Sets and Spectacles: an Opening

A year has flown by since the upload and Shadowing Josephine has reached over 16,000 views on Vimeo. What started out as 3minute performance combining movements that helped begin situating  Josephine Baker research as ingenue and commanding celebrity against the repercussions of colonialism and segregation and inequalities that we continue to be challenged by today, became, through the Occupation residency at ]PS[ a durational performance. And next week I’ll perform this over the three days of Live Art Bistro at Latitude Festival. This will be the final performance of Shadowing Josephine that I will make before submitting a text entitled Sets and Spectacles: Shadowing Josephine and Cultural Performance to be included in an Cambridge Scholars Anthology on gender construction. Annotating and distilling the movements proves that this repetitive performance is swamped by the images that abound: continued civil rights injustices, the spectacles that routinely ‘entertain’ my timelines, the role of celebrity as human rights ‘activist’, disbelief, compassion and hope, whilst challenging the gaze, the control of presentation and presence, investigating implications and further acts to resonate or muse on Josephine Baker’s position as celebrity offered for public consumption, and particularly the male eroticized gaze . What is made evident, through the research and my performative dialogue with it, is that racial and gender enslavement is homogeneous: the exotic and savage are intermingled with the subservient and feminine.

“Since spectacle defines the new means of consumption, and spectacles must be visible in order to be, well, spectacles; visibility defines the new means of consumption.” George Ritzer, Obscene from Any Angle, Third Test

So who are these viewers on Vimeo? Nobody comments, just 16,000 consume (or 1 consumer emulating the developed durational performance by watching on repeat). I thank Marco Cali for expanding and balancing the conversation. Marco has generously allowed me to publish his text RED (below), which I hope will provoke further discussion.

What do you see?

“But is there a political shape to “women,” as it were, that precede and prefigures the political elaboration of their interested and epistemic point of view? How is that identity shaped, and is it a political shaping that takes the very morphology and boundary of the sexed body as the ground, surface, or site of cultural inscription? What circumscribes that site as “the female body”? Is “the body” or “the sexed body the firm foundation on which gender and systems of compulsory sexuality operate? Or is “the body” itself shaped by political forces with strategic interests in keeping that body bounded and constituted by the markers of sex?” Griselda Pollock

“Voyeurism dramatizes the violation of a threshold: the keyhole, the window, the camera aperture. Voyeurism acknowledges a barrier to pleasure, a limit to power and then transgresses the limit, reclaiming power in a forbidden excess of pleasure.” Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather

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(I bet she’s cold.)

It’s that red. That red in particular, like blood that you paint your body with. The same blood we all have inside. Or streaming just under the skin perhaps, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” The red of the rock snakes, poisonous danger displayed. Nature’s saying that this body so boldly displayed, marked out, is deadly perhaps or bitter, to the bite. So keep away, it has power. There is power there, in the display you make of your body. Look but don’t touch. See what there is to see. There is nothing else here but what there is to see. A body that moves and acts within a tight space, posed in that frame. And that red, marking and controlling the body perhaps. It is a body but not your body. Not of the flesh then. Like the church who split the body from the spirit. Or the communists who tried to suppress filial connections with words and deeds. The Soviets in red square, Mao’s little red book or the Khmer Rouge. All at it. If someone in your family betrays the party…”Flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood.”…Then it is your duty to report them. Report their mind? And then the body is punished for the mind’s wrongdoing. You may have been taught this is a sin. Honour your mother and father. But this is not a sin as there is no religion. Duty is to the state, the body politic. Cannot be a sin as this is not religion.

The red sits on your skin. (It’s only pigment, get over it lad.) It obscures the skin. Flayed, as if there’s no skin and I can see beneath and it’s not pretty, horribly transfixed. The body inside-out. Your female body that is, it has gone against nature. Because of course, I must (Really? Why? Impolite not to in these circumstances) mention menstruation. Period.

The time of the month.

Mummy’s special time.

Your sister/cousin/friend* is having woman trouble.

(*delete as appropriate.)

Spreading the unclean blood over yourself. Unclean? Why? Because rejected by the body. No use now that no bugger has fertilized the egg. You only have so many of those anyway, eggs. Or menstrual flows. So that’s another one down the pan Madam.

