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updated by elke van campenhout -- Fri 16 Apr 2010 - 13:00


text written for the superamas book


"philosophy, proclivity,
economy, duplicity,

becomingly astonishing anatomy"
(astonishing anatomy, ZORROW, 2009)

The first Superamas show I remember: a man with a motor helmet telling a joke about a female doctor, then orating Tom Cruise's magic monologue 'Respect the cock' from Magnolia. I clearly recall coming out of that performance slightly confused. Seduced by its energy, but at the same time unsure of what was being communicated to me. What was I supposed to read into all this? The shameless exhibition of male stereotypes, the sexist attitude, the unsettling playing around with gender questions. 'Auto-Mobile' (2002) was a solo performance  and predates the Big-trilogy. But all the same, the basic ingredients of a typical Big-performance were already there: the brash display of clichéd male behaviour, the lame and at the same time irresistible humor, the woman as an unattainable but affordable phantasm, and the titillating flirtation with brand names, intellectual discourse, and pre-formatted pleasure. All wavering on a barely disguised undercurrent of violence. "Respect the cock! And tame the cunt! Tame it! Take it on headfirst with the skills that I will teach you at work and say no! You will not control me! No! You will not take my soul! No! You will not win this game! Because it's a game, guys." Is it?

1. over-identification
cocq café brussels -  february 19th, 2008

"autonomy, anatomy,
autonomy, anatomy

becomingly economy anatomy

autonomy, anatomy,
economy, autonomy

atanomy aninomy anatomy"

At first sight, the Superamas seems to defy the critical in their embrace of the luxuries of everyday life. Every episode has its own assortment of yummy commodities spread out over the scene. A monstrous SUV in Big 1, sumptuous lingerie in Big 2, and the fitness-room setting in Big 3. The girls and boys play with Lancôme make-up and Trumer Pils, who are also willing sponsors of the shows. They turn the theatre into a marketplace for cars and cosmetics, blockbuster movies and hit songs, and they do so unapologetically and without restraint. After an intimate soap opera scene in the car in Big 1, the go-go-girls let loose on the hood, in a 'spectacular' light-show emphasizing all the car's (and girls') selling points, with the company’s banner dominating the scene. In other words, and this is a recurring critique of the Superamas’s work heard in after-performance bar conversations, they seem to fail in their artistic 'responsibility' to do more than lightheartedly reproduce the mechanisms of neo-liberal capitalism. They do not fulfill the critical potential that is assigned to them, as artists in a democratic society. Today's theater public seems to agree on one point: art has to fulfill a critical function, and not simply reproduce the manipulation techniques of the entertainment business. In that respect, the Superamas' work seems to situate itself in an unclear danger zone between the entertaining and the cynical, between the all-too-gratuitous embrace of banal house-and-garden pop-culture, and the over-intellectual denial of any way out of the system. Their performances flirt with quotes from the likes of Derrida, Godard and Deleuze, but at no point in the Big-trilogy do the Superamas take a clear position toward the material portrayed. The commercial strategies they celebrate seem to be as much a part of their own 'artistic entrepreneurship' (the Superamas 'brand'), as it is the subject of their work. But it is exactly in this confusion of critical and commercial strategies that the strength of the group lies. Not so much in the 'transdisciplinary aesthetics' that this endeavor produces, because these strategies have been productive in the visual arts for at least 35 years, but in the confusion these aesthetic choices produce in the spectator.

In his 'Politics of Aesthetics', philosopher Jacques Rancière speaks of 'le partage du sensible': the division of what, in a democracy, can be experienced where. In other words, Rancière talks about a spatial distribution of what can be felt, experienced and said, according to the place and the 'regime' employed there. Rancière refers in his text to the aesthetic regime of modernism, wherein the barriers between different artistic disciplines, but also between art and daily life, have broken down: painters work with newspaper clippings, musicians start to use everyday objects as instruments, etc. This liberation of the arts, and the transvaluation of artistic materials, at the same time forces the arts more than ever to reclaim their 'autonomous' situation: they must position themselves in a zone of society where their work can and should be perceived as art, and only appreciated through the often self-referential language of art history and aesthetic criticism. The aesthetic regime asserts "the absolute singularity of art and, at the same time, destroys any pragmatic criterion for isolating this singularity. It simultaneously establishes the autonomy of art and the identity of its forms with the forms that life uses to shape itself" (Rancière).  HYPERLINK  \l "FOOTNOTE-1"1  As a result, the arts become more and more estranged from everyday life as it is. Notwithstanding the use of industrial techniques, pop culture, or soap opera elements in artistic creation, the isolation of the arts only becomes more glaring in a society that no longer believes in the transformational power of the aesthetic gaze. Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, the demand for a 'political' art collides with the boundaries of the arts system. At the same time that the arts are becoming more and more commercialized, with big biennials and fairs sponsored by multinationals and economic moguls, the public expects the artist to uncritically claim his critical position again, and to make a clear (and preferably understandable) reference to the world-in-crisis, the world as it is. The artist in this situation finds himself in a double bind: on the one hand he is a product of a complex and nuanced art history, in which the use of everyday material has less of an effect on our understanding of everyday life, than on our understanding of art. On the other hand, he is forced into a political position he knows he can only fulfill to the extent that it doesn’t destroy his economic credibility as the artist-entrepreneur he has become (the 'prosumer', as Brian Holmes calls him).

