"Lad(d) On the Edge of Nowhere"
we can say that
the performance stratum is the power matrix of the New World Order, an
order in which disorder is put to work, where bodies perform both physically
and digitally, where new and multiple agents are maintained by audiovisual
archives and transformed by liminautic power circuits. (McKenzie 189)
Eddie Ladd describes her performance,
Scarface, as "a tribute to Brian De Palma's classic 1983 film"
(Ladd 1). De Palma's film, Scarface, with its uncensored language and
spectacular violence, is known as a "trash classic," and certainly
Al-Pacino-as-gangster-Tony-Montana is a fertile subject for Ladd's postmodern
camp. Scarface, however, is more than an accomplished drag performance.
Ladd reenacts the whole film, narrating its plot in Welsh and English,
as well as translating its aesthetic into dance, gesture, and video. While
polymorphous characterization and hybrid performance are familiar enough
in contemporary theater from Brecht to Split Britches, Ladd's work embodies
a particularly queer relationship to technology. From a transgender perspective,
she poses technology as a psychic and bodily human organ that expands
perception and mobility, if not freedom, in contemporary culture. Her
polymorphous performer is, ultimately, herself: a "f***king peasant"
from rural Wales and a tech-nomad ranging among the "liminautic power
circuits" of digital culture. Reading along with its creator, this
rendering of Scarface will be anchored in Ladd's program notes, which
describe the performance as a) an investigation of the relationship between
technology and performance b) a subversion of cultural imperialism, and
c) the satisfaction of a queer desire, that is, playing Al Pacino as Tony
Montana "for fun" (Ladd 1)
Technology and Performance
Although tonite's piece has
been through many lo-fi, lo-tech versions, I wanted, from the first, to
have the action played out against chromakey and put up on a big screen.
The show is a study of film, film acting and choreography. I wanted to
feature how different film and theater acting are, by re-locating one
(film acting) in the space where the other should normally live. And to
deconstruct and de-mystify, while at the same time and in the same space,
allow the pace, narrative and energy of the film to take over. (Ladd 1
Ladd's exploration of technology and performance works primarily through
her simultaneous presentation of live and mediatized performance: the
audience sees her performing on stage and, at the same time, sees her
image performing on the "big screen." During sections of Scarface,
Ladd dances before a video camera that is fixed downstage center, between
the audience and the stage. The camera projects her image - via a video
mixer - to a large screen at stage right. Ladd moves freely along an axis
in line with the camera lense, but her lateral movement is constrained
to the camera's narrow beam of visibility. Dancing in a macho, aggressive
style back and forth along this beam of visibility, Ladd plays to the
camera; meanwhile, the video camera, projecting her transformed image,
plays to the audience. To the left, the audience member sees a small woman
in an impeccably fitted men's suit, dancing on a empty stage, to the right,
a larger-than-life image of the same woman, figured against a brilliant
green hayfield with a view to distant hills. Ladd pauses, close to the
camera, and sneers in perfect imitation of Pacino/Montana. She matches
the camera's unblinking eye with her own unflinching gaze; simultaneously,
her screen image stares down the audience. Ladd doubles and redoubles
herself, as Ladd playing Pacino playing Tony Montana, just off the boat
from Cuba and lying his way through an immigration interrogation.
Ladd staging literalizes the splitting of the film actor described in
Walter Benjamin's essay on reproductive technology and art
"The film actor
feels as if in exile - exiled not only from
the stage but from himself. With a vague sense of discomfort he feels
inexplicable emptiness: his body loses its corporeality, it evaporates,
it is deprived of reality, life, voice, and the noises caused by his moving
about, in order to be changed into a mute image, flickering an instant
on the screen, then vanishing into silence.
The projector will play
with his shadow before the public, and he himself must be content to play
before the camera." This situation might also be characterized as
follows: for the first time - and this is the effect of the film - man
has to operate with his whole living person, yet foregoing its aura. For
aura is tied to his presence; there can be no replica of it. (Benjamin
Luigi Pirandello, whom Benjamin quotes above, describes an actor suffering
from psychic mutilation. Having lost his image and his audience to the
big screen, he is homeless, alienated from himself and in the world, and
diminished as a human being. Benjamin reads Pirandello's "exiled"
actor as an artist without aura: displaced by a copy of himself, he loses
his unique presence and sense of being in time. However, Benjamin's actor
is not necessarily diminished; he is still a "whole living person"
despite the loss of "aura." While reproduction technologies
like film profoundly disturb "aura," a foundational element
of aesthetic systems for centuries, they do not destroy art itself. Benjamin's
essay poses questions: what kind of work can art do in a world shaped
by reproduction technologies? What kind of cultural values can art forms
like film sustain and/or challenge? Who is this "whole living"
artist that must survive without aura? As these issues are relevant to
Ladd's own enquiry into the relationship of technology and performance,
a closer look at Benjamin's essay is warranted.
