by John Greyson
Cut, no. 30, March 1985, pp. 36-38
GAY VIDEO: THE PRESENT CONTEXT
Karla Jay and Allen Young's 1978 anthology Lavender Culture set out to discuss the role of gay people in the traditional arts, and examine our subculture and its relationship to mainstream culture. It did not include one article on film or video, reflecting both the lack of scholarship at the time, and the little autonomous gay film and video that had been produced. How time flies! In five short years, we've had a minor eruption of sensitive" gay films from Hollywood, a steady flood of gay features from Europe, several books, special supplements in JUMP CUT and American Film(!) and lots of critical writing in the gay and lesbian/feminist press. An honest-to-goodness Academic Conference was organized at UCLA January 1983, on the subject, where this paper was originally presented — sad to say, it was the only contribution on video.
Within the "video revolution" we are currently enduring, "homo video" means two things to most people: porn and video bars. Both are interesting subjects — both desperately, need critical analysis right now. Both will eventually get it, as video bars become a predictable feature of ghetto life. Another development which deserves critical attention is the fledgling attempts at gay cable that have come and gone in the past decade and are increasingly coming back, subsidized this time by gay entrepreneurial capital. Attempting to make a buck on the electronic marketplace, there may be tiny amounts of space at first for radical politics and experimentation. But if history teaches us anything, the door of the dollar inevitably slams shut first on those who believe that there is more to gay culture than Joan Crawford.
Within the context of the UCLA conference, it was significant that critical attention to gay media exerted itself in direct relation to production budgets, which in turn have a great deal to do with influence on the viewing public. MAKING LOVE, a Hollywood feature, commanded the scrupulous resources of two lengthy papers. Three avant-garde not-quite-lesbian-enough films, which were produced on insignificant independent budgets, were dealt with in one paper. Since the average video artist spends no more than $5,000 per project, I myself gave this paper, which critiques twenty tapes in twenty minutes.
My being the only voice of video inevitably turned my remarks into an apologia for the medium. Yet, much of the work I discuss is not very good. Nevertheless, its collective importance asserts itself in its overt opposition to dominant media culture. My remarks, therefore, fall outside the domain of traditional media criticism. Most critiques of mainstream film and television adopt a passive relation to the culture industry, assuming it to be untouchable. The industrial base that overwhelmingly determines mainstream representations is consequently ignored. Such analysis is reactive, skewering in minute critical detail that which is represented, without addressing in concrete terms how such representations are produced in the first place. In this kind of criticism, the effect of commercial culture on society remains mystified. On the other hand, any discussion of independent media (including video), which is produced outside of commercial capital, must address itself to its marginalization within the dominant culture, and hence address its means of production.
Homo video production over the past fifteen years can be divided into several categories, including pornography, documentaries, documents of meetings and marches, and TV shows (mainly no-budget cable access efforts on cable systems around the country). I limit myself here to a discussion of art tapes by men. This selection is hardly representative, reflecting the bias of my living in Toronto and New York for the past five years. A discussion of lesbian video art is a topic unto itself, and begs to be addressed, for women's use of video dominates the medium's fifteen-year history. Video's very emergence as an artistic and documentary tool used by the disenfranchised is inextricably linked to the current resurgence of the feminist movement. This movement informs most of the work I will discuss to a greater or lesser degree, particularly where sexual politics intersect with issues of representation.
The sort of video I will discuss does claim an agenda of artistic pretensions — it attempts to enlighten, to examine, to intervene, to raise consciousness and, above all, to question that consciousness. As an art form, it hovers illusively on the battleground of gay cultural production, claiming simultaneous allegiances with documentary, fiction, poetry, and painting, resisting treaties (and treatises), obtaining a dishonorable discharge from the United Nations of High Art. It plays double agent, desiring the lowbrow working class audience of television and the high-brow bourgeois rigor of academic theory, ultimately betraying both sides and ignoring detente. Worst of all, it refuses to fall into line and march with the troops under the banner "gay video."
