She would prefer not to; or, general monstrosity
A parallel text in eleven 85-word paragraphs for Ming Hon's
The Exhibitionist (1)
8 December 2012
I shall thus give a general answer to the question, so frequently asked me ―
"How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?"
- Mary Shelley, from the preface to Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus
1. The obscenity of waste is given, and yet its abhorrence is no longer the point. It can be merely stated: “Waste is obscene.” And repeated: “Waste is obscene.” “Waste is obscene.” Hatred of the profanity in the book or the violence in the photograph in the excessive age of digital reproduction is the alibi of the contemporary luddite, who roams vacant, one-way streets in search of the lost, original encounter ― the face-to-face ― only to be hailed by the beat cop: “You! There!”
2. The criminal is the one who has until now been innocent of his own guilt: she is obscene without a Facebook account. Friends don't let friends exist without one. Being visible is a fact of qualified life, and the motives of the accused are irrelevant. Social media-in-blue structures collective self-surveillance, and as captives of the cloud(2) we are free to leave real life to the police. Anti-capitalist endeavours only add to the ordinary mess, the desire to reduce resulting tragically in the compulsion to recycle.
3. Prison bars are ideas. Unlike the luddite, the contemporary exhibitionist performed by the artist Ming Hon is aware that the compulsion to repeat the repression hypothesis is itself a technology that invented Freud first, and then the pharmaceutical industry. This particular exhibitionist's exposure is naturalized, not pathologized and then incarcerated.(3) Pushing heaps of 8.5-x-11 paper is all in a day's work. Body parts illuminated by fluorescent, flashing lights accumulate, copy by copy, part by part, composing a Harlequin romance with a Xerox machine.
4. File folders full of copied hands, faces, and breasts flutter open with assistance from a dedicated unpaid intern,(4) and the voyeuristic audience of co-workers in rolling desk chairs is seduced by the exhibitionist's every move. She seems content ― pleased, even ― to perform a graceful and disfiguring avian mating ritual and offer her labour for reproduction, for she believes she is in the service of a civilization. This is business as usual in high contrast ― Rembrandt portraits losing their aura as they are processed by Kafka.
5. The dance-performance is premised on the innocent office prank ― body parts pressed and smeared against the photocopier's glass ― yet it contains a malevolent force that remains unspeakable. An ancient curse? A dark secret buried within generations of the corporate family? Somehow, something goes very wrong. Artificially inseminated, naturally, the exhibitionist spawns a litter of paper baby-forms. Beholding her hideous paper progeny as herself, she tears them down ― as herself. In the process, The Exhibitionist threatens to spawn an unruly new subgenre: office Gothic.
6. What kind of monster would commit such heinous acts ― overexposing only to efface, ending trans-formed, a startled bird-creature in a shredded-paper nest of her own design? Is the exhibitionist also a witch, masochist, and sadist? An animal, unconscious, or criminally insane? Is she being paid by the copy? Maybe we should consider the birth of monstrosity itself . . . and what an uncanny discourse it is! Did Mary Shelley not behold her 1818 Gothic novel, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, as her own hideous progeny?(5)
7. As a “textual machine,”(6) the Gothic is the business of producing monsters from fear and as fear. If Frankenstein's modern monster is a totalizing body, a composite always threatening to disintegrate, and the postmodern monster is a “conspiracy of bodies” that never cohere into a single form,(7) maybe the contemporary monster is a conspiracy of bodies as every beautifully hideous body. The photocopy machine, a body in its own right, need not even be plugged in to reveal itself as a repository of generative potential.
8. The Exhibitionist stages a static scene of nightmarish instability. Through movement, setting, and attention to technologically mediated gazes, a single character, the exhibitionist, becomes a condensed foil for countless indiscrete (and indiscreet), deceptive apparitions caught in an anamorphic dance. In this way, the performance unsettles comfortable or stereotypical identifications, questioning consumption (or destruction) as much as production (or creation).(8) At any moment, the audience's office chairs might roll out from under them. Fallen, viewers might be left to confront their fears as their own monstrosities.
The Library Is Now Closed, Przemek Pyszczek, 2012. Digital image. Variable dimensions. Courtesy of the artist.
9. The traumatic truth within the Gothic is found in how it conjures monstrosity to address humanity, aesthetic monsters rhetorically signifying, testing, and transgressing the boundaries between selves and others, familiar and strange, welcome and abject.(9) Access to the “human” has been a privilege rather than a right, and reading (Gothic) novels was one way “free,” liberal subjects could enjoy such an exalted, protected, and reified position.(10) In our time of general monstrosity, the exhibition presents a challenge to the novel as the paradigmatic bourgeois form.
10. As exhibitions multiply, are contemporary artists the latest to carry the Promethean torch, claiming originality and progress? Hon crafts a practice that introduces a short circuit in the culture industry through risky substitutions of elements. The Exhibitionist casts “the exhibitionist” as artist, curator, (re)producer, and solo show, choreographing a satirical critique of institutions.(11) Rather than crudely adding to capitalist myth-making, Hon's obscene scenario presents something else: an aesthetic of corporeal, administrative terror where the contemporary subject can be imagined as neither sacred nor profane.(12)
11. Unlike in much performance art, which emphasizes presence, here the artist “digitally censors” her performing body. The photocopies are death masks of phantoms, the exhibitionist a cipher throwing dyadic structures into crisis: Frankenstein is his monster is (ir)rationality; presence is absence is (over)exposure; the supernatural is natural is (sur)real. The Exhibitionist addresses what I fear most: the setting apart of the subject and her choice, our condemnation as generic science fiction; faced with the fleeting expression of a non/human face, can we witness her refusal?
