The sign above the photobooth inside the black box reads “photoautomatic”. Overlong and industrial, distanciated like the slo-speed sound of the shutter which bookends the piece with a voluptuous click. In this booth sits Scottee as you’ve never seen him before. Like a photo struggling into life, messy and chemical; a photo trying to unmake itself, running in an opposite direction to the familiar shlock black tears which pump out from behind his shades as he sings us the wonkiest, spikiest, wounded songs. Sitting in a different kind of time, in suspended relationship to his image, tonight the l’enfant-terrible and glittery bitch of the London performance scene Scottee’s face is coming into focus.
The first thing that strikes you about the booth is how lonely Scottee appears there. The customary use of these things is to cram in with your friends giggling and gurning; at a corporate party for vintage effect; or lovers in a foreign city, a discoloured plastic-wrapped rose against a becoated arm. Simple social markers with no distinctive capacity these photos speak of togetherness and bad images – what dread. And yet worse than that, to be in one alone, where depending on the state of your hair you’ll turn out either like a budding bureaucrat or a serial killer, some poor wretch at the mercy of something like Society. Scottee’s booth comes to stand in for the culture industry of the production of image in a world where you can knock-up your own passport photos on a mobile. At the same time, far from the fast glass of the fashion mag shoot, it feels purgatorially ordinary.
If Scottee is in limbo this is not a punishment: that would be to invoke the moral dimensions that the piece diligently tones down. Framed as a series of confrontations with people he has wronged in his past, it quickly becomes clear that Scottee is not here on his knees, to atone or even ask for forgiveness. No biography of knives, no blood under the fake nails, no drama; this isn’t about retribution, reconciliation, redemption. The taped interviews of the people he told lies to, or upset, which overlay Scottee’s image on the screen come to this with a clear fondness and bemusement rather than aggrievement. That they are all women of colour seems a deliberate choice. Perhaps suggesting that he didn’t pay attention to people’s particularity while wrapped in his own superficially different struggles. That there might be something in remembering where he came from.
And so wrongdoings emerge with their own tender genealogies, as relationships not delimited to the interpersonal: within a childhood of humiliating relationships to money, difficult relationships to fathers and confusing ones with mothers, living as a secret-eater, an overeater, addicted to food. Yes he can lose himself in an image of 24 carat bitch, riding the sadistic flush while kicking spats to Zebra Katz, teaching us until his reflection explodes in flutters of ash-grey confetti. And he is equally beautiful when not teaching, as the warm tender person, relinquishing the thrill of manipulation, struggling and thinking – a fascinating routing of performativity when you can see his face in some way refusing to inhabit the emotional territory as if it were something to don like armour, to insert into power and begin working like a diva. If at these times Scottee looks confused, hurt, suffused with sad disbelief – this does not diminish him, on the contrary seeing this peerless queen in such a way recognises our smallness. We’ve long felt the need to be big, to be bigger, but that it’s tough to maintain this front is truth, and in the moments that recognise that toughness a fuller solidarity emerges. Scottee conveys a momentous feeling of injury-to-self, cosmic and honest, where the only response is to knit a brow for a moment succumb to a universe of vast and incomprehensible injustice. We’ve all felt like that. Are we weak when we feel like that?
For the most part Scottee sits side-on to us, his face appearing in grainy and fluoro effect on a screen hanging on the front. And while he turns to sing us sad ballads which reveal a plainer less strident vocal as they progress – culminating in an unbearably moving, autobiographical and vindicating Non, je ne regrette rien, in which self-production and the violence of life’s productions hang together in the impossible resolution of this person here with us, this shared historied self-toward-culture – and where at one moment his head snaps round to us in warning, a red flag glare marking the danger of this territory, warding off the inward invitation that is being slowly given, still, Scottee is quite decidedly talking to himself, or more accurately, he is tentatively, diligently forging a disjuncture in the way he has seen us – as much as the way we have seen him – up until now.
The Worst of Scottee asks what it means to appear. Whether the image and its regime is inescapable. What it is to be recognised. The most beautiful, vulnerable, image of Scottee’s genuine pride in hitting the high note of regrette rien seems almost like a liberation into authentic selfhood, as if we are somewhere beyond the image – this feels downright theological. It reminded me of this bit from Barthes, when he is contemplating the photo of the Winter Garden which he has associated closely with his mother’s death: “The circle is closed, there is no escape. I suffer, motionless. Cruel, sterile deficiency: I cannot transform my grief, I cannot let my gaze drift; no culture will help me utter this suffering which I experience entirely on the level of the image’s finitude (this is why, despite its codes, I cannot read a photograph) : the Photograph – my Photograph – is without culture: when it is painful, nothing in it can transform grief into mourning.” The image of performance is prefaced and postscripted, it is toward culture, but for that it remains a an image – can we live in images, what is the psychic and social cost of the mask, and where do we turn when the image dissolves?