Bizarro Jerry

What is to be the social condition of subjects existing within darkened relational space, who, like Trecartin’s avatars are immersed within a flattened vacuum? How might we relate or conceive of those who are like ourselves, yet with whom we will never meet, remaining only distantly aware and held at the arms-length of digital space. This example is from the world of sitcom, as one of the forms in which crossover and spinoff are most prevalent. The very situated-ness from which the humour of sitcom is derived (and which it shares with the ontic weirding of gothic fiction, which also encamps on the edge of the real) lends itself neatly to worlding and universing in the mind of the viewer. Seinfeld (1989-1998) is the sitcom in its meta-variant, building a multi-layered mesh of writers, actors and characters who leak into and out of screen, straddling fiction and reality.


Jerry Seinfeld plays a version of himself alongside a cast of characters based on his real-life acquaintances; co-writer Larry David becomes George Costanza, David’s neighbour Kenny Kramer becomes Cosmo Kramer. Season 4 of the show sees Jerry and George develop a sitcom pilot based on their lives, to be called ‘Jerry’, hiring actors who will take their place on screen (except Jerry, who will play himself). At the point where the series could have entered a loop retelling the story of its own production, the mise-en-abyme sitcom Jerry is cancelled, leaving Seinfeld to continue on an alternative, unaffected path. Whilst the motivating drive behind the seriesmay have been to make a ‘show about nothing,’[1] (itself an alienation to the TV viewer expecting compelling entertainment) in an attempt to get closer to lived experience, Seinfeld is not simply a sitcom ‘based on’ reality, but more akin to a spinoff from within reality, producing an alternate, mirror path with a common point of origin, leading somewhere very different. 

Seinfeld Season 8, Episode 3 ‘The Bizarro Jerry’, undertakes a further complication of the character/actor split. Sole female protagonist Elaine’s new boyfriend Kevin is set up as Jerry’s counterpart, with an equivalent cast of mirror friends (George equates to Gene, Kramer becomes Feldman, Jerry’s nemesis Newman becomes Vargus). Jerry, whose status as a fan of Superman comics is referenced throughout the series, compares Kevin to the character Bizarro, Superman’s mirror opposite:

ELAINE           Yeah! [Kevin] is a friend, Jerry. He is reliable. He is considerate. He’s like your, exact opposite.

JERRY               So he’s Bizarro Jerry!

ELAINE           [pause] Bizarro Jerry?

JERRY              Yeah. Like Bizarro Superman. Superman’s exact opposite, who lives in the backwards bizarro world. Up is Down. Down is Up. He says “Hello” when he leaves, “Good bye” when he arrives.

ELAINE           [pause] Shouldn’t he say “Bad bye”? Isn’t that the opposite of “Good bye”?

JERRY             No. It’s still a goodbye.[2]

Bizarro appears throughout the Superman comics canon, from his first full appearance in Action Comics No.254 (1959), eventually being granted a dedicated world within the DC Multiverse (Htrae – the opposite of Earth). Comic writer Alvin Schwartz conceived of the character as a mirror image that would allow Superman to build a ‘full dimensional personality’, inspired by C.G. Jung’s archetype of ‘the shadow’.[3] However in execution Bizarro becomes more of a bumbling Frankenstein’s monster-type character, his mirror world played for comedy effect rather than psychologically-charged shadow villainy. In the case of Seinfeld, it isn’t Kevin, but TV Jerry who is the Bizarro Jerry, with both the real (Earth-prime) Jerry and TV Jerry occupied by the same human being in fluctuating modes.

Cover of Action Comics No.254 (July, 1959) DC Comics, Image Source: https://readcomiconline.to/Comic/Action-Comics-1938/Issue-254?id=25427#1


The multi-stratified characterisation of Seinfeld was continued in the follow-up series Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-) in which Larry David becomes the central character, living within the milieu of early-2000’s Los Angeles. Where Seinfeld was happy to play within the given preconditions of the sitcom form, Curb approaches fly-on-the-wall documentary in its staging and handheld camerawork. In contrast to the pseudo-gothic bacchanal of Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, Curb’s Los Angeles is a quotidian non-place, populated by strip malls, food courts, anonymous office buildings and identikit Spanish Colonial Revival mansions. David’s use of music taken from Brecht and Weill’s musical The Happy End (1929) as the theme for Curb is a nod to the Brechtian alienation that the show strives for, with Nicholas Mirzoeff commenting that the series’ ‘very title invites the audience not to enjoy the show’,[4] and that it was the creators aim that ‘the audience should not be made to identify with the characters but rather to feel alienated from them.’ Mirzoeff positions David’s approach as ‘contrary to the dominant Method school of acting in the US in which the actor attempts to perform as if she or he is really experiencing their character’s life and emotions’ citing examples of David ridiculing his cast’s desire to understand the motivations of their character.

Whilst Seinfeld attempted to produce a meta-variant of the sitcom that would be an alienating vacuum ‘about nothing’, it succeeded instead in creating a more immersive and complete world and inspiring even greater fan devotion. Both Seinfeld and Curb echo the actor/character meshes at play in the works of Trecartin, but perform the additional step of placing one foot out of the screen and into reality. In occupying the space of a Huyghe-type indifferent universe, the fan/witness is stripped of a portion of their subjectivity by its ambivalence – the part which they must give over to the work. Incorporated but ignored, one’s outline is dissolved, in a process akin to that undertaken by the Artaudian theatre of cruelty. The extra-anthropocentric interdependence of parts within the Huyghe universe is perhaps a sterile analogue to Haraway’s chthulucene of “rich multispecies assemblages”[5] that “entangle myriad temporalities and spatialities.” Whilst the tendency of postmodernism is one of admixture and deconstruction, it need not be one of paralysis and isolation, it may open up a space in which other forms can be glimpsed – rival fandoms and bizarro selves sensed in the peripheral vision umwelt of the shared universe, a shadow commons.

Still from Seinfeld, “The Bizarro Jerry.” Season 8, Episode 3. Directed by Andy Ackerman. Written by David Mandel. NBC, October 3, 1996. Image Source: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0697657/mediaviewer/rm2162234368


[1] Seinfeld. “The Pitch.” Season 4, Episode 3. Directed by Tom Cherones. Written by Larry David. NBC, September 16, 1992.

[2] Seinfeld. “The Bizarro Jerry.” Season 8, Episode 3. Directed by Andy Ackerman. Written by David Mandel. NBC, October 3, 1996.

[3] Mike Conroy, 500 Comicbook Villains (London: Collins & Brown, 2004), 244.

[4] Nicholas Mirzoeff, Seinfeld (London: BFI TV Classics, 2007), 86.

[5] Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin,” Environmental Humanities, volume 6 (2015): 160, https://doi.org/ 10.1215/22011919-3615934.

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Umwelt

Pierre Huyghe, After ALife Ahead, 2017. Ice rink concrete floor; Sand, clay, phreatic water; Bacteria, algae, bee, chimera peacock; Aquarium, black switchable glass, conus textile; Incubator, human cancer cells; Genetic algorithm; Augmented reality; Automated ceiling structure; Rain; Ammoniac; Logic game. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Ola Rindal (Image Source: https://elephant.art/pierre-huyghe-indiscernible-unpredictable-irrational/)

Pierre Huyghe’s installation works constitute a similarly indifferent, immersive vacuum to the sound stages I talked about in my earlier post. The 2017 installation After ALife Ahead transformed Munster’s former Eispalast ice rink into a potent archeological site. By removing sections of the concrete floor, digging down into the sandy earth below the rink, and opening up mechanically operated, pyramid shaped voids into the sky above, the rink impelled its inhabitants to pick their way between the mounds of earth and pools of rainwater towards its centre, where they would find a tank containing a conus textile sea snail and a bio-luminescent GloFish. The building, a former site of joy and recreation soon destined for demolition, had become host to a very specific yet sparse mixture of lifeforms, its ecosystem a control mechanism for a colony of human cancer cells growing in a closed incubator to one side of the space. The more life the building hosted, enabled by the quantities of light and air permitted – the more vital its atmosphere, the quicker the cancer would grow.  

