Matthew Barney’s “Hoist” and the Desiring-Production of Space

There is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons. -Gilles Deleuze

Destricted has finally been released on DVD in the U.S. While I have not watched this version, I have previously seen the one produced for the UK market. The only two films in that series worth recommending are “Balkan Erotic Epic,” directed by Marina Abramovic, and Matthew Barney’s “Hoist.” These two films are the only ones that rise above the rather staid and counter-productive interpretive question: is this art or porn?, which both Abramovic and Barney render moot. Abramovic’s film is not included on the US DVD, so tracking down (not difficult) the UK version seems preferable. Barney’s film is on both versions and can (for the time being) be viewed here (or below).

Categorizing Barney’s films seems futile. However, if a prerequisite for thinking is an encounter with that which cannot be determined, then “Hoist” should engender a great deal of thought.

The short film (and, I think, the longer version of which this is a part) opens with a rather lengthy (almost 4 minutes) close-up of a human penis going from flaccid to erect and back numerous times, accompanied by industrial noise, creaking mechanical parts and the sound of dripping water. The remainder of the first half of the 14-minute film then focuses on the details of a team of men in matching jumpsuits preparing a deforestation truck produced by Caterpillar and modified by Barney. After a fade to black and fade back in, a tracking shot introduces us to the machine’s undercarriage – a new sensation of space  – ahuman, claustrophobic, dirty, punctuated by shafts of light between the mechanical joints.

Along with the machine, the other protagonist is Greenman, a naked dude covered in organic camouflage, becoming landscape, with root vegetables stuffied into his mouth and anus. Greenman is suspended beneath the machine, within the space of the undercarriage, the driveshaft of which has been modified with a Barneyesque lubricated sculpture, which rotates rapidly as the machine runs and revs and against which the man rubs his penis while occasionally pausing to re-lubricate the sculptural driveshaft/sex machine.

The film is part of a longer project, “De Lama Lamina,” which I have not seen, but apparently goes a long way toward putting the short segment included here into the context of a large and sometimes chaotic performance art piece that includes musicians, dancers, spectators and performance artists accompanying a Salvadoran Carnivale float, comprised of the deforestation machine supporting a synthetic tree mid-construction. The roots streaming from his orifices also bloom throughout the film, suggesting an extended temporal, as well as spatial, context.

The Destricted website describes “Hoist” as follows:

Hoist was shot in Bahia, Salvador as one facet of a longer film titled DE LAMA LMINA. ‘Hoist’ is the literal underbelly of that project: a non- site through which the history, ritual, mythology and deities invoked in DE LAMA LMINA have been refracted and processed. it is a film about the meeting of chthonic libidinal energy and the destructive forces of technology.

Hoist describes the encounter between the two central characters of the film; the so-called ‘Green Man’ and a fifty-ton deforestation Caterpillar truck under which he is suspended. Following the three acts of traditional film narrative, it is structured according to the three phases of description, situation and condition.

While the initial two phases relate to the definition of Hoist as an “an apparatus or method for lifting a load and shifting it laterally by an elevating means applied through a support from which a flexible member freely suspends a load engager,” the third or final condition of the film suggests the imperfect consummation of the human and the mechanistic.

Contrasting the “destructive forces of technology” with a primal sexual power seems reactionary, an effect of what Latour (following Whitehead) calls the ongoing and insidious bifurcation of nature. The reviews that almost invariably refer to the central act depicted here as masturbation, seems misguided, as well.

That is, this interpretation holds only if man is identified and individuated in opposition to a machine without any ontological status. When in reality, as Bergson showed, the two machines – the truck and the man – are each conscious in their own right, illuminated already without any subjective consciousness illuminating them. That is, they are both equally real. Deleuze continually turned to Spinoza to counter such Cartesian splits between mind and body, as well as between nature and artifice. Spinoza treated mind and body as expressions of a preindivuated realm before the codification and definition of these terms, such that neither mind nor body can be subordinated to the other. Similarly, the sensual intensities of the film afford a sense of time and space prior to subjectification, codification and individuation.