(We are still looking at you. Huddled together in this room, politely arranged around the perimeter. Exchanging hushed asides. I stand one leg straight, the other with foot pointing, at you? At the centre of the floor-space where you happen to be? My fingers grip glass, the tell-tale complimentary drink, the P.V. freebie that drew us in.)

That red. Like Carrie. Steven King’s Carrie to be exact. Because only his Carrie had a thing with her menstrual blood. A thing that was of another existence, super natural. Not ordinary natural. Not boring old every-day, well, month, natural. Her blood led to ridicule and then to powers that reached beyond her body. So is spreading that red over yourself a ritual marking? Some kind of coven being played out in front of this dumb audience? Is the power you give yourself that of being watched, studied, looked at. Thought about. Written on.

(Would you do this if you were older. Would you be OK with it if you were wrinkled and saggy and your backside was half-way down your legs? Would I be here if I was stooped and crab-legged and my trousers pulled up to the arm-pits?)

Or maybe you’re blushing? Flushed by your own audacity. Here in this room in front of all these people in front of that camera. But it’s not that kind of red. Would I blush, surely yes, but only with eye contact. If I’m gazed upon looking at that nakedness. Loss of control then, of power and secrecy. An inner secrecy perhaps. What I am thinking as I look should perhaps remain secret, between me and me, not on display. Invisible even. I made some choices, what to wear choices, unconscious perhaps. But must look right, for the art-crowd. My power is that I look, that I judge, that I consume even. So don’t look. I feel my weakness, my embarrassment. But this isn’t an intrusion. Not an invitation. An act, only an act. If I were there I’d pretend. I would pretend. Interested, chin stroking thoughts. Philosophising, unlike these here words eh? “Contextualise your blackness to signify my whiteness” as the song goes. But you’re not black – not ‘real’ black. Were you ever called names? Labelled? Kiddies can be so nasty the little tearaways. But I cannot write those names. Whereas these, Oh, I these are fine: wop, daigo, terrone (These last are the ones from the south. What the ones from the north say to help the ones from the south remember). The Med, one people, one sea. Unless you arrive uninvited of course. “Pass-port Pass-port!” she shouted slapping one hand down on the counter, the sour-faced officer.

“I’m British” replied the man with his high-pitched accent, head shaking side-to-side (as they do.)

“I’m British! I’m British!” mocked Sargent-Major Windsor Davis.


Don’t be stupid. It’s not the same history, with those black silhouettes packed tight inside the ship’s outline. And not the same statistics for prisons and education and achievement and male suicides and stop-and-search and and and…

(The glass is warm now. The beer flat. I should get another one, but I’ll wait, see where this is going.)

Not that this is masturbation material. No. But it’s babies ain’t it? Me looking at your body, in a heterosexual way in any case, is ultimately about babies they say. Or rather, about genes. We are after all, adults and babies, the way one gene gets to the next. And if there’s any ownership, sorry, desire for that youthful female body, it’s those multi-voiced genes. Don’t women wear their sexuality all-over their bodies? And men then? In their wallets? In their hearts? Oh purl-ease! Between their legs or parked on the driveway. Queue that male body, arm-pits sprayed with the chemical-scent and thousands of women in bikinis unable to resist running towards it. A bargain at £2.99.

(How long will this go on for now.)

Is it Art because we are dressed and you are not? Is it Art because this is a ‘space’ or because it is late and we are corralled here, the in-crowd (in the know if not in the money). You are small and not to mention, up-side down, on my retina, but infinite in my mind. Bigger then life size anyway. All women and none, well, maybe one, just the one, at once. You’re done now. Red all over and you’ve paced around and stood and posed in that non-pose way. Held yourself. Presented yourself.

Ownership of that body. Wanting babies, planning for the future. Mine? Yours? Humanities? How the hell do you plan for humanity? And those Buddhists who say let go. Only the present is life. Once a Buddhist priest showed me the skeleton hidden inside the (nubile) female body. An outline drawing on tan parchment of a naked woman lying supine, her robe open, slipped off the shoulders and crumpled under the elbows and thighs. He held a light, a candle I think, underneath the paper and the bones were visible in the glow. Or maybe it was just in a film. Have you been shown the skeleton within the possibly fertile or virile male body?

It’s over. You step out of the room. We clap. Or rather, they do, I hold the bottle and tap flat fingers against my wrist with the free hand. Time for that beer someone says. Yes.

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