When Slavoj Žižek visited University of Cincinnati for a radical confab



I came across the Slovenian theorist/writer Slavoj Žižek in the recent movie The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, in which he passionately used scenes from Hollywood movies to spotlight his observations about the humanist struggle against repression and totalitarianism in oppressive capitalist systems.

His actual ideas were so densely intellectual, and delivered in such a rapid-fire manner, that I truthfully understood very little. But god (if I may use that word in reference to Žižek, an atheist), was he ever a fascinating cultural critic and film buff! In Pervert, he claims that one of John Carpenter’s more obscure horror movies — 1988’s They Live, in which aliens use subliminal advertising to control humans — is one of Hollywood’s most radically leftist movies ever.

Wanting to learn more about Žižek (pronounced Zhi-zheck), I discovered University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning was hosting the second-ever International Žižek Studies Conference and Exhibition. And it was going to focus on “parallax future(s) in art and design, ideology and philosophy.” Not only was it going to have a strong visual-art component, but Žižek himself was going to give a keynote lecture. So I attended last weekend.

It attracted around 100 or so Žižek scholars, students, artists and others from around the world — someone came from China. With panel discussions and workshops bearing titles like “Visualizing Metalepsis in Sites of Exception,” it wasn’t easygoing.  

Struggling to understand the concept of “parallax futures,” an important one in Žižekstudies, I asked the DAAP coordinator of the conference, assistant professor Kristopher Holland, what that meant. 

“We’re trying to figure it out,” he said. He also explained, as an example, that F. Scott Fitzgerald had first written and published Tender Is the Night one way, with flashbacks, in 1934, to poor reception. He then authorized a reconstructed version that was published posthumously in 1948. “So when we talk about Tender Is the Night, what are we talking about? Both exist. There are two ways of looking at things,” he said. 

The art for the most part was quite interesting. At the conference site, the mazelike DAAP building, several artists either had installations or did performances. Sue Wrbican from George Mason University encased a 1960s-era sail inside a 20-foot-high open bamboo construction to suggest the difficulty of navigating “between reality/fiction and male/female.” 

Nearby, Mira Gerard of East Tennessee State University intermittently reclined on a homey fainting couch and quietly read aloud from journals about her ongoing Lacanian psychoanalysis. 

In conjunction with the conference, DAAP’s Noel Anderson worked with Hebrew Union College’s interim museum director Abby Schwartz to curate a small but choice art exhibit called Parallax Futured: Transtemporal Subjectivities at HUC’s Skirball Museum. (It’s up through May 14.) 

The pieces tend toward minimalism and conceptualism with a twist. For instance, Tyler Hamilton’s “Untitled” features a concrete cube on which three metal legs have been attached, making it a kind of faux camera and tripod. And a beautiful small oil painting called “Mattress” by Zoran Starcevic is a close-up of gray-white mattresses seams, the repetition interrupted by a black diagonal slash. Is it, too, painted…or real? You want to touch it to find out. 

But the art — and everything else — took a backseat to Žižek’s own appearance Saturday afternoon. The DAAP auditorium attracted a couple hundred people who were enthralled by a rambling but fiery lecture (with Q&A) that went past two hours. 

Talking excitedly while compulsively tugging at his sweater or his face, the 65-year-old Žižek touched on so many topics so fast, good luck keeping track — Jacques Lacan to Ayn Rand, Marx to Edward Snowden, post-Colonial Africa to the Holocaust, the pending failure of global capitalism and so on.

But it wasn’t a dry dissertation by any means — the talk was peppered with non-academic words like “bullshit,” “stupid” and “blahblahblah.” And also with more of his fascinating, contrarian film references — he prefers Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to Spielberg’s Lincoln because it shows the violence of the fight against slavery. 

He believes Bela Lugosi’s 1932 horror classic White Zombie is vividly about class struggle. And he highly recommended the DVD of thriller The Butterfly Effect — “with the great American artist Ashton Kutcher,” he said sarcastically — for the atheist aesthetics of its “much more radical” non-theatrical-release ending.

