Subjective Screens: Zeesy Powers’ reality TV asks viewers to feel for others
By Matthew Ryan Smith
Television is chewing gum for the eyes. – Frank Lloyd Wright
It's just a show. It's not the end of Western Civilization. It's chewing gum. – Jerry Springer
In the mid-1880s, working alongside the influential French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, Sigmund Freud plotted his mind-science ‘psychoanalysis.’ Years later, impelled by a patient under the pseudonym Anna O., Freud co-authored Studies on Hysteria (1895) with the Austrian physician Joseph Breuer. For Freud and Breuer, Anna O. provided the evidence needed to connect hysteria to sexual malfunction while demonstrating that symptoms of neurosis can be alleviated by simply talking them away. Subsequently, the “talking cure” and “working through” have become fundamental principles of psychoanalytic method and entered our cultural lexicon, which confirms the pervasiveness of Freudian theory even at its most rudimentary level.
With her reality television project Subjects, Toronto-based artist Zeesy Powers draws a line of flight from Freud to the present day by employing the talking cure and working through as vehicles of investigation into the human condition: “See yourself through someone else's eyes. Subjects is a new reality television series looking for participants to participate in one-on-one talk sessions to work out their problems, fears and unanswered questions” reads the open call on the program’s website. Powers’ work distils therapy to its quintessence by offering a service for willing participants to “talk through past traumas and deal with current anxieties in an atmosphere of total transparency” for the purpose of unburdening themselves of profound emotional weight. In her artist’s statement, however, she reminds us that this is no closeted performance of confession: the subjects of Subjects are fully aware that the private is made public via weekly broadcasts of episodes based on various topics ranging from “enemies” and “death” to “the future” and “beauty.”
Powers has been presenting her work since 2005, with several exhibitions in Toronto and Montreal, as well as in Germany, Japan and the U.S. Her work offers a worthy alternative to suffocating pharmaceutical drugs, exorbitantly-priced psychiatrists and inexcusably long waiting-lists to see pay-what-you-can counsellors. Because the weekly episodes of Subjects follow broad themes they remain accessible, identifiable and implicitly reference the dramas and traumas of our day-to-day lives. In other words, they are poignantly relatable. Thus, Powers cleverly inverts the dynamic of the one-on-one therapy session into a transfiguration of group therapy where we are able to tellingly negotiate our own lives through the lives of others.
Guy Debord argues that capitalist society consists of “spectacles,” where everything that could once be considered real has transformed into representation. Simply put, images govern our social relations. As a result, we have become more and more alienated from each other’s bodies to the extent that most of our relationships exist in the virtual realm (think texting, Skype, Facebook, Twitter and so on). Because the individual is gripped by capitalism and is absorbed in material things like television (and art), they potentially lose sight of their own unique existence and inner desires. Nevertheless, have individuals challenged the alienation produced by the spectacle by positioning themselves as a spectacle? It seems that as technology moves our bodies apart, we have manufactured virtual spaces—in a variety of mediums—to push against this ever-increasing separation (again, think texting, Skype, etc.). Subjects may be part of this push.
Cultural critics like Hal Niedzviecki argue that pop culture has grossly mutated into “peep culture,” an age of perpetual “oversharing” where we learn to love watching others and love having others watch us: “In Peep we feel the cathartic release of confession, the allure and danger of gossip, and the timeless comfort of ritual,” writes Niedzviecki in The Peep Diaries (2009). In keeping with Niedzviecki, it appears that we have become accustomed to the unabashed, flagrant and nauseating exposé of ourselves, celebrities and pseudo-celebrities: 15 minutes of fame has never seemed so long. From Jerry Springer and Richard Hatch to Maury Povich and Jersey Shore, reality-based television appears to require little more than inane banter and tequila shots to have people watch it. How have we not grown tired of this? In an age when more people vote for Idol contestants than for the leader of their country, our way of consuming the lives of others is unprecedented and rather alarming.
But Subjects does not play into this dominating cultural milieu: it is moving, undistorted and ultimately riveting television. In concentrating as much on the moral, therapeutic and instructive value behind subject matter like love, conflict and loss, as on the individuals themselves, the series is a crucial departure from most of the narcissistic drivel that we find in “peep culture.” Nonetheless, in the vein of conventional reality television Subjects edits footage in order to enact a compelling narrative sequence for audiences. And in making a drama out of trauma, participants may remain largely unaware of the project’s larger, out-of-the-gallery, on-the-web and into-the-street consequences.
