Saturday, October 14, 2006

Shame (Gregor Samsa-style)

As any regular reader of the irregular writings here knows, supporting artistic freedom and rejecting censorship is important to me. There are moments, however, when humanitarian concerns trump artistic freedom.

I am not sure how I feel about the current trial of Simon Bikindi, a popular Rwandan singer accused of inciting genocide with his music. I am not sure about it because it would set a precedent that would see a good deal of the musicians in the US up on charges of incitement to war crimes.

Surely every patriotic song, from the most hideous country-rock pro-war pap to Ray Charles' otherwise wonderful rendition of "America the Beautiful" have served useful support roles in US wars of aggression over the years. (Jimi Hendrix' "Star Spangled Banner" is a notable exception.) Whether these artists intentionally supported the horrors or -- like the Nazi misappropriation of works by Beethoven, for example -- were simply exploited, can be questioned. But what if making a work of art is in itself cruel, inhumane, dangerous, or murderous?

Last night I performed music in an art gallery where just such a work was exhibited. The work was so sickening that as the artist -- whose name will not receive any popularization here -- set up her work I literally shouted "that's fucking disgusting" more than once. (The artist, drunk, cordially introduced herself later.)

What was the work in question? The artist chose to express herself by placing a translucent box full of live cockroaches atop an overhead projector. As the evening progressed and the lamp of the projector heated the box, the cockroaches, subjected to intense heat, were tortured. For the first hour or so they were absolutely frantic, becoming progressively more aggressive toward each other, and then one by one they were cooked to death, while survivors crushed each other up against the presumably cooler edges of the projection surface. To the depraved delight of some in attendence, this was all visible, many times enlarged, on a wall of the gallery.

I feel intense shame at the part I played in this. Why? Several days ago some friends and I were invited to perform at the after-party of an exhibition opening. For a small fee. Upon arriving at the gallery and seeing what was going on I didn't refuse to play. I didn't refuse to get paid. Aside from loudly registering my discomfort (which probably had as much to do with my low-level insect phobia as my high-intensity objection to anything being tortured) and complaining (read: bitching) about the work to people in the audience after I was finished playing, I didn't deal with the problem. We started our first set with a text of mine that indirectly addressed the issue, but this had been planned in advance, before I knew what kind of horrible shit I would be witnessing. Shame on me for standing on a stage with a microphone, witnessing torture, and "respecting" an artist's right to conduct it.

And what about the audience? I spoke to some people who appreciated the aesthetic effect of giant cockroaches crawling on the walls (we feel at home amidst a hundred Gregor Samsas, no?), but felt this could have been done with film, and thus without degrading the artist or the observers or torturing living creatures. Of the hundred or so people who spent any time in the gallery last night, only one person needed to pull the plug to make the point that needed to be made. But no one dared. A room full of artists and musicians, all apparently creative, all engaged in an orgy of torture (read: destruction) ostensibly on the grounds that to turn off the torture device would be an infringement on someone's artistic freedom.

But it wasn't art we witnessed. It was Abu Ghraib. It was Guantanamo fucking Bay. Projected on the wall was any number of individuals demeaned, tortured, and murdered, demonstrating some sadistic bastard's definition of everything from "freedom" to "justice" to "democracy" or whatever (I've lost track of the inane justifications). Just as last night in the smoke-filled, alcohol-infused art gallery, today we witness and we stand agape. And we do nothing.

We witness well over half a million murders in somebody's "global war on terror", one of every four US veterans of it returning home with a disability (if at all), the legalization of torture and indefinite imprisonment without charge, a million unexploded US-made cluster bombs sprinkled on a tiny patch of Lebanese soil (are they called bomblets because so many of them destroy children?) and it gets me to wondering: who are the cockroaches around here?

Perhaps the work last night would have been a decent sociological experiment if several dozen living beings (yes, oh yes: with feelings) hadn't been sadistically tortured for "art's sake". But they were. And the mark of shame is with all of us who stood on and did nothing.

Pull the plug. Pull the plug. Pull the plug.


