The injunction, everywhere, to ‘be someone’ maintains the pathological state that makes this society necessary. The injunction to be strong produces the very weakness by which it maintains itself, so that everything seems to take on a therapeutic character, even working, even love. … The maintenance of the self in a permanent state of deterioration, in a chronic state of near-collapse, is the best-kept secret of the present order of things.
Postmodern discourse filled us with skepticism regarding any sense of unified ‘authentic’ self. Psychoanalysis and semiotic frameworks shed light on the constructedness of reality and identity, celebrating difference as an alternative to the homogenizing effects of ideology. What discourse has largely replaced it in the early-21st century? The discourse around affect seems a good contender. With affect comes a new understanding of experience as embodied, and potentially agential. This seems to have a lot to do with globalization as a world view, which smoothed over what was divisive about identity politics, giving rise to the possibility for something collectively binding beneath all subjectivity. The affective and sentient could very well represent the new arena of resistance, as well as control.
The importance of cultivating an authentic and informed self is conveyed minute-by-minute through social and mainstream media, with the constant need for “therapy” being the main coping mechanism to relieve the pressure of one’s sense of self not meeting up to expectation. The self must be well maintained, constantly reassessed and updated, and feel that it is contributing something significant to society’s functioning. Mixed messages assail one at every turn, destabilizing whatever sense of accomplishment one might have felt vis-à-vis this self. A lack of continuity with the past has something to do with this. For example, whatever values one might have espoused in the 1990s are now ‘passé’; there is a need to update consciousness to whatever reality reigns now. Knowledge shifts, and subjectivity follows the ruptures and flows of economic trends: “Producing oneself [the subject] is becoming the dominant occupation of a society where production no longer has an object” – the object itself dematerializes into an overarching will to contribute positively to the grand schema of ‘economic performance.’ There is no crisis of subjectivity; rather, the subject is the crisis. In an age of biopolitics, the subject is the focus of the economy and the economy is an extension of the subject.
Affect cannot dissociate itself from subject formation. From the moment of birth one is swept into the symbolic order of social belonging and shared coded references. Early on one begins to negotiate a variety of potential roles. Even before one has even begun to focus on any one thing, ‘being’ and ‘acting’ swap roles continuously. Roles are cultivated on an individual basis, but many of these are predetermined, values imparted by parents, peers, mentors, and the vast network of mediated information. One’s future is contingent on a seamless performance of so many gifted and acquired traits.
At times life can feel like a vicious, almost meaningless cycle: the repetition of ubiquitous media bites, of work-a-day drudgery, the habits of personal maintenance, of buying and selling, the necessities of having meaningful work, and looking for it. The life of the artist is no exception. A recent video work by Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries titled There Are No Problems in Art, states a different view: Art, as a way of life, escapes the confines of other occupations structured around advanced capitalism. However, most artists continue to struggle for recognition within a world that does not entirely understand their struggles and commitments. So the attitude of YHCHI perhaps begs the question: Have the artists attained a privileged knowledge and status because they become committed to ‘living the dream’ early on? Or is this attitude of “no problems in art” a direct result of their success within it? Or were there other contributing factors that make this accession possible (e.g. globalized art economics)? There is a constant slippage here between being and acting and having. And even the most recognized artists suffer the downside to success – the pressures to maintain an edge within a competitive market, to produce the next best work; and one is never certain whether one’s best work has already come and gone.
With these ideas circulating in mind in the spring of 2011, I was pleased to come across Elizabeth Milton’s video-installation Auditions, as it seemed to address this idea of ‘the subject as crisis’ head-on. The notion of “performing the self” is at the centre of Milton’s artistic investigation, as she uses the world of spectacle culture (acting for film/TV) as a device for analyzing the increasing role of “virtuosity” on our lives in general (with a particular eye on her own realm, that of the performance artist). Milton’s video suite was shown as three distinct installations within Access Gallery’s former basement space at 437 West Hastings Street.
