Here are some photographs from the exhibition I recently put together, based around my book, Viewing Pleasure and Being A Showgirl, How Do I Look? Thanks to the artists who took part: Sophie Lisa Beresford, Julie Cook, Nwando Ebizie as Lady Vendredi, Alice Finch, Laura Gonzalez, Lucy Halstead, Sharon Kivland, Britten Leigh, Chloe Nightingale, and Isabella Streffen.
I’m putting together a group show for the Market Gallery, Huddersfield. It is based on the conclusion of my recently published book. Come join me for the opening 11th October.
My book has been published, Routledge.
About the book:
Drawing on interviews with a breadth of different showgirls, from shows in Paris, Las Vegas, Berlin, and Los Angeles, as well as her own artworks and those by other contemporary and historical artists, this book examines the experiences of showgirls and those who watch them, to challenge the narrowness of representations and discussions around what has been termed ‘sexualisation’ and ‘the gaze’. An account of the experience of being ‘looked at’, the book raises questions of how the showgirl is represented, the nature of the pleasure that she elicits and the suspicion that surrounds it, and what this means for feminism and the act of looking.
An embodied articulation of a new politics of looking, Viewing Pleasure and Being a Showgirl engages with the idea (reinforced by feminist critique) that images of women are linked to selling and that women’s bodies have been commodified in capitalist culture, raising the question of whether this enables particular bodies – those of glamorous women on display – to become scapegoats for our deeper anxieties about consumerism.
An artwork inspired by comerce, consumerism, the glamour of cars and embodied by girls in catsuits performing a Busby Berkeley-esque kaledoscopic routine. Roman Vasseur’s Franchise
Andrea Fraser takes up the position of the stripping woman in her performance Official Welcome, in which she addresses an assembled art audience giving an introduction to ‘the artist Andrea Fraser’. The scripted dialogue, in which she performs ‘artist’ and ‘supporter’ quotes a number of collectors’ and artists’ real introductions and acceptance speeches, all delivered whilst Frasers strips naked and then clothes herself again by the end of the performance:
Artist: Yeah, the art world likes “bad girls.” But if you tell the truth and people don’t want to hear the truth. If you’re honest about how stupid and fucked over life is, you end up in the tabloids. I don’t go looking for it. It just comes in a big stinking tidal wave. Removing bra, then shoes, then thong. I’m used to it. It’s boring. […]
Supporter: Well, thank you. Thank you for your dedication, for your vision, for your life. I think we all must dare, as artists do, to break free of the past and to create a better future, rooted in the values that never change. That’s the great lesson our artists teach us.
Museum Highlights: The Writings of Andrea Fraser (2005) Andrea Fraser ed. Alexander Alberro
Fraser’s work can be understood within the context ‘Institutional Critique’, as pioneered by the artists Hans Haacke and Michael Asher. Within this positioning her work takes on an intellectually engaged examination of what we expect a contemporary artist to give us; she subverts what we think art is by conflating the site of the artwork, the museum, the collector, the critic and the performer. Can we be sure where they all begin and end?
The project ‘Untitled’ is also really worth looking up. Fraser’s work is always smart and fearless and I have incredible respect for her practice.
I feel I shall have to transition from photography and video and into live art and performance practices to really continue this list. Before I do, I shall just list women photographers who in some way address the Showgirlian.
Elinor Carucci is a photographer by day, but a belly dancer by night. She’s documented her dancing life in the book and series ‘Diary of a Dancer‘. A well-observed project in which we see the types of venues, audiences, costumes, dance moves, preparations and the come down following performing. Its documentary and a diary. Just through pictures, a complex narrative is told. With lots of sequins.
Katharina Bosse‘s book New Burlesque is a fabulous collection of portraits of New Burlesque dancers. The dancers look fabulous in clothes the look like they could be performance costume, or in some cases, sassy day wear. The pose and flirt with the camera knowingly, in domestic spaces, corners of cafes and deserts – nowhere you’d expect to find them. They are there, at the beginning of this new movement, carving out a space for themselves. It is a joyous book.
