RADICAL CRITICAL PRACTICE
Marta Popivoda: AMAZON WOMAN OR LIFE! – A FORCED DECISION / DISCUSSION OF GENDER ARTIVIST TACTICS
Within the framework of “aRtivism” I am interested in a discussion of myth-building mechanisms pertaining to the figure of an Amazon woman and her gender role in contemporary culture. I took as a concrete example of my analysis the exhibition Amazons: Re-construction of the Myth displayed in Belgrade in 2005. The exhibition included eight female artists and I took part in it as well with a work entitled: Amazon Woman without a Body: Image and Consequences. In my opinion, the construction of the Amazon myth nowadays implies a logically consequent, but nevertheless problematic, order of its transfiguration. First, it re-activates the myth in terms of emancipation of women in contemporary society, in accordance with the feminist and gender theories and their respective activist practices. The figure of the Amazon woman was initially introduced in the contemporary social discourse to pursue emancipation of the woman as an independent subject that is independent from the male subject. Second, it re-produces the myth through popular culture. She, as a figure of emancipation, gratifies female desires for a possible transformation or at least a well-performed simulation. However, at the same time, her powerfully and perfectly mediated and produced female body gratifies men, the body being designed precisely for this purpose.
I am therefore interested in when and how the figure of the Amazon woman became a market commodity? The answer I find to be both the most accurate as well as critical is that the appearance of the Amazon woman figure in contemporary culture implies a logical rather than a chronological sequence: emancipation à transformation into a sex object. The Amazon woman became an irritating threat to the overwhelming patriarchal social order, which ultimately transformed her into a consumer-friendly mass-media product. It was consequently followed by the process of emancipation and the introduction of the powerful and independent “business woman” as a culturally acceptable gender role. In broader terms, what I want to underline here is the social operation of aRtivist practices accomplished through an institutional system – the system of an always-already established social order and its respective prescribed protocols of realization. Therefore, I call for a critical view on the (media) materiality of aRtivist procedures and actions.
I. The organizers/curators of the exhibition was the Cultural Centre Deve from Belgrade. The position of the organizers/curators was emancipatory, stemming from feminist and pro-feminist support and advocacy of the feminine subject, primarily the creative subject that addresses the field of art. Precisely such a position represents, in my opinion, the critical point of aRtivism in the local art context, as it raises the question: Is this still aRtivism, or its denial? The myth of the Amazon warrior woman as an activist art practice is a symptom of the mechanisms of integration of women into the art world, especially if she remains in the frameworks of these tactics without questioning the position of a female subject of art in order to perceive its limitations. “The myth, forged in the dim past, when strife was dire and inevitable, had played its part. As outward pressure relaxed, and men became more enlightened, the story lost much of its grimness, but had not spent its power: the poet and artist made it their own, drawing from its grim details new meanings, refining its lessons to suit them for a happier stage of civilization. And so they softened the story of Amazonian cruelty to serve their own ends, promoting the cult of the beautiful by holding up the splendid human figures, at once strong and graceful, to the emulation of maid and matron, and by calling for masculine admiration and pity.”1 This quote from the book The Amazons written in 1910 – addressing the myth of warrior women and attempting its objective historical reconstruction – will be used here as a starting point for discussion of similar myth-building mechanisms at work in contemporary culture. For this purpose, I will disclose two tactics: two starting points and two lines of production of the Amazon myth. Moreover, I see a logically consequent but somehow threatening transfiguration of the myth, to be addressed and warned against in this discussion.
The first position and line concern the re-activation and utilization of the Amazon myth in terms of emancipation of women in contemporary society, within the frameworks of feminist and gender theories and activist practices. The second position and line imply the re-production and instrumentalization of the myth or, more precisely, its appropriation by the popular culture. The figure of the Amazon woman, it could be argued, was initially re-activated and introduced into the contemporary social discourse to pursue emancipation of the woman as a unique, self-contained subject, relieved from its relationships to the male subject. On the one hand, I find this occurrence relevant for the local culture, where many issues of gender and sex relations remain unsolved, or are not even seriously perceived: misogyny in the public discourse (mass media, pop culture, academia included) and daily conversation (catchphrases, curses, bywords), only few women authors/artists being featured on the art scene, almost only men occupying high positions in politics (almost the entire leadership of the Serbian government, parliamentary election lists, etc.). However, I am contentious with the way the Cultural Centre Deve dealt with this problem, because merely one step after this emancipatory admittance of the Amazon figure, many (often previously ignored) problems ensue.
Therefore, my work in this exhibition (done in collaboration with the art theorist Ana Vujanović) had contentious aims. The video installation Amazon Woman without a Body: Image and Consequences was situated in the context of the emancipatory exhibition, conceiving the contention on two levels (two images and two screens):
1. Simulation of a typical movie trailer advertising the figure of an Amazon warrior (powerful woman who “takes control”) constructed as a media prosthesis awaiting/seeking/projecting her (real, material) body – the trailer is screened, featuring the distinct sound which accompanies the entire exhibition, on a large wall in front of the gallery. This image is what the audiences encounter first while entering the exhibition space.
2. Portraiture of different women shot at the marketplace, on the street, at home, at the workplace, etc. – a black & white silent documentary featured on a TV screen; in the video installation, the TV is set directly opposite the video beam projection: documentary portraits of women are confronted with the attractively constructed mass-media content (trailer) addressing them.
