HOW MANY LOOKS? NARCISSISTER UNWEAVES THE BASKET
by Ariel Osterweis
I contributed this short essay to Dirty Looks NYC (Creative Director Bradford Nordeen), a monthly platform for queer experimental film and video. It is on Narcissister and Josef Kraska’s video, The Basket. Here is a link to the site:
It takes a person about four minutes to read aloud one single-spaced page of text. That is one minute less than Narcissister and Josef Kraska’s video, The Basket. Skimming here and there, you should get through this particular text in a time frame that corresponds with the video. While The Basket is based on Narcissister’s performance piece of the same title, it is not merely a documentation of that performance. It is an archive of another sort, a simultaneous weaving and unweaving. During the course of this five-minute journey, The Basket crisscrosses temporalities such that an Eastern European woman morphs into an African American mammy figure who, in turn, finds herself stripping down to a shiny red Louis Vuitton bra, exploring the impossibility of nakedness in commodity-driven culture. Bound to the moving image, cinematic time weaves multiple temporalities—historiographic, imaginative, textual, musical, and choreographic. By stripping off layers and layers of clothing in real time against various painted backdrops of lost times, Narcissister juxtaposes the disparate temporalities and visualities available to her through her combination of performance art and visual arts. Welcome to the melancholic mash-up of Narcissister’s post-Soul, mixed-race feminism. Drawing from her family heritage, Narcissister’s scavenging of imagery takes us on a trip from pre-war Eastern European folk dance to the blinged-out sexuality of Lil Kim’s millennial hip-hop America. Because her timeline seems to terminate with the year 2000 (the year “How Many Licks” debuts), Narcissister is afro-futurist not in her choices of source material, but in her mutability. Her stylistic quick-changes and her insistence on wearing a mask and merkin engage a kind of magic, one in which we are impelled to believe in a utopic fluidity of identity.
In Narcissister’s performances, things are also scavenged. Embracing a DIY craft aesthetic, she appropriates both material and image, constructing her own sets and costumes out of found fabrics. Narcissister recontextualizes tropes typically associated with the objectifying gaze and commodity fetishism of capitalism by placing them in reflexive performance settings that lie on the fringes of capitalist modes of commodity circulation. Her disavowal of theatrical virtuosity—and its fetishization of the cult of individual persona—asks us why and if we want to know what lies under the mask and what we expect of racialized performance. Denying us a consistent character, Narcissister’s dance performs ruptures along a continuity of striptease. For her, surface is supplemented by material thing; even when a piece of clothing is removed, it leaves a trace. Her mask and merkin are things that haunt even in their presence. Robin Bernstein tells us in her book Racial Innocence that “performance is what distinguishes an object from a thing” (74), an idea that gestures toward Jane Bennett’s vital materialist theory of “thing-power.” For Bennett, Kafka’s Odradek functions as a kind of remnant of culture—neither subject nor object, animate or inanimate.
In “Racial Kitsch and Black Performance,” Tavia Nyong’o expands Clement Greenberg’s proposition that kitsch is failed seriousness to include the idea that racist kitsch, from historical ceramic figurines of black children to the self-conscious curating of such imagery in the Spike Lee film Bamboozled, generates in the African American and anti-racist viewer shame and oppositional spectatorship. Nyong’o’s hope is to locate a way to transform the shame of feeling less than human that comes with racist kitsch’s oppositional spectatorship into an experience of racial kitsch that escapes scapegoating and instead engenders self-recognition. He wonders if there is a way for the African American spectator to regain innocence without the bloodletting of—and identification with—the scapegoat in black performance. Narcissister calls upon the objecthood of racist kitsch, then complicates it with the performance of the moving body. By donning hard masks and placing doll-like heads in various orifices, Narcissister places the brittle surface of the racist kitsch object (such as that of Nyong’o’s figurine) onto—and into—the mutable, muscular surface of a live fleshy body. Her performances are costumed (and un-costumed) in a way that questions the fluctuating status of objecthood and subjectivity in performances that cite racialized and gendered figures such as Josephine Baker, Marie-Antoinette, and Whitney Houston. While auto-, object-, or thing-based penetration can perform self-care, Narcissister’s appropriations of culturally rehearsed images such as the Topsy doll can also evoke masochism and rape. As Bernstein writes, “The scripts of black dolls often merged servitude with violence (206)….A scriptive thing [is] an item of material culture that prompts meaningful bodily behaviors…a script for a performance. The script is itself a historical artifact” (72). Bernstein provides the example of “rape imagery…of the skirt-flipping topsy-turvy doll” (206) and asserts that, “All dolls in play…trouble the boundary between person and thing—the terror at the ontological core of slavery” (222).
Ever one to try to take down the insistence of Marxist theorists that society is defined by economic relations, structural anthropologist Pierre Clastres reduced the division between men and women in primitive Guayaki (Aché) Indian society to bows and baskets: men handled bows for hunting and women handled baskets for gathering. Queer theory doesn’t love this limited view since it fails to acknowledge the possibility of queer or trans* gender roles in primitive society (Clastres said that men who carried baskets metaphorically became women). There is a certain uncomfortable tinge to the stereotype of women as basket holders (and weavers); at the same time, we find evidence of the feminization of baskets in almost any culture. Narcissiter’s entire oeuvre depends on the recognition of stereotypes—both our belief in them and our desire to dismantle their hold. Moreover, she situates us as viewers within that shameful space of perceiving the degree of truth inherent to any stereotype. In The Basket, Narcissister is the basket holder: she does laundry and folk dances in a white mask which gives way to a mammy in a black mask doing chores to Nina Simone’s pained rendition of “Wild is the Wind.” Regardless of race, Narcissister’s women-selves are subjected to basket holding, even once stripped down to a merkin and a shiny red bra with metallic Louis Vuitton logos.
Throughout The Basket, Narcissister’s flow is interrupted by calls—a call to change, a call from home, a call from the unconscious, a call from the future? She answers old school phones buried in laundry baskets. Evoking a decaying filmstrip, the edges of the frame are blurred; every time the phone rings, Narcissister answers her own call, and her present and future selves are indicated by a split screen. Curly phone cords eerily conjure umbilical cords which she does away with upon answering a first generation cellphone. Finally, Lil Kim’s confident cunnilingual anthem, asking, “how many licks does it take till you get to the center of the?” is interrupted by another ring, the sound of a more recent cellphone. No licker in sight, Narcissister points to the way popular culture withholds images of black women being taken care of. Her hand (one presumably practiced in acts of self-care) reaches down to remove a cellphone from her pussy. Narcissister brings the phone to her ear, pivots around with a basket overflowing with dangling phone cords atop her head, and inaudibly answers this final call. At once deliberate and unhurried, she saunters upstage in beat-up yellow pumps, her bare ass shifting from left to right, all while balancing her precarious load. Here we consider the abject, the penetrability of the feminine in the face of the impenetrability of Narcissister’s gaze, ever-hidden by the neutrality of the mask. As her subject consumes and ejects its object, we are left to wonder when and how the object will speak, when it will become thing-y, even person-y.