Issue Home

Essays / Ensayos / Ensaios

Another Kind of Love: A Performance of Prosthetic Politics
Debra Levine

Killing as Performance: Violence and the Shaping of Community
Verónica Zebadúa

The Noble Warrior was a Drag Queen
Kerry Swanson

Eréndira a caballo. Acoplamiento de cuerpos e historias en un relato de conquista y resistencia
Ana Cristina Ramirez

The Underskin of the Screen: Performing Embodiment in Through the Looking Glass
Cynthia Bodenhorst

A Critical Regionalism: The Allegorical Performative in Madre por un día
Amy Sara Carroll

Artists' testimonies / Testimonios de artistas / Depoimentos dos artistas

EDEMA/ Colaboratorio de Arte Público: Ritos de Sanación Social
Eduardo Flores Castillo

O que deve ser um corpo da era da cirurgia plástica?
Helena Vieira

In Every Issue:

Humor / Humor / Humor

Reviews / Reseñas / Resenhas

News and Events / Noticias y Eventos / Notícias e Eventos

Activism / Activismo / Ativismo

Links / Enlaces / Links

The Underskin of the Screen: Performing Embodiment in
Through the Looking Glass, an installation by Cris Bierrenbach
by Cynthia Bodenhorst

Abstract (English | Español)

Printer-friendly version

View Through the Looking Glass (English | Português)

"The eye can confer the active gift of love upon bodies which have long been accustomed to neglect and disdain."

Kaja Silverman, The Threshold of the Visible World

"Love is lak de sea. It's uh movin' thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from the shore it meets, and it's different with every shore."

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

In the past few decades, cultural theorists have undervalued the role of love in the political domain. That is, we seldom imagine the potential of identificatory relations as powerful political and transformative social tools. But love is back, and so is the body along with the advent of new imaging and visualization technologies. The skin and the screen, two surfaces deeply implicated in love and violence, return with a vengeance in today's media-dominated society to question the dominant fiction that there is indeed an essential and alienating dichotomy between 'meatland', as some netfans call the fleshly world of 'reality', and the cyber-, non-corporeal space produced by digital media.

To denounce the disembodied abstraction implicit in the increasing mediation of the image is useful when dealing with certain forms of instrumentalist vision that manipulate the subject/object under view for purposes of control, such as consumerism, surveillance, and some types of ethnography. However, these pessimistic assessments must not be applied to all forms of visuality. For the past few years, languages and formats used to package and transmit information, like the Internet, the spectacle and the index, have allowed artists to create new and more radical inscriptions of the body, to question notions of spectatorship and authorship, and, most significantly, to challenge 'the screen' as the exclusive territory of consumerist mass media. An example of this revisionist approach is the installation entitled Through the Looking Glass, by Brazilian artist Cris Bierrenbach. Using video as a medium, the artist confuses her own body with the projection screen, creating a setting for performative practices that expose the contingencies of normative representations of female identity and sexuality. Love and desire return to embody surfaces and innervate the eye.

In spite of concerns that we now live in the society of the spectacle, Kaja Silverman argues: "[t]here can never have been a moment when specularity was not at least in part constitutive of human subjectivity."1 If so, what is different about the image today? How can we re-imagine the body today 'beyond' the binary constructions of subject/object, real/representation, and mind/body? "Wary of holism[s] but needy for connection" what kind of bodies are artists returning to?2 One thing is clear: the logic and value conferred to images has radically changed in contemporary society, due in part to the advent and development of new imaging and projecting technologies such as still photography, cinema, video and now the Internet. We live in an economy of the image and a society of the screen. In other words, our culture continues to colonize most effectively in the domain of the visual.3 For example, as Susan Sontag states, "[w]e learn to see ourselves photographically: to regard oneself as attractive is, precisely, to judge that one would look good in a photograph." People "in industrialized countries seek to have their photographs taken—feel that they are images, and are made real by photographs."4 Social acknowledgement and recognition depend in part on lifting the subject 'out of life' and actualizing it as representation.We see the world as if through an imaginary viewfinder, a looking glass through which the world is produced as spectacle and through which we ourselves are produced as spectacle. In fact, industrial societies produce a constant flow of idealized representations for consumption while at the same time rejecting and misrepresenting others that fall outside the cultural norm. The reification of 'ideal' bodies through representations that create standards of beauty and essentialize what counts as female/male or as feminine/masculine relies more and more on the production of a "cultural image-repertoire" that constitutes "the means by which our culture figures […] 'difference.'" These normative representations inscribe "social identity" through what Silverman calls "the cultural screen."5 I argue that it is thus only through interventions within the visible realm and through the production of new images and alternative imaginary identifications, that we can begin to intervene where dominant culture most powerfully exercises both symbolic and bodily power: the screen and the skin.

