michael j. morris

L’A./Rachid Ouramdane “World Fair” and Staging Surveillance

How is one to demonstrate surveillance? How might the body be put on display in such a way as to bring attention to the attention in/for which it is situated? What are the conditions for and effects of bodies being examined, and how might such conditions and effects become inscribed in/as “the body” itself? L’A./Rachid Ouramdane’s World Fair offered an ardently focused and meticulously measured multi-media rumination on the theatrical situation as a space of surveillance, while positioning this function of performance in the larger anxious landscape of the surveillance, recording, exploiting, and conditioning of the body at the levels of the state and national(ist) identities/histories.

from World Fair, photo by Patrick Imbert

Being surveilled produces the subject/body in a specific sense: a sense of suspension, a sense of anxiety, a sense of anticipation that inscribes the constant observing other as not only a persistent condition of sociality, but—on a phenomenological level—possibly even a constituting condition for our existence. The perhaps uncomfortable reality is that we appear far more for others than we do for ourselves; those who see us see more of us—more of our bodies—than we can ever see of/for ourselves, making our appearance in the world inherently social, and our experience of sociality inherently about seeing and being seen. I found these facets of social existence to be central to World Fair. From “before” the performance began (I say “before” because in this vein of thought it seems important to acknowledge that “the performance” is more of a constant/persistent state of being than it is something that can be demarcated by theatrical spaces, tickets, audience seating, and a specified 8:00pm start time), as the audience was ushered into the performance space, we were directed (itself possibly worthy of comment) to only enter from one side of the audience seating, an entry that necessitated walking past Ouramdane, already displayed on stage. He stood stationary on a large turntable that rotated slowly, displaying the three-dimensionality of his body. His eyes were closed, and it seems to me that this in itself might have functioned as an initiation into the recurrent themes of the piece: we as viewers began in a more-or-less compulsory encounter with the performer, whose closed eyes reminded me that this performance situation (all stage performance situations?) was organized around the axis of our viewing, and his being viewed by us.

Yet Ouramdane’s performance did not situate himself/his body as a passive receptor of our gaze. Throughout the performance, he demonstrated his own complicity in this surveillance of his body: removing his shirt at the start of the performance, a gesture that seemed somehow both medical (“Go ahead and take your shirt off”) and criminal (think strip search), while also more subtly addressing gender itself as a form of surveillance (the removal of the shirt as a kind of confession or confirmation: “Yes, see here, I am indeed a man. Rest assured that there is no ambiguity about my gender/sex, and that, yes, this is an identification that can be made/affirmed by way of my own visibility”); pushing the large counter-weighted light/camera rig hanging center stage as if it were a millstone, contributing his own kinetic energy and strength to the circulation of illumination and recording, both of which at various points mediated his own visibility; the raising on the flat screen television high into the air as if hoisting the national flag, a “national symbol” that was ostentatiously alternatively recorded and live-feed images of the performer himself. In each instance, he revealed his own complicity in the formation of the ways in which he would/could be seen.

I could not help but feel further implicated in this power play of seeing and being seeing by virtue of my position as a member of the audience. Although there were several stage devices that seemed invented for this particular production (namely the large light/camera rig that hung ominously in the center of the stage), by and large, the materials through which this performance was conducted were those of the theater: the relatively intimate proscenium stage, the organization of the audience in relation to the performer, and—most notably—the stage lights. While it is certainly possible to consider this piece for its relationship to—and even commentary on—the world beyond the theater, it is important to recognize that any such relationship or commentary was carried out through these rarefied theatrical tropes. In this sense, although the politics of seeing and being seen that were addressed by the performance extend far beyond the context of the event itself, such extensions never fully evacuate the theater; the political and cultural history and tropes of the theater itself functioned in this piece as both the means of articulation and, to some degree, that which was itself articulated. Large grids of white theatrical lighting hung high above the four corners of the stage, and throughout the performance, their illumination suggested the possibility of visibility from all sides. Although my visual perspective was limited to my particular seat, the activation of these lights on all sides of the performer gave me sense of being able to see even that which was not visible from my point of view.

Circularity was a theme throughout the performance: Ouramdane circled on a turntable at the start of the performance; a small siren-shape sound amplifier circled; the large rig suspended center stage circled; the performer himself circled the space over and again; finally, at various points, the light itself circled, moving from grid to grid in a way that for me evoked a prison yard. But what could possibly be the connection between this theatrical space and a prison yard?

