By Olivia Gagnon
In order to exist you need only let yourself go until you are,
but in order to live
you must be somebody,
in order to be somebody,
you must have a BONE,
not be afraid of showing the bone,
and of losing the meat on the way.
— Antonin Artaud, To Have Done with the Judgment of God (1947)
“I think I’m probably a really bad shot,” I say to my friend Krystalla as we stand before curatorial duo Miles Pflanz and Laura Blüer’s DIY photo booth at Grace Exhibition Space on Friday February 21st, 2014. Installed as part of their multimedia show Think of Yr Future, the booth is ostensibly a curtained-off corridor made from pink surgical sheets upon which are scrawled the words:
As participants enter, they encounter an inviting pile of rocks and a VHS video camera perched precariously at the far end of the space: an irreverent invitation to violent play beneath which a conceptual seriousness lurks like a specter. While I did not make my shot, many visitors that evening did: their relative victories and failures articulated through shrieks and grunts, the sounds of smashing and breaking. The booth is thus an initiation into Pflanz and Blüer’s curatorial vision of apocalyptic iconoclasm: an electrifying paradigmatic energy that is nihilistic, violent, political, and always spectacular. But what does it mean to be asked to participate in this way? To show our bone and lose our meat? To be somebody? To get involved?
Like Artaud’s formulation, Think of Yr Future is inescapably political: visitors are impelled to violently smash an instrument of (admittedly retro) surveillance technology through participation in a performative spectacle where the destruction of documentation is also the act of destroying one’s own image. The self-serving pleasure of being on camera is thus married to the equally perverse pleasure of destroying the image and of annihilating the self, who both comes into vision and evades sight.
Circulating through many of the evening’s performances and videos, this dialectical desire produces meaningful political resistance at the aesthetic border between assertions of presence and the risk of (self) annihilation. But while nihilistic rhetoric may feel like the most appropriate response to the deadened landscape of the present, I question the reflexivity of such performative aggression. For it was unclear whether participants were cognizant of violence’s strategic deployment, or whether they were simply engaging in ejaculatory releases of rage, or worse, were submerged in the child-like pleasure of un-self-consciously destroying everything outside of oneself, failing to realize that the only thing being overrun is oneself. Watching visitors negotiate the photo booth’s open invitation, I couldn’t help but wonder if the curators’ vision of apocalyptic iconoclasm had been lost beneath the simpler pleasure of a rock’s thud against the camera’s plastic body.
But then again, maybe that’s the point. Think of Yr Future provocatively demands that we confront the contradictions of an anarchic, nihilistic, and iconoclastic politics, and invites us to experiment with its force through various aesthetic, visual, and fleshly recastings. Perhaps this politics can only ever be located in the interstitial space between destruction and creation: a moment of liminality in which the distinction between mindless shattering and productive dismantling breaks down, a paroxysmal flash in which we discover that we were always already angry and involved, reactionary and hopeful. What might it mean to scream our way into the future in this way, together?
Seemingly posing this question, many of the evening’s performances intimated that a kind of aesthetic razing might open out onto hypnotic trance-like states of cathartic transcendence. Responding to an imminent apocalyptic future, many of the works seemed to hasten its arrival: ushering us forward into extreme spaces of discomfort, they worked to challenge everyday affective states structured by complacency and banality.
Headliner MV Carbon of noise duo Metalux delivered what Pflanz and Blüer describe in the show’s flyer as “sludge-no wave”: a 30 minute-plus test of sonic endurance, in which severe electronic noise, distorted vocalization, and heavy reverb produce moments of interminable suspension which give way to states of rapture. Punctuated by engagements with various objects, the performance feels like entering an affective black hole: a movement through which painful duration is transformed into the pleasure of infinite space, of bodily shattering, of sudden release. Similarly, Raúl de Nieves’s terrifying scream performance broadcasts a vibratory bodily intensity that is both an exorcism and a death rattle, a release of energy that assaults in order to purge. Lowering a microphone deep into the recesses of his throat, de Nieves produces images that are both messianic and ghoulish.
