Do you have the guts to sit in this chair?
Art, Pain, and Participatory Screens from PERCEPTO to Guantánamo Bay
By Casey Jarrin
“I felt it myself, and made others feel it.” –Oscar Wilde, De Profundis
“For the first time in motion picture history, members of the audience – including you – will actually play a part in the picture. You will feel some of the physical reactions, the shocking sensations experienced by the actors on the screen.” So warned 1950s horror maverick William Castle, as he introduced his 1959 camp classic and deliciously sadistic Vincent Price vehicle, The Tingler. Both enticement into never-before-seen-or-felt terrors and warning of the physiological danger of sitting and watching, the film announced the arrival of the latest innovation in cinema technology: PERCEPTO (a close cousin of the oft-lampooned Smell-O-Vision, the immersive Emergo, and early 3D), a sleight of hand through which audience members would become “living participants” in the “actual shock-sensations” and “physical reactions” of their screaming on-screen counterparts. Imagine the gall and genius of PERCEPTO and its conspiring theaters: Here, in this theater, no one is safe from experiencing real sensation. Here we are all participants.
The so-called King of Gimmicks, Castle outfitted theaters to make moviegoers directly feel on-screen action: he provided PERCEPTO instruction manuals and kits to install vibrating motors under seats to shock and surprise – and remind audiences of what their bodies already knew. Built on a fusion of early 20th-century amusement park immersive spectacles (Coney Island simulations of the San Francisco earthquake, Pompeii eruption, and other historic natural disasters) and 1950s marketing of new technologies to fill seats in an era when livingroom television threatened to eclipse movie theaters, PERCEPTO called out its audiences and their comfortable viewing distance. Promotional posters and advertisements invited audiences into real bodily experience, the movie-going version of a game of Chicken, baiting: “DO YOU HAVE THE GUTS TO SIT IN THIS CHAIR?”
PERCEPTO also strived to make “real and powerful” for audiences what phenomenological approaches to cinema take for granted. Equal parts gimmick and revolution in cinematic empathy, this new technology understood that the experience of watching a film activates physiological and cognitive response beyond our eyes and ears. It also ventured beyond a two-dimensional understanding of movie screens to underscore how, as art historian and curator Catherine David has described, “projected images have been overflowing the flat, frontal limits of the traditional screen and moving into the bodies of spectators ever since the origins of cinema itself.” It grasped film as a medium that engages multiple senses simultaneously, impacts blood pressure and nerve response, the movements of muscle and bone, the complex result of “mysterious electronic impulses” relayed in the central nervous system. Castle insisted that audience members would “actually take part in” and “feel” what hitherto seemed simply a two-dimensional image plane: a Chicago-area advertisement promised “YOU actually FEEL real physical sensations as you shiver in fright to its FLESH-CRAWLING ACTION!” Sign me up.
While his films are often dismissed as B-movie body horror, Castle was exploring embodied and participatory spectatorship in a way that resonates with Vivian Sobchack’s understanding of “embodied perception” and “lived-body experience” in film viewing. A central voice in the phenomenology of film and sensory responses to cinema violence, Sobchack provokes us into taking cinema seriously as an enterprise connecting bodies and not just minds: “more than any other medium of human communication, the moving picture makes itself sensuously and sensibly manifest as the expression of experience by experience,” an encounter structured by the relationship between consciousness and carnality. Perhaps unlikely bedfellows, Castle and Sobchack share a belief in the sensory experience of images, particularly those that bring us closer to others’ bodies in pain or poses of death, extending our mechanisms of witness beyond the realm of the visual and intellectual into the physiological and carnal. Whether in a darkened theater or interacting with various screens, this is a voyage beyond voyeuristic pleasures into empathetic encounters we can feel in our muscles, nerves, bones. Blood pressure rises, palms sweat, we grab onto our seats and prepare for a physiological ride.
Castle’s Vincent Price vehicle The Tingler is self-aware (dare I say meta-cinematic) in its exploration of the bodily consequences of viewing; on-screen characters and the theater audience alike are, like Sobchack, “achingly aware” of their bodies as “sensuous, sensitized” physiological entities. Price portrays Dr. Warren Chapin, a pathologist and coroner for the State prison who performs autopsies on executed prisoners and studies the physiological effects of fear in his own theater of death (not unlike the surgical theater captured in Eakins’ 1875 painting, The Gross Clinic). Through the magic of PERCEPTO, The Tingler translates its on-screen camp-horror into actual sensations the audience feels in their seats, making manifest the bodily experience of cinematic perception: the film’s central monster-baddies – parasites who feed on human fear and enter characters’ spinal cords (those command centers of sensation) – enter the theater as back-lit projections and shock-vibrations on filmgoers’ spines, synchronized as audiences come face-to-face (and spine-to-spine) with scenes of attack and death. A primal scene: As we sit and watch, we feel the danger of viewing scenes of violence inflicted on other bodies. Our sensorium activated, we experience physiological responses to on-screen sensations that extend into the theater aisles, under our seats, vibrating within our skin.
