It's a difficult position to be on a jury to evaluate and comment on works of art about sexual respect and community citizenship. Why call it a jury? As if it were possible – or appropriate – to judge a student's experiences, her encounters with sex, his questions of identity, and all the intense feelings of pain, regret, outrage, confusion, and sadness that emerge in a discussion around sexuality at Columbia University, in New York City, and in this world at this moment. The other options given to students seem straightforward, even typical of major institutions: watch a film or read an article that describes another's experience with sexual trauma; attend a seminar; participate in a workshop. But this option, the Arts Option, stands out not because it produces excellent works of art (and it does produce some exquisite projects) but because it gives a student the chance to re-frame the very questions being raised. The submitted works critique not only the issues of sexuality and community that are at stake, but the very manner in which the University has addressed them in the past and now attempts to navigate a way forward. For me, what makes a good work in this series is not its beauty or craft or evocation of an emotion, but its ability to challenge, subvert, or claim the fraught question: how should sexuality fit within our community, how can we define rules and boundaries, how must we address the wrongs that far too many of our students suffer, and how to do it in a way that transcends the platitudes, clichés, and legalese all too common?
Of the almost 600 works submitted from across the school, in myriad media by students both undergraduate and graduate, I have received 64. The Arts Option Committee vetted the rest and provided the most notable examples. Though the criteria for this process are unclear, the works provided to me demonstrate a wide variety of forms and perspectives rendered through dance, music, photography, film, digital art, drawing, etc. There are many excellent projects,and so it is with regret that I will not have the opportunity to discuss them all. Instead I will comment only on one project which, at least for me, foments the discussion and instigates change.
Project FV1: Untitled, Anonymous, digital video, 1:14.
Could there be a more perfect title and credit for such a project? Have words ever failed us so much as with the discussion of sexuality in general, much less on a University campus? But what is so perfect about this title is the film's impossibility of being titled. A title would bias the project and answer the questions this film so deftly provokes. And the film is hardly anonymous. Rather, it subtly subverts the promiscuous anonymity so pervasive in the difficult discussions that we, as a community, are forced to confront but rarely own.
The film, beautifully framed and saturated with color, opens on a face. No music is heard, no context provided. It's a man's face, hirsute, the frame cropping from nasal tip to Adam's apple. Three awkward seconds pass before a disembodied right hand emerges. A female hand? The nails are painted, though chipped, and a ring is worn on the right ring-finger. A faded stamp can be seen, the vestige, perhaps, of a long night spent at a club. Is this the same night? Or an unwashed morning-after?
In this hand is a ripe strawberry. It is brought into focus and put on display.The strawberry is bright red at its tip with a soft gradient to a pinkish-white at its bulbous end. Its stem has been removed; plucked, not cut. Its seeds, worn on its skin (the only fruit, I believe, with this characteristic), glisten in their vulnerability under the light of the set. Slowly, it is rolled around his lips and across his cheek before, with his acquiescence, it is slid into his mouth. He opens, then opens wider, allowing the entire strawberry to slip between his teeth and be consumed whole. For two more seconds, he chews expressionless. Mouth closed, polite.
The right hand appears again with a second strawberry. The quiet seduction of the first presentation is replaced by a more mechanical gesture. The second strawberry is pushed into the man's mouth. Again, with his permission, even though he has not yet finished chewing the first. Then enters the left hand into the frame, in the background and out of focus, hidden behind the right arm. In a clenched fist we glimpse even more berries in waiting.
The movement accelerates, strawberries forced into his mouth. Three, four, five…a crimson spittle spews from his mouth and dribbles down his chin. It's violent, excruciating to watch, and yet, he does not resist, and continues to allow the fruits to be shoved down his throat. With the sixth berry, the hand lingers over the mouth, cupping the man's face, resisting the expulsion of the last berry. And it is here that the anonymity disappears. Briefly (deliberately?) the face lurches forward, revealing the man's eyes which have previously been out of frame. It's a split second, but a wince is perceived, just before the hand pushes him back in an act of gross disdain and subjugation. The sixth strawberry emerges from his orifice, then sucked back in, and he quietly chews for a few more seconds of temporary respite as the hand exits the frame.
But it lasts only as long as the taking of a new fist full of berries, these still with stems and leaves. The violence continues, more and more berries shoved into his mouth, the hand so tight to his lips that her fingers slip inside his mouth and the red juices ooze between her fingers. The fleshy red stuff still falls away, but the hand, unwilling to let even a single piece escape its metabolic fate, forces the torn pieces back into his mouth in a final push of wanton aggression. When the hand finally leaves, still, he chews, until the awkward and decidedly un-cinematic cut terminates the film. No fade out, just the lingering frame of a full mouth and pursed lips, strawberry meat and fluids clinging to cheek, chin, and beard.
The experience of watching this (several times, I admit) provoked both a sinister pleasure and leg-shaking anxiety. The film is beautifully crafted with a clear arc of narrative and intensity difficult to achieve in such a short piece. But what bothered me most, what left me unsatisfied was not the tight framing and anemic setting that completely decontextualized the event. Rather, it was the title: Untitled,and the credit: Anonymous. It was not knowing how the film was written, by whom it was conceived, and the process by which it was executed. And this so adroitly exposes the questions so necessary for this discussion of sexuality and citizenship. Does it matter if the director was female or male? Did the subject know what he was going to experience, what she would have to do? Was it rehearsed, or was there a single take? Was it a collaboration? Were the two subjects friends, lovers, or strangers? Was there a third person in the room, behind the camera? Male or female? Which is all to say, was the making of this film consensual and respectful in the manner in which we hope sexual encounters to take place? Perhaps this film is not a metaphor but a performance – or worse yet, a real-time act of violence, a snuff film – that implicates us all as avid consumers and guilty bystanders.
Adjunct Assistant Professor of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and Exhibition Coordinator
Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation