© Gisèle Vienne

Gisèle Vienne embarks on a meticulous, determined and challenging quest. She investigates the framework of intelligibility that governs our gestures, our imaginary and our collective myths, our identities, our morals, and, ultimately, social order. An investigation into how we must make ourselves understood to others, and ourselves, down to the movements of our bodies, our glances, our impulses, our desires, our enthusiasms, and even our postures and the way we walk, in which our emotions, our portrayals and our narratives, our feelings, our fantasies and our most intimate embarrassments transpire; all of which are raw material to be processed in the most exploitable and productive way.

Gisèle Vienne conducts an investigation: she seeks to decompose and dissect the imaginative mechanism of our advanced capitalist societies. She seeks to pierce what binds together the discourses of tolerance and respect, of good and evil, of equal rights and individual freedoms, and the permanent, prosaic, rampant extreme violence that our democracies generate: first of all, the violence of images and the imaginary. A most profitable over-production that we consume excessively until we have sold ourselves, devouring ourselves to the point of nausea – stories, fictions, photographs, films, newspapers, cartoons, drawings, advertisements, profiles, news feeds ... everything is encoded to sell violence, our violence, to make it profitable.

Thus, we generate a dominant norm of white, voluptuous, blonde, post-adolescent and »sexy« femininity, which disciplines our lives, our bodies, which we acquire with time, with energy, with emotions, with accessories, with gimmicks, with scalpels, and which makes us sweat, cry, suffer (the feet, the belly, the skin, the hair ... the heart), which we crave, which we enjoy, when all our money and our effort (a lifetime’s effort to become a woman ...) is validated by the male gaze and heterosexual preying.
But at the same time, in 90% of the visual productions that pervade our environments, this white, luscious, frequently blonde woman, always exciting in one way or another, is inexorably slaughtered, subjugated, fucked or beaten up as soon as possible. From the luxury ads that can be seen everywhere in our cities and subways or in movie theatres and on computer screens, from the most aestheticised fantasies to mass pornography, this woman, The Woman, is »useful«. She sells. Your death, your rape, your bruises, your tears and your sweat make money. 

And meanwhile, there’s nothing but indifference to women dying, submissive, with a mere mention in the »news« section, »real» women are dying daily from the blows of their partners, of »their« men, even in democracies that comfortably pride themselves on having established the equality between women and men; they die as a tribute to »the blonde girl with big breasts«, a pattern of thanatopolitics, patriarchal, perhaps, but democratic. 

She investigates the framework of intelligibility that governs our gestures, our imaginary and our collective myths, our identities, our morals, and, ultimately, social order Gisèle Vienne

This motif, extensively re-examined by Gisèle Vienne, is taken to the extreme in Jerk. Gisèle Vienne and Dennis Cooper cut a track: the serial killer does not so much slaughter individuals and subjectivities as he does stereotypes, motifs that are woven into our imaginations – it excites him to kill images, characters, embodied norms, rich, educated and decadent teenagers, brought up on horror shows and video games. He himself is a caricature: a paradigmatic symbol of an Anglo-Saxon cultural hegemony, the latest avatar of a degenerate mythology of the lone vigilante of white supremacy.
So, the killer slays as one sings along to a radio hit: having heard it so often, we know the tune, a few verses that we are able to sing without even being aware that this tune, this song, is inscribed, memorised, stored within us, whether we like it or not. In Jerk, the rifts that open up from time to time are those that let us catch a glimpse of the density of reality, where lives, each one of them singular, unique, despite their air of »déjà vu«, seem to resist and dissent from the normative scenario. But the most ignoble dimension, the most terrifying, the most immoral and gory: it is not so much the scenes of torture, not even the noisy scene of the murderous sodomy of a puppet, but the awareness that we, the spectator, perceive the cries of the victims, their supplications, as utterly null and void. Social texts, the narrative motif and the image that we anticipate, have taught us to expect the victim’s death, to witness their helplessness, their extreme vulnerability, and, finally, to desire this ultimate moment of the banal and entertaining absurdity of their sacrifice: the victim dies anyway, it’s written, it’s known, it’s what has to happen, and we are brought up to be indifferent to the fact that whole demographic groups are destined to die. We would be almost disappointed if it happened differently (and by the way, what is the first image that comes to mind when we talk about »migrants«, when we talk about »famine«, when we talk about »riots«, when we talk about »family drama«?).

