Look at thi as a performance space.
Valeria Messalina’s image has been discussed in Western art and literature as a figure of sexual liberation and powerful promiscuity. We wonder if an icon like Messalina can fit into this side of the digital world. The sex life of Ancient Rome meets the Internet in 1999 with one of the highest grossing adult entertainment films in a Hollywood studio dressed up in cheap marble floors and stone pillars – just cliché enough to inform the protagonist of Queen hostess, grapes in mouth, literally offering herself on a pedestal for the naked men below her.
We like that Omar recreated the set so it was reminiscent of a club, of a party spac with distant bodies cramped together for a show of frenzied intention. It’s like being in a rave except the purpose isn’t to be transported but to collectively break a record. It’s not the music that has control but an iconic fantasy.
There is a distance, an impersonal connection between everyone in the room yet they’re giving it all they can. Who’s watching who? Who are you performing for? It doesn’t matter as long as this ritual is completed and barriers are broken. She looks at her iconised image striking a pose for her. The camera is smug and disregards the towel over her breasts.
With the advent of the Internet in the 1990s, the art world is met with digital art performances and artworks that pay homage to the World Wide Web. It is an inevitable evolution, a quiet revolution. The internet as a medium is perfect for infinite possibilities that need a little less or a different species of validation to be perfect, authentic or real. The internet is a safe space, mostly. With the screen you share an intimate camaraderie. Everything you do in interacting with it is an act entirely your own, and it’s so easy. You create your own history in this space…and offer it to the government’s metadat.
The internet is its own world and life force. X pays rent on the internet. You go to school on it. Everyone gets surveilled on it. Put that sticker over your webcam now! The average person lives a daily existential confusion of IRL and virtual life.
This confusion nonetheless gives space for a certain level of fluidity in individual identities, personas, roles – it gives agency and a form of escape to you, and you’ve now become a performer for the willing virtual audience. Who’s to stop you from being tsarsimeon? Or wine_milf? You can grant yourself meme royalty, you can be Magic. It’s irrational and powerful.
Perhaps one of the hallmarks of online performance is the adult entertainment industry. The performative act of the adult entertainment industry indeed was so effective that it was a key financial engine in the development of the Internet. A 2004 study suggested that year had more than 420 million individual pages of pornography online, bringing in an estimated income of 2.5 billion dollars (Weiss & Schneider, 2006). Watching the screen in this digital age no matter what is thrown at you is an absolute act of liberation. Individuals will do all sorts of things for that feeling. When visual boundaries have been made this elastic with the internet, it is irresistible for the modern internet user to engage in it all.
And from here we must look at Annabel. Everyone knows Annabel. Most of the time people respond by saying she’s gross or she’s sad or completely crazy. It is rare for people to say she is an artist.
And she is all of that. She stretches out in coy recline at the start of your conversation when you ask hey have you heard of Annabel Chong? She fascinates in her public position in “squalid reality”, a part of an industry that nourishes the modern human imagination.
So here on ground zero we want to look at her as an artist. We must look at her as a persona, a representation. And we have all the right to because Annabel, being Annabel, freely discarded her persona to the internet in 2003, when she fully retired from the industry and posted on her website:
“Annabel is dead and is now replaced fulltime by her Evil Doppelganger, who is incredibly bored with the entire concept of Annabel and would prefer to do something different for a change.”
In eerie contrast to the carnal fanfare of Messalina’s Hollywood studio, we come to a quiet end to the human behind this online performance. Yellow Man is Red, Annabel is dead, yet their icons are infinite in the internet and our imaginations.
In a world where you can be anything, would you be Annabel for a while? What would you do to impress imaginations? Having power over the spectator is to be absolutely intimate with them. Performing for fantasies is ultimate control. There is a designated space inside every spectator’s brain for Annabel. She performs for both the private and public gaze; for the rule-free, ground-free, no gravity headspace that you can let go of yourself in.
There are many who distance themselves from this kind of headspace, this private and dirty zon. The average human feels comfortable in distancing their self from this dirt, the squalor of human nature. People have learned the art of stepping around the dirt, to only address whatever ‘it’ is, indirectly with standards of acceptability. Recognising dirt as dirt forms boundaries that show you how safe you have kept yourself. Accepting dirt as dirt widens those boundaries and make them friendly, not demeaning.
We are in no way sayin this performance is an act of freedom. There are complex power structures in the industry and the act itself that cannot be rectified with notions of freedom and empowerment. Anyone who has seen Annabel will understand there are unforgiving realities that are too complex to resolve. We are saying the spectrum of the performative act is a possibility for resolving taboos.
Instead, we need to take a step back from that to really fulfill the purpose of these performers. The spectator is not meant to enter their world behind the screen, on set, in the waiting line, passing a towel to wipe up. We’re not meant to because non-performers can’t handle that squalidness. So it’s consumer-friendly packaged with cliched fantasies like “Chitty Chitty Gang Bang” and “Gropes of Wrath”. No serious thoughts there to stop you. Annabel will be perpetuated in time, human squalor will continue in its own way and the show will go on.
Kate’s work is integral in the construction of the digital screen and the pixels that make it. Whatever ‘it’ is, is a creature of blurred lines communicating through Kate’s performance in front of the camera.
She also described her work with such eloquent and relevant terms that X could find no way around but to copy it here:
“…I explore perception and illusion through experimentation with the camera, with gestures that are often repetitious and intuitive and with different objects. I often use these different objects or techniques to obscure or restrict my body. This can create an oscillation between a position of sexuality and one of vulnerability.”
“I use my body as a way of questioning my identity in the contemporary world as a woman physically, sexually, virtually and digitally. I focus on the blurred lines between life and lifestyle, personality and performance. I have grown to realise how ingrained everyday sexism is in our society. Feminism and female solidarity have become an important part of my practice, as well as the adverse effects of isolation and helplessness.”
“A great deal of the way that body is thrown back to us in the current mediatised world is through digital mediation. My practice focuses not only on the body as an embodied experience, but also the manipulated and processed image and the mutability of identities in an increasingly mediatized society. Devices and digital technologies provide new ways of seeing, as well as being seen, changing the way we relate to the image and, ultimately, each other.” (Kate to X, email, March 2017, emphases our own)
It was perhaps exactly this inflated male aggression Annabel was embodying with her Messalina persona that Eelyn encapsulates and undermines through her Wilting Dicks installation. This work involved several wax penises circling a tealight candle on a wooden board – the stage of this installation.
“I loved the idea (and lurid imagery) of dicks wilting in the heat that they were inadvertently fuelling in the first place. The end result looked like they were kowtowing towards the flame. Saucy!” (Eelyn to X, email, April 2017)
Though we unfortunately do not have a video recording, the image of confidently colourful wax penises “kowtowing towards the flame” stays with us. The ultimate demise of each member is that they are all made from the same fragile material, a weakness revealed to the world in the presence of a single flame.
Engaging in “ritualistic burning” with wax penises and inviting a gang bang with over 70 people is arguably an equally violent response to violent male desire, but it is the fact that it is a response that makes all the difference.
A concerned figure asked us, “Why do you have to talk about porn and sex? And be so vulgar? Just for a website?”
But that is the exact point – nothing has to be entirely necessary in order for social function or creation, nor in art, performance and our day-to-day consumption. When you choose to only talk about what is deemed ‘necessary’, all the dirt of reduced narratives made ‘necessary’ grow in the dark, manifesting into something more violent than planned gang bangs and wilting dicks by a flame.