Huyghe states that he is ‘not interested in interconnected things, in relation to each other, but in their interdependency,’[1] and in letting ‘self-organizing systems try either to find or to not find a symbiosis.’[2] In the case of After ALife, this symbiosis had somewhat failed, with the bees and genetically modified chimera peacocks the space initially hosted rejecting the space only for other lifeforms to take their place voluntarily – pigeons, ants, weeds growing between cracks in the concrete. Huyghe likens the influences at play within his systems to ‘contaminations’[3], eschewing fixity in favour of ‘porosity, leaks, accidents, contingency, dilemmas,’[4] to produce a space that is constantly shifting, denying easy categorisation or narrative. This denial of fixed logic is in keeping with Huyghe’s view that the work should be ‘indifferent to the public’[5] and that the indiscernibility of the work’s systems are ‘a way to shift the centrality of the human position—whether as a maker or receptor.’[6]

Pierre Huyghe, After ALife Ahead, 2017. Ice rink concrete floor; Sand, clay, phreatic water; Bacteria, algae, bee, chimera peacock; Aquarium, black switchable glass, conus textile; Incubator, human cancer cells; Genetic algorithm; Augmented reality; Automated ceiling structure; Rain; Ammoniac; Logic game. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Ola Rindal (Image Source: https://elephant.art/pierre-huyghe-indiscernible-unpredictable-irrational/)

Huyghe’s apparent ambivalence towards his viewers, (whom he terms ‘witnesses’[7]) is seemingly contradictory to his association with Nicholas Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics, with its emphasis upon the convivial, social and communal. Whilst early works such as Billboards (1994-5) which presented photographs of street locations on billboards adjacent to their site, and Atari Light (1999), which turned gallery ceiling lamps into pixels for a giant playable game of Pong, carry a more sociable charge that can easily be inserted into the relational framework, Huyghe’s work since the mid-2000s has shifted away from a regard of the human subject, becoming increasingly indifferent and ambivalent. He describes the process of selection and insertion at play in works/worlds such as the installation Untilled (2012) as one of

…using personally important markers and dropping them within that place. You don’t display things. You don’t make a mise-en-scène, you don’t design things, you just drop them. And when someone enters that site, things are in themselves, they don’t have a dependence on the person. They are indifferent to the public. You are in a place of indifference.[8]

The alienation of this ‘dropped in’ object is also that which is at play in Trecartin’s admixture (the stranded boat, the shitstorm) in which ontic reality becomes a simulated, flattened zone of the virtual, a ‘sandbox’ universe of avatars, scripts, artefacts and sprites. Huyghe frequently cites Jakob von Uexküll’s notion of the ‘umwelt’[9]surrounding world, sometimes defined as a ‘sense island’, ‘significant environment’ or ‘cognitive map’[10] – to describe such a zone. The artist used the term as the title for two of his projects; a 2011 work at Esther Schipper gallery, Berlin, in which 10,000 ants and 50 spiders were allowed to roam freely in the gallery space, and for the exhibition UUmwelt, at the Serpentine Gallery in 2018, which incorporated a swarm of flies amongst shifting images produced by Deep Neural Network imaging software. The von Uexküll umwelt is the background within which each organism forms its perceptions and functions accordingly, its actions following its specific needs and sensory inputs which become a semiotic system – an anticipation of Norbert Weiner’s cybernetic schematisation of the organism in The Human Use of Human Beings (1950).

A closer reading of relational aesthetics, beyond the easy conviviality of the likes of Rirkrit Tiravanija shows that Bourriaud’s interest is in relations between ‘distinct units’ that remain plural, rather than subsumed within the communal mass. Bourriaud states that: ‘Reintroducing the idea of plurality, for contemporary culture hailing from modernity, means inventing ways of being together, forms of interaction that go beyond the inevitability of the families, ghettos of technological user-friendliness, and collective institutions on offer,’[11] and importantly invokes Felix Guattari’s definition of subjectivity as reliant on the establishment of distinct territory in relation to another, wherein ‘subjectivity can only be defined by the presence of a second subjectivity.’[12] This specific form of subjectivity is redolent of that found in Trecartin’s movies, in which the self extends spatially, to be defined in relation to its interlocutors. This is particularly the case in I-Be Area (2007), whose organising principle Trecartin explains as:

what identifies people is not necessarily their bodies anymore; it’s all the relationships they maintain with others. You are your area, rather than you are yourself. If someone describes you, that description becomes a part of your area, whether you like it or not.[13]

Bourriaid’s notion of relationality remains useful to any politics or aesthetics of alienation that is not simply to be a reterritorialization of individuation and atomisation on the part of neoliberal capital. Nor is it the strive toward structuralist-functionalist societal equilibrium, in the mould of that envisioned by Emile Durkheim: ‘constituted, not by a repetition of similar, homogeneous segments, but by a system of different organs each of which has a special role, and which are themselves formed of differentiated parts.’[14] Huyghe’s indifferent spaces engender a dark relationality – one in which distinct beings (human or otherwise) collide but do not connect. It is cohabitation without cooperation, the state provoked by burgeoning fractal online communities of identity and micro-political difference. As in Huyghe’s umwelts, infinite positions are co-hosted by shared platforms, parallel myopic paths which seldom intersect, their indifference and inscrutability only serving to enhance immersion.


[1] “Pierre Huyghe’s Latest Project Is Part Biotech Lab, Part Scene from a Sci-Fi Film,” Artsy, last modified June 19, 2017, https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-pierre-huyghes-latest-project-biotech-lab-scene-sci-fi-film.

[2] Andrew Russeth, “Constant Displacement: Pierre Huyghe on His Work at Skulptur Projekte Münster,” Artnews, last modified June 26, 2017, http://www.artnews.com/2017/06/26/constant-displacement-pierre-huyghe-on-his-work-at-skulptur-projekte-munster-2017/.

[3] Artsy, “Pierre Huyghe’s Latest Project.”

[4] Emily McDermott, “Pierre Huyghe: Indiscernible, Unpredictable, Irrational,” Elephant, last modified December 20, 2018, https://elephant.art/pierre-huyghe-indiscernible-unpredictable-irrational/.

[5] Russeth, “Constant Displacement.”

[6] Artsy, “Pierre Huyghe’s Latest Project.”

[7] Sjoukje van der Meulen, “Witness and presence in the work of Pierre Huyghe,” AI & Society 27, no. 1 (February 2012): 25–42, https://doi.org/10.1007/s00146-011-0330-x.

[8] Christopher Mooney, “Feature: Pierre Huyghe,” Artreview, last modified October 2013, 
https://artreview.com/features/october_2013_feature_pierre_huyghe/

[9] Jakob von Uexküll, A Foray Into the Worlds of Animals and Humans, trans. Joseph D. O’Neil (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010)

[10] Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, “Afterword – Bubbles and Webs: A Backdoor Stroll Through the Readings of Uexküll,” in Jakob von Uexküll, A Foray Into the Worlds of Animals and Humans, trans. Joseph D. O’Neil (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 238-9.

[11] Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, trans. Simon Pleasance & Fronza Woods (Dijon: Les presses du réel, 2002), 60.

[12] “All the conditions making it possible for individual and/or collective agencies to be in a position to emerge as sui-referential existential Territory, adjacent to or in a relation of delimitation with an otherness that is itself subjective”.  – Felix Guattari, quoted in Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 90.

[13] Tomkins, “Experimental People.”

[14] Emile Durkheim, The Division of Labour in Society, trans. George Simpson (Glencoe: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1960), 181.

Rozz-Tox Manifesto/Ralph Records Buy or Die 5

This is the first post on this blog relating to a new research and writing project I began a couple of months ago, more context will trickle out shortly but I’m posting here now in the hope that others interested in the subject might get in touch with any additional info. For now this will probably be of interest only to those who are big fans of Gary Panter (there’s plenty of those) or The Residents.

Gary Panter’s Rozz-Tox manifesto seems to be one of those things that had small ambitions but inspired alot of others to do stuff (like the often quoted line about the Velvet Underground’s first album “everyone who bought it formed a band”). I’ve been doing some old-fashioned art history research to try and uncover a few more details about where and when the manifesto was published – it seems like if people care enough about this its worth trying to put together a more definitive timeline, also to help measure what influence it had and where. I’m not going to delve into the sentiments of the manifesto at this moment, if you’re not familiar with it this version is the more accurate one online.