The Tingler refused passive viewing and wanted audiences to understand how watching can be a dangerous enterprise, one in which our bodies (not just our mind’s eye) are impacted. This recalls the notorious surrealist montage that opens Un Chien Andalou (1929 silent film co-conceived by Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel), a cinematic primal scene that climaxes in an act of sadistic film editing as a single razor blade slices through the moon and then an eyeball, a proxy for our own eyes – an enticement and warning that seeing is never purely about vision; it has real physical effects. Whether viewing an extreme close-up of a finger penetrating a seething bullet wound in one of many interrogation scenes in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), watching Alex sit in “the chair of torture” with eyes clamped open and forced to “viddy” films of rape and murder in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), encountering the ritual crosscut slaughters at the climax of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), or witnessing the dry heaving of a former leader of Indonesian death squads as he returns to the site where he killed hundreds in The Act of Killing (Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer and Anonymous, 2012), as members of the audience we flinch, take part in, and feel pain at the sight of others’ experience. We check our limbs to feel for wounds, our eyelids hurt, we feel nauseated. This is more than alienation in the face of spectacle violence; this is participatory, embodied empathy in action.
In July 2013, hip hop innovator, artist, actor, and poet Mos Def (rechristened Yasiin Bey) “starred” in a video reenactment of the standard operating procedure for force-feeding hunger striking detainees at Guantánamo Bay. Released by the British human rights organization Reprieve and initially posted on The Guardian online, the video went viral within hours and circulated to an audience of millions via international media websites. On one hand, this was a film with a lead actor in the role of orange-clad detainee, a cast of Guantánamo “guards” wielding handcuffs, “medics” outfitted in green scrubs and plastic gloves, and a director (British filmmaker Asif Kapadia, later lauded for his 2015 gut-wrenching documentary Amy, is never on screen though audible as he shouts “Cut!”). Yet Bey did not merely inhabit a fictional role or function as an artist engaged in activist performance art, but his was a real body actually experiencing the force-feeding procedure. As a stamp of documentary authenticity, the film announces “This is what happened” as prelude to Bey’s entrance on screen. The Guardian described how “There was no rehearsal: after all, no acting would be required. In an instant, he was no longer Mos Def – rapper and Hollywood star – but a powerless prisoner, experiencing what hunger strikers in Guantánamo Bay endure daily.”
In the central reenactment sequence lasting two and a half minutes, Bey wears the requisite orange jumpsuit metonymic of detainees in the War on Terror, the most widely recognizable postmodern prison uniform, and steps into the bodily experience of a hunger-striking detainee. The camera cuts quickly between close-ups on Bey’s exposed wrists and ankles, as guards handcuff and chain together his hands and feet, all strategically framed so we can see neither the faces of “guards” nor “detainee.” Everyone is an incomplete body, the manacled limbs and administering hands standing in for a whole set of prison relations – the spectacle of race, discipline, and state violence visible in the contrast between Bey’s blackness and the white tattooed arms of guards. (Such details quietly recall the 2001 death-row drama Monster’s Ball, which Bey costarred in alongside Sean “Diddy” Combs and Halle Berry, and similarly features a chair of discipline and torture.)