Neither should the film be read as a direct reification of some mythology, even if mythological themes inform the imagery. Barney’s images are anything but representational, which accounts for much of the confusion. Representational art assumes a mimetic link between ideas (or Ideas) and objects, between primary and secondary images. Barney assumes no such aesthetic link, and he employs a different strategy in which signs in the film do not assume a referent. Barney’s creation is not split between two extremes of a spectrum running from man to machine, natural to artificial, organic to inorganic. Instead the film expresses the abstract and concrete power of a machinic assemblage to reveal its own sense or logic prior to any coding by language or society. According to Deleuze (and Guattari), in contrast to a Turing machine – the mind as computer – machines are diagrams of assemblages, with real relations to bodies and brains. Within machinic constructs, the dichotomy between real and synthetic tears down.

“Hoist” makes sense – its own sense – even if it doesn’t adhere to anything resembling common sense. While every facet of the film is a creation, none of it can be opposed to the real. Barney creates zones of indeterminacy in which it becomes impossible to distinguish real from imaginary, true from false, actual from virtual. Nevertheless, Barney remains a realist in his invention of a new image or assemblage that shows something indeterminate for which there are no laws or language pre-existing the event.

Like the central event of the film, Barney’s approach is a non-dialectic or -dialectizable procedure and technique. The behavior, actions and aesthetic approach are inexplicable and unattributable, which allows potentials to be actualized in the creation of new assemblages never subordinated to a pre-existing identity. Similarly, Barney brings new relations and entities (understood as multiplicities) into existence. Comprehending and extending this creative process, rather than critical judgement or hermeneutic interpretation, the becomes the aim of the spectator. These relations between the entities in the film and between viewer and film engender new concepts and strategies that cannot be understood through simple recourse to pre-existing theories. As spectators, we see without knowing how to act or react. The images resists the cliche and stasis of habit and undermine any opportunity for an automated response, feeling or reaction.

However, such strategies and approaches do not invite the chaos of a subjective relativity, or a conviction that images can now be composed in any way. If they lack a referent or logical order, they still follow criteria. The title, “Hoist” provides a starting point. As a noun it refers to the supports holding the man under the machine (as well as the machine in the air), and as a verb it refers to the man’s own repeated gestures, which deterritorialize and reterritorialize the machine by making space with and through it, just as the machine does the same through its connection with Greenman. He makes himself at home, becoming-native underneath the truck . Such becoming-machinic eschews filial relations, so the “I” of subjectivity is never assumed to arise from habit, memory or social mores. Instead subjectivity and individuation occur through a becoming-other, through an encounter with the outside of thought and action.

The hoist as material object is located in the literal underbelly as a “non-site” for history and memory. The hoist (or hoisting) as a sexual process yields the “imperfect consummation”, a result of a non-teleological trajectory that evades a perfect or even logical synthesis in favor of producing the potential for more connections. The truck and the man can both be understood as technology (in Foucault’s sense) or media (in McLuhan’s sense) as extensions that propagate further physical and psychical connections. The Eros and desire to which this technology and media give rise is creative rather than mimetic, impersonal yet singularizing, which pushes us outside ourselves, positing subjectivity as other, without replacing it with social determination.

Barney is among the few artists to seriously treat male sexuality. However, Barney operates beyond clichéd notions of sex and gender as molar and categorical essences. John Rajchman’s consideration of Deleuze can aptly be extended to Barney’s work. Rajchman writes:

The whole question of “sexuation” needs to be understood in this way, rather than through Oedipal identification; underneath the “gross statistical categories” of sex and gender lie a whole “molecular” multiplication of out peculiarities, which then come out in strange ways and times, giving rise to highly original “compositions” or “virtualities.” (Deleuze Connections 89-90).

Through what Guattari termed desiring-production, desire as productive, Barney extracts the impersonal from identities or entities that cannot be covered by generalities. He does this not to posit alienation of the self as vital to thought, but to create haeccities – individuations without individualization, not unique but without kind, singular but indefinite, revealing an ineffable realm of thought.

Unconscious desiring-production does not result from an unhealthy repression but rather from a perfectly healthy unfolding of events that cannot be delimited by subjective identification, which in turn must continually multiply and complexify encounters. The bodies here are sexual, but they are also defamiliarized. To be effective, aesthetic strategies must enable reactions and actions that resist the automated insertion of habituation into the interval between stimulus and response. Cinematically and performatively mating a landscape qua man with a truck is one such strategy.

One Response to “Matthew Barney’s “Hoist” and the Desiring-Production of Space”

  1. [...] name Hoist for the collection Destricted. This idea to write about Hoist came for the reading of a similar article written by Todd Satter on his very interesting Any Space Whatever. Although my own (short) post [...]

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