What does Gisèle Vienne force us to acknowledge when she stages young white girls, fragile adolescents, and mute dolls in dense, high forests? What does she tell us if not to objectify our own »expectations«, our own categories, our own familiarity with cruelty, which makes us long for blood and drama when we see the child and the tree (and even long for our fear that all this will happen)? In the meantime, we all shudder at the edge of dark forests, but this hackneyed myth has the ultimate function of making us blind, deaf and insensitive – and therefore radically and utterly cruel, sadistic – to the children who die not in the forest but in bombings or on canoes in the Mediterranean. That there are myths, norms, narrative and imaginative motifs is not the point – they exist anyway: the question is not only which ones? In other words, which ones do we enjoy as a matter of habit? To fill what void, to cover what reality, to forget what? And, above all, what do these myths shape, create and generate? What is the cost, what do we exhaust by dint of adhering to them? What do we maintain, notably in terms of desire, in eroticising dominance, in creating a culture of violence, but also in terms of forgetting what it is to be a witness to, a victim of, or a perpetrator of the raw violence we experience every day? And therefore, what is it that they also contribute in basic material, ideological, political and economic terms? In terms of social discipline, in terms of collective innocence?

the victim dies anyway, it’s written, it’s known, it’s what has to happen, and we are brought up to be indifferent to the fact that whole demographic groups are destined to die. Gisèle Vienne

This makes me think how lacking we are in alternative mythologies, in dissonant narratives; how difficult it is to produce something that might be unprecedented, unexpected, and that would have the power to implode the confined world of our stultifying and marketable imaginations for the market that feeds them. This observation obviously presupposes questioning the conditions of shifting, of offsetting, but also of reversing the imaginary – that is to say, the conditions of restoring the possible. It is not enough to arm Little Red Riding Hood so that she blows up the wolf’s mouth – it is not enough, even if it is not unpleasant to imagine that (notwithstanding psychoanalysis), to imagine this frail and obliging little girl, catching the wolf and slitting its throat, cutting off its tail and making the wolf eat it before it had time to consider the possibility of slaughtering the grandmother, the child and scaring entire generations who, rather than being afraid of man, their grandfather, their father, their boss, the hunter or the neighbour, began to exterminate the animal.
In other words, it is not enough to reverse the roles, even if it may be educational. As seen by Gisèle Vienne, there is a more subtle, more methodical way: it is first necessary to unravel, to take apart, to deconstruct the framework and, in the process, to open up possibilities of liberating reconfiguration. Gisèle Vienne’s work thus consists of suspending time: she wants to take the time necessary to analyse all the dimensions of this continuous moment, where the setting functions fully for us and in us; where we are not only the object or the intermediaries of social myths but also actual myth-makers. We could therefore equip the blonde with weapons. Gisèle chooses to explore the fascination and excitement of the family man or the psychopath (who is merely the reverse twin), lurking in our imaginations, rather than representing what it means to revolt, to rise up, to destroy, to resist, to overthrow and, finally, to defend oneself against deadly regimes.

This examination, so characteristic of her work, has never found a more accurate discourse of method than in Crowd. In this work, Gisèle Vienne explores the time taken by the gesture, understanding all ideas, emotions, representations and experiences as movements; grasping the social relationships and the political fabric of interactions in and through choreographic thought. It is then a question of reflecting on the social and moral encoding of these movements; and she chooses to do so by capturing the moment when they are diverted, reoriented, docile or restive, held back or accentuated; that moment when they are in conflict, when we are conflicted. By taking a paradigmatic scene of contemporary trance, a rave, commonly perceived as a useless, unproductive, debauched and immoral communion, a mass of the post-ideological, no-future, pre-apocalyptic generation... by taking what seems to be the most absurd, what seems to be the poorest in terms of philosophical, artistic, critical and political meaning, Gisèle Vienne proceeds from our physical state of existence, from the impurity of our travels, the complexity of our lives, the ambivalence of our desires, the antagonism, the tension, the crisis in relation to oneself, to others, to the world. 

