Tag: art

Where Art Meets Abuse: Terry Richardson and #AbuserDynamics

Content Warning: This post features graphic descriptions of sexual violence.

In my first year of university, I took an introductory theatre course. Having recently found my niche on the stage after four years of high-school drama classes, I was thrilled to be learning new acting techniques, to be dedicating myself to scene study, and to be collaborating with new actors. We worked in admittedly less-than-ideal conditions: the “temporary” spaces we were working in were more than 40 years old, trailers and buildings which had issues with mold, poor heating, and the occasional sounds of raccoons scurrying beneath the floorboards. But to us, to young actors who were keen to develop our craft, it was heaven. The small black-box theatre, in particular, was a place where countless generations of students had created original pieces of theatre, and had spent hours upon hours learning everything from mask work to Brechtian theories of theatrical “estrangement.”

A-Streetcar-Named-Desire-Poster.jpgOne of the major assignments of that first term was to perform a small scene with a partner. I was, admittedly, quite nervous. While I was (and still am) an avid performer, the type of person whose introversion and shyness is quelled only by the thrill of the stage, this was my first big scene with a new actor. My male acting partner and I had been given a scene from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. If you’re not familiar with the play, the climax occurs when the character of Blanche DuBois is raped by her brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski, an event which prompts Blanche’s psychotic break and her subsequent institutionalization. My partner and I were given a piece of the script that ends just before the actual rape, which, in Williams’ script, is not actually depicted onstage. It was difficult to perform, admittedly, as any high-tension piece of drama is, but it was not an actual rape scene. “Thank goodness,” I had thought.

At the final performance, as our scene was ending, my male acting partner scooped me up in his arms, as directed by the script. Unfortunately, he had lifted me up in a terribly awkward way, and the weight imbalance soon ended up with us falling to the floor, with him lying on top of me. That’s where the scene was supposed to end. We hadn’t rehearsed anything past that. At that point, I could only think about how mortified I was. All of that hard work, just for our final performance to end with a deeply embarrassing fall. The first thought going through my head in that instant was “oh my God, I must weigh a bajillion pounds if he can’t even lift me up without falling.”

But then, in a split second, everything changed.

Something happened that we hadn’t rehearsed, something that I wasn’t prepared for.

“Keep going as if you were raping her.”

I froze. There I was, lying on the floor of a theatre trailer, with my classmates looking on, with my scene partner lying on top of me (still in character, still angry, a vein starting to protrude from his heated forehead) and my acting professor was telling him to keep going, as though he were raping me. 

I struggled beneath him. At one point, I remember saying “those aren’t the lines,” not that I knew what the lines were. That’s the thing, there weren’t any lines. Remember – Williams does not feature the rape onstage. I remember feeling absolutely powerless, knowing that I wanted to get up and walk away, I wanted the scene to stop, I wanted to say “Cut! Scene over!” But I couldn’t. As an acting student, as a 17 year-old girl, I honestly didn’t think that I was able to say or do anything. Why?

I didn’t want to “ruin the artistic moment.” I didn’t want to be seen as not “tough enough” of an actor to improvise, to go to “dark places,” to test my boundaries and to push my limits.  Eventually, the professor put an end to the scene, and the next team took to the stage to perform their work. Nobody said anything to me. 

Needless to say, I was very rattled by this incident. But more than anything, I would say that I was pissed. I was livid that nobody had bothered to check in – with either of us – to see if we were okay with improvising a violent rape scene. I was fuming mad that it was merely assumed that I’d be fine with it, and that I hadn’t been given an option to opt-out. I was especially angry at my scene partner for not snapping the fuck out of character to ask me if I was okay before he grabbed at my clothes and pinned my arms over my head. 

To be honest, I hadn’t thought about that incident in a long time. I realize, looking back, that my professor was terribly misguided and out of line, but very likely not intentionally abusive. It was, however, incredibly unsafe. It was dangerous. 

I was prompted to think about that that day, and about the very precarious and blurry line between danger and safety when it comes to art and performance, when I read New York Magazine’s recently profile of Terry Richardson, entitled “Is Terry Richardson an Artist or a Predator?” The article, which has been written in the light of numerous women coming forward to disclose their stories of sexual harassment and abuse at Richardson’s hands (including the phenomenal model’s-rights advocate Sara Ziff), takes a long look at Richardson’s career, his upbringing, as well as the numerous allegations against “Uncle Terry.”

As Jezebel’s Callie Beusman has cogently pointed out, the major problem with NYMag’s cover story is precisely the title’s implication that one is either an artist or a predator, that abuse and artistic production simply cannot co-exist in the same space. Beusman writes:

Phrasing the proposition in that way — as an either-or binary — is not only insultingly reductive, it’s also wildly misleading: as though it’s possible that the end product justifies the sexual coercion that created it, or that a respected photographer isn’t capable of preying on the women who pose for him.”

