Friday, May 23, 2014

The Winnipeg Public Library and Triggering Artwork

UPDATE: The Library's response below

In the public's interest, I am reproducing the comment form submission that I have sent to the Library in regards to Bruno Wojnicz's photo series "Angst" which appears, in my opinion, to glamorize violence against women. I plan to edit this page when I have received word back from the Library. The letter is as follows:


I wonder if somebody at the Library could provide information regarding the decision to display the "Angst" series of photographs by Bruno Wojnicz on the second floor. Considering that when I noticed them, an employee of the library immediately apologized and attempted to distance themselves from the display of the work.

I understand that Bruno Wojnicz is a local artist, and we should promote local artists. Yet, I'm quite disturbed by the series of photographs. Several of which appear to be high contrast, glossy images of models appearing to be beaten, bruised, and bloody. One particular caption provided with one of these photos reads, "I luv u so much."

The aesthetics used in the photos distance the subjects from the necessary realism required to make political commentary, in my opinion. Rather than an attempt to "bring awareness" to gendered violence through the medium of photography, the glossiness of the photos appears to be glamorizing the violence, and glamorizing the models for their status as victim.

I would like information on the selection process for this particular art display in order to understand the series of decisions that led to this.

I am very fortunate to not have been affected by gendered violence, but I know people who have, and considering how prominent gendered violence is, I wonder why the Library would condone such triggering material. How many people walked by this exhibit only to be reminded of the violence they've experienced? And for what purpose?

The Library is meant to be a safe space for all. Why in the world would you make it inhospitable for those seeking refuge from the gendered violence that occurs daily in the world?

On Tuesday, a few days after my initial complaint, I received a message from a Library employee, informing me that the exhibit had been taken down, and that further information was on the way. I am not reproducing this letter because its core message is easily summarized. However, a few hours after that, I received this letter from the Library.

Dear Mr. Montgomery

Thank you for taking the time to send in your comments regarding the display called “Angst” located on the second floor of the Millennium library in the Blankstein gallery. Artists must apply to display their work in any of the spaces at Winnipeg Public Library. Mr. Wojnicz did this, and his application to display his work was accepted. While staff recognized that the nature of this exhibit could be deemed controversial, Mr. Wojnicz had displayed his work at the Millennium library in the past, and there were no complaints or concerns about his work. He has also exhibited his work at local galleries, and “Angst” was recently displayed at one such gallery.

The library does provide all artists displaying their work with a copy of the library’s Regulations Governing the Use of Library Display Space which state that “the Library retains the right to preview all display materials before, during or after installation” and that “the library reserves the right to refuse displays or request the removal of display items it deems to be offensive to the general public”. In light of the concerns that have been raised, the library has reviewed the exhibit using its regulations and the decision has been made to have the display taken down early. This has now occurred.

The intent in allowing this exhibit to go on display was never to alienate women or glorify violence against women, but to provide a venue for a local artist to display his work. As a public space, the library does strive to make its facilities safe and welcoming for all, and were certainly concerned that this exhibit has caused library customers to feel otherwise. Though there is a place for art and the discussion that it inspires in public libraries, we do not want those who use the library to feel unwelcome or unsafe.

As a result of the concerns raised, we will also be reviewing the library’s Regulations Governing the Use of Library Display Space to determine whether the document and the library’s procedures for approving displays needs to be revised.

Again, thank you for taking the time to pass along your thoughts on this exhibit.

Your sincerely,
Gail Doherty
Administrative Coordinator of Central Library Services
Millennium Library
In my reply, I asked permission to reproduce this letter which was given in a subsequent reply.

My response to Gail's letter was recommendations, which I will summarize here:
1) An external addition to the application approval body, an addition trained in curatorial studies or related field that can help make better decisions beyond "it was in a gallery before"
2) The reiteration to this body that the gallery space and the Library space have different functions and are not interchangeable
3) Further exhibits should be presented alongside a statement from the Library explaining their approval of the application, ie further transparency

I also thanked the Library for their courteous response, their quick action, and their decades-long presence in the core Downtown area, a space welcoming and safe for all people. I hope this incident remains anomalous and I hope to never have to revisit this post again.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Ostensibly a sequel to 2012's reboot of the series (which I hated), The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is one of the most frustrating movie experiences I've ever had. I'm not even sure if it counts as a movie, considering its plot is incoherent, its characters poorly defined (or not at all), and its position as advertisement isn't even cogent. Let me say right from the beginning that this movie is awful. There is very little to recommend in it. However, this might actually work in its favour; in twenty years' time, this film might be a campy midnight show masterpiece in which the audience shouts gleefully and sardonically the atrocious dialogue alongside. At this point, thought, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is fucking awful.