In other words, the arts sector doesn't realize its position within the 'partage du sensible' of contemporary neo-liberal democracy. In this society, the arts have been allotted a very special role: the critical zone in which anyone can say whatever he pleases, since everyone has been taught that whatever happens in this zone is not to be taken seriously outside of it. Whatever can be experienced in the artistic sector, whatever can be said and perceived there, doesn't exit the boundaries of the aesthetic regime (let it be clear that I no longer speak in the name of Rancière here). This has been a source of frustration for whole generations of well-meaning artists and programmers, and still today seems to fuel most of the discussions about political engagement and responsibility.

Superamas is aware of this problem, and thus doesn't fall into the trap of cheap, understandable, maternalistic critique. The 'brand' doesn't offer you a band-aid to cover up the bruises. On the contrary, they offer you more of what you claim to hate. For the spectator, this produces the very uncomfortable sensation of both being seduced by the male prowess, the sexy entertainment, and the outlandish aesthetics, and yet feeling that this excitement doesn't respond in the any way to the desperate need for political engagement. Superamas lacks the transparent, critical and recognizable image of the contemporary artist. On the contrary, they seem to over-identify their practices as artists and workers with the practices of the commercial manager and producer. And it is precisely in this double role, that lies the key to the artistic strategy of over-identification. The term stems from psycho-analysis, but was picked up by the artistic research group BAVO,  HYPERLINK  \l "FOOTNOTE-2"2 to describe several contemporary art practices balanced on the edge between artistic, social and political strategies. Examples of over-identification include the work of the Yes Men, who present themselves as managers or members of the WTO, and infiltrate business and economics meetings. Or the highly charged work of the NSK (Neue Slovenische Kunst), using totalitarian and nationalistic symbols in their art that appeal to both left and right-wing fans. "Over-identification works because it draws attention to the way the overt message in art, ideology and day-dreaming is supplemented by an obscene element, the hidden reverse of the message that contains the illicit charge of enjoyment. When over-identification brings that double-sided ambivalent aspect of the message to light it can be a more subversive strategy than simple avoidance."  (Ian Parker).  HYPERLINK  \l "FOOTNOTE-3"3  Thus defined, the work of Superamas, in its enthusiastic embrace of capitalist commercial symbols and strategies, certainly belongs to the realm of over-identification. Or, again quoting Parker: "In other words, rather than attempting to create critical, distanced interventions, to affirm the closure and horror of the current situation of power and exploitation by pushing it to its most extreme position, and to unmask the ways in which such ideologies operate upon and through disguised levels of pleasure, instead of succumbing to society’s demand for small creative acts, artists should over-identify with the ruling, post-historical order and take the latter’s immanent laws to their most extreme, dystopian consequences...". However, the work of Superamas is at least in one respect different from the preceding examples: Superamas never claims to work outside the artistic realm. On the contrary, they unveil the potential of the artistic critique for what it is, and they do so with exactly the tools handed over to them through generations of modernist and post-modernist artists before them: by using formal displacement and re-contextualization of the material.

2. theatricality / pornography
de kroon café antwerp - march 2008
"criticism, critique, criticality"
(after Irit Rogoff)

"pornographic, cinematic,
over-graphic, phantastatic

becomingly economy anatomy"

Superamas's work is nothing if not highly theatrical. The performances and installations produced by the group are meticulously staged, drawing all their unsettling power from strictly artistic means of construction and re-construction.  A recurring technique in the Big-trilogy is, for example, the repetition of scenes: almost every scene is played several times, with slight transpositions in the roles of the actors or mise-en-scène (a male voice given to a female performer, a scene broken off earlier than in its previous version, a music score added to the material already twice perceived. As a critical statement, this strategy functions as the ultimate undermining of the self-proclaimed artist-as-political-orator. What these endless repetitions suggest is exactly the opposite: the theatre is not a place for Big Statements, the only role an arts space can still have in today's society is to admit to its failure to be more than an endless reproduction, an unending loop of the mechanics governing the 'outside' world. What the Big-trilogy shows us is the perversity of the theatrical gesture that at the same time wants to be both in and out of the 'system'. The answer of Superamas is clear: 'nothing can be done here'. Any kind of meaning produced in the art context can only reproduce the logic of the capitalist market, since our desire to produce 'critique' in a democracy is equivalent to our desire to be 'unique' under capitalism.