Many of the comments on the NYMag article, however, continue to suggest that Richardson’s models should have “known what they were getting into,” that they should have been able to put a stop to things when, for instance, Richardson whipped out his penis and pressed it to models’ mouths, or, with his penis already exposed, asked the models for hand-jobs.

On the one hand, the inability to see Richardson as a predator is partially due to a continued failure to understand the dynamics of abuse. As the very recent Twitter hashtag #AbuserDynamics so painfully illustrates, abuse (whether physical, sexual, emotional, or psychological) isn’t a simple case of suddenly being raped, beaten, or emotionally terrorized. Abuse works best, as abusers themselves know, when victims are either groomed to introduce abuse bit by bit, and/or in situations where victims are made to feel that their refusal or their protests will be seen as uncooperative, as the target for blame, or as damaging to their careers.

Marina Abramović performing "Rhythm 0". 1974.
Marina Abramović performing “Rhythm 0”. 1974.

On the other hand, the inability to see Richardson as a predator is due to the ongoing belief that art (especially “edgy” art) is that which has to push through, even violate the boundaries of actors and spectators. Certainly, art, whether theatre, performance art, or modelling, have long histories of using the body as a vehicle for unsettlement. Depicting the body in vulnerable or violent settings is not inherently antithetical to artistic expression, whether it be Caravaggio’s painting “Judith Beheading Holofernes” or the performance art of Marina Abramović, especially her 1970 piece “Rhythm 0,” in which Abramović allowed audience members to use 72 different objects on her body, including scissors, a scalpel, a gun, and a single bullet. Depicting the body as sexual, even explicitly, is also not necessarily antithetical to artistic expression. [Of course, there are important and necessary discussions to be had about the line between erotic depiction and exploitation, the line between attempting to represent rape/other violence, and the aestheticization or fetishization of violence (especially against women).]

Artists, whether they be actors, performance artists, or models, are well aware of the precarious balance between adequate preparation for a scene/shoot, and the need for improvisation and spontaneity to emerge as a means of accessing emotion, even when these performances or shoots involve vulnerability – especially nudity and scenes of violence. Even those performers who are part of scenes of extreme violence, such as rape scenes, describe the need for plenty of rehearsal, a safe environment, trust, as well as space for figuring things out in the moment. Each performer or model, too, has individual levels of comfort, and varying needs of the amount of time that they require to rehearse/prepare.

As Monica Bellucci stated in a 2003 interview with Film Monthly’s Paul Fischer about her performance in Irreversible, which features an incredibly brutal rape scene,

“I rehearsed the scene one day before so I knew very well all the positions because after the rape scene, there are all these violent moments. Those moments are really difficult because if you take something on your head, you’re going to die. So, I had to rehearse everything, but how I would shoot the scene, the feelings, I didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t know what I would have done five minutes before shooting, because it’s something, I think you have everything inside you. You just have to find it.”

Echoing Bellucci’s statements, Descent director Talia Lugacy notes with regards to the film’s rape scene featuring Rosario Dawson, that

“It was harrowing. You try to prepare yourself for something you know is going to be harrowing, but how can you? None of us really knew what this was going to feel like. We had four days to rehearse the whole movie. Rosario, Chad [Faust] and Marcus [Patrick] are brave, to their guts. […] You know, you don’t understand fully the risk you’re taking until on the day you do something of this nature and the question stares each of you in the face: how far out of your body will your honesty go, right now?”

I acknowledge that preparation is not always possible, especially when you are on a shoot with folks that you have only just met, or have only had one interview. It’s for that very reason that artists need to trust that their fellow artists, their directors, and their photographers will not use the context of performers’ vulnerability, especially physical vulnerability, as a means of abusing or assaulting them.

As Bellucci and Lugacy’s statements demonstrate, the factor of vulnerability, the descent into the unknown, is a big part of artistic production. While it may not involve such extreme levels of violence, all artists know how much trust collaborative processes require. It’s within – and only within – that context that art can be produced. When an actor signs on to do a rape scene in a movie, they need to trust that their fellow actor isn’t actually going to start raping them. When a model signs on to do any shoot – a nude art shoot, a bathing suit shoot, or a lingerie shoot, even an erotic shoot – that the photographer is not going to put his dick in their face unless that’s something they’ve talked about first.

Which brings me back, of course, to Terry Richardson.