Benjamin argues that photography, film, and sound recording (today one
must add digital reproduction) erode the value of tradition in art by
producing numerous copies of the art object. Mass reproduction and distribution
diminish aura: the sense of history accumulated through time by a unique
and precious object, such as a painting or a sculpture, or, in the case
of theater, through the living co-presence of actor and audience. Aura
conveys a sense of origin, transcribes the value of beginnings, continuity,
and permanence, and sustains what Benjamin calls the "domain of tradition"
(221). The value of aura in the domain of tradition is related to power:
when tied to ritual in early Western art, sacred objects, icons, or paintings,
replete with the authority of time and tradition, embodied spiritual power.
Later, when display of wealth and prestige for the rising merchant class
became an important function of art, aura still maintained its power through
this authority of unique being and the cult of beauty. Verifiable status
as an original work by a respected, skilled artist endowed a painting
or sculpture with value, just as the presence of accomplished performers
quickened to life a musical score or a play script. The viewer encountering
such art may share in the object's power and gain a sense of belonging,
of having a home, a specific position within an ongoing tradition of meaning
and perception. These aesthetic systems predicated on aura and tradition
persist today, alongside newer systems engendered by contemporary technoculture.
It is important to note that Benjamin considered traditionalist structures
antiquated and oppressive. He hoped his perspectives on contemporary art
would help "brush aside a number of outmoded concepts, such as creativity
and genius, eternal value and mystery - concepts whose uncontrolled (and
at present almost uncontrollable) application would lead to a processing
of data in the Facist sense" (218). If the viewer is allowed a share
of the object's power, it is a diminished share. If she finds her place
in an ongoing tradition, she is also placed by and in elitist power structures,
and, except for a privileged few, this position stands distant from the
origin, and the source of power. Reproductive technologies offer a certain
potential for eliminating that distance, and therein Benjamin saw a potential
for social change.
The painting reproduced and published as a photographic print is no longer
a rarity, but is widely accessible, if in adulterated form: devoid of
its aura, or historical uniqueness. Meanwhile, photography becomes an
art form in itself, one that, along with film, is based in production
without a validating, value-making original. Film and audio recordings
disseminate performances widely, but they are performances that separate
the living artist and audience in time and space. Art can work in new
ways: inexpensive and available through mass distribution, it participates
in a social system that expands in every direction via the tools of technology.
Art is freed from the its roles of preserving sacred power, demonstrating
bourgeoisie prestige, and embodying the authority of tradition. The question
remains: what new functions will art serve, and what values will it propagate?
Benjamin's deep analysis of the new relationship between art and audience
explicates the double-edged potential of art in the age of reproduction
technology. Film allows for expanded perception through such processes
as the close up shot up and slow motion:
Evidently a different nature opens itself up to the camera than opens
to the naked eye - if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is
substituted for a space consciously explored by man. Even if one has a
general knowledge of the way people walk, one knows nothing of a person's
posture during a fractional second of a stride. The act of reaching for
a lighter or a spoon is familiar routine, yet we hardly know what really
goes on between hand and metal, not to mention how this fluctuates with
our moods. (Benjamin 236)
The audience, in some ways, comes closer: it approaches and enters into
an intimate space with the actor, seeing every nuanced detail of recorded
behavior. In other ways, the audience is newly distanced. Close -up perspectives
encourage the re-examination of physical and psychic reality. Film reveals
more precise information, for instance, about how the hand grasps a cigarette
lighter, or the ways in which emotion may choreograph such an action.
This expanded power of perception allows the audience critical distance,
a distance that is abetted by a disconnection, that is, the separation
of audience and performer in time and space, and consequent lack of lived,
empathic co-response. Herein lies the heart of Benjamin's agenda, for
critical distance allows the examination of political as well as physical
reality. He hoped that the critical distance and mass dissemination that
reproductive technology affords art would bring about a profound change
in perception, and ultimately, in popular power of action over economic
and social structures.