In a democratic society, citizens are encouraged to express their opinions, to clarify their positions, to be critical and autonomous thinkers. In the same way the market, with its niche branding and tremendous power of recuperation, invites consumers to think of themselves as 'free individuals', subjects capable of constant self-recreation. In both cases, individuals are presented with a myriad of possibilities of how to use their 'power', and at the same time are constantly seduced to adapt to pre-formatted answers that are constantly being produced, adapted and refined to fit your most intimate desires. From the butterfly vibrator and the spiritually liberating body sessions in Big 3, it's only a small step to the self-critical catalogue of debates, articles, readings and political initiatives within the artistic sector. What Superamas does, by parallelling the commercial strategies of the market and the highly formalized techniques of theatre and commercial soaps, is to blow up the difference in between. This takes place almost literally, when during a dodgy business meeting in Big 2, the whole scene is artfully shot to pieces, just after the business man procures himself a nice blow job from his favorite stewardess.

Or, as Zizek might suggest: the endless production of the fantasy of the freedom of critique and individuality, makes people more and more unsure about the choices that are (not) given to them, and encourages them to succumb even more wholeheartedly to the market rules of domination and submission. HYPERLINK  \l "FOOTNOTE-4"4  In a capitalist society that lives under the injunction 'Enjoy!', democracy produces the equally impossible mantra 'Be critical!', situated within the art scene. As both commands prove to be equally impossible to fulfill, the 'drive' pushing us forward is a circular movement of enjoyment and critical production: the endless pleasure produced by time after time failing to come to the point. There is clearly a marked gap between what we strive for and what we get, and it is exactly this gap, or this excess of failure, that keeps us going, round and round and round.

The theatrical translation of this process is both effective and cruel in its simplicity: an at first sight banal situation (four guys holding a sleazy birthday party, Big 1), becomes heavily laden through repetition with interpretation and meaning. What appeared to be, at first, a teasing 'slice of life’, develops into a both dramatic and ersatz-analytical statement about gender and pop culture; and, more specifically, the tendency of the latter to turn every fantasy into a banal reproduction of a reproduction of a reproduction of something that once upon a time must have seemed at least halfway decent. Through sheer looping, the scene shifts from nonsensical soap to screaming drama, or intellectual critique, or whatever you, as a viewer, wish to read into it. What is reproduced here is the endless choice of interpretation and positioning that I, as a citizen, outside the theatre, am offered a critical consumer. What I see before me are the limitations of this choice, but at the same time, what I experience is the excitement and fun of watching sleazy soaps, or eyeing sexy women undressing and dancing to hit-list songs. What is unfolded here are the endless layers of addictive desire that construct my personal drive in life, in a shared self-recognizing gesture, telling me: 'You are no different. I know you as you know me.' And this is embarrassing. As a critical theatergoer you are caught between two antagonistic desires. One for the Holy Grail of the high arts: a critical posture. And another, hidden one, unmasking me as a middle-of-the-road uncritical consumer of meaningless pop culture goodies. In other words: a phony, a shell, a copy of a copy, someone who considers 'Sex and the City' the high point of female sexual liberation. In other words a critical soul caught in the game of 'interpassivity', delegating my personal pleasure to the pleasure-producing entertainment machine.
 It is the prerogative of Superamas to melt these two drives together in a sleek and entertaining theatre experience. The skillful rhythmic editing of the performances lubricates the way to a mindless enjoyment, which only afterwards cools down to an unstable, unfounded critique. For the spectator, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. For once, he is not confronted with what he knows, but with what he does. While he may see himself as an intellectual flirt watching Extreme Makeover for reasons of irony and societal analysis, on a much more affective level, his body betrays what his mind refuses: the deeply ingrained craving for what we cannot have, the sexual drive of capitalism, rooted in his pelvis. All the willing and beautiful women of the Big-trilogy—all the trilogy’s sexiness—are staged as unattainable commodities we can never posses, yet never stop craving. Sex is the common denominator used to lure the public into recognizing its own desires, the rock 'n roll equivalent of the art's craving for a voice in society.

