To describe the lascivious narrative of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975 movie Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom, performance artist Mette Ingvartsen adopted a decidedly distanced tone. During her newest work 21 pornographies, we heard her unrushed voice first from the back of the audience as she described the film’s sumptuous palatial setting. Ingvartsen then descended the black-box risers to the stage, where her physical gestures and movements accumulated as she outlined scenes from Salò, such as one literally named "Circle of Shit." As she told it, enigmatic figures of power like “the duke” and “the president” preside over and enact a number of ritual rapes and coprophagic barbarisms. Ingvartsen, undressing as the performance proceeded, both recited dialogue from the film (already based on a 1785 novel by the Marquis de Sade) and explained its filmic mise-en-scène. Diageses intermingled. Before us, the actual stage remained bare, save three white bands that recessed upstage. It was as if Robert Wilson had adapted a Viennese Actionism program, and cast Laurie Anderson and Maria Hassabi as the leads.
Soon Ingvartsen began to describe and perform a series of highly choreographed dances, equal parts strip routine and Busby Berkeley. These were adapted from the so-called “Bedside Films,” softcore Danish romps produced after the legalization of pornography in that country in 1967. At this point completely nude, Ingvartsen paraphrased another film, the 2010 documentary Armadillo, describing its account of warfare and its macho economy of gratification. Following whatever morality or innocent pleasures she had evoked in the first section of 21 pornographies, Ingvartsen now steered her 70-minute work toward the intractably brutal, pantomiming a soldier fucking the corpses of causalities. The lights in the theater dimmed, smoke filled the stage. A flash, then an image of Ingvartsen anally penetrating herself with one of the neon lights. Another black-out, then the concluding sequence: Ingvartsen carried the luminescent rod over her bowed back while hooded in a garment that could only recall the Abu Ghraib torture publicized in 2003. She spun, head covered, for what felt like forever as electronic drones boomed overhead.
21 pornographies: the title suggests a plethora of carnal titillations, but Ingvartsen’s performance steered toward the -graph (writing) part of pornography instead. Sex and sexiness might be second-nature explorations of desire, but they are more often than not devised through pre-established scripts, gaits, postures, and gestures. The middle ground between peep show and clinical demonstration is Ingvartsen’s performative terrain, like a feminist revision of the exile-period Brecht, where characters voice their desires and polemics in axioms and quoted speech. Ingvartsen sheds any innate texture of excitement that clings to sex yet displays the body as accessible to arousal. Her movements can be feathery, meditative, even coy, yet their conceptual basis always holds (Ingvartsen has a PhD in choreography, after all). Body is both soma and speech act. Who exactly gets aroused, and for what reasons, are her questions.
In 69 positions, a precursor put on to critical success at MoMA PS1 in January 2016, Ingvartsen guided her audience on a heady tour of erotic experimental performance since the 1960s. She conducted it mostly in the nude and, at one point, introduced a participatory “orgy sculpture.” Glance at some footage and that piece it can ring as awkward comedy: your sensibly dressed gallery-goer blushes when asked to appose their mouth to artist’s groin. Where 69 positions played all the possible tonalities of sex, 21 pornographies favored the finality of a thesis. The work examines equivalence: what distinguishes the "Bedside Films" from Pasolini from the depravities of sexualized torture? It asks the audience to consider how different institutions of erotic domination—the state, the church, the camera, and masculinity—will invariably jeer in one voice.
Ingvartsen’s dramatic endurance test at the end of 21 pornographies flattened the work’s ambivalence, I think, to detrimental effect. “Infernal music and flashes of light turned the scene into torture for the audience,” a Berlin critic even wrote in a 2017 review (and Peter Lenaerts and Adrien Gentizon’s sound work should be commended here). And yet, the current landscape of gender relations might tell us irrevocably that one’s pleasure is without doubt another’s pain, even another’s trauma. This lesson touches the livewire headlines of Brett Kavanaugh and #MeToo, but it also might extend to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that seals our global finale at the year 2040 (less a finale than a series of increasingly unbearable fade-to-blacks, really). Ingvartsen shows us that the way pleasure gets meted out, through material comforts, symbolic privilege, or the coerced (non-)consent of others, will have to be unlearned, and as the literary theorist Lauren Berlant has said in a recent interview, “unlearning is extremely painful… The things you’re trying to get people to unlearn are things they hold close, and that are forms of life for them that structure their sense of continuity.”
Instruction and teaching were in fact built into Ingvartsen’s program. 21 pornographies had come to New York for the nights of October 3 – 5, by way of a long European tour, where it premiered in November 2017 at PACT Zollverein in Essen. In New York, at Performance Space (formerly PS122), Ingvartsen coupled 21 pornographies with a symposium titled The Permeable Stage that closed off the week on Sunday, October 7. Billed as a “performative conference format,” the event featured artist talks, academic lectures, and a short film screening to compose an “interdisciplinary dialogue about new relationships between humans, technologies, things, animal plants, and other matters,” as Performance Space’s press billed it. Ingvartsen’s residency, as it were, was part of the venue’s broader “Posthuman Series” this fall, which invites artists “to explore worlds that extend beyond the human perspective.”