While Benjamin saw the efficacious potential in the popular distribution
of film and in the critical distance it allowed, he was also aware of
film's power to manipulate, as evidenced in his consideration of its position
within capitalist economy, and, to a lesser degree, its propagandist power.
So long as the moviemakers' capital sets the fashion, as a rule no other
revolutionary merit can be accredited to today's film other than the promotion
of a revolutionary criticism of traditional concepts of art. (Benjamin
Following the Marxist precept, this means that if the means of making
art are owned by those who sell art, art becomes a product of the market
and cannot escape its ideology of consumption, nor its ultimate value
of profit. Benjamin cites as an example the Hollywood star system, which
replaces the cult of aura with the cult of the film personality. The actor's
public image, projected via radio, television, magazines, and newspapers,
sells his filmic image, and vice versa, in a seemingly closed system of
mass marketing. As such, film can never effect significant social change.
Film enthralled to profit may itself be seen as a kind of propaganda in
the name of profit, but it is also useful for more overt political coercion.
Benjamin hints at the propagandist power of film in a passage quoted earlier,
The neutrality of the camera's vision, which replaces "space consciously
explored by man" with "unconsciously penetrated space"
leaves film open to manipulation by the filmmaker and/or producer. Perhaps
more importantly, film can depict mass actions and sweep the viewer into
a sense of belonging to such gatherings, although Benjamin relegates such
observations to a footnote.
It is interesting that Benjamin's examination of film's mesmerizing effect,
which he identifies as "apperception," does not investigate
its propagandist potential but explores instead its efficacious potential.
Distance as provided by art presents a covert control of the extent to
which new tasks have become soluble by apperception. Since, moreover,
individuals are tempted to avoid such tasks, art will tackle the most
difficult and important ones where it is able to mobilize the masses.
Today it does so in film.
The film makes the cult value recede
into the background not only by putting the public in a position of the
critic, but also by the fact that at the movies this position requires
no attention. The public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one. (Benjamin
The expanded perceptual power and seeming impersonality of the cinematic
vision makes it easy to watch, and the audience is absorbed, not into
an aura and a sense of tradition, but into the work of examination through
critical distance. It is the film, however, that thinks for the audience;
viewers can sit back and let the film do the work, which it will do regardless
of the degree of audience attention. The "most difficult and important"
critical work is made easy for the audience. Benjamin seems to suggest
that this is an efficient means of effecting social change, but his analysis
perhaps merely substitutes one authority for another, that is, the politically
enlightened artist (film maker) for the spiritual leader or the bourgeoisie
Missing from Benjamin's analysis, to be addressed decades later by feminist
critics working with psychoanalytic theory, is the role of psychic identification
in the "distracted" state of the film audience. Benjamin's concept
of critical distance does not take into account the power of film to absorb
the viewer through its replication of psychic structures related to the
gaze. The film viewer loses herself in identification with the camera's
eye, and her desire becomes the desire of the camera. The viewer's identity
(e)merges from a visual exchange akin to the exchange in Lacan's mirror
stage. The film image gives to the viewer a representation of herself,
or to consider from the other direction, the viewer takes from the screen
image a representation of herself. In Lacanian theory of infant self-identification,
this representation is predicated on dis-identification - a seeing of
the self as different from the mother - and it is always a misapprehension.
The loss in which and over which self-identity comes into being means
that the self is never complete, and (like the copies of reproduction
technology) has no "true" origin.
The tensions between Benjamin's and Lacan's theories on the emptiness
of origin points to some of the ways in which Scarface works. Ladd's staging
prevents the referencing of a historical beginning and intervenes in the
process of visual identification by doubling herself. Which Ladd should
one look at? The one whose gaze from the screen challenges your own, or
the one whose corporeal presence onstage calls for your attention? The
one who looms like a brilliant giant against the green field, or the one
who fills the dark theater with the intense energy emanating from her
small body? Or is it the multiple translations of Scarface that disorientate:
the constant movement of "character" from Ladd to Pacino to
Montana; the slippage between male and female in Ladd's drag, and the
shifting, overlapping locations of Welsh farm, New York theater, Miami
immigration office, Cuban countryside? This is a territory of exile, where
the spectator finds no "home," no easy identification with the
performer, no place to rest her gaze and receive in return the mirroring
that places her in the world.
