metamorphoses

A fortnight ago, in various venues across Glasgow, Scottish art-house collective Cryptic presented its second annual Sonica festival, a curation of unique, innovative, avant-garde science-art; one long weird weekend of “sonic art for the visually-minded”. Had I but world enough and guesties, I’d have been front and centre for everything. As things stood, I had to narrow it down to the unmissable: Michaela Davies’ Compositions for Involuntary Strings. In little over a decade, with an academic background in psychology and philosophy, Sydney-born Davies has already amassed an impressive catalogue of mostly musical projects that figure her as a kind of posthuman Abramović; a bodies-not-buildings version of obstruction-upon-the-natural obsessors Christo and Jeanne Claude; Charcot’s Augustine all grown up and working through her complex ptsd. For this particular fright night, against the eerie stripped-brick backdrop of the Tramway’s main space, Davies’ quartet were strung like strange sweating marionettes, wired to electronic muscle stimulation pads through which a pre-programmed “score” was transmitted, jolting and spasming the musicians’ arms to create a unique “involuntary” performance. The result was a morbidly engrossing evening.

Though aware the experience couldn’t possibly be agonising, from the trailer all I could think of was the Cruciatus Curse. As the audience entered the room, the musicians were in place and ready-wired; twitching legs, tapping feet, and giddy self-awareness giving away the anticipatory adrenaline coursing through their bodies. Building from an introduction of rough grimacing slaps on the bodies of their instruments, each musician moved through artless plucks and bow scores into complex fiddle patterns and tremolo so rapid you expected smoke. As later transpired, at least one of the performers had zero musical training; this team of cyber-musicians propelled by uncaring technology, lost in the satisfying discomfort, the terrifying catharsis of the complete loss of control. You thought of the girl in the red shoes (enchanted or cursed?) who couldn’t stop dancing. It made you queasy.

This hyper-embodied spectacle reminded me of a play I saw recently — Theatre North’s Handel’s Cross, part of this year’s Glasgay festival. Secured to a wooden saltire in a fetish dungeon, the protagonist-narrator talks his audience through a half-hypothetical biography of Baroque composer George Frideric Handel, twisting the tale with fantasy scenarios as his “jailer” enacts gestures of sublime pleasure/pain upon his naked body. A thoroughly unique theatre experience, perhaps most shocking was how quickly one acclimatised to seeing such a scenario on stage. We watch as his body is lashed then the cuts spritzed with perfume, candle wax poured down his chest, nipples clamped, testicles flogged until his body is ruddy and convulsing with pain. His senses overwhelmed by the experience, he begins to fumble his words, to cry out before the blow even strikes. Crucio with consent is the fundamental concept of BDSM, but the implications during performance are quite different. In those moments it was impossible to separate the character from the actor; to ignore the exposed human being beneath the thin surface of the art. ‘In performance art the knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real.’ ‘This is a story about bodies,’ the play begins, and you think of Ovid, and forms that change.

In a single week where I finished one job, lost another, moved house only half by choice and celebrated a landmark birthday in the opposite of style, when the Sonica event rolled around it should have made more sense to stay home licking my wounds. But instead the question at the heart of the event’s promotion seemed particularly poignant: are the players playing, or being played? During a post-show Q&A every bit as weird and discordant as the piece itself, one audience member seemed fixated on the concept of voluntariness, arguing endlessly that the performance was indeed self-determined, being composed and pre-programmed and recurrently staged. It was irritating as these things are. Conceptual art rarely holds up to close reading — such rational criticism only serves to derail the creative conversation and to reassert the archaic hierarchy of masculine mind/logic/objectivism over feminine body/experience/subjectivism. Indeed, in this case the body-work of a younger woman was literally being maligned by the mind-interrogation of an older man, and in an exciting moment of spontaneous solidarity the room turned, several female audience members taking back quick control of the conversation. But in a philosophical slippery-slope sense the general point is an interesting one. If one consciously lays the foundations of the bad and painful things that will happen later, if one makes poor choices, diligently scoring one’s own downfall months and years before the spectacle is staged, can one really be said to be acted upon by higher powers, a bit-part in compositions beyond one’s ken? The artists’ bodies were acting involuntarily, out of their control, but their involvement in the project at all was voluntary. How far back can control, complicity, consent be traced? Once onstage, in media res, are the players playing or being played?

this modern love

The first two series of Channel 4’s Misfits is amongst my favourite television of all time. Perfectly cast, cohesively plotted, with its own definite aesthetic and a meticulously crafted fictional world, it went so quickly and so drastically downhill with the Christmas Special that I simply refuse to acknowledge the existence of further episodes. Ostensibly the story of five apathetic ASBO yoofs struck down by a supernatural storm that gifts each with a superpower, with each instalment we encounter yet another case of someone affected by the storm, with superpowers ranging from the sublime… to the guy who can control milk. This entertaining premise cleverly serves to despecialise the main characters, hugely undermining their superhero status, and adds a nicely Eerie, Indiana-esque sense of ‘we’re all mad here’ weirdness. Further though, it lends a notion of narrative development while allowing the main story arc to tread water a little when necessary — acknowledged self-consciously by the protagonists burying bodies, digging them up, then reburying them at the exact same spot over the course of three early episodes.

