13 May, 2009

Riffing on Brent Scott Riffing on Socrates (was Meeting with BS)

When we left off, Brent Scott was the subject of a feature length documentary on his evil genius and its spawn, Insex.com. In the series posted here, I chronicle my experiences with Scott and the esemplastic project of aligning his earliest recorded artistic projects with what would become the leit motif of Insex and the radical revisioning of BDSM as play and performance art.

A harbinger to Scott's successful 1995 show at TransHudson Gallery in Jersey City, NJ, the installation at Carnegie Mellon authored by graduate student Peter Choppin drew on faculty member / artist Scott's expertise with electro-stim (presumably CMU awarded candidate Choppin the MFA). In manINFESTation Scott's elaboration on these foundational efforts would ultimately get him dismissed from CMU, but it seems the art world preserves its fascination with what he aestheticised, codified, and from which we can only hope he profited handsomely with Insex.

A 2004 exhibit by the trans-disciplinary artist Noelle Mason examined the responsibility we take or don't for acts we do not commit, much as may be said to be embodied in the myth and history of Socrates, and in its updating in the fall of Brent Scott and Insex. While I don't doubt that the influence of Insex will be observed by future art-historians to be wide and durable, I haven't the faintest idea whether Ms. Mason is read in the Scott way of world-making. However, certain foci in her oeuvre lead me to believe there may be something to the idea, and not merely for the death obsession observed by certain critics. If her piece L'il Sparky had not been lifted wholesale from the State of Florida, it would otherwise have been found sprinkled liberally throughout the Insex playbook.

Were I disinclined to extend the benefit of a doubt, I might wonder if Ms. Mason's artistic fascination with the smallness of human empathy and the entailments of same (e.g., capital punishment, Abu Ghraib, etc.) didn't appropriate liberally from Mr. Choppin's graduate thesis, the one supervised in part by the same Brent Scott who had already learned full-throttle performance SM while on leave in Japan during the Vietnam War (one wonders whether he ever caught any of the legendary Eikichi, or perhaps the early GSC Project shows, now considered touchstones in the evolution of Japanese performance kinbaku) and who was then on the cusp of devising the now infamous and widely copied "Live Feed". Consider Mr. Choppin's thesis project description:
"A human subject was suspended in a television studio. Electrodes were placed on various muscle groups in the subject’s arms and legs. The electrodes interfaced with a four-line telephone system. This system allowed the TV audience to remotely control the muscle system of the human subject by using their touch-tone phones to send mild electrical shocks. Callers could speak to a hostess who greeted them and explained how the system worked."
And now Ms. Mason's for Mise en Scene:
"Inside the room a woman stands in darkness, wire electrodes issue from her arms and legs. She is surveilled by four closed-circuit night vision cameras that feed her real-time infrared image to corresponding monitors imbedded in each of the outer walls. Under each monitor is a large, red video game button. When a viewer presses one of the buttons a light turns on inside the box switching the video image from infrared to color. Consequently an electric shock is administered to one of the performer's limbs causing her muscles to seize from the jolt until the button is released / light is turned off."
All three artists observed a principle in making and consulting on these installations; people are much more comfortable with being sadistic from a remote position than they would be under intimate circumstances, indeed they are so reconciled that they can be induced to pay handsomely for the pleasure. Thus the outsized success of Scott's Live Feed franchise. According to Graphic Sexual Horror Insex had at its height some 30,000 registered subscribers. Recall that in my daliances with nawashibari.com we considered 275 a banner month and were quite content to hover around 240.

While I do not have access to video of Mr. Choppin's thesis project, I do plan in a future installment on this thread to upload video taken by Brent Scott of manINFESTation from the TransHudson exhibit. In the meantime, Ms. Mason's Mise en Scene is edifying in its own right, and perhaps but an early one in a line of examinations of the human propensity toward cruelty for entertainment's sake pioneered by Brent Scott.

06 May, 2009

Undignified Debate

I repost the following from Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman, published originally in the op-ed section of the Washington Post, October 28, 2006, and recently quoted by Robert Creamer in the Huffington Post as a part of the ongoing non-debate between "because we can" rationalizationists for government torture and the morally less-challenged. Dorfman, as it turns out, authored the play Death and the Maiden, the theme of which is very much aligned with this thread. My recent posting by the same title is probably one of the last pieces I've written not on this thread.

