paid attention to in language was the relation between the word “dirt” and “dirty,” especially because dirt is often used interchangeably with the word soil. So, whether soil is dirt or an aspect of Mother Earth is personally irrelevant, the essential part to me is how the metaphor that defines the relationship between us and the “natural world” creates a different engagement with our surroundings. Perhaps, this is why I find the metaphor of “eating soil as a way of reconnecting with a source” fascinating. For instance, if you research some of the cultures that have embraced geophagia â€” that is the practice of eating earthy or soil-like substances such as clay and chalk â€” you will find out that the elements that make up soil are potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, iron, and manganese which are also present in the human body. In many parts of the developing world there is earth even available for purchase that is intended for consumption; they consider geophagy to be a beneficial, nutritional approach to promote well-being. Of course, I am aware that the contemporary condition of soil in many places of the world is deplorable and highly toxic. I am further aware that there is a significant difference between the soil I ate on a small farm in Peru and the dirt from a metropolitan public park where there is the potential encounter with dog excrement, 70’s heroin needles, or fingers of gangster victims that did not pay their dues.
CP: Is there a difference between performance and presentation for you?
SA:Â Although these two are similar in that they both comprise an event in which an individual or group of individuals behave in a particular way for another group of individuals, they are slightly different to me in terms of how they make the recipient individuals feel. Presentations, as we usually know them, carry a didacticism that make us focus on the content of what is being presented rather than the presenter. Performances, on the other hand, bring our attention to the performer (his/her physical, emotional, and kinesthetic characteristics that I perceive as organic) and the contextual features around him/her or them (architecture and props, which I perceive as inorganic, when they happen indoors). After engaging into different forms of investigation (both formally and informally) about performative genres (which I perceive as modes of communication) I see them as forms of channeling energy. Today, one can play semantically in order to find new possibilities, and expand upon notions. For instance, one could say performers perform, and presenters present or performers present and presenters perform. One could also think performances present performers, presentations perform presenters, and so on. To me, presenting implies a detachment from what is being presented. It is a humbler approach to communicating an idea or intention. Most religious and devotional rituals involve presenting an offering (whether something tangible or intangible) to a worshipped being. This makes me ponder the idea of the audience as a worshipped entity receiving the offerings of a performer. In any case, however the performers or presenters decide to interact with their audience (whether they are physically present or not), I believe it is important to allow the energy that is being conjured to be transmitted as intended, unless they are dealing with unknown forces outside their cognition and this is the intention.
CP:Â How do you consider the audience/performer relationship? Is this a dynamic that is porous? And where is the power located?Â
SA:Â There a long list of sociologists, philosophers, dramaturges, performance theorists and researchers who have dealt with the audience/performer subject in multiple ways. To me, it is important to have an understanding of the origins of theater, performing arts, sports, and social gatherings as well as how the relationship between the performer and the audience changed into one of producer and consumer. There are specific instances that mark the breaking down of traditional boundaries between actors and spectators. For instance, the formation of the Living Theater in New York by Julian Beck and Judith Malina changed how the audience was engaged through direct personal and physical contact. Likewise, when Brazilian theater director Augusto Boal (influenced by theorist and educator Paulo Freire) developed the Theatre of the Oppressed, within which performance was intended to entertain, educate, and raise consciousness. I am obviously omitting the extensive list of people, events, movements, and disciplines that have contributed to what we categorize today as relational aesthetics, participatory art, and social practices. However, whether one is aware of this information or not, these contributions are already engrained in the sphere of human cognition.
But anyway, most of us with Internet access are aware of the omnipresence of videos depicting different kind of events, open source lectures, webinars, presentations, performances, and practices that share the process of how subjects and objects are made. The ones showing rows of seated spectators facing a raised platform particularly fascinate me. In the broadest terms, the “performer-presenter” may be seen as an enthusiast, or critic of society. In âš«â– â–¼, one of my current projects in process, I explore this setup, the body language of the presenter and the audience, and their potential to alienate. From my perspective, presenters perform an almost priestly role when in front of a large screen or projection that informs the audience or devotees in a semiotic mass. However one sees it, I think there is a consensus about the need to gain greater awareness of the implications of systematic image distribution in power-saturated contexts and human relations â€“ particularly in this media-laden society.