Ladd's Scarface continues the work of feminist filmmakers, like Yvonne
Ranier, who intervene in conventional cinematic structures of the gaze
and make the viewer labor alongside the artist in her examination of perception,
identity, and social structures of power in a culture radically altered
by reproduction technologies. Unlike Ranier, who informs her film work
with her dance practice but does not mix the two, Ladd juxtaposes live
and mediatized work and explores the structure of both. Putting together
in one space the two aspects of Pirandello's alienated actor, Ladd's acting
for the camera becomes a live performance co-existent with its own projected
image. Ladd thereby "forc(es) film into the theater, where it does
not normally live" (Ladd 1) The concept of "forcing" film
on stage is apt: Ladd crowds the stage with cinematic personae: Ladd,
as identifying viewer; Pacino, as film actor; and Montana, film character.
She also crowds the stage with cinematic references, re-enacting a film
that is itself a remake of Howard Hawk's 1932 version, Scarface: The Shame
of the Nation. On a sparely furnished stage, Ladd conducts a bristling
convergence of live and technological representations and reproductions.
Her disturbance of aesthetic, political, and psychic affiliation opens
up the area of tension between Benjamin's hopes for art's political efficacy
in contemporary techno-culture and deep-seated identification processes
that seem to undermine that potential. The following sections turn to
Ladd's stated preoccupations with cultural imperialism and queer desire
to continue this exploration .
Cultural Imperialism 1
Cynical and shiny as it is,
de Palma's film is in one way an entertaining gloss on cultural imperialism
and its Cuba/America relationship has parallels with that between Wales
and England (or Wales and Britain). England, an (ex)imperial power has
a dominant influence on Wales to the extent that by now its cultural thinking
and doing are natural and invisible.
The theater piece has two ways of highlighting and subverting this situation.
The first is the use of the Welsh language. It is the match of the film's
Spanish, but also carries a lot of the narrative, thus avoiding its down-grading
to a script ornament. (Ladd 1)
When Ladd performs the immigration
office scene in De Pama's Scarface, she reproduces Tony Montana's nervously
affable, cocky demeanor as he jokes with his interrogator and appears
to offer personal information freely. As she speaks, Ladd gestures towards
the camera/audience with a circling, half-open hand, palm up, near the
heart. It's a Tony Montana gesture, subtly threatening in a classic, film
gangster style. The gesture mimes offering, the outpouring of words, and,
at the same time, it hints at violence, the half-open hand that conceals
a knife. With one concise gesture, Ladd conveys the threat veiled behind
the "friendly" persuasiveness of gangster attitude. Generosity
(giving "from the heart") covers aggression - and opens the
other's vulnerable heart to a well-aimed knife thrust. This threat is
not necessarily backed up by physical power (Ladd, like Pacino, is relatively
short and slight) but by cold, determined self-interest. Later in her
performance, Ladd repeatedly signs a gestural translation of Tony's wrist
tattoo. A small heart overlaid with a two-pronged pitchfork, the unobtrusive
tattoo indicates his status as a hit man. Signing "hit man"
with two fingers outstretched over her heart, Ladd makes explicit the
gangster's threat, and reiterates the closed state of his heart, crossed
If the gangster is a man with closed heart, he is also, to quote the film
character Frank Lopez, a man with "steel in his balls." The
reference to sexuality is germane; in gangster ethos sexuality has little
to do with the dangerous weakness of love or even physical pleasure. While
Tony's sidekick, Manny, marries for love (and dies as a result), Tony
marries Elvira, a sophisticated blonde WASP from Baltimore, for status.
He collects her like a battle trophy from Lopez, the boss he ultimately
destroys. Tony's closely guarded hopes for simpler pleasures show only
in his bitter recriminations of Elvira as the marriage sours. Just as
the family becomes an interlocking affiliation of violence in another
gangster classic, The Godfather, marriage becomes for Tony a brutal strategy
in the climb to the top of the Miami drug world.
Tony's climb to the top, predictably, ends in his death in a spectacular
shoot-out, bringing the film to the usual moral conclusion of the gangster
film. In light of Tony's violent end, the gangster gesture, circling hand
near heart, takes on another meaning: the vulnerability of the gangster's
own clenched heart.