In the guise of detainee strapped to restraining chair, Bey gives form to both a physical site (Guantánamo Bay Prison) and physical experience (force-feeding procedure, nasogastric plastic tubes forced up the detainee’s nose, down throat, into stomach) that are so often representational black holes outside comprehension, seemingly impossible to access via empathetic engagement. Yet at the same time that the film allows us to “see” Guantánamo, it is highly stylized and readily acknowledges its status as a staged reenactment. Bey the individual (not yet detainee) first walks on screen and enters a stark white minimalist soundstage reminiscent of a modern art gallery or site for a performance action (think: Marina Abramović or Joseph Beuys). Upon closer inspection, we notice this is a heterogeneous space containing the equipment of both a film set and medical-prison discipline: key lights on tripods stand next to towering bags of IV fluid, all positioned around a single restraining chair, doubly suggestive of an electric chair and canvas director’s chair (an actual director’s chair appears following the reenactment sequence). Dressed in head-to-toe designer black, from modified fez to wing tips, Bey speaks out from the screen and directly addresses the audience as a prelude to the performed reenactment. The entire video is shot on this soundstage, a decontextualized blank slate that feels far from the store of images we associate with “prison.” Yet this is a different kind of prison than exists in the American popular imagination. We’re not inside recognizable cell blocks popularized in films Escape From Alcatraz (Dir. Don Siegel, 1979) or In the Name of the Father (Dir. Jim Sheridan, 1993); the blankness of the space is fitting for the decontextualized site of Guantánamo and undisclosed detention centers throughout the world that remain black sites invisible to public eyes.
As threefold spectator-voyeur, proxy detainee, and performer-activist, Bey exists in complicated relationship to actual detainees, as do we as spectators viewing this video reenactment. Although he temporarily steps into the role of detainee and experiences a procedure similar to those on 2013 hunger strike, he still retains agency as a performer and American citizen whom has “volunteered to undergo the procedure,” a privilege not permitted the 44 detainees “force fed against their will.” Dismissed by some as propaganda spectacle and “publicity stunt,” hailed by others as an act of protest and “legitimate performance art” that draws immediate attention to the ethical trespasses of Guantánamo allowing audiences to engage viscerally with detainees’ experience, it functioned both as media event and reenactment art with ethical intent. Bey’s performance also evoked connections between force-feeding of detainees and violent policing of African-American masculinity, the reenactment video distributed online via YouTube and Vimeo alongside Facebook livestreams of police-involved shootings.
More than an ethical wake-up call and indictment of the Department of Defense under Bush and Obama, the reenactment also raised questions and provoked provisional answers on the role of art in generating communities of empathy and catalyzing political change: How might we attach not just an image to the representational void of Guantánamo but also a physiological experience that we can feel in our bodies? While disclaimers that accompanied online postings of the video believed this was dangerous physiological business – “Warning: the video is hard to watch and extremely upsetting” and “Some viewers may find these images distressing” – are there limits to what we can feel as viewers in the face of “distressing” or “upsetting” images? Beyond purely affective or emotional response, it’s impossible to deny the “hard to watch” physical consequences of watching Bey undergo this procedure as a reenactment of what the 44 force-fed detainees actually experienced. Yet are there limits to what Bey can claim to experience through his voluntary participation in a dramatically truncated force-feeding procedure (his two and a half minutes vs. the typical two hours it takes to administer to detainees) and because he can tell his “captors” to stop or the director may step in and call “Cut”? And finally: though wildly different in tone and intent than The Tingler, the audience to Bey’s reenactment similarly becomes a community of “living participants” who “actually feel real physical sensations” – a community of feeling both on and off screen, collapsing the point-of-view of experiencing subject and viewing audience into simultaneous first-order bodily experience.
One last set of questions – a challenge to film viewers, artists, and critics to scan their senses and confront how bodies-that-watch feel, experience, and desire what happens on screen: How do sadistic spectatorship, masochistic participation, and human curiosity fuel the relation (and collapse the distance) between viewer and performer, or between Bey and the Guantánamo detainees? How does viewing Bey’s painful experience of force-feeding – his gagging, flinching, and difficulty breathing, the low-angle shots capturing his flared nostrils and neck muscles tensed, a series of bodily events “happening” yet also strategically staged – expose the impossibility of separating the aesthetics, ethical-ideological, and complex sensory-erotics (senserotics) of empathetic encounter? This is not a matter of diagnosing film experience as sadistic or ethical or transformative or perverse or life-affirming or life-destroying (it is surely all these things and more), but of being human and living inside a sensing body.
Whatever your specific response to viewing his reenactment-performance, likely some combination of recoil and perverse fascination with scenes of prison discipline usually hidden from public view, there’s no escaping that watching Bey’s body “actually” undergo the procedure makes the viewing body feel something. We all enter the prison simulacrum and inhabit a shared body of sensation and suffering. We are then faced with a choice about whether to keep viewing, sensing, participating in what’s experienced on screen (what Sontag dubs the ethical challenge of “co-spectatorship”). Ultimately the audience is confronted by the same question that Tingler posters posed as a taunt and a dare to be more human, to stop merely looking at screens but to participate in what we see: “Do you have the guts to sit in this chair?”