According to a blog post on Gary’s old site that you can see on Wayback Machine, the manifesto was first published divided into separate weekly items in the personals section of the Los Angeles Reader throughout 1979, an approach attributed to thrift but which seems wholly appropriate to the manifesto’s culture infection mission: “back then getting something set in type cost money. By running it in the Reader, it got set in type for free”. The manifesto then did the rounds of early 80’s Californian alternative press, appearing in STUFF, New West and San Francisco magazine Boulevards, as well as Ralph Records Buy or Die Catalogue 5, 1980:

Another step in the media infiltration campaign was through the RESIDENTS. I approached the CRYPTIC CORPORATION with the manifesto and they were kind and swell enough to include it on some of their record releases. On these releases the image appeared without copyright as an anonymous logo of a pseudo movement, free to pass along. And that was the spirit in which the Cryptics accepted it. And many people reproduced the manifesto from the cover art or from insert flyers in their records which were distributed worldwide.

The Ralph version is the one most seen online (actually the only scanned version online as far as I can see). I’ve seen this credited as the version from New West magazine, unless it was a facsimile of the Ralph catalogue page that was re-printed there, which seems unlikely. I was uncertain which edition of the catalogue the manifesto appeared in but managed to buy a copy of #5 on discogs, and sure enough there’s the manifesto on page 13:

Ralph Records ‘Buy or Die’ No.5, April 1980, pages 12-13: Rozz-Tox Manifesto, see also Rozz Tox T-shirt advertised on page 12.
Ralph Records ‘Buy or Die’ No.5, April 1980, outside cover, artwork by Gary Panter.

I’ve scanned the whole catalogue, you can access a PDF below if you want it (sharing this for research purposes, if any copyright holders want me to take it down let me know)

Seeing the whole catalogue doesn’t really turn up any extra information or context really, but it also came with an article from the September 1980 issue of Trouser Press (no.54) magazine which the previous owner had carefully cut out: ‘Ralph Records: Surrealism A Go Go’, which interestingly opens with a quote from Rozz-Tox, also mentioned during the article

“The catalogue also includes the Rozz-Tox Manifesto, which deals with the creation of a “broad-based art movement” and “a pseudo-avant-garde that is cost-effective.” Pretty neat, huh?”

showing that the manifesto was already having a wider recognition and influence in the culture of the time. The article is otherwise pretty much the standard Residents biography that you will now find elsewhere, but might have been largely new information at the time. You can read that full issue online here (pages 29-31).

‘Ralph Records: Surrealism a go go’ from Trouser Press No.54, September 1980.

Side note: here’s a review of the great ‘Tornader to the Tater’ from issue 78, October 82 of Trouser Press.


My attempts to find any other print versions of Rozz-Tox have otherwise drawn a blank so far. No issues of LA Reader or Boulevards seem to have made it online. I thought I got close with the archive of scanned STUFF magazines on the adsausage site. Issue #30, 1981 contains a Panter-drawn ad for the Pee-Wee Herman stage show, and the contents page tantalisingly listed ‘Gary panter’ for page 121. I reached out to adsausage and JJ Englender who runs the archive very kindly sent me a scan of page 121:

Gary Panter, THE ART POLICE Rule Book, stamped with Gary’s customary date stamp. STUFF Magazine #30, 1981, p.121

It seems most likely Rozz-Tox must have been in STUFF before THE ART POLICE rule book, owing to the manifesto’s single reference to ‘Join the art police’ and Panter’s blog:

‘Some nice young people came over and tried to join the ART POLICE. I told them I wasn’t forming any, but that there were some ART POLICE in Chicago they could join.’

JJ kindly checked his other copies of STUFF in case he hadn’t scanned it but no luck there. So I’m putting this out to the world in the hope someone will send something through. Any information or images relating to the following much appreciated:

– Which issues of LA Reader did the free ads run in?
– Which issues of New West and Boulevards?
– Did it appear in any other issues of Buy or Die, or just number 5?
– Any other known records/magazines that might have contained the manifesto in authorised or unauthorised reproductions?

Get in touch danielseankelly at gmail dot com

Same Actor, Different Character

This is a side note to the spin-off future project – a few months ago I did a bit of a data mining exercise to find out where the crossovers are in the casts of Seinfeld, X Files and Twin Peaks. This was inspired by thinking about a kind of Tommy Westphall universe-in-reverse, i.e. if Westphall requires the sharing of characters between adjacent worlds, this follows the thought of Hollywood as a meta-universe, and the sharing of actors between adjacent productions. If you spend any time watching American TV from the early 90s it’s a pretty common experience to see the same faces pop up regularly playing bit-part characters in single episodes, usually playing roughly similar characters within different worlds.

The choice of Seinfeld, X Files and Twin Peaks as the data sets for this exercise was pretty much arbitrary, apart from the fact that they all have a cult following, and I have watched pretty much all of all three (X files only until the end of the Duchovny years). For Twin Peaks I just used the original 2 series, not Fire Walk with Me or The Return. On reflection using Twin Peaks for this is a bit of a false equivalence, because of its much smaller run of 30 episodes, Star Trek TNG would probably be a good contender for a fourth series to try. I assume the credited actors are just those who have a line in the show, and doesn’t include extras. I harvested the names off IMDB then used some sorting formulas in google sheets to identify the crossovers. Originally I wanted to make a Venn diagram out of this data, but out of laziness I’m just presenting it as this blog post instead.

If you want to see the raw data here’s the spreadsheet.

The headlines stats:

– 1318 named actors appeared in Seinfeld (172 Episodes)
– 2158 named actors appeared in X Files (217 Episodes)
– 176 named actors appeared in Twin Peaks (30 Episodes)

– 106 actors appear in both Seinfeld and X Files
– 14 actors appear in both Twin Peaks and X Files
– 12 actors appear in both Seinfeld and Twin Peaks

– 3 actors appear in all three.

The three who appear in all three are Frances Bay, Jack McGee and John Apicella. They’re not exactly household names but very recognisable faces nonetheless.

frances_bay
Frances Bay

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Jack McGee

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John Apicella

These kind of actors make up the umwelt (surrounding world/sense island/cognitive map – of which more in this project soon) of TV and film – faces imbued with a familiarity that might hover just below conscious recognition, maybe irritatingly and distractingly hard to place. Their status says something about the difference between ‘star of the show’ (often those whose Earth Prime identity and name is unforgettable and pierces the mise-en-scene) and ‘jobbing actor’, whose name is unknown to most, existing and appearing only within on-screen worlds, and seldom in media outside of them.

It seems obvious to say that a single actor plays multiple characters, that’s the nature of the job, and, if they do it well, we are able to suspend the real-world personage of the actor who becomes only the character – often via a sacrifice of subjectivity (i.e. method acting). The unspoken operation on the part of the viewer/watcher/fan is to understand that an actor playing a different character does not cancel out or supersede their previous roles. In Lynch we often see the same actors return to play roughly analogous but separate characters, sometimes in two or even three roles in the same production (Sheryl Lee as both Laura Palmer and her cousin Maddie, Watts as both Dianne Selwyn and Betty Elms, Kyle MacLachlan in triplicate as Dale Cooper, ‘Evil Coop’ and Dougie).

maxresdefaultDougie

A radically credulous stance denies this repeat casting from foreclosing a shared universe reading of two works. Instead, the troupe cast opens up an opportunity to view Lynch’s wider canon, in particular the films Blue Velvet, (1986) Mulholland Drive, (2001) and the Twin Peaks three series and film as all existing in a roughly contingent universe of repeated tropes, motifs and storylines. Where Mulholland Drive is easily readable as existing in the same universe as Twin Peaks (even if no explicit crossovers are indicated), Noami Watts’ appearance in both might ordinarily challenge this notion unless we believe that either both characters are the same person, or that persons can co-exist through singular body-avatar doppelgangers.

Returning to those actors in separate universes, Frances Bay in particular is the kind of actor that Lynch uses frequently in bit-parts throughout his productions (Bay also appears in Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart) – character actors of the 1930s-50s who had faded into obscurity and were somehow still miraculously working in the 1990s. Bay started her career as a radio actress in the 1930’s, followed by a long career break and re-emergence on TV in the 1970s – her first on-screen role listed on IMDB is ‘Lady at Chapel (Uncredited)’ in a 1976 episode of Kojak. Others that spring to mind in Lynch roles include Ann Miller (more of a genuine star of golden age Hollywood, appearing as Coco, the landlady in Mulholland Drive), Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn, who both appeared in West Side Story (Some more examples relating to David Lynch casting here). Lynch’s use of these actors speaks to his position as someone who has grown up in an earlier age of Hollywood and daytime TV, but also a masterful wielding of the uncanny affect generated by the return of an unplaceably familiar face, an actor who history would prefer to confine to a neatly canonised era, somehow still alive, talking, moving and acting, propped up and held together by plastic surgery of a more experimental era. 