Kendra Place is an artist and writer from Vancouver Island and Winnipeg's West End. Her work with words and images, performance, installation, and cultural criticism engages questions of aesthetics, historiography, ethics, and politics. She currently lives in Montréal.
The writer gratefully acknowledges the Winnipeg Arts Council, Manitoba Arts Council, and University of Winnipeg Cultural Studies program for their financial support in the research and writing of this text.
Przemek Pyszczek (born 1985 in Bialystok, Poland) is a Berlin-based artist.
1 As an element of this parallel text, the words “she would prefer not to” appeared on the verso side of the exhibition program, which was copied and distributed by the intern character performed by the artist Ian Mozdzen at the beginning of The Exhibitionist.
2 The phrase is borrowed from Metahaven, “Captives of the Cloud,” e-flux, Issue 37, September 2012, www.e-flux.com/journal.
3 This text draws significantly from Skin Shows, Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters, Judith Halberstam's survey and analysis of Gothic monstrosity in literature and film. Halberstam writes: “While we have generally accepted Foucault's repudiation of the 'repressive hypothesis' ― of the claim, in other words, that Victorian culture repressed sexuality and replaced it with a highly regimented moral code ― it has been less clear as to exactly how the production of sexualities came to look like repression. Also, how is it possible, as he claims, 'to constitute a sexuality that is economically useful and politically conservative' and yet to make this constitutive process seem 'natural'? The answer some theorists have come up with is, the novel.” Judith Halberstam, Skin Shows, Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (Durham: Duke University Press), 1995, 41.
4 The artist was, in fact, fairly remunerated.
5 “And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny, go forth and prosper.” Shelley quoted in Halberstam, Skin Shows, 31.
6 “The monstrosity of Frankenstein is literally built into the textuality of the novel to the point where textual production itself is responsible for generating monsters.” Halberstam, Skin Shows, 30.
7 Halberstam argues that Frankenstein's monster allows for “a whole range of specific monstrosities to coalesce in the same form” (29); he is totalizing, and yet, his “formation out of bits and pieces of life and death, of criminals and animals, animate and inanimate objects means that he is always in danger of breaking down into his constitutive parts” (36–3). Halberstam contrasts this with the postmodern era, which “does not offer any totalizing monsters”; “meaning refuses to coalesce within one hideous body” (24), presenting a “conspiracy of bodies” (27). Halberstam, Skin Shows.
8 The Gothic creates “a public that consumes monstrosity.” Halberstam, Skin Shows, 31.
9 Halberstam, Skin Shows, 43.
10 Halberstam writes: “David Miller, . . . in The Novel and the Police, argues that the Victorian novel in its form and themes confirms "the novel-reader in his identity as 'liberal subject'" ― as a subject, in other words, who considers them/self to be free. He writes: "Such confirmation is thoroughly imaginary, to be sure, but so too, I will eventually be suggesting, is the identity of the liberal subject, who seems to recognize himself most fully only when he forgets or disavows his functional implications in a system of carceral restraints or disciplinary injunctions" (13). The imaginary nature of the subject is closely related, therefore, to the subject's imagination; it is precisely when reading, when engaging with fictional realities, that we consider ourselves removed from the hustle and bustle of politics and economics and discipline.” Halberstam, Skin Shows, 41.
Sunera Thobani's Exalted Subjects provides thorough historical accounts of some biopolitical projects of entrenching Eurocentric humanism as white supremacy in a Canadian settler colonial context. Sunera Thobani, Exalted Subjects: Studies in the Making of Race and Nation in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press), 2007.
Slavoj Žižek offers a valuable summary of the critical philosophy of human rights, addressing that which the discourse of human rights obscures ― its own obscenity: “The problem with human rights humanism is that it covers up this monstrosity of the 'human as such,' presenting it as a sublime human essence.” Slavoj Žižek, “The Obscenity of Human Rights: Violence as Symptom,” lacan.com, 2005. http://www.lacan.com/zizviol.htm
An exemplary artwork that implicates the Gothic genre's narratives and monstrosities in histories of North American colonialism is the 1996 video installation Nu•tka• by Stan Douglas.
11 Substitution as institutional critique might be Hon's signature gesture: the cleaver functions as to the narrative prop, as to the phantasmic phallus, as to the artwork in Cleaver Piece; nude fabric functions as to the racialized social subject, as to the muse or objectified aesthetic subject in The Nude Is In. It is significant that Hon's work does not collapse the elements, but rather introduces shifts among and between them; the condensed foil (the body) functions as a cipher (the conspiracy of bodies). By “institutions” I am referring to the traditional subjects of institutional critique within the field of art ― galleries and museums ― as well as institutions “in the expanded field,” which might here include bureaucracy, the medical system, and heteronormative domesticity, as well as the erosion of social institutions by neo-liberalism, resulting in gendered and racialized precarity.
12 In considering this particular imaginary of the contemporary subject as one of this artwork's affective, discursive contributions, I align The Exhibitionist (among many other contemporary artworks and practices ― notable examples being some of those exhibited in Close Encounters: The Next 500 Years and dOCUMENTA (13) with discussions that are questioning and countering the intentions and effects of Western humanism, logocentrism, and spatio-temporality, such as new materialism, cyborg theory, posthumanism, decoloniality, critical race studies, queer theory, and animal studies.