Rottweiler

While shown together with This Is Fine in the assessment, Rottweiler is also a stand-alone video piece. It runs 21 minutes and was shot in black and white on a Sony NX30 video camera in the project space at WCA. The preparations for Rottweiler drew inspiration from a wide variety of sources including: Matthew Barney's Drawing Restraint series, Steve McQueen's Bear and Illuminer, Hito Steyerl's In Defense of the Poor Image, Judith Butler's Gender Trouble, Raewyn Connell's work on 'masculinities', the notion of 'consensual crimes', and also the tragi-comedic portrayals of violence seen in films by the Coen Brothers and in Riley Stearns' recent film The Art of Self-Defense

Conversation six months prior to shooting Rottweiler, 2019. 

'Aftercare' clip from Rottweiler, 2019. 

Though shot in one take on the day, this video work had been in the back of my mind, sketchbooks, and in many conversations with helpful friends for over six months leading up to it. The imagined details changed over the lengthy preparation time but the core idea of a man struggling between the binaries of performative masculinity and vulnerability, purpose and futility, brutality and eroticism, all remained the same. Judith Butler's notion of gender being "in no way a stable identity" but rather "an identity tenuously constituted in time - an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts" was at the absolute epicenter this work. Like the sourced screenshots for other work (This Is Fine or Consensual Crimes series), the impact of images of performative masculinity is questioned - particularly viral videos of men fighting that make up much of websites like worldstarhiphop.com or liveleak.com (see here for examples), viral videos which have been disseminated, stripped of context, and watched globally by passive audiences. It is here that Hito Steyerl's In Defense of the Poor Image is invoked. What happens when the performativity of Butler meets the constructed realities of Steyerl? I have tried to provide one possible response to this question.   

The length of the film is important. The sense of preparation, ritual, and monotony is deliberate. As Steve McQueen says of his work: "It's about real-time. The audience are engaged with something happening in that present moment, in real-time". This exceedingly long preparation, coupled with the wide frame and non-descript setting, contribute to a sense of tragi-comedic anticlimax when the heavybag falls soon after beginning to be used. 

It is worth saying that Rottweiler was set up to be as organic as possible. This meant not only being shot in black and white with an economy of means inspired by Matthew Barney and Steve McQueen's early work, but a deliberate setting up of the frame and scene. By controlling the variables of the environment (keeping the boom mic in frame, hanging a heavybag that was made to collapse with use, etc) it allowed me - the protagonist - to 'perform (normative) masculinity' until it could no longer be performed - or when the heavybag could no longer hold. In combat sports there is a cliché that 'fatigue makes cowards of us all' which, while problematic in many ways, speaks in this context to the idea that performance only lasts so long before cracks start to appear. Performative masculinity, as described by Butler, is a 'tenuous' and fragile thing.

 

Of the 21 minutes runtime, the first 16 are spent preparing: sweeping, mopping, drying the floor, and warming-up. Only a minute and a half passes of actually hitting the bag before it collapses to the ground and the protagonist is left exasperated. After some bewilderment, he tries to ignore this outcome and continue to hit the bag, until finally being left on the floor beside it. It is here that he then 'pats' the bag, communicating some sort of affection, and wipes it down with his t-shirt tenderly. This tension between aggression, vulnerability and eroticism is reminiscent of McQueen's Bear, and the underlying hegemonically-masculine assumption that growth requires resistance or struggle echoes that of Barney's Drawing Restraint series.

Still photo of set 'stage' for Rottweiler, 2019.

Process videos of This Is Fine, 2019. 

After a studio critique following the Crypt exhibition, the impression I was left with was that if ever I was going to 'get off the wall' with my work it seemed like the right time to do so. Somewhat impulsively - and in the spirit of 'tagging'/street art from when I was younger -  I found and started to draw on a 'flammable substance storage cabinet' found at WCA. 'Direct action' or 'praxis', the Marxist notion of enacting or embodying theory, is implemented to a small degree.

