Deirdre Logue

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Circles of Confusion

by Jon Davies

I would like to begin by describing two noteworthy and astonishing loops in world cinema. At the end of Stroszek(1977), Werner Herzog’s surreal, primal denunciation of a cheerily barbaric post-war America, the eponymous suicidal outsider-hero rigs up a stolen truck to drive around and around in a never-ending circle. While the truck circulates (before bursting into flames), Stroszek visits an arcade stocked with caged animals that perform amusing stunts by rote: the star is the Dancing Chicken. After watching these animals do their endearing but grotesquely mechanical routines, Stroszek mounts a ski lift, making the rounds several times before shooting himself. The film ends with an extended sequence of the unstoppable Dancing Chicken’s relentless automatic soft-shoe before mercifully fading to black. Such Sisyphean metaphors of futility and sublime kitsch suggest the perverse way that American ideology keeps motoring ahead into its own glorious mythology, ignorant of its self-destructive, materialist and morally bankrupt direction. It is a deformation of the factory assembly line that symbolized the American dream, the aspirations that Stroszek himself moved from Germany to the USA to follow: rather than churning out bubble gum or bombs, this conveyor belt to nowhere just drags its citizens deeper into soul-killing ignorance and aggression.

Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company (2005), Alan King’s jaw-dropping verité documentary about Alzheimer’s disease is a very different beast than Herzog’s epic. Claire is a real person who lives at the Jewish Home for the Aged at the Bayview Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto; she also seems much more together than many of her compatriots. One day, Max, her fellow resident and best friend passes away. Claire is inconsolable, distraught beyond words. However, after a few days Claire completely forgets that Max has died, and it must be explained to her not only that he has died and that there was already a memorial service, but that they had already told her all of this, that she was present at the memorial. We are forced to watch her go through the process of discovering and grieving his death anew. The horrible punchline: she is stuck in a short circuit of forgetting that she has no hope of breaking.

Deirdre Logue’s Enlightened Nonsense: 10 Short Performance Films About Repetition and Repetition 1997–2000 is a series of such circuits, circles and loops. An exceedingly rich and suggestive series of performance documentations that put the material of the queer body and the film medium through rigorous, ridiculous and potentially injurious paces, Enlightened Nonsense hovers somewhere between the registers of Herzog’s fiction and King’s fact like the shaded portion of a Venn diagram: between travesty and tragedy, metaphor and mortal coil, absurdity and anguish.

When a body or a mind like Stroszek’s, Claire’s or Logue’s becomes trapped in a loop it immediately becomes dysfunctional. Banal, everyday acts and gestures become starkly disturbing the more they are repeated. Human and non-human animals that are forced to spend extended periods of time in cages incessantly pace back and forth or methodically pound their heads against the wall. This catatonia is so symbolically aligned with trauma and madness because a loop folds back on itself, returns to the beginning, rather than evolving: It is so troubling because it aborts progress. Someone in a loop does not reach any place, they always and only go nowhere. Logue has described her process thus: “The films were shot, hand-processed and edited within a total of approximately one week. Like a week long performance, self imposed limitations, a concentration of time and the intensity of the production framework are elements conducive to and in keeping with the subject matter [...] I am the primary performer, director and technician.”

By trapping her own body in a proscribed system, Logue is heir to a fruitful tradition of performers who dramatize a body in crisis such as Bruce Nauman and Vito Acconci. Nauman’s self-explanatory Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square (1967–8) documented his body’s deliberate pacing around a masking-tape quadrangle in his studio, while Bouncing in the Corner (1968) featured the artist rocking back and forth in the corner of his studio for a full hour, arms slapping against the walls. Both are archetypal manifestations of Nauman’s pre-occupation with irritating and droll repetition, often played out with his own body. Acconci described his Trademarks (1970) as “Turning in on myself, turning on myself (my action drives me into a circle): a way to connect, re-connect, my body [...] Reasons to move: move into myself—move around myself—move in order to close a system. Reasons to move: show myself to myself—show myself through myself—show myself outside.” This pure, closed work involved Acconci twisting his body into contortions in order to forcefully bite every part of his body within reach, leaving tooth-prints as marks. Such experiments engender a condition of stasis that permits reflection on and knowledge about both the physical world and the ephemeral—abstract concepts, emotions, limits of the body.

In many ways, Logue’s performances mantle the themes and the contradictions of these two canonical, American male artists. The repetitive gesture has very different meanings for Nauman and for Acconci in relation to their view of the self. For the former, the repetitive gesture was the building block for a career-long exploration with the vacuity, absurdity and even sublime horror that is generated by circular patterns, linguistic or corporal. His performances from the late sixties are not about Bruce Nauman the way that Acconci’s are about Vito Acconci, for whom gestures were repeated to signify the intensity of his obsessive examination of the body’s and the psyche’s relationship to space and territory, to creating both a geography of the self and a subjectifying of public space. Logue queers both of these practices by matching Nauman’s ludicrous irrationality with Acconci’s ontological mapping, lunacy with severity; the artist’s identity is both abstracted and cultivated. Logue’s temporal and queer distance from this period of performance body art allows her to critically work over its tropes.