500,000 Kilowatts of Stardust

Still from Warner Brothers Ident showing adjacent soundstages. (Image Source https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QW3zcF_CQ6w)

Kathy:              Why, it’s just an empty stage.

 Don:               At first glance, yes. But wait a second. A beautiful sunset. Mist from the distant mountains. Coloured lights in a garden. Flooded with moonlight. We add 500,000 kilowatts of stardust. A soft summer breeze…[1]

 The empty sound stage is an empty world, a vacuum ready to be populated by sets, props and characters that constitute a universe – like the sets of Artaud and Trecartin whose surrealist vibrancy is designed to provoke production, the sets of Hollywood consist of a vacuum, an immersive emptiness that is the pre-condition of production. Hollywood operates as meta-universe, within which all other worlds can co-exist in spatio-temporal adjacency, and a model for a post-digital relational space of production.

The formation of the film studio lot offers a diagram for a physical shared universe. Parallel sound stages act as host voids for the construction of immersive set-worlds. Often in the case of contemporary film production, the set is also mostly a void of chroma key green screen, the immersive world building taking place on the shared desktop of Adobe After Effects. Still, the physical studio formation persists, of sound stages side-by-side hosting parallel worlds and bodies, mirrored in the multiplex cinema with its corridor of screens, each a door leading to a different world, and the streaming platform in which content is positioned more-or-less horizontally. These worlds intersect as characters, actors, props and crew members interchange between stages. Proximity begets contingency, and thus Hollywood constitutes a meta-universe, occasionally crossing over to become the subject of film in itself. 

An early example of the meta-universe as fictional world is Singin’ in the Rain (1952), which takes the techniques and technologies of filmmaking as its subject matter, specifically the transition from silent film to talking pictures in the late 1920’s, and the tribulations for the studio system that this shift engendered. Whilst the characters and productions the film focuses on are fictional, it makes reference to real-life releases including Warner Brothers’ The Jazz Singer (1927), thus positioning itself on the periphery of the Real. The character of Lina Lamont is a nod toward silent film actress Clara Bow, who, with the advent of ‘talkies’ surprised audiences with her thick Brooklyn accent: “I hate talkies … they’re stiff and limiting. You lose a lot of your cuteness, because there’s no chance for action, and action is the most important thing to me.”[2]

Singin’ therefore charts the same moment of transition outlined by Deleuze’s Cinema I (1983) and Cinema II (1985): from the pre-war movement-image to the post-war time-image, in which Bow’s call for ‘action’ (i.e. movement) is superseded by the time-binding effects of language and sound. Deleuze identifies Gene Kelly’s movement and dancing in Singin’ as a response to the ‘sensory-motor situation’[3] (the rain-drenched street) that calls for a ‘movement of world that the dance will outline’[4], in the case of the iconic titular routine this is described as a ‘dance which seems to have its origin in the unevenness of the pavement.’[5] The sensory-motor situation, then has much to do with Artaud’s idea of the setting as the ‘starting point for theatrical creation’, but what of the empty stage, the empty world?

Still from Singin’ in the Rain (You Were Meant for Me sequence) Singin’ in the Rain, Directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donan, Beverly Hills: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1952.

On a number of occasions, Singin’ utilises the soundstages and equipment of filmmaking as a location whose very emptiness provides the sensory-motor stimulus for these ‘movements of world’. Protagonist Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) uses a vacant stage to woo his love interest Kathy Seldon (Debbie Reynolds) through the song ‘You Were Meant For Me’. The emptiness of the stage becomes Lockwood’s material with which to produce the required affect of romance as he manipulates light, smoke and wind, (along with ‘500,000 kilowatts of stardust’) to produce a simulacra of the natural world before launching into song. The empty stage is an exemplification of Marc Augé’s ‘Non-Place’, and its adaptation by Deleuze as the ‘any-space-whatever’: a ‘space of virtual conjunction, grasped as pure locus of the possible,’[6] in which song and dance routines might spontaneously erupt at any given moment in a flow of continuity that is at odds with the Brechtian use of song as an alienating interruption.

Still from Singin’ in the Rain, (Make ‘em Laugh sequence), Singin’ in the Rain, Directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donan, Beverly Hills: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1952

The effect is replicated in the sequence for the song ‘Make em Laugh’, which begins with Lockwood and Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) walking across a soundstage, moving between a series of adjacent set-worlds and their film crews; a jungle scene, a western, a sports stadium, a hotel lobby. The latter becomes the setting for Brown’s acrobatic dance routine which utilises the half-constructed set to comic effect, opening a door that leads onto a brick wall, running up leaning planks in a series of gravity-defying stunts. Meanwhile set dressers and stage hands continue their work in the background seemingly oblivious or indifferent to Brown’s moment of pure motor-sensory abandon.

By being a film about film-making, also a mise-en-abyme (‘Singin’ in the Rain’ becomes the title of the film they are making, as well as the film we are watching) the film somewhat dissolves the fourth wall of the Hollywood studio, but only to a degree that will enhance the immersion and entertainment of its audience. Rather than the alienating provocation of Brecht, Singin’s dissolutions serve to enhance immersion through a contract of understanding with the post-war audience, in which recognition of their pre-war selves and the sound stage sites of production positions the film adjacent to lived reality. The film addresses its audience knowing them to be Fans, privy to a knowledge of Hollywood stars of a previous era. The character of Kathy Seldon is also a Fan, her avid readership of the ‘fan magazines’ (such as Photoplay (1911-1980), Motion Picture Magazine (1911-1977) and Modern Screen (1930-1985)) is a source of embarrassment she seeks to conceal. Fandom here is not a productive force, it’s only outlet being enraptured spectatorship at a movie premiere or mobbing and tearing the clothing of stars encountered on the street.

Golden era Hollywood’s disregard for its fans perhaps rebounded in the form of Kenneth Anger’s ostensibly non-fiction account of the era Hollywood Babylon (1959), in which Anger took the gossip impulse of the fan magazine and its celebrity personae as characters for a series of libelous debauched episodes, the content of which was accessed by “mental telepathy, mostly,”[7] in keeping with his status as a practitioner of Thelemic magick. Anger’s merging of the Hollywood milieu and occult practice follows Artauld’s suspicion that ‘the cinema reveals a whole occult life with which it puts us directly into contact. But we must know how to divine this occult life.’[8] It is precisely the occluded aspects of the studio system, the sound stages and equipment, the processes and techniques of film-making, which if done correctly will remain occluded and serve only to enhance immersion.

Anger’s writing is the form of frustrated fan theory-fiction that Hollywood engendered, the literary equivalent of rending a star’s garments in the street. The same impulse is present in J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), in which Princess Margaret, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, become the cast of Ballard’s surgical-erotic vignettes. Ballard’s own specific locale in West London, surrounded by the film studios of Shepperton and Pinewood offers a twin, more prosaic milieu to that of Anger’s Hollywood. Where Ballard’s writing is clearly a neurologically admixed version of the mid-1960’s mediascape, Anger positions his writing within the real by claiming the work is non-fiction, the apparatus of a Hollywood non-place providing the motor-sensory impetus for his visions. Anger closes the book with a description of the emptiness of the Columbia studios soundstages rendered permanently vacant by the increasing popularity of on-location filming in that era, invoking an image of ancient Egyptian tombs: ‘hulking, obsolete sound stages like secretive mastabas.’[9] For Anger the emptiness of the sound stage is the emptiness of Hollywood, a vessel ready to contain whatever worlds can be conjured from its immersive vacuity.

