Aaron Van Dyke

Isabelle Pauwels—Triple Bill

Aaron Van Dyke

Still from Triple Bill, 2007
Isabelle Pauwels

Triple Bill is in some sense a documentary, but it will disappoint in many ways if it is only seen as attempting to convey a clear picture of its subject. In fact, its subject is never pictured, if one can claim something so simple as “a subject” for this work. Pauwels visits porn theaters in Vancouver and records a few of these visits, but not in a conventional way. She does this in ways that short circuit the psychic economy of porn. No pornographic images appear in the work, and little clearly discernable audio from the movies she attends is heard in Pauwels’ work. What we are left with is largely a textual representation of the visits.

Text precludes certain elements that are important to what we typically think of as pornography. Figurative representation, the missing element here, allows one a certain hold on the subject—this is reflected strongly on the metaphors we use; we capture images, shoot video, take pictures, etc. The textual account of events is subjective in a way we conventionally consider opposite to the image’s apparent objectivity. Pauwels plays with these conventions, withholding the image, and, one might say, feminizing the pornographic. But this does not, and is not intended to, eliminate or subsume desire and pleasure, or even the narrative, for that matter. There is still tension in the narrative and the work offers arousal, even if not in an entirely straightforward sense.

The sense of the subject eluding one’s grasp is heightened by the speed at which the text scrolls. It is nearly impossible to catch all of the words on the screen, especially when, as sometimes happens, more than one dialog is occurring simultaneously. This intensifies the awareness of working to get the story and foregrounds its subjectivity and point of view. Gone is the seemingly transparent window of the documentary film or photograph, which seems to have returned with such a vengeance in recent years. The recent return of this trend often presents a self-conscious subject, but ignores the subjectivity of the viewer, instead packaging the work in the most easily digestible form possible.

Still from Triple Bill, 2007
Isabelle Pauwels

Pauwels’ work forces one to be a conscious participant in the construction of the story and acknowledges inter-subjectivity—subjectivity cannot exist in isolation. The subject is necessarily active and engages with the work, or the work’s own subjectivity, if you will. Pauwels is not entertaining the viewer, not simply producing something to be consumed. This also separates Triple Bill from its presumed subject matter. Though, when one thinks about it, pornography is an unusual mix of entertainment, consumption and engagement. Viewers demand a certain amount of explicitness, but are required to use their imagination, if for no other reason, because the scene is not present to them. They must imagine themselves within the scene offered to them.

Triple Bill requires much more than this, as stated above. There is a history of avant-garde film that Triple Bill is engaging here. The film evokes Guy Debord’s infamous 1952 film, Hurlements en faveur de Sade (Howls for de Sade, or literally, Howls in favor of de Sade).[1] Debord’s film implies pornography by including the name de Sade[2] in its title, but the film is the furthest thing imaginable from the conventional notions of pornography. The film, eighty minutes long, alternates between a completely white screen with voices quoting various fragments of text, and a black screen and a silent soundtrack. The final twenty-four minutes of the film are dark and silent. The howls came from the audience.

Though Pauwels goes nowhere near such extremes, and seems to have no intention of deliberately disappointing her audience, her work does perform an act of resistance. But this resistance is complicated in that it examines narrative structures and documentary forms while constructing a documentary narrative. In some sense this is classic modernist self-criticality, the kind of interrogation of an artistic medium that led painters to paint monochromes when they asked, “what is painting?” or, “how much can I get rid of and still call it a painting?”

However, Pauwels has incorporated critical historical lessons into her work. She is no longer interrogating a medium, but a practice, a way of making art and the position of that maker. She rebuffs the possibility of objectivity and the documentary in its oft-practiced form by breaking the cardinal rule of journalism—she doesn’t just spin the story, as a woman in a male space, she is the story. She creates the entire situation with her presence. She is an intruder into this space and the object of desire, but in a way that doesn’t make sense within the conventions of the pornographic theater. Women in this space, whether on screen or in the audience, are understood to be there for ulterior motives; to be blunt, they are seen as some sort of prostitute. From the point of view of the male moviegoers, the actresses are paid for their roles and the women in the theater are thought to be there to perform sexual favors for money or drugs. Pauwels’ presence creates a major schism in that reality. She is there of her own accord to satisfy her own impulses, not at the service of the male clientele.

What has struck me most about Pauwels’ work is this forthrightness. Pauwels’ work is admirable and brave, adjectives rarely used to describe art. She takes personal risks that matter. This is all the more striking in an era of art making that promotes raucousness, but risks little. Her work deals with important aspects of contemporary life. Life is in some sense a subject of experimentation, and this experimentation in turn improves life.

[1] After being completely unavailable for many years—Debord withdrew the film not long after its release, stipulating that the film could not be screened during his lifetime (Debord died in 1994)—one can now see clips of the film on YouTube.

[2] Marquis de Sade (1740–1814) was a French noble known for his erotic writing. The term “sadism” is derived from his name.

This essay was published for the exhibition Jason McLean & Isabelle Pauwels at Occasional in Saint Paul, MN, May 5–June 30, 2007.