Hollywood gangster films usually narrate a tale of individual amorality
(crime doesn't pay) while simultaneously romanticizing the individual
as immigrant anti-hero struggling to accomplish the American dream of
prosperity and social status. De Palma's Scarface is no exception. Ladd's
Scarface , however, works very differently. The individual character is
central: hence Ladd's skillful realization of a specific role in the pantheon
of film gangsters. Her choreographic rendition of Montana's affect evokes
an individual personality, but she places this individual in a consciously
politicized broader context. She uses the typical casting of gangsters
as poor immigrants -Latinos, Italians, Irish - to explore the organized
cultural violence practiced by the US and the "ex-imperial power,"
England. This concept of cultural imperialism might be summarized in the
following way: the ideal of upward mobility proffered by imperialist powers
conceals a fatal blow to local customs, languages, and economies while
furthering the exploitation of labor, procurement of cheap resources,
and expansion of consumer markets. The bright pictures of the big screen
offer a vision of prosperity, a model of "cultural thinking and doing"
that, as Ladd notes, becomes "natural and invisible" in the
gloss of expensively produced films. Like the film gangster, cultural
imperialism veils its hard self-interest behind seeming generouas.
Ladd cites her use of Welsh as a resistance to English language domination.
In her narration, she uses Welsh about half the time, so that it is mono-lingual
English speaker who is displaced and becomes the outsider for whom "cultural
ways of thinking and doing" are no longer "natural and invisible."
Ladd's work, however, goes far beyond the question of linguistic domination
and the forms of cultural imperialism portrayed in De Palma's "entertaining
gloss" on the subject. It is Ladd's agile intervention in film's
reproduction aesthetic that is most compelling, especially when considered
in relation to mutating imperialist stategies in contemporary culture.
Cultural Imperialism 2
The second subversion is the
re-location of the action to my parents' farm, on which I was brought
up. Playing to camera, my image is sent through a video mixer, locked
to a series of backgrounds and sent onto the big screen. The backgrounds
show a green field, a yard, the road outside, our kitchen, the stairs,
the best bedroom and so on. It's not even small town because that's six
miles away. In Britain and America, power lies in the towns and cities,
and any character in a rural setting has little power or status. They
have aspiration, like all peasants. And me and Tony Montana are both f***king
peasants as F. Murray Abraham says in the film.
The farm locations are stand-ins
for the real thing, fixed to the economies of scale. There was so little
money to make this thing that it becomes a plus point - it is not Hollywood,
and (almost) not a quality production. (Ladd 2)
"(Almost) not a quality production?" Ladd's wry assessment of
her own work comes at the end her description of geography, power, and
money. Removed from the power matrixes she describes (Hollywood, US, city,
), she must make economical substitutions for the "real
thing." The real thing she refers to is a movie set, no more "real"
than the images of her parents' home in rural Wales. Maybe the "real
thing" is money. De Palma's Scarface required a typically Hollywood-sized
budget: locations included two grand villas in Montecito, California,
and a luxurious, fully furnished nightclub set that was built to be destroyed
in a shootout (Malta 4). Ladd had to adapt to the "economies of scale,"
but with typical bravado, she asserts that her low budget is a "plus
point." The questionable quality of her production becomes a real
question concerning the value of popular film and the value of performance
by a "f***king peasant" - someone situated outside conventional
power matrixes but aspiring nevertheless to create significant art in
the age of digital culture.
Digital culture might be described as a complex of social systems shaped
by increasingly speedy, compound, and voluminous information processing
via computers. Computer technology has not supplanted the older reproduction
technologies like photography and film; rather, it has expanded them exponentially.
The emergent relationship between power and knowledge in such systems
has been usefully described by Jon McKenzie in Perform or Else. McKenzie
designates performance as the overarching principle of digital culture.
As such, performance is a notion of power made highly dynamic by super-active
forms of knowledge, that is, digital information processing. He posits
adaptive effectiveness as the primary imperative for the subject inhabiting
digital culture, which he dubs the "performance stratum." In
his description of the performance stratum, McKenzie raises several points
relevant to this discussion of Ladd's work and art in the age of digital
the performative subject is constructed as fragmented rather than
unified, decentered rather than centered, virtual as well as actual. Similarly,
performative objects are unstable rather than fixed, simulated rather
than real. They do not occupy a single, "proper" place in knowledge;
there is no such thing as the thing-in-itself. Instead, objects are produced
and maintained through a variety of sociotechnical systems, overcoded
by many discourses, and situated in numerous sites of practice. While
disciplinary institutions and mechanisms forged Western Europe's industrial
revolution and its system of colonial empires, those of performance are
programming the circuits of our postcolonial, postindustrial world. More
profoundly than the alphabet, printed book, and the factory, such technologies
as digital media and the internet allows discourses and practices from
different geographical and historical situations to be networked and patchworked
together, their traditions to be electronically archived and played back,
their forms and processes to become raw material for other productions.