Pre and post-production images, Game of Thrones, (Image Source:https://digitalsynopsis.com/design/movies-before-after-green-screen-cgi/)

With the increasing dominance of chroma key (colloquially ‘green screen’, often blue screen) filming in mainstream cinema, Hollywood (particularly the cinema of genre fiction and superhero comic adaptation which is particularly reliant on such technologies), once again requires voids to produce its immersions, with actors expected to respond with the minimum of possible motor-sensory stimulus. The actor must perform within a vacuum, alienated from fictive imagination and deprived of motor-sensory stimulus, producing alongside flattened body-voids waiting to be populated by avatars. As jolting to the actor as the door that opens onto a brick wall, the chroma key screen becomes a zone of limitless possibility for the production of immersive images in digital space, the exemplification of Auge’s indifferent non-place. The alienations of the empty soundstage, the empty green screen, enable the building of new worlds; echoing Laboria Cuboniks once again, ‘Alienation is the labour of freedom’s construction.’[10]

[1] Singin’ in the Rain, Directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donan, Beverly Hills: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1952.

[2] Elisabeth Goldbeck “The Real Clara Bow,” Motion Picture Classic, September 1930. Quoted in Annabel Lagasse, “An Exploration Of The Creative Challenges In Representing Human Movement In Digital Animation” (PhD diss., Nottingham Trent and Southampton Solent University, 2015), 85.

[3] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema II:The Time Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (London: Bloomsbury Revelations, 2013), 63.

[4] Deleuze, Cinema II, 62.

[5] Deleuze, Cinema II, 62.

[6] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema I:The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (London: Bloomsbury Revelations, 2013), 123.

[7] Kevin Brownlow, “Foreword,” in Laura Balogh, Karl Dane: A biography and filmography (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2009), 1.

[8] Antonin Artaud, “Witchcraft and the Cinema,” in Antonin Artaud Collected Works Volume Three, trans. Alastair Hamilton (London: Calder & Boyars, 1972), 66.

[9] Kenneth Anger, Hollywood Babylon (New York: Dell Publishing, 1975), 418.

[10] Laboria Cuboniks, “Xenofeminism.”

Raw Supplies

Ryan Trecartin’s works are produced within a wide circle of co-producers, primarily the sculptor Lizzie Fitch, yet Trecartin keenly rejects any suggestion that the group of artists and performers involved are a collective, stating ‘The way Lizzie Fitch and I work with collaborators has grown out of a network culture perspective that sees authorship as a fluid space and collaboration as an inherent, connective reality.’[1] This ‘network culture’ approach can perhaps be best engendered as a nesting of practices, extending into the scripting process, in which the ‘sets, props, costumes, hair and makeup…constitute a type of script.’[2] In the final edit the whole created world becomes simply ‘raw supplies’,[3] with all possibilities of narrative, timeline and character achieving horizontal parity.

Where real-world settings are used, such as the semi-derelict L.A. masonic temple used for Temple Time (2016) the setting becomes directly implicated in the work, with Trecartin stating that ‘we were thinking of the building as the protagonist and the building itself was the main character of this piece.’[4] There are clear echoes here of Artaud’s orientation towards materiality as instigator and not simply backdrop to the dramatic, as his manifesto states: ‘Staging: This archetypal theatre language will be formed around staging not simply viewed as one degree of refraction of the script on stage, but as the starting point for theatrical creation.’[5] The closed-world constructed set shared by three of the Priority Innfield movies has an overbearing impetus upon the work; its low-ceilinged, wide rooms have an ominously awkward architecture, evoking reality TV studios, furniture showrooms or theme park facades.

The three movies filmed within this set go nowhere, both spatially and in terms of narrative, the zones, edges and boundaries of the set constituting their whole world. The interior is populated by the kind of disjointed amalgam of furniture and objects that might occur only within video games such as The Sims (Will Wright – 2000) a mixture reflecting the transient tastes, attention spans and spending habits of anhedonic millenial youth. Everything is incoherently positioned, and incompletely constructed, making it very hard to get a clear sense of the space’s organisation through the movies, which dart between locations, usually in constantly moving hand-held shots that defy the viewer a clear look at the background.

Priority Innfield set. Note: this image comes from one of the set builders involved in constructing the set, which is never this clearly legible is in any of the movies. (Accessed September 2, 2019, Image Source: https://jer.studio/brink-1)

Image from The Sims, 2000, Designer, Will Wright, EA Games, (Accessed September 2, 2019, Image Source https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/9/91/SimsSS.jpg)

The default material state in Priority Innfield is one of infinite admixture – there are recurrent moments of characters smashing cinder blocks with their bare hands and squeezing the red plastic cups synonymous with ‘frat parties’ until they shatter, ultimately becoming a texture of fragmented matter. Other objects appear stranded, such as the yacht that features prominently in Comma Boat pulled up on dry land. In Trecartin’s universe, to be a prop is to be solid, stable, linear, distinctly non-fluid and non-queer, devoid of the freedoms offered by the virtual space which his characters inhabit. It is to be available for use by another, unable to express one’s own agency – the state which all of Trecartin’s characters struggle towards. The characters’ irreverence toward the material extends to their lexicon, where ‘prop’ become a frequent insult or term of denigration, e.g; ‘if M-pegative productions makes a prop out of me again, I’ll erase everything you ever made, including the videotape of my birth’.[6]

The origins of this material ambivalence are traceable to the fourth part of the series Junior War, filmed in the year 2000 in Trecartin’s Ohio hometown, and which documents the misdeeds of his teenage peers during homecoming week as they smash mailboxes with baseball bats, throw televisions from moving cars and steal garden ornaments. The youngsters’ rallying cry is their desire to ‘Fuck Shit Up’, a phrase that is echoed throughout Trecartin’s films, and a process in which all matter is drawn entropically towards a state of ultimate abjection. This state of commingling calls to mind Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s conception of the contemporary mediascape as a ‘shitstorm’, which demands an altered state of neurological plasticity to navigate. Berardi borrows the term from Byung-Chul Han, who states that ‘Shit-storms…arise in a culture where respect is lacking and indiscretion prevails. The shit-storm represents an authentic phenomenon of digital communication.’[7] Berardi goes a step further, describing the shitstorm as not just a symptom of digital communication, but ‘the new discursive weapon of power…the mutation of the public discourse into war among a-signifiers…the goal of semiotic emission…is not to produce meaning but to compete and to win.’[8]

Where Berardi calls to counter the shitstorm with a future-enabling silence, Trecartin’s is the work of the digital shitstorm (or shitpost)-native, simulating a writerly neurological state – not to be unpicked or decoded, so much as sensed and enjoyed on a level of a-signification. His is an appropriation of the shitstorm affect, producing immersion that strips the viewer of body and leaves just an avatar. Whilst Trecartin may anticipate a point at which fans become directly implicated as authors and editors of works, the movies already provoke their audience in an immersive neurological labour process, of constituting timelines, sense and meaning. Cinema continues to operate on such a basis, with film presented as a complete artefact. In spite of such wholeness, the fan impulse still finds and creates a space for production and expansion. The techniques and motivations of Hollywood film-making remain a technology for the production of desire, with the film-maker an affect magician who seeks to produce immersion, if not quite ‘cruelty’.

Ryan Trecartin/Lizzie Fitch, Priority Innfield (Freestanding Sculptural Theatre – Fence), Install view at Andrea Rosen Gallery, 2013 (Accessed September 2, 2019, Image source: http://www.spruethmagers.com/artists/lizzie_fitch_ryan_trecartin@@viewq13)

[1] “Cindy Sherman Interviews Ryan Trecartin,” in Any Ever: Ryan Trecartin, ed. Kevin McGarry (New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2011), 144

[2] Ryan Trecartin, “When the time comes
you won’t understand
the battlefield,” interview by Kristina Lee Podesva, Fillip 13, Fillip, Spring 2011, https://fillip.ca/content/when-the-time-comes-you-wont-understand-the-battlefield?order=513fc90cbea11ecb09febe9757903ae7.

[3] Trecartin, “When the time comes
you won’t understand
the battlefield.”

[4] Trecartin, “The Safe Space of Movies.”

[5] Artaud, “The Theater of Cruelty (First Manifesto),” 97.

[6] Trecartin “I-Be Area.”

[7] Byung-Chul Han, In the Swarm, quoted in Franco Berardi, The Second Coming, (Cambridge: Theory Redux, 2019)

[8] Franco Berardi, The Second Coming.

