In Laura Mulvey’s seminal article, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975), she articulates a feminist theory of spectatorship that seeks to dethrone the authoritative “male gaze”. Mulvey argues that dominant patriarchal narrative structures and Western logic are maintained by the male fantasy (how many climaxes in our traditional Aristotelian narrative structure? exactly!), wherein voyeurism imprisons the female body within a phallocentric scope, transforming them into fetishistic objects of heterosexual male desire. While Mulvey’s assessment is grounded in a psychoanalytic framework and has been scrutinized for its essentialism, its value is maintained when taken to a broader cultural critique and applied precisely at the level of ideological interpellation—that moment when the spectator is intended to passively consume their surrogate while adopting the role of perpetrator and actor of dominator culture.
With the imperative of creating a new cinema, Mulvey purports that it is the function of the avant-garde filmmaker “to free the camera into its materiality in time and space and the look of the audience into dialectics [and] passionate detachment” (844). Arguably, what Mulvey is calling for is a technique that is akin to German Marxist theatre practioner Bertolt Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt (distancing effect), "which prevents the audience from losing itself passively and completely in the character” or narrative at the moment of interpellation, creating instead a “consciously critical observer"-cum-active agent (91). Essentially, Mulvey and Brecht want to open up works of art so as to reveal, rather than reproduce the conditions and mechanisms of narrative structures that sustain dominant ideology. It is precisely this kind of open art—one that favors a multiplicity of perceptions and perspectives, one wherein re-conceptualization or creating oppositional narratives is action, and one where the very act of engagement between spectator and art object, is the work—which Amélie Brisson-Darveau & Pavitra Wickramasinghe and Jordon & David Doody, the artists in the exhibition Fandango, have created.
By circumventing the didacticism of Brecht’s theatre works and the overtly annoying avant-garde cinema produced by the disciples of Laura Mulvey, the shared technique that Brisson-Darveau & Wickramasinghe and the Doody’s employ to create space for dialogue and agency is, excess. For instance in Brisson-Darveau & Wickramasinghe’s project OOOO, the female figure is represented by a series of thaumatropes across three plexiglass modules. This use of excess, coupled with the sculptural and spatial dimensions of the work, boldly risks representations of the female body and the grip of misogyny, so as to force actual movement of the spectator. In this regard, the spectator is transformed from passive observer into co-choreographer and dancer—throwing a wrench into any comfort zone that scopophilic looking requires. Furthermore, the perpetual movement of the spectator/dancer/co-choreographer(s) eradicates an exclusive narrative with a single climactic moment. Instead, narrative is fragmented with multiple gestures coming to a head simultaneously, only to repeat and flow elsewhere as the spectator moves from viewing single punctuated movements when in close proximity, to a chorus of dancers when at a distance. While on the surface the excess of the female body might be an easy target of critique, I would argue it is no accident that the thaumatropes themselves mirror the title of the work OOOO. As a literary device “OOOO” can be read as onomatopoeic for the sound effects that are associated with female hyper-sexuality, most notable in erotic cinema (porn). But in a Brechtian gesture, Brisson-Darveau & Wickramasinghe have consciously left the mechanics of the work visible, putting into question the social construction of the sexual body, while making visible the labor (to call up Marx’s ghost) kept invisible in nearly all cinematic representations in our Western capitalist society.
The female body is also employed by the Doody’s as a way of assailing dominant narrative structures. For instance, a single Hollywood darling is presented as a kaleidoscopic multiplicity of femininity. In the tower of cabinets, two female faces stare at each other through a veil, as if their image is refracted endlessly in each other’s eyes, while the above rabbits prepare their fate as angelic burgeoners. But it is not just imagery that is in excess in the Doody’s work, but the materials themselves. Abundant throughout their pieces is the use of re-purposed thrift store finds, glossy prints, and vinyl prepared like the booth seats in our grandparent’s kitchen. In this instance the female body is coupled with material goods as the fetishistic object’s that spectators are meant to gaze at. But like Brisson-Darveau & Wickramasinghe’s work, this excess does not simply produce reassuring and innocent objects for our fetishistic desires. Instead easy narration and voyeuristic pleasure is dislocated through the use of juxtaposition. In this regard the pieces remain open ended, making the spectator a collaborator in completing the works—thereby nullifying easy looking and instead making the spectator an active agent.
Finally, in this exhibition the spectators and the works of art fandango—courting each other as the rhythm of association from one juxtaposition to the next in the Doody’s work increases, and the syncopated actions of Brisson-Darveau & Wickramasinghe’s work taunt, confront and pursue the spectator with each gesture.
Text by Eric Moschopedis
Brecht, Bertolt. Brecht on Theatre. Trans. John Willett. New York: Hill and Wang, 1964.
Mulvey, Lara. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Film Theory and Criticism. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. 833-44.