WE JUST CAN’T GET ENOUGH. For centuries we’ve compulsively revisited the Ancient Greek myth of Antigone. Nearly every year there seem to be new adaptations, translations, scholarly articles, and various other projects taking up the earliest and most famous variation of her story: Sophokles’s ancient tragedy. Most recently, and following her 2012 comic book Antigonick, poet Anne Carson provided a fresh translation for director Ivo van Hove’s new production of the play, which will soon have its US premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as part of its 2015 Next Wave Festival. Following stops at the Barbican in London and Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg in Luxembourg City, the drama features Juliette Binoche in the title role, Patrick O’Kane as King Kreon, and a minimal set that evokes a Thebes neither old nor new.
In mid-September, artforum.com managing editor Lauren O’Neill-Butler sat down with Carson, philosopher Simon Critchley, and choreographer Trajal Harrell to discuss Antigone’s history and significance, as well as the play’s trenchant themes, from war and democracy to belonging and autonomy.
artforum.com: Trajal, let’s begin with you. Where did you begin your research for your dance Antigone Sr. ?
Trajal Harrell: I’d gone to a theater camp right after high school, and Antigone was the play we all had to read. I loved this fierce young woman, but I didn’t understand why she wasn’t available to me to play. As an adult I gained a different perspective on Antigone. I didn’t see her just as this cool rebel girl. I saw her as fanatical but also as a deeply caring person.
In 2002 I began to think about a series of works titled Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church. The proposition was this: What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the voguing dance tradition in Harlem had come downtown to Greenwich Village to perform along side the early postmoderns at Judson Church? When I got to the “large” size in the series—there are eight pieces that are based on different sizes—I decided that I wanted to go big, to encompass the idea of theater, specifically the foundations of western theater. I felt that there would be people who could come see this work and not know anything about voguing, or anything about contemporary dance, but who would be interested in theater. Of course, the early postmoderns would have been against all this because Martha Graham had claimed Greek tragedy and the star heroine, and they wanted to go against that kind of representation on stage.
I thought a lot about the relationship between the performativity in ancient Greece—men playing female roles—and the performativity in voguing. It seemed to me that ancient Greek theater and the voguing balls were maybe not that different. For instance, there is the link between rethinking what a democracy could be in 1963, in terms of civil rights, and how rights are represented in Antigone—though always in a discussion among men. I was interested in what an all-male version of Antigone could say today.
I also kept thinking about realness, a voguing term, and how it relates to Greek theater. As I’m interested in historical imagination, I tried to come up with some imaginary possibilities drawn from researching how Antigone would have been performed then: What would have been the impetuous, the drive, and the spirit? We might not ever know, and that’s interesting. You can read Greek scholars, but there were no videotapes. Even the scholarship has a certain imaginative practice around it.
Trajal Harrell, Antigone Sr./Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church (L), 2012. Performance view. Photo: Whitney Browne.
Simon Critchley: That’s true—we don’t know. There was dance, but we don’t know what the dance was. There was music, but we don’t know what the music was. We don’t know what the instruments were.
Anne Carson: We don’t even know how the words were pronounced.
Critchley: Exactly. Was the play just fun for the Ancient Greeks, or was there some active questioning and subversion going on? We want to say the latter. But it might have just been men dressing up as woman having a nice time. Who knows.
Harrell: I tend to think artists in the past had similar questions about their society, and that some must have felt outside of society's mainstream—just as some of us feel today. There are always different political and social contexts, but often the artists are the people on the forefront asking questions that society doesn’t want them to ask. But as you say, Simon, it could have been men dressing up as women for theater—and it was not drag or camp, which are modern constructions. But is it that they were just dressing up? Or did that performativity have some element of political or social activism?
Carson: Isn’t the question of gender different from actor to actor, as individuals, just as it is for us? Regarding antiquity, just as now, it’s hard to place these things in tiny slots, and moreover to have an opinion on how the Greeks felt about men playing women. I don’t get it either.
Critchley: It was different in all sorts of ways, but the similarities are actually much more striking. We’re in the same kind of messes that the Ancient Greeks were in—war, corruption, and migration were huge and constantly pressing issues. We like to think of the Greeks as exotic, as other, because that’s more reassuring in a way, but the uncanny thing is the Ancient Greeks’ similarities with us and our problems.
Harrell: When I play Antigone the thing that strikes me the most is her love for her family and her grief, which also feels contemporary. There’s this piling on of loss. Often I’m just sitting there listening on the stage, and that’s what hits me. It’s not the political situation, and it’s not the larger thematic questions. It’s just this basic condition: My two brothers are dead. That’s the thing that goes beyond some of my intellect.
Critchley: But what is she mourning? What kind of family is it that she loves? Because it’s quite a family, right? When she says near the end, “A husband or child can be replaced. But who can grow me a new brother?” That seems to be about Polyneikes [her dead brother], but it’s also about her father, who happens to be her brother in a way. This family is double, tripled . . .
Harrell: Is a mess!
Critchley: This is family that comes out of this incestuous dirt, this filth of death, as Kreon puts it. So what does Antigone love when she loves? Who does she love?
Trajal Harrell, Antigone Sr./Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church (L), 2012. Performance view. Photo: Miana Jun.
Harrell: I can never play all of what I think and know and think that I know. There are so many ideas around the play, and so many different ways to think about Antigone. I just have to focus on what is it like to lose a brother. I have to concentrate in a way separate from my choreographic mind. I just sit there and go, oh my god. The audience watches me going through a hell of a lot of grief. And they begin to relate to it.
I’m always trying to call people into the moment, to show that we’re in the theater together—as Graham said, before theater was a noun, it was a verb. I’m always trying to get them to realize this imaginative thing that we’re in, all doing in the room together. It’s not just us over here performing something for you. As a performer it starts from just being clear about where you are, and what’s going on in the room with you.
Carson: Sophokles does that with the play, too. He keeps it on this kernel of everything’s lost from this person. What does she do? She doesn’t sit around thinking about the politics of her situation, and all the internecine struggles in her family. She just feels it. I think that weird argument—I wouldn't have done it for a husband or a son—she just comes up with that because she’s pressed to the wall by people saying “make sense of this,” and she has no sense. She just has the grief, and the grief for her takes the place of reasoning. Sophokles made that possible for the actor to take seriously. I think another Greek playwright wouldn’t have been able to do that. Also, when you speak, Trajal, about being in the room I think of Zeami and his idea about faces. The reason we have theater, Zeami says, is so that people can see each other’s faces.
Harrell: That’s great. I need to run to MoMA now for rehearsal—wish we could continue this conversation in a restaurant over dinner!
Excerpt from Antigone (2015).
Carson: Perhaps I should say why I translated the play twice, because that’s confusing for people. Antigonick was meant to be a comic book, and not scrupulously faithful to the original text. Bianca Stone did the illustrations. After it was published, I met Ivo van Hove. He said he wanted to do a production of Antigone. I said, great, I have one. I’ll just send it. But he didn’t like it. He wanted a new one. I was enraged, and then thought about it, and it seemed worth trying. A neat, defeating thing to try. So I did it again. Seeing the new piece performed was quite the revelation. Because I frankly thought I would hate it. I’ve seen lots of Greek plays and various versions of my own translations, and most of them were awful. This one wasn’t awful.
Critchley: What did you think of his decision to play the chorus the way he did, with actors having multiple roles?
Carson: I liked it and it seems to work. Ivo didn’t tell me anything about it beforehand. I just sent the thing to him on email, and he said okay, and that was that. It went into the void. The whole thing works in a lot of aspects that surprised me—most especially the Kreon role.
One thing Ivo specified when asking me to translate the play again—he said the Kreon role in Antigonick is too spare, almost symbolic. At the time, I think I was trying to do the translation kind of the way John Cage makes his mesostics—he always said he was trying to “demilitarize language.” Maybe the difference between Ivo and me is that he wants to remilitarize language. He wants it fleshed out for conventional audience expectations and conventional capacities of an actor. I didn’t appreciate that until I was translating the work again. The Kreon I had originally given him wouldn’t have worked on stage—demilitarized grieving wouldn’t work as a theatrical experience. Patrick O’Kane, who plays Kreon, is amazing. After Antigone leaves the stage. It becomes his tragedy, and he fills the space. You almost forget Antigone.
Critchley: What would you think of the idea that the tragedy is Kreon’s rather than Antigone’s? If we take the Aristotelian idea that there’s reversal and recognition. Well, Antigone experiences neither. She just goes her way.
Carson: That’s true. She’s the same at beginning and at end.
Critchley: Right. But Kreon changes after the intervention with Teiresias—a character that raises a question about gender. As a blind prophet, he was transformed into a woman for seven years. T.S. Elliot said he was “throbbing between two lives.”
Carson: Kreon does change, and he has a recognition that Aristotle would have underlined with his highlighter pen. We should have asked Trajal about Teiresias. I sometimes think Sophokles was writing proleptically in defiance of Aristotle’s views, and trying to do things that break his rules. Because the tragedy—if there is one—is between those two people: Antigone and Kreon. Neither of them can resolve their view of law, and they never will, so city-states go on being ruined.
