Screamer (2014) - Looping video with sound.
(sound & video recording assistance: Steven Carver)
In Screamer, the silenced mouth, doomed to continuous refinement by impossible standards of perfection imposed upon it if it wishes to speak and be heard, is finally given a voice by symbolically showcasing its muting.
The video and sound are shot in one uninterrupted take, in which a close-up of a mouth going through an imperfect “perfecting routine” almost fills the entire film frame. The mouth repeatedly and unsuccessfully attempts to vocalise or utter words, but these attempts appear to be muted, as the only sounds the viewer can hear are those produced by the attempted “perfecting” – a cleansing, androgyny-erasing, escalating “beautifying” routine involving actions such as tooth-brushing, waxing and lipstick application. After each perfecting action, a new attempt to speak is made. This inevitably fails, leading to more perfecting and renewed unsuccessful attempts to utter sounds, followed by further perfecting, and so on. This whole cycle repeats infinitely after the mouth’s efforts at refining are erased at the “end” of the continuous take, when the lipstick is completely rubbed out again and the film loops back on itself. This looping is itself a part of the cycle of perfection (the previous efforts at perfecting not being “good enough”) and also reveals the Sisyphean futility of a process in which no real progress can be made, despite continuous efforts – exposing it for what it truly is: as a form of silencing.
Screamer partly began as an imperfect symbolic exploration of the idea of perfection as a silencing tactic in the hands of those who control the standards of perfection and partly as an equally imperfect reflection of a frustrated artistic expression.
Certain criteria must first be satisfied by those not in a position of power or privilege (the “imperfect” others), before they are allowed to speak without being torn down by criticism and be noticed and taken seriously by those in control as someone with something of value to contribute.
Failure and imperfection are always defined as such against a standard. But who decides what the standards are? Those in a position of power. Because of this, those in control of the standards can easily employ them as a way to dismiss and exhaust those who do not control them by continuously applying ever-shifting criteria. The effort required to satisfy these continuously mutating and expanding standards requires a superhuman strength and resilience that most do not have, thus reducing those not in a position of power to silence.
This method of control is particularly successful when it ultimately takes the form of self-censorship through internalised insecurity and (justified) fear of being dismissed (you are too angry, too emotional, too intellectual, not intellectual enough, not speaking for everyone, speaking too generally, too ugly, too pretty, too young, too old, etc.) or punished. Because the criteria of perfection to be reached are ever shifting, the internal perfecting must go on forever, so one never even gets to speak.
These criteria do not apply to the privileged. Only those in the subordinate position are expected to explain themselves over and over again, to cover all bases for everyone, to know everything, and to re-explain everything again and again always from the start, never able to rely on a base of common knowledge from which to build upon. So the discourse can never get anywhere as things must start from the beginning each time, until the speaker is too worn out to try any more.
What first prompted me to begin working on Screamer was my research into and involvement with the Her Noise archive (a collection of materials relating to gender and women in the experimental music and sound fields) coupled with my own frustration at my internalised paralysing criticisms as an artist and a woman trying to express myself.
Talking about the extremity of her vocal work in an interview collected in the Her Noise archive, the singer Diamanda Galàs says that: “in order to break out of a cage, you have to break out of it loudly”. One has to be so extreme as to become uncontrollable. This is because attempts at exceeding one’s frame too gently only bring attention and reprisals onto oneself, and ultimately will only lead to permanent, more secure “caging”.
The cage she refers to when discussing her singing is a peculiarly female one: her father’s conservative Greek background meant singing was all but forbidden to her when growing up, as it was seen as obscene, for a woman - the mouth perceived as a locus of excess/a sexual orifice and singing therefore as uncontrolled sexual energy. In this view the mouth (and thus female sexuality and speech) is something to be controlled at all costs. This made me think about foregrounding the mouth in particular in Screamer, to play with ideas of control/silencing.
Galàs sees screaming as a way of vocally exceeding one’s frame, but in Screamer “excess” is ironically reduced to the name of a lipstick shade (the particular lipstick used in the film is, according to the product’s makers, in a shade of “Screamer” red), the mouth remaining firmly framed and silent or muted throughout and beyond the application process.
There is also a strong visual resemblance between the foregrounding of the mouth in Screamer and in Samuel Beckett’s play Not I, even if this was unintentional or more probably subconscious. Not I however showcases a release of trauma, an explosion of verbalization, a moment of Galàsian excess, whereas Screamer displays an almost opposite situation of suppression, in which the moment of excess can never be reached. The extreme close-up of the mouth in Screamer sets up a situation for speech to happen/creates an expectation and then frustrates it when the mouth never gets to vocalise an audible sound and instead the viewer is presented with its never-ending perfecting/preparation.
There is of course a personal element to the piece too – the crippling insecurities I sometimes experience as a person, a woman, and an artist, feeling I have so much to express but being unable at times to even articulate it to myself because of internalised standards.
This deliberately imperfect beautifying routine is also very much mine - It is what I, rather than anyone else, would do in an attempt to physically perfect myself.