English translation by Rachel Valinsky
“Far from heralding a loss of emotionality, capitalist culture has been accompanied by an unprecedented intensification of emotional life, with actors self-consciously pursuing and shaping emotional experiences for their own sake.” – Eva Illouz, “Introduction: Emodities or the Making of Emotional Commodities,” in Emotions as Commodities: Capitalism, Consumption and Authenticity, ed. Eva Illouz (Routledge, 2018), p. 5.
There is something strangely relevant, in this month of April 2021, about re-watching Elizabeth Orr’s MT RUSH, which the curatorial collective I am part of, Caro Sposo, presented one evening in February 2017 at the Robert Lynen Cinematheque in a quiet little street in the 17th arrondissement of Paris. Clearly the world of 2017 seems to have radically dissolved since the first months of 2020 and the insidious arrival of a virus that seems to have ruled all of our lives with an authoritative fist ever since.
Already at that time, a number of international events had surprised us, even caught us off guard: the vote for Brexit in summer 2016, followed by the election of Donald Trump in November. Already at the time, and long before we could have imagined, the tidal wave that the global epidemic would cause in our lives, these two events seemed dramatic to us. As Alberto Moravia writes so magnificently in his novel Contempt: “we were in the midst of complete catastrophe.” (While he was speaking of the disintegration of a romantic relationship, as we will see later on, affect, too, interferes with everything in our lives). It would be timely and auspicious to reconsider the term “catastrophe,” and what its implications are for peoples’ lives and bodies on a global scale, specifically while watching Elizabeth Orr’s last film “Mind Gamed” which will be discussed later on.
MT RUSH depicts the life of a lesbian Park Ranger ironically named Ann Ranger after her occupation. We observe this figure, who introduces herself as a whistleblower, dressed in an androgynous, semi-military National Park Ranger’s uniform as she participates in an award acceptance speech reminiscent of a Ted Talk. Later on, she is bombarded with a flurry of increasingly bold and personalized fundraising emails from the Republican and Democratic parties, aimed at enticing individuals to donate even more money to the cause. This aggressive, mercantile culture of political partisanship appears on screen through the insertion of increasingly desperate emails resorting to more and more intimate modes of address, playing on the deepest affects. The emails assail the poor Ann, who is overwhelmed by these incessant demands, though her daily life — marked by solitude, surrounded by nature and cows, and punctuated by sexting with women — seems quite distant from this political ferment. The virtual sexuality depicted here (which has only become more prevalent for us all while we have been sheltering in place, judging from the increased number of signups on dating apps) is located at the intersection of different concepts evoked in the film: politics, work, finance, and finally, desire.
Shot over the course of 2016, the film was made before the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. The artist’s prescient take on the gravity of an election that seemed to us (at least, initially, from a European point of view) to be a joke, also raises questions about how elections function within a liberal democracy and our neo-capitalist world. Who supports whom and why? Why do we vote, and according to whom, to what? What psychological mechanisms, what deeply rooted affects, influence our decisions? Do the great moral principles we claim to uphold ultimately impact our decisions?
We also encounter this absurd world in Applied Marketing Loss Leader. This film accompanied a solo exhibition by the artist at the Bodega Gallery in April 2015, which presented an installation of sculptures supporting glass panels reminiscent of the commercial buildings pictured in the film. Both the exhibition and the film expanded on the concept of a well-known marketing strategy “loss leader” (even though the precise term remains unknown) which consists of companies offering one of their products at a discounted price in order to sell more, with the goal of making more or less long-term profits. Shot in the prestigious midtown headquarters of the New York Times, the film features an interview and debates (which appear as punch lines in the subtitles) between several protagonists using a well-honed corporate vocabulary.
Practiced on consumers since the 1960s, these strategies have now reached an unprecedented level of complexity. Branding, in particular, now complacently associates products with concepts and even feelings that are supposed to reveal us to ourselves, in order to create a self that better corresponds to our most secret expectations and hopes. How do these strategies infiltrate our private lives, our psyches, and our lifestyles? Do we not all make use of the loss leader strategy to some degree, and does this expectation for beneficial returns not symbolize, in the end, our contemporary societies? To whom do we wish to “market” our loss? To what extent have we agreed to surrender to this strategy of loss? How might we understand this context of constant self-improvement and performance? In his book Singularities: Dance in the Age of Performance (Routledge, 2016), André Lepecki cites Wendy Brown’s notion of “stealth revolution,” which refers to the penetration of neoliberalism into every fiber of our flesh, completely recasting life and inscribing itself in our emotional and love lives. He proposes another, more performative term, which resonates strikingly here: “body snatching.”
Shot eight years apart, the two films Nicholas and Hillary (2014) and the artist’s most recent production, Mind Gamed (2021), can be seen as mirror images of one another. Both feature two protagonists — two actresses embodying real, historical characters in the first, and fictional ones in the second. Stemming from the artist’s community, whose affinities seep into the layers of fiction, the actresses — TV series and film actress Jane Levy in the role of Negroponte, and choreographer and dancer Mariana Valencia in the role of Hillary — are trained artists in the first film, and non-actors in the second.Shot in a simple setting recalling an empty gallery, a photo studio, or an unidentified, neutral place, the films comprise dense, sometimes cryptic dialogue, and end with a dry, almost abrupt montage.Nicholas and Hillary brings together Nicholas Negroponte, an MIT entrepreneur who pioneered the development of information technology, and Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, exposing them as two figures embodying the neoliberal absolute of power and elitism, as two sides of the same coin. Drawing on several sources, such as Eliot Spitzer’s repentant interview following the call girl scandal and his subsequent resignation, and Hillary Clinton’s own sex scandal, the script raises the question of the human condition, the hubris of those in power, and the defeats they can experience.
Mind Gamed is based on Colin Wilson’s 1967 science fiction novel The Mind Parasites. In this story set in the near future and based on themes prevalent in the work of writer H.P. Lovecraft, a professor makes the somber discovery, during an archaeological excavation, of mental parasites that have come to live in human minds and colonize them, threatening the human race with sudden extinction. This very short film (3:47 min.) shot in 2021 in the middle of a global pandemic, immediately evokes that other invisible monster which has taken over the planet since the beginning of 2020 — that other foreign body which has come to contaminate healthy bodies. The brevity of the film does not prevent the artist from synthetically outlining the broad strokes of the narrative through a lively and pointed exchange between the two women. The story is condensed into a dialogue between Doctor (2), who has died (we understand that he committed suicide), and Doctor (1), who must face this global infection and find a way to save herself.