There is a somewhat similar work by Chilean-Danish artist Marco Evarissti: ten living goldfish swimming in ten food blenders. It is the work that made the artist famous (the director of a museum exhibiting the work was taken to court and fined for animal cruelty). Although I personally dislike the work, and I dislike the implication (that it is okay to make a point about human morality by imprisoning a living thing and subjecting it to potential violence), I do not think this work approaches the cruelty of the work I witnessed last night. Why? While Evarissti's work places the mortality of the work's subject directly in the hands of the observer, making the violence implicit, the overhead projector was placed out of reach and the violence was explicit: fundamental to the work. To follow on my metaphor above, the torture and detention centers of the US empire are similarly "out of reach", but the off switch is right there in your hands.


RK. said...

I find that your mention of Simon Bikindi made such an interesting segue into a piece about art involving cockroaches. One could argue that the first step towards justifying violence is the dehumanization of others -- in the case of the Rwandan genocide, employing the word "cockroaches" [inyenzi] was commonplace; it was used to describe the Tutsis and moderate Hutus who would later be slaughtered. The people in the gallery did not care about the lives of cockroaches being burnt to death; one shudders at the leap from cockroach to human being, and yet, that leap has been made time and again.

I hope you don't mind that I've linked this entry on my blog. Thanks for an insightful piece.

- Rachel

VLR said...

Though the whole thing is insane, it would still be interesting to know how the artist got this idea. Sadism? Sensation?

I wrote some comments on your article on my own blog.

By the way, the concert in Het Paard last week was great.

Bertus Pieters

Keir said...

Thanks Rachel and Bertus for reading and reacting.

Rachel, I didn't know about the use of "cockroach" as a dehumanizing epithet in Rwanda. In my post I forgot to mention another famous example, that of the frequent derogatory use by Israeli governmental officials to describe Palestinians.

This all implies the disgusting and oh-so-human idea that if the victim is non-human the abuse is not immoral.

Bertus thanks for the compliment on the gig. I'll try to mention upcoming performances here more often. As for whether the artist is a sadist or a sensationalist, I don't think it really matters. From the beginning of The Rebel by Albert Camus:

"There are crimes of passion and crimes of logic. The line that divides them is not clear. But the Penal Code distinguishes between them by the useful concept of premeditation. We are living in the era of premeditation and perfect crimes."

If we agree that it is wrong to torture even cockroaches (that is my position), there is no excuse, no defense, for both the artist and for those of us who observed the act.

JOS said...

Great piece...irregular writing is all I want to read.

Anonymous said...

What a revolting story. I hope that someone will find this "artist" and pull the plug next time.

Anonymous said...

No, no no. This is all wrong. One does not have to be a PETA supporter to understand that on the most basic level, what that "artist" did is simply unacceptable and should not have been tolerated. (Pull the stupid plug!!!!) Not even by those kooks who yell about "artist's rights of expression". Bull. How can you -all of you - advocate such passionate opposition to all injustices in the world and tolerate physical torture of something living right before your eyes? How utterly hypocritical! However, the fact that you wrote about it - powerfully - means a lot. Truly. In the future, my suggestion would be to Just. Say. No. Do not participate. Now THAT would be a meaningful message of protest, wouldn't it? Oh, and that "artist"? She sucks.

vlad said...

Wow - a project that weds weakness (or absence) of concept with pure vicious stupidity.. the parallels with a well-known performance art piece in Iraq are apt indeed.

It makes me think a lot about your previous post on drug laws.. human behaviour is imitative by nature; perhaps this is the kind of behaviour that comes to the fore in a capitalist system (along with addiction, Survivor, Big Brother, etc). Or perhaps it's just the passivity that's been drilled into us from birth.

I don't understand why this idea of "personal expression" gets so much support. Surely the crux of the argument is, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, not the opinion EXPRESSED by a work of art ABOUT prevailing conditions of production, but rather "what is its POSITION in them?".

Or as Lichtenberg said "A man's opinions are not what matters, but the kind of man these opinions make of him."

Great post, anyway. At least something worthwhile came out of this garbage.

VLR said...

@Keir. You'r right, there is no excuse. But i'm not interested in an excuse. I 'd like to know the reason why.

Bertus Pieters