Various schools of video art have come and gone, including the decorative (image processing), the conceptual (minimal, sculptural, environmental), the personal (autobiographical, story telling), and the mannerist (campy media takeoffs, usually performance based). The critical wrangling of such labeling has never produced satisfactory categories or (heaven forbid) any dominant theory. Acknowledging the current plurality of approaches and techniques is the only acceptable generalization critics can still get away with.
The following video work for the most part places itself in relation to some existing cultural reality. Produced within the confines of a liberal art milieu, the tapes are exhibited in alternative galleries and avant-garde nightclubs. The tapes' audience is not gay, but an art world that obviously includes gay people but experiences the work within a discourse of fine art media production. This type of video audience has begun to change in the past few years. Gay film festivals and conferences, like Chicago Filmmakers' annual event, are introducing video sections and sidebars. The artists discussed generally use video in conjunction with other new media — performance, installations, photography, artists books, new painting and sculpture. Their budgets are small, and distribution is accomplished either through personal representation or a handful of video art distributors like Electronic Arts Intermix, The Kitchen, Video Data Bank, and Art Metropole, which sell/rent to museums, artists spaces and media centers. Critical recognition comes through visual arts journals and the alternative press, which tend to ignore or misinterpret gay themes. The gay press has rarely reviewed video, though it devotes many pages to straight mainstream cultural productions that traditionally are thought to interest a gay "sensibility" (e.g. Donna Summer, the opera).
Left in a critical vacuum, the challenges of these tapes, beyond being a highly unpredictable political smorgasbord, can perhaps be best illuminated by comparing so-called "gay video" to so-called "gay film." The latter is traditionally interpreted (excluding porn) as the narrative feature, and carries with it an inordinate debris of assumptions:
All of the following tapes reject or question these various conventions of seduction, identification, realism and closure in favor of a new vocabulary that is often self-critical. They demand of the viewer an active participation in decoding their signals and structures, and they eschew passivity by inverting or parodying the expected.
THE TAPES: DILETTANTES FIGHT DIDACTICISM
Video encourages people to talk — point a camera at someone, and they have to do something. Moreover, the camera changes people's relation to the microphone — suddenly they must not only think, but act. Since the early seventies, Rodney Werden (a straight man) has been interviewing people about their so-called "perversions." His subjects include a call-boy and a transexual. BABY DOLLS consists of a close-up short of a post-operative transexual painting her toenails as she describes her operations in clinical detail. Werden undermines the conventions of the TV-talk-show interview by consciously denying us the visual reality of this man-into-woman. All we're shown is a hand methodically applying color to nails, hand, and feet — denying the gender transformation that we desire to witness. The tape's tension, by not letting us see what we hear and are fascinated by, is turned back on us. We watch the superficial transformation of her toenails with a heightened disinterest, conscious that we have been cheated, but conscious also that the cheating" was constructed out of our own expectations.
I BET YOU AIN'T SEEN NOTHING LIKE THIS BEFORE (1981), by contrast, exploits the conventions of an armchair interview purposely to explode them. The tape's subject, a naked older man, calmly claims that he can fuck himself, and then proceeds (with towel neatly arranged on chair) to demonstrate. We are spared none of the details. Witnessing his self-penetration close-up, we have no choice but to imagine ourselves in the same position. Later, he demonstrates his predilection for adapted-short-wave-radio toys, which he tunes to various vibratory frequencies to bring himself to climax.