CP:Â What is the relationship between shape and identity? I’m partly asking because the way you use shapes quite often in your work–circles and triangles and squares…
SA:Â In this project, I began by acknowledging these historic associations:
a. the circle, the one, the point, the center, the ellipse, the circus, the circuit, the speaker, the divine, the sun, the transmutation, the emotion, the liquid, the circulatory system.
b. the square, the quartet, the structure, the area, the perimeter, the room, the site, the group, the audience, the collective, the concentration, the cardinal points, the mundane, the solid, the digestive system.
c. the triangle, the trio, the creation, the interaction, the elements, the magic, the media, the message, the subject, the intellect, the illumination, the direction, the gas, the nervous system.
1. the logo: the word, the discourse, the argument, the rhetoric, the religion, the emblem, the identity, the transcultural diffusion, the union and interrelation of three physical states of water (solid, liquid, and gaseous).
The logo (1.) is an inverted 17th century “sign” that illustrates the blending of geometric shapes, and elemental symbols. Then, it was used by medieval alchemists to represent the elements and forces needed for magical work in order to reach physical and spiritual transformation, and immortality. Today, these concerns are that of transhumanists who explore bio-enhancement technologies (intellectual and physical) and the elimination of aging. Some even seek the elimination of death such as Ray Kurzweil and his sympathizers. Whether we like it or not, our human condition is transforming and non-biological intelligences are growing exponentially.
Adopting the alchemical sign as a logo/brand is a way of bringing attention to the subject of transformation. To me, this is a way of coming to terms with a personal feeling that I think we all share: the feeling of being driven by a larger force beyond oneâ€™s control. When appropriating the alchemical sign as a logo I thought of myself as a corporate force that imparts, shares, and distributes information. Using the alchemical symbol upside down is my way of acknowledging a return to the basic, to innocence. What I mean by basic is my prelinguistic life, before I was educated. Hence, I am interested how we educate the “uneducated,” how infants acquire language, and how we are constrained in our use of language by our particular social and psychological realities.
The inspiration for âš«â– â–¼ emerged after watching several hours of web conferences, and online lectures on subjects I am passionate about. Also contributing to the impetus for the project were my notes and memories on how I have been feeling inside authoritarian architecture â€” mostly churches and military sites, classrooms, and various institutional sites since childhood. Some memories, which I perceive as “light,” are more personal, comical and embarrassing; for instance, when things collapsed in strictly controlled situations or in demonstrations of vulnerability in public. The other memories, which I perceive as “dark,” are aggressive and fear inciting; for example, acts of civic disobedience and public panic. Here, I specifically refer to the attacks of the two main rebel groups, Shining Path and Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, who operated most forcefully in their effort to destabilize and overthrow the Peruvian government.
I also include my memories as an audience member in large sport events, massive music concerts, raves, mosh pits, in addition to intimate-level events such as presentations/performances in small venues, galleries, and studios. All these social assemblages (cultural or sub-cultural) are highly affected by the architecture in which they take place. I like to think about the physical states of water â€” liquid, solid, and gaseous â€” as an analogy that provides a different way of understanding different types of social gatherings. Consequently, I think of water containers, and temperature. What happens when you boil water? What happens when you freeze water? Can certain places solidify us? Which places keep us moving and flowing? In what place do we boil and become gaseous? How is in charge of the temperature?