To employ a queer cliché, the films are about “processing”: not only of body and mind, but of film. Unlike her body art predecessors in the sixties and seventies who used film and video predominantly for documentation, Logue exerts as much energy on the recording as on the performance. Logue has claimed, “Each film is about the body versus fill in the blank [...] You’ll notice in the films there is always a pairing of at least two things.” This quality extends to the post-production process where it becomes a confrontation between Logue and the celluloid. They are hand-processed, tinted, roughed up, edited, some solarized, some painted, some scratched, and they bear the evidence of a very raw and tangible contact between filmmaker and film that mirrors those interactions recorded in their frames. The act of representing and reproducing the circular acts on-screen further compounds their repetitiveness by permitting them to be re-viewed over and over again. Such abundant redundancy allows us to pay attention to the small details and fissures that distinguish one action from the seemingly identical next, or as critic Kathryn Chiong puts it: “the irregular pulse of a body that falters, accelerates, decelerates.”

This attention to the recording medium casts her as both director and star, and Logue’s consistent use of the close-up inEnlightened Nonsense seems to parody this technique’s use in Hollywood cinema and television. Historically, the close-up is intended to draw attention to the intensity of emotion visible on the actor’s face ‹which is often exquisitely lit and made-up. By contrast, Logue’s use of the close-up in Patch, H2Oh Oh andTape, for example, focuses on her performing unpleasant, distressing and illogical actions to her visage in a rhythmic, non-narrative way: sticking and unsticking a patch on her face clockwise until she has covered its entire surface twice, dousing her head in water—hidden below the frame line—like a torture victim acting as her own unrelenting interrogator (her use of reverse motion in this scene contributes to the sense of uncanniness and inescapability), wrapping and unwrapping her head with packing tape (the most painful to watch—and by far the longest—I am tempted to subtitle it “mummification for the modern girl”). As opposed to earlier body art, where durable audiovisual documentations—simply framed recordings masking their mediation — were required to evidence ephemeral performances, Logue is a filmmaker, thinking through framing, camera distance and angles cinematically and televisually. By positioning a butch queer female body that is largely invisible in film and television in such a mediated way, Enlightened Nonsense exaggerates and burlesques the ordinary ways that the body—especially the queer body—is poked and prodded by a wide range of mechanisms of power on an everyday basis, making a melodrama of queer abjection. One can’t help but also think of Judith Butler’s theories of gender as performativity, an unconscious citation of a fictional ideal, a stylized repetition of oppressive acts. And those who fail to live up to this coherent norm—namely androgynous bodies like Logue’s (and mine)—are usually punished through shame. In an interview with Karyn Sandlos, Logue carefully positioned the work as not freakish and not about self-abuse, but instead dealing with feelings—despair, humiliation, confusion—and materials—food, water, adhesives—that are very common and mundane. This ordinariness is partly accomplished through its cinematic and televisual codes that resist reification.

Another difference from the early performances of Nauman and Acconci—which seem to have been recorded in studios and galleries, in any case on indoor sets—‹is that all but one of Logue’s performances take place in the great outdoors, in what appears to be a dry, hardscrabble plain. This strategy both refuses the myth of queerness as a purely urban phenomenon, and permits a kind of seclusion in an elemental environment away from other—perhaps hostile—bodies of the social world. Queerness has always had a contentious relationship to the “natural,” and it is almost as if Logue is crashing her body against the natural world to see what kind of chemical reaction might result. In this way, we can align her repetitive gestures as much to the necessary and inescapable cycles of the earth and heavens as to self-generated obstacle courses; the rotation of the globe and the revolution around the sun are the epitome of “natural” but no human body could endure such regimentation. In Road Trip and Fall, the trials she exerts on her body require the environment as a participant, they are as much about exposing the body to the outside world as about performing actions on oneself. Films such as these could not have been shot just anywhere: Crawling on the brushy ground on all fours with her tongue licking the terrain in Road Trip and experiencing the impact of collapsing onto this (presumably) same earth over and over again in Fall (It is interesting to also note that Fall affords us the most direct, unobstructed view of Logue’s appearance, from many different angles and distances). This wrangling with the organic is also evident in her preference for an analog soundtrack created from playing with the film medium itself rather than bringing in outside music. In pieces likeTape and Milk & Cream, the sounds she creates by manipulating the optical soundtrack take on a pulsating quality, an unyielding beat that further emphasizes the repetitiveness and oppressive inescapability of her actions (a function that sound also accomplishes for Nauman). Significantly, along with the stark and harrowing H2Oh Oh, these two pieces feature Logue in the most danger of self-suffocation.

