A talk by Maria Walsh exploring the performative dimension of artists’ moving image works in which therapeutic techniques and discourses are used to generate effects that circulate beyond individual psycho-physiologies and instead enact a critical relation to neoliberal discourses of self-affirmation. This shift towards a social critique of therapeutic discourse in artists’ work contrasts with the reception of therapy discourse in art in the 1990s, whereby art historian Hal Foster bewailed its use by artists such as Sue Williams, comparing it to reality TV chat shows in which trauma narratives of damaged subjectivities were proclaimed as the truth of authentic experience. On the one hand, this situation has exacerbated today as the injunction to speak one’s truth which has devolved into a desirable form of micro-celebrity in which everyone can be an actor or protagonist in their own drama. However, on the other hand, rather than the truth of a damaged body, the therapeutic subject characteristic of our neoliberal era has been deemed to be in control of their desire and will to change, but paradoxically, be in need of cognitive retraining to achieve this transformation.
Artists have both mined and critiqued the ethos of ‘therapy culture’. Artists such as Gillian Wearing walk a fine line between taking a vicarious interest in the pathological public sphere, referred to by Mark Selzter as ‘wound culture’ (1997), taking a more reflective approach to this phenomenon. More recently, Wearing’s 2010 experimental documentary film ‘Self-Made’ posited a productive tension between a performative acting out of trauma and a use of method acting techniques to objectify and/or manufacture experience. In a different but related context, artist Oriana Fox created and hosted her own reality TV therapy chat show, ‘The O Show’ (2011-ongoing), episodes of which were performed live for an art audience and broadcast simultaneously online. Fox claims the work is about the therapeutic potential of performance, yet it also generates a conflictual space in which the neoliberal impetus towards self-improvement is both advocated and critiqued. In straddling a fine line between authenticity and parody, works such as these extend Judith Butler’s 1990s concept of performativity which held that identity norms can be resignified by the repetitive iteration of learned behaviours and rituals. This talk will explore whether moving image works that enact a parodic staging of therapeutic techniques present a manipulative capitulation to norms and or/self-exploitation, or propose a transformative logic that is beyond the neoliberal injunction to perform well.
To accompany the Jerwood/Photoworks Awards, a series of events have been programmed to further explore the themes and issues that are raised in the three artists’ body of works. Maria Walsh’s invitation to talk about performativity and therapeutics in relation to moving image/performative practices has been motivated by Lua Ribeira’s allegorical exploration of the inevitable decay of the human body and psychological ‘heaviness’.
Dr. Maria Walsh is a Reader in Artists’ Moving Image at Chelsea College of Arts. Her monograph Art and Psychoanalysis was published in 2012. She is an Associate Editor of the peer-reviewed journal MIRAJ Moving Image Review and Art Journal and was Guest Editor of the ‘Feminisms’ double issue which included her article ‘From Critique to Resistance to Autonomy: Alex Bag Meets Ann Hirsch’, MIRAJ, Vol. 4:1 & 2, 2016: 13-41. Other peer-review articles on independent cinema, film philosophy and artists’ moving image have been published in Screen, Rhizomes, Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, Refractory and NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies as well as chapters to a number of books on moving image including Screen/Space: The Projected Image in Contemporary Art, 2011. She is currently working on a monograph on the screen as a performative site of therapeutic encounter and critique.