The tape is devastating. It should be played in every public school in the country. Its impact lies in the implicit collaboration between the subject and the producer — indeed, the subject controls everything that occurs. There is no possibility of exploitation, for Werden has refused to comment, moralize, or otherwise frame the experience of this very articulate gentleman: what you see is what you get, and I bet you ain't seen nothing like this before…
Ron Moule and Ieuan Rhys Morris' recent tape NOTHING PERSONAL consists of intercut interviews with six politically active gay men who address issues of masculinity. Their backgrounds (white, middle-class, intellectual) presuppose a discourse located within the milieu of the radical gay movement. While personal reminiscence figures centrally in the process, the men continually contextualize their own statements within that political framework, and within the framework of the tape itself. The "truth" of the documentary interview, to which this tape refers itself, is further deconstructed through a complex intertwining of the men's edited statements. No man can complete more than a sentence before the tape cuts to another speaker. In essence, the individual stories are woven together to create the anti-thesis of six discreet characters. The result, as with Werden, is thrown back at the audience. Since all traditional identification with any one of the six men is subverted, the cumulative effect of the discussion continually questions its own process, raising questions and denying resolutions.
Its insistence that its speakers cannot be reduced to "gay characters" places the tape in direct opposition to the classic formula utilized by the documentary film WORD IS OUT. Horses Inc., a Chicago-based intermedia group, chose to satirize that film more explicitly. Their 1980 tape GAY IS OUT proposes six stereotypes from the ghetto, including a deranged boyscout leader and a tough-as-nails dyke who all insist they're not gay. Scripted like a SCTV routine, the humor is obvious and hackneyed from the outset. In trying to expose the conformity possible in the gay subculture, the producers regrettably undercut themselves by conforming to tired TV comic routines that irritate more than amuse.
Peter Adair's (the director of WORD IS OUT) 30-minute SOME OF THESE STORIES ARE TRUE was commissioned by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and then censored by PBS, because the tape supposedly took too much artistic license too far. Three storytellers tell three ten-minute tales about men, masculinity, gender roles, and aggression. Their narratives are purposely jump-cut to death — the viewer can never forget that these tales have been re-told through Adair's adroit editing. A young Puerto Rican man proudly tells how he beat to a pulp in prison another man who made a pass at him. A nuclear plant engineer describes a power play during a jury session where he reversed the group's decision to uphold his masculine authority. Lucien Truscott of "Dress Grey" fame elaborates how at West Point he was continually fighting off the not-so-subtle advances of his commanding officer, Alexander Haig.
The tape's trick is revealed in the credits — one of the stories was scripted and acted, throwing the other two into question. PBS claimed their reason for killing the tape rested on Adair's misleading the audience — which was exactly the point of the tape, of course. PBS also went out of its way to claim that the upfront alligations concerning Haig in no way influenced their decision.
Many gay men claim this is not a gay tape because the characters all purport to varying degrees of straightness — yet the tape's analysis of power relations between men could only have been accomplished by a gay lib critique of such power relations. While the tape's didactic structure becomes wearing and the acted segment lacks credibility, STORIES remains an ambitious effort to skewer masculine aggression through exposing the lies we tell as stories.
Gilbert and George, two British artists, have over the past fourteen years executed an adroit, all-embracing spectacle out of the mundane. Through performances, photo murals, films and some tapes, they meditate on their self-created position in culture as "artists" reclaiming the everyday. One 1972 tape features them sitting in an English sitting room as the twilight comes, nursing glasses and proclaiming in increasingly slurred tones: "Gordon's makes us Very, Very Drunk." The subject is alcoholism, but the concept is an appropriation of the banal. By situating themselves in virtually everything they produce, as their own Gilbert and George personas, they implicitly insist that the art world (if not the real world) take these two faggots seriously. Such a project, seen in its entirety, ultimately doesn't say very much to anyone, beyond its own attempt to simultaneously partake of and expose an artworld that manages to market even alcoholism under the guise of self-referential inquiry into the true status of the avant-garde.
Many video artists commence their careers (a loaded term, given the economics of this particular art form) with some form of image-making — and many try to integrate a strictly visual vocabulary into their work. Three artists from Canada will serve to illustrate both the strengths and weaknesses of such projects to date. Michael Morris' NARCISSUS (1980) adopts a language of lush, erotic compositions featuring beautiful boys striking self-conscious poses. The charged tension comes from the boys' pseudo-seduction of the viewer as they sprawl on beds, exit and coyly return. Are they aware of us or only themselves? This highly proficient garden of objectified delights uses visual associations to titillate (signifiers of greek myths and subcultural cruising patterns), yet the artist ultimately lets the paradise remain a facile, pornographic enigma.
