ALLEGEDLY, A DANCEFLOOR TRAGEDY
The fetish, having lurked in the alleyways of popular culture, suddenly became commercialised in the late 1980s and 1990s. Famous pop stars were seen wearing S&M-garb on MTV, and events such as the Torture Garden attracted everyone from Madonna to Jean-Paul Gaultier. What is forgotten in the contemporary commercialisations of fetishism is the humour that was inherent in these subcultures from their genesis to their initial commercialised form. The current incarnations portray fetishism as something to be taken with stone-cold seriousness, the same way that our superhero narratives about grown men in tights and capes have grown into dour three-hour epics, perhaps beginning with the aesthetic but clinically unerotic rituals in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut to the contemporary corporate packaging in the form of the dreadfully dull and incredibly expensive cabaret The Box in London (frequented by Prince Harry) and the joyless adaptations of the already joyless 50 Shades of Grey-novels (an acquaintance tells me the amount of times she has gone home with guys who reveal a make-shift dungeon in what used to be a walk-in closet has grown exponentially in the past few years, single cis men clearly under the misapprehension that the only thing that separates them from Jamie Dornan is access to a feather tickler and pink fluffy handcuffs).
The one time I frequented a Torture Garden-event was at the beginning of the 00s. The scene, such as it was, was already dying out. By the entrance a skinny man had had himself chained to a wall and was desperately imploring passers-by to do something to him, the matador in Disney’s Ferdinand reduced to a sexual object that nobody wanted to objectify. Further in, hopping about to industrial synth-beats was an old man dressed in what I can only describe as a latex beetle costume, and what initially looked like a leash turned out to be a rubber tube, controlling his oxygen supply. Said control was administered by a tall, young dominatrix opening and closing a valve on the other end of the tube, but the dominatrix frequently engaged in flirtatious nightclub shouts with a muscular man dressed as a sailor, and so forgot to let the latex beetle man breathe every so often. In the unisex bathrooms a crying young woman was admonished by a transvestite with impeccable make-up as a “waste of mascara” which made the young woman cry even more. No matter how many fashion magazines attempted to present these events as posh, worldly erotic expressions, they remained messy, duct-taped together, and — above all — humorous.
What Amanda Apetrea and Halla Ólafsdóttir have understood, and demonstrate with reckless abandon during DEAD by [REDACTED] and the Beast, is that humour is integral to the ritualistic, whether sexualised or satanic. The satanic ritual belongs in suburban basements, not Kubric-esque palaces, and so it’s a nice touch that Apetrea and Ólafsdóttir have set up a tent of sorts, where we are to go after taking off our shoes. The stage becomes a home, and they are our hosts. The chairs, the stage, the fake candles and the black satin backdrop give off vibes of a DIY-Wiccan celebration (“This is to all the fucking witches!!!”, Apetrea bellows out while straddling Ólafsdóttir like He-Man riding his Battle Cat), rather than po-faced art-project. The two, dressed as though the members of the hard rock group KISS were trying to blend in at Winterfell, stand at the entrance to the tent while us shoeless guests walk through, and whisper welcome to us, a subtle reversion where these terrifying figures immediately put us at ease with a simple heart-felt greeting, in contrast to the cold, corporate greetings uttered by airplane-stewards, dressed to make us passengers feel as safe as possible. I had been apprehensive about what I was about to see, fearing it would devolve into the worst excesses of the ritual (cutting, blood, various desecrations of human flesh) and yet, with one gesture I am made to feel immediately at ease. Not a small feat.
Due to differences in the Swedish and French school systems, when I turned 18 I was the first person in my class to do so. The lack of any friends I could share this milestone with led me to write up a list of things I could now (legally) do and proceed to do them all, by myself. In the end, cost and time considerations reduced the list to three things: a tequila shot at a bar (which became three), bungee-jumping (never do this, it’s a terrible idea), and attending a live event where a couple copulated in full-view of a group of masturbating men. I had been thinking of this last event as the given highlight of the day, this being the prehistoric era of limited online access and almost no internet videos, streaming or otherwise, and having been restricted to the rudimentary cave markings that glossy magazines provided. In David Foster Wallace’s essay on the adult industry’s AVN awards, he describes the ability to another person’s orgasm-face as “that most unguarded and purely neural of expressions, the one so vulnerable that for centuries you basically had to marry a person to get to see it”, and perhaps this was part of the appeal (as opposed to, say, a run-of-the-mill strip club visit). But just as I walked in, I immediately regretted it. It was seedy (no surprise there) but also indescribably sad, with grown men sitting as far from each other as was possible to look at two bored, over-oiled, badly tanned people mechanically thrust for twenty minutes. I did not, it turned out, want to be there.