Mesh

The hybrid moving image works and sculptural environments of Ryan Trecartin approximate the Artaudian conception of cruelty in their visual hypermontage and spectral narrative arcs, usually incorporating a cast of non-actors playing out semi-improvised scenarios that are chaotically edited and re-presented within immersive installation environments. Their stuttering of the textual in favour of the gestural, the overloading of the visual and linguistic facilitates an altered neurological state that uncompromisingly demands its viewer enter into a state of fan-being in relation to the work – pulled into and gifting over to the world on screen, and ultimately undergoing a form of bodily erosion. The 2013 Priority Innfield series, consists of four separate, interlinked moving image works (Junior War, CENTER JENNY, Item Falls and Comma Boat) and screening environments, whose discernible plot revolves around a post-apocalyptic scenario in which approximately-human beings struggle to gain agency within an institutional framework that is redolent of american college education and its accompanying social sphere.

Trecartin describes his characters as ‘avatars’, echoing the surrogates and stand-ins of social platforms, sometimes a prosaic profile pic, sometimes an idealised fantasy construction – often an opportunity to inhabit a body unlike one’s own. These avatars frequently refer to ‘the second big bang’ and speculate about life ‘back in the human era’, and we ultimately learn that they ‘evolved from animations, those are our ancestors…and these animations, actually evolved from humans.’[1] Whether the avatars we see are controlled by a secondary agent or ‘user’ never becomes apparent, their uncanny modes of speech and behaviour seeming to suggest they have become untethered as they giddily grasp towards agency.

Trecartin refuses a reading of his movies that would place them neatly within a tradition of post-modernist nonlinear fictions, preferring instead to frame them as ‘a mesh of linearities or like a multi-linear constellation.’[2] This mesh is formed out of the intersected, tangled threads of characters, locations, scripts and scenarios, which collide many times within single movies, as well as branching out adjacently to the other movies through repurposed clips, characters and lines of dialogue. Trecartin states that ‘every movie functions on its own but also functions as a sideways entry point to all the other movies,’[3] constituting an oeuvre that we might refer to as ‘The Ryan Trecartin Universe’. This state of being alongside extends into Trecartin’s notion of where the movies exist in relation to lived existence: ‘The movies are somewhat sci-fi but they’re more like adjacent sci-fi…a present-side rather than a future or past.’[4]

Much of this enmeshment comes about through the complex ways in which Trecartin treats characters and actors, with single actors sometimes playing multiple characters, and multiple actors sometimes inhabiting single characters. This is the logic of a copy-and-paste characterisation, with the avatar-body becoming a low value flattened vessel, easily replicated and just as easily discarded. Trecartin’s 2007 film I-Be Area follows a clone who ‘exist[s] because of command-V, copy and paste some dudes DNA,’[5] and proceeds to rapidly switch between a multitude of identities (‘skins’ as they might be called in-game). In CENTER JENNY, several sets of young women (all credited as ‘Jennys’) form distinct singular entities, acting and behaving as one person split across multiple bodies, like choruses in the sense of the ancient Greek theatre, designated by their shared costume and unified voice. Simon O’Sullivan describes these figures as inhabiting a ‘patchwork temporality,’[6] and whilst these collective characters may position themselves in an awkward semblance of communality, theirs is a texture of empty conviviality: they gather but do not connect. Such is the nature of online interaction, as cliques of distinct yet highly specific identities inhabit shared platforms whilst seldom entering into meaningful exchange.

For Trecartin the editing of footage is the attempt to constitute a form of timeline within this mesh that is inherently unlike the conventions of narrative cinema, and perhaps more akin to an unfiltered, extra-anthropomorphic perspective in which all timelines unfold simultaneously. Recalling Derrida’s comment on the Theatre of Cruelty as ‘life itself, in the extent to which life is unrepresentable,’ such a mesh also recalls the Tommy Westphall-type shared universe diagram, with its tangled contingency knots. Trecartin finds the currently available technology of video only partially satisfactory for embodying the mesh, and calls forward to a point when this time-editing function of the filmmaking process will become more intuitive and placed in the hands of its viewer, with the ‘initial movie [just] an area of data, and people will participate in articulating all of the potential lineages and narratives and plots by creating structures…There’s potential for movies that expand in all directions with how they’re experienced,’[7]

Such a regard for the viewer in constituting the work perhaps stems from the ways that Trecartin’s mode of production resembles that of the fan-producer. Trecartin insists that his moving image works be referred to as ‘movies’, not videos or films, an attribution that positions the artist in the place of the viewer, the domestic quotidien consumer, for whom film equates to Hollywood, consumed and enjoyed at the multiplex or in the home through a TV or laptop screen. Trecartin frequently emphasises the fact that his background is in video production, not as a visual artist, and that he never considered his films belonging within the gallery environment.[8] Early works were distributed by posting DVDs to strangers he met through the now-defunct social media site Friendster,[9] and latterly are uploaded freely to YouTube and Vimeo, giving them a parity as ‘content’ alongside the chaotic plethora of moving image that these platforms host.

[1] Ryan Trecartin, Center Jenny, 2013, Digital Video, 53:15, Accessed August 3 2019 at https://vimeo.com/75735816.

[2] Ryan Trecartin, “Ryan Trecartin Interview: The Safe Space of Movies,” interview with Kasper Bech Dyg, Louisiana Channel, May 1, 2018, digital video, 29:20, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BdmItKVe2rU.

[3] Trecartin, “The Safe Space of Movies.”

[4] Trecartin, “The Safe Space of Movies.”

[5] Ryan Trecartin, I-Be Area, 2007, Digital Video, 1:47:50, Accessed August 3 2019 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V27rH6b5ub4.

[6] Simon O’Sullivan “From Financial Fictions to Mythotechnesis,” in Futures and Fictions, eds. Henriette Gunkel et al (London: Repeater Books, 2017), 331.

[7] Trecartin, “The Safe Space of Movies.”

[8] Calvin Tomkins, “Experimental People: The exuberant world of a video-art visionary,” The New Yorker, last modified March 17, 2004, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/03/24/experimental-people.

[9] Tomkins, “Experimental People.”

Wrong Side Out

Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty is a vision for a parallel yet alternate avante-garde of the modernist theatre to that of the Brechtian Epic. The theatre of cruelty also seeks to do away with the intellectualism of the Renaissance theatre, yet unlike Brecht, Artaud seeks the pre-textual enchantment and magic of the Dionysiac festivity, inspired by the Balinese dancers he had witnessed at the 1931 Exposition Coloniale.[1] Artaud’s ‘Cruelty’ builds upon his history as a fringe member of the surrealists, whose cause he foreswore after they oriented themselves towards the communist party in 1926. Considering himself the only true surrealist, a movement which he believed to have been “never anything else but a new type of magic,”[2] Artuad’s magic was to be made manifest through theatre, which could not function ‘without an element of cruelty at the root of every spectacle.’[3] This cruelty is not that of ‘bloodshed, martyred flesh, crucified enemies,’[4] but ‘a cosmic rigor and implacable necessity…a living whirlwind that devours the darkness.’[5]

In his First Manifesto for a Theatre of Cruelty (1932), Artaud outlines the programme and nature of such a theatre, which will ‘put an end to the subjugation of the theater to the text, and…recover the notion of a kind of unique language half­way between gesture and thought.’[6] Its architecture will ‘do away with stage and auditorium, replacing them by a kind of single, undivided locale without any partitions of any kind and this will become the very scene of the action.’[7] Whilst Artaud calls for ‘No décor,’ this is not the minimalism of the Brechtian stage, but rather a call for a different form of designed space altogether, for which ‘objects of unknown form and purpose are enough to fulfil this function.’[8]

The audience member would be on the receiving end of a sensory overload, of ‘fiery projection of all the objective results of gestures, words, sounds, music or their combinations.’[9] Where Brecht had rejected the Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk, in whose synthesis and admixture ‘the three sister-arts unite their forces in one collective operation, in which the highest faculty of each comes to its highest unfolding,’[10] Artaud embraces such a vision, with all of the elements of staging becoming one encompassing whole – constituting a world and a universe. If the immersive shared universe fiction encourages it’s fans to fling themselves into the plot-river, it perhaps does so in the mode of just such a cruelty.

