It’s been a while since this erstwhile journalist wrote anything about art. These days I’m too busy drinking and doing drugs and women. Oh, and my job, of course, which no longer involves journalism. Although it does involve advertising, but we’ll get to that part later.
I was drinking in my local with a fellow writer. Drinking goes with the territory. Sometimes it seems a shame that so many great writers I know spend all their time drinking and none of it writing. On the other hand, if they spent their time writing instead of drinking, I would have no-one to drink with. Then I would be forced to write something. Instead we drank.
At the bar, my friend bumped into somebody he knew — a girl who runs an art gallery down the street. She was drinking with a friend. Introductions were made, but unnecessary. Turns out her friend was somebody I already knew, a performance artist I had a crush on when I was about nineteen. Small world. We got drunk together and the performance artist read my tarot cards (death and decay, apparently) and the gallery girl invited us to a performance next week.
So that’s how we ended up at Bruno Glint, a fantastic little spot I wish I’d found out about sooner, considering it’s one of those old warehouse type affairs that’s been slated to be stomped into the ground so they can build yuppie flats some time next year. But where will all the yuppies buy their art? That’s what I want to know. It’s a travesty, I tell you. Oh well. There’s a sushi place opening up next to the old Jaguar specialist next week, so at least the yuppies will still have their sushi and their fast cars.
It was the usual gallery crowd. I was simultaneously overdressed and underdressed. My friend, the performance artist, was dressed like an artist. I wasn’t. Luckily, there was Stella at the bar.
And so to the performance.
PARTNER / YOU by Radical Low is the brainchild of Chantal Yzermans, a Belgian choreographer and dancer with a shock of cropped blonde hair and a body to die for. She’s worked with a ton of luminaries and I’ll let you google her for yourself. Tonight, though, she’s dancing for us.
The big crowd packs into the tiny gallery as Chantal takes to her platform and the music begins to play. She’s wearing a nude bodysuit specially designed by Jean-Paul Lespagnard and she looks like a beautiful automaton. In the background, projected, is a familiar sight. A half dozen chatroulette style chatrooms, which, if you’ve never used them, are mostly full of men wanking. (A side note: OS X autocorrects “wanking” to “wanting” — an error that seems all too relevant in the context of this particular work of art).
The idea behind chatroulette is that you get to see your parter and your partner gets to see you and you have a little window of text where you can type. It’s designed so that lonely people can have lonely sexual encounters. Usually, it’s full of lots of men wanting. But what do they want?
As we watch, Chantal’s dance is beamed into the chatroulette windows as an operator talks to the lonely naked men. Chantal’s dancing is beautiful and perfect. It’s a combination of nightclub dancing and pole dancing and it simultaneously confuses and arouses the lonely plethora of men. They ask her to take her clothes off. They ask her to perform masturbatory acts. Mostly, though, they just ask her to prove that she’s real. Chantal just carries on dancing while we watch.
It’s not a new idea. A few years ago Dr Pepper ran a similar campaign where they got a cheerleader to entice people to do things like show off their muscles in exchange for a dance. The cheerleader is then substituted for a man in a wig. “What’s the worst that can happen?” then appears. I told you my background in advertising would come in handy for this review. The good Doctor’s question is as relevant to Chantal’s performance as it is to a can of the nation’s third favourite fizzy drink. What’s the worst that can happen? Well, a super-close close-up of a man playing with his bell end seemed to elicit the most audience laughs. Only “the worst that could happen” was not the question this performance is asking. It’s asking: what do you really want?
PARTNER / YOU is fundamentally about the dichotomy between what we see and what we want. We see a beautiful girl dancing. If we were monkeys in a zoo, we’d probably engage in a vivid and colourful bout of self-abuse. But we’re not, we’re people, so we act within the context of our surroundings and culture. If we were in a nightclub, we might go up and try to talk to the girl, or buy her a drink, or dance with her. As it was, we were spectators in a gallery. Voyeurs. But this wasn’t about us. It was about the men on the screen. They were viewing the performance in a different context. What did they want?
I said before that the most common question wasn’t “play withourself” or “take off your clothes” but “are you real?” and that’s a question that’s more and more relevant as our lives are lived increasingly online. While the men’s masturbatory appearance may have said one thing, their words said another. They spoke of a desperate, almost heartbreaking desire to connect.
Dr Pepper (I’d like to know where he got that doctorate from) used Chatroulette to sell soft drinks. Chantal used chatroulette to create a three-way relationship between dancer, anonymous online participant, and the silent voyeur — the audience. The men weren’t the perverts, we were — watching, judging, never breaking the fourth wall, getting our kicks not just from the dancing, but from the people exposing themselves (literally and figuratively) on screen.
It was an incredibly engaging work of art. Chantal’s dancing was mesmerising and it was fascinating to watch a performance that came after a successful advertising campaign — usually, it’s the other way round. Advertising takes a work of art and ruins it. PARTNER / YOU took a work of advertising and offered us an interesting deconstruction. What’s the worst that can happen? What do you really want when you load up a video website, pants round your ankles, hoping to connect?