As the applause finally ended, like at a Rock concert, I thought whatever else, he needs his own TV show. Maybe At the Movies With Slavoj Žižek? 




University of Cincinnati’s ‘Bloody’ 1968 Spring Arts Festival

The performance artist Hermann Nitsch remembers his controversial appearance in Cincinnati at a tumultuous time

APR 3, 2018 10 AM

AC–BP Nitsch0404Georg Soulek MAINHermann Nitsch in a supplied photoPHOTO: GEORG SOULEK

This is the 50th anniversary of the most eventful year of the 1960s, itself a decade of change and upheaval, and it will see all manner of media remembrances before 2019 arrives. It was an excitingly creative yet dangerous time — blood was spilled in the streets here and overseas in America’s awful, losing war in Vietnam.

Blood was spilled at University of Cincinnati, too, 50 years ago this week. Or so it appeared to anyone who attended the “action” performed on April 4, 1968 by the extraordinarily controversial, confrontational Austrian performance artist Hermann Nitsch. He was at the school’s 1968 Spring Arts Festival, which has been called by historian/blogger Greg Hand “the most avant-garde week in Cincinnati history.”

“It was a great success,” says Nitsch, during a Skype phone interview from his Austrian offices. (His assistant helped him reply to questions.)

The festival featured a who’s who of Contemporary anti-establishment, avant-garde artists — radical counterculture band The Fugs, performance/media artist Nam June Paik with the now-legendary topless cellist Charlotte Moorman, experimental filmmakers Jonas Mekas, Peter Kubelka and Jud Yalkut, and more.

But even among them, Nitsch was special. Now 78, he has developed an international reputation as a forceful painter. But in the late 1950s and through the 1960s, the European performances of his Orgien Mysterien Theatre caused him to be jailed for public indecency. Ritualistic in nature, especially in their use of animal carcasses, his work struggled to find a cathartic, audience-participatory way to show the human need for emotional and physical release. He also, maybe, was commenting on our propensity for violence. He held actions that called on his audiences to, in the words of his Nitsch Foundation’s website, “pour and slop fluids” like wine, hot water, Chasselas (a wine grape), lukewarm water, urine, hot blood serum, alcohol, blood, greasy wash water, paint and “etc.”

But he had never come to the United States before arriving in 1968 for two actions in New York City and one in Cincinnati. It’s been hard to find people who remember attending his April 4 performance in the Great Hall of UC’s Tangeman University Center. But the late Cincinnati filmmaker Steve Gebhardt, with partner Bill Fries, made a 9-minute film of the event, which can be rented from The Film-Makers’ Cooperative. And UC’s News Record wrote a front-page story describing Nitsch’s appearance.

According to that story, he brought a gutted 200-pound carcass of a pig to the hall and, while volunteers played on band instruments, encouraged the near-capacity crowd to become involved as he became stained with a bright red liquid that appeared to be blood. (He told CityBeat he preferred to use blood whenever possible in his actions and believes he used it in Cincinnati.)

“In the final stages of the performance, Nitsch became extremely involved with his art and after tossing a few entrails at the audience it brought back participation from the crowd in what could be likened to a pie-throwing fight,” the News Record reported.

The film presents not quite so blithe a picture. At times, it seems to be chronicling some kind of cult sacrifice — Nitsch, in a white shirt and dark pants, sticks his hands inside the open belly of the hanging pig; a barefoot student lies on the floor as Nitsch pours the liquid redness from a vial onto him; students mill about the “bloody” floor.

It’s impossible to watch now and not think of American violence. Perhaps most remarkable is that Nitsch’s action occurred after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated earlier in the evening in Memphis. Some in attendance may not have even known yet.

“Before I started to perform, Jonas Mekas told me about Martin Luther King and asked if I wanted to say that this is dedicated for (him),” Nitsch says. “For me, the death of Martin Luther King was so sad. (But) for me, it would be bad to connect this sad incident with my work. But I knew about the death, and in my heart it was there. That action in Cincinnati was not a normal action. It was a really intensive action.”