How to speak of the ‘man,’ and its constitution, its predisposition as a gender, or as a form of identification? Or, is to be a man always already implicated within a socio-symbolic realm, a sense of hierarchy, patriarchy? bell hooks writes, a matter of ‘the masculine pretense [being that] real men feel no pain’, but instead an instance of unbecoming, a pursuit of decentering. The crisis of patriarchal masculinity, or at least its re-performance through those who identify as male, for hooks, re-orientates the notion that such structures are societal conditioning (and perpetuation of violence) as opposed to a fixed identification. This identification is what Ed Fornieles attempts to put forth, in his ability to reorientate our view and ask: from whom does masculinity work, and does it necessitate a re-consideration of shared experience?
There is one work of artist Ed Fornieles which agitates this sense of masculine singularity, or indeed the toxic associations to it. Cel (2019), a fifty-five-minute film which took place over 72 hours, captured a Live action role play (LARP) between ten participants. During the LARP, participants wore body cameras attached to their chest, where the CCTV captured their interactions. Aesthetically, the film mimics a Stanford prison experiment, or a still from The Work (2017). Opening with a disembodied figure – much like the CGI beings of Under the Skin (2013) the viewer embarks upon a meditation-type state of consciousness – ‘to close your eyes, and get comfortable. Imagine a character in front of you and greet them however they want to be greeted’, an incorporeal figure remarks. Within Cel’s structure Sam, the leader at the top of the hierarchy, is hyper-macho and shouts at the participants. Masculinities’ inherent hierarchical structure is depicted through different tires of power, with Sam at the top of the pyramid. On the second tire, three participants embody the role of ‘the enforcer’ and tire three, the remaining participants are ‘the subjects’. His military-style training is bound to a sense of neo-capitalist structure; where in order to succeed, one must have those which dwell beneath them.
In Cel, it becomes apparent that words such as cut and break are employed as damage control measures, safe words which impose physical boundaries and a sense of trust, in the instance of a violation prevailing. Yet alt-right gaming and its aesthetic of grunge and melancholy are employed in Cel, where the transference of lived reality and re-embodiment are posed as very real, visceral possibilities – not just fantasies. Indeed, the word ‘cell’ evokes a sense of not only claustrophobia but also a focused, functional space that is controlled through subordination. The title of this piece, then, is predicated on panopticon-esque references, one which situates Cel in the disciplinary sense, as a measure for change or rehabilitation.
One of the characters, Eli, directly (or indirectly) references the notion of The Story of Eli, and High Priest of Shiloh. Yet in Cel, Eli seems more parallel to an ‘edge lord’. During the video, Eli undergoes waterboarding and has his head shaved and appears distressed. The material is disturbing and raises questions of how performance remains performativity, or instead becomes a lived experience. One might ask here the role of voyeurism, or of when the performance of LARPing becomes the desired domination, and for whom such an act might serve. Yet if to LARP, in a sense, retains our social space, then it also reconfigures embodiment, or the different selves a body can experience, exponentially.
Listening to a New Models Podcast with Ed from the Athens Biennale, I get the sense that the pursuit of destabilising masculinity is both a personal and social-political tension for the artist. The wavering between lived and real, of embodied and projected, is where the emergence of (non)transference comes to the forefront. Indeed, (non)transference raises questions of ‘bleeding’ of fictional identification and experience so-called ‘reality’ then neither binary matters in the face of dissolving a fixed, singular state. Gesturally, Cel permits us to consider the performative as political action. It is not a re-enactment, but instead a first-hand experience of collective mourning and grief, a reorientation of masculine angst placed upon a pedestal to confront, head-on. Yet a moment of euphoria, encrypted by melancholy dance music, is preceded abruptly by a yellow gun and (presumably) fake blood. The viewer is reminded that masculinity, or the pursuit of eradicating its violent tendencies can subtly re-emerge, in this case mimicking a school shooting. The ‘mission’ is only completed when physical death is imposed; not a visible restructuring of behaviour in lived life. What we learn is aggression, anger, and rage, which often all function as masks of sadness, serenade a deeper, albeit more visceral reality.
Whether this is a symbolic death of the old, or a physical death – it is apparent that the previously embodied self is now invited to be something other. This is what the ‘existential collapse’, according to Cel, is composed of. The metaphorical re-births reinstate agency back to the participants, where differentiation between their new embodiments are paramount. In this vein of ‘life cycles’ one might think of a collective catharsis as a form of group therapy. Such catharsis is a form of recognition, accountability, and acknowledgment. Recognition, as Nancy Fraser poignantly asserts in her essay Recognition Without Ethics (2000) ‘recognition [is] a question of social status’. Thus to be recognised is in part due to pre-existing structures of institutional power we are all subject in and to. Masculinity obtains recognition, yet this recognition often is detrimental to those who identify as men to fully embody difference. For Fornieles, patriarchy is rendered as an already-visible means to subvert its dominance. Thus surely the question is not to just reckon with that which is presented as a predetermined hierarchical paradigm, but instead to reckon against that predominantly given.
Yet there is always a risk of overshadowing the gender performance at play, and one might ask if a stark display of it overshadows – as opposed to subverts – the cause at hand. Feminist Betty Friedan argued that men also benefited from the women’s liberation movement, from boys ‘being able to wear their hair long,’ she famously said in an interview from 1964, through to an assertive ‘no’ to the sadistic, tight-lipped masculinity, which dominated America. The Feminist Mystique for Friedan is intertwined with progressive feminism – and one includes men in its gender reorientation as opposed to excluding them. To deconstruct the ‘aggressive’ male, one must look to a feminist to reorientate societal norms. The collective body as one entity – thus becomes an affective state which is felt together. The undertones of this are promising – a radical empathy of sorts. A sense of loss is predicated on a sense of identification, and to mourn such a loss, one must be, as Friedan argues, ‘strength to be tender, as a form of liberation’. Such answers, Fornieles demonstrates can be located in feminism.
Yet if a sense of collectivity emerges from a gendered undoing of identification, perhaps the volatile, and indeed abject means of arriving there is worthwhile. Yet I can't help wondering if the precarity of the hierarchy is indebted to a sense of primitivism. Can it be reimagined through catharsis? Or does this new space for projection simply shine a light on a narrative that resists destabilising? If Cel poses one crucial point, it articulates that bearing witness to the societal expectation of masculinity doesn't necessarily dissolve its negative attributes. It instead demonstrates that collective yearning for difference requires destroying structures that upheld toxic gender identification in the first place.