Toxic (2012, Super 16mm/HD, 13’) by Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz

Film installation, vitrine with fifteen photographs, curtain, theatre spots. Director of photography: Bernadette Paassen. Performers: Werner Hirsch, Ginger Brooks Takahashi.

Screened on 26 Nov 2014 at Centre for African Studies Gallery, Cape Town University, as part of “Thinking against Violence – queer perspectives.”

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The film Toxic (2012) shows two protagonists in an undetermined time: a glamorous punk figure (Ginger Brooks Takahashi) and an imposing drag queen (Werner Hirsch), both of unclear gender and origin. They linger in an environment of glossy remains and a forest of toxic plants. The background images of transformed ethnographic and police photographs are projected on a screen in a rhythm set by the clicks of a camera. The punk’s speech and performance reference early feminist artworks such as Yvonne Rainer’s dance piece Inner Appearances and Mierle Laderman Ukele’s grooming of art institutions. The drag queen reenacts an interview with Jean Genet from the 1980s and blames the filmmakers for exposing her to the police-like scenario of being filmed. The camera turns and depicts the space-off, the space outside the frame, thus revealing the apparatus of film production and the personalization of its regime.

When Pauline Boudry and I started our research about the discourse on and employment of “toxicity,” we initially focused on the so-called mug shot. The mug shot—invented in the late nineteenth century—is a way to photograph a human with two cropped and paired sights, one frontal, the other from profile. It was used by various state and scientific institutions, such as the police or anthropology, to identify “characters,” which meant, to install social hierarchies and to legitimize privileges. The photographers and viewers acquired normalcy and privilege through marking the photographed as criminals, sex workers, homosexuals, black people, and people from the colonies. This history fundamentally troubles the usage of the visual and photography in contemporary art: How can we produce, in the frame of this violent history of visualization, representations of bodies that rupture and queer this legacy of violence? […]

Our shooting took place in Paris, where the film was supposed to premiere as part of the Paris Trienniale, which was entitled “Intense Proximity” and dealt with French anthropological and colonial history. Accordingly, the Paris World’s Fairs of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were ghosts that accompanied our search. Pauline and I discussed W.E.B. du Bois’s series of 363 photographs called Types of American Negroes, Georgia, U.S.A, , which were his contribution to the American Negro Exhibit at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris and won him a gold medal. While largely making use of the mug shot, Du Bois’s photographs still might be seen as toxic to the legacy of racist taxonomy and eugenics, which were so overwhelmingly present at the World’s Fair. [¼]

The discourse on toxicity alludes to many different fields of politics, especially those touching on the body, such as HIV/AIDS and the history of AIDS movements, illness in general, and the engagement of patient movements (e.g., the SPK, or “Socialist Patient Collective”), drugs, and the question how they intervene into the pace of capitalism, bodies in transition and the freeing of hormones from medicalized practices. Furthermore, toxicity and media have an intimate relationship. Yet they are by no means monogamous, but rather develop multiple and dynamic connections that could be called “toxic assemblages.” Mug shots intoxicate bodies that are captured by the criminalizing or pathologizing gaze. Subjectivities, insinuated as toxins of the social body, inhabit fantasies and travel in media images, thus becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. The usage, production, and circulation of media technologies spread poison globally, although in highly differentiated and differentiating ways.

Yet assemblages are neither stable nor foreseeable. Therefore, the question is where and how toxicity may also develop pleasurable, enabling, surprising, and curative effects. How might media and technologies that poison and hurt also cure and empower? Are there strategies of intoxication that can be turned against themselves? And could the intoxicated social body become the home of queer socialities?

Antke Engel and Renate Lorenz

Extracts from: Toxic Assemblages, Queer Socialities: A Dialogue of Mutual Poisoning, by Antke Engel and Renate Lorenz, in: e-flux journal #44, 4/2013,

thinking gender violence4

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