This “cold” confrontation of a mass-media feature on one side and ordinary female bodies on the other provoked disturbing meanings questioning the myth as a mechanism of historical and cultural reconstruction. The portraits of women, as recipients of the trailer’s content, individually and collectively take part in the imposed media myth. Identification with the media-produced, screened figure of the Amazon warrior creates the illusion that the change is possible through/by way of the gaze.2 And precisely through the illusion that for HER, individually, change is attainable and within grasp, SHE loses what she never had in the first place3 – a possibility of her own respective change. This mechanism renders the struggle for change lost already in advance, because the Amazon woman can not embrace the critical, subversive or defying tactics of the contemporary female subject, as she is already assimilated into the mass-media culture as a market commodity. The title “Amazon Woman without a Body” paraphrases Žižek’s title Organs without Bodies,4 and relates directly to the basic concept of the video installation. The Amazon woman is a symbolic power structure relieved from real bodies in real life, a social prosthesis awaiting flesh. In this way, the Amazon woman, though presenting an emancipatory figure in the context of feminist readings, is in the wider social context over-articulated, used in a twofold manner. As a figure of emancipation she gratifies the woman’s desire for a possible, or at least plausibly simulated, change. But, at the same time, as a figure featuring a powerful, perfect, mediated female body, she indulges man’s gaze – being designed to please him and to become yet another desirable consumer product in the marketplace.
My primary concern with this double mechanism is therefore to answer the question: When did the Amazon woman become a consumer product? The structure of this mechanism of the Amazons’ presence in contemporary culture displays a logical, rather then chronological sequence. It says that: Emancipation presents a transformation into a sex object. Although, we should differentiate between the Western European context, where emancipation of the female subject is at least partially at work, and the local Serbian context, where the process of women’s emancipation is in its infancy. However, I consider this kind of assessment of the Amazon figure relevant for the local context, as we have to ask: What is awaiting the Amazon woman when she establishes herself as a prominent and relevant figure in the artistic, cultural, and political local scenes? My answer: She will be disarmed! Her potential subversiveness will be diluted; she will become just another commodity, just another pornographic feature.
II. Therefore, I would like to conclude this text with an alternative, a different mode of aRtivist engagement of a female subject (in art). It is not emancipatory and perhaps it will escape these traps of the mass-media society. In other words, it will not represent such a predictable element of the existing social structure with roles a priori cast, and will not so conveniently enter the marketplace of the (man-dominated) art world. We can start from the assumption that every collective identity (even the emancipatory identity of the woman-artist perceived as an Amazon warrior) eventually becomes oppressive to the individual (“In reality, the Amazon woman is nothing more than a ‘bait of interpellation;’ especially in the first person singular.”5). Namely, the main problem with this figure is the absence of the singular; there is no woman-artist in the singular, she always implies the rest of the tribe of women-artists in existence merely as a collective social subject “WE.” And this WE implies a pre-conceived role, requiring the body of an “independent, successful, emancipated woman” or a “woman-artist,” and reducing it to that role. That is precisely why the figure of the Amazon warrior is not effective for the individual subject, it does not communicate anything about him/her – it arms him/her with nothing but an already rehearsed role pertaining to a collective identity, as part of the existing social structure. In response to this, I suggest a kind of “post-identity” tactics, tactics of disintegration of each subject whose identity reduces and petrifies the individual, particular, incidental, unstable, ambiguous, queer… That would be a tactics of establishing female subjects of art which embrace and exert identity theories and practices – remaining open for the singularity of an individual which cannot be reduced to a single (collective) social role.6 In the last instance, that would be a tactics of assuming all competencies from the (male) subject of the art world, among the key ones being problematization of the very notion of identity. In those terms, I also suggest an identity switch of a “woman-artist” (implying actions within the frameworks of the pre-conceived, and competencies of that fairly narrow sector of the art world termed “female writing”) with an “identity-free” (neutral) subject of art projecting the scope of its actions and competencies across the entire realm of art.
Marta Popivoda is a video artist and freelance cultural worker mostly engaged within Walking Theory (TkH) platform from Belgrade (www.tkh-generator.net).
1 G.C. Rothery, The Amazons, originally written in 1910, republished Senate Classics, London, 1995, p. 22. 2 Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” originally published in Screen 16.3, Autumn 1975, pp. 6–18. https://wiki.brown.edu/confluence/display/MarkTribe/Visual+Pleasure+and+Narrative+Cinema In this article Laura Mulvey employs Lacan’s concept of the mirror phase to elaborate a system of identification pertaining to a screen/mirror gaze: “The mirror phase occurs at a time when the child’s physical ambitions outstrip his motor capacity, with the result that his recognition of himself is joyous in that he imagines his mirror image to be more complete, more perfect than he experiences his own body.” Precisely this moment is crucial for the constitution of the ego when recognition is burdened with misrecognition, the recognized image is perceived as the (superior) reflection of one’s own body, generating future identifications with others. This very (joyous) moment of recognition of a woman in the mediated body of the Amazon warrior renders her rebellion impossible and futile for it is just a moment capturing her gaze into the screen, a moment prepared/arranged for HER. 3 Ana Vujanović, “Halo, Amazonko… pa… halo Amazonko…,” exhibition catalogue Amazonke, Deve, Belgrade, 2005. 4 Slavoj Žižek, Organs without Bodies – Deleuze and Consequences, Routledge, New York, 2004. 5 Ana Vujanović, ibid. 6 Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, The Overlook Press, New York, 1959, p. 15. According to Goffman, “A ‘performance’ may be defined as all the activity of a given participant on a given occasion which serves to influence in any way any of the other participants.” It is important to note here that the roles are conceived before they are performed by individuals: in other words, attempts at a change are assimilated in advance.