Noam Gonick answers questions by Full Frontal curator Katie Schroeder about his work No Safe Words, 2009.
What is the artwork intended to convey?
I filmed the water boarding scenes with the UBC Thunderbirds upon a request to make a piece about LGBT rights and the abuse of those rights by Middle Eastern regimes. I’m not really into “queer washing”, where Western liberal attitudes towards gays are used as a cover for state aggression, so I wanted to invert the curatorial request and look at the queer aspects of the abuse of prisoners from the War on Terror. The piece was commissioned for Toronto’s Gay Pride to broadcast on a series of JumboTrons, so I was thinking of high-impact visuals – the type of imagery that usually appears on those screens. I wanted to rattle the million strong Pride march and share with them my suspicion that the torture in places like Abu Ghraib implicates us in an uncomfortably erotic way.
In documenting the Pride event what impressed me was the display of a massive police presence with cars and police marchers from many brigades across Southern Ontario. They conveyed to me the gay community’s co-optation and transformation from a defiant voice for social change to the maintenance of law and order, security, faith in governments – all those entities that queer revolutionaries once railed against. I was also thinking about stadiums as historical sites for genocidal activity when not used for sports and pop spectacle.
What is the artwork’s message and purpose?
There is a sexual component to colonial conquest and America’s use of torture after 9/11 had a hyper-masculine subtext, so much so that it had a queer waft to it. The prisoner abuse imagery reminded me of working as a field director on the TV series “Kink”. I was interested in teasing out the erotic nature of the prisoner abuse photos. A “Safe Word” in S&M is a term the masochist uses to indicate to the sadist that the play has to stop. In thinking about actual torture, I realized that there are no safe words. The only words that will stop the torture are those that contain the information desired by the enemy. When talking about queer co-optation by police and state involvement in our relationships and celebrations what are the safe words for dissent? Is there a language for pushing back an ever-encroaching bourgeois ideology? I have difficulty finding the words, ideally this artwork conveys messages at a non-verbal, imagistic level. Its purpose is to parse out these issues with a disco beat and a bit of revulsion.
How would you describe your practice as an artist?
I work in feature film and video installation, and I have also done some television and curatorial, documentary and photography. MoMA described me as an activist artist and after a Serpentine lecture I was called an “all-arounder”. I’m not Native but there have been some First Nations moments in my work due to my home base Winnipeg where I hear tell of “backwards medicine men” who instigate their coyote healing by walking backwards while laughing.