Michel Foucault writes in Discipline and Punish that, “Inspection functions ceaselessly. The gaze is alert everywhere,” (195). He proceeds to discuss Bentham’s Panopticon, a prison designed to heighten the visibility of the prisoners in such a way that the experience of constant surveillance becomes internalized, a perceptual prison that forms from an internalized sense of being seen.

Foucault writes that the principles of the panopticon are opposite those of the dungeon. “In short, it reverses the principle of the dungeon; or rather of its three functions – to enclose, to deprive of light and to hide – it preserves only the first and eliminates the other two. Full lighting and the eye of a supervisor capture better than darkness, which ultimately protected. Visibility is a trap,” (200). He continues: “… Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so,” (201). The last point I would like to borrow from Foucault follows: “The heaviness of the old ‘houses of security,’ with their fortress-like architecture, could be replaced by the simple, economic geometry of a ‘house of certainty’. The efficiency of power, its constraining force have, in a sense, passed over to the other side – to the side of its surface of application. He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection,” (202-203). What Foucault suggests is that the effect of the panopticon, the prison in which the prisoner is fully visible at all times, and in which the prisoner can never fully verify whether or not he is being watched, becomes internalized by the prisoner. The constant awareness of the possibility of being seen restrains him; this sense of internalized anxiety becomes his prison.

This model of the panopticon is pervasive in our modern world. We live in an age of constant surveillance, of our bodies, of our borders, of our information, of others, and of ourselves. We police our own behaviors, our social selves, our gender, etc., always with the anxiety of being seen and the consequences of being seen. Because of its formal properties—the light, open space in which three-dimensional visibility was emphasized time and again, the repetition of the circular form through which such visibility was both evoked and achieved, the circulation of static and moving recorded and live-feed images—themselves demonstrating either their own histories as sites of inspecting/recording the body or the very instance of inspecting a re-presenting the body, the suggestion of the racialized history of minstrelsy and the expropriation/exploitation of bodies encompassed by that history through the brief and unexpected tap dance wearing white face, etc.—World Fair operated in logics similar to those of the panopticon. And it was not only the performer who was enacted through these logics: throughout the performance, Ouramdane’s musical collaborator Jean-Baptiste Julien entered the space and looked directly into the audience, a reminder of our own visibility, our own implication in these regimes of surveillance and regulation.

I have heard several of my colleagues and my students say that World Fair felt incomplete, unfinished, or unresolved. I would like to suggest that this is perhaps the nature of power as it operates through visibility and surveillance: its efficacy is not purely in its ability to follow through, to exact punishment for the transgressions that it observes. Rather, its true power is in the constant state of anticipating such consequences, the internalized apprehension of what might happen, what could happen. By never fully delivering a satiating climax or resolution, Ouramdane’s performance effected a sense of anticipation that I then carried with(in) myself, unfulfilled and unresolved. Like the performance itself, I can never fully predict the consequences of my own visibility, and thus I live with a constant uncertainty and anticipation of how I might be seen. As disorienting as this might seem, the anxiety of visibility, the constant state of uncertain anticipation, and one’s implication in vast systems of seeing and being seen, may in fact be formative of who and what we are. These effects of power are inherent in sociality, and—in ways I will not attempt to explicate here—being itself depends on sociality. Thus, it seems, Ouramdane’s performance of the situation of surveillance is not limited to a commentary on the theater or even the political sphere. To address surveillance seems to address the conditions of ontology itself.

[I had the opportunity to see World Fair on 22 October 2011, at the Wexner Center for the Arts]

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.


porn and performative productions of (inter)subjectivities: The Black Spark, etc.

I recently wrote a paper entitled “twincest/body fluids/fluid bodies.” It’s a bit of a performative paper that looks at video documentation of a performance piece entitled body shots by the duo twincest, comprised of Jiz Lee and Syd Blakovich (twincest is no longer in operation; they created work from 2005-2009); the paper also looks at a scene from Shine Louise Houston’s Crash Pad Series, Season 1, Episode 3, also starring Jiz Lee and Syd Blakovich. The paper looks at these performance projects for their potential as discursive spaces in which bodies are reconfigured (specifically beyond heterosexist or normative models of bodily significance), considering their permeability/penetrability, as well as their production of fluids (ejaculate, blood, etc.), as routes through which to consider the intersubjective potential of bodies. I also incorporate some writing about my experience as a conjoined twin, and how the body-that-does-not-stop-at-my-own-skin which I find to be inherent in the ontology of being a conjoined twin, might participate in the theoretical positions emerging from this analysis.
I hope to have a “web safe” version of the paper to share soon. It includes an experimental writing project of inhabiting multiple authorial voices simultaneously, reducing the gap between my voice and the voices of other scholars in the way that I am using their work. It is fundamentally plagiarism in its current form, thus can’t be posted. I’m working on finding another expression of this idea of transgression individual/discrete voices that is not a disservice to the scholars with which I’m working (Baitaille, Irigaray, some Kristeva, Linda Williams,  among others). There is also a possibility that the paper will be posted on the twincest site to live alongside the materials/performance it addresses. Which would be exciting.