What distresses me precisely about Richardson’s story, and the numerous stories of his sexual harassment and abuse that have emerged in the past few years, are the ways in which the discourse of “taking risks” and “being spontaneous” are being so carefully exploited, not only by Richardson himself, but by his assistants. And, more disturbingly, the allegations that abuse can’t occur on a set – within plain sight of others – is what allows people such as Richardson to do what he does without a care in the world, and, moreover, get accolades and millions of dollars for it. It doesn’t matter that Richardson has taken consensual images of other models and celebrities. It doesn’t matter that some models have, in their words, happily consented to graphic photographs of sex acts with him. It doesn’t matter that he has some work that we could call “art” (depending on what your opinion of art is, I suppose).

It matters that young women (especially women who are not protected by labour laws) are being abused. It matters that they are being coerced, manipulated, and assaulted, and that the language of “artistic expression” is being thrown in their faces as a means of victim-blaming.

Not only do Richardson’s actions affect his victims, but it is also horrendously damaging to artists who work hard to create safe spaces, and I think that photographers, directors, and artists themselves need to take a strong stand against these abusers within their communities, as Sara Ziff, Sena Cech, and so many other brave models have done.

Carré Otis has spoken extensively about the abuses she faced within the industry. Image via The Model Alliance.
Carré Otis has spoken extensively about the abuses she faced within the industry. Image via The Model Alliance.

Whether we are artists or activists, abuse that occurs within the context (or under the cover of) the spaces and the discourses that we treasure and defend (the theatre, the modelling industry, the social justice movement, just to name a few) is a double-betrayal. We trust that the people we are working with, creatively, will keep us safe. We trust that those in positions of power within those creative spaces will keep us safe. We need it all the more when we are challenging beliefs, when we are depicting violence, when we are modelling clothes – we need it at any point when our bodies are on the line.

At this point, I’m not sure what will happen to Terry Richardson. Like many other abusers within artistic spheres, his career continues to flourish, and he continues to receive accolades. As with the Roman Polanskis of the world, there will be people who continue to say things like “but he made such great films/photographs/whatever.” And that’s even if you think that Richardson’s highly overexposed images are “artistic.” Abusers are not lacking support in our world, whether they be photographers, directors, athletes, or politicians.

At the end of the day, what this latest story about Terry Richardson has reminded me is that in my view, art is much like sex. If it’s not consensual, if it’s not produced within conditions of safety, then we shouldn’t call it art, but rather, we ought to call it what it is: abuse.

———————–

Relating Reading/Resources (Content Warnings For All Of These):

Summer School on #AbuserDynamics, hosted by Suey Park and Lauren Chief Elk, featuring @bad_dominicana

Anonymous article via Black Girl Dangerous about abuse by feminist “allies.”

A Timeline of Allegations Against Terry Richardson, by Hannah Ongley at Stylite

Your Words are Not Victimless: Rape Culture and David Choe’s “Bad Storytelling”

Trigger Warning: This article contains graphic discussions of sexual assault.

BooksIn my line of work, I read about a lot of horrible things, some of which actually happened.

As a doctoral student in English literature, whose research focuses on representations of sexualized violence, I study both fictional (novels, plays) and non-fictional (memoirs, auto-biographies) accounts of these crimes. Ultimately, my goal is to understand how writers and readers, and how survivors and witnesses, all make sense of the experience of sexual violation. At best, my job allows me to see the ways in which language, even language that is disturbing, raw, and graphic, allows the reality of sexualized violence to be made visible, to break free from the shackles of silence and stigma. At worst, my job forces me to think about the stories and the languages of sexualized violence that are used as weapons, that are turned back against survivors. Whether they come in the form of humour, in the form of gleeful boasting, or in the form of callous indifference, these stories always manage to hurt. 

One such story, one such incidence of the absolute violence of words, is one that was recently told by graffiti artist David Choe, on a podcast that aired in March of 2014.

I will be brief, and, I hope, not too graphic in my recapitulation of what Choe said. Over the course nearly half an hour, Choe recalled having repeatedly forced a massage therapist to perform sexual acts on him. Along with denigrating and fetishizing this woman, whom he calls “Rose,” on the basis of her racial background and her profession, Choe expressed both nonchalance and absolute merriment at having carried out these assaults. His co-hosts, who, while they called Choe’s behaviour out for being the actions of a rapist, nevertheless engaged in banter and joking about it. Choe showed absolutely no remorse, and seemed to take only mild offense at being termed a sexual predator. According to Choe, what he did was “rapey,” but he is not a rapist.

As if this apparent admission of rape were not horrifying enough, Choe took a somewhat predictable, if no less disturbing tactic in response to his critics.

According to Choe, none of this actually happened.