Online, we articulate ourselves as databases in social networks. In doing so, we use our names as our brand, our logo. I began paying attention to this when I started a blog called Wanderlustmind where I was aiming to collect relevant information and archive my digressions over the Internet. By using the template provided by the semantic publishing platform, I became statistically aware of my â€œfollowersâ€™â€ locations, their traffic, and their preferences. Similarly, when performing or witnessing a performance, I also pay attention to the structural characteristics of an audience. This makes me wonder if blogging has awakened a desire to know more about my audience or if it is a natural tendency I have. Regardless, once I wanted to “boost my traffic,” I opened a page for my blog in the popular “Book of Faces.” Here, as part of a community of millions of sentient beings entrapped in a platform created by the idiosyncrasy of a Harvard sophomore, I pondered existentialism once again and therefore the questionnaire began. What behavior am I adopting? Which model am I following? Am I becoming a hybrid of machine and organism? Am I aware of what produces major changes in my cognition? Am I really able to perceive this transformation during my lifetime? Did I abandon the religion I was brought up in so that I can be indoctrinated into a new one prophesying technological utopianism? Will my grandchildren meet humans who were born in times where the Internet did not exist? Is it worth having children considering the current conditions of the media environment? Will I bio-engineer my own children? Do I already have children? Are they blogs or social networks that I maintain daily? What do I feed them? Is my affection enough as a simple XOXO?
As I press the keyboard and quantify myself through a luminescent screen that stores binary numbers and manipulates data, I associate my writing (or your reading) to the comfort and anonymity of a passive audience member sitting in the dark. Obviously, as you read these words in a rectangular display composed of liquid crystals (that is if you did not use a inkjet or laser printer to print this on paper), there are people around the world who are still reading books illuminated by a candle. Should everyone use the Internet? Are there other forms of networking we are ignoring or dismissing? Should indigenous people conform to the dominating attitude of the patriarchic media? Can these groups participate in the decision making process of how technology should operate? Should cultures that have not come up with “new technologies” be consigned to history? Wouldn’t you be concerned if the same nations that brought you sugar, processed foods, GMO’s, and mass pollution were offering you new useful technologies?
We are fast approaching the longest day of the year. On the other side of the 22nd of this month, the days will again stretch, grow long. As one day expands past the last, our definition for its bounds nevertheless remains the same. There is something about categorical tidiness that seems especially important to the theoretical order of our species. I want to ask, then, what happens when those borders start to bleed into one another? What happens when languages mix up and churn into hybrid concoctions? And what about something as sticky as race Â or sex â€” where do we locate identity when bounding frameworks are under duress? Muddled with unknown elements. Under this light, the scaffold of our taxonomies become brittle, even arbitrary, for even the border plotted between species are suspect. In the forthcoming series I will talk to a number of artists about their ways in which they investigate hybrid forms of performance, language, science and art. At the moment the series is on-going, but as a kind of initiation I have asked a friend of mine (and Green Lantern author) Erica Adams to write a series of spells for hybridity. It seemed appropriate to use her words as an introduction to interviews I’ll be posting over the following weeks.
Spell to Swim a Great Distance
In the sign of Pisces, in the month of March, acquire a fish with scales the same color as the hair on your body. Place the fish next to your bed, so you may look at it upon waking, and it may look upon you as you sleep.
For one year, you must care for this fish, and for one year you must not shave or cut any hair upon your body.
Additionally, every night before sleep, you must tell the fish something you have told no living soul. The fish will become greatly sympathetic to you.
After one year, take the fish to the body of water you wish to cross, and let it free.
If the fish swims to the right, you must begin the operation again with another fish. But if it swims to the left, you may get into the water as well, while saying:
My motherâ€™s water brought me to land
Your water brought me to sea
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â May I be unto you, and you unto me
The fish will swim beside you, and you will see that its scales have turned to hair, and that your hair has turned to scales. And you will move through the sea as a finned creature, until you reach shore.
Spell to Change Oneâ€™s Face
In the sign of Capricorn, on a Saturday, go to a field where three goats graze: one white, one grey, and one black. Pull from them three hairs and tie these three hairs to three hairs of your own, saying:
When I join one, I become one.
When I join two, I become two.
When I join three, I become as thee.
Bake these hairs into a cake which you divide equally among the goats and yourself. When the goats defecate, collect this in a jug and leave it nine days to dry to powder. Mix this powder with water and apply it your face at sunrise, saying:
When I join one, I become one.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â When I join two, I become two.
When I join three, I become as thee.
Do not wash your face or speak to any living person for three days. The mixture will dry on your face, and on the fourth day, you will wake with the face of a goat. This transformation will last for nine days time and cannot be repeated with the same goats.
