Exhibition

A01: On John Samson at GoMA, Glasgow

Following a visit to the recent show of John Samson films at Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art, two members of Arkiv discussed their thoughts on the exhibition.

For the purposes of this article they will be known as A and B.
The conversation took place on Sunday, 5 February 2017 12:42.

A
For me, it was revolutionary in terms of GoMA programming.
I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall during the meetings of the curator showing – or perhaps not – articulating the content of the films to the Glasgow Life board.

B
Yes. From the moment I walked through those clandestine PVC strip curtains it felt like a very different show for GoMA.
I really want to know how those negotiations went.

A
Absolutely. At first I felt I was entering a fetish butchers and I was not far off.

B
It was so clandestine, pushing through the weight of those PVC curtains and then being faced with this purple-lit room dominated by these giant screens and monoliths. The first impression was a big one.

A
The low purple light made me feel at ease.
Sort of like you could easily slip in and out… like a sex shop? We went round the back of the shop a.k.a. the gallery.
In other respects, on entry it felt very ‘British’ – even though through much of the texts and material it’s very focused on the fact that he is a Scottish filmmaker working in London.
[Note: British – the accents through all films were varied dialects of English and the presence of manufacturing was reminiscent of an imagined feel of a British (Colonial) Industrial Revolution.]

B
You’re so right, it was so British. I found particularly in Dressing for Pleasure (1977) everyone talked so politely and properly. In Tattoo (1975) as well there was a real cordiality. The arrangement of the screens afforded us that opportunity too, to weave in and out. I guess like a sex shop, yes.

A
Yeah, the contrast between this Queen’s English or very well spoken Northerners that were so heavily featured versus the rubber and the leather was really something.
I felt very anonymous in there, which was nice, sometimes viewing film in a gallery is like viewing people viewing the film. Here you could do it secretly.

B
Like voyeurism? But not just of the films, of the space the films were shown in too. It’s that point of entry that’s difficult with places like sex shops. Or even my first few steps into a Gay bar. Once you make it in though, you’re back in this open space, with like-minded people. The anxiety of entering the space lifts.

A
Yeah totally, and conversely, moving out of the space through the rubber zapped you of all the energy from the space in a way, back to ‘Glasgow Life’-life.

B
Yes! And it was so interesting to see all the different people watching these films. I think the diversity of subject matter Samson tackled meant there was a lot for people to gauge within one show. There was a lot of emotions – titillation and excitement but relief, which was mentioned a lot in The Skin Horse and then, just genuine interest.

A
Yes, The Skin Horse (1983) for me is the stand out piece from Samson.
Which I guess popular culture agrees with too, it’s probably his most well-known and critically well-received piece?
That scene where the narrator talks about Tony Gerrard, the comedian in the wheelchair and talks about the audience’s laughing and how it is a laugh of relief…that goes deep.

B
His reflections on where the laughs were coming from – it wasn’t laughs at him, or disabilities, but the fact a disabled man in a wheelchair was joking about leaving tire marks on his girlfriend’s thighs. It was funny. But I was laughing out of relief too.
I also really was impressed by Samson’s sensitivity – all the members of The Outsiders Club represented themselves. Which even now is rare when you have people like Eddie Redmayne playing Stephen Hawking. 1
[Note: That club featured in the film offered chronically disabled people the opportunity to meet, socialise with and date other disabled people became the subject of a tabloid shame campaign.]

A
Which also makes me think of the disastrous film The Danish Girl. 2
The woman in the film who writes the letter and chooses to have a “proper” voice over…

B
Her choice to represent herself that way was … I don’t know.

A
It also does sort of relate to Hawking, that idea that someone has a whole life inside their head that can’t be expressed properly through their body. She had a letter, Hawking has a computer. She was wonderful, I hope she found love.

B
It sounded like she was dating a guy from that party fairly regularly. But that reliance on others for that to happen – I hope it worked out for her. Those alternative forms of expressions seemed to speak of similar things to the other films, the wider programme.

A
Yeah completely, the rubber, the tattoos…
All social signifiers of an identity.

B
Yes.

A
The 3 sexes was also something we touched on briefly on Friday.
How does that relate to the present day notions of ‘other’? How would you classify the 3rd sex now if you couldn’t use the word disabled? That question is maybe a bit unclear…I was thinking that everything that doesn’t apply into a neat category is now ‘other’ or ‘prefer not to say’.