 

Again, In Defense of the Poor Image overarches this piece in a similar way to the Consensual Crimes series, in presenting images that are appropriated, de-contextualized, and remixed across digital channels. Screenshot references - seen by following 'click for more' in the video figured left - were drawn from www.liveleak.com to create an ambiguous narrative regarding the self-harming mechanism, and cyclical nature, of violence (not unlike what the protagonist in Rottweiler is struggling with). A man attempting to set fire to someone else's car catches fire himself, and is seen from CCTV, a policeman's car up in flames is caught on its own 'dashcam', riot police in a unspecified location are both perpetrating and are victim to violence, and the meme of a small cartoon dog sitting at a table inside of a burning building tells itself that "This Is Fine". 

 

The style of the illustrations, or graffiti, on the storage cabinet comes from the tradition of blackwork, 'protest poster'-style street art. While imperfect, they speak to the immediacy and accessibility that the tradition of street art and protest posters uphold. But like the "lumpen proletarian image" of Steyerl's text that "attests to appropriation and transcends the categorical binary of consumer and producer", so too does the historical 'poor image' of graffiti which, in this case, is employed to draft the consumer/student into production. 

On the other hand there is a tension that exists between the fact that the violence in the original screenshots did (and continue to) exist, causing real harm, and the problem of mediated information (which Steve McQueen addresses in his work, Illuminer). The problem of how much audiences can actually be 'enlightened' by mediated information, to what degree audiences passively ingest these images in ways that do nothing more than de-sensitize, and the reality of their being a large demographic of the internet dedicated to voyeurism. The tension between these things cannot be understated here.

Acrylic ink on chemical storage cabinet.

Framed with Drawing Restraint in mind, and leaving boom mic and camera bag visible.

In the Consensual Crimes series, viral videos of men fighting in front of ‘passive’ audiences are represented through tender, meticulous drawing - and the proportions of each piece are relative to the phones or tablets through which these images are disseminated, stripped of context, and watched globally. The first five pieces of the series were done to scale with graphite on recycled paper, which provided a juxtaposition between the violence implied within the compositions, and the delicacy of the medium. These were largely undertaken with my more familiar approach to drawing as a concentrated study and process of understanding.

In Masculinities and Interpersonal Violence (Walter DeKeseredy, Martin Schwartz), hegemonic masculine discourses and practices including violence are said to be "learned through personal and interpersonal interactions with significant others such as teachers, journalists, parents, entertainers, and politicians" (Connell, 1995). Furthermore, and crucially, that "even when perpetrators act alone, peer influence should not be ruled out as a causal factor. Many men and male youths commit violent crimes in anticipation of the status they will gain (or lose) from friends, who may or may not be present at the scene". It is for this very reason, coupled with an appreciation of the critique I had received for the previous work on aluminium of men fighting, that Consensual Crimes features screenshots of fights being watched (whether by a physical audience or digitally mediated one) with the actual people fighting left absent/cropped. 

This was ultimately the failure of the previous work, and in part the failure of the work shown at Immurement. In an attempt to explore and critique 'hegemonic masculinity', I ended up with a work that almost seemed to condone it. In retrospect I think that I took my intentions for granted, without being attentive enough to how the positionality of the audience might inform the understanding of the work. While the rest of the Consensual Crimes series was somewhat successful due to the attention it drew to dynamics within fights outside of the aggression itself, the drawing on aluminium of the men fighting did not. The work for the Crypt exhibition did however, if nothing else, clearly show the process/confusion I was going through in trying to decide how best to represent and question problematic aspects of masculinity - from the content of the work itself, to my indecisiveness when it came to installing the work, and the attempts to salvage it with various means (chains, duct tape). It was ultimately a good lesson in overworking something.

456, 980 views, 'Immurement' at Crypt Gallery, 2019. 126 x 126 cm.

Graphite, chinagraph, duct tape, etching on aluminium.