Let us begin with a survey of the modern superhero film, the modern blockbuster, so that we might understand where the audience is in relation to the endless waves of production. In 2013, in an essay about blockbuster exhaustion, I wrote that within each blockbuster,
there comes a tease. This is the mechanism of which I meant by the endless waves of production. Once the film is complete, the audience is no longer excited by the film they just watched, but by the anticipation of the next film in the series. Their whole enjoyment is dependent on the promise of continuing adventures.
A blockbuster must be three films in one: 1) a self-contained adventure that depicts the emotional journey of the protagonist(s); 2) a story that picks up on points established by the teases of the previous film; 3) a story that establishes points to be picked up by the next film. The film must engender excitement for the next instalment in order to maintain or increase the box office revenues. In this logic, "each subsequent item in the endless series must somehow replace and better the previous item. The stakes in films get higher with each new release" as I wrote in 2013.

In The Amazing Spider-Man 2, we have the ghost of Captain Stacy haunting Peter, Peter's emotional journey in which he gets Gwen killed, and set-up for a Sinister Six film that hasn't even been written yet. Because the first film featured one villain, the inescapable paradigm of superhero films dictates that Marc Webb, the director, must include more villains. Thus, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 features three underwritten and poorly defined villains that seek nebulously defined revenge on Peter Parker.

Jaime Foxx's Electro seeks revenge on Spider-Man because a cop shot at the villain while he was inadvertently holding Times Square hostage. Dane DeHaan's Harry Osborn seeks revenge on Spider-Man because the hero wouldn't give up a sample of his irradiated blood which would somehow magically fix Harry's inexplicably accelerating degenerative disease (which seems to have only affected his father in his 50s but affects Harry in his 20s?). And Paul Giamatti's Rhino seeks revenge because Spider-Man thwarted his absolutely moronic theft of radioactive goo in broad daylight. None of these villains are fleshed out; none of these villains have stable or coherent motivations throughout the film.

However, Jaime Foxx and Dane DeHaan prove to be excellent actors stuck working with awful material. Foxx's Electro is quiet, slow to move, and thus all the more terrifying. His presence and ability to instil terror is based entirely on the villain's potentiality for power. It is the possibility of power that makes the city quake with fear. Part of Electro's motivation is to be seen, as his character, the only one of colour in the entire film, is constantly made invisible, ostensibly due to his race. In what can only be a masterful coincidence, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 echoes Ralph Ellison's masterpiece, Invisible Man. At FilmFreakCentral, Walter Chaw provides the connection, which I will quote at length:
"Light confirms my reality, gives birth to my form," says the unnamed protagonist of Invisible Man as he sits in a room lit with 1,369 light bulbs, plotting to also wire his floor in a scheme to steal electricity from "Monopolated Light and Power." He listens to one record on a loop, Louis Armstrong's "What Did I Do To Be So Black and Blue," which says, "My only in my skin/What did I be so black and blue"--explaining, I think, the character design for this Electro as a creature, initially and pointedly clad in a hoodie, who is all black and blue. Max refers to himself repeatedly as "invisible" and his tormentors at Oscorp do the same. Max declares at one point that what he really wants is to be "seen," and for a moment, in a delicious meta-statement in Times Square, he appears on every public viewscreen in Manhattan. The instant he turns is the instant Spider-Man's image replaces his own.
What Chaw does not pick up on, but alludes to, is the semiotics of the hoodie in the public imagination of the current era. It is absolutely not hard to link Electro's potentiality for violence, his garb, and the recent travesty of justice surrounding the tragic death of Trayvon Martin. At the risk of assigning any competency to the film-makers of this atrocious film, it seems that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 accidentally provides a smidge of social commentary in the form of Electro's hoodie. However, this is completely undone by positioning the black man in a hoodie as the true villain. Yes, in typical American film fashion, what often appears to be of the left turns out to be deeply conservative. It's almost as if the film is saying that without the white Spider-Man's vigilante intervention, Trayvon Martin could have gone on to be violent. This is, of course, despicable, but certainly not a surprise in this era of politically conservative blockbusters, interested only in the fervent preservation of the status quo.

In my review of the film adaptation of the YA novel, I wrote that Divergent expressed a rigidly Republican/Libertarian version of the Campbellian monomyth. In the film, there is literally a call to adventure, a movement across the threshold of known/unknown, a mentor, death and rebirth, transformation, and a return. However, like many other products in the blockbuster era, Divergent reveals a deeply held fear of the Academy, ie the university/college system that underpins most scientific discovery. Similarly, in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Oscorp and its scientific division are revealed to be intensely evil. Science only has the potential to harm, these films posit. In typically predictable fashion, Oscorp is revealed to be working towards a post-human, one that combines the animal with the human, to transcend the Enlightened subject, the Cartesian man. This is, of course, deeply unnerving for the characters in the film and for the audience.