This is not the first time I’ve written about porn (specifically queer porn). I even written about it here on this blog. I don’t want to be redundant here about my summaries about why I think analyses of porn might be significant contributions to the understandings of our culture, sex/sexualities, and bodies (see earlier posts). I don’t know how much of a research topic this is going to become in my writing and contributions to “the field” (which for me is something like “body-based performance”). But I do seem to be spending some time exploring down this rabbit hole (which reads kinkier than I intended it in this context . . .), and there’s another “porn phenomenon” that I’ve been wanting to consider in writing.

The Black Spark.

The Black Spark is a film/video-maker whose videos first began to appear on XTube in the fall of 2010. Other publications have recounted this history more specifically: OUT.com,  The Sword, and Boy Culture have all published interviews with Black Spark situated in accounts of the appearance and continued visibility of his work. I’ve considered situating anything I write about this project similarly, but in actuality I find a lot of what is said in these interviews to be extremely disconnected from how I experience the work. I find the artist’s insistence that what he is doing is “not porn” to be naive (which is fine; according to all accounts, he’s twenty). Erotic intensities can flow similarly in what is labeled “art” or “porn.” Pornographers like Madison Young have done exceptional work that questions and even collapses the lines between art, porn, and sex. Certainly there are dominant narratives in the porn industry from which the Black Spark wants to distance his work, but the same can be said (based on interviews) of the distance he is attempting to maintain between his work and the work of other artists with which his work might be associated. He presents this work as if it is his “real life,” and invokes certain [also dominant] narratives of “authenticity” and “realness” as the substance of the work, perhaps without engaging completely or reflexively with the complexity and politics of “the real,” or the actuality of the video camera and editing as systems of mediation, re-telling, re-making what it “real.”
[To be clear, I like this work. I hope to continue to see more of this work. And I hope that part of how the work evolves, beyond the “organic” process that Black Spark continues to describe, particularly in the incorporation of new players and characters as he meets new people interested in participating in the work, is a more critical understanding of what the work is beyond just the artist’s “real life,” the mythology of the Sparks, or making cool videos to songs that he finds meaningful. There is more going on in this work than just those things, and the “more” is what might make them really good.] Also, it isn’t that I have any need to argue that the work “is porn” or “is art;” rather, without making this the focus of anything I write about this work, I would suggest that there is value in recognizing that within the cultural (not to mention digital and virtual) landscape in which the Black Spark is situating his videos, he is already participating in frameworks associated with (and informed by) pornography, art, social media, etc. Those frameworks are not necessarily “inherent” in the work, but nor is the work entirely separable from the frames in which they are functioning. My suggestion is that rather than the artist or his audiences committing to positions of defining what the work “is,” we (and the work) might all benefit from recognizing these multiple frames, not simplifying or demonizing any of them (for instance, Black Spark in OUT: “It’s not porn — it’s my life. What you’re seeing is not a show I’m putting on. People need to know they’re seeing something real and the reality of it makes it art. There are no faked emotions. When people in my work look passionate or in love or deeply in lust, that’s all very genuine. Whereas in porn you put two people together and you’re paying them $500 to do a scene. Just because two people are having sex and you get to watch it, doesn’t make it porn.” This assumes SO MUCH: Yes, when you edit video material of you having sex for the purpose of presentation, and then post those edited videos on the web or share them in public viewings, what you’re doing is a show that you are putting on. The reality of anything is mediated, including the realities produced in porn–especially feminist and queer porn in which reality of desire, pleasure and feelings is an explicit goal of the work; and the equation of “reality” and “art” is a huge jump, especially because many art makers are engaged in their work precisely because of the artifice they can create. And for many people, by many definitions, getting to watch other people have sex on video is exactly what makes it porn. That isn’t all that it is, and that doesn’t make it less important. It’s just one registry in which the work can sit. And that seems to me a good thing.).
I think there are exciting possibilities for Black Spark’s work–possibilities opened by both the artist and the viewers recognizing that what the work “is” will always be a joint project between these two parties, not to mention the endless social and cultural frameworks in which that joint project is taking place–if we recognize that the work functions simultaneously in multiples registries of significance, and that “reality” gives it the potential to create and have effects in multiple areas of culture simultaneously. And that’s kind of cool.

