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by Laurence Sarpault


Document of an Unfinished Story


It is never easy to make the material of one’s emotional life, one’s prosaic trials and tribulations, one’s moments of anguish and/or eye watering passion (the two are so closely sistered with each other), the direct subject of one’s work. In the spring of 2001, the question of how a woman artist (in the following case, a video maker) can manage to integrate the rift between the demands and the yearnings of her body and the urge to immerse herself ascetically in the study of that which brings her peace and succor—images, words, films—still seems all too pertinent.


We have passed uneasily through the era of “autobiographical speech” as a political act, conceived as a straightforward and objective recounting of things as they were and are. Emerging from a fervent need to assert the dignity and importance of one’s “difference” from the norm (as a woman, as a “cultural other”) it used to be that the “infecting” and messy presence of autobiography was treated with suspicion and outright hostility by the bastions of art for its own sake. Nowadays, we are flooded with testimonials and archived personal and family histories, with countless modes of autobiographical utterances, and with a self-conscious blurring of documentation and fiction that is practically de rigeur in the field of “experimental” video and filmmaking. Indeed, the “purely” testimonial voice in the context of Contemporary Art has come to seem naïve: these times are more complex and confusing, it seems.


Nevertheless, many artists, liberated by the advent of digital technology, are making videos and films which continue to address, potently and with a great sense of urgency, autobiographical themes as a means of locating their “otherness” vis-á-vis the majority (of course, the binary opposition between “minority” and “majority” is no longer solidly defined or taken for granted). In a broader sense, they tend to describe the multiple confusions that have emerged in our lives between what is real and what is simulated; between our sense of “ourselves” and internalized projections on the part of others which we have integrated as if they were our own originary impulses, which they sometimes are.


There is a still a stake in trying to sift through what one must claim as one’s own, and in discarding what has been violently and erroneously foisted upon one, without falling back onto the rigid coding of essentialisms. After all, the here and now matters and the material world effects itself upon us in palpable, often hurtful, often exciting ways: it is more than just a gauzy hall of mirrors as some would like to have us believe.


An artist who has embroiled her work in the eye of this storm is Aline Duriaud. New York based (she has lived in Brooklyn for the past seven years), she is British born, with a mixed South Asian and French background. Although trained in sculpture, she is principally a video maker. Her most recent piece, Our Lives, Our Pleasures was a single channel, half-hour video that was projected as part of the recent “Death Race 2000” show at Thread Waxing Space, curated by Rachel Lowther and James Dawson-Hollis.


The screen is dissected into quarters, which play out four discrete but related narratives. Duriaud features prominently as “Juliette Janvier”, a New York City Dominatrix, along with a rather stunning and frightening woman, the self titled “Goddess LaRouge”, and a man who is identified only as DH. The video unfolds like a kind of scrapbook with soundtracks and visual scenes overlapping and commenting upon each other. It includes documentary style interviews, low-tech demonstrations of sadomasochistic sex, clips and stills from Juliette/the author’s previous videos, and Cassavetes style dialogues between characters which might, or might not, be staged.


It is not specified to the viewer whether the video maker’s alternate persona is “real” (ie does she genuinely moonlight as a Dominatrix?), nor do we know whether the other characters are actors or not. The video skirts a line that makes it difficult to tell whether or not it is an elaborately staged fiction. One suspects that Our Lives, Our Pleasures is a liberal mixture of the real and the fake. Although there are moments of grotesque and poignant humor aplenty (for example, the scene when DH tells Juliette/the video maker: “You’re a woman in a foreign country, trying to get a Green Card and engaging in marginal work. The odds are stacked against you and you’re going to have to fight. This is America; you’d better get over feeling depressed.”). The tone is not tongue in cheek. There is no self reflexive wink to the viewer. None of the characters come across as trying to package themselves as wannabe celebrities or objects to be consumed and bought, though the “subject” matter of the video—in as much as it concerns a Dominatrix and her colleagues—ostensibly concerns itself viscerally with the linkages between desire and commerce and the manner in which one has to make some concession to the mechanisms of capital (after all, “This is America”).


Indeed, the video is not seductive, in the conventional sense of the word, nor is it a documentary about sadomasochism per se, though we learn plenty about the nuts and bolts of the commercial S/M scene via interviews conducted by the video maker and via reproductions of that industry’s advertising in the form of stills pulled from magazines and video covers, which punctuate the narratives. Our Lives, Our Pleasures is aggressively low-tech and sometimes confrontational (the clip-within-a-clip from Juliette’s Human Ashtray is one example that comes to mind.) Although there are plenty of opportunities for voyeuristic viewing on the part of the audience, it manages to prevent itself from falling into the trap of bizzaro eye candy in the name of critique. In other words, one gets the feeling that there is something dense and real at stake here: a real struggle for pleasure, autonomy and self-determination as well as an uneasy celebration of the freedom slash bondage (pun intended) that “America” supplies.