Paul Wong's PRIME CUTS is an extended commercial for that wonder drug — consumerism. His bevy of professional boy and girl models lounge their way through an endless summer of beach parties and boatrides. Everything is pimple-free and perfect, from the anesthetic electronic muzak soundtrack to the couture costumes. Yet the sexual ambiguities abound, when the boys shower together, or when the camera leaves a heterosexual couple entwined on the bed to discover a naked boy sunbathing on the patio. Such undercurrents only emphasize the banality of this toothpaste/deodorant fantasy, which is supposed to be Wong's point. Wong has captured the obvious exquisitely, yet in doing so only replicates what commercial TV does daily. Morris similarly delivers an appealing surface that is meant to seduce us self-consciously. Yet he, too, merely repeats what exists in mass culture, reproducing without comment those patterns and devices that are the lynch pins of commercial commodification.
In contrast, Nick Jenkins' DESIRE attempts a systematic if quirky analysis of the same subject - the homoerotic subtext of consumer youth culture. During the central sequence, an off-camera fashion photographer and visual researcher search through slides for album-cover inspirations. The images historically trace the emergence of the you-wanna-fuck-me-cause-I'm-a-straight-boy look, from fifties muscle mags through Calvin Klein. The intentional, often hilarious banality of the characters' remarks conceal sharp perceptions about the function of such multi-layered come-hither messages, while reinforcing the two characters' roles as intentional producers of such imagery. This sequence is too long, and the tape is too ambitious, given the complexity of the subject, but if it ultimately fails, it still achieves a much more articulate reading of boy/ youth commodification than either Wong or Morris' work.
Michel Auder's COUPLA WHITE FAGGOTS SITTING AROUND TALKING could be more accurately entitled COUPLA WHITE FAGGOTS GET THEIR HANDS ON A PORTAPAK. Resurrecting several assorted lushes from the Warhol superstar stable, Auder with scriptwriter/star Gary Indiana painfully play out the neuroses of New York's "decadent" ghetto culture, displaying a rather naive fascination with ludes, cheap tricks, and big dicks. The plot is continually disrupted by the antics of Cookie Mueller, the SM dominatrix with numerous gubernatorial clients and a new-wave 12-year-old brat who deals in drugs and wordly wisdom. While Mueller's performance is by far the most accomplished in this relative world of impromptu self-absorption, she remains stuck trying to shock us, and she ends up looking as bored with her posturing as we are with Auder's pretensions. COUPLA WHITE FAGGOTS shares with other underground New York new wave "classics" (à la Eric Mitchell, Amos Poe, Scott and Beth B, Jim Jarmusch) a banality exceeded only by its incompetence.
Cohn Campbell, a Toronto artist and producer of over thirty tapes, has consistently used the contradictions of drag to explore contemporary socio-sexual neuroses. As THE WOMAN FROM MALIBU he adopts the blond wig and accoutrements of a disenfranchised suburban widow to tell disturbing tales of disillusionment. The camera remains close and static — he often shot these tapes by himself in his studio, turning on the camera and stepping into the frame. As Robin, a polyanna punkette who falls awkwardly from grace in MODERN LOVE and BAD GIRLS, he pushes the jejune-like charm of these homemade soap operas to their limits. One classic scene involves the camera (and hence us) as a photographer out to seduce Robin. Robin demurs, giggles, gets nervous and begins to disrobe — the construction of his femininity crumbles before us. Yet Robin's back is turned as "she" removes her bra, and our illusion is intact — sort of.