Casting Couch played in the first room, and accompanying the video was an installation of living room furniture strewn with costumes and wigs. This installation component complicated one’s reading of the video, but also provided an initial clue as to how the video was to be read (e.g. life as a series of acts). While not directly called to don any of these accoutrements, the viewer’s implication within the cycle is nonetheless implied. The viewer was provided with a couch to watch the video, a mirror image of the very couch that plays a central part in the video. A series of actor-patients appear to be undergoing ‘treatment.’ The video begins with a view of the couch positioned in a spotlight. The effect is dramatic. The analyst is never seen, only heard. The actor comes into the frame and is ordered to conduct him/herself accordingly (lie down, look at the camera, close the eyes, breathe in and out, etc.). Each actor performs the same actions and utters similar lines, with varying acting talent. Each actor is asked questions about his/her shortcomings as an actor. These questions then move to a description of the specific environment each finds him/herself in: on the couch, in the room, hearing the sound of the camera, feeling the glare of the light, sensing that s/he is being watched and maybe even being projected onto a screen. The therapy process moves from within the person’s thoughts and sensate body outward into the space of the room, and even into the virtual realm of the gaze of the viewer. Subliminally, each is caught in the panoptic space of future projection (referenced by the sound of the camera recording), even as each is in the privacy of the therapist’s consulting room. The video loops in on itself, as the actor projects his/her futurity into the space of the viewer’s present, a consciousness of a future existence as screen image. One of the final questions of the therapy session is telling: “What is your key motivation, what is it you want?” The answer is always: “I want to be exposed.” Why does the artist foreground this desire to be exposed? A desire for recognition to be sure, but might it also be a desire to expose the power structure that depends so much on the hopelessly weak subject for it’s functioning (via the artist-actor’s shaming, confession, and compliance)? The session ends with a series of affirmatives on the part of the analyst (“good, good”), who then asks the actor to show her what they’ve “prepared for today.” The space of analysis is ruptured and makes way for the space of performance proper. The actor jumps up, pushes the couch aside, brings a stool draped with a purple boa to the centre, and then the image fades to black. The viewer proceeds beyond the black curtain into the next space.
Auditions is playing before three rows of audience seating (approximately 20 chairs). Whereas the previous space was the domain of ‘private theatre,’ this is the space of public spectacle. Unlike the analyst in Casting Couch, who remains invisible, the director in Auditions is sometimes just visible as a back shot, using an over-the-shoulder POV. As one watches Auditions, one begins to recognize in the video the very same costumes and décor found in Casting Couch’s physical installation. Auditions starts with each performer singing “Born in a Trunk” from A Star is Born (1954). The singing/acting audition is soon interrupted by the director’s criticism of the actor’s performance, and this quickly segues into the confessional interview ‘off stage,’ a warts-and-all strategy made popular for television. The subtext to the use of the song “Born in a Trunk” becomes immediately apparent to anyone who knows the film: the dream of becoming a household name, and the all-too-familiar scenario of fame’s spiral downward through substance abuse into physical and mental dissipation.
The image of the glamorous used-up actor reminiscing on how things were different “back then” reinforces the myth of ‘life follows art,’ through the breeding of a particular brand of narcissistic pathology. The typical story recounts how authenticity and integrity (“I did what I was born to do”; “it was about real talent and real hard work”; “you earned your pay”) are marred by victimization by the culture industry (being made to “feel like a prop,” like a “deflated pile of black clothes,” finding it “hard to get a clear sense of who I really was”). As the interview progresses, the actors’ lines become more dramatic, their behaviour more unruly, their appearance more flamboyant, and the backgrounds more ornamented. By the end, the actors’ behaviour in Auditions recall Judy Garland’s arresting performance in A Star is Born, full of tearful emotional intensity, which overlaps with real-life emotional instability and substance abuse. Artists and actors throw themselves into their ‘larger than life’ roles and characters, but eventually feel the effects of the system wearing them down, interfering with their ‘real’ lives. The cycle of film industry fame and tabloid exposure can take its toll on an actor’s life. Responding to criticism and scrutiny of the press, the actor confesses: “I am a real person with real feelings. It hurt me very deeply.”
Auditioning and acting are formative to subjectivity; the interview becomes therapy and therapy becomes an acting part. The catharsis of confession makes way for infectious emotional identification, a strategy to keep the audience in tune with fame’s behavioural traits, extolling the benefits of self-aggrandizement (“Look at me now, look where I live, look at my friends, look where I’m going… I’m having the time of my life”). Therapy is required when one’s life does not meet up to the ideals. Life imitates art. At the end of the video, the person interviewing the ‘used-up’ actress has an emotional breakdown: “It’s like you were giving voice to all these feeling inside me.” The roles are suddenly reversed, and the confessing actor turns into the analyst: “Tell me more about how that made you feel… that’s right, that’s the work right there.”