Whilst Artaud was not able to fully realise the proposal for the theatre of cruelty in his lifetime, achieving only one production that approximated the tenets of the manifesto (the 1935 staging of Les Cenci), its intentions echo down through the deconstructive impulses of the 20th century avant-garde. Artaud anticipates the psychedelic mode of multimedia events such as Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, and the gestural bodily extremism of Carolee Schneemann’s performance works.[11] The sensory overload of cruelty supersedes the textual to reach an aesthetics of pure encounter, with Derrida commenting that ‘The theater of cruelty is not a representation. It is life itself, in the extent to which life is unrepresentable.’[12]

Rather than Brecht’s proletarian viewer who is inspired upon leaving the theatre to upend the world, Artaud instead expects ‘the spectator to give himself up, once outside the theater, to ideas of war, riot, and blatant murder.’[13] Instead of the didacticism of Brecht, such a surrender to immersion could perhaps be the key to another form of active engagement by an audience, one in which consciousness is raised and razed, leaving the fan stripped of their shell and open to the production of new possibilities. Such a state of possibility is akin to the Deleuzian body without organs (BwO), and it is from Artaud’s play To Have Done with the Judgment of God (1947) that Deleuze first takes the concept:

Man is sick because he is badly constructed.
We must make up our minds to strip him bare in order to
scrape off that animalcule that itches him mortally,

God,
and with god
his organs.
For you can tie me up if you wish,
but there is nothing more useless than an organ.            

When you will have made him a body without organs,
then you will have delivered him from all his automatic reactions
and restored him to his true freedom.

Then you will teach him again to dance wrong side out
as in the frenzy of dance halls
and this wrong side out will be his real place.[14]

It is Artaud’s abeyance of the linguistic in favour of the guttural wail, the ‘breath-words’ and ‘howl-words’ that Deleuze positions as calling forth ‘a glorious body…a new dimension of the schizophrenic body, an organism without parts which operates entirely by insufflation, respiration, evaporation, and fluid transmission.’[15] To Deleuze the nature of the schizophrenic is ‘less a question of recovering meaning than of destroying the word, of conjuring up the affect, and of transforming the painful passion of the body into a triumphant action, obedience into command, always in this depth beneath the fissured surface.’[16] The fan destroys the world through the supplanting of ontic reality with the fictional. They too plumb the depths, to seek the esoteric, the deletia and the appended, and furthermore to inflate, to gouge new spaces that deny fixity of meaning or canon. The fan surrenders at least a portion of their subjectivity, to become both the object of obsession and stand apart from it as admirer.

Despite Artaud’s distancing from the surrealists, his theatre of cruelty retains many elements of their approach, in particular his prioritisation of the gestural over the linguistic script. Barthes identifies how the surrealists sought to erode the primacy of language – ‘language being system and the aim of the movement being, romantically, a direct subversion of codes’[17] leading to ‘the desacrilization of the image of the Author…accepting the principle and the experience of several people writing together.’[18] The surrealists practiced this desacralization in collective exercises such as the exquisite corpse, whose assemblages often become literal bodies without organs, populated instead by a comingling of enmeshed lines of thought, disjunctured propositions.

Breton describes how the exquisite corpse ‘tend[ed] inevitably to raise anthropomorphism to its highest pitch and to accentuate vividly the continuing relationship uniting the exterior world with the interior world,’[19] indicating the ways in which conception of the bodily might have very little to do with the substance of flesh. The body depopulated of organs becomes a world wrong side out, a universe, just as the fan’s conception of the extra-bodily universe retains the anthropomorphic schema of a paranoid’s ‘influencing machine’. The collectively executed fan work becomes a discursively authored exquisite corpse, composed of myopic occluded contributions. Denied the absolute knowledge that the paranoiac might seek, one must act nonetheless, to leave a mark upon the page, small accretions that form the bodily whole.

Exquisite corpse by André Breton, Valentine Hugo, Paul and Nusch Éluard, source: https://poulwebb.blogspot.com/2019/11/cadavre-exquis-exquiste-corpses.html

[1] Patricia A. Clancy, “Artaud and the Balinese Theatre,” Modern Drama 28, no.3 (Fall 1985): 397, http://dx.doi.org/10.3138/md.28.3.397.

[2] Antonin Artaud, “Letter to Louis Jouvet, 27 August 1931,” quoted in Bettina Knapp, “Artaud: A New Type of Magic,” Yale French Studies 31, Surrealism (1964): 98, http://dx.doi.org/ 10.2307/2929726.

[3] Antonin Artaud, “The Theater of Cruelty (First Manifesto),” in The Theater and Its Double, trans. Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Grove Press, 1958), 99.

[4] Antonin Artaud, “Letters on Cruelty,” in The Theater and Its Double, trans. Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Grove Press, 1958), 102.

[5] Artaud, “Letters on Cruelty,”102.

[6] Artaud, “The Theater of Cruelty (First Manifesto),” 89.

[7] Artaud, “The Theater of Cruelty (First Manifesto),” 73.

[8] Artaud, “The Theater of Cruelty (First Manifesto),” 75.

[9] Antonin Artaud, “Oriental and Western Theatre,” in Antonin Artaud Collected Works Volume Four, trans. Victor Corti (London: Calder & Boyars, 1974), 55.

[10] Richard Wagner, The Art-Work of the Future, trans. William Ashton Ellis (Leipzig: Wigand, 1849), 78, http://users.skynet.be/johndeere/wlpdf/wlpr0062.pdf.

 

[11] Carolee Schneemann, Imaging Her Erotics (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), 230.

[12] Jacques Derrida, “The Theater of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation,” in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), 234.

[13] Antonin Artaud, “No More Masterpieces,” in The Theater and Its Double, trans. Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Grove Press, 1958), 82.

[14] Antonin Artaud, “To Have Done with the Judgment of God” in Selected Writings, ed. Susan Sontag (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 571.

[15] Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester (London: Continuum, 1990), 88.

[16] Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, 88.

[17] Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image Music Text, ed. and trans. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana Press,1977), 144.

[18] Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” 144.

[19] André Breton, “The Exquisite Corpse, Its Exaltation (1948),” in André Breton, Surrealism and Painting, trans. Simon Watson Taylor (Boston: MFA Publications, 2002), 89.

A-Effects

Despite the focus on Verfremdungseffekts/Alienation-effects/A-Effects, Brecht maintains that this theatre must remain enjoyable, and transcend enjoyment, becoming ‘an instrument of instruction, and to convert certain amusement establishments into organs of mass communication…i.e. to emigrate from the realm of the merely enjoyable.’ Fan-being transcends enjoyment also, not into the realm of instruction, but into one of over-enjoyment, a sublimation that rejects capital’s curtailments that would prefer the labour of the fan to be directed toward more economically fruitful causes.

The strive to incorporate the will of the audience calls forward to Platt’s Quantum Fiction, also in the designation that each scene should operate as a play-within-a-play, similar to platts ‘quanta’, enabling random access. Benjamin likens this structure to the modern cinema in which ‘the audience should be able to ‘come in’ at any point, that complicated plot developments should be avoided and that each part…possess its own episodic value.’[1] As with the hyperfictions produced in Platt’s wake, I would argue that approaches dependent upon audience interactivity can only remain as novelty, where viewer responses invested with conviction are more likely to arise without invitation, as a result of uninterrupted immersive flows of enjoyment.

Brecht follows in the footsteps of Marx, for whom alienation was the force by which workers were separated from the products of their labour, the labour process, their fellow man and their species-being.[2] To Marx, alienation went hand-in-hand with commodity fetishism, with the products of capital akin to relics and idols formed in ‘the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life.’[3] The fan’s object of obsession (the fiction itself, but also the objects and products which it supports) is certainly a fetish, with many works of genre fiction taking on just such a mythical, transcendental dimension to their fans. However what is perhaps unique in the fan’s response to an alienating, transcendental object is their willingness to resist its orthodoxy, and read its alienations as an invitation to immersion.

This is the metric of alienated enjoyment that accelerationist thought seeks to enhance and exacerbate, in which capital does not care about its subjects or their opinion of it, in fact thriving upon the energy of resistant subjects, whose folk-political approaches are simply detournéed by capital into marketing strategies. To the accelerationist, such an inflation of alienation is not carried out that one might ‘turn society upside down’ in response, but that such an alienation might in itself be transformative, speeding passage through to an inevitable post-human future. It is that to which Sadie Plant and Nick Land refer when they state that ‘we are all foreigners now, no longer alienated but alien…If the schizoid children of modernity are alienated, it is not as survivors from a pastoral past, but as explorers of an impending post-humanity.’[4]

Somewhat less dystopian is the ‘politics for alienation’ of Laboria Cuboniks’ (LC) Xenofeminism, which seeks to seize ‘alienation as an impetus to generate new worlds…The construction of freedom involves not less but more alienation; alienation is the labour of freedom’s construction.’[5] Whilst LC distance themselves somewhat from the work of Marx, stating ‘Marx…ignored gender and the types of labour (specifically care and reproductive labour) associated with a binary gender structure to which females have historically been subject,’[6] their conception of alienation has something in common, particularly in the notion of alienation from one’s species-being and fellow humans. It is the relationship to alienation that varies, with LC rejecting an essentialist biological species-being and embracing artificiality and bio-hacking, enacted through the slogan ‘If nature is unjust, change nature!’[7] Where Marx sees alienation as the product of work, LC see freedom as the product of alienation.