In looking at the videos:
I started by looking at the video titled MoreTheKill.

There’s something to this first film about mythologizing daily life. The video begins with the inter-cutting of sex acts and what appears to be just life around an apartment. Mundane life and sex acts become transposed into the pastime of super heroes with super powers (lit with special effects); browsing gay porn becomes jerking off and fucking in public spaces (public, assuming the video rental place was public, but also public in the sense that it is now re-told through the web presentation of the work). I am struck by the discontinuity of time (this narrative is not sequenced chronologically, which, while not particularly exceptional in contemporary film/video media, does seem to heighten the sense of transforming “real life” into mythology and fantasy, where the normal rules of life no longer apply). The temporal discontinuity of the video also reminds me of how Linda Williams describes early pornographic videos that were sometimes just montages of sex acts, not necessarily building to climax or cum shots, and not necessarily sequenced in a linear fashion (this is one point at which I can read this video as in dialogue with the culture and history of porn, beyond the obvious connection of public displays of sexual behavior). The temporal distortion also recalls certain questions about queer temporalities raised by Elizabeth Freeman in Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, in which sexuality and sexual orientation or considered alongside their implicit compliance with or deviation from chrononormativities. I would suggest that the deviation linear time might be a small way that a much larger project–that of queer temporality–is at work in this video. There’s also an emphasis on social networking, in this video as well as others, and the whole web culture around Black Spark. This is in one sense perhaps just a reflection of our culture, but it is also unique in that these stories/images/sexual displays are not given as a mono-directional exchange, but are offered as an invitation for dialogue and communication. Alongside a visual tour of the performers’ bodies and sexual behaviors we are given email and facebook addresses. This adds a layer to what might otherwise be simple/recognizable citations of the roles of “porn performers” or “super-heroes”: whereas these figures are typically unreachable (unattainable?), here the artist is inviting the reach, inviting dialogue/exchange (this is fostered further on facebook and twitter, but my focus here is on the videos themselves).

I’m interested in the inter-cutting of the masked images, the images of sex acts, and the mixture of the two (having sex, wearing masks). There are so many ways to read this, of course, and the incorporation of the Eyes Wide Shut-esque white Venetian mask definitely inflects the content/context of the work. Regardless, here are some basic ideas that come out for me:
there is a relationship between sex (who we are when we have sex, how we have sex, etc.) and the “masks” that we wear. If I was to read for an easy “message,” I would say that there’s something here about sex adjusting or disrupting our masks, or even that sex unmasks us. I don’t think the video content is that simple, nor do I personally think that would necessarily be an accurate understanding of the personal effects/affects of sex. A baseline from which I can begin to offer one interpretation of the work is that the masks withhold a particular (privileged) facet of who a person is, namely, the face. The code name/alias functions as another kind of mask, withholding another particular (and privileged) facet of the person: the name. We are given access to other facets, namely the naked body and visual spectacle of sex in various forms and configurations. Bodies and sex function as revelations of the parts of a person often withheld in public culture (except perhaps in the frames of porn or art), and so these images might function as a kind of personal confession of these parts of (him)self. Juxtaposed with the mask images, however, and considering the highly produced condition through which these materials (bodies, sex) are being mediated (the videoing, the editing, the organization of these images alongside musical accompaniment, etc.), a question is raised about how these facets of identity also function as “masks” that withhold. Does a slab of chiseled abdominals become a signifier that obscures other aspects of who a person might be? Do particular sex acts (anal penetration, oral penetration, various positions and configurations, etc.) signify a person composed of social norms (to “bottom” means something in our culture, to “go down” on someone means something, “rimming” means something, etc.), and in doing so obscure other details of who that person might be? There’s a sense in which the limited range of personal dimensions offered in the video(s) functions itself as a mask. While these images are discussed by the artist as “real”—a personal journey, even—they are without extensive context; their (limited) context becomes the music, the masks, the settings, the code names. And, perhaps most interestingly, the kind of meta-web production/presence in which they are situated (email, facebook, twitter, tumblr, etc.). Certainly there are stories being told here, but they are only (selected) parts of the stories. These parts are about sex and bodies on display, and in such tellings, those parts of the story become foregrounded to stand in for the whole. Masks. Isolation (“No Spark wants to be alone …”) and connection (in the visual displays of sexual partnership, but also in the invitation for web-based social networking). And “sexual addiction” (one of the first phrases that scroll across the screen introducing us to the world of the artist is “I am Addicted to Sex”). [Without going too far down an adjacent tangent, I think there is something interesting about the fact that this figure/artist/work is characterized under the auspices of “sex addiction.” Annie Sprinkle, former porn star, among others, has written about the myth of sex addiction: http://anniesprinkle.org/writings/sex_addiction.html. I find the notion of “sex addiction” to be a product of a “sex negative” culture, and it is curious to read these videos as simultaneously a myth-making project, a celebration of (homosexual) sex, and simultaneously as a confession of failing to live up to the values of the culture (in classifying sex as an “addiction,” and thus inherently destructive in its excess). This would be an interesting thread to follow, exploring how the production of sexually explicit videos might simultaneously contribute to and counter a culture that views sex as inherently negative outside of certain socially constructed prescriptions.] This moment of “I am Addicted to Sex” frames the work in/as a mode of confession, and this for me recalls Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality Volume I, in which Foucault traces a genealogical production of this modern notion of “sexuality,” specifically through the apparatus of “confession” in religious, medical, and psychological settings. Here again sex becomes a confession, and its meaningfulness is inflected/constructed in/as such a confession.
Some sub-stories: about how our lives are organized by music (our socialization includes the production of soundscores for our daily lives), and how the mundane can take on super importance.

