Concepts resist value judgment.
In the lexicon of the review, ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘indifferent’ serve to codify the experience of the reviewed, allowing the reader an opinion with which to agree or to debunk. The luxury of the unequivocal adjective is denied an outing when the artifact examined is vague and elusive in intent. Can ‘Khan’ Oral’s exploration into the sonics of pornography tempts the onlooker with false expectation.
A fecund topic, pornography. As quiescent to the writerly desire as its protagonists are submissive to their dominant’s every whim. Emotive, morally malleable, politically explosive; pornography is the lightning rod which draws to it an eternally fervent, frequently hysterical commentary. Is it self-empowerment, or degradation?; an ever-escalating gateway addiction toward extreme dysfunctional imagery, or a marital aid?; an institutionalised subjugation of women, or a celebration of the physical congress between lusty adults?
Cometh the porn, cometh the chip on the shoulder. Pornography cheapens women, yet frequently exists without depicting them. Pornography normalizes damaging gender roles, despite viewers of sci-fi, action, romantic or fantasy material being considered capable of making a mental disconnect between fiction and reality. Pornography has existed since the earliest figurative art was scrawled upon cave walls, but then, so has the patriarchal superstructure which wields imagery of the female form as its most effective weapon in the suppression of said females.
As a jumping-off point for facetious gasbagging of just about any moral, political, religious or personal viewpoint, pornography is a gift to the commentator in love with the sound of his or her own voice. The opportunity to tack frothing diatribes of societal import on to the process of filming and distributing imagery depicting consenting adults partaking in sex acts is irresistible to those with people to impress.
Which is why it is interesting that Can ‘Khan’ Oral avoids doing so.
Angels of Disguise, or at least the audio CD and visual DVD that form the reviewed material of his exploration into the mileu, engages with none of the polemic regarding pornography. Instead, we are presented with dry reportage, devoid of opinion or commentary.
Why, asks the accompanying textual blurb, is pornography mainly visual and rarely audio? The received wisdom on that question is that men are naturally more visually oriented than women, and that as pornography is mainly consumed by men, it plays to that orientation. But received wisdom often lacks empirical foundations, and the argument seems somewhat circular. The proliferation of premium phone numbers in the back ages of both men’s and women’s magazines throws some doubt onto the authority of such simple pronouncements.
Why indeed, the visual dominates pornography, is a good question. One which is not answered by Angels of Disguise, unless it is through the practical illustration that forty-two minutes of found audio lifted from badly-recorded, compressed, quantized, brickwalled, distorted internet sources makes for an experience which is far from erotic.
There are exceptions, some moments where what is being depicted is obviously a sexual act or a spoken narrative describing one, but the majority of the audio recording is machine-noise, camera hum, and digitally corrupted soundfiles which are, without accompanying visuals, entirely incomprehensible.
It is this digitized masking of events, this ‘disguise’ which is referred to in the artwork’s title. The selection process focuses on the distortion much as William Irwin Thompson‘s theories of myth maintain that the surrounding datanoise around a narrative is as relevant as the material at the core.
Taps run, street noises invade, machines ranging in power from a hand-held vibrator to an intercity train buzz, whirr and clank. Human sounds are very much the minority. Rubberwear screeches under frictive pressure, doors slam, degraded musical soundtracks approximate the tinny whine of modem noise. It arouses a curiosity, if nothing else. Curiosity as to what exactly is going on to produce such disembodied, outlandish noise.
And then the piece starts to really work. Because when the grunts, groans, slaps of skin and over-acted orgasm cries do intrude into the soundfield, they are a welcome dash of human life in an artwork which places the machine at the forefront. It is interesting that the artist is a resident DJ at Berlin’s techno shrine Berghain – similar artistic conceits to techno’s disembodiment of the human element are audible here.
The occasional snippets of human interaction – whether it be the transgender sissy recounting a fantasy on track nine, the whimper of a repeatedly whipped protagonist on track three, or the chatty gay man recounting every aspect of a sexual encounter to the background strains of Timbaland‘s ‘Too Late to Apologize’ on track eight – are refuge points in an extended soundtrack of lonely alienation.
Like occasional snippets of voice appearing on an otherwise screeching radio dial, they offer a certain comfort to the listener. At least the guy on track eight sounds like he’s having fun, which cannot be said of the majority of events on the CD.
The DVD/visual section of the artwork features a timestretched recording of a full moon, surrounded by clouds. It may be mental projection, but the vertical shadowing of the vista does seem vaguely gynaecological, with the camera slowly zooming in and back out in tandem with the soundfiles, offering visual fodder for the suggestible mind.
Overall, the mood is empty, inhuman, lonely. A focus brought sharply onto the consumer of pornography, framed as remote outsider, alienated from even the contrived and overacted social relationships depicted in the soundtrack. And whilst concepts may indeed resist value judgment, an artwork which provokes such thought, introspection, interrogation and empathy must count as a success.