The geopolitical, economical, and technological transformations
associated with the performance sratum give us insight into the formation
of its fractal subject. (McKenzie 18-19)
It is easy to see Ladd as McKenzie's "performative subject,"
ransacking the audiovisual archive of film, occupying disparate spaces
of stage and screen and patching together personae from several "geographical
and historical situations." It is easy as well to see Ladd as McKenzie's
"performative object;" transitory, kaleidoscopic, and multiply
located. As McKenzie notes, the performative subject hardly differs from
the performative object; neither has a "proper place" and both
seem to be infinitely mobile and metamorphic. Space and time, as well,
exist as elusive, multiplying categories within electronic networks. Detachable
"geographical and historical situations" can be manipulated
and "patchworked together" at will. If neither subject nor object,
time nor space can be decisively located, is it any wonder that they seem
to collapse into similitude? The facile reworkings of cultural "raw
material" described by McKenzie suggests new forms of cultural imperialism
that collapse differences in an unconsidered drive of expanding technological
McKenzie theorizes three "performance paradigms" - efficiency,
effectiveness, and efficacy - that channel power within digital culture.
Efficiency, which emerged in twentieth century corporate capitalism, relates
to the value of profit. Efficiency is the drive to produce and sell more
while decreasing production costs, and it is elaborated in management
system beginning with the work of efficiency experts like Frederick Winslow
Taylor. The paradigm of efficiency accumulates power in management, the
middle section of capitalist hierarchy. Management, negotiating between
labor and owners, controls (or attempts to control) the flow of capital,
products, and profit. Efficiency, with its singular goal of increasing
profit, is a relatively simple power structure. Efficacy, on the other
hand, is a changeable entity, a forward-looking attempt to enact positive
social change. McKenzie associates it with liminality in ritual and with
experimental performance in various twentieth century avant-garde forms.
Efficacy strives to locate "free" power, that is, power that
exceeds stabilizing, normative structures, and to drive through its liminal
cultural position to a "better" future. Finally, effectiveness,
the paradigm that seems most clearly situated in the ever-changing"now,"
is perhaps most crucial to digital culture.
Effectiveness, like efficiency, asks the question: what is the best way
to accomplish a task? Efficiency, however, focuses on one primary task
(increasing profit), while effectiveness must balance a variety of tasks
within large, complex systems. Effectiveness serves the need for fluidity
in digital culture; a corporation, for instance, must address multiple
demands related to consumer satisfaction, safety standards, stock market
fluctuations, bureaucratic documentation, political influence, media image,
and, of course, profit. The computer, the quintessential digital tool,
is capable of performing multiple, simultaneous, yet discrete tasks. Effectiveness,
as such, is almost synonymous with McKenzie's notion of performance as
the overarching principle of digital culture. McKenzie illustrates the
convergence of effectiveness and performance with the following passage
from a computer trade manual:
It should be noted that computer performance (or the performance of any
distinguishable component) cannot be discussed but in the context of a
defined application or group of applications. Performance has no existence
or meaning per se - it must refer to a specific application
therefore be kept firmly in mind that though it is convenient to speak
of the "efficiency," "capacity," or "volume,"
of a system, what is meant is its effectiveness in a given task. (qtd.
in McKenzie 97)
The concept of performance elaborated here is one of freely applicable
functioning. In digital systems like the computer, performance is a groundless
value except in operation, when it must mold itself to the "given
task" of the moment. Words like "efficiency," "capacity"
and "volume" are useful because they suggest the sheer speed
and range of digital processing.
It is almost as if the intoxication of such dynamic systems drives the
contemporary preoccupation with effectiveness that McKenzie describes,
elevating effectiveness over the other two paradigms. Efficiency is subsumed;
in fact, efficiency, applied to complex systems, evolves into effectiveness.
Slow efficacy, dallying with liminal possibilities, fades in importance
as systems seem to develop more and more rapidly. At this speed, the future
appears to move towards the present: the challenge is not to consider
and conceive the future but to prepare for its imminent arrival.
As KcKenzie suggests in his discussion of the 1986 space shuttle explosion,
the American "can do" attitude (145), intensified under the
pressure of effectiveness, can end in disaster.
recommended delaying the launch until temperature
conditions improved. However, as their arguments concerning the correlation
between resiliency of O-ring resiliency and temperature variation were
not supported with appropriate research data, but instead relied on observation
and the intuition that rubber hardens when cold, they were challenged
by NASA engineers and managers as not being scientifically rigorous. (Mckenzie150)
Charges of inappropriate data processing were cited by the NASA team in
order to dismiss the fears of subcontractors hired to produce a small
but crucial part of the spacecraft. "Observation" and "intuition"
are dismissed in favor of systems protocol, the "efficiency expert"
of digital culture. Effectiveness (i.e., responding to multiple demands
of research protocol, political pressure from the Reagan administration,
and mounting costs) drives the launch through to its disastrous end.
