Becoming an Image is a rare beast – a concept so reduced, it can be presented in its ultimate, concentrated shape and form. Over the course of half an hour Heather Cassils traps the audience in complete darkness while she punches out a mastodon of a clay block. When the lights are put back on it’s revealed just how much the clay has suffered – what starts as a strict and commanding shape, ends up halved, mushed up and exposed to eager looks and touches. During her battle Cassilis only allows those present occasional glimpses into the action, as a photographer, Manuel Vason, runs around her, flashing bits of light onto the image.
This successful mechanism of hiding the show from the audience is where Becoming an Image is most potent. It manipulates the audience into letting go of their eyesight, and provides clues primarily through sounds, both Cassils’ rhythmic, almost animalistic grunts, and the feeble resistance of the clay. A clear soundscape of violence is first created and then allowed to take its natural course, and the atmosphere shifts as the fighter gets tired, or is pushed into an adrenaline rush. Left in almost complete darkness, but given enough clues to connect the dots of what is happening in their close proximity, the audience is quickly subverted into a silent witness – bound by the performance conventions not to react, but still exposed to an event that induces shivers.
This performance is, for the most part, focusing on that precarious position of the crowd gathered around it. As what looks like an official photographer for the sparring match circles the fight, taking photos, the congregation is treated to still images – they briefly flash in full colour, only to be replaced by their grayscale reflections that stay engraved in the darkness until the next sparkle of light. Brief insights that they are, these stills further politicise the role of the audience – a mass only allowed to make up their mind about what’s happening using scattered puzzle pieces. There’s certain clever irony in the fact that what little we are allowed to see quickly becomes painful to watch, as everyone’s bodies reflexively twitch in unison – it seems to imply that whatever it is that might be there to uncover, it’s not pleasant, easy or comfortable.
Becoming an Image comes from a context that, to those familiar with it, sheds a specific light on the seemingly open work. The performance was commissioned by the ONE Archives (the oldest active LGBTQ organisation in USA), which gives the main action in the piece a very concrete reference point: in this light, the photographer quickly becomes a blind decision-maker, preserving documents and artifacts for the history books. That Cassils responded to the archive in this way is as representative of the often lost narratives of the LGB community, as it is of the sometimes neglected stories of the TQ world; after all this artist, who defines her body as a conceptual sculpture, spends a significant amount of time having to deliberate on her gender identity. Manuel Vason, a photographer focused on exploring the relationships between still images and performance, is himself a flesh and blood signifier of the battle of maintaining live presence in a two-dimensional image.
To anyone not in the know about all of that the implications of this narrative demanding to be put together will very much depend on personal associations, but Cassils refuses to leave everything up to empirical uncertainties. There’s no room in this piece to indulge in comfort; instead Becoming an Image smashes the weight of accountability directly on everyone involved – the audience for agreeing to partake in, and by proxy silently approve of, an act they are not completely aware of; the photographer for distancing himself of responsibility by hiding behind the officiality of the lens, and finally even the performer – an exhibitionist and punching machine taking refuge in the dark. Imposing the ‘eyes wide shut’ philosophy on to the audience without consent Cassils efficiently questions all the information that’s given trust daily – from judgments made about passers by, to assertions drawn from media.