Desiring the Image: on celebrity and fetishization

"Who can it be that wishes to enter now?" read the title card.
.the film whizzed through the apparatus until it had run out.
"I'm sorry, extremely," he said. "I'll have to rewind."
from the Day of the Locust by Nathaniel West, 19391


Foregrounding what is in many ways already at the foreground of enthralled public consciousness, web-artist Jillian Mcdonald meditates on celebrity and North American celebrity culture, mining contemporary Hollywood movies before digitally reshaping their filmic narratives. Dislocating by remixing Hollywood's artificial string/network of sound and image effects, her work corresponds to a humourous fiction and obsessively persistent romantic fantasy regarding bad-boy movie star, Billy Bob Thornton. Re-writing and re-contextualizing not the ready-made but the already-made2, she actualizes in digital space and time her own disruptive, contrary scenarios from the already constructed signs of the screen.

Responding initially to the powerful anesthesia of the American dream3 not only framed and fulfilled by Hollywood cinema's monocular eye but promoted and sustained by the technologies of spectacle, illusion and simulation available to it, Screen Kiss is a digital hall of mirrors4 - a gaze within a gaze. Simultaneously embodying and interrupting what screen theorist Laura Mulvey refers to as the "the language of desire"5 , Mcdonald adopts the persona of a fan, capturing Billy Bob Thornton as a still image and locating him within a dreamy lipstick-pink and black lace digital embrace. Fenced in by little Valentine's day candy-like hearts, here pulsing and throbbing to a too-late-at-night and too-many beers slow-waltz rockabilly guitar twang, he gazes out at us from a position of static immobility from within the fixed frame. Mcdonald inverts the gaze, whereby Billy Bob becomes the object of her desire, a mediated scopophilic illusion. Urged to fantasy by the dream machine, she is in love with 'love'.

Excavating the personal and social pathologies of misplaced desire, Mcdonald's website is itself a replicant web simulation of a website - activating and complicating notions of the 'the real' and 'the illusion' as discussed by Jean Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulations.6 Understanding contemporary culture to be a simulation - a system of copies and copies of copies of images, objects, events and ideas that are so distant from the original that they no longer refer to it - Baudrillard suggests that constructed illusions themselves have attained the status of the original, as authentic. Alert to this, Mcdonald plays with traditional cinematic code, folding it into digital code, inverting its position by becoming an active agent rather than passive recipient in a simulation of her own direction. Not merely re-iterating Billy Bob's films as we might expect, but breaching the screen/mirror threshold between subject and audience, she digitally inserts herself into filmic space and enters the fantasy. Responding to and extending Mcdonald's earlier Billy Bob-centered work, meandbillybob.com, in which mere fandom erupted almost into erotomania, the digitally manifested emotional and physical pas de deux between herself and her illusory lover is a fantasy further into the fictional; here, she imagines and digitally actualizes physical relationships with other heart-throb stars who have been similarly inscribed by the media with immense erotic capital and who thus have immense social mobility.

What activates Mcdonald's apparent transference of affection, her digital infidelity? Although having made herself over into a digital fiction active within a fiction, the real time Billy Bob, the man outside the illusion, refuses to desire her back. Positioned as the refused, she attempts here to kindle his desire by writing a new conflicting and even competing fantasy to make Billy Bob jealous.

Mcdonald re-configures the space and re-writes the text, morphing the fetishized Hollywood moment of 'the kiss' in order to resolve the tension of her unrequited longing. Manifesting an erotic encounter in the realm of the nostalgic imaginary, her erotic-electronic fantasy gives form to but can never consummate real intimacy.

Responding to our personal and social morbidities, Mcdonald appropriates Billy Bob's image as subject in order to investigate how we understand and shape information provided by the media and how we negotiate the co-ordinates of power and desire. Understanding celebrity culture as the surround against which fans re-imagine their own lives, Mcdonald here gazes knowingly outside the monitor beyond the fiction, winking complicitly at us. Opening up a gap in the narrative, she forces discontinuity and absence, activating Lacan's notion that "at the heart of desire is a misrecognition of fullness where there is really nothing but a screen for our own narcissistic desires. It is that lack at the heart of desire that ensures we continue to desire."7

Screen Kiss is not cinema - but it starts there, digitally unpacking its methods and meanings. Although throughout it Mcdonald layers language, shuttling us between analog and digital, past and present, image and narrative, idealization and illusion, in the end it is the operations and codes of the digital gaze that shape this work. Directing our attention away from film paradigms and archetypes archived in the personal and social imaginary towards post-cinematic responses to and reconsiderations of them, she gives virtual form to Baudrillard's notion that 'the real is no longer what it used to be".8

Acknowledging extant interactive virtualities already operative in the public domain such as video games, artist's CD-Roms, etc, Screen Kiss embodies the "proliferation of myths of origin and signs of reality; of secondhand truth, objectivity, and an authenticity".9 Celebrating heterodoxical re-writings of the habitual terrains of mediated desire, de-mediating it by individuating it, she advocates for the structural and narrational ruptures that sampling permits. Wandering backwards and forwards through un-fixed multiple images, social and spatial histories, Mcdonald's contingent simulation complicates notions of the real.

Despite digitally supplanting the dominant, oppressive controls manufacturing fiction and commodifying desire,10 desire is rekindled by the monitor, inviting it instead. We can now interdependently enter into our own contrary blissful11 fictions, re-author, re-shape and re-frame our own subject-position: we can now, as Mcdonald suggests, 'build our own dream house'.12

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1 West, Nathanial, The Day of the Locust, Aeonian Press, 1876
2 Bourriaud, Nicolas, Relational Aesthetics, Presses du Reel, 2002
3 see "Simulacra and Simulations", from Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988)
4 See: a) the famous 'Hall of Mirrors' at the Palace of Versailles, France built by Louis XIV that not only permitted him to gaze in the mirror at the spectacle of his own splendor, but, opposite a wall of windows, effectively became a subtle panoptic; and b) HOM, a computer graphics programming error that results in an never-ending repetition of an image, as if two mirrors were reflecting one another.
5 Mulvey, Laura, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", from Screen, 16:3 (autumn 1975), pp. 6-18
6 See, Jean Baudrillard
7 see Lacan
8 see Baudrillard
9 see Baudrillard
10 see Baudrillard
11 for a discussion of the code-crashing and subject-position altering 'blissful text' see Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, Inc, 1986)
12 Jillian Mcdonald, from an email to the author, March 29, 2005

- Jack Anderson

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Jack Anderson is a Regina-based artist, curator, art educator and art critic. The author of numerous exhibition catalogues, his writing can also be found in art periodicals such as Parachute, Bordercrossings, Galleries West, and the Saskatchewan Craft Factor.