Jo Ann Callis‘s practice spans decades. I saw an exhibition of her work at the Getty Center, Los Angeles and I made loads of notes as I wanted to review the show for a magazine (I didn’t in the end). But you know, I almost feel that to write about Callis’s work is a redundant gesture. I don’t think they need much introduction. I adore her photographs and I love looking at them. Much of her work is concerned with femininity and the experience of being a woman. Just take a browse round her website. Look out for ‘Woman Twirling’ and ‘Performance’. She taught me when I was at CalArts, and she was just had so much style, I would wear any of her outfits.
To reduce Sophie Calle‘s down to just the work she did stripping is a sin. However, this is what I shall do here and now. Please go look up Calle’s wider practice if she’s new to you.
Sophie Calle’s practice is brave, transgressive, self-reflexive, uses herself. But it’s wider than that, its also about how we perform ourselves, how we connect to other people, how our emotions shape us. How we look, and how we are looked at.
In feature film, Viva artist/filmmaker Anna Biller constructed a recreation of a Seventies sexploitation movie. The film is an uncomfortable mix of camp pastiche and truthful real-emotions storyline, which sees Barbie/Viva going on a journey of sexual emancipation. The final scene, celebratory and sad, sees Barbie and her friend in a down-market recreation of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell’s number Two Little Girls from Little Rock from the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. For Biller, the aim is to negotiate how female desire might be represented and provoked. Most interesting to Biller are the responses she receives from female viewers in support of the film; women can read the resistance in the film, but she finds male viewers only see pastiche.
 Anna Biller (2009) Viva [film] Los Angeles, CA: Cult Epics.
 Howard Hawks, Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell, Charles Coburn, Sol C. Siegel, Charles Lederer, Joseph A. Fields, and Anita Loos (1953) Gentlemen Prefer Blondes [film] Beverly Hills, CA: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2001.
 I talked to Anna Biller about the film in September 2010, LA.
Jemima Stehli adopted the position of the stripper in her photographic series Strip, in which she questioned the designation of power in the art world within a voyeuristic framework. She stands with her back to the camera in front of a seated male who is identified only by his job title, ‘Critic’, ‘Writer’, ‘Curator’ or ‘Dealer’. A long cable-release is visible in his hand. In each photograph Stehli is in a different state of undress caught in the act of stripping. The precise moment the photograph was taken during this private strip is controlled by the seated male, his power doubled through the status of his job in the art world. And yet, he is the pawn within Stehli’s game. She has created the scenario; it is her concept, her intellect, her skill, and her body that she chooses to display. She is active. The seated male is unable to not look; he must play the stooge. The photograph registers his level of satisfaction or discomfort: is that us, the viewer, looking at ourselves?
Leigh Ledare represents a transition into the frame, and a new way of approaching the showgirl. Now, my examples will be about embodying or trying out the showgirl, and thus, the following examples are about what she symbolises, how she can be used, rather than, who is she?
It’s worth pointing out, that these practices would not exist without a number of female photographers, whose work engages less with a Showgirlian impulse, but women-in-representation. So, look up, if you don’t already know:
Time for something more contemporary! Here are four male image-makers (they work in photo & video) who are using the figure of the stripper as a site of exploration. They show a fascination with the stripper but also work to expand our understanding of who she is and what she does.
Philip Lorca DiCorcia creates portraits that reinvigorate the form. He does more than portraits, actually, and his photographs always command my attention. He created a series of photographs of pole-dancers in action. I sense Lorca DiCorcia’s admiration and attempt to fathom the pole-dancer’s milieu in the photographs.
Mainly using video Francis Alys explores social constructions. He’s used a stripper combined with audio from a singer’s practicing exercises, to explore where a (public) performance begins and ends. Here, he employs the stripper’s performing, moving body, with it’s techniques and expertise, and yet this is not directly the subject of the work, rather, the stripper is used to construct something new in the artwork.