The author Kathrine Angel writes in her book Unmastered, a book on desire, most difficult to tell of an encounter with a self-professes porn scholar, and ends the awkward discussion with “the [REDACTED] that you are arguing can be educational, and represents [REDACTED] as joyful and positive on the basis that it shows people experiencing pleasure and reaching orgasm (people who are not necessarily experiencing pleasure and who may be faking orgasm), and is a liberalizing force in that provides a space for a range of non-normative pleasures, is, by your garbled concession, not wholly representing women’s [REDACTED], except only through the narrow, refracted lens of a prescribed male fantasy: of penis in vagina making woman come come come.”
Years later, I found myself in a makeshift burlesque event and found that the acts performed on stage remained essentially the same (if a tad more inventive), but that the atmosphere was, somehow, completely different. There was joy, silliness, a feeling of celebration somehow, even while still restricted to the capitalist shackles of us paying to see them “perform”. As Nabokov wrote, ”In modern times, the term [REDACTED] connotes mediocrity, commercialism and certain strict rules of narration: obscenity must be mated with banality because every kind of aesthetic enjoyment has to be entirely replaced by simple sexual stimulation. Thus, in [REDACTED] novels, action has to be limited to the copulation of cliches. Style, structure, imagery should never distract the reader from his tepid [REDACTED]. The novel must consist of an alternation of sexual scenes.”
While we wait at MDT to enter into the makeshift tent, I am somehow reminded of this tension that permeated the two experiences. Some people look excited, others nervous. There is an odd mix of trepidation and titillation. A man whispers to another, observing all the shoe-less feet, that this would be a paradise for a foot fetishist (I imagine that it would have been frustrating, rather: none of the feet I saw were sock-less and surely it is not the sock but the foot which is the fetish), another man says about a friend who saw DEAD the day before that he had no idea they were so prude. “He couldn’t look at them, he kept looking away! I mean it is pretty shocking, but still…” he laughed, a subtle betrayal of a friend’s intimate experience.
“We’re going to go to some dark places,” Apetrea says, “but don’t be scared. They’re just feelings.” (It’s perhaps worth noting the ongoing debate amongst psychologists regarding the truth of emotions. Are they true, or have they just been invented by us humans?)
DEAD itself is, it turns out, a madcap re-creation of a burlesque recital, where Apetrea and Ólafsdóttir play all the parts: from Lolita-referencing poets reciting odes to a grandmother’s long-lost clitoris, to metal singers growling over darkwave synths. The nudity, for the burlesque must celebrate nudity, comes during a segment called “Nirvana” where the two performers launch into a celebration of the cunt that is so inventive, that it puts Samantha Bee’s viral tirade to shame.
In his letters, Antonin Artaud says not to be interested in “cultivating horror” for his theatre of cruelty. He wants to use the language that horror provides to “break through the armour” to return to the origins of emotions, of language.
I have, it must be admitted, always felt rather dubious about Artaud’s professed methodology. It seemed to me rather that he wanted to have his cake and eat it too, a von Trier-like assault that also allows the auteur to strike a pose as “deep”. As Maggie Nelson writes in The Art of Cruelty, “why the desire to “restore us to our senses” or “get to [REDACTED]” has so often leapt straight to “extremely aggressive undertakings,” epitomised by bloody shock — even when the artist is well-aware, as was Artaud, of the flattening effects of such a literalisation — remains an open question.”
Yet during DEAD Artaud’s hopes finally make sense to me. In using tropes of violence and masculinity (the poems are, for instance, read in a growl akin to how the electro band Systerskap often uses modulators to make their feminist lyrics sound as though having been uttered by a man), Apetrea and Ólafsdóttir are able to reveal the inherent silliness in it all — perhaps never demonstrated better than when they both walk amongst us, their guests, and mock execute us using mimes that are increasingly elaborate — and to turn the spectacle into a celebration.
During the strobe-heavy finale, Ólafsdóttir bites into a plastic bag containing wine, and lets the red wine flow down her and Apetrea’s mostly naked bodies, the blood only figurative, the prop of a child’s playroom, and yet it heightens the experience once I am able to pretend along with them.
It ends in a moving manner, with this bag of blood being passed out amongst us to partake in. Instructions are whispered to two men, to keep hosting while they themselves leave. The ritual continues.
// Agri Ismaïl