B
Yes, the notion that the Narrator brought up – there is male, female and disabled.
But I guess within the disabled community, there’s this diversity of people and abilities, and instead of they themselves creating that group, it’s able-bodied people that have always done that.

A
Yeah, the outwardly able/privileged classify everything in sight to be able to stand apart and maintain said privileges, as with all forms of oppression.

B
I found when he was speaking about them not being in control of their own bodies, and them being either fetishised or infantilised spoke of a whole lots of struggles – the women’s rights movement, access to abortion etc, and then the never-ending obsession with Trans peoples genitalia by Cisgendered people. But in this instance it was a disabled person representing disabled people, so it’s important not to detract from that.

A
Yeah, absolutely. I wonder what he asked John Samson about in relation to him wanting to make this work.

B
Even now I’m wondering what he’d think of two able-bodied people writing about the film. He’d probably ask us some very difficult questions. And I think boiling the film down to it being amazing and interesting is part of the problematics of it all (even though that’s how I felt). For the people in this film- their living with disability isn’t an amazing interesting thing, it’s a lived reality.
And yet they were all so incredibly impressive.

A
Yeah the viewing itself makes us complicit and they were, anyone able to give themselves over with such vulnerability and strength on film should be applauded.
For me, with The Skin Horse it was a shame that the main (big) piece Dressing for Pleasure was encroaching audibly on it. I love the piece of music at the end of Dressing for Pleasure – my dad would call it prog rock probably – but yeah, it ruined the audio/transfixing state you achieve in The Skin Horse.

B
Yes, every now and then you’d here some Londoner talking about their rubber gimp mask in between shots.

A
[Laughs] Yes.

B
I think that was a shame, but having all the films with headphones would have made the gallery space a bit eerily silent. That prog rock soundtrack really gave the room some life. Although every time I’ve been in to see this show it’s been busy with people – there’s an energy in the space.

A
It’s definitely a tough spot in terms of curating and yes, I’ve been 3 times now and I’ve never been alone, which I can’t say for other GoMA shows I have visited previously. I do think the way the space was laid out meant none of the films interacted/interrupted (depending how you see it) with each other, each one was given the space it needed.
I also liked the banners, but then again was a bit confused to the aim of them? – on a side note: I would have liked to buy a print of them though.

B
Yeah, I think they were another spectacle – I liked them a lot and their placement along the blacked-out windows was great. They seemed to serve a similar function to the text and interviews along the back of the big chipboard monoliths.

A
Yeah it tied together a lot of Samson’s materials in a more abstract way, layers of his interests.
The smiley, I wonder though, where did it come from?

B
I’m not sure, it just reminded me of ecstasy and the 90s.

A
Yes absolutely and reminded me of [redacted], he would have leggings with them.
Speaking of the 90s, I can totally imagine the Trainspotting cast going to see this and being like “art is alright eh?”

B
Yes.
If I saw Ewan McGregor’s Renton watching Dressing For Pleasure I’d probably find a good spot where I could see both the film and him.
[laughs]

A
[laughs]

B
Dressing for Pleasure had a great host of characters though – I think the two old women talking about making the outfits, and the requests they get were really reassuring in their response to the crowd they found themselves catering for.

A
The fashion show of the different coloured rubber clothing. It made me want rubber, the creaking sound from bending/moving…so ASMR. 3

B
It made me wish I could afford rubber.
Yes, every stretch and turn. And I think the women discussing being on the train in her gear was Jordan Mooney. It wasn’t until I was watching Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane (1976) that I realised the woman in the background was the same one. She was a kind of poster girl for Punk and whenever she wasn’t in London she was hanging out with Warhol at the factory. 4

A
Also interesting… in the context of the 50 Shades of Grey books…5
I wonder if any fans of the book also came to see this, which kind of goes back to our discussion of the politeness of everyone in the film…tip toeing around the exhibition. I heard no creaking of rubber amongst the GoMA audience.

B
I feel like people who read 50 Shades of Grey are very ignorant of leather and fetish culture.

A
Yes.
But they have fantasies that are perhaps impeded by this idea it’s wrong? And so the fantasy is not explored well, to its full potential? Stifled by badly written erotica, as opposed to this accessible normalisation of that fetish world.

B
The politeness is often disarming. I’ve found that myself when being in fetish club nights – it’s not the Christian Greys of the world waiting to tug your inner Goddess’ pubic hair or whatever.
There’s a real etiquette within the fetish scene and in the film the etiquette went beyond the people wearing the rubber and all the way to the people making it. They spoke of it with such respect and no judgement on their customers.