Such are some dangers of the imperative ruling contemporary digital culture.
Whether one calls it "performance" of "effectiveness"
the paradigm circulates power freely, moving it along rapidly changing
"liminautic power circuits," to use McKenzie's apt phrase(189).
At best, the human is freed as well to expand into unfolding space and
time structures. At worst, simple common sense, leisurely contemplation,
and the pleasures of physical being in the world are lost. The loss is
not always as dramatic as the Challenger disaster, but it pervades contemporary
culture in more ordinary ways.
If reproduction technology began the deterioration of sustained meaning
and originary power structures in traditional art objects, digital technology
explodes the possibilities Benjamin envisioned for reproduction art forms
like film. The degree to which Western industrial culture has realized
the expansive, egalitarian ideal of social justice is still a subject
of debate (the egalitarian project is, in itself, problematic). Power
has been freed somewhat from the "domain of tradition," but
political and psychic structures shaped by capitalism and persistent dichotomies
of race, gender and class continue to channel power in significantly elitist
directions. Meanwhile, digital culture has disconnected power even more
from "real" space and linear time, increased its dynamic mobility,
and allowed it to recede into ever more elusive, virtual domains Who has
access to these circuits, and who "plays" the keyboard of power
in digital culture? For the contemporary "peasant," the white
collar worker who drudges at the mundane maintenance of digitalized systems,
access to such power circuits seem as remotely possible as the visions
of the Hollywood screen.
Queer Desire 1
And standing in for Al Pacino?
That was for fun. (Ladd 2)
Ladd folds herself into Pacino/Montana,
acting the actor, acting the character. She matches her own large brown
eyes to Pacino's most famous feature and a subtle twist of her mouth to
his familiar grimace. Turned down slightly at the corners and pressed
against the teeth, it's a mouth that expresses both shrewd intelligence
and aggressive desire. She looks into the camera eye, rolls her tongue
around in her cheek, tips her chin up, her head back, and smirks an almost
imperceptible half-smile. On the big screen, Ladd's heavy lidded eyes
evoke movie star sexuality: Bette Davis's bedroom eyes, Pacino's macho,
challenging gaze. Like Tony Montana, she knows where to look, when, and
for how long - that is, always a little longer than is comfortable for
the recipient of her gaze. Like Pacino, the star whose signature personality
imbues every role he performs, she projects an image that is herself,
yet not herself. She inscribes her ambiguous gender in her passage from
Ladd to Pacino, overwriting her female body with the "signature"
of Pacino's masculinity. This intervention is so familiar in homosexual
practice that it leads to the question posed by theater historian David
Savran to his students "Is queer performance a redundant phrase?"
Historically, queer performance like drag can be seen as an intervention
in the cultural imperialism of Hollwood film. Benjamin rightly identified
the Hollywood cult of personality as a cynical perversion of acting in
the service of marketing strategies. That perversion, however, is re-appropriated
by audiences more or less consciously performing gender in the pursuit
of queer desire. If the viewer identifies with a star and participates
in the phantasmatic erotic exchange of the darkened movie theater, she
does so according to her own desire. She doesn't necessarily "buy"
the whole package of normative structures encoded in Hollywood film. What
she buys - or appropriates- is a vehicle open to her own pleasure, a mimetic
aura, if you will, that she can play back again and again, try on for
size, and project onto her own reality. This particular contemporary,
queer practice manifests in and through technology.