It still haunts me, the first time - it was in Chile, in October 1973 - that I met someone who'd been tortured. To save my life, I had sought refuge in the Argentine Embassy some weeks after the coup that toppled the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, a government for which I had worked. And then, suddenly, one afternoon, there he was. A large-boned man, gaunt and yet strangely flabby, with eyes like a child, eyes that could not stop blinking and a body that could not stop shivering.

That is what stays with me - that he was cold under the balmy afternoon sun of Santiago de Chile, trembling as though he would never be warm again, as though the electric current was still coursing through him. Still possessed, somehow still inhabited by his captors, still imprisoned in that cell and the National Stadium, his hands disobeying the orders from his brain to quell the shuddering, his body unable to forget what had been done to it just as, nearly 33 years later, I, too, cannot banish that devastated life from my memory.

It was his image, in fact, that swirled up from the past as I pondered the current political debate in the United States about the practicality of torture. Something in me must have needed to resurrect the victim, force my fellow citizens here to spend a few minutes with the eternal iciness that had settled into the man's heart and flesh, and demand that they take a good hard look at him before anyone dare maintain that, to save lives, it might be necessary to inflict unbearable pain on a fellow human being. Perhaps the optimist in me hoped that this damaged Argentine man could, all these decades later, help shatter the perverse innocence of contemporary Americans, just as he had burst the bubble of ignorance protecting the young Chilean I used to be, someone who back then had encountered torture mainly through books and movies and newspaper reports.

That is not, however, the only lesson that today's ruthless world can teach from the distant man condemned to shiver forever.

All those years ago, that torture victim kept moving his lips, trying to articulate an explanation, muttering the same words over and over. "It was a mistake," he repeated, and in the next few days I pieced together his sad and foolish tale. He was an Argentine revolutionary who fled his homeland and, as soon as he crossed the mountains into Chile, had begun to boast about what he would do to the military there if it staged a coup, about his expertise with arms of every sort, about his colossal stash of weapons. Bluster and braggadocio - and every word of it false.

But how could he convince those men who were beating him, hooking his penis to electric wires and waterboarding him? How could he prove to them that he had been lying, prancing in front of his Chilean comrades, just trying to impress the ladies with his fraudulent insurgent persona?

Of course, he couldn't. He confessed to anything and everything they wanted to drag from his hoarse, howling throat; he invented accomplices and addresses and culprits; and then, when it became apparent that all this was imaginary, he said he was subjected to further ordeals.

There was no escape.

That is the hideous predicament of the torture victim. It was always the same story, what I discovered in the ensuing years, as I became an unwilling expert on all manner of torments and degradations; my life and my writing overflowing with grief from every continent. Each of those mutilated spines and fractured lives - Chinese, Guatemalan, Egyptian, Indonesian, Iranian, Uzbek, need I go on? - all of them, men and women alike, surrendered the same story of essential asymmetry, where one man has all the power in the world and the other has nothing but pain, where one man can decree death at the flick of a wrist and the other can only pray that the wrist will be flicked soon.

It is a story that our species has listened to with mounting revulsion, a horror that has led almost every nation to sign treaties over the past decades declaring these abominations as crimes against humanity, transgressions interdicted all across the earth. That is the wisdom, national and international, it has taken us thousands of years of tribulation and shame to achieve. That is the wisdom we are being asked to throw away when we formulate the question - does torture work? - when we allow ourselves to ask whether we can afford to outlaw torture if we want to defeat terrorism.

I will leave others to claim that torture, in fact, does not work, that confessions obtained under duress - such as that extracted from the heaving body of that poor Argentine braggart in some Santiago cesspool in 1973 - are useless. Or to contend that the United States had better not do that to anyone in our custody lest someday another nation or entity or group decides to treat our prisoners the same way.

I find these arguments - and there are many more - to be irrefutable. But I cannot bring myself to use them, for fear of honoring the debate by participating in it.

Can't the United States see that when we allow someone to be tortured by our agents, it is not only the victim and perpetrator who are corrupted, not only the "intelligence" that is contaminated, but also everyone who looked away and said they did not know, everyone who consented tacitly to that outrage so they could sleep a little safer at night, all the citizens who did not march in the streets by the millions to demand the resignation of whoever suggested, even whispered, that torture is inevitable in our day and age, that we must embrace its darkness?

Are we so morally sick, so deaf and dumb and blind, that we do not understand this? Are we so fearful, so in love with our own security and steeped in our own pain, that we are really willing to let people be tortured in the name of America? Have we so lost our bearings that we do not realize that each of us could be the hapless Argentine who sat under the Santiago's sun, so possessed by the evil done to him that he could not stop shivering ?