Chapter Two: Deconstructing Slurs
“I’ve got a cunt and I am not afraid to use it … Power to the pussy … It’s time to make cunts great again …” These lyrics belong to the piece Feminine Hygiene performed and created by Marika Pratley and Virginia Kennard. The Bearded Ladies presented it in The Performance Arcade as a part of their show as a cabaret group from Philadelphia.
Cabaret is undoubtedly one of the most appropriate artistic forms to produce meanings through subversive affirmation, as it criticizes social and political constructions in the disguise of commercial entertainment. Marika and Virginia use overemphasised bodily expressions and vulgar language to highlight the problem of socially objectified female bodies. In their performance, slurs are used as tools to reveal the social constructions of womanhood in a masculine society and to deconstruct these words’ socially determined meanings. Feminine Hygiene filters oppressed positions of women to revive the power of female energy.
A similar tactic of resistance against male-dominated society appears in the performance of Adrienne Truscott, an American choreographer. Her piece tackles the reduction of women down to only their sexuality and genitalia. In her work, she controls a puppet character, Vagina Dentata, while performing the song Mein Herr from the 1972 American musical drama film Cabaret. It is a song that praises the independence of women in their sexual lives. In Truscott’s version, it is performed as a dialogue between the performer and the puppet. Through her puppet’s character, Adrienne Truscott returns a voice to the oppressed and depersonalised female body. Truscott’s Vagina Dentata symbolically bites off all the slurs produced by masculine society.
The Performance Arcade 2020 also hosted an artwork that encourages the audience to conceive a world liberated from hate speech through verbal hygiene. The concept of Doug Beube’s installation Wash takes inspiration from disciplinary methods from our childhoods. It takes the parental threat of washing our mouth out with soap when we say a swear word and expands it to a broader society. Beube created white oval soaps, carved slurs from different cultures into them with black ink, put them in the soap dishes, and attached them on the wall.
This installation looks static at first sight, but it is interactive – the visitors are encouraged to choose one soap, take it out of the dish, and wash the slur away with the tap water. Beube’s black and white wall excellently reflects the intentions of the divisive nature of hate speech that builds artificial boundaries between good and evil and denies each human being’s uniqueness. The use of slurs ignores the variety and complexity in the world. This installation gradually changes throughout the washing process – ink pours out of the carving and spills into organic shapes and shades on the white soap base. The world is not as black and white as hatred speech tries to depict. Wash erodes the power that slurs hold.
Each washing in Beube’s Wash at The Performance Arcade 2020 was a unique experience contributing to the concept. As Doug’s assistant during the festival, I witnessed many washing rituals and discussed with visitors their understanding of the piece. To avoid a mess inside the container, the artist only let one person wash at a time.
This creation of an individual experience does more than just control the art space. It also constructs many symbolic elements. Each act of washing becomes an intimate ritual. The visitor enters the space, takes time to look around, think about their choice, slowly puts the soap underwater, and wallows in the experience. The process of washing is done in isolation. This action evokes a strong emotional memory. Beube endowed us with Zarathustrian isolation. We can get in touch with our most profound emotional self, wash away all of our (collective) sins, and prepare ourselves for the revival of a community.
We did many washing rituals during the festival, and visitors usually patiently waited in the queue to get their intimate moment in the sacred space. Sometimes we also had to deal with the impatient passers-by who lost their interest to participate when they realised that they had to queue to participate in the piece. These interactions perfectly match with our fast-paced life in postmodern society, which does not leave us a lot of time for ourselves. Wash is trying to return the time we lose when we blindly run from one duty to another. A slow, intimate process of washing in a private encounter slows down our experience of the outside world.
But at the same time, the rituals in Beube’s container produce another message. When an individual rubs the soap under the water, the carved slur’s shape and colour start to transform, but the word does not disappear completely. To erase the writing entirely, the process has to be repeated by other individuals. This chain of actions can be understood as the artist’s warning about slurs’ pervasive influence in our culture. It also acts as a call to work together to fight against the consequences of violent language. Doug Beube created in Wash, a world of patience and cooperation, which is the most potent weapon against hate speech.
Wash facilitates the deconstruction of slurs by starting in isolated intimacy and extending into a collective resistance. Washing rituals at The Performance Arcade 2020 evoked diverse emotional reactions. Some participants acted very aggressively against the chosen soap by scratching out the ink and the carving. But we aimed to restrict such violent approaches to preserve the slow-motion of transformations. Aggressive actions ruin the concept of Buebe’s artwork. Violence is not the right way to suppress violence. On the last day of The Performance Arcade, an encounter confirmed the power of Buebe’s idea. A woman waded into her emotional world as she rubbed the soap slowly and gently under the water. She was crying, but she treated the soap as if it was a sacred object. And, as she washed, the carved word gradually disappeared- as if the slur was washed away by the washer’s vulnerability.
Three artists with three different artistic approaches presented a way to deconstruct slurs at The Performance Arcade 2020. Two were feminist cabaret pieces that deconstruct negative connotation of words through subversive affirmation. The third was an interactive installation that opposes violent language with an aesthetically designed art space that hosts intimate rituals. These artworks share a commonality. They create resistance through physical action by using overemphasised bodily expressions, a puppet as personalised genitals, and washing rituals as a weapon against verbal aggression.
In this chapter, the artists we discussed show that art has the privilege to deconstruct slurs and transform them into a form of active resistance.
What do you think, reader?
Does that mean that physical action can reduce the power of hateful language? Are aggressive words only ephemeral formations that can be erased by concrete actions? Can we change the consequences slurs cause if we react with the opposite response?