Listening to Trajal, I realized that whatever contradiction of proper Aristotelian practice the play plays out, the core of it is still Antigone’s emotion, and that does convince you that it’s a proper tragedy when you’re experiencing it. I think that it poses one of those nice theoretical questions—whose tragedy is it—that we always have to consider because that’s what scholars and teachers do, but I don’t think it bothers you during the experience of the play. After you go home you might wonder why is it called Antigone when Kreon makes it sadder at the end. But as Trajal says, theater is at the time, it’s what’s in the room.
Critchley: True enough.
artforum.com: What is it like to work with Ivo van Hove? He’s a director with a strong voice; do you feel an ownership of what’s on stage?
Carson: No, once it goes to him, it goes to him. He had very strong views all the way along of how it should be.
Critchley: How does he see the play?
Carson: He sees it as… well, maybe you should ask Ivo, but I gather he sees it as a balanced conflict between Antigone and Kreon. Very substantially balanced. Lack of balance was what he objected to in Antigonick.
Critchley: It’s more the Hegelian view then.
Carson: I think so. Well, he’s … Belgian [laughter]. Actually, his whole team went to school together, I believe. That’s one thing that I learned in Luxembourg, that he and his whole design team work together as a sort of molecule.
Critchley: Oh really?
Carson: All five of them eat breakfast together, work all day, and have dinner together, always in a hubbub. They’ve been friends for so long, they have their own language by now. Like twins.
Critchley: It would be interesting to hear more about that from Ivo. What I find particularly liberating about your translations of Euripides—and it’s there for me underpinning your Antigonick as well—is the idea to liberate tragedy from the Aristotelian framework, and in particular the straitjacket orientation toward catharsis.
Carson: I’ve never understood catharsis.
Critchley: It’s that old idea that there should be some moral lesson that we get from tragedy, which is still an omnipresent view. But it’s ludicrous. Tragedy is something else, it’s much more curious.
Carson: More devastating.
Critchley: Much more, yes.
Carson: Because you don’t learn anything from Kreon except, oops don’t do that again.
Critchley: Then, what’s it for, for you?
Carson: The play?
Critchley: In general, this curious art form tragedy. For me, following what you say in the preface to your translations of Euripides, tragedy flows from rage, which flows from grief in the context of war and violence. In Antigone, we are presented with that. We watch people go down somewhere—to a place that we want to look at, but we don’t want to go ourselves. We’re left with this what is it for question. In many ways the entire history of the reception of these plays has been about that question, and it’s that that we have to bracket out. So I wonder how it is for you?
Carson: I don’t really know what it is for me. I came at the plays from studying them in school to learn Greek. To me this is all distant. Listening to Trajal talking about his emotions I understand it, but I don’t feel that when I write the plays—and very rarely when I see the plays. It’s partly that I’m a semi-autistic person [laughter], but it’s also just that that’s not how I went about it; I cared about the grammar more than the feelings. It’s a different angle. I don’t know how to get to the other angle that Trajal has, for example.
artforum.com: Simon, could you talk a little about the relevance of Antigone and tragedy, perhaps as it relates today for thinking about the risks and necessity of democratic culture?
Critchley: I’ve got very dark views on this. The way I see tragedy is influenced by Anne’s Euripides translations, which really did twist the way in which I had looked at those before, as well as reading Hellenists like Jean-Pierre Vernant and Simon Goldhill. It’s this idea of tragedy as people in rage. What’s interesting in this new production of the play is that everybody in it is enraged. Even Teiresias is angry. I think of Teiresias as coming in on the arm of a young boy, calmly declaring the truth, but he’s really pissed off here. Everybody’s angry—and all that flows from grief, which flows from war. Not just war, but civil war, the horror of stasis, which for the Greeks was the most horrible of all things. What’s going on in the play is claim and counterclaim. We see these people making claims, absolute claims, and then absolute claims are made against those. If Antigone is the hero, or if Kreon is the hero, then I guess what I take from someone like Vernant is that the hero is a problem. The hero is a pollution. Whatever the hero is, the hero is the source of filth that is screwing everything up.
For me, tragedy is that movement of claim and counterclaim, claim and counterclaim, which produces violence. We find ourselves always in violence and counter-violence. In Antigone, cycles of violence and counter-violence are justified with reference to claims about law. It’s exactly what happened after 9/11, the anniversary of which coincidentally is today. 9/11 was an attack on the United States, which then justified a violent response. But if you read Osama bin Laden on 9/11, all this was justified as revenge for the crimes the West had committed in the Arab world. So, claim and counterclaim, violence and counter-violence spin way back. What we see in tragedies is just that history of violence that we come from, seemingly without end.
Carson: Except that once in awhile a sort of unassailable person intervenes, like Antigone, and then it doesn’t come to an end but sputters into a corner for awhile, then stops, then presumably would start again.
Critchley: There’s a divergence and there’s the form itself, theater—a presentation of violence that’s not violent. That’s true of all the Theban plays, wherein we get this ancestry of violence and counter-violence, which spins all the way back, through all the generations, back to the Gods.
Then there’s this question: What on earth is the relationship between this thing called theater—particularly tragedy—and, this thing called democracy? Both are going on in the same city when this play debuts, in a particular form—which we can criticize for its exclusion of women and slaves. Though it was an extraordinary experiment in politics. We don’t know the answer to that question. But what does democracy do? Democracy goes to war. Democracy leads to tyranny. Democracy destroys itself, which is what happened at the end of the fifth century in the mess of the Peloponnesian War described by Thucydides.
Antigone shows us something about the history of violence that we come from. While we’re happy it’s them and not us going down, it speaks to a flaw that we have, which we don’t see, but which makes us the creatures that we are. So I see this tragedy as absolutely contemporary in terms of that not seeing. It’s what animates violence, grief, and rage—all those things playing out in Antigone—and that happen daily, which we think we know but we’re still blind to. This happens every day in the Unites States, in the world.
Tragedy for me is so much more important than philosophy. Because it’s a form that’s able to do a “both/and”: show that we know and we don’t know.
Carson: In the play they’re always talking about knowledge. And in structure of the stage there is a process of coming out inside, from silence—this hidden thing. We see the hidden thing. Then it goes back inside and the play is over. All you know is that you’ve gone through it. What would it be to end up with a theory of it? That would invalidate the thing you saw when you were there.
Critchley: Yes, it would make it serve some end.
Carson: It would be reducible to yourself, to what you already know. With that hidden thing, I think of walking around Detroit. Sometimes at night you might pass the Foundry—a place with molten metal burning inside. You can glance in and see it—you glance into a core. It’s burning away in there. Then you go on down the street. What remains in the mind is that core.
Critchley: There’s nothing more important than that. Anne, you’ve talked about Francis Bacon in relationship to that. I’m trying to remember the quote…
Carson: “Paint the scream not the horror.”
Antigone runs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music from September 24–October 4, 2015 in New York.
As Diane Sawyer’s much-publicized interview with Bruce Jenner on April 24th illustrates, gender continues to be both highly individuated and highly regulated—“troubled,” to cite Judith Butler’s prescient queer proclamation—subject to a complex rehearsal of disciplinary patterns and emancipatory narratives that continue to seduce and evade pure cognition. In an effort to briefly think recent mediations of transgender bodies, we invited Paul B. Preciado, author of Testo Junkie: sex, drugs, and biopolitics in the pharmacopornographic era (2013) and a curator of the controversial MACBA exhibition “La bestia y el soberano” (The Beast and the Sovereign), to respond to an artforum.com Pop Quiz about the Jenner interview. (In keeping with his current self-identification, Jenner is referred to by the male pronoun.)
Bruce Jenner has been careful to separate his struggle with gender identity from struggles over sexual orientation. He’s also made clear that he doesn’t consider himself a “spokesperson” for trans experience. Where and how do you think Bruce Jenner’s “coming out” story and the attention it has received engages the current landscape of queer and trans politics?
The media frenzy around Bruce Jenner’s trans coming out shows that we are immersed in a binary gender regime where the possibility of moving between or outside gender conventions is still seen as a political transgression. We have to think about media (including social media) as a set of technologies that can be normalizing but that can also be critically reappropriated for resistance. Jenner is trying to find recognition within the dominant public sphere and this requires media normalization. This is why he is looking for a tactical recognition as a “good American parent” in an effort to resist oppressive transphobic discourse. Transsexuality threatens the stability of the heterosexual reproductive family, and so Jenner has to present himself in public as “asexual,” and speak about the well being of his family as his primary concern.
The transgender subject’s free use of the sexual body represents a threat to the heteronormative political management of desire. This regime always attempts to capture the transgender subject within its binary sexual economy, ideally as heterosexual—since the transgender subject unsettles the very possibility of this normative divide. Not only does this subject trouble the naturalized representation of the body within the visual epistemology of sexual difference (as an assemblage of visual signifiers), but so does its public gender performance—just look at all the crazy tweets concerning Jenner’s dress, as if a dress is like a terrorist’s “technology” when used by a body to whom male gender has been assigned at birth!
To cite Jacques Ranciere’s theory of democratic representation, I think we need to “invent a new scene of enunciation.” We need to radically reorganize the field of gender recognition within the public sphere.
