Author: Kim Paice
the Quickening - monograph, published by Marianne Boesky Gallery NY and Arndt & Partner, Berlin/Zürich
Resisting the Puritans
Sue De Beer has described The Quickening (2006) as "a psychedelic historical film, set in puritan America in 1740." 1. It's pretty unusual in the context of her video-works that deal almost categorically with today's youth, coming of age, and rock-n-roll. Without much of a stretch, I suppose, the quizzical making out with myself (1997) could be considered a preamble to The Quickening. Both works emphasize bonds between creativity and sexuality. But nearly a decade later, de Beer has developed a fuller role for the artist, who is now a character with some depth, and she has created a sensual video-installation to engage bodies and minds. Readers of The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of Seven Gables (1851) will recognize the oppressive society about which Nathaniel Hawthorne spilled so much ink. Clandestine meetings, keys passed between lovers, and the clash of religious morality and sexual desire, all find a place in The Quickening.2 For anyone who forgets that Hawthorne's writing about the puritans was once thought "naughty" and "racy," de Beer's work is an evocative reminder of how sexy puritans can be3.
In spite of the fact that de Beer intended The Quickening as a kind of period film, her disdain for the idea of the historical real should be immediately obvious. If it isn't, then, to make this point she weaves Joris-Karl Huysmans's reflections on the demise of naturalism -- in À Rebours (1884) -- into the monologue of the central artist-character4. Typical of her sense of humor, she realizes a frenzied and unreal style. Her erratic cut-up method results in a trippy, fin-de-siècle decadent, scary movie.
The Quickening includes tell-tale signs of slasher films, like close views of a woman being stalked, maddening shots that hide the killer's identity (we see and hear the blade penetrating and being pulled from her body), and sequences that seem to make the camera's view into the killer's viewpoint. The way that violence hijacks eroticism and turns sexual pleasure into fear and shock will also be familiar to fans of the slasher genre5. All of this is echoed in simple but effective audio -- howling and thudding made by Andy Comer, wind sounds made by passing buses and traffic -- which de Beer layered into the final cut.
The impression of spectral events that is given relates to supernatural visitations, like those in 'spoken' histories of the 1700s that sounded psychedelic to [her]: a cat appears at your feet as you sleep, and the cat becomes a man, and then you are in the forest and you have to sign a black book.
Indistinction between fantasy and reality further complicates matters, and makes the heroine's night-journey as terrifying as it is trippy. It's difficult to confirm or fix her position or time tracks when de Beer layers phantasmatic trips upon dreams and trances6. If there is storyline, it gets lost in quotation, amateurish cuts, and illegible anagrams. It seems as though there is some kind of film-within-a-film in which the heroine is stalked and raped by a character who behaves like the psycho killer of slasher films, the crazy dangerous guy who hunts down sexually active young women. After being viciously stabbed, the heroine, who is marked by her sexuality, is hung like the witches in Salem, and unceremoniously abandoned in a cave7. Only later will she be found by a woman wearing a scarlet dress, who places a mirror in the dead woman's hands. If this is not confusing enough, the artist's dream sequence shows a maiden, waltzing with a wolf and bull, and sweeping a forest floor. The weirdness of showing her idyllic place in nature is matched by the sentimentality of Comer's John Denver cover song in the background.
These bizarre events seem to take place in the mind of the artist-character. His visions allow us to understand the creativity of magic, sexuality, and art as social resistance. They also help us make sense of the historical theme of the work. As Max Weber explained in his laborious way, protestantism created a stronghold where utilitarian attitudes and occupational practices of capitalism flourished.8
Not surprisingly, then, de Beer's artist is shown in decadent surroundings so we understand that he is something of an outsider. Puritan asceticism and policing of desire was, much like that society's attempt to stamp out magic, fully consonant with the work ethic, frugality, and capitalist spirit which animated the lives of protestant puritans. These facts notwithstanding, sexual repression is not merely the historical product of capitalism and born of the way that utilitarian labor can be thought of as opposed to useless expenditure. One of Michel Foucault's great innovations was to have seen that sexual repression relates to the ways our bodies and bare life have become increasingly politicized and drawn into the center of the juridical-political order9 This shift, which he identifies with the era of biopower, also involves the proliferation of discourses about sex and of institutions that have made a science out of sex and pleasure.