Two newer tapes employ dramatic progression more conventionally. Self-referential artifice is suspended in favor of a somewhat truncated illusion of reality, and identifiable gay characters are presented. In HE'S A GROWING BOY, SHE'S TURNING FORTY, a business woman — troubled by age, her husband, and her job — consoles an office-boy who's trying desperately to come out. In DANGLING BY THEIR MOUTHS, an obsessive European art critic (Campbell) seduces Canadian bisexual male artists only to lose her lesbian lover to cancer. Both tapes employ melodramatic confrontations. But these confrontations are sharply juxtaposed to discreet scenes where nothing ostensibly happens: the office boy in the bath, listening to a music box, or the lesbian lover reading from William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. In contrast, these scenes reverberate with understated implications.
Campbell's use of drag raises problematic questions. It is by no means straightforward. We are never allowed to believe in the illusions he purposes. Yet he does little to resolve his own gender-fuck, the photo session being one of several exceptions. Often his characters crossdress across age lines and social codes, yet they are played in ways that preclude any visceral explication on our part. Conscious confusion is not the tape's central statement, though, which perhaps accounts for this ambiguity.
CONUNDRUM CLINIQUE, a shorter version of a longer two-channel work, tells the story of a nuclear scientist who discovers the joys of make-up after appearing on the TODAY show with Jane Paully. The tape consists of direct-camera statements from the three characters — the scientist, his girl-friend/assistant, and the Venetian plumber who seduces him. Halfway through we realize they are reconstructing the crime — the girlfriend, sick in bed, discovers them fucking on the kitchen table, and thinks it's a robbery. She tries to hit the plumber, but kills the scientist instead. Their evidence" constitutes three accounts, not just of the event, but of repression in a nuclear (family) society.
WHITE MONEY, Campbell's latest work, discards the lengthy soap opera structure for a faster, tighter modus operandi. With no pretense to narrative order, the tape butts together monologues about sexual power and desire with explicit gay sex and lesbian SM. Lacking a storyline, the tape's confrontation with social taboos is cleaner, clearer. It hits harder at the very issue of literally representing such forbidden territory, admittedly without going beyond the surface to participate in the porn/sm debates that are raging. Campbell's work does not participate in, so much as respond to, the sexual agendas in the feminist and gay movements. A peculiar amalgam of Fassbinder minus the budget, Lothar Lambert minus the tight edits, and THE EDGE OF NIGHT with modernist distancing, Campbell's oeuvre is best understood as a barometer of societal confusion over sex and sexuality.
General Idea, a tripartite of media-savvy Toronto artists, have for the past decade pursued their eternal project, the 1984 Miss General Idea Pageant. As an exercise in self-promotion-as-art, they manufacture mass media to live out a Situationist purgatory. Homoerotic references abound in their performance, video, and installation work, as well as in their irregular magazine File. However, gay content is assimilated within a context of consummate fetishes. The black leather, chains, doric columns, leopard spots, poodles, cocktails and hairstyles become metaphoric signifiers à la Barthes to symbolize the relation between consumer capitalism and high culture. In this work, the New Left goes New Wave.
TEST TUBE (1979) utilizes color-keying to situate a woman artist within this conundrum. Confused by the demands of the mass-market's masquerading as the elite, she is caught in a prison composed on the color bars on the screen. Her story is intercut with commercials for drinks served in testubes in the Color Bar Lounge (just down the street from the Pavillion): cocktails for capitalists, anarchists, communists, artists and fascists.
intones the voice-over, as the cute blond boy drinks a glass of milk and gets a white Hitler moustache. The group's wit, laced with complex puns and triple entendres, is often delightfully seductive. Less clear is their own willing collusion with the culture industry they so gleefully critique. Though they often have quite sophisticated observations to make about perversity in a repressive society, their rejection of contemporary sexual political discourse in favor of privileged postmodern irrelevance ultimately undercuts their project's interest. In having their cake and eating it too, they leave little but the crumbs for us.