How do you think Jenner’s early image as a paragon of Cold War–era masculinity—“the world’s greatest athlete,” the second Wheaties spokesperson—intersects with his current status as the “most famous openly transgender person in America”?
There is a discursive tradition that presents the M2F transgender subject as someone moving from a sovereign form of masculinity (often represented by sport or the military) to become a female media icon, as if both ends of the gender binary should be emphasized to make the transition part of a heroic act. Therefore, if the possibility of transitioning could question the binary logic, the act of perfectly embodying the extremes enables an ultimate naturalization of male and female positions. This is the case of Bruce Jenner as well as of others before in the twentieth century, starting with Christine Jorgensen in the 1950s (her transition was told as the transformation of an ex-GI into a “blonde beauty”) and with tennis player Renée Richards in the 1970s.
How does Jenner trouble or embody what you’ve termed pharmacopornographic era politics and labor? Is his interview with Diane Sawyer a consolidation of contemporary techniques of the body? How might we trace a trajectory from the early publicity around Christine Jorgensen’s transition sixty-plus years ago?
I understand the displacement from the disciplinary biopolitical regime of the nineteenth century (in which the notions of heterosexuality and homosexuality were invented) to the pharmacopornographic regime that emerges after WWII (where notions such as gender, transgender, and intersexuality are invented) as a shift within Foucault’s “apparatuses of verification,” or, to put it in Deleuze & Guattari’s terms, in “machines of semiotization”—of production of meaning. Whereas science and the law were once the main apparatus of verification, the market and the media have become the new machines of semiotization. This does not mean that science and law have lost all interpellating power, but rather that this performative force is now articulated with new technologies in the production of subjectivity.
As with Jorgensen, who in 1952 became one of the most photographed women in America, only comparable to Marilyn Monroe, what Jenner’s public transgender campaign shows is that the production of the “truth” of gender has become an affair of media management. We are now in the domain of the pharmacopornographic production of gender: Gender is both constructed through biotechnologies (such as hormones or surgery) but also through multimedia techniques. In other words, gender does not exist prior to its multimedia display. It is through the media’s disclosure and representation that the truth of Jenner’s gender is produced.
This is why a primetime interview is as important as surgery or hormones. Diane Sawyer’s encounter with Jenner could be read as just short of a media sex-reassignment operation. This act of political sex reassignment is not happening in the clinic or in court but on a TV stage and through responses on social media. Jenner’s interview brings together many historical narratives: on one hand, the rhetoric of legal and medical confession (which was already at work in the nineteenth century; see the case of Herculine Barbin described by Foucault in 1980) now staged within the framework of the TV interview. On the other hand, the codes of the freak show are reworked within the intimate “tête-à-tête” (seen by millions of viewers) between two women.
There is no linear relationship between the improvement of transgender civil rights and the advent of higher degrees of trans visibility in the mainstream media. Jenner’s jump to the front pages of magazines and to primetime TV is a paradoxical political displacement. It is at once a strategic move for recognition and a process of media surveillance and gender control. Nevertheless, it is within this narrow regulatory framework that Jenner must negotiate his new identity—by trying to rework abjection into political agency.
We need to see how the gender technologies that are producing Jenner’s transformation are the very same that most “cis” heterosexual women used in the West—at least after the 1950s: hormones (such as the pill), makeup, performance, sometimes surgery. The only difference is that transgender bodies are not yet fully recognized as political subjects within the binary gender regime. We could compare our gender regime to a highly orthodox theological one in which the idea of God can’t be questioned. In our contemporary, high-tech society, questioning the binary gender norm is our heresy. Genderqueer bodies are the new heretics.
Mazen Kerbaj, Je pense. . . Donc je ne suis plus! (I think. . . Therefore I am no longer!), 2005/2015.
A TRAUMATIC EVENT is one that defies our ability to tell what happened and at the same time sets off the desperate compulsion to do so, or at least to try, over and over, however awkward, until a story begins to take hold. A sharp, sudden eruption of violence—a war, an explosion, an attack—both does damage and repairs, by triggering the impulse to explain it, assign it meaning, and make it fit within the wider story we tell ourselves about the worlds in which we live.
In the months that have passed since three young men, two of them ex-convicts, gunned down the staff of a satirical magazine and patrons of a kosher grocery in Paris, killing seventeen people, including several artists—during which time another young man, also an ex-con, shot up a café and a synagogue in Copenhagen, killing two more, including a filmmaker—much has been written to put these events in context. With each new text, the narrative has thickened with nuance, anger, digression, and distraction, as writers, in accordance with their nature, have tied themselves in knots to make sense of the killings in terms of terrorism, religious intolerance, ideological indoctrination, postcolonial injustice, racial prejudice, economic depravation, government neglect, bad schools, terrible prisons, dangerous clerics, and the potential for radicalization among disaffected young men prone to messianic delusion.
In one way or another, all of these texts belong to what Adam Phillips, describing Freud, has termed “a long spiritual, religious tradition of crisis writing.” Perhaps that ever-expanding mass of storytelling, messy and oversensitive and argumentative as it may be, is truer to the experience of these events around the world, where reactions have been everywhere mixed, and nowhere the same, not even in the mind of a single person, to say nothing of the popular imagination of a single place.
In Europe and the United States, a story of the attacks has settled into a moment of much-needed but still dubious repose, as responsibility is passed to “moderate Muslims” around the globe to deal with religious extremism, reform their faith, and thicken their skin. “What is entirely out of the government’s control—out of anyone’s control,” argues Mark Lilla, writing about France in the New York Review of Books, “is what happens next in the larger Muslim world.”
This is true enough. But there are a great many cities out there in the not-so-distant, not-so-frightful Muslim world. In those cities, one might listen for the subtleties of a self-reflexive criticism and hear a brash and lively satire in return. One might discover a rich history of progressive ideas that have developed in close proximity to Islam over hundreds of years. Beirut, Cairo, and Istanbul are three such cities. Others are just as relevant, but in these three, artists have established a particularly strong tradition of pushing public discourse. And in these three, regular people are dealing all the time with the kinds of dangers and ideological distortions that ripped through France and Denmark this winter.
The response has been complicated in Beirut, where I live, as it was and would have been anywhere. In the first week of the new year, when the brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi murdered twelve people commando style in the Paris office of the magazine Charlie Hebdo, the Lebanese capital was burning through its own drama, different but related. Last August, around thirty soldiers and police officers were kidnapped in Arsal, a town near the Syrian border, by ISIS and the Nusra Front, a branch of Al Qaeda that is active in the area. For months, the families of those soldiers and police officers had been staging violent protests, trying to force the Lebanese government to negotiate their freedom. The kidnappers’ key demand is the release of imprisoned Islamist militants, including from Fatah al-Islam, a group that waged a war against the Lebanese army eight years ago in a refugee camp outside the port city of Tripoli, an hour’s drive north of Beirut. This is just one sign among many that the apocalyptic freak show known as the Islamic State is also complicated, and not entirely new, with elements ranging from the disbanded Baathist military in Iraq to fundamentalist groups thought to have been wholly created by the Syrian state.
On January 9, the Paris attacks came to an end when French forces killed the Kouachi brothers in an outlying warehouse and then, at the kosher grocery, killed Amedy Coulibaly, who had reportedly pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State. On January 10, nine people were killed in a double-suicide bombing that took place in a crowded Tripoli café. The Nusra Front claimed responsibility. On January 11, vigils honoring the victims of the Paris attacks were staged in the French capital and cities around the world, including Beirut, where people gathered in a downtown garden named for Samir Kassir, the journalist and historian who was killed in a car-bomb blast ten years ago. On January 12, the Lebanese army stormed Roumieh, the country’s largest prison, and dismantled the notorious Block B, where Islamist inmates were said to have organized the Tripoli bombings (they had also become so powerful, well connected, and heavily armed that prison staff had not entered Block B for months). Nusra threatened to kill a hostage in retaliation. Four had already been executed, two of them beheaded. The families intensified their protests. Several schools in Beirut observed a minute of silence for the lives lost in France. Conspicuous in their absence were any such minutes of silence for the lives lost at home.
For anyone involved in art history, criticism, journalism, or contemporary art, the sites of the Paris and Copenhagen attacks—the weekly editorial meeting, the public talk on art’s relation to an issue of the day—were disturbingly familiar. The same can be said for the reason: a drawing, or several drawings, which caused offense and provided the pretext for a terrible series of actions. “Over a cartoon?” asked the Egyptian artist Ganzeer, incredulous on Twitter on the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. “A cartoon you fucking fucks???!?!??!”
In Beirut, Mazen Kerbaj, who for years drew comic strips for the French magazine L’Orient Express and the upstart Arabic newspaper Al-Akhbar, dashed off two erudite cartoons. The first, updating Descartes, shows a man, intact in the first frame, saying “Je pense…” (I think), and then, with his head blown off in the second, “Donc je ne suis plus!” (Therefore I am no longer). The second: “Quand j’entends le mot revolver je sors mon stylo” (When I hear the word gun I reach for my pen).