This interrupting task might just fall in the hands of artists and other creative social practitioners whose aesthetic work constantly subverts that which is visible and invisible through alternative forms of embodied looking. While Bierrenbach's installation may be seen as part of a more general revival of the body in video art since the 1990s, I am more interested in considering it as a persistent tactic of the collective and female subject in an era of the screen, that is, a political and agentive subject.6 The installation enacts an "ethics of vision" that implicates our "look" and "the gaze" as complicitly connected in the maintenance of ideality and the cultural screen.7It does so by transforming "the looking glass" from a technology of power that serves for incorporative, narcissistic, or exclusionary identifications, into the skin of "the other." It opens up the screen as a thick site receptive of a loving look: a site where inter-subjective exchanges take place and where self and other are posited as reciprocally implicated and ethically dependent on each other. Finally, by showing us how we see and through performing the underskin of the screen, I argue that the installation outlines a politics of viewing that calls into question distanced models of reading today's image-culture. Bierrenbach implicates us in acts of affective interpretation.

Loving to Look 'Through the Looking Glass'

Cris Bierrenbach loves to look. It is not by chance that she is both a video artist and a renowned photographer in Brazil, known both in the commercial and artistic fields. Her choice of media is as much a sign of the times as a vocation through which she not only adds images to the stock of the world, but comments on the world made by these images through her imaging work. Technologies of imaging and vision and how these intersect with the (female) body are central issues in her art practice.

Through the Looking Glass was initially conceived in 2004 as a site-specific installation for Base 7, an art gallery in São Paulo, Brazil. The video shows the artist's face and upper torso projected from the inside of the exhibition space onto the glass panel of the gallery's entrance door. The image, an eight-minute video loop, is only visible from the outside of the gallery space, that is, from the street. The face fills the entire screen looking distorted, as if pressed against a virtual glass. As she moves uncomfortably squashed against the surface her face deforms into all sorts of disturbing expressions. The door/screen appears to imprison her while delivering her, larger than life, to the spectators' view. In the accompanying soundtrack, Bierrenbach reads a carefully crafted and paced assemblage of text segments, written by women as personal profiles for virtual chat rooms or Internet dating sites.8 

The initial impulse when one sees the installation is voyeuristic. As Internet users we are used to monitors and quickly recognize the language used in chat rooms, readily assuming the discrete position of an observer who loves to look: the attitude of a web browser. Cris Bierrenbach understands the screen in a Lacanian sense. In Lacan's visual theory, the screen should be understood as both external to the subject—as the "cultural screen" or "as the presence of others as such"—cutting through her/his field of vision; and internal to the subject, as articulating the subject from within, on an unconscious level. In this sense, Bierrenbach uses the screen not merely as a projective surface but as a thick topography where subjectivity is inscribed through a complex dynamic of projection and introjection. Her use of textual and bodily references fleshes the screen with the presence of "the other," creating a corporeal screen both seductive and disruptive. In other words, the installation is not just a commentary on the symbolic capture of the subject by the visual, but stages "the self" as an effect of its cultural inscription through vision.9

Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4