Let us begin at the beginning. Glut is the primary word that comes to mind when describing the performative outputs of artist Brenda Goldstein. It must not, however overshadow the next.
Not delicate in the sense of subdued, fragile or frail. Rather: aerial, finespun, light as a feather. Brenda Goldstein is an artist whose practice takes on and picks apart layers of contemporary mythology: images of power are some of her favorites. In the case of Pleasure Addicts, she has again created a delicate glut of images. This output, like previous ones, asserts; the dominant media beast rolls over and shows its underbelly, rendering himself vulnerable, open, and submissive. But one does not get to scratch the belly of this beast by force. One must be strategic. Perhaps even a bit delicate. Pleasure Addicts is a messy hybrid. Goldstein developed this ten-hour multi-media performance project over a period of two years. Early on in the process, she consulted with other women artists who also work in performance. These artists were asked to develop a character in response to their own experiences as women. Throughout the development the focus moved away from these fictional characters and towards the crafting of honest responses to the contradictory and problematic imagery of women offered by contemporary spectacle. The group actually began with dance in music video format. They improvised with loaded objects together. They undertook a workshop with artist Misha Glouberman. After many hours of discussion and action, Goldstein scripted interactions for the performers to interpret based on the characters to whom they were drawn. These characters had now become individual persona devices for the ten performers to present in concert together during a festival of orgiastic excess in Toronto, CA at Toronto Free Gallery presented in part by Fado Performance Inc. While men have assisted in the creation of Pleasure Addicts, there are no men in this performance. The collective nature of this project bolsters its own feminist logic, structure and strength. It reflects working methodologies that Goldstein takes up regularly, and are the backbone of her creative process—research, consultation and collaboration. The simple act of collaboration among women artists towards a feminist project is a re-empowering one. Personal agendas quickly collapse and evaporate into a singular agency that defies traditional definitions of authority. These women have created their own world;one where they live, suffer the consequences of their mistakes, and die. They have each painted themselves into a personal corner, but not to be forsaken, forgotten. They have temporarily relocated to eke out an existence that embodies the very fears and limitations that underlie a shallow, delicate, daily sheen. Today’s the message is blended well: forceful and blasé, hot and cold, yes and no. “He’s just not that into you” is a line from a 2003 Sex and the City episode. In 2004, a consultant and writer for the show, Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo, teamed up to write a book with the same name. Just in time for Valentine’s Day in 2009, Warner Brothers released the movie version, featuring Ben Affleck, Jennifer Aniston, Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Connelly, Ginnifer Goodwin, Scarlett Johansson and a handful of B-list male actors as their elusive would-be paramours. The first sentence of the synopsis found on The Internet Movie Database summarizes the plot: “Since the age of 5, Gigi has been told that when men act like jerks, it means they like her.”
The marketing tagline is an equally paradoxical question mark for imaginary women to consider as they wait for the phone to ring:“Are you the exception – or the rule?” Like the Sex and the City line, the book and the title of the film, this question targets a general ‘you’ and imposes a judgment. Which category do you fall into? Is that your final answer? The story—women experiencing ongoing interconnected miscommunications with men—is subservient to the reinforcement of pop culture’s ethereal female (this person or group of people called ‘you’) whose inner wish is to be first in line to be satisfied with second-best, with a maybe. Pleasure Addicts uses this brand of marketing language, and its related concepts, images and tools to propose a closer look at the “real” story.
On one hand, Pleasure Addicts is a messy version of feminine existence on a bad hair day. On the other hand it is life, or more accurately, actual lives lived out in front of our eyes. Its formal aspects and collaborative nature reflect a need today to continually redefine feminist expression. Our opponent (contemporary spectacle) is strong and pervasive. One compelling example of today is reality porn or ‘humilitainent’, a new phenomenon with a foothold in the Internet. For the tenth anniversary of Bitch Magazine, writer, Shauna Swartz was invited to provide her perspective on this developing form of pornography:
“In most places, paying for sex is illegal, that is, unless you document the transaction and sell the footage on the Internet. And if you show an attractive young woman, enticed by promises of cash, having sex with a complete stranger in a public setting—only to be kicked to the curb afterward with no pay and plenty of insults—chances are your porn site will be very, very popular…What distinguishes this new smut from its predecessors isn’t whether the action is scripted, but whether it’s portrayed as nonconsensual.”(4)
This coded documentation of what appears to be nonconsensual sex is wrought with questions. This web document shows part of a life lived by a woman. Swartz notably points out the link between this document and its creation. “The question of authenticity overshadows the sexual politics of why a woman might be willing to play the dupe, and any law-enforcement fixation on its social demerit misses the point that pop culture reflects the popular imagination at least as much as creates it.”(5)
In order for Swartz’ analysis to be useful in the reading of Pleasure Addicts, we must take it one step further. Yes, pop culture is a perfect machine. It absorbs popular imagination, brings it into being, and then even enables its dissemination and proliferation into the world. But what is pop culture capable of candidly saying about the lives of real women? Reality porn and He’s just not that into you (in all its iterations) are cultural events which present two aesthetic sides of the same wooden nickel: the women depicted have been handed the metaphorical supporting role with no time to practice their lines, let alone the opportunity to decline the offer. Assigned this obligatory part, how might one play it? As Nurse Feelgood, Pleasure Addicts prescribes a number of repetitive reactions to this question, to be taken in cycles over ten hours. Each image has its own aftereffect:
Check your Blackberry®
Eat/drink/sedate/stimulate yourself into oblivion
Kill yourself or another, ideally your Frienemy
Do it again
As an artistic mode, performance is a well-adjusted, rational response to our bizarre existence. Pleasure Addicts is powerful because it is what Dutch art critic Sven Lütticken might call a problematical fact of life: “…the performative spectacle gives birth to an ecological utopia in which all fundamental problems have been magically solved. But performance is not a solution or a promise; it is an obstinate and problematical fact. Only if we avoid presenting today’s culture of performance as a prelude to utopia and instead acknowledge its normative character, is there a chance of art performance instigating little ‘truth-events’ that highlight tiny fissures in the performative spectacle, and so raise the possibility of a more fundamental break with it.” (6) Goldstein’s formulation is not guiding us towards a utopia. At top speed, it is sending us careening off the bridge and into the glittering cold water below.
The more a moment is captured in images, the more that moment and those images become frozen in mass imagination. Those who witness the event have it burned into their retinas. Those who didn’t see the event have documentation (extensive or blurry) upon which they must rely. What does a ten-hour performative output like Pleasure Addicts accomplish more effectively than the slowing down and opening of real time? Perhaps Goldstein has offered us a spectacular breach: a few moments to regain consciousness, to come to our senses. Can we buy some time until the world has become a better place for women? We have ten hours.
(1) In 2007, Goldstein and I co-created spin, a video installation which unravels the role of women in the crafting of history through three performances. For me, this collective production and presentation process was a powerful exploration of the particular risks, challenges and generosities involved when women work together on a feminist project.
(2) The Internet Movie Database, “He’s Just Not That Into You,” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1001508/
(4) Shauna Swartz, “XXX Offender: Reality Porn and the Rise of Humilitainment,” in bitchfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), 318.
(5) ibid, 321.
(6)Sven Lütticken, “Progressive Striptease: Performance Ideology Past and Present,” in Secret Publicity: Essays on Contemporary Art (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, The Netherlands, 2005), 178.