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.