In one of the four narratives, filmed in a spectacularly and deliberately unglamorous manner, Juliette alternates between tying up and interviewing a man who we presume to be DH (he appears more prominently in another segment) who is heard mainly off camera. This is the segment whose audio track is hardest to make out. With the camera focused on herself, Juliette/Duriaud asks: “What’s the difference between seeing a professional Dominatrix and being in a relationship with one? How does that affect your fantasy life? Simultaneously, on another segment of the screen, DH is lecturing a street clothed Juliette about the impossibility of the choices she has made in coming to the US and trying to carve out a life for herself as an artist.


“Goddess LaRouge” appears mainly in interview with Juliette (or is it the video maker appearing as “herself” in this case?). Her dialogue ranges from the outrageous to the quotidian. She also appears in two “fetish videos” with Juliette that are excerpted throughout the main video. Always wearing in a mask of some sort, she talks about the specificities of being a transsexual Domina who suffers the indignity of constantly being asked for “straight” sexual services (“Women like me generally get their cocks sucked to make a living, and I have a hard time explaining that a Dominatrix doesn’t do that”), and she brings another layering to the blurring between what is real and what is constructed. Again, in keeping with the general thematic of Our Lives, Our Pleasures (the very title is both ironic and touching), the presence of LaRouge is not titillating and she is not filmed in an “ethnographic,” distancing manner. She talks articulately about the pleasure and craft involved in her work, as well as how it is a means to funding her completion of a college degree. She plays up to the camera, but she is not presented as an object for our perusal, rather, as an individual caught up in the web of her own desires, her struggle to establish a unity between how she sees herself and how the world sees her, and the need to make a living.

Our Lives, Our Pleasures is structured as a kind of mesh that mirrors the web which all of its characters are caught, in their fight for self-determination. The video undermines illusions of “the artist as lone beacon divorced from the vulgar workings of society’s machine” but does not find resolution in giving oneself up for sale to the highest bidder. It plays out like a series of splintered mirrors in which the characters are seen, and into which they look, attempting to sort out the best way to proceed without losing their humanity.


Duriaud’s video work uses autobiography, and the conventions of both documentary and narrative. A video made while participating in the Whitney Museum Study Program in ‘98, Meanwhile, In . . . tells the story of her upbringing in an unnamed Gulf State, and the dislocations she encountered as “not completely European”, in an environment where Western expatriates segregated themselves from the “natives” and from the Asian laboring class. Composed of staged interviews, and stills from old yearbooks and photos, and filmed in a mock documentary style which is more playfully staged and clearly “fake” than Our Lives, Our Pleasures, a first person narrator describes a vaguely remembered schoolmate, Amber, who might be a character from a teenage romance. The tone becomes increasingly ominous as we are told about Amber’s propensity for wandering off the “American Compound” and the repercussions of her actions. Another, shorter video, Pleasures of Autobiography, is based on George Bataille’s cult novel The Story of the Eye: a narrative is recounted by a first person female voice who might or might not be impersonating George Bataille. Accompanied by a series of eerie stills pulled from what look like faded travel books, and by reconstructions of scenes from the novel, the story details the outrageous exploits of an unnamed protagonist who travels from one country to another to fulfill his/her deviant fantasies.


Duriaud has talked about her interest in constructing a mode of autobiographical speech which is not “simply testimonial,” but which addresses her own dislocations across race and gender while embracing “the restorative power of narrative”, and “the powerful conjunctions between fantasy and the real which are sustaining”. In particular, she has discussed what she calls her “. . . problematic relation to “French-ness,” which I regard with equal measures of desire and resentment. The legacy of French Post-Structuralism has provided me with a vocabulary with which to explore “transgressive” desires, though I am critical of any notion of “universalized desire,” but as a woman and moreover, as a woman of mixed racial heritage, I have found myself forced to analyze and confront the cultural biases entrenched in the work of writers like Bataille, while simultaneously wanting to claim their language as my own.”


Duriaud is currently working on a musical about a counter intelligence agent, and on making her feature length film, American Virgin, about a writer who becomes convinced that he has Multiple Personality Disorder.


Laurence Sarpault

New York, New York


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