When I ask Hon whether her dance with the photocopier felt like a solo or a duet, she answers without pause: “Duet. Uncompromising, problematic and non-communicative dance partner/lover.”
(This week I’m preparing to give a talk for the HUMA conference. Here are some of my preliminary thoughts):
Imagine a duet between a woman and a photocopier. It begins with a seduction. She circles the machine wearing high heels and red lipstick; its buttons are pushed, causing a flurry of light and sound. At the orgasmic height of this interaction, she straddles the device, which incessantly spews copies. Her body parts, now fragmented, are strewn on the ground in a forgotten heap of paper. Ming Hon’s The Exhibitionist is a work of performance art that relies on numerous objects, including a 24-inch fluorescent light, stacks on stacks of white, 11×8.5 paper, a “fitted black trenchcoat,” a strobe light, office chairs with wheels for audience members, file folder, tape, a metal office desk, a paper shredder and of course, a photocopier. It’s not unusual for theatre or performance art to utilize props and set, but what is interesting is the way in which Hon makes the accoutrements of the mundane office setting perform through the prescriptive infrastructure of performance and audience. She also presents her own body as “exhibited” object—it is an art object within the art gallery setting in which her show is staged; a flattened and fragmented entity after the copier has had its way with her; a fetishized object (ultimately objectified) under the scopophilic gaze of her onlookers.
When I ask Hon whether her dance with the photocopier felt like a solo or a duet, she answers without pause: “Duet. Uncompromising, problematic and non-communicative dance partner/lover.” She explains, “I’ve had six photocopier lovers, and every single one of them gave me paper jams, inconsistent contrast, and a strong aversion to toner ink…” Hon’s duet partner may be uncommunicative but it is certainly not passive. Its power can be located in its obstinacy. This is not a duet between subject and object, as the “subject” (Hon) has been objectified — her costume alone (with pixelated blurs around her nipples and vaginal area) is a cheeky reference to the censored and fetishized female body) — and the “object” (copier) is not so obedient. But it is the interaction between the two of them that truly reveals the slippage between human and thing.
For Marx, labour is the most distinctly human activity, and the product of labour is the exteriorization of the worker’s being. Under capitalism, however, where workers are alienated from the products of their labour, their person is consequently fragmented. The Exhibitionist takes up the photocopier as an object symbolic of mechanized human labour. The photocopier here performs its own meaning, punning on the (re)productive labour expected of workers under late capitalism. My paper explores the ways in which the desires and limitations of female bodies are still configured as (object-like) hindrances to their advancement as (subjects or) workers. In One Dimensional Woman, Nina Power writes about the feminization of labour in today’s contemporary corporate realm, explaining that “the model female worker, so long as she doesn’t get pregnant or make undue demands, is both desirable and cheap” (20). The “assets” of the female worker, according to Power, are inextricably linked to bodily presence and consumer culture—a kind of hedonistic corporate ladder in which “capitalism is a girl’s best friend” (21). Similarly, Hon’s Exhibitionist presents a world in which sex and work are synonymous and self-cloning (or good, productive secretary labour) stands in for maternity.
Jean Baudrillard writes that whereas it is the “subject that totalizes the world,” the object is “shamed, obscene [and] passive” (Qtd. in Brown 8). For the secretary (Hon)—who is almost always (still) female— whose flat and cloned body parts are later sculpted into a brood of paper “babies” that fight for her many photocopied breasts, the maternal becomes a nightmare of endless reproduction of waste and alienation from that waste (that is both her and not her).
At the end of Hon’s piece, she shreds the “pieces” of herself and arranges the pile of paper into a nest in which she burrows, fusing the detritus of her labour with a kind of avian maternal impulse that perverts Nietsche’s concept of dance as bird-like or airy. “What, in Nietzsche’s eyes,” Badiou asks, “is the opposite of dance?…the military parade, the aligned and hammering body, the servile and sonorous body. The body of beaten cadence…” (59)?
Hon’s soundtrack—Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” on repeat—further complicates the idea of “duet.” As Tavia Nyong’o has observed in his analysis of disco and the posthuman, the “felling-tone on “I Feel Love” was not a mimesis of heterosexual lovemaking. Rather, as its straightforward title had it, the track expressed an autotelic but not quite masturbatory pleasuring that constantly modulated between self and other, alternating between an object-driven and objectless love” (110).
Does Hon’s secretary-character truly “feel love” as she makes endless copies? As she straddles the sharp corners of the humming machine? Or is love here a stand-in for a kind of affective labour that justifies the Gothic horror of the doubling and re-doubling of her objectified body?