Looking at the video Sunday Faith:

This video has a much more tender tone (mainly because of the music selections that include Imogen Heap, but also because of the insinuated focus on a central relationship), the alternating between partner sex and masturbating that is eventually revealed to also be partner sex (what is left to the viewer’s imagination is whether this is the same partner, or some other web-fuck-buddy situation. I feel as if both are suggested, the former by the text that alludes to a loving, trusting, “faithful til the end” relationship that is interspersed throughout the video, the latter by the constant insertion of email and facebook addresses inviting the viewer’s contact, the intense gazes into the camera (thus, into the gaze of the spectator), and the momentary glimpse of the three-way sex situation, indicating that this loving/trusting/faithful partnership is not monogamous. The latter may even go as far as to suggest that the viewer might become implicated into the scene, a kind of seduction into the possibility that to get in touch with the Black Spark by way of the constantly-advertised social media access points is to get involved with the kind of scene being presented). There’s a lovely play of language in the middle of the video, when the text on the screen reads “If you are interested in helping my project …” and we hear the person who at that point is being penetrated anally say “I have to stop . . .” and the text on the screen then reads “Support love.” What begins as what feels like a clumsy fund-raising pitch quickly turns intimate and even romantic, with the notion that project at hand is really “love.” Love here may be a euphemism, but it is yet another way that the viewer is invited into the project, the suggestion being that if you “support love,” then you are a part of what you are seeing. Although all the [early] videos include this textual push to establish contact by way of email and social media, this video in particular seduces me the most. It makes me as the viewer want to contact the Black Spark, because on multiple levels (the gaze, the text, the inclusion of the web-sex and three-way sex) that I am already a part of what I am watching, or that I could be if I wanted to.

Another reason I appreciate this particular video is that it begins with a cum shot. The cum shot is the money shot of porn (and most bad sex I’ve had). It is the climax, the “goal;” everything that comes before the cum shot is in preparation for it, rendering all other forms of sexual engagement as “foreplay,” only segues on the way to penetration and subsequent ejaculation. In this video, the cum shot is given first. It displaces what can easily become the fixed (fixated) goal of porn/sex, and in doing so, at least in part resignifies everything else that is shown afterwards. I as a viewer am freed to contemplate what else might be taking place or inspiring the sex acts that I am witnessing (love, for instance). Sex is no longer only something that leads to orgasm or ejaculation; the temporal manipulation creates the possibility for other stories to be told (again, this significance comes out for me directly because I am considering the work through the cultural framework of pornography. It is an example of why I am reluctant to abandon that frame as a way of considering Black Spark’s videos. Looking at them as porn—specifically the ways in which they deviate from the normative devices of mainstream porn—gives me access to a broader significance of how these re-presentations participate in the socio-cultural constructions of what and how sex takes on meaning).

I might add, one of my favorite videos thus far (aesthetically, but also because it shows the potential for switching roles between being penetrated/penetrating, which I think might be a difference in how I consider “queer sex” and “gay sex”) is Dance Inmyheartnow (can also be viewed at the link above). Perhaps at some point I will make the time to write about it and other videos.

That might be all I can write on the subject now.
Definitely worth keeping an eye on.
I hope to see Black Spark and/or some of his work when he comes through Columbus on 13-14 June (if I’m not in San Francisco doing a residency/conference that week; funding pending).

[I might suggest that the tour is yet one more avenue through which the work seems intensely centered on connecting with the viewer base/community surrounding the work]
Other useful links for Black Spark