Raúl de Nieves. Photo: Laura Blüer
Significantly tamer, Kate Levitt (aka Lines of Bleach) performed a distortion-heavy DJ set, in which her elfin frame cast shadows against the projected images of blue-tinged trees and sky streaked fantastically across the screen behind her – a visual sonic rendering of a dizzying utopian horizon. Finally, Ian Deleón’s “Caribbean Overtures: Teddy to Ronnie,” featured the artist—in presidential drag—as he transformed the space into a Caribbean cartography. As audience members pelted him with beer cans, Deleón unapologetically leered, sang, babbled, and yelled at them, while consuming bananas, rum, and sugar. The work provocatively calls attention to the violence of post-colonial exploitation intertwined with American consumerism – an excess embodied in the sprawling detritus that “Caribbean Overtures” leaves behind as both its performative trace and historical scar.
Ian Deleón’s “Caribbean Overtures: Teddy to Ronnie.” Photo: Laura Blüer
Additionally, the evening’s performances were interspersed with video programs, each featuring a series of back-to-back shorts. Traversing an impressively expansive territory, these videos reveal the curators’ investment in excavating the multiplicitous resonances of apocalyptic iconoclasm in DIY art practices. Many contained images of violent destruction and revolutionary takeover, as both representations of real political turmoil and fantasies about its possible correctives.
From Blüer’s “Floralia,” which juxtaposes Cuban May Day parade celebrations with footage of worldwide violent protests and police brutality, to Pflanz’s “Bedbugs,” which superimposes crosshairs on footage of Upper East Side investment bankers, to James Moore’s “Petrol,” which alternates images of his oil-streaked face with those of oil well fires – the videos (like many of the performances) inhabit the tension between calling attention to violence and reproducing it. Violence is not however posited as the sole modality of resistance, as less reactionary works like Jody Woods’s “Accidents of an Illusionist,” which explores paranormal Electronic Voice Phenomenon and dark tourism within the context of a Governor’s Island prison, and Joshua Rievel’s montage of occult ceremonies and explicit chat roulette footage, gesture toward the potency of subversive countercultures and their esoteric knowledge as one possible route out from under the oppressive weight of a capitalist society.
Video Still from Miles Pflanz’ “Bedbugs.”
Of particular interest in this respect is Jonathan Mittiga’s “Right Here,” which documents the gentrification of the artist’s Bushwick neighborhood. Employing a handheld DIY aesthetic, Mittiga walks his way along Jefferson Street, screaming as he encounters boarded-up properties, breaking into derelict buildings, and “making friends” with local inhabitants. Unfortunately, the video disastrously misses its mark, as it fails in its supposed attempt to expose the violence of gentrification. Mittiga’s interactions with gentrification’s victims (mostly people of color who are clearly living below the poverty line and /or are struggling with addiction) are shot through with an unfortunate irony, as his joking manner and faux-panic screams mock those who bear the real brunt of the neighborhood’s transformation. The sympathetic identification Mittiga attempts to foster with those he encounters ends up feeling like one more instance of exploitation, as his camera intrudes into intimate spaces of destitution. The audience at Grace Space that evening laughed as they watched “Right Here,” but I couldn’t help but feel troubled by the specter of privilege: it’s easy to laugh when one is safely ensconced on the other side of the camera. If Mittiga’s video is a sincere attempt to expose the tragic future of a rapidly changing Brooklyn neighborhood, then I can only wonder: whose future is he really most concerned with?
Video Still from Jonathan Mittiga’s “Right Here.”
In the cited epigraph, Artaud articulates the necessity of violently enunciating the body / self as a necessary precondition to living rather than merely existing. To risk losing one’s meat along the way is the only way to live as a (some)body – the only way to refuse the complacency of a silent passive existence and to resist oppression. To live is thus to take action and to step into the violence of the world with a new type of force: that of the screaming self who looks past the finality of apocalypse and in the latter’s smoldering ashes glimpses a new kind of beginning, another as of yet unforeseen way of being in the world. In Think of Yr Future, DIY art practices are revealed as embodying the full potency of this revolutionary thrust – as destruction, noise, violence, and detritus emerge as the skeleton keys that unlock possible futures.