In this sense the Superamas' work is truly transdisciplinary: transposing the exact same manipulation strategies, complete with arty intellectualism, to the theatre scene. It is a cruel critique that is produced here, because in desiring the spectator confronts his most vulnerable point. In the shows’ hyper-proximity, all critical distance collapses. The repetitive formality of the Big shows takes on an almost pornographic quality. As Baudrillard argues, the pornographic is that which is too close, too visible, an object that doesn't let itself be gazed upon, but which only produces desire.  HYPERLINK  \l "FOOTNOTE-5"5  Once you are trapped in the politics of desire, every attempt at a critical posture becomes futile, or at least highly suspicious. The perversion of the Superamas' performances is not situated in the performances themselves, but in the contract they construct with the spectator. Their 'shows' don't fall into the trap of 'relational aesthetics', they don't attempt to create a muddled 'proximity' between performers and spectators.  HYPERLINK  \l "FOOTNOTE-6"6 On the contrary, Superamas makes the public their accomplice in experiencing the pornographic, repetitive mechanisms of the world they so desperately want to escape. They unveil the theatre as a place constructed out of the very same phantasms and desires that make the world turn on the self-realizing principles of Nike, Lancôme or Heineken.

3. desiring machine

the gentleman's club-brussels - ongoing
"fornication, devastation,
saturation, fallustration,

bomb the nation, change the station,

anomaly anomaly"

Superamas functions as a desiring machine, placing the spectator in front of the explicit image-making machine of the theatre, much like seating an alcoholic in front of a full liquor cabinet. What the group constructs in their performances is a counter-critical device that strips both the arts and the individual spectator of their claims to superiority and critical analysis. Superamas is a theatre machine that supplants all our pretentious critical assumptions through the constant production of pleasure pleasure pleasure. It is no coincidence that this group chose to reenact exactly the scene from cultural critique-guru Jean-Luc Godard, in which he places men and women, bosses and prostitutes, into a repetitious musical desiring machine. 'Sauve qui peut Roumania', the Superamas remake of one of the scenes from the master's 'Sauve qui peut (la vie)', shows us the 'director' and his assistant, together with two (Romanian) prostitutes in a hotel room, going through the mechanics of sexual satisfaction. The film is shown on a brand new flat screen tv, the price tag still attached. Just like in the original, 'Sauve qui peut' offers us a clean dissection of the economic structure of any kind of desiring production, be it artistic, critical or sexual. In Godard's version, the 'commerce' scene functions as a counter-remedy to the artistic longing for imagination and a cure for mortality. In the Superamas' case the cruelty of male sexual domination in the sexual machinery, trashes any high-flying assumptions about the role of the artist in contemporary society, although the very last image (director and prostitute stepping out of their 'functionality' by embracing each other, with what seems to be a 'genuine' smile), again places the spectator in an uncertain position: was he too quick to be shocked by the images, too ready to interpret, too shallow in his critique?

If this text has tried to prove anything, it is that the truly critical value of Superamas lies precisely in their use of uncritical mechanisms. In their embrace of banality and manipulation, in their portrayal of sexual prowess and inadequacy, in their flimsy quoting of a veritable intellectual reader's digest of the performance scene, they point to the theatre’s incapacity to produce a workable critique of contemporary society. The contract with the public is one of the dealer to his client: we will give you what you want, again and again and again, until you vomit. Strangely enough there seems to be no end to our craving for pleasure. While in the aftermath of the performance, the spectator might be assaulted by a feeling of disgust, after finally analyzing the images and sensations that have produced his pleasure in the first place, he nonetheless soon finds himself craving for more. The desiring machine of Superamas produces a constant longing for more well-made, intelligent, subversive and perversely seducing art products. A quality that explains exactly their prominent position in theatre scenes from Avignon to Salzburg. But which at the same time hopefully produces a critical sensibility that can remedy some of the well-meant, half-hearted, superficial and utterly boring cultural 'reponsibility' produced in the margins of the theatre scene.

1. The Politics of Esthetics, Jacques Rancière, p. 23, MPG Books Ltd, Bodmin, Cornwall, 2004
2. BAVO developed its research on over-identification at the Jan Van Eyck-academy in Maastricht. Their work resulted in the book 'Cultural activism Today. The art of over-identification', with essays by BAVO, Alexei Monroe, Benda Hofmeyr, Dieter Lesage, and Boris Groys. Episode Publishers, 2007
3. Lecture found on the website of the Manchester University.
4. For They Know not What They Do, Enjoyment as a Political Factor, Slavoj Zizek, Verso, 2008

5. A body of texts on these and other subjects can be found under the title 'Seduction', Jean Baudrillard, Palgrave Macmillan, 1991

6. Term introduced by Nicolas Bourriaud, then curator of the Palais de Tokyo, in his book 'Relational Esthetics', Les Presse du Réel, France 1998

We have a confusion of versoins here; but the unclarity of these two sentences stays. Elke, could you check/rephrase one last time?
Is this what you want to say? Couldn’t understand the original sentence
Insert footnote with reference to Bourriaud.
This sentence is rather obscure