THE LOVE SHOW, a recent tape by London artist Stuart Marshall, inverts a plethora of BBC formats to construct a loose series of scenes detailing the power relations between men and women, gays and the police, and media and its newsworthy public. The tape opens with an officer interrogating a mother about her son, who has been picked up on a secluded beach with another man. Their conversation consists of contradictory clichés. Though the content is different, we can easily fill in the blanks following the formulae of narrative construction. Later, the mother is interviewed by a reporter. In the middle of their cross-purpose questions and answers, the sound disappears. A moment later, the reporter looks down and gestures that his batteries have failed. Another scene involves a seduction in an undressed TV studio (cables akimbo), where a man skillfully manipulates a woman into accepting his ride by first insisting that she isn't liberated and then by accusing her of fearing rape. They both analyze each other's positions. She realizes she is trapped in a no-win situation, whereby both her refusal or acquiescence ultimately will contribute to the inevitable crime.
Marshall demands that the audience play an active role in this work, consciously taking apart the implications of each segment to extract meaning. Nothing can be read literally. In a sense, like Campbell and General Idea, Marshall uses mannerism continually to "quote," or he references his media constructions within our larger cultural experience. In subsequent and even more complicated work, he juxtaposes a wealth of material from medieval history, Marxist, and Freudian theory, and contemporary feminist/gay liberation thinking to propose a matrix of intersecting questions regarding sex, power and capitalism. His methodology, eschewing didactic postulations in favor of contextualized queries, could be faulted for concentrating so heavily on the formal properties of communication. At times his constructions are too obtuse to be deciphered, even by the most fervent of devotees.
Marshall, Adair, Werden, Moule & Morris, Campbell and General Idea in various ways interrogate the assumptions of their audiences. They don't simply write off narrative as reactionary. On the contrary, they propose new methods of "storytelling" that come clean even as they lie, that demand viewers to walk down narrow narratives to see the chasms on either side, that create illusions specifically to reveal the machinations whereby those illusions are created, that multiply even as they subtract. The videomakers place sexuality in jeopardy, but only along with everything else.
Obviously, there is a fine line between intentional ambiguity that illuminates, and ambiguity rooted in incompetence, trendiness (gender-blur, for instance) or outright political irresponsibility. One could argue, for instance, that Campbell participates in the voyeuristic tradition of commercial cinema by making most of his "deviant" characters tragic, lacking the independence and self-determination necessary to make them "positive" characters for us to identify with (his most recent tape is an interesting exception). We are distanced from the characters — often we laugh at them, and there is no clear signal telling us how to understand the social circumstances that make them ridiculous. However, Campbell isn't in the business of mass-producing role models. He's commenting more on such mass production within our culture by parodying it and by blocking such identification at every turn.
There are several concrete ways we can deal with this problematic species of our culture, "homo video":
Similarly, video artists could claim their "responsibility' to the gay community in a variety of ways:
Ultimately, the video work which I have described all suffers to a greater or lesser degree from its limited context, the art world. Many of the producers exist in a critical void that addresses only the formal properties posed by their work, leaving explicit content at a safe distance. Finally, the art world is a privileged sector that often basks in its own insularity and liberalism. If "morality" is to be an issue in media production, then it should inform the intentions of the producer and not be applied to the producer's illusionistic creations. Debating the morality of the character which Frank Riploh portrays in TAXI ZUM KLOH is futile. Debating the intentions of Riploh the producer has merit. Similarly, artists who choose to address social issues should be answerable to whichever community they profess to speak for, but the community must be responsible to the needs and intentions of the producer.
In larger terms, we need to formulate a critique of our "gay" culture (including pornography) that fully understands the intersections between the economics and ideology of production. We can't determine the function of a PERSONAL BEST within society until we begin to appreciate the task that NOTHING PERSONAL sets for us. In many ways, studying these tapes and others would be a good place to start. They have already begun a critique of the elements that compose the dominant culture, and have begun to deconstruct those elements in favor of a self-determined arena of our own making.