Spell to Move about in Secrecy
This operation must be performed on a Thursday in spring-time, after fasting for three days. Find the burrow of a snake that has just lain eggs. Take seven of these eggs, and boil them.Â Remove the shells, so that the insides remain undamaged. Upon each egg write the words:
What was becoming, I will become
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â So I may move, perceived by none.
Each egg must be inserted whole into the mouth. The following evening you will feel the top of your mouth itching, and there you will find a seam. Pull on the edges of this seam, and your body will split, revealing itself as smooth and pink, with red eyes and no arms or legs.
In this way you will be able to move about undetected for one nightâ€™s time. In the morning you will wake, restored to your original form. You must return to the snakeâ€™s burrow and leave seven gold pieces to replace the eggs you stole, as the snake will find you and kill you otherwise.
**all drawings were made in response to Erica’s texts by yours truly.
“How do norms move on cat’s paws, silent and unthought?” Ken Corbett
I’ve been trying to articulate what I want from aesthetic experiences; usually I don’t think about it, I only know I like them and seek them out, but the thought came to a head after seeingÂ Drive. It’s gorgeous. The colors are lush, the music hypnotic; electro-pop voices coo about “Real Human Heroes.” The movie hit each of one of my hot spots. It was totally seductive and for the most part I was absorbed in this post-modern dÃ©rive of LA Contemporary Cowyboy-Yakuza. But. Here is the thing: There is no transformation â€” even further, there is no possibility of transformation in Nicholas Winding Refn’s cinematic frame. At the end of the movie you’re just as stuck as you were in the beginning, you just happened to go for a scenic drive.
While not often achieved, I want to find myself at a different spot at the end of an aesthetic experience. I want to see my house and life differently. I want a moment when my expectations were not fulfilled because they were destroyed and in being destroyed are surmounted by a new recognition â€” you see, here it is â€” the moment of transformation. Where old expectations are confounded and unforeseen consequences ensue, consequences that challenge prior convictions. Such paradigmatic shifts have happened before â€” consider the Copernican Revolution, or the discovery of a non-Euclidean geometry, wherein the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line (suggesting that space is not flat but fundamentally curved). Obviously that’s a lot to ask of a single work of art, but it’s also worth reaching towards as an artistic agenda and, to my mind, the best work does so.
WhenÂ I interviewed Irina Botea for Art21, we spent a long time talking about reenactment and what it was for, why it was important: reenactment is a construct, but it presents an original point of view. That contemporary-present-view layers on top of our learned perspective of historical events. By reenacting a history, we embody the past, and enableÂ newÂ possibilities latent in historical events. Recognizing those new possibilities highlights other new possibilities in everyday life. I don’t think a civil war reenactment is anything necessarily different from genre writing. Within genre certain expectations must be fulfilled. Drive is a genre film and like many filmsÂ meets the expectations determined by its genre. But it does not expand beyond those expectations. If anything it reinforces them. It is still just a Yakuza movie and, look, I love Yakuza movies, but I tend to give the old ones (c. 1960) certain leeway because of their age: they’re grandfathers and great great grandfathers, and whether or not nostalgia is dangerous in its capitulation, I forgive its offense. I cannot do the same for contemporary work, at the very least because it falls short of its highest potential: to transform the genre it inhabits.
In Drive the gender roles remain fixed â€” the mother figure (Carey Mulligan) is helpless, virtuous and needs protection against the dangerous world around her. Hero, Ryan Gosling â€” her only salvation â€” is trapped in the obligations of his auto mechanic/moonlight-race-car-driver life. He is a loyal man of few words. He wants to protect the innocence of the virtuous mother’s son (like his alter ego orÂ anima). Protecting them (the idea of a nuclear family which he might then endear himself into) he appears justified in doing great violence. Aside from a flock of bare breasted strippers who lase about in a mirror-addled waiting room, the only other woman in the film (Christina Hendricks fromÂ Mad MenÂ incidentally) serves as a bad girl-foil; there is a perhaps-too-pleasurable sequence where Gosling, with the gloves on, beats her in a hotel room. She dies shortly thereafter.