The eminent French historian Michel Foucault suggests that in confession, one is driven to tell (or is forced to tell) what is most difficult and what could not be said to anyone else. Correspondingly, being in front of the video camera shares a close affinity to being in confession. By its very nature, the camera triggers a radical alteration of behaviour. The French filmmaker Jean Rouch has witnessed this curious phenomenon and uses the metaphor of an automobile’s accelerator to describe it:
“Very quickly I discovered the camera was something else; it was not a brake but let’s say, to use an automobile term, an accelerator. You push these people to confess themselves and it seemed to us without any limit…it’s a very strange kind of confession in front of the camera, where the camera is, let’s say, a mirror, and also a window open to the outside.”
We gather from Rouch that the camera strips away inhibitions and quite literally urges on actions and admissions that are, by and large, ‘uncharacteristic’ of those who face it. For example, add a camera to spring breakers partying, mix with a dash of alcohol, sprinkle with music, and those seemingly unassuming, conservative young women transform into Girls Gone Wild. On the contrary, perhaps the camera merely breaks down the veil of righteousness, heteronormality and social convention while allowing those who face it to act out as they really are or as they desire to be. Accordingly, but not nearly as severe, the participants in Subjects may have felt strangely compelled to confess to the camera simply because it is there.
In Subjects participants are positioned against a green-screen so that Powers can project an image or images related to the theme of discussion behind the speaker. For example: “family” (colour photographs of happy families including the Obama’s), “death” (the colour black) and “justice” (a picture of a courtroom). Anne K. Abbot, a Toronto-based artist and disability activist, and Charles Augustus Steen III, author of the controversial children’s story The Pains of Being Pure at Heart figure prominently in Subjects by appearing in several episodes. Abbot has cerebral palsy. The disease has restricted her ability to speak but, by pointing to alphabetical letters on a communication board, her personal support worker can form letters into words. In the introduction to the series, Abbot tenderly tells Powers, “I could talk and talk… forever because I have a lot of frustrations in my life and a lot of sadness right now.” Later, in the episode “frustration,” Abbot explains that her feelings of frustration derive from feeling “invisible” to people in society rather than with her disability itself. Abbot’s call for de-estranging those with disabilities may be striking to audiences because it demonstrates a common need for interpersonal connection and shared humanity while fully dismissing the limitations caused by her disability.
Steen’s first on-camera appearance is not as stirring as Abbot’s. His pink sunglasses and shirt lucidly clash against the blank green-screen behind him as he cries, “I wanted to be in character. Fuck. I fucking hate you girls... [laughs]… because I can’t be fake around you.” Steen’s guise breaks down almost immediately in front of the camera despite his glaring resentment. Several years ago Steen was involved in a lawsuit over a children’s story he wrote and, as he claims, was plagiarized and transformed into Daisy-Head Mayzie, the so-called “lost work” of famed children’s writer Dr. Seuss. Steen lost the case and the book was subsequently published by Random House on New Year’s Day, 1995 under the posthumous authorship of Dr. Seuss. Although their concerns are extraordinarily different, Abbot and Steen nevertheless represent poles of disenfranchisement. Drawing attention to the disservices always already present in daily life, Powers demands that her viewers watch not for entertainment’s sake but for compassion’s sake. It is television that asks you to feel for another.
Although some participants may have relished in self-parading for the camera, Subjects provides a platform for individuals to speak earnestly about past trauma(s). Consequently, in bearing witness to participants speaking of trauma there is a real potential for viewers to become traumatized themselves. This “muted” or faint dose of trauma is more commonly known as “secondary trauma.” By documenting traumatic experiences and exhibiting them to others, Subjects may incidentally provide an overwhelming affective encounter and impel viewers to talk and/or work-through their feelings for some kind of psychical relief.
As viewers it is important to consider that many of the participants of Subjects have experienced (or are still experiencing) a difficult event in their lives, where profound suffering has occurred (and is still very much alive). Art theorist Sharon Sliwinski argues that images of suffering call for a sense of responsibility while at once forcing viewers to reconcile that they hold no capacity to stop the suffering depicted: a perpetual immobility—an inability to reverse the suffering that they bear witness to. If we adopt Sliwinski’s line of thinking for Subjects, it is clear that the suffering we bear witness to must be looked upon appropriately, responsibly and, perhaps most importantly, emphatically.
This brand of reality television is chewing gum of a different flavour. By framing the usually tactless drama of reality television as an artistic pursuit into the emotional and experiential gradations of being human, Zeesy Powers commandeers reality television for a good. We are certainly ready to shatter our pre-conceptions of reality television and are long overdue for a radical overhaul of ‘peep culture.’ Subjects considers what looking means and adjusts the ways that we look at each other.
Matthew Ryan Smith is a Toronto-based writer, curator and doctoral candidate in the Art and Visual Culture programme at The University of Western Ontario. His research addresses trauma, affect and the ethics of spectatorship in contemporary photography and video.