Moving to the back of the gallery, behind the gallery office, one discovers yet another makeshift office, replete with desk, chairs, plants, and bookshelf, as well as a video monitor on the desk, facing the viewer. The ‘interviewee’ chair is strategically placed in front of the video monitor so that the viewer will sit in it. The focus of Office Takes is the interview. Initially one is not unsure what the interview is for, but by the end of the video one surmises it might have something to do with an acting part. In it Milton acts as both interviewer and interviewee, swapping roles continuously with the same cast of characters found in the other two videos. Each actor enacts the same script slightly differently but the overarching message is the same: the interviewer picks apart the gestures and linguistic traits of the interviewee with the aim of helping the latter reach a position of confidence, an ‘authentic’ self even. The interview surreptitiously slides into therapy. By the end of the interview the interviewer-analyst is giving the interviewee-patient one last chance to redeem themselves by instigating some ‘chairwork,’ also known as the ‘empty-chair technique’ in Gestalt therapy. The empty chair is ‘filled’ by any imagined person that needs to be addressed in order to fully access the repressed self.
Elizabeth Milton’s three-part video-installation suite–Office Takes, Auditions, and Casting Couch–addresses the vicissitudes of the artist/actor’s life. The works target the world of acting, with an obvious bearing on the performance artist in particular. While not autobiographical per se, one senses that the video suite might ¬stem from Milton’s observations of the tragicomic pursuits of the contemporary artist within a competitive cultural economy. The video trilogy performs a feedback loop of human vulnerability, struggle for agency, and need for therapeutic treatment. The escalation and appeasement of emotions bind all three videos into an entangled circuit: one video focuses on the job interview; a second one, the heartfelt rehearsals and confessions; and another one, therapy. Each scenario leaks into the next: the interview becomes a form of rehearsal as well as a form of therapy (chairwork), and the same goes for all the others. This vicious circle underscores the entanglement of art, work, and life, of acting and being, of normalcy and pathology. It points to a state of being in a world where there is very little space left outside the System’s biopolitical influence. Milton’s videos point to the perpetual state of crisis for any subject navigating the ever-changing currents of today’s talent-scouting market. One-by-one Milton and her actors perform insecurity, failure, shame, anger, pride, confidence, and authority, dropping salient historical clues as to how and when this idea of a “pathologized” self might have developed. The artist performing for the culture industry becomes the phantasmatic focal point onto which all three video-installations converge. She foregrounds the emotional vulnerability of her subjects: the struggle to appear confident, the mental breakdown, the tears and outbursts, and the release of tension through therapy.
Milton’s video cycle references 1950 and 60s culture as a pivotal moment in three respects: new theories/diagnoses/treatments for psychic disorders; shifting gender dynamics created by industrialization and the importance of women’s labour to the economy during WWII; and increased media influence on performing self. It is at this moment that television really begins to develop, and Hollywood comes to dominate the film industry. A Star is Born (1954) ends in a telling fashion with the famous actress Vicky Lester finding new inner strength through admitting to “millions of fans everywhere” (broadcast live) that she is the lasting creation of one man’s otherwise failed life (renaming herself in his image: “This is Mrs. Norman Maine”). At a time when men are feeling threatened by emasculation due to women finding a greater public role in society, there is a need to put her in her place, through making her feel strong only through her male counterpart’s name, through making her indebted him. Elizabeth Milton’s videos reference films in which men’s careers are either propped up by female talents or by the diagnosis of their emotional weakness (A Star is Born, Fritz Perls’ Gestalt therapy film with Gloria, and Three Faces of Eve). The works direct our attention not only to the artist’s frustration with a market-driven culture, but to a dominant value system that continues to demean and marginalize the affective work of the artist as weak and superfluous.
In Milton’s video trilogy, the artist-actor’s struggle to unify and fortify an otherwise weak and fractured identity says something about our emergence onto a new bio-cultural-political era: one that pathologizes every aspect of our lives, consolidating a general will to control through offering ‘cures’ for our multiple physical and psychological defects. What Milton’s works reveals is the complex discursive network of social and economic pressures that cause the subject to circle endlessly around an ideal notion of social and personal fulfillment. She does this through the relentless repetition of the same actors and same lines, a Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt or distancing effect, which lays bare the iterative pathology we perform. While there is no evident exit from the cycle, the mis-takes and predominantly amateur nature of actors’ performances, combined with the emotional excess that ruptures any notion of passive viewing, stand out as crucial forms of resistance to acting out the parts so carefully laid out for us in advance. Amidst the breakdowns, slippages and lapses, Milton’s videos seem to point toward a possible release: to cultivate new forms of agency and community grounded in actively being (rather than passively performing) the ‘weak’ affective self. Re-defining weakness as strength can bring new meaningful forms of becoming and creative expression into the fold.