In Istanbul, the three most popular humor magazines in Turkey—Penguen, Leman, and Uykusuz—published the same cover, all black with “Je suis Charlie” in a speech bubble, to mourn the deaths of their colleagues in France and to express solidarity with cartoonists everywhere. Death threats and hate mail poured in from social media. “Now we have a special security guard in front of the office,” says Cem Dinlenmiş, an artist who has been drawing a weekly cartoon for Penguen for nearly a decade. (His title, “Her Şey Olur,” translates loosely from Turkish as “Anything Goes.”)
Among artists in Cairo, Beirut, and Istanbul, the condemnation of the Charlie Hebdo killings was universal and unequivocal, as was the defense of free speech. In a region where intellectuals, journalists, and cartoonists have long been targeted for their work, people slotted the attacks into well-known narratives. The Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali, known for his withering critique of Arab leaders and the creation of his much-loved character Handala, was assassinated in London in the summer of 1987, shot in the face outside the office of the Kuwaiti newspaper where he worked. In 2011, the Syrian cartoonist Ali Farzat, a harsh critic of the Assad regime, was kidnapped and severely beaten; both of his hands were broken. During the Charlie Hebdo vigil in Beirut, people added on to the “Je suis Charlie” hashtag: “Je suis Samir Kassir, Je suis Gebran Tueni, Je suis Riad Taha, Je suis Kamel Mroue.” The list of journalists cut down in Lebanon is long, and it echoes all over the region, in the assassination of the Palestinian novelist Ghassan Kanafani and in the killing of a generation’s worth of artists, journalists, poets, and playwrights in Algeria (not in the war for independence from France, mind you, but in the civil war of the 1990s).
Beyond the fundamentals, however, there is hardly any agreement—among artists or anyone else—on the issues raised in the aftermath of the Paris and Copenhagen attacks. The cartoons themselves, seen mostly out of context as they circulate online, have proven especially divisive. For most, they are difficult to defend, and easy to take personally—as Arabs, as Muslims, as anyone with ties by love or family to the Middle East. This has nothing to do with figurative representation or depictions of the prophet in Islam, “fruitless arguments,” as Dinlenmiş describes them. Artists in this part of the world know the history. (Nasser Rabat, a distinguished scholar of Islamic art and architecture, describes it at length in the current issue of Artforum.) Examples of Muhammad’s face and figure abound. For every source that tells you there is an absolute prohibition on picturing the prophet, there’s some anecdotal counterimage that blows your mind. Ayatollah Khomeini kept a portrait of Muhammad as a child in the sitting room of his home in Qom. A decade after his death, it was possible to buy posters and key chains in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar adorned with an unabashedly erotic picture of the prophet as a young man with a bared shoulder and a flower behind his ear, an image based on an old orientalist photograph by Lehnert & Landrock of a beautiful Tunisian boy.
Lehnert & Landrock, Portrait de Jeune Homme (portrait of a young boy), c. 1905–1906, original negative. Right: Poster of Muhammad as a boy. Artist unknown.
The Charlie Hebdo cartoons (like the ones in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten before them, and by the Swedish artist Lars Vilks) are something else—cruder, less interesting, and imprecise in the target of their humor. “The problem is that they are bad fucking caricature,” says Kerbaj, who adored the early, leftist era of Charlie Hebdo (and Hara-Kiri before it) until, courting readers on the right, “it was no longer funny and began to stink,” he recalls. (The art historian Yve-Alain Bois likewise captures the importance of Charlie Hebdo’s early days in the current issue of Artforum.) But depicting Muhammad as a dog, with bugged-out eyes and a huge hooked nose, with balls in his turban and a dick on his face—this is childish at best. At worst, it dwells in the same mean spirit as blackface, as jokes about the Druze being sneaky or the Jews being cheap. Such cartoons do nothing to deter, acknowledge, or even call attention to the horrors of the Islamic State or similar such groups. To the contrary, they are perfect recruitment tools. They fuel extremism on all sides.
What artists in Beirut, Cairo, and Istanbul may bring to bear on these violent events—and the tumble of narratives that they engender—is an approach to comics, satire, and critique that can pull the debate elsewhere, into potentially more thoughtful terrain. Such people have a wealth of experience negotiating sensitive material into the public realm, where there is rarely any consensus on the rights of citizens or the role of the state. After all, these are cities where a jumble of religions have been living cheek by jowl for thousands of years, coexisting, intermarrying, and occasionally slaughtering one another too. There is something to be learned and a great deal at stake here, where all of the extremes that converged around Charlie Hebdo in January exist in the bureaucratic details of everyday life.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, the wife (or girlfriend) of Amedy Coulibaly was said to have slipped into Syria, where she was allegedly welcomed by the Islamic State. That minor plot twist is foreboding in itself, as if to suggest that when the news dies down in Europe and the story dwindles in the West, the uglier consequences of what happened in Paris will wash up on these shores. If they do, the work of artists—with their habits and traditions of critical inquiry, formal invention, improvisation on demand, and tireless energy for debate—will matter arguably more than any weak or strident calls for moderate Muslims to pluck an enlightenment, renaissance, or reformation from thin air.
Ganzeer is living in Brooklyn these days, and he was getting ready for his first gallery show in New York at the time of the Charlie Hebdo attack. He does a little bit of everything: stencils, murals, paintings, pamphlets, comics, installations, graphic design, a pair of booklets for the Egyptian revolution (offering tactical advice and a set of stencils for protesters), and a graphic novel that has long been in progress. Strictly speaking, he hasn’t drawn satirical cartoons in a decade, and he insists that he was never any good at them to begin with; he defers here to colleagues such as Andeel, Ahmed Nady, and El Teneen, whose Shepard Fairey–inspired poster of a sinister man’s bearded face above the command lilwara, meaning “regress” or “go back,” lends ambiguity a knowing edge that is absent from Charlie Hebdo’s Muhammad cartoons. But Ganzeer does make use of the language of satirical cartoons, and the sharpness of their humor, in works that take on everything from the duplicitous nature of Egyptian dictatorships to the false pieties of conservative Muslims. Prayer of Desire, a large-scale painting on wood from 2012, for example, shows a woman in prayer position with a stylized script above her conveying a slew of raunchy sexual desires. Several of his street murals highlight police brutality and the complicity of US foreign aid to Egypt. His criticisms of the army and the military regime—which were made very public in stickers, stencils, and posters—earned him an arrest, an interrogation, and a handful of death threats four years ago.
“In general,” Ganzeer says, “I find myself drawn to satire that while being funny is actually informative. In terms of legitimate targets, people of power and privilege are of course worthy of satire.” Less so, in his view, are people as people and the underprivileged. “There is clever satire based on some kind of information”—certain episodes in the life of the prophet would be perfect, he says—“and there is dumb satire that does nothing more than offer cheap laughs at the expense of a billion people around the world.”
On the formal efficiency of political cartoons, Ganzeer makes a surprising (and seemingly counterintuitive) point. Print culture in Egypt is huge. To this day Cairo boasts more than forty daily newspapers in Arabic, Armenian, English, and French, with a history of caricature dating back to the nineteenth century. “A satirical cartoon has a kind of instant power that lengthy analytical articles do not,” Ganzeer explains. The problem, of course, is that most of the newspapers in Egypt are controlled by the state, “which means people in power will not be subject to satire, thus perverting the very function and necessity of satire to begin with.”
Ganzeer, Tank vs. Bread-Biker, Cairo, 2011. Photo: JoAnna Pollonais.
“The funny thing is, I was never censored by the censors,” Mazen Kerbaj tells me on an evening in March, referring to the soldiers in the Interior Ministry who are tasked with policing the content of fine art and popular culture. “But I was censored by nearly all of the editors in chief in Lebanon.” At one newspaper, Kerbaj drew just four cartoons before quitting (two of them were never published). The only two editors with whom he could ever really work were Samir Kassir, who ran L’Orient Express in the 1990s, and Pierre Abi Saab, the influential critic and a founding editor of Al-Akhbar. “They both pushed me in this hardcore humor,” he says. “They were always listening to what I was proposing, and pushing me to do more. But I always said that what I was doing was social satire. I never did political cartoons per se. It was always about two guys or two girls, two bourgeois or two poor.
“I know—and I learned from censorship—how to go down different roads to arrive at what I want to say,” Kerbaj explains. “By the time I get there, it’s subtle. It’s no longer blunt. I could be very nasty in my attacks but I never wanted to attack these idiots,” he adds, waving a hand to mean Islamic extremists who are generally easy to provoke. “I wanted to attack you and me.”
At this point, Kerbaj is no longer drawing comics for Al-Akhbar. He stopped when he had enough material for a book, published as Cette histoire se passe (This Story Happened) in 2011. He still does a monthly cartoon for the supplement L’Orient Litteraire. And he is arguably better known as an artist and musician. Beirut’s Galerie Janine Rubeiz is currently showing the drawings he has made in collaboration with his mother, the painter Laure Ghorayeb, who is also an art critic for the Arabic daily An-Nahar. His next big project involves illustrations for an unpublished manuscript of a play by the Syrian poet Mohammed al-Maghout, which he found among the effects of his father, the well-known actor Antoine Kerbaj.