Let me start with a defence of my research. I don’t remember when or where I was, or whom I was speaking with, but shortly after Lana Del Rey released her single ‘Born to Die’, a female friend told me about the video. She was saying I had to watch it because she was ambivalent about the visual messages of the video: ‘It ends with her limp body being carried by her boyfriend’, and she wanted to know how I interpreted the video and her lyrics. Later that day I watched the video and I loved it. I’ve blogged already a little of my responses to it. I want to just underline what I can do with my research, and why I think it has value. I am invested in reading images of women, recognising where she has dominion over her body, her mind, her agency. I want to affirm and champion these instances. Sometimes, I question the value of simplicity of the intent of my research. And then, the furore created by Samantha Brick’s article in the Daily Mail and Ashley Judd’s puffy face makes me realise this is important research. We need to be able to recognise a woman’s self-possession and dominion over herself more than ever. I am here to do that.
Over the summer I became an expert showgirl-spectacle viewer.
During one show in Paris, my mind wandered and I began to develop a future consulting job for myself in which I get invited to view shows at rehearsal stage in order to advise how pleasure might be best generated in the show. I pictured my business card, ‘Dr Alison J Carr – showgirl consultant’. I mean, I think I could really help shows out, despite their wonderfulness, they really can make some bad dubious directional decisions. I could help them avoid that and enable them to create appeal for the broadest possible audience. And I could get to see the shows for free.
In the dark theatre, I could not make notes. I make notes in the pub afterwards:
I also visited Paradis Latin, and here are my notes from that show. At the end of the evening I rode a ‘velib’ – a bike you can rent in the street, to my friend’s flat to say goodbye to her before she travelled back to Berlin. Just some context for you!
Audience: tourists, families – large Indian family. Middle aged couples, girls aged 10, boys aged 13? Australian student group. Young smart couple, 20? Middle aged large group, breaks up into men and women. Two German women in 60s. Everyone dressed up smart. American father and son. Preppy Americans in front of me. Opening number, 10 women, 4 men. Is this chorography dated? Disco-ball entrance, blonde-singer, g-string. 5 girls techno-beat number, red top with cut out heart on sternum, more commercial dance. 4 boys enter, girls leave. 3 girls back – smiles! Topless dancer, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Sparkle sleeves, original. I like the dancers, personality. Head-dresses, just hair up, understated. Blonde-singer comes on with very Moulin Rouge headdress. Topless, singing. She doesn’t have ‘it’ fully. Two men juggling with hats. Black waistcosts, white shirts and trousers. Australian audience member pulled up on stage – juggler speaks English – tourist language. Cancan – three boys in red and black, two girls in pink. Ten-girl line, multicoloured costumes. Lots of yelping, like wildcats. Boy cartwheels and tumbles, takes centre-stage, why? Kicking music, same as Constance Grant Dance Centre uses (my dancing school). Three boys come on. Boy doing jumping splits – why? All girls in twos, 2 girls dancing together. Mr Bean type clown enters. Physical comedy. New number, 4 girls in trousers and 2 boys – all in the same costume, 5 girls in floppy drop-waisted dresses, 2 couples come on. Feels fresh, dramatic tango-like. Girls are boys in the choreography. Nice use of back. Cuban-heeled Oxfords on girls as boys, boys in a flatter heel but that’s the only difference in costume. Music is a bit Eurovision. 4 boys from Grease, 2 girls on ribbons, topless in S & M harnesses. They leave. Black strap costumes – nice. Blonde singer is ‘Arta’ the star girl/compère is a better dancer than singer. No singing. Topless male, more manly. White costume dancer with ballet-flats and thong. Enigma type music for ballet. Arta back in long backless frock. Good set of lungs on her. I don’t like her bottle blonde bob. Jazz Hot Baby – blue leotards and bows, pillbox hats. Great costume, not used enough. Jazz Hot – great song, would love a bit more tapping out. Arte talks in every langue – she’s like a flight announcement. Frothy, needs balls. Arta gets 4 audience men to dance on stage. Really?? A bride as a prize?? Bit weird. Bit buy-a-Russian-bride. Man comes on stage with showgirl holding a baby. Weird. Like Fire number, film Showgirls hand-move. Arte, she’s good, but I want a larger personality to carry the show, she’s slightly lacking in charisma. How do shows queer themselves? Finale black and pink. Love Me, 6 girls, topless, platform shoes for shorter dancers. Oui Je T’aime finale number.
The paper I delivered at Transmission: Hospitality has now been published on their website at http://extra.shu.ac.uk/transmission/papers/CARR%20Alison.pdf