Reproduction technology pervades queer appropriation from the impersonation
of magazine and television icons in Harlem drag balls, to Peg Shaws's
version of Marlon Brando's "Stanley" in Belle Reprieve, to the
gay adolescent's obsession with Broadway musical recordings described
in D.A. Miller's Place for Us:
No one better appreciated the secret, or more passionately bore its defining
paradoxes, than the kind of boy who, during the '50's, at the height of
Broadway's golden age, descended into his parents' basement to practice
the following ritual. Ensconced in this underworld where he was equally
removed from company at home and the lack of it at school, he would pass
a tentative hand into the recesses of a small chest; no sooner had he
done so, though New York was nowhere near, the air suddenly filled with
the din of songs from the latest Broadway shows. [
] As often as
it had numbers, every Broadway musical brought him ecstatic release from
all those well-made plots for whose well-made knots no one who hadn't
been a boy scout could possibly have a taste. (Miller 2-3)
If the over world of New York's commercial theater gleaned huge profits
(sometimes) from glossy stagings of the American dream, gay boys like
Miller found entrance into their "underworld" sexuality through
mass marketed reproductions of Broadway songs. Reproduction technology
is, almost literally, the vehicle of Miller's sexual coming of age. LP
recordings transport gay -coded culture to a geographically and socially
isolated adolescent. At the same time, the recorded music transports him
to an emotional release. Notably, Miller's recollection eroticizes a phonograph
player: in this scenario of private pleasure,: the penetration of his
"tentative hand into the recesses of a small chest" presages
his "ecstatic release." Technology, the body, sexuality,and
emotion converge in that release.
Miller's eroticizing of the stereo, an apparatus of reproduction technology,
puts Benjamin's observations on the film camera in a different light.
To take a second look:
Evidently, different nature opens itself up to the camera than opens to
the naked eye - if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted
for a space consciously explored by man. Even if one has a general knowledge
of the way people walk, one knows nothing of a person's posture during
a fractional second of a stride. The act of reaching for a lighter or
a spoon is familiar routine, yet we hardly know what really goes on between
hand and metal, not to mention how this fluctuates with our moods. (Benjamin
A sexual meaning emerges in verb constructions: nature "opens itself
up" and the camera "penetrates" space. Erotic experience
seems to inform Benjamin's description. Time slows, perception expands,
and intimate proximity allows one to savor details: the tactile relationship
between the hand and the spoon and "fluctuat(ing)...moods."
Benjamin's unconscious eroticizing of the camera and cinematic perception
reveals the ways in which human desire animates even the most ephemeral
representations, uniting the body and its reproduced images, and allowing
an intimate cohabitation between technology and the human body.
Queer Desire 2
De Palma set his own re-make
in Miami (the original 1931 movie with Paul Muni is set, er I think, in
Chicago). Mine is re-set in my home area, near Aberporth in west Wales,
a rural area often thought of as the middle of nowhere (it's actually
on the edge of nowhere
) (Ladd 1)
Ladd's impersonation entertains,
and her negotiation of live/mediatized forms display of virtuosic technical
mastery. Scarface, however, is also a serious investigation and intervention
into the power matrix of digital culture. The gangster figure she chooses
to personify reads as a romantic anachronism within that matrix. Questions
of individual ambition and grossly corporeal aspects of human sexuality
and violence seem out of place in the abstract complexities of digital
culture. The intoxicating speed and range of digital effectiveness, of
elegantly stream-lined power expanding among McKenzie's "liminautic
circuits," seem to leave the gangster and his uncouth bid for power
in the dust. Nevertheless, Ladd seizes the anachronism and tosses it into
her mix. Her gangster, the "f***king peasant" Ladd/Pacino/Montana,
jams the machine with multiple personae, locations, and modes of performance,
allowing the story to unfold slowly.
As time slows down, the audience sees the detail: of the film story, of
film acting technique, of Ladd's gender and political affiliations. Like
Benjamin's camera, Ladd's performance allows a careful look at "what
goes on between the hand and the metal" and in the "fractional
second of a stride." Inhabiting these interstices of time, inserting
her living body and the landscape of her childhood home into a gangster
film, Ladd projects herself, past and present, real and phantasmatic,
far beyond the theater space. Despite the uncertainty of place she expresses
in her program notes Ladd is at home in the circuitry of her technologically
extended body. Her home is in the "middle of nowhere." Or is
it "actually on the edge of nowhere
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations.
New York, Schoken Books, 1968.
Ladd, Eddie. Scarface Program
Malta, J, Geoff. Scarface.
"Production Notes." 2001. Universal News Press
department of Universal Studios. 11 November 2001.
McKenzie, Jon. Perform or Else.
London and New York: Routledge, 2001.
Miller, D.A. Place for Us[Essay
on the Broadway Musical]. Cambridge,
Massachusetts and London: Harvard university Press, 1998
Savran, David. City University
of New York Graduate Center. New York, 3
Scarface. By Eddie Ladd. Dir
by Eddie Land/Athina Vahla. Here Thetater,
New York. 20 September 2001.