An especially brilliant, un-explicitly-announced touch is that each character’s superpower channels the crime that landed them in community service in the first place, in turn echoing a central aspect of their personality and approach to life. With Nathan ever-adamant that he was simply caught ‘eating pick n mix’, the eventual discovery of his new-found immortality is a particularly perjink comedic pay-off, reflecting his bloated sense of entitlement and belief that the rules of society, and the very concept of consequence, do not apply to him. The story I was most eager to see unfurl however was that of Alicia, a pyt whose power is to engender a visceral amorous reaction in any man who touches her. Pulled over for drunk-driving, she had attempted to seduce a police officer by fellating her breathaliser.

She’s a bit of a Sugar type, and there’s a lot that could be said about the fact both characters are mixed-race, that Alisha even had to be female at all, and that her power only seems to affect straight men. It would have been a really nice development to see this storyline queered in some direction — in fact, sexual diversity is something this show generally lacks. Having known the gist of Alisha’s character in advance, I was sorry to find that her power wasn’t going to be something she could control, yet was still “channelling” an aspect of her personality, ie. she can deny it all she wants but in the end, unequivocally, she’s asking for it. It’s difficult not to read her flatly in these terms. That it wasn’t a simple kind of Hogwartsian love potion was a bit of a shock too. These incidents, taking place at least once per episode, are very adult, incredibly violent, and deeply unsettling to watch. The men don’t just push themselves upon Alisha physically (in many instances succeeding so far in their attack as to be left, after her escape, completely perplexed by their flustered state: open flies, exposed erection) but begin instantly to ream off everything they’d like to do to her — “to” being the operative word. Sometimes absurdly humorous (Simon the sociopathically awkward penguin’s ‘I want to rip off your clothes and piss on your tits’), sometimes pathetically literal, these utterances are never, ever sexy, even when they do in fact lead to sex on her terms. Against all odds, despite a flurry of attacks, despite her lack of agency in terms of her effect on these men, Alisha somehow retains ultimate control, always managing to evade her attacker, always escaping. In one instance even, while being pinioned by two men, she manages to shake herself loose of their rampant grip. You have to wonder at what that’s supposed to be telling us.

I do think there is a really interesting discussion going on here about the concept of consent. At a seniors’ dance at the community centre, when Alisha is partnered with an old man (who duly gropes her) and is later again attacked by a policeman, probation worker Sally intones ‘you seem to have quite an effect on men. You are a very beautiful girl.’ Alisha is adamant however: ‘it’s not my fault if they can’t keep their dicks in their trousers.’ It’s a bold statement against rape culture, but of course at first glance it would appear that this is simply not true. She is undeniably invoking their lust, albeit by supernaturally-gifted means, against her (conscious) intention. They simply, and literally, cannot help themselves. But I suppose there is a question as to why these men are touching her in the first place, a question of male physical dominance over women, the unconsented manipulation of the female body. Despite the men’s evident discombobulation after the fact, Curtis’s assertion that when he was having sex with her while bewitched he was not himself, as much as her superpower is an amplification of her own attitudes to her sexuality and potency, the sentiments expressed by these men are amplifications too of their legitimate latent desire and violence-laced fantasies.

In Muriel Spark’s novella The Driver’s Seat, young office-worker Lise sets off on holiday alone to find “the one”. As the story unfolds it becomes apparent that she is in fact trying to find the man who will eventually rape and kill her, actively seeking him out, the whole thing portrayed as a sort of twisted, inverted love story. “I knew it from the minute I saw you.” Whenever she is alone with a man we are simply waiting for her to be attacked with claustrophobic dread, willing her not to go with him, to run. Similarly, Alisha’s being raped seems an inevitable fate she is coursing toward, with every attack becoming more and more terse to watch as we wonder if this will be the man to “finish the job”. It’s a strange effect which makes us complicit in her attack, almost willing it into being — makes her a self-evident victim, a victim even before she is a victim. Spark’s title largely arises from the notion of Lise-as-woman being uncharacteristically in control of her destiny and her relations with men, but in key scenes we also see her literally behind the wheel, and it’s an interesting parallel that driving seems such a large part of Alisha’s character. Bearing her original crime in mind, she is the only character who can summon up a car when required; in fact seems to be the only one of the five protagonists who can drive. The two-man attack by Curtis and Ben, from which she escapes, takes place in the latter’s car.