Everything can be fast, jerky, rhythmic, as if to better prepare to stop the movement in suspension. Then, by sl-ow-ing do-wn movement to the extreme, it is a matter of understanding its precariousness, that is to say, its constraints as well as limitations, and thus of restoring its potential; but it is also a matter of understanding its power: that of creating an event, of inscribing it in reality, of concretising it in a world, of creating a community, of forming a political chorus. A positivity is revealed in this exploration of the microscopic scale of politics: not just to undermine and unravel the myths, social constructions, norms and the disciplining of bodies and lives, of desires and fantasies, of perceptions of the world, but to give substance to the lived dimensions for which we do not yet have words and discourses, narratives and visuals, disciplines and aesthetics.

From these sub-surface, occult dimensions, Gisèle Vienne composes a score, a choir, a grammar, a thought, a ritual, a universe. Her universe, our universe, is radically critical: the routine hum of our myths, of our desires and imaginations, of our normalised existences, of our consumer and mass-consumed identities, reproducible, disposable, of our democratic impulses, amnesiac and complacent, brutalised and brutalising, all this is ultimately not the core, the object of the staging. It is not the responsibility of Gisèle Vienne.

It is first necessary to unravel, to take apart, to deconstruct the framework and, in the process, to open up possibilities of liberating reconfiguration Gisèle Vienne

On stage, the challenge is not to relieve us of our mystifications at the least cost, in a parenthesis during which, in the space-time of the performance, we might reflect on them, as if to relieve ourselves, to spare ourselves, and then quietly go back to our »real« lives. On stage, another ontology of life is played out, of our political rage. There are gestures so well understood that we perceive their impure, obstinate and decelerated impulse; on stage, there are beings of flesh, rag and silicone, there are monsters, delirious figures, delusional, clairvoyant, performances of puppets, of dolls. Are the dolls figures, stereotypes that need to be put into crisis? Or are they, rather the people representing the rifts in the tragedy of the times, indomitable resisters to the raw violence of the world?
The dolls represent you, me, you, us, they are the ones who, with their empty gaze or from under their hoods, focus on our fragile points, our depleting reserves, our chasms and our worries, our vital stumbling blocks: they look us in the eyes, they call us out. They are the ones, which, immobile, displace meaningful relationships, ways of associating and dissociating signifiers and the signified, the desired, the undesirable, they flag up distortions, complicities, hindrances, disfigurations but also memories, experiences, possibilities that lie there. And then they are silent and pensive: they carry the voice not of the »voiceless« but of the »unheard«: of these existences that speak, express, struggle, hesitate, call and shout but that are left to exhaust themselves in the void, in the unreal, that are covered with deafening noises, with the question »why?« with »reassuring« words, of advice, of judgments, of diagnoses, with insults, lies, authoritarian injunctions to keep quiet or to speak properly, appropriately.

Gisèle Vienne’s dolls are calm as death and yet, I imagine them plotting: they organise themselves, they talk to each other and join forces to generalise the disorder, to make it total, to make our accursed roles, our vital energies recede, to transfigure our capitalist fantasies, the ambient pornography at the end of the world and our agonising insignificance, impotence – those that authorise us to exonerate or to sacrifice ourselves –; to make it excite our vengeful rages, our refusals, that it eases our wounds, that it sharpens our perceptions, that it holds us in the moment of crisis when the future is suspended, right there in front of us: all it takes is a gesture, a synchronous impulse.
»It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.« This sentence by F. Jameson addressed the libidinal economy of advanced neoliberalism. According to Gisèle Vienne, we might also continue: »It is easier to imagine killing little girls than to imagine the end of neoliberal patriarchy.«          


ELSA DORLIN is a professor of philosophy at the University of Paris 8 Vincennes-Saint-Denis. She is considered one of the leading contemporary French theoreticians. The artist GISÈLE VIENNE is in intensive exchange with her about both their works.

Translation: Panthea