Wendy Geller: Uses of Confinement :: Tom Kohut

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21 Freedom: In Action

Contribution Type:

Short Essay

All of the late Wendy Geller's (1957-1996) art work can be placed under the rubric of feminist activism, particularly her emancipatory and critical work of the 1970s and 1980s. In the exhibition catalogue for Matter/Flesh/Spirit/Ground: An Overview of the Video Work of Wendy Geller , scholar Jayne Wark notes that Geller's work refers to:

natural and social constructs of the body, to classifications of meaning and knowledge in both form and language, and to mordantly satirical exploration of character and dramatization within the narrative frameworks of popular culture. (6) 1

All of the above is located clearly within the realm of a certain postmodernism's emphasis on social constructivism and the encounter with popular culture as apparatus of intelligibility and the disposition of knowledges.

Since the 1980s, “postmodernism” has become something of a dirty word that few wish to no longer discuss. As “the cultural logic of late capitalism,” (to use the title of Frederic Jameson's magnum opus on the topic would have it) visual postmodernism's apparent capitulation to the market place, its alleged absence of critique (particularly in its embrace of mass media), its use of blank parody, pastiche and irony has been set in contradiction to more openly confrontational forms of cultural struggles for emancipation.

It is Geller's feminist practice that distinguishes her work from the allegedly a-politicized art practices of postmodernism. Curator of the Matter/Flesh/Spirit/Ground exhibition James MacSwain characterizes Geller's feminism as “fierce” (4), and in what follows I hope to delineate how this specific political engagement is imbricated with the formalist techniques that constitute Geller's oppositional postmodernism.

One of Geller's early video works is Miss Teen Canada Pageant (1983). At one level, this tape is a very simple, very sardonic détournement of exactly what it says it is, the Miss Teen Canada Pageant of 1983 hosted by Canadian micro-celebrity Pierre Lalonde. 2 In defiance of just about every copyright rule hitherto established, Geller taped the pageant off of her television set and overdubbed the voices of Lalonde and the contestants with her own voice to hilarious results. In place of Lalonde singing unctuously lecherous songs at the teenaged women, we have Geller belting out the same tunes unaccompanied and seemingly innocent of niceties such as tune or melody. Similarly, instead of the anodyne speeches typical of such a spectacle, Geller harshly declaims passages from American socio-biologist Edward O. Wilson's On Human Nature (1978) concerning the biopolitical implications of gender. The winner is crowned and mobbed by her colleagues as Lalonde smiles and announces the show's corporate sponsors. 3



In this tape, mass culture is manipulated for the purpose of aesthetic and political critique. But what are the implications of the disconnect between the (now rather tawdry) spectacle and its critical soundtrack? In what will be a technique deployed in all the tapes discussed in this paper, a Brechtian Verfremdunsseffekt arises in the disjunction between the risible responses given to such equally risible questions of “what is important to you as Miss Teen Canada?”. However, the substance of these answers overdubbed by Geller, provide an unsettling aftertaste.

The passages from Edward O' Brown's work cited by Geller in lieu of responses from the various contestants form a continuous monologue of blatant neuro-biological determinism. Viewers learn, for example, that women are “machines for producing eggs” and are predisposed to being “more intimately sociable” than boys; we learn that these traits are present from birth and, though “modest” in relation to differences between humans and other primates, are   nevertheless ineradicable and inevitable. 4 Geller/Brown, in a rhetorical display of (false) modesty, suggests that these differences have social consequences; in the final speech of the eventual Miss Teen Canada, 5 we are advised that:

The evidences of biological constraint alone cannot prescribe an ideal course of action. However, they can help to define the options and to assess the price of each. The price is to be added in the added energy required for education and reinforcement in the attrition of individual freedom and potential . Since every action has a cost, the choice is not easy. (Geller, Miss Teen Canada Pageant , emphasis added.)

The provocation is clear: in the juxtaposition of a tawdry media spectacle of institutionalized glamour, the advocation of a harsh biopolitics indicates the “attrition of individual freedom and potential.” However, the purpose underlying this provocation must be made especially clear: Geller is equating glamour, particularly in its service to the commodification of the world (indicated by the lengthy lists of corporate sponsorships that close the video), explicitly with what is at the very least a totalitarian temptation , if not a totalitarian impulse tout court . 

In Miss Teen Canada Pageant , Geller explicitly joins feminist critique to a Marxist emphasis on the analysis of the effects of class on consciousness and an individual or group's social empowerment. Wark notes this dual articulation is explicitly taken up in Geller's 1986 video Jill Skinner: Diary of a Star :

Replete with the mythic commodity symbols of reconstructed Hollywood femininity – wigs, sunglasses, vanity mirrors, faux-leopard clothing – the story recounts the familiar fable of discovery, fame and public adulation. Though Skinner compares herself to celebrities like Suzanne Pleshette and Jean Simmons, and imagines herself pursued by adoring fans, the contrast between her narcissistic fantasies and her, at best, second rate status is made apparent not only by the evidence of her tawdry bungalow and gaudy sartorial style, but also by Esquire' s rejection of the Jill Skinner at the end. (10)

Tom Kohut is a published poet and cultural critic. He holds an M.A. for Queen's University (Kingston, Ontario) and currently works in Distribution at Video Pool Media Arts Centre in Winnipeg. He is the current Chair of the Board of Directors at send + receive: A Festival of Sound. His research interests include sound art, the history of video art, Marxism, Continental philosophy and psychoanalysis. He maintains the website The New Ennui ( thenewennui at blogspot.com ).