The poor in world

  • casualties in the battle for a lower world
  • Exhibition Essay

Part of Fall 2008 - A Lower World

Bodies in crisis, bodies torn apart, an omnipresent sense of threat, empty spaces haunted by the missing. Bodies captivated by space and time, by form and by narrative. The seven works in this exhibition testify to the continued relevance of a politics of the body, but take this theme in unexpected directions.

Foucault’s idea of biopolitics is, very broadly, that modern governmental and institutional regulations, specifically the physical practices of those regulated powers, achieve “the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations.”1 These regulations can be as obvious as the restrictions placed on the bodies locked up in Guantanamo Bay or as inexplicit as the regulation of menial physical tasks performed by everyday non-combatants, that is, the ‘proper,’ most ‘economic’ way a civil body is supposed to move, write, read and watch. When subjects’ bodies act with appropriate discipline under these regulations they are made docile.2 When these bodies exceed the economy of their regulation, in one way or another, they break with sovereign power, that is, the ruler or head of state who decides what is law. Contradicting these laws – which, as we know, are often ambiguous – has harsh consequences. The lives of subjects are ordered in relation to the state by two concepts, ‘bare life’ or zoe, “the simple fact of living common to all living beings” and bios, “the form or way of living proper to an individual or a group.”3 It is the intersection of ‘bare life’ and political life that drives these philosophical inquiries and, in many ways, marks the works in this, Pleasure Dome’s first, gallery exhibition.

Theorist Giorgio Agamben has claimed, “…what characterizes modern politics is [that] realm of bare life–which is originally situated at the margins of the political order–gradually begins to coincide with the political realm, and exclusion and inclusion, outside and inside, bios and zoe, right and fact, enter into a zone of irreducible indistinction.”4

And this indistinction allows those subject bodies that cannot or will not remain docile, those bodies that “cannot be integrated into the political system,”5 to be eliminated. Stripped of their civil rights, refugee bodies, the un-Americans at Guantanamo, the un-Americans who oppose preemptive strikes and the erosion of civil liberties – are all left bare and vulnerable, their human rights linked to their citizenships and susceptible to transgression: “the so-called sacred and inalienable rights of man show themselves to lack every protection and reality at the moment in which they can no longer take the form of rights belonging to citizens of a state.”6 What remain are bodies with no connections to rights, and such bodies can easily become remains.

The indistinction between ‘bare life’ and politics is part of the current syntax of representation. In fact, for nearly twenty years, Pleasure Dome has actively challenged its integration into the “lawful,” political system by not submitting any of its exhibited films or videos to the Ontario Film Review Board. For this exhibition it was integral that the work chosen reflect a connection to this liminal, ‘in-between’ space, but truthfully, many of these connections occur by happenstance.

When viewed together clear connections have emerged that often revolve around bio-political theories. Whether by direct association to politics, ethics and the body, or through more media-based, conceptual and metaphorical associations involving anthropomorphism and cartoon violence, narrative structure and process, each of these works reflect our contemporary shifting, uneasy human relationship to the codes that govern that humanity. In these videos there is a guarantee that, whether totally eradicated, opaque or fleshy, bodies are subject to their environments, to the laws of the land. Some of these works trudge through the quagmire of bodies dominated by threat, others see such possibilities realized, exposing bodies in pain, crushed, sliced and silenced by terror that has become casual and everyday. Reduced to their bare lives, eliminated from human rights, these bodies become what Eric L. Santner has described as “creaturely”7: our human relation to the difference between, as Heidegger posits, human life as “world-forming” and animal life as “poor in world.”8 In this “zone of irreducible indistinction”, between bios and zoe, is the contested, violent, lonely and “poorer” world a step beyond the “poorest.” The battle for this lower world is precisely what we are watching.

Murata’s mutating, hyperactive video features wild, fluid flourishes made by digitally altering each frame of a short clip from the 1981 B-movie Caveman. In the video a repeated image of a campy, preposterous abominable snowman bursts out and into a kaleidoscopic mix of digital artifacts. Here, Murata works formally with digital corruption, again and again we are presented with the creature’s dissolution into digits and pixels. Murata’s use of image compression and the misinterpretations of foreign or incompatible video codecs as metaphor is playful, but it is not without its own (bio-)political implications. In Monster Movie, the thing that originally failed to terrify us is further reduced to reified nonsense and noise. This monster’s looped, constant state of approach, its lurch forward into the unrecognizable, is repeated, threatening, irresolvable anxiety.

The world surrounded by the standing army of the US is, in part, the backdrop for much of the American photographer and video artist Laurel Nakadate’s recent work. In her short videos, such as Beg for Your Life, and in her new feature, Stay the Same Never Change, Nakadate’s characters exist within the limited freedoms of small-town America. In the background of her sharp, performative realism, her recordings capture, with distanced precision, an image of Middle America that has been absent from many contemporary representations. She (and her characters) operate in places where the young men and women who didn’t make it to the big city are now gone as well, gone to Iraq, gone to war in order to get away or die trying. She is left with men who won’t be asked to do a tour of duty even with the United States’ reduced inscription standards. She is left with the impotent and frustrated who could have once threatened, dominated and subjugated her. She takes full advantage of their aged, rejected forms to enact a playful, terrorizing retaliation. In the space of indisintinction provided by war, her body is a body of equal measure to all the other bodies made bare. Nakadate’s vision is distressing for it is only through a fractured domestic policy, while foreign wars rage, that she is empowered to retaliate.