A
Yeah there was a real bond and understanding.

B
Bond…[laughs]

A
A real bondage.

B
When they were talking about the agoraphobic girl and how wearing rubber made her feel safe it was really jarring to think of rubber NOT as a sexual thing but as something practical and nourishing.

A
That felt bizarre to me at first and then I thought; darkness, warmth, sweat, – a womb – another skin, another body around you, safety.

B
I find the whole discussion around S&M so interesting – and I guess in a way I’m very lucky that it can just be ‘interesting’ to me. But Radical Feminism denounces it – which I disagree with, whereas Liberal feminism thinks whatever a woman chooses to do is 10/10 great – which I also disagree with because the way society influences your opinions and development can change the way you make choices. I know that as a Queer person. But I find that to discuss S&M’s problems within a male/female dynamic just tends to erase the fact that it emerged from Queer communities.

A
Yeah, for me, it’s hard to know whether anything I decide to do for myself is for men (read: society) or really for myself…in a way the water is so muddied now and I haven’t made up my mind. I definitely feel that I dress less feminine (in the normative sense) to push away anything that might resemble a play towards attracting that version of a hetero man because that really makes me feel uncomfortable…on a very daily basis. I like to think I dress for myself but inherently by being a woman, I never feel I have full ownership of my body. And if I wanted to dress in rubber it would be for myself as well.

B
It is difficult – a lot of them time I find myself trying to work out what situation calls for more or less makeup, really I shouldn’t give a shit though, but then the captivating thing about the people in this film was that it was a pretty solitary thing even if it operates within this community.

A
Yeah that internal conversation about what to/not to wear is hard, because it gets us/you/me into trouble.

B
In relation to the rubber, perhaps it might become something that you would invite a loved one into seeing – although of course there is the sexual aspect – but I think i was more interested in the emotional aspect of it.

A
Yeah, but maybe not, maybe I’ll masturbate and wear a rubber stocking one day.

B
Maybe you will. And hear the creaking of the rubber.

A
In a way sex drifted in and out of the film, but the human connection was always present, be it to themselves or to each other.
Also interesting to see the assimilation of rubber into popular culture, for example Katy Perry, Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga amongst others.
“First come the gays, then the girls, then…the industry” 6

B
Yeah, and I wonder how many of these women have gay men dressing them?
It’s part of why female models tend to be so skinny and boyish. It’s gay men that have monopolized the fashion industry, which is a problem in itself – gay men and old women.

A
Here are Katy’s many, many, many rubber dresses in the same silhouette. 7
Also, question, why do they call it latex rather than rubber? – Is that to minimise the ‘fetish’ element?

B
I’m not sure I’d never thought of it.
Is one the brand name? Does it being a brand name maybe make it less sexy? Americans do that with everything though – they don’t have tissues, they have Kleenex and so on.

A
I think it’s a pretty general term, used in Drag as well.
It might be a slight difference in thickness? But I’m no expert, latex is perhaps a different formulation to rubber?

B
I am so clueless about Drag Culture from the 90s onwards. You and [redacted] might have to educate me.

A
We might have to, although, it’s not without its own problems in terms of transphobic and misogynistic behaviours.
Although I think the new season [of RuPaul’s Drag Race] has a trans woman in the cast, it will be interesting to see how the producers handle that…8

 

1) Hawking (film)
http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/eddie-redmayne-on-the-theory-of-everything-stephen-hawking-and-disability-in-film-9948955.html
2) Problems with The Danish Girl
http://www.indiewire.com/2015/12/regressive-reductive-and-harmful-a-trans-womans-take-on-tom-hoopers-embarrassing-danish-girl-213499/
3) What is ASMR?
https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/12/how-to-have-a-brain-orgasm/282356/
4) Jordan Mooney
http://www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/32470/1/a-rare-interview-with-jordan-punk-s-enigmatic-frontwoman
5) 50 shades of hmmm
http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/fifty-shades-grey-a-dominatrixs-773577
6) Sex And The City season 6, episode 6
Samantha Jones’ peptalk to her Absolut Hunk
7) Katy Perry in rubber
https://www.google.com/search?q=katy+perry+rubber+dresses
8) RuPaul is still problematic
http://www.pride.com/firstperson/2016/4/07/no-matter-how-much-you-rupauls-drag-race-its-still-problematic