Following Marx’s four modalities we can enumerate the ways in which the fan’s alienation from the indifferent franchise does not mitigate their immersion; the fan willingly alienates themself from the product of their labour, which is offered as a gift to the fictional universe, rejecting traditional notions of authorship or the demand for credit. While fan sociality might curtail alienation from one’s fellow man (at least virtually), the social bond comes second to that between the fan and their obsession. The fan might go so far as to feel more alike to the products of imagination than the reality of their human species-being, for example occupying the space of the franchise-object, not the author when they choose to write fan fiction.

In their nested, embedded position the fan can be at once immersed in alienations and alienated by immersion, an action via compulsion that echoes the CCRU’s claim to be ‘Alienated and Loving it.’[8] The intractable complication between multiple shared universe fictions and lived existence can never be fully grasped or mapped – a painfully enjoyable alienation in which the sheer speed and volume of cultural production is experienced as sublimated overload. Rather than the alienation-as-provocation of Brecht, we might try to find the political applications of works of art and culture that seek to accelerate such an overload. If the subject of contemporary techno-capital does not turn the world upside down in response to alienation, but rather seeks to make it the core of their subjectivity, the visual culture of such times must be implicated in a more fatal immersion, must fling the fan-being more fully into the river, enacting a form of cruelty that is pre-linguistic, gestural and utilises the unresolved residues of the surreal.

[1] Benjamin, Understanding Brecht, 6.

[2] Judy Cox, “An Introduction to Marx’s Theory of Alienation”, International Socialism, Issue 79, (July, 1988), accessed at http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj79/cox.htm.

[3] Judy Cox, “An Introduction to Marx’s Theory of Alienation.”

[4] Sadie Plant and Nick Land, Cyberpositive, accessed August 9, 2019 at http://www.sterneck.net/cyber/plant-land-cyber/.

[5] Laboria Cuboniks, “Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation,” accessed August 9, 2019 at
https://www.laboriacuboniks.net/.

[6] Laboria Cuboniks, “Revisiting the future with Laboria Cuboniks | A conversation,” interview by Cornelia Sollfrank and Rachel Baker, Furtherfield, July 27, 2016, http://www.furtherfield.org/revisiting-the-future-with-laboria-cuboniks-a-conversation/.

[7] Laboria Cuboniks, “Xenofeminism.”

[8] CCRU, Swarmachines, accessed August 9, 2019 at https://web.archive.org/web/20130621022804/http://www.ccru.net/swarm1/1_swarm.htm.

Flung into the River

The immersed subjectivity capable of producing diagrams like the Tommy Westphall universe is the unintended side-effect of a flow designed simply to produce loyal viewers and customers, accidentally resulting in a cargo-cult of immersed fan-acolytes, for whom the world of TV becomes their transcendental realm. Fan-being requires a spirit of unmitigated naive enjoyment, blind to both the machinations of postmodernism and the realities of the studio production system. It is to follow the Deleuzian spirit of encounter-over-representation, whereby ‘Something in the world forces us to think. This something is an object not of recognition but of a fundamental encounter’[1] – the kind of encounter that can only take place when a fiction is approached not as a representation of an author’s will but as a new, cogent formation with which one might become immanent, entering into a relation of becoming.

Such a spirit of encounter goes hand in hand with the search for meaning that so much fan theory is predicated upon. Simon O’Sullivan positions this meaning in the Deleuzian terms of that which is produced through the encounter between a viewer and an artwork: ‘Meaning’ might then be thought as this productive ‘event’, this ‘moment’ of meeting, ungraspable in its moment of occurrence, but real in its effects.[2] Brian Massumi states that in such an encounter of becoming ‘a set of affects, a portion of the object’s essential dynamism, is drawn in, transferred into the substance of the thinking-perceiving body.’[3] The fan’s relation to their object of obsession is not just one of drawing-in, but of gifting-over – seeking to place a portion of themselves, via their productive labour and their credulity, to be nested inside the fictional universe.

The fan’s gifted love is one-sided, in keeping with Sedgewick’s conception of the paranoiac’s devotion: ‘of all forms of love, paranoia is the most ascetic, the love that demands least from its object.’[4] Confined within the flow-consumption of paranoid enjoyment, inspired to productive labour furnished in tribute without reciprocation – whilst demanding little, the fan gives much over in the totality of their immersions. This is the process to which Barthes refers: ‘writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.’[5] If the relationship of reader and work is to be productive, if credulity might lead toward a radical politics rather than gullible passivity, the fan must throw themself fully into the fictional universe, navigating its alienating and immersive qualities and ultimately undergoing a shift in conception of the bodily self.

The ideal fan is also the ideal customer, unfalteringly loyal, their habitual consumption not simply a hobby but an identity-defining lifestyle. In this surrender of subjectivity, does the fan not risk losing all? In performing a radical credulity do they not become blind to the modes of production, the machinations of capital and ultimately the alienations which the studio system and its products serve to enhance? The danger is perhaps that the fan becomes too pliable a consumer, too willing or too distracted by their enjoyment to see the ideologies and hegemonies that hold them in place. Perhaps instead popular culture ought to function to highlight the alienations at play in capital, rather than as a distraction from the crises of our time. The fan ‘fling[s] itself into the story as if it were a river,’[6] in just the manner of the passive audience member whom Bertolt Brecht decried in his A Short Organum for the Theatre (1948), and once ‘carried vaguely hither and thither’ cannot focus on the ideological and hegemonic currents at play, let alone overcome the political impasses of the present.

Premier of Brecht’s musical, The Threepenny Opera, at the Theatre am Schiffbauerdamm, Berlin, 1928 (Accessed September 2, 2019, Image Source: https://www.bl.uk/20th-century-literature/articles/bertolt-brecht-and-epic-theatre-v-is-for-verfremdungseffekt)

Brecht’s proposal for an Epic theatre sought to resist the illusionistic plot-river of popular drama and distance itself from its audience, throwing the spotlight upon the alienating tendencies at the heart of capital’s relations with its workers. Through the agitprop of plays including The Threepenny Opera (1928), Mother Courage and Her Children (1939), The Good Person of Szechwan (1941), Brecht utilised the realities of staging to distance the audience from the stage by use of Verfremdungseffekts (Alienation-Effects): ‘a representation that alienates is one which allows us to recognize its subject, but at the same time makes it seem unfamiliar.’[7] Brecht’s catalogue of ‘A-effects’ included breaking the fourth wall through direct address, turning the bright white lights of the auditorium onto the audience, the action being interrupted by the inclusion of musical numbers, the stage stripped as bare of props and scenery as possible – all in an attempt to provoke the audience into realising its political reality and potential.

Walter Benjamin, in his text What is Epic Theatre? writes of how: ‘In one who is astonished, interest is born: interest in its primordial form,’ and that Epic theatre attempts to ‘transform this primordial interest directly into a technical, expert one.’[8] Brecht’s ideal technically-minded proletarian audience member is a ‘child of the scientific age’, who cannot help but react productively and critically when presented with the realities of their time: ‘faced with a river, it consists in regulating the river…faced with society, in turning society upside down.’ The hope is that after experiencing the alienation of the Epic theatre, the audience will seek to produce its opposite in the political and social world around them.

[1] Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press), 139.

[2] Simon O’Sullivan, Art Encounters Deleuze and Guattari, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006) 22.

[3] Brian Massumi, A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992) 36, quoted in Simon O’Sullivan, Art Encounters Deleuze and Guattari.

[4] Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” 132.

[5] Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” 142.

[6] Brecht, “A Short Organum for the Theatre (1948).”

[7] Brecht, “A Short Organum for the Theatre (1948).”

[8] Walter Benjamin, Understanding Brecht, trans. Anna Bostock (London: Verso Books, 1998), 4.