Curiously enough, of the two cartoons that Kerbaj posted on Twitter right after the Charlie Hebdo attack, neither was new. He drew both of them when Samir Kassir was killed in 2005. “It’s easy to do the same drawings forever in our region,” he says drily.
Lebanon has a surprisingly strong tradition of mainstream caricature—epitomized by the work of Stavro and the late Pierre Sadek—as well as a culture of avant-garde comics, which, for outside observers who are not reading Arabic newspapers to plan their days, resides almost entirely within the more familiar precincts of Beirut’s contemporary art scene. When Kerbaj was growing up, in the 1980s, there was a group of artists working collectively known as Atelier de Jad. He was too young to join them. In 2008, the city’s first homegrown comics magazine, Samandal, appeared. Kerbaj has been a frequent contributor ever since. Founded by the artists Hatem Imam, Omar Khouri, Lena Merhej, Tarek Nabaa, and the Fdz (aka Fadi Baki), Samandal takes a broad view of what comics are, could be, and can do. There is also considerable debate among its members over the formal, experimental, and political imperatives of their work. (When a friend posted the “Je suis Charlie” hashtag to the magazine’s Facebook page in January, the discussion grew so aggressive that Imam removed it to make it stop.)
In terms of politics, sexual material, and social commentary, Samandal gets away with a lot—in part because the magazine is artsy, and in part because, as Imam explains, “most people think comics are for kids.” But the exceptions are costly. The magazine is in the midst of a long court case over two stories that ran in the “Revenge” issue in 2010. One of the stories illustrates an idiomatic expression that translates roughly as “Burn your religion.” The other deals with homosexuality and the history of Christianity. A local Catholic group filed complaints against the magazine. Samandal went to court and lost the case. The damages amount to around $20,000, which is no joke for the three founding members named in the suit (Imam, Khouri, and Baki). They are now in the process of appealing.
In January, they were also in the process of reinventing themselves. After taking a yearlong break from publishing, Samandal returned this winter as an annual publication (it had previously been quarterly), book-thick, with a theme and a tighter editorial focus. The first new issue, on genealogies, features contributions by Kerbaj, Akram Zaatari, and the late Moroccan artist and filmmaker Ahmed Bouanani, among others. In Samandal’s time, it has inspired and encouraged numerous other comics magazines throughout the region, including Tok-Tok in Egypt and Skefkef in Morocco.
Turkey is distinct in the Middle East for boasting a whole field of humor magazines that are comparable in their sensibility (if not their provocative style) to those in France. Perhaps for that reason, Dinlenmiş and his colleagues at Penguen felt closer to the Charlie Hebdo massacre than many of their counterparts in Beirut and Cairo. (But like Samandal, they also bump into political limits: Last month two of Penguen’s artists were fined for “insulting a public figure” in a cartoon suggesting the Turkish president was gay.)
Cem Dinlenmiş, Sakalar ve Gerçekler (Jokes and Truth), 2015.
Dinlenmiş, who is also a great painter, uses his work to comment on current events and to alleviate the misery they often cause. “The challenge is to come up with fresh narration and imagery when we’ve been talking about the same issues and problems, revolving around the same crises,” year after year, he says, “to express all these tiresome, boring, heartbreaking issues without wearing the reader out.” What are some of those issues? “Lack of democracy,” he says, simply enough. “But this is a long story to explain here.” Across the region, the predominant targets of political cartoons and satirical comics remain the authoritarian leaders who are still in power, despite the hopeful uprisings of the Arab spring and the cynical insurgencies of ISIS and its ilk.
In late January after Charlie Hebdo, the artist Tony Chakar, known to some as the troublemaker of São Paulo, floated a comment on Facebook suggesting that the problem with satirical cartoons was not their content but their form, and the lack of complexity inherent to it. Perhaps the kind of critique that could keep a conversation going rather than having it end in murder would demand different media altogether. And here the experience of Beirut in particular might be instructive, in the ways in which the makers of highly provocative work tend to negotiate their public gradually rather than throwing such work into the world.
Last December, for example, the Beirut Art Center opened its annual exhibition for emerging artists, which was disappointing, with the exception of one work, a video installation by Roy Dib (also an art critic for Al-Akhbar). To access the work, you had to ask for permission from the reception desk. Only a few people could enter at a time, and no photographs were allowed. This was due to the sexual content more so than its politics, but still. The artist Mounira Al Solh relies on similar strategies for a project she has been working on since 2006, a magazine called NOA (Not Only Arabic). Solh prints only one copy of each issue (two of which exist so far, with a third in progress). To read it, you have to make an appointment with the artist and sit with her while you peruse the magazine’s pages.
In 2008, during the fourth edition of Ashkal Alwan’s Home Works Forum, artist Akram Zaatari organized a video program dealing with graphic representations of gay sex. The screening sessions were moved out of the forum’s main public venues and into the secluded private office of the architect Bernard Khoury. Zaatari preceded them all with a warning to the audience concerning what they were about to see. On a less than charitable day, one might consider such actions too careful or even cowardly, but the thing is: They are effective. They succeed where blunt provocations fail. The works are shown; a small number of people see them and talk about them and debate them, which leads to them being seen again, by more people, in a different and often slightly broader context, until they become truly public.
On one end of the niche-public spectrum, there is cabaret. Last summer, around the time the Lebanese soldiers were kidnapped in Arsal, the band Al-Rahel al-Kabir (the Great Departed) was performing a regular show at a small club in Beirut, featuring songs lambasting the worst of the regime’s despots and autocrats: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, self-styled caliph of the Islamic State; Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; the Egyptian military; the Assad regime in Syria. Khaled Soubeih, one of the founders of the band, is a journalist who studied classical Arabic music and is inspired by popular composers such as Sayyed Darwish. He didn’t set out to create satire, Soubeih says, but ended up doing so because of the surreal situation in the region, what he terms the “posthysteric” phase we are living through—“a regime exterminating its own people… resistance groups claiming victories on a daily basis while we are going through the toughest period ever, extremists killing people in the name of mercy.” None of this is normal, he says. “The best way to confront [these regimes and figures] is by making fun of them.”
On the other end of the spectrum, there is the lecture performance, which is especially popular among contemporary artists in Beirut. They use it often enough to embed a desired interpretation of a work into the work itself. But again, in practice, the form accommodates sensitive material without shutting down the rapport between an artist and his or her audience. Chakar is particularly fond of the form, and like Jalal Toufic and Etel Adnan, he often seeds his works with quotations, excerpts, and references to mystical texts. They function, for him, not as beliefs but as “allegories for understanding the present,” as he puts it. “There’s a fine line between believing them and treating them skeptically.” Of the work of certain Sufi mystics, he says, “I think it’s beautiful as poetry,” but the point is that “allegory, indirectness, and ambiguity are much more efficient” as critique. The real potential for radical critique in a year like 2015 may lie in those same Sufi thinkers (who were, after all, the original enemies and the biggest threats to orthodox Muslims such as the Wahhabis, who emerged in the eighteenth century, helped introduce the putative ban of images, and continue to inspire fringe groups such as ISIS). It might also require not the banishment but the malleability of ideas and practices that have come to us in some vestigial form from religion (including narrative itself). “I like to think of myself as a storyteller,” Chakar tells me. “This is not an easy thing. But a lecture performance is exactly that. We are all telling a story.”
Tony Chakar, The Eighth Day, 2008–. Performance view, Stedelijk Museum (Bureau Amsterdam), June 25th, 2011.
On the days when I worry about the world into which my eight-month-old daughter has been born—on the days when the news is terrible, seemingly unbelievable, and increasingly hostile to artworks and artifacts in the Middle East—I bundle her up and bring her with me to the Archaeology Museum at the American University of Beirut, one of the oldest institutions of its kind in the region, after the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and the Archeology Museum in Istanbul. There on the mezzanine level is a special display of amulets and talismans. I learn that these objects—as well as the spirits and superstitions they address—have been used for thousands of years, from the era of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. For a long, long time, the hand ornament has conveyed the transfer of energy and power; the eye has offered visions of another world. The rise of monotheistic religions in the region didn’t end but rather integrated the function of these amuletic objects. In Islam, they became carriers of texts, bearers of stories: Amulets were written down, rolled up, and slipped into cases to be worn as jewelry. I pick out a tiny, seated lion in red jasper, tell myself it’s for her, and try to imagine the stories we’ll tell each other one day about the events unfolding all around us.
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a critic based in Beirut.
“He who dares is he who dursts, and Robert Durst is certainly daring to expose himself, he is daring to kill,” says philosopher Simon Critchley, invoking the archaic past participle of the verb “to dare” when speaking of the famed scion of New York’s Durst family, also an alleged serial killer and recent subject of Andrew Jarecki’s contentious HBO documentary The Jinx (2015). Here Critchley responds to artforum.com’s Pop Quiz, accounting for the heights of Durst’s daring and our “admiration” for him.
What is the risk in aestheticizing murder? Are murder and aesthetics mutually exclusive?
One of my favorite essays is Thomas De Quincey’s “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts,” published in 1827. It’s written as a lecture—apropos of contemporary performativity, perhaps—for the “Society of Connoisseurs in Murder.” The thesis of the lecture is that all major philosophers have been murdered, and he gives gruesome details on these accounts. (Descartes was murdered by sailors as if he were a puncheon of rum.) The text is prefaced with this thought: How should one consider murder? De Quincey says that it is like a chamber pot with two handles: One could consider murder morally, as a bad thing, or, “as the Germans would put it,” aesthetically, in relationship to good taste. Following De Quincey, if we put aside questions on the morality of what Robert Durst did or didn’t do, and the legality of it, and we consider his actions aesthetically, it raises a different set of questions. What if we thought of these murders as artworks? It’s not particularly beautiful—the torso found in Galveston, Texas, for instance—but it’s powerful, and raises ugly questions about what intrigues us most about watching The Jinx. We can also ask, what do these artworks give us? What do we like or get off on in relation to these murders? The answer is: an intimacy with violence that we get extraordinary enjoyment from, but one that we find hard to acknowledge. We’re moral hypocrites about what we enjoy. We think that the murder and violence we see constantly serves some purpose, as an education or as warning. I think that’s crap.
Do you see Durst as a Shakespearean figure, or do you see other resemblances across history? What makes him so compelling?
It’s tragedy, for sure. But for me, it’s more Greek than Shakespearean. One way of looking at Greek tragedy is that you don’t really see the act of killing, which happens offstage, but you see the consequences of killing. You see murdered people displayed as tableaux, as with the murdered bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra. Durst’s life relates more to the Greeks because fate seems to be powerfully at work, especially fate as it’s articulated in and through the family. In this case, you have the mother’s suicide, the father’s indifference and coldness, and the key theme of the rivalry with his brother. With the last, there is a possible link to Hamlet: Robert Durst should have been king of the real estate empire—and he wasn’t. Douglas Durst slighted him and he’s never forgiven his brother for that. Robert Durst’s crimes are, in a sense, payback, but through fame. He has poisoned the reputation of the Durst kingdom forever.
Aristotle defines tragedy as “imitation of elevated action” or “of noble action”—namely, the only subjects of tragedy are people who have nobility. The question for us is then: If we don’t have kings and queens today, where is nobility to be found? In the United States it’s to be found, of course, in relation to money. We respect the rich. Here we have a real estate empire with a doom-laden fate. Tragedies also typically involve a curse: Oedipus is the curse of the prophecy. People in tragedies are cursed by the effects of the past—effects experienced as fate, which they are weighed down and oppressed by, and which they bring down upon themselves. Think of the Kennedys and their curse. Durst fits perfectly into this model—there’s a dance with fate that he’s playing throughout The Jinx. In a sense, he wanted to be caught, as people said in the series; he wanted to bring fate down upon himself because that would ensure his fame—his final victory over his brother.
Durst’s decision to call Jarecki and say he wanted to be interviewed from a legal point of view is crazy. So what does he want? He wants to expose all of this. All Good Things [Jarecki’s 2010 fictionalized account of Robert Durst’s crimes] wasn’t enough. Durst himself has to be the protagonist in his own show, and he has to, in the entertainment sense, kill them all. The final bit of the last episode of The Jinx is a masterpiece of television: He put himself into that situation with the hot mic—he willed that. Another element of tragedy is that he’s “jinxed” by fate—this was why he didn’t want to have kids. Because why would you want to continue that jinx?
Finally, the big philosophical question here is: What is Robert Durst’s agency? Is he free? Not free? In what does his freedom consist? For me, it consists in being able to fully bring that jinx down on him and everyone around him.
Jarecki’s All Good Things spawned The Jinx, which is of course a concatenation of all sorts of fictions (mostly Durst’s) in the service of a supposedly greater truth. Where do you think Durst’s own fictions intersect with our own?
For one, truth only emerges out of fiction. The Jinx is an elaborate construction of a narrative in a six-part documentary in which fiction touches the real, in this case the real of murdered bodies, of life extinguished. This is something that plays out over and against the real of what it means to be a person of noble character in the late twentieth, early twenty-first century in the US, which Durst embodies. But it’s not that truth only emerges through fictions but also that there are fictions in fictions, and this fiction is one that, when constructed into an artifice, has a powerful, monstrous effect.
There’s this mysterious word in Aristotle—katharsis. We think we know what it means but we don’t. In Aristotle, most of the uses of it relate to the purgation of bodily fluids, physiological processes like ejaculation and menstruation. We have an idea that in our relationship to art emotions are elevated and transformed when we experience “katharsis,” which is somehow ennobling and educative. This is supposedly why we need to teach people about art, theater, literature, and so on—it’s like Guinness, it’s good for you. Yet this is a terrible way to think about art. Katharsis is actually much nastier, more visceral, particularly in theater. And what Jarecki has done—his theater in the form of documentary—brings us into proximity with violence and gives us an intimacy with it, and we enjoy that, we like it very much. We don’t have to murder ourselves or other people. We’re saved that expenditure! But we get off on the experience; we get to take delight and joy in someone else’s downfall. Behind that is ultimately an admiration we have for that person. We see in him something that we want to be: indescribably rich and getting away with it. It’s ugly and that’s why we find it beautiful.
How do we show up for life? On January 25, 2015, the New York–based artist K8 Hardy presented a work-in-progress version of her video Outfitumentary to an SRO crowd in a disused Lower East Side restaurant beneath Reena Spaulings Fine Art. The work, built from a rigorous (but not rigid), ten-year-long documentation of the artist’s quotidian looks, uses a simple premise to open onto something infinitely more complex: the vicissitudes and strange continuities of the self, the politics of queer and feminist manifestation, the way our presentation shapes or transmits or pretends a reflexive drama of interiority. Here the artist and filmmaker Elisabeth Subrin, a friend and onetime professor of Hardy’s at Amherst College, talks with Hardy about the thinking and thrifting behind this singular video.
ELISABETH SUBRIN: Fifteen years ago, when we lived down the block from each other, I remember you saying you were starting to make an “Outfitumentary.” I know for me sometimes the title comes first and it’s a way to organize things. Did you create a structure right at the beginning?
K8 HARDY: Yeah totally. The title really gave me permission to start the project. I was using my video camera all the time and decided that I should really tape what I was wearing.
ES: I’m curious about your specific choices on how you would document your outfit every day. You wanted the front and the back and a full body. Were there other rules or parameters?
KH: The main rule was to get one head-to-toe shot of my look as often as I could or felt like it. I also wanted to do a spin in the beginning, but that requirement faded. I just had this moment where I thought everything that’s happening is interesting and what we’re wearing is interesting and weird and I should just document it for ten years. That was my plan from the very beginning, “I’m going to do this for ten years.”
ES: Wow, I didn’t know that ten years was the plan from the get-go.
KH: Yeah. I remember thinking it would only be interesting if I did it for a really long time, to see what happened over time and to capture my prime. I didn’t think what I was wearing in the moment was hugely relevant, but I had already noticed how much my style had changed and knew it would continue to evolve.
ES: It’s funny to think that it was during that exact same time-frame that I twice documented our neighborhood. The first was right after 9/11, and then I revisited all the same locations near the end of the decade, also with strict formal rules of my own, and presented them as a two-channel piece where you see our neighborhood transform over eight years. I thought it (Lost Tribes and Promised Lands, 2010) would just be about gentrification and the political and cultural shifts over the decade, but what emerges in the retracing of my steps turned out to feel autobiographical too.
KH: Yeah, I was probably walking around the neighborhood in those outfits on the days you were shooting!
Elisabeth Subrin, Lost Tribes and Promised Lands, 2010, two-channel video projection transferred from 16 mm, color, sound, 10 minutes. Installation view.
ES: There’s precedence throughout art history for self-documentation on a regular, chronological basis. Structural films of the 1960s and ’70s, or Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance or Eleanor Antin’s Carving really influenced my experimental approaches to portraiture and (auto)biography, especially Shulie (1997) and Lost Tribes and Promised Lands. I was interested in how revisiting the past through structural repetitions would reveal different information about time over a certain historical period, and of my own evolving consciousness. Today it’s all about selfies and constant self-marketing and self-branding (speaking of the compulsion to repeat!).
Your decision to document yourself every single day with such structural rigor gives Outfitumentary an anti-selfie feeling. There’s a level of honesty and non-narcissism because you created so many rules. The feeling-states that emerge are so much more subtle and intimate because you’re not trying to get us to like you. You don’t work exhaustively to make yourself look “good” for the camera, you don’t recreate mainstream fashion or selfie poses, except kind of ironically.
KH: I really just wanted to do it for myself when I started shooting. I didn’t know if there was going to be an audience for it or if it would just be in some archive. Four or five years into it I had the sense, thinking about the footage that had accumulated, that it could be interesting as an artwork one day. I just wanted to get the shot. I think the head-to-toe thing and the distance from the camera gives it this structure that is more practical and not about my best angle or whatever.