In Spark’s final scenes, as Lise “forces” her “suitor” to “consummate” their relationship (again, the feeling is that this is a private desire he is publicly repressing, that she is drawing it from him, permitting it in him, as does Alisha to her would-be “suitors”) it is he who becomes the victim figure, subjected to her desire for sexual death. It is evident that Curtis is appalled by Alisha’s knowingly brandishing her power in order to bed him, believes himself to have been taken advantage of, finally naming it as rape only in the verboten Christmas special. Here we see woman as sexual aggressor, as raper of men — the show’s fantastical element offering this role reversal that, for varying physiological reasons, is largely unrealistic irl. It is when Alisha relinquishes her power only for it to be snapped up by wayward priest “Jesus” that we begin to see it in starkly sinister terms, particularly when he touches and incites her (she once again, against all odds, manages to escape). Curtis is Alisha’s victim, she did rape him, and so what does it say that he then broached and maintained a relationship with her? Why does it feel so instinctively lesser a trespass when the sex roles are reversed?

When Curtis and Alisha decide to be together, they acknowledge that their relationship can’t ever be a fully consummated one. Only much later verbalised though is the fact that, for all anyone knows, Alisha will never be able to participate in sexual contact ever again. The show goes to great lengths to prove Alisha can still be touched “by proxy”, with the barrier of clothing, glass, other man-made materials. If only there existed some barrier by which it were possible to have sex without skin-to-skin contact… Why the instant assent to mutual masturbation without so much as a nod to the concept of contraception, clothed contact, et al? This is something that also nagged at me in the late, great Pushing Daisies, where this kind of ingenuity was employed, but only to romantic (not sexual) extent. When protagonist Ned touches a dead body once he brings it back to life, but touch it twice and it will wither once more. If he doesn’t retouch it within a minute, someone else in the vicinity will die in its place. Largely abiding by these rules, well-versed in self-denial and loss, Ned allows himself two exceptions: beloved pet labrador Digby and childhood sweetheart Chuck. Each becomes a mainstay in his life, albeit touchable only by-proxy, and he and Chuck quickly develop a romantic relationship, albeit unconsummated and in many senses only tacitly recognised.

Charmingly woven with long doting looks and evident adoration/obsession as it was (did anyone ever actually use the word love?), it was an utterly lustless show, with nary a sex scene or even passionate clinch in the course of its run. Though I irritatingly can’t find any of the stuff I read at the time, there were certainly theories abound that the romance of the central characters lent itself to some radical readings in terms of sexual theory: that Ned could be read as a queer character (Chuck?), that his story was an allegory for the cultural effects of AIDS. For my part, I’d argue that the distance between Chuck and Ned is an instance of fetish, the barriers invoked and ingenuity involved in their affecting togetherness a factor in their mutual desire to be together at all. The only other vaguely sexual couple in the show, if memory serves, was that of Emerson and his schoolmarmish dog-trainer, who seemed to maintain a similarly click-happy control over her beau: again, a fetishistic element. In a strange sense then, though sexless, Pushing Daisies is a show absolutely about sex: about wanting and (not) having. About the uncrossable, insatiable, existential distance of desire. Fetishising that distance, it compels the viewer to draw emotional stimulation from those small moments in which that distance might be broached: relishing the supernatural imposition that keeps the two lovers apart because their dedication to defying it viscerally proves their devotion to one another.

Obviously I’m not trying to say that conflicted lovers are in any sense a new phenomenon, but with Alisha and Curtis, the girl called Chuck and the Piemaker, we see that tried and true sitcom standard of unrequited/impossible love turned up to eleven. To bring a couple quickly and painlessly together (no ‘you deserve better’, no ‘I need to figure out what I want for myself’, no ‘I’m afraid of how much I love you’), to have them be emotionally available and openly together and to want to be together and yet to be painfully held apart, to have physical technicality be the issue and not emotional or moral conflict — that’s different. A very special kind of self-administered pain in the guise of greater pleasure. As viewers, what is that kind of dynamic sating in us? Why, as a fan-garnering trope, is it picking up speed? It’s a situation that we know, by its very definition, can never be resolved in any lasting way (Alisha’s selling off her power notwithstanding, and I maintain this was a bit of a cop-out ex machina). Where with most star-cross’d lovers we maintain a tight oscillation between wanting them to be together and enjoying the doleur exquise of their being kept apart, by investing in Curtis and Alisha, or Ned and Chuck, we are buying in wholesale to that hopeless want; even fetishising it for ourselves as some kind of romantic ideal.

It is universally accepted that Alisha’s superpower is by no means a gift, that it cannot possibly work to her advantage, and yet it — fuckability, per Ariel Levy — is a much-lauded attribute in our contemporary culture. What does it say that sex is now most evidently symbolised as a weapon, as an onslaught? That we are fetishising the obstacles that hold lovers apart; romanticising the barriers that allow them to be together? That we are beginning to idealise relationships where sex is an impossibility, where tactility is rendered extinct? Where intimacy is enacted from afar, ‘staring at one another and wanking ourselves off’.