The most interesting moment in the film occurs when Gosling’s profile fades into the figure of a stripper. In the ensuing scene he forces a mobster bad guy to eat the bullet said mobster gave to the movie’s son (of the virtuous mother). The whole scene marks a defining point in the Gosling’s character, because he has determined to take matters into his own hands. Its preceding fade, where Gosling and stripper blend into one another, is the sole challenge of normative gender throughout the film, and even while it’s fleeting, it suggests Gosling’s character is not so much a self-directed hero, but a cog in a performative machine. Suddenly there is a visual parallel between the “Driver’s” hero complex and a service industry job. While the moment was too brief to bear the weight of the film’s purpose, it underlines an otherwise scarce possibility for transformative thought.
The careful cinematic style ofÂ DriveÂ reminded me of Terence Malick’sÂ Tree of Life.Â Here too, we see the study of an inherited, male paradigm that remains in tact and Romantic at the end of the film, despite its intended study of that paradigm’s imperfection. Brad Pitt stands at the helm : a 1950s patriarch with a beautiful wife. He calls her naive often enough to make the audience uncomfortable; similarly his reactive sons highlight the limited harshness of Pitt’s aggressive upper lip to remind anyone in the audience that he is an anti-hero. (What is likely enhanced by the overall nostalgic decadence of the work as seen through a boy’s eyes). The critique however falls short of catastrophe. Nothing actually falls apart. The characters continue, and continue to suffer. The mother never finds her voice and in ever instance wherein one of the family members tries to speak out against Pitt, we see him overcome (and forcefully suppress) their efforts.Pitt’s flaws become a testament to his humanity. He is forgiven despite himself (thus echoing larger Christian themes in the film). Beyond that, from the glimpse of Pitt’s grown son (Sean Penn), the paradigm has only continued. Penn is a chip off the old block â€” a professionally successful man with a beautiful wife whom he seems alienated by/from.
Both films are unusual Hollywood blockbusters (Malick takes this insaneÂ Â side tour visual montage wherein he tries to explain the meaning of life, beginning with the an astral-vaginal slit that leads to the big bang, that focuses on lava explosions, into amoebic life forms, into secreting canals of live-giving fluid and seems to peak (after ages) with the grace of a benevolent dinosaur (wherein, I think?Â we are supposed to intuit the grace of God). That partÂ is amazing: I mean, what?!). Both films are crafted with such deliberate love for the medium of film. They are incrediblyÂ seductive. The music, in both cases, is mesmerizing. The performance of its cast is also spot on. The shots themselves are almost so saturated as to feel drowsy and heavy with color. They are totally luxurious films, Romantic and romanc-ing. Nevertheless the allure of craft and aesthetic pleasure only reinforces predominant and historical archetypes of male machismo.
But of course all of this raises the question: is there a need to rethink masculine archetypes? Certainly paying audiences seem to applaud our familiar white middle aged patriarchs. Alec Baldwin has made a career out of cameo appearances where he knowingly espouses power â€” he’s Â 30 Rock’sÂ favorite CEO. Don Draper and Tony Soprano are also beloved portraits of masculinity; weÂ enjoyÂ the spectacle of their self-interested and often misogynist behavior, either pitying the women who put up with them or applauding the strength of their female counterparts for surviving a constant barrage of infidelity and sorrow. Indeed we may even critique these leading ladies for the shallow pleasure they take in material compensation. Both Carmelo and Betty enjoy the status of a husband’s material success. Perhaps one might suggest (with fair reason, given the proliferate examples of cowboy heroes) these binaries are Natural. The Oedipus Complex has been repeated again and again, an intrinsic propaganda, in an attempt to derive access to some universal meaning, i.e. all men are essentially driven (unequivocally) by x.Â Unfortunately, women tend to suffer from this paradigm. But what is to be done, if in fact, it is the natural and inherent consequence of humanity? The tragic flaw of our species, if not Nature In General. (We can at least wait for the end of days when, like Malick’s cast, we’ll frolic on the beach of redemption).
