Losing your head in the Photobooth
By Dave Williams
In my time in the “arts” in Trinidad & Tobago, I‘ve come to notice an interesting shift in the power and pursuits of artists. According to artist, Christopher Cozier, “artistic enterprise was about rendering or representing an inventory prescribed as Caribbean”. Consequently, artists produced works that were also intended to be inventory – made for sale. Today, however, in ‘e’ environment where the www has forever altered the transactive processes of the arts landscape, artistic practice has become more than just paints and canvas and exhibitions. Additionally, given the widely perceived shrinking of ambitions and voices of journalists, social scientists, teachers, priests, shrinks and operatives in every other social institution, artists are stepping in and filling the void.
The work of 23-year old, self-taught graphic designer, Rodell Warner is no exception to this shifting reality. One of the must-sees, or more like “must-do’s at Trinidad & Tobago’s inaugural Erotic Art Week was his interactive photography installation. This was like a quick, free visit to a sex therapist.
Warner’s installation employed high-tech, albeit, simple technology. From my observation, the work explored the uncanny social networking phenomena that gives the average Ben the psychotropic ability to manufacture, and share his image with as many people as he’s willing to find on the www. Ben becomes his own, self-representing publicist. And while many have the facility to do this in the privacy of their own homes, Warner gave this power to those who entered his public-private space of his “Photobooth”.
Mounted at the Alice Yard in Woodbrook in the heart of what you might call T&T’s red light district, the project entitled Photobooth gives the participant/viewer the isolation and all the possibilities of his/her own private studio. In this tiny white cocoon, that Warner shrouded off from the rest of the small Alice Yard annex by draping yards of white fabric from the ceiling, participants were given room to take their own full-body photo portrait. Here, Warner rigged his close-circuit still camera and handed solo or small groups of visitors the control of the remote trigger.
As you click away, your portrait instantaneously appears on the computer monitor placed on the white floor across the room. In addition to its high-tech elements, participants also have at their disposal and discretion, a blind that could be raised or lowered to cover or reveal as much of their faces/identity as they chose. Of course, you only entered the room after having agreed to and signing a release form, which clearly states that your images may be subsequently used for exhibition, including reproduction on the web. In the context of an Erotic event, the freedom, interactivity and potential for exposure laid the ground for a certain sexual inevitability.
Full nudes, frontal, rears, with and without faces, couples, gay, straight, groups, young, mature, fit, and the not-so-fit, people flocked as the word got around. And they didn’t come to gawk or maco, they came to get in. The images that came out of Warner’s Photobooth are truly beautiful in their naiveté, innocence and the liberation – the kind of liberation and innocence that resembles the abandon that our Trinidad Carnival seems to be affording less and less. And like masking at Carnival, this work allows us to engage the futile, and counter-intuitive searches for anonymity and popularity in a small society.
Every day throughout the nine-day run of the Erotic Art Week, Warner’s album of photos from the night before was exhibited in the adjacent house. This was in stark contrast to the privacy of the embryonic cocoon in which the images were born. Nevertheless, night after night, visitors left their inhibitions at the door and shot themselves. Few, including myself, could resist the cathartic draw of a romp in the Photobooth.
We sometimes easily forget the power society has in driving conformity and that beneath our conformed personas lay very intuitive and free beings. In the Photobooth, Warner provided a trigger that allowed us to release control for a few moments and to capture our own images of these playful beings. It’s interesting, but once the face and the head were hidden, in a way, separated from the physical image, and people lost their heads, sexually powerful beings were allowed to appear.
The cathartic relevance of Carnival and masking to our small, conformist society is legendary and might be somehow necessary to our survival. How we deal with our understanding of these connections before we totally lose it should be equally relevant. As a social experiment, Photobooth raised more questions than it provided answers, but maybe that’s how art works. And maybe sometimes solutions come in the form of new questions.