The violence perpetrated in Los Angeles-based Julian Hoeber’s Killing Friends is not retaliation, but rather an excessive leap into expectation, one where the repetition of violent acts subsumes threat back to inevitability. Monotone and jaundiced by the video’s unembellished, documentary-like interior lighting, flattened into Hoeber’s engrossed depth of field, the characters that take part in this contemporary slasher flick are bored by the ennui of filmic slaughter. Hollywood codes have invaded murder scenes so much that killing is portrayed as mechanical and bare. Hoeber stretches the time of the onscreen kills and we too become horrifyingly bored. Each scene becomes a tableau for the acting out of violence according to script and each blood spurt becomes redundant, each casualty of the violence a casual one.

Such mediated violence is a hallmark of Natalie Djurberg’s caustic vision in Untitled (Working Title Kids & Dogs). The stop-motion claymation the artist uses to create imaginary worlds with plasticine puppets distances us from the hyper-violent guerrilla warfare that takes place between kids and dogs in a poverty ridden alleys of an unnamed city. But, like the blasé internalization of horrific acts that pervades Hoeber’s production, Djurberg’s process too becomes grotesquely ironic, transmuting the fake clay innards that pour out of the wounded kids and dogs into some sort of horrifyingly real bodily reminder. Amid the fantastical and absurd mobilization of militaristic force by these embattled insurgents as they pull out crates of guns and grenades to fight for the last scraps of foods thrown down from the world formed above them, the profundity of Djurberg’s extreme satire comes into full view. Though this is an animated farce, it is played with a strange realism whereby clay becomes flesh, foley sounds become real screams, and where pain is, somehow, actually felt.

The social satire that runs through these works is a further, featured element of UK artist Marcus Coates’ Journey to the Lower World. Borrowing visual and aesthetic codes from the British committed documentary tradition, Coates enters a community meeting taking place in the living room of a Liverpool housing block slated for demolition. However, any realism is ruptured as the artist attempts to provide the frustrated and soon-to-be homeless residents with mystic, otherworldly support for their plight. Dressed in a deerskin, replete with taxidermy head and antlers, the artist is overtaken in convulsive rapture by the dead spirits of the animal world. In a kind of séance and speaking-in-(animal)-tongues, he channels the “poor in world” on behalf of the vulnerable occupants whose world is being deformed around them. Like Hoeber’s onscreen slaughter, the shock of Coates’ piece erodes over time. Though initially absurd and hysterical, as this animism is played out in its full duration, the humour erodes leaving bare the guttural moans of animals in actual pain, even if that pain is only psychically registered and communicated. Brought out of it absurdity, Coates’ performance becomes a kind of sacrifice to the real totem powers that hover over the housing block, bringing the documentary basis of the work back into sharp focus.

Mungo Thomson dedicates his The American Desert to the great Looney Tunes animation director Chuck Jones, who died in 2002. It features many of the sublime painted backgrounds from Jones’ cartoons made between 1949 and 1964, primarily from the epic battles between Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner, but he never includes any of the ‘living’ characters. Eliminated are the expected physical foibles of the coyote, ever persistent and tenacious in the face of failure, the small creature disappearing in a plume of smoke at the bottom of a canyon. We do not get his feathered opponent’s unscathed, honking salutation to the audience before it exits in a trail of kicked-up dust. The landscapes remain true to our expectations, just the way we remember them, seemingly endless and untamed. Thomson reveals what the American desert really is for Chuck Jones, a beautiful, brutal mythic landscape where emptiness and nothingness threaten to eviscerate most anything that tries to inhabit it. Jones formed the world onscreen and his animal characters lived and died within it. Thompson’s video brings the desert back into focus as a threatening place that conquers bodies.

Using a pointedly archaic aesthetic, pixilated and reminiscent of early video games, Micheal Bell-Smith’s Up and Away, like Thomson’s piece, features environments so sublime and so tenable that when digitally rendered their presence outstrips the need to have bodies inhabit them. As one city moves to the next and into vistas of a mountain, we are reminded that most often in gaming our onscreen avatars are battling for the worlds they are in; the “life points” won, levels achieved, evil bosses killed are just necessary obstacles in conquering that world. Coded to more minimal formal vernacular representation, employing pre-3D, non-immersive technologies, Bell-Smith builds armatures of cities and places that endlessly slide into and over one another while being simultaneously recognizable and non-specific. Uncanny, mechanical, automatic and repeated, this representation systematizes a vernacular of representations in such a way that the original referents are lost to an “irreducible indistinction” from the things we do see. Such is the case with anything digital. That the digital is one of the tools of the human world that dictates formation, that “space of possibilities,”9 where everything can be continually generated and regenerated is an exciting prospect, but not immune to danger. Here, that there is a hollow and endless world confirms that the right of human possibility often comes at the cost of life.

1Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. pp. 140
2Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1979. pp. 138
3Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University, 1998. pp. 1
4Ibid. pp. 9
5Agamben, Giorgio. State of Exception. Trans. Kevin Attell. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2005. pp. 2
6Ibid. pp. 126
7Santner, Eric L. On Creaturely Life: Rilke, Benjamin, Sebald. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2006. Please also see Agamben’s The Open: Man and Animal. Trans. Kevin Attell. Stanford: Stanford University, 2004.
8Heidegger, Martin. The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude. Trans. William McNeill and Nicholas Walker. Bloomington: Indiana University, 1995. (As quoted in Santner’s On Creaturely Life)
9Santner. Pp. 7