However, even though the obvious danger courted or discomfort caused by her activities make one cringe,Enlightened Nonsense maintains a fine balance between suffering and nonsense. In discussing her tone, Logue describes it as “like cynicism, and cynicism is a kind of wit that draws on despair.” In Always a Bridesmaid Never a Bride of Frankenstein, Logue draws large cartoonish scars on her body with a magic marker, using the process of hand-scratching the film stock to add charges of electricity to the stylus’s path, adding a crackle of energy that has a very tactile presence and lends a palpable sting to what are clearly artificial wounds. This piece seems quite loaded precisely because Logue is not harming herself but is instead generating scars—conspicuous visual proof of the imperfect healing of past traumas (This activity is reminiscent of Patch where the stitching on the old baseball leather she moves around her face bears a strong resemblance to a scar‹but a mobile and impermanent one). To emphasize the excess of her verbose and witty title, she bookends the piece with a campy excerpt of an unexpected phone call from a cheesy TV melodrama. Perhaps the most outlandish piece—both silly and unsettling—involves a reclining Logue filling her mouth to bursting with whip cream and milk in two different performances (and outfits) intercut together. The black and white Milk & Cream is stained by hand-painted splotches reminiscent of human waste that visually punctuate the gluttony: yellow spots on the gushes of milk, rusty brown on the daubs of cream. This kind of abject over-consumption and infantile regression has both high art and low culture precedents from Paul McCarthy’s condiment-slathered 1974 performance Hot Dog, to a rural pie-eating contest that one might see reported on TV on a slow news day.

Moohead is a miniature masterpiece that is incredibly comical, campy, craftily edited and conceptually evocative. It employs a perverse, reddened-with-age television commercial from what looks to be the seventies to sell a milky gelatin dessert; cutesy children enthusiastically extol the virtues of the shimmying dairy treat’s jiggling and wobbling. Logue, meanwhile, is subject to a basketball being bounced off of her head over and over and over again and she cuts back and forth between celebratory commercial and sternly wry self-hurt. The great coup is how Logue cuts the piece according to sound so that snippets of the ad’s jingle and sound effects punctuate the precise instant when the ball strikes her noggin; because of this delay, the clips from the commercial itself are largely silent. While Logue’s own catalogue entry on the series focus on her internal and self-contained process, we cannot help but wonder who the invisible, off-screen ball thrower is in this piece. Because it references the socioeconomic realities of the outside world of capitalism and consumption through using the commercial, and the inclusion of this unseen but essential co-performer, Moohead is striking for opening up what is most often a closed circuit in the other works.

Enlightened Nonsense also uses the loop conceptually through the occasional use of found footage, placing Logue’s body in the lineage of past celluloid bodies that have now been consigned to the archival heap, their current state unknown. This is especially true of the mysterious, oneiric and near-silentSleep Study. While it is not stated overtly, the protagonist—a young, rugged blonde girl, her image recorded off of a television (the other found footage does not employ such mediation)—is clearly Logue, who uncannily resembles the creepily sweet-faced girl at the end of Moohead. As we watch this young lass perform for the camera, her show is interrupted by an extreme close-up scan of a sleeping body—the present-day, grown-up Logue—that is wired up for what the title implies is a scientific experiment to measure her dreams. We then cut back to the young girl who returns into the distance of the schoolyard from where she had originated. This piece is quite different from the others in its relative linearity, its melancholic air and in the eclipsing of Logue’s current body for the more diffuse and ethereal body of her as a child. There is no repeated action here: instead the loop is a circuit of past and present, child and adult, that is permitted by the easy access of indexical media to document us at all stages of life.

The final piece of Enlightened Nonsense left to discuss is the fast, complex and dense Scratch. The only segment to use inter-titles, it acts as a sort of manifesto for the entire series: “My path is deliberately difficult / My reasons endlessly repetitious / But it is through this that I know myself.” As withMoohead, Scratch juxtaposes found footage—of scissors and other implements, of breaking dishes, and of a bed that miraculously moves by itself (as is only possible in retro TV commercials)‹–with another example of Logue’s altercations with the natural world: her removal of a nest of burrs from her pubic hair (we also see the Velcro-like flora in exquisite detail throughout). This sole act of groinal self-exposure in the piece‹–her crotch shot in tight close-up as her face had been–‹is cleverly bracketed by the bed in the ad stripping through the magic of stop-motion animation as Logue herself undoes her pants and takes down her underwear. After the burr-removal the bed remakes itself as she pulls up her bottoms.

A final note: While looping one’s actions alters the performer and the viewer’s sense of linear time, it is interesting to note that alongside a single-channel version, Enlightened Nonsensewas also originally installed as a looping multi-monitor mosaic installation in the window of YYZ Artists’ Outlet. By presenting the multiple pieces simultaneously, time is even further spatialized and fragmented, our attention splintered over all the loops at once, much like a security surveillance system. And while there might be nine Logues visible together: the psychic scrutiny taking place, the inner life animating all of these inward-driving closed circuits, remains meticulously hidden.

Jon Davies is an independent curator and film, media and visual arts critic. Originally from Montreal, he moved to Toronto in 2002 to complete an MA in film and video, critical and historical studies at York University. Jon has worked as a writer/editor for the Toronto International Film Festival’s publications department and his writing has also been published in Cinema Scope,Canadian Art, University of Toronto Quarterly and Xtra!. He has been on the programming collective of Pleasure Dome since 2004.