By Sean Michael Nelson
Sometimes fetishes can be rather extreme. In David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996), based on the J.G. Ballard novel, a film producer named James Ballard develops a sexual fetish around car wrecks after being in one and witnessing a woman trying to free herself from her vehicle. The film features numerous scenes of vehicular carnage often shot from low angles, which convey the speed, intensity, and violence of these moments. Freedom Machine, a work of footage appropriated by artist Jordy Hamilton, can be seen operating in a similar manner. Freedom Machine features a 10 minute video (shot from a relatively low stand) and series of 4×6” colour prints documenting an event occurring near the artist’s family home near Niagara with the Welland County Motorcycle Club’s annual barbecue and skeet shoot competition, wherein picknickers shoot at a revving motorcycle parked in a field until it bursts into flames.
Both Crash and Freedom Machine feature acts that occur in repetition: Crash’s protagonist is compelled to re-enact the traumatic event, while Freedom Machine’s subjects re-enact the shooting yearly—both do so reaching for gratification. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Sigmund Freud comes up with an explanation of why this happens with his notion of a “compulsion to repeat.” He speculates that a traumatic event, always occurring in overproximity, becomes too much to bear for the individual’s psychic defences, and, penetrating them, becomes bound in a libidinal knot. Thereafter the individual becomes compelled to repeat the event with acts that relive painful memories, such as Crash’s James Ballard returning to the impound lot where his wrecked car is stationed, or another character in the film demanding that she see a particular scene from a traffic video.
In this light shooting a motorcycle is never just “shooting a motorcycle”—there’s always more going on than just the act itself. It is “overdetermined” (to use another Freudian term). How unsurprising, then, that at a motorcycle club’s skeet shoot and barbeque a bike also gets “cooked.” The instinct that compels us to repeat such unproductive and often, as in the case of Crash, self-destructive ends is known as “death drive” in Freud, what lies beyond the principle of “seek pleasure and avoid pain.” In “The Economic Problem of Masochism,” Freud goes so far as to claim that this drive is “undead,” persisting beyond life itself, hence Freedom Machine’s motorcycle still lingering in flames as the camera operator decides “I guess we can shut this off now.” Similarly, it’s only Crash’s end credits that interrupt its closing car wreck and subsequent sex act—they all persist beyond the “end” itself. Be it a wrecked car or bike, or the gun prominently displayed in the final frames of Freedom Machine, its numerous shots still menacing the viewer’s ears long after the screen goes black, fetishes can show that some “drives” know no end.
Freedom Machine can be seen at the Or Gallery’s current exhibition Raymond Boisjoly, Jordy Hamilton, Laura Piasta: Studies in Decay, which runs until December 11.