As one who assumes a great length of time between now and the end of the world, I am unwilling wait for a seaside picnic.Â Ken Corbett’s book,Â Boyhoods: Rethinking Masculinities,Â writes at the length about how the common expectations of men and male psychology exclude and limit not just women but men as well. Differences in male psychology are glossed over in contemporary society. “Culturally ordered masculine ideals corral the emotional landscape called masculinity. The fantastic underbelly of masculinity is pinched and policed. The complexity of masculinity goes largely unrecorded; the variety that makes for complexity is only recorded as pathology” (p.9). Corbett examines the foundation of this “corral” before going through a series of case studies â€” from his own psychoanalytic practice â€” that defy traditional stereotypes (and in their defiance create friction with their affiliated family units). In the first chapter he examines the source of the Oedipus Complex, “Little Hans,” pointing out Freud’s subjective conclusions that are, themselves, based on a fantasy of masculinity.
“…the failure to include consideration of the intimate family surround is to leave Hans an oddly romanticized boy, one who is untroubled by the intrapsychic vagaries of relations, other than those that occur in his pursuit of phallic sexualized relations. The flavor of this romance seeps into Freud’s proud description of Han’s ‘energetic masculinity with traits of polygamy,’ a boundless heterosexual desire that Hans ‘knew how to vary…with his varying feminine objects â€” audaciously aggressive in one case, languishing and bashful in another.’ Hans pinned as a cad. This problematic romance results in Freud’s underilluminated general theory of masculinity: men and boys are cast as desiring, but the relational yearning that shapes their desires goes unexplored,” (42).
Corbett goes on to pose new interpretations of the very dream (belonging to Hans) that established the Oedipal complex in the first place. The implications of such a discovery are huge, in so far as they would tip a number of foregone conclusions, conclusions deep at work in popular culture and family mythology. (One of the threads inÂ Tree of Life,Â for instance, depicts the oldest son wrestling with the desire for his mother and his recoiling efforts to undermine his father). “Hans is the Ur-boy, and through his construction and acts of consciousness the psychoanalytic construct of masculinity is endowed with meaning” (p.19). With new evidence having come to light ( Letters and interviews from Freud’s case files were only recently made public), speculation about the mother who, “Freud [did] not position as a speaking subject,” (p.35) and the dynamic life of their family, Corbett suggests that then is that Hans is responding primarily to an unpleasant and unstable home life â€” something specific to his family structure, not necessarily intrinsic to his sex.
What happens, then, if we reexamine these archetypes? What happens to the stories we tell ourselves?Â Tree of LifeÂ is an homage to an American masculine identity. Brad Pitt is the hard-edged father, with a nearly silent but supposedly naive wife and three sons. The sons are competitive with one another for their father’s affection, just as they are competitive with him for their mother’s primary attention.Â The moment of Pitt’s paternal failure is also fleeting: He admits to his son that he has nothing, that all his life he focused on the wrong things (wealth, not family). But his offspring seems to have learned nothing from this admission. Gosling’s character admits, in some way, that he isn’t a hero: he has to put on a mask stolen from a Hollywood make up both in order to shoot up all the bad guys, but he doesn’t seem to accomplished anything between sacrifice. If anything, Gosling seems even more hemmed in at the end. BothÂ Tree of LifeÂ andÂ DriveÂ seduce the viewer into an empathic relationship with the film’s subjects without providing any transformation in contemporary views of gender and heroism. Of course, that’s not an easy task. It’s probably the hardest thing in the world to rethink archetypes, but that’s also what good art does. It makes the impossible seem easy. Â And, I’ll be honest, I want to see new heroes, new paradigms, new shifts â€” there is a popular push for this reexamination in the air. Occupy movements are pressing against the organization of wealth and rogue Â millionaires are storming congress asking for higher taxes (can you imagine?). We all know there will be no social security in our futures. We know that student debts are too high. It seems fair to assume that addressing these concerns properly requires we also reexamine the underlying social expectations that engendered our present system, open them up and give them new light. Why wait for a glory bream redemption if we can build its foundation now?