Thursday, April 13, 2006

In the Realm of the Viewer

Way back in 1986, 20 years ago, I was stuck in Mexico City dying for air. Arguably the most polluted city in the world at that time, it was just after the late 1985 earthquake and the dust from all of the collapsed buildings was making the breathing problems worse. I was hiding out in elitist cafes in the Zona Rosa writing the first draft of what would eventually become my first novel, but needed to find another outlet, a different scene. Leaving the city would take a day or two, and things were getting desperate, but I got lucky, and ended up finding an arthouse cinema that was playing a film I had never heard of at the time, In the Realm of the Senses.

This was the perfect hiding place for both my body and mind to seek refuge in. Oshima's dark, erotic masterpiece played before me in Japanese with Spanish subtitles and it was there that I sat through it three times in a row and learned to love foreign films without ever truly knowing what was being spoken.

I have since seen the film once, with English subtitles, in New York, and to my total surprise, came across it again while channel surfing late at night in Berlin last week. I caught the film about halfway through and then, after about 15 minutes of watching it (and feeling lucky to have caught it, even though it was dubbed into German and I had cut off the sound so that I could see it like I did in Mexico City without any English accompaniment whatsoever), a scene ended and the screen immediately cut to a contemporary porn commercial for phone sex with buxom, blond German girls spreading their legs for me while licking their very limber bodies and, when doubling up, each other. After 3-5 minutes of porn ads, it went back to Oshima's arthouse film.

This reminds me of something that erotic film and video artists must consider when making their art work today, especially given the variety of distribution outlets at our disposal. Who, really, is the best audience for such work? The arthouse crowd? The "experimental" Netflix viewer who has got you in their queue? The technomadic consumers at the Apple iTunes store? Why not the adult channel crowd? Maybe the best erotic art is most appreciated by the voyeurs, the fetishists, the perverts, the horny ones. But then again, there could plenty of crossover with the arthouse crowd in all of those categories, so maybe it's just a matter of horizontally integrating of all of the right niche markets into a viable whole. This is something my old Professor-mentor Alain Robbe-Grillet had to contend with as well, especially with his classic film Glissements progressifs du plaisir, aka Successive Slidings of Pleasure.

Today, art and spam occasionally have to find ways to work together when necessary. Our brains are constantly getting rid of information to make room for what we personally find most valuable, and as Paik has said,
"[t]he culture that's going to survive in the future is the culture that you can carry around in your head."
If only you could see what's going through mine right now...

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