You do see me get more comfortable with the camera over time. At first I feel giggly and that it’s kind of funny, then I get really super comfortable and confident. I try out poses but that’s exactly what you see, that I’m trying them and not holding them. I guess there’s an awareness that I’m just copying poses, which is what posing is. And then I get bored with it.
ES: There is this amazing relationship to your body over ten years. Your body moves a lot less at the beginning. As we watch your lifestyle change and we witness you working in your bedroom, then in your apartment and then having your studio—the first one’s the Whitney ISP Program, right? Then by the end you’re in a studio that has huge photographs that you’re working on. Simultaneous to this portrait of what it’s like to become an artist, there’s also this sense of what it’s like to grow up in your body.
KH: Yeah you end up seeing where I’m working, where I have the camera. It starts in my bedroom, and moves from apartment to apartment, and eventually travels into my studio. I would just shoot it based on logistics and having my video camera, I didn’t think the location was very relevant, except that I needed enough space to get a full body shot. So it ends up showing where I’m working at the time. And of course it also ends up that the locations tell my story as much, if not more, than what I am wearing.
ES: There’s something so beautiful and intriguing about that and the fact that you chose not to have other people in it. Now and then we hear the presence of a friend, but you’re always alone. That’s what you have to do when you’re an artist, is be alone.
There’s this sense of embodiment specifically as an artist. We don’t know what relationships you’re in. We don’t know what’s going on in your life. We just get this visceral, emotional affect that’s very subtle. Over the course of ninety minutes you start to notice very minute differences in your mood.
Sometimes I feel like with art the best work is when you trust your instinct and have absolutely no idea if anybody will understand it.
KH: I guess that was another parameter, that it was just me in the shot and no one else. There had to be some kind of consistency in the project. I wanted it to be a focused document and at first I really thought I was just capturing my outfit. As I became a better performer, I was more aware of the mood that I was capturing. Then it evolves into something very real and I’m able to be myself in front of the camera without any effort of performance. Sometimes I would indulge in a mood, but I always tried to bring myself back to my original intentions and the structural parameters I had set up.
ES: It was like here you are at the end in what, 2011? You are sustaining both a practice and an aesthetic that’s committed to DIY. The camera footage is kind of crappy. You don’t spend a lot of time worrying about lighting. We hear room tone. You don’t style your room. We see these spaces that you live in.
It feels like an important document about what it means to be an artist in New York City during the Dot-com era, during 9/11, during Bloomberg, during this economic explosion and gentrification. I’ve thought so much about my students who moved to New York in the ’90s and since. It’s just like, how do you do it? How do you live in New York and make art without being sucked into corporate media or the commercial art world?
There’s a way that this feels like a very precious portrait of trying to survive as an artist in that time. I don’t know if you want to talk about that and also about exposing your own economic reality. You are not raking it in as an artist.
KH: I think it was really a feminist instinct to make this document. I didn’t know what my life was going to be like as a lesbian and an artist. There were only one or two generations before me, the trailblazers, and I would have liked to see more of their lives. It’s like saying, “Hey, I exist.” It’s also like saying, “Our lives are important!”
And it was a difficult time to figure out how to live, where to live, how to make work, how to pay the bills, and how to fucking survive in New York. I went through a lot of stuff, as everyone does, but I was always psyched to have been actually surviving. That’s definitely in it.
I made the video within the means that I had. At one point, my video camera was at the top of the consumer line and I wasn’t too much worried about the picture quality. I guess you capture something else when there is no production work to see through. It was bare bones. It was a bunch of non-decisions.
ES: What do you mean by that, by non-decisions?
KH: Well, I wasn’t trying to dress up the room or myself or put something on for the camera. I was like, “Okay. Let’s just get it.” I think that’s what makes it very real, is that I wasn’t putting extra effort into it. Plus I had set up the structure from the very beginning, so I really didn’t have any new decisions to make about the piece.
I became more aware of high fashion as time progressed. It’s inevitable in New York. All of a sudden you realize some people are wearing insanely expensive designer clothes. That never bothered me because I thrift-shopped since high school and had good style with really cheap clothes. Style is not all about what you are wearing. It’s your sense of self and maybe your swagger and…
KH: It’s affect and it’s shape. It’s volume and silhouette. It’s gender play and camp. I really enjoyed getting dressed and it kind of baffled me because it wasn’t supposed to be important to feminists. But then there’s always a way of getting anti-dressed. Thrifting is a huge part of my process, whether I buy anything or not. I love to do it. Plus it was the only way I was able to afford to dress. Forever … I mean even to this day. In New York the way you look there’s a real currency. I had fun with it. Still do.
K8 Hardy, Untitled Runway Show, 2012. Performance view, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2012. Left: Photo: Lutz Bacher. Right: Photo: Arnold Frugier.
ES: Looking at the hybrid forms you were creating in your outfits, like 1980s shirts with ’90s T-shirts with ’50s florals. It really is an art form. The height of that was your Untitled Runway Show for the 2012 Whitney Biennial. I’ve always known whatever you’re wearing I’m going to see it on the streets two years from now. At the most reductive you could say you have a postmodern approach to style. On the other hand it’s like you see shopping malls and thrift stores across the country over ten years being recombined in these different ways. All of it feels kind of like a “Fuck it! I’m wearing this because I like these combinations and what they mean, not because they mimic a certain new trend.”
KH: It’s totally commentary. It’s also practical because if you are thrifting, you have to stay ahead of the cycles and figure out what old pieces or patterns or cuts could be interesting. You can’t be Now from second-hand. I was also playing with identity and was part of a queer subculture that had its own codes that I wanted to document. There was a specific underground queer-scene look and that is how we recognized each other. We had to do a lot of messaging in real life at that time. We weren’t on Apps and phones with our sexualities. So that was part of my motivation. The secret and not-so-secret flagging, what happens in the everyday. I’m not a walking art piece but I wanted to capture this and be in control of it.
ES: And critique it. You are challenging expectations of fashion. You’re challenging the economy of fashion. You’re challenging questions of beauty. You’re challenging where one swings in the sexuality spectrum. I was curious if you could talk about sound. Is there music in every single shot?
KH: Not at all. There’s a lot of room tone and the background music that was just happening, that my roommates were listening to or whatever. As it goes on I do get more aware of the sound that is being recorded. There might be the news or television. Sometimes I would put on a song because I felt I could move to that song or express myself more or even dance to it. And sometimes it would just be what I was listening to at that moment.
My whole modus operandi was not to think too much about it and just do it. Nothing is really overthought. I mean, God, I wish I had better lighting. I really thought that camera was a lot better than it was.
ES: That camera that was like the size of your hand?
KH: It was a mini-DV camera and it was the nicest camera I could afford at the time. I had the idea that it was just such high quality. I mean—it was digital video! Still on a tape, but it was the newest format when I started taping. I mean, you taught me that you could shoot on anything as long as the idea was good.
ES: Like, it’s not what you wear but how you wear it. It doesn’t matter if you have the nicest camera in the world.
ES: I think I had to learn that teaching students on VHS and wanting them to get excited about what they were making before they knew what three-point lighting was.
KH: Totally. I started on VHS 1/2” and 3/4” tape.
ES: One of the things about experimental film and video art is that we’re working on the margins of the industry and we don’t have those resources. But where you decide to make an edit doesn’t cost money. A relationship between sound and picture doesn’t cost money.
KH: Exactly. And all the old video art that I loved was shot on even shittier mediums, so I wasn’t worried about what I was shooting on at all.
ES: What you do physically in front of the camera doesn’t cost money. All of those things are rigorous choices, and there’s a lot of formal play. There’s a whole sequence where you’re playing in your editing with the lights being turned on and off. How did you handle ten years of footage?
KH: It was really hard. I thought I was going to finish in the summer of 2014, but it was so emotional and intense to look at all footage that I couldn’t. I just scrolled through the video for about six months before I could actually watch everything that I shot. I was so uncomfortable and embarrassed for myself. I didn’t have a breakdown but—I nearly did. It took me a long time until I could sit with it and make that cut. And a hard deadline.
ES: How long is it, the entire footage?
KH: About six hours or more.
ES: It’s like when you do your taxes every year and you have to go through every receipt.
ES: It’s excruciating. Basically you were seeing every part of your history.
KH: I was seeing everything. Everything.
ES: Financial, emotional, breakups …
KH: Totally. I was seeing myself as I was seeing myself, or something like that, something very eerie.
ES: Medical history, everything?
KH: Yeah I could see really difficult moments and illness, things that didn’t come all the way through within my parameters. But also it was really embarrassing to watch myself so much. I’d become filled with huge shame balls. Eventually I was able to work with the footage if I tried to think about myself in the third-person. I would be like, “She deserves to take up space.” I really had to keep giving myself permission because it’s like yourself and you’re going to be, “Oh yuck embarrassing. That song? That outfit? I could leave that out.” But it’s all in there.
Then I also tried to keep the ethos of shooting it and not thinking and tweaking out too much in the editing. I made match-cuts and stuff like that to help it flow. Then to try to just get to what I was doing in front of the camera and give it a little space.
ES: There’s one moment I wanted to ask you about. Sometimes your face comes really close to the camera because you want to show something you’re wearing on your face or you’re turning off the camera. There’s one time where you come and stare at the camera and you’re crying.