If I might detour slightly, I would offer that the Cartesian man, the Enlightened subject is one defined by what it is not. The subject is defined by the rigid borders that separate man from nature. Man is not an animal, man is not the countryside. This liberal humanism provides ideological justification for, among other things, ecological colonization (nature must be controlled and brought from chaos into order). The Enlightened subject is under ethical obligation to spread the Enlightenment, and uplift those that do not subscribe to the intractable distinction between man and nature (ie racialized subjects who engage in "primitivism").

Subjects that do not respect the boundaries between man and nature are deeply troubling. The vampire, the Wolf-Man, Donna Haraway's cyborg are all examples of the subject that is "between" states, yet "between" is not specific enough for our purposes. Rather than oscillating between states ("man" and "animal"), the non-Cartesian subject is moving through the states. Temporally speaking, there is no subjectivity that comes first. The non-Cartesian subject is always already blurring the boundaries. To recall Kristeva, parameters are established between body and not-body. It is the model for the bounded system. Though, the very idea that the body has limits means those limits can be transgressed. The transgression of the body, either by nature or animal, is unsettling and psychically disarraying.

Thus, we have in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, subjects with porous bodies, bodies that move through states and break down limits between "that" and "this." And of course, in the current political climate, the process by which this Cartesian subject is broken down is through the "evil" of science. Rather than point to magical possibilities, films ostensibly in the realist mode, look to the potentiality of science as the mechanism for terror.

Electro, the Green Goblin, and the Rhino are monstrous in the sense that their bodies break down rigid borders between self and other. In the Rhino's case, the mechanical suit he operates becomes a cybernetic prosthesis. His subjectivity is no longer contained within his body but extends to include the technological. He is a cyborg, and thus worthy of fear. Similarly, Harry Osborn injects himself with irradiated spider venom (he is penetrated by science in the form of a futuristic looking needle) and finds his undefined degenerative disease accelerating even more, turning him monstrous. In order to exact revenge on Spider-Man, he dons a mechanical suit that allows him to function. He is able to fly. His ability-enhancing suit literally becomes prosthesis as without it, he is unable to walk. Again, his subjectivity extends past the materiality of the body. In the case of Electro, the materiality of his body no longer has rigid borders. He is able to turn into electricity, able to teleport himself through the air. His body and the environment literally blur together. He is the epitome of the breakdown of the Cartesian subject. He is made of nature, of a force known as electricity. Additionally, Electro wears a containment suit with undefined apparatuses that measure his voltage. Thus, we have three cyborg villains that blur subjectivity. And always, we must bear in mind, the mechanism for this breakdown of materiality in all three cases is science.

But what of Spider-Man, one might reasonably object. Does his body not also blur the lines between "man" and "animal"? Why yes of course. However, the key to understanding Spider-Man's categorical stability within this framework is the famous refrain that "with great power comes great responsibility." Unlike the three villains who are motivated by profit and selfish motivations, Peter grounds himself in tragedy and responsibility. He obeys the traditional capitalist paradigm by doing honest work for pay. It is his adherence to the traditional social systems of family, work, and school (ideological state apparatuses) that contain his porous body. His race and gender help of course. In the film, Peter upholds the law, assists the police, graduates from high school, makes money in the honest fashion, and helps to overthrow Oscorp's monopoly on energy in the city of New York. Yes, he is pretty much the conservative fantasy.

Most heinously in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Peter's girlfriend, the pseudo-feminist Gwen Stacy, is punished for her expression of agency and movement through space. Gwen makes choices for herself, and announces it loudly to the audience and Peter (like every other character, exposition is simply shouted at the audience or relayed through the clumsy method of TV news anchors). She decides to go to Oxford, she decides to help Peter defeat Electro, she decides to steal a police vehicle, she decides where to go and what to do. And what fate does the film hold for this expression of feminine agency? Death of course. Superhero films just have no fucking clue when it comes to "dealing" with the female subjects. Either they are masculine badasses (like the undefined and empty Black Widow) or they are damsels in distress. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 puts itself into an awkward position: Gwen is feminine and demands to make her own choices, yet she is unable to defend herself when she puts herself in harm's way. By the logic of the film, Gwen deserves to die because she needs Spider-Man to save her but wants to express her own agency. In order words, protagonists in this new Spider-Universe that come remotely close to social radicalism (ie women choosing their own destiny) will die.

Ugh I hated this movie. I hated it so much. One of the two women of the film is killed for no reason other than she made her own choices, and this is the whitest New York since the sitcom Friends. The only person of colour in the entire film is Electro. I hated the dialogue that is egregiously didactic and I hated the endless lack of logic in the plot's construction. Film Crit Hulk wrote an essay that contains 237 questions about the script, demonstrating that nobody involved in this film really knew what they were doing.

Recalling how I finished my review of the previous instalment, fuck this movie.