What happens in The Quickening is therefore pretty striking. In the work, we see pleasure and science turning into art and magic. This is not to say that there is a simple reversal of the biopolitical situation. But I am saying, and I think de Beer is also suggesting, that the exercise of power on and through the body is perhaps the most pressing concern that we face today. In this vein it makes perfect sense for The Quickening to include Jonathan Edwards's restrictive warning about the foot that slips from its firm moral grounding, and Huysmans's remarks about gesturing hysterics, who were thought to be possessed by the devil10. Both historical texts point to the society's need for control over the body's movements, gesticulations, and desire.
The artist-character is someone who wants to get beyond the rigid conditioning of the body and mind. For de Beer, he becomes "a kind of psychedelic inventor - like Timothy Leary or William S. Burroughs/Brion Gysin - who takes controlled substances to experience the breakdown of the conscious mind." The entire work, then, seems to have emerged from a trance that was induced in the artist by a dreamachine. This simple device is made out of a light cylinder, which is attached to a record player's turntable spinning at 78 RPM. In 1959, Gysin and Ian Sommerville conceived it as a multidimensional kaleidoscope, and they subsequently used it in psychedelic experiments with Burroughs. They believed that the flickering light patterns made by the machine could stimulate the cortex, reproduce the Alpha frequency of brainwaves, and induce hallucination. The dreamachine was therefore considered a means of freeing the mind of conscious -- and social -- control. Availing herself of these insights, de Beer also tries to interrupt the programming of human subjects through processes and patterns that are intrinsic in the human body11 So her video includes hallucinatory, disorienting, and beautiful flickering, and she exploits vivid color lighting to affect people inside the installation12.
Reflecting on the dreamachine, Burroughs told an interviewer that he made a point of keeping up with science, particularly, current research about drugs, psychiatry, and brain stimulation12. This science, he felt, could tell us a lot about how to resist being controlled. Although de Beer's dreamachine does not herald political revolution in today's puritanical culture, she and Burroughs would probably agree that cultural revolutionaries should be open to such means of changing the body and mind.
1 All comments by Sue de Beer in this text have been taken from correspondence with the author during October, 2006.
2 De Beer is, in fact, a long-time reader of Hawthorne's work. She grew up in Salem, Massachusetts, where Hawthorne did a lot of his writing.
3 Anne Abbott, "From Review of The Scarlet Letter (July 1850), in Ed. Ross C. Murfin, Nathaniel Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter: Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism (Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2006), p. 266.
4 Huysmans's novel À Rebours is frequently associated with the turn from Naturalism to Symbolism, and as he wrote in the preface twenty years after the fact, "Naturalism was getting more and more out of breath by dint of turning the mill for ever in the same round." Joris-Karl Huysmans. Against the Grain (New York: Dover Publications, 1969), p. xxxv.
5 Cinematically lush and yet a little raw, de Beer's work has a bluntness that is by now her signature. It suggests the relevance of Tom Savini and the how-to horror books that de Beer likes so much.
6 De Beer continually exploits anachronism, too. One heroine wears a somber but short puritan dress and heavy makeup. Another heroine appears as a sexy maiden, clad in a scarlet dress with a plunging neckline. Both women don high heels and stockings, even though they wear the conventional white head-dress of puritans.
7 Nathaniel Hawthorne's great grand-father was a judge who presided over the Salem witch trials in 1692, and Hawthorne spoke about his guilt concerning that legacy.
8 Max Weber. Trans. Talcott Parsons. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Dover Publications, 2003). This text was originally published in German.
9 Michel Foucault. Trans. Robert Hurley. The History of Sexuality Volume I (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), p. 5. This book was written in French in 1975 and published in English in 1978.
10 In a voiceover, de Beer uses excerpts from "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" (1741) by theologian Jonathan Edwards. The title of The Quickening also interrelates the body's movements with time, and refers to "the moment when a child grows in the womb, and the moment before death - the hastening of death, The Quickening."
11 The dreamachine relates to Foucault's notion of technologies of the self.
12 She captures patterns just like the ones that are shown in Antony Balch's experimental film The Cut-Ups (1966), which is a work that includes Burroughs, Gysin, and Sommerville. The pattern corresponds to swirling mosaics and diamond-patterns of psychedelic color lighting in de Beer's video and installation. Jens Höhne, a Berlin-based lighting designer who builds many of his own lights, helped de Beer create effects of the 1960s and 1970s with color gell filters and special lenses.