KH: Yeah that happened and I just stayed with the camera and got that moment. The close-ups were something I had to figure out in editing because they were something extra and not preworked into the structure. I decided that I had to stay true to my original intentions and reasons for capturing these extra moments. What did she want to show me?
ES: Was she this person K8?
KH: Yes she is.
ES: You wanted to be honest to her diary of the day?
KH: Exactly and to her intentions of that day. You see more of that because I cried in front of the camera for a really long time. The edits are fairly proportionate.
ES: Somehow the clinical distancing creates this intense intimacy, like the films of Chantal Akerman, but also it has a relationship to the more lyrical experimental films that I was showing you, even back to Stan Brakhage or Carolee Schneemann.
KH: I was definitely influenced by all that work and the way you have to shift your focus and expectations. I love experimental film and video. It’s a different reality, possibly even more like reality.
KH: Yeah—that’s low budget!
ES: The track-zoom…
KH: The zoom is weird and the tracking it’s like a little yeah.
ES: Like the works of the structural filmmakers, Outfitumentary allows a different emotional resonance to come up. It felt very emotional watching it, and part of it was because we weren’t being distracted.
KH: It was like an exercise regimen or something, I just kept chugging along and doing it. Still, there’s still like, oh, months missing here and there where I kind of forgot about it or maybe I needed to buy a new tape. Or I might have loaned the camera to someone to use so I didn’t get it. I knew if I was really rigid—“It has to be every day”—that I would just get annoyed with those rules and I wouldn’t finish it.
ES: When you describe a piece like this, it sounds very simple. I’m going to document my outfit for a decade. I’m going to show the front and back of me. It sounds like superficially it’s going to be about fashion.
KH: It sounds like it, but it’s really not.
ES: Right. It’s an incredibly unique way to create self-portraiture. I mean there’s precedence from the era, like Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation .
Elisabeth Subrin, Shulie, 1997, Super 8/video/16 mm, color, sound, 37 minutes.
KH: Well, for me there’s also precedence in your film Shulie, like how that’s a remake of a student’s film about [Shulamith Firestone], which is a document that we need to see but we can’t, so you made the document. It’s important to tell our own stories. That’s something that you taught me. I mean you were the one who told me I was an artist basically anyways.
ES: It feels patronizing to say I’m proud because it’s as if ...
KH: You should be proud.
ES: I am proud.
KH: The root of what you taught me is really in that piece.
ES: I could see it. I remember when you walked into my Intro to Film/Video class at Amherst when you were a sophomore at Smith. It was your first art class, and my first “real” teaching job, and your first videos… There was one when you wore thrifted cowboy gear and were confronting the camera from stalls in a women’s public bathroom. You were taking on your identity even there. It was interesting because you were actually shy. There was something that happened when you turned the camera on yourself. At that time there were all these first-person documentary narratives where you would hear women talking about their identity-based traumas in very literal ways. Whereas you used performance and your body as a way to talk and show your internal experience.
With Outfitumentary you’re like, “This is who I am every day.” Not just in the clothes you were wearing but in the way you presented your reality. I feel that this is a piece that people will find in the archives in one hundred years and say, “Oh, so this is what it was to be an artist at that time.”
K8 Hardy is an artist based in New York.
Contessa Stuto, “Horny Lil’ Slut,” 2014, video, color, sound, 3 minutes 7 seconds.
CONTESSA STUTO, the Brooklyn-based rapper and founder of the Cunt Mafia, released her new single “Killing in Vain” within twenty-four hours of the release of New York cultural ambassador Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space,” two odes to messy love. While Swift’s litany of clichés about millennial coupling is characteristic of peers Katy Perry, Ariana Grande, and Selena Gomez, many of whom she apes with sheepish modesty, Stuto rejects the Swiftian promise of a happy norm with her “low-budget realness,” serving an aggro femininity that contravenes Swift’s suburban sameness with Dreamlandesque swagger. Stuto continues to splice romance with her characteristic huff, a way of rapping that leaves you with the sense that she has run out of both rhymes and breath, in her new video “Horny Lil’ Slut,” premiered here for the first time since YouTube removed it in December 2014.
In “Killing in Vain,” Stuto—“Count Contessa,” as Azealia Banks once crowned her—doesn’t rehearse the pop line on True Love so much as reinvent the genre in a gutsy ode to death-driven desire, putting Swift’s banality on blast: “I’LL TARE YOUR FACE OFF,” she spits. “DON’T MAKE ME FEEL IMCOMPLETE. The song, which mostly concerns the betrayal of an ex-lover, deals with how the physical intensity of desire fragments experience. “[T]ook me a long time to over come these / fears,” Stuto writes in the lyrics posted to her Tumblr, continuing later:
i feel my bones brOKE and
my body bleed to death and
I’m starting to feel something
Contessa Stuto, “Killing in Vain” (2014).
This deictic somethingness opens on larger questions regarding the language of desire, particularly in Stuto’s repeated insistence that it not make her “feel incomplete.” Part of the song’s energy is that it never seems entirely convinced that completion is really what Stuto’s after. The lyrics crack up in generative, insistent anger, often struggling to specify injury:
my night slaying
wish he was the
killing in VAIN
for ME !!!
Rather, what is specified is what the man doesn’t (or can’t) do. Letting her bleed to death he fails—repeatedly—to meet the terms of desire: “cupid wasted his dart,” Stuto sighs. She continues with barbed fury, recalling the “sephora scent” of the woman with whom the man cheated. She screams: “I’m hell bent.” And headed toward hell. In an extended version of the lyrics not included in the recording, Stuto writes, “AND HE WANTS ME DEAD. / IM beTTER OFF DEAD.” I’m not convinced—nor is Stuto. She concludes: “I GUESS.” Cunt Mafia, after all, makes the rules, declaring who lives and who dies.
Contessa Stuto, “Horny Lil’ Slut” (2014).
This Mafia, Stuto’s rap and nightlife collective that includes Quay Dash and Cakes da Killa, recalls a project outlined by Germaine Greer in her 1970 essay, “The Politics of Female Sexuality.” Like Stuto, Greer countered male privilege with a seismic, renegade energy rooted in the taboo language of “pussy-power.” In “Politics,” she proposes a method for upending patriarchal structures by re-envisioning female sexuality as more than a mere “function of meat,” calling for a lexical revolution in how we talk about female bodies and desire. “It ought to be possible to establish a woman’s vocabulary of cunt,” Greer wrote, “prideful, affectionate, accurate and bold.” Later: “Cunt is a channel drawing all towards it. Cunt is knowledge. Knowledge is receptivity, which is activity.”
In “Killing in Vain,” Stuto calls for her man to kill in vain—a literalization of Greer’s diagnosis of male sexuality as a confusion of “aggression for power.” Set in a greasy restaurant and a singed backyard, the music video for “Killing in Vain” supplements this aggression with a vision of a cruddy New York antithetical to Swift’s shapeless, all-purpose Village. Stuto’s own complex sexuality finds its analog in the grit of the Brooklyn diner: Messy, anguished, she grabs at herself in mock frustration at love’s unresolved dramas (which, in this case of murder-inflected love, is exclusive to meat-space), serving food with indifference to her patrons. “I’m an arrow and Cupid wasted his dart,” she sings as the song shifts to a metal-inflected register. Cunt is knowledge is activity: “Break down my heart, and I’ll break you apart.”
In “Horny Lil’ Slut,” Stuto hijacks gendered vocabularies of shame, reclaiming “slut” as a restorative, powerful word for the production of female sexuality: “I’m a horny lil’ slut and I want to fuckin’ fuck,” she repeats in the song’s chorus. Later, Stuto declares that her man is her king, that she will show her “twisted fantasy” where he “finger-fuck the pink.” The video, filmed to look like it was made with a home tape recorder, features Stuto performing at a house party and concert, revisiting the anguished gestures of “Killing in Vain” in an orgy of bodies as Stuto performs around them in the washed-out effect of an old VHS recorder. With its jumpy camerawork, the video recalls the low-fi porn and leaked sex tapes of the (ritually resurgent) 1990s. “Horny Lil’ Slut” ends with Stuto tied up in rope before the video cuts.
Hercules & Love Affair, “My Offence” (2014).
Of course, Greer’s vocabulary exists. Last summer, Hercules & Love Affair released “My Offence,” a quasi-PSA on “cunt” featuring Juliana Huxtable, Bailey Stiles, Sam Banks, Stuto, and other performers, musicians, and artists. In the video, they discuss the word’s unique New York registers. Stuto laughs and drawls, “It’s the highest prowess of power, it’s called the pussy and the cunt.” The video ends with Huxtable stating that “the greatest ways to point out the flaws [of patriarchal society] is to live in a way that exists directly in opposition to that but doesn’t sacrifice the idea that I function, that I live, that I’m vital.” This oppositional vitality refuses the normsy manners of a post-Bloomberg city in thrall to a cultural ambassador whose only legible “politics” is a stance against streaming music and whose “Welcome to New York”—the opening track of her 1989—offers us a city entirely devoid of cunt. We need a new ambassador.