Ingvartsen had launched “Permeable Stages” before, one at the Kaaitheater in Brussels in 2016 and another at the Volksbühne in Berlin the following year (where German critics panned it, Ingsvarten had explained). These conferences had taken on themes around sexuality vis-à-vis the public sphere and technology, respectively, and in New York these premises were expanded to the “posthuman.” This concept tremors with some anxiety in the academy where it mostly lives. At its core, it imagines an understanding of the world and being that doesn’t always go back to our perception and ideation. Generally grouped with other intellectual formations like thing theory, object-oriented ontology, new materialism, and speculative realism (proponents thereof will tell you such a list conflates more than it clarifies), the turn to the posthuman has been advocated as an ethical consideration of problems beyond the boundaries of “the subject” in our current times of ecological devastation. Critics alternatively write it off as another fad, another fashion in the wake of affect theory, or more importantly, a political danger in its vacating from human concerns.
Since Ingvartsen’s practice is not one to abandon say, the cultural politics of gender for some totalizing category of the posthuman, I was curious to see how Performance Space’s “Permeable Stage” would unfold. DONKEY WITH SNOW, a 2010 film by Romuald Karmakar opened the program as looping stage backdrop. The camera dwells on the eponymous equine for four minutes, telling us that it is a sense of animality beyond homo sapiens that will hold court here. Next was theater artist Annie Dorsen, who presented an extract from her 2010 work Hello Hi There, an algorithmic conversation between two chatbots who take a famous 1971 televised debate between Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky (and the comments on the footage’s YouTube page) as their source material. Sociologist Patricia T. Clough then gave a lecture titled “The User Unconscious: Post-Phenomenological Subjectivity and Datafication,” less of a paper than an annotated bibliography on speed, each theory of the posthuman tumbling rapidly (yet productively) over each other.
Artist Isabel Lewis’ An Occasion was performed in a side room swathed in plants, looped beats, scents, pickled vegetables, honeyed fruits, and free beer. Lewis mined Plato’s Symposium for a deliberation on theories of love, and explained that gardening embodied an ideal practice of love, one between sensorial self-delight and nurturing care. But wreathed in so many late-Bushwick lifestyle idioms as it was, the piece felt slight. Things returned to the big stage with an “activating conversation” between Ingvartsen and performance doyenne Carolee Schneemann. The two ran through both their practices with an emphasis on their respective sexualized, corporeal pieces (cue Meat Joy). Reaching the unique fatigue only day-long conferences can elicit, we then readied ourselves for a lecture on Palestine, blackness, and the animal by writer, scholar, and archivist Che Gossett, which consisted entirely of a recitation of their tweets. The one-liners were mostly snappy and sharp (“The T in TERF stands for fascist”), but the continuous reduction of political concepts to memes felt more trivialized than incisive to me.
In her lecture, Patricia Clough convincingly made the point that the technological and the ecological cannot be entirely wished away as cultural constructions. But then how do we square the insights of The Permeable Stage with those of 21 pornographies? If anything, an old-fashioned sense of the human felt urgent in Ingvartsen’s world, where the body was reduced to a functionalist object to be manipulated as needed by the dictates of sex. The political urgency lies less in discarding the paradigm of the human, I think, than in tracking the consequences of its assignation, or its abrogation.
Annie Dorsen’s presentation made this realization visceral. The bots, speaking in relatively naturalistic voices and through the somewhat coherent text of their exchange, were only kind of human, yet different enough to be wild objects of projection by the audience. We laughed at what would otherwise be someone else’s regular communication: the ineloquence, non-sequiturs, clichés, the pretensions. The literal Anglophone pronunciation of the French thinker’s name (Faw-ooh-calt) was for many of us, hilarious, and it couldn’t help but vent anxieties about class as much as the competencies of participating in “performative conference formats.” Was the threshold of the human so narrow that empathy could fly out the window for the bot entities that exceeded it? Even expressing that sentiment makes me feel like the jetsam of planned obsolescence.
However intentional, a drifting ambivalence did cohere between 21 pornographies and The Permeable Stage. Through her own work and those of her collaborators, Ingvartsen displaced commonplaces of intimacy and attachment. At the long end of the world, figuring out modes of belonging and behavior feels like a process of treading water, of ongoing experimentality without the gratification of novelty. I think about a line from Dorsen’s bots: one says to the other in the fatigued speech of service labor: “How may I help you?” And the other responds, “Just keep talking to me.”
Joseph Henry studies art history at the CUNY Graduate Center and works as the Mellon Curatorial Fellow at the Dia Art Foundation. Last year, he was a Helena Rubinstein Critical Studies Fellow in the Whitney Independent Study Program.