Choe, the one-time protagonist in his seemingly heroic tale of raping a woman, claimed that it was simply “bad storytelling,” and an extension of his art practice. More specifically, Choe wrote, in a response on his podcast’s website: “I never thought I’d wake up one late afternoon and hear myself called a rapist. It sucks. Especially because I am not one. I am not a rapist. I hate rapists, I think rapists should be raped and murdered.”

Now, can’t say that I’m surprised. Choe’s further defense of rape as a mere subject for his dark humour,is one that has been trotted out by comedians such as Daniel Tosh, in a now-famous controversy. [For an excellent discussion of ways in which Tosh’s joke in no way performs the often-recuperative function of humour, see Elissa Bassist’s article from The Daily Beast here.]

To be very clear: I am not suggesting that violence and humour are utterly incompatible, nor am I suggesting that violence and art are utterly incompatible. Obviously. I study violence that is featured in works of art every single day. I have often used humour in order to deal with my own trauma. There are some jokes about rape culture that are so spot-on and scathing in their critiques of  the problems in society. What I am suggesting, however, is that if one’s humour or one’s art are virtually indistinguishable from actual practices of violence and exploitation, especially when one is placing oneself in the position of the perpetrator, there’s a big problem.

The thing it, it’s all too easy to just shrug off these problematic positions with any number of excuses, which is precisely what Choe does.

It’s JUST art.

It’s JUST a story.

It’s JUST harmless fun.

I’m JUST kidding.

All of these “justs,” all of these excuses that people make, whether it’s for assault or rape or harassment or whatever, these are precisely the hallmark of rape culture. They’re used by bystanders who wish to shame, blame, or silence victims, and they’re used by perpetrators themselves. Here’s the thing: David Choe didn’t merely engage in a brief, off-hand joke, that could be possibly construed as thoughtless. This was nearly a half-hour of consistent, un-ending descriptions of sexual assault, that placed him at the centre of it all. That’s a lot of effort to put into “just” a story.

from RAINN.org
from RAINN.org

Men’s Rights Activists, who trumpet endlessly about the numerous false allegations made by rape victims against innocent men every year, point to the ways in which “it was just a story” or “I made it up” gets in the way of the pursuit of justice. Now, it’s important to remember that victims sometimes recant their testimonies precisely because they are terrified of any number of consequences: of not being believed; of retaliation on the part of the perpetrator; under pressure from families, communities, or institutions. Not all claims of “it was just a story” are made equal. So, too, does a lack of a conviction not mean that an assault did not happen: a case may not be brought to trial, or a defendant may be acquitted because of a sufficient lack of evidence. Assault cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute, but this is NOT because assaults are not, in fact, occurring.

The fact that actual false assault allegations constitute a small percentage of reports aside, why would anyone in their right mind want to further muddy the waters of justice by pretending to have committed a rape when they hadn’t? Why would you want to place any doubt in someone’s mind as to whether or not you condone rape, find it funny, or heaven forbid, may have actually committed a rape yourself? 

I think one of the things that bothers me most deeply about this incident is that as a researcher, I think it is vitally important to hear perpetrator narratives. If we want to understand how and why perpetrators rationalize their actions, or groom their victims, if we want to see them not as outliers, not as monsters in the night, but as human beings who do horrendous things, these are stories we need to listen to, as fundamentally disturbing and horrifying as they are. I have listened to perpetrators speak in some fairly eye-opening documentaries, and while it is confronting, it is a source of valuable information.

Whether or not “Rose” exists, and whether or not David Choe committed a rape is still unclear. I have my own hunches and beliefs about this, and I am suspicious of his feigned innocence. Regardless, this story has given us at least two pieces of valuable information: 1) that rape culture and rape as a source of humour (in which victims are the target) is still well and alive; 2) that even if this story was a mere piece of fiction, a mere fantasy, a mere figment of the imagination, that there will always be doubt in many people’s minds as to whether or not Choe committed a crime, and he alone is to blame for that. I have no pity for Choe, and no sense of sympathy for his pleas of understanding and to not be labeled as a potential rapist. He alone is responsible for the trust he has broken, for the survivors he has triggered, and for the contributions he has made to rape culture. And, if he has committed a crime, he alone is responsible for it: not the victim.

Many words and stories, like so many crimes, are not victimless. They hurt. They have a tangible impact on people’s lives. As Denise Riley so eloquently states in her book Impersonal Passion: Language as Affect (Durham: Duke UP, 2005), “in its violently emotional materiality, the word is indeed made flesh and dwells amongst us—often long outstaying its welcome” (9).

Thanks to David Choe, every survivor out there has just received one more unwelcome blow, yet one more hurdle to face in their attempts to be heard and to seek justice.

“Bad storytelling,” like assault itself, can have a lasting, if not a lifelong, impact.