A single-channel view of the piece. Check out the installation documentation video here: vimeo.com/11270893

The New Water Sports:
Totalitarian Aesthetics, Pride and the Cleansing of Queer Identity in Noam Gonick’s No Safe Words.

By Francisco-Fernando Granados

Noam Gonick’s No Safe Words is a multi-channel video installation that expands on a short film originally shown in large outdoor screens during the 2008 Toronto Pride Parade. The short film is contextualized by footage documenting the parade and the prominent participation of police forces in the festivities. Queer and politicized, the piece operates at the uncomfortable juncture where oppressive state apparatuses meet public expressions of non-normative sexuality. Appropriating the conventions and venues of mass media, Gonick uses contemporary and historical references to draw a link between the politics of totalitarianism and the aesthetics of sexual power-play that coincide in current North American culture. No Safe Words makes visible a kind of late capitalist gay identity that seeks to un-queer itself, obscuring the history of struggle for gay rights and creating a problematic dynamic that allows some queer bodies to pass as normative and achieve privileges while leaving oppressive hierarchical structures intact.

Gonick utilizes the aesthetics and channels of mass media to intervene in the logic of popular visual culture. No Safe Words recalls Sunday Night Football promotional spots, putting together electric guitar-driven music, animated commentary, popping captions and action shots commonly featured in sports advertising. But the conventions and the logic end there. The players are called “fudge packers.” Instead of famous NFL giants like Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson, the stars featured here are Adolf Hitler and Augusto Pinochet. The teams in the scoreboard are Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Muscular young men, most of them white, cross the boundaries between the athletic and the erotic by engaging in light bondage and making each other wet with beer and water. This is not NBC, but it looks like it could pass. Placed in an outdoor mega screen, the film functions as a queer impostor, planted by Gonick as a means to address the lack of political awareness that is often encountered in contemporary pride parades across large North American urban centres. By creating a sequence that passes as a mainstream media form, the film gives its public something to recognize, but quickly twists this recognition by inserting a seemingly unrelated combination of references to gay male sexuality – “fudge-packers” being men who to anally penetrate other men – and totalitarian politics – Hitler and Pinochet being genocidal dictators.

While the relationship between homoeroticism and totalitarianism explored in the piece may not be immediately recognizable, there are a series of iconographic precedents in the history of Western art that link the two. Gonick shows one of the football players, shirtless, tied to a post; his long curly hair drips with beer poured on by his mates. “I think he likes it!” says the announcer, explaining the athletic young man’s open-mouthed smile. He is presented in ecstatic captivity, the sexual appeal of his body only intensified by the vulnerability of his situation. The open-mouthed smile grants an identity to the body. His pose and expression recall Il Sodoma’s 1531 work, Saint Sebastian. The painting presents the saint, almost naked, being pierced by arrows but with a rather orgasmic expression on his face. Gonick’s allusion to Il Sodoma provides historical context to his choice of subject matter.

Citing examples that range from Ancient Greek sculpture to early twentieth century photography in the racist American South, Stephen F. Eisenman traces the history of representations of violence as bliss. The “formula of beautiful suffering” (111) presents victims in rapture, as though their punishment transported them into a state of delight. The representation of such delight in punishment works as a legitimization of violence. The Christian civilizing mission of sixteenth century Europe frames the beautiful suffering in Il Sodoma’s image; Gonick’s critical iteration of the formula is framed by the politics of North American occupation in the Middle East. He restages the formula of beautiful suffering in No Safe Words, amplifying its scale and highlighting its persistence in Western culture.

No Safe Words recasts the images of (homo)sexualized torture that have emerged in the aftermath of North American intervention in the Middle East. In another scene, five bare-chested hunks, arms tied back again, kneel in line facing the camera. Rainbow coloured underwear is put on their heads by men dressed in dark gear. The men then pour bottled water on the captive’s heads. These are “the new water sports,” the voiceover says. The image of underwear covering a man’s features echoes one of the infamous photographs from the Abu Ghraib prisoner torture scandal in 2004. In those photographs, the victims of violence, who are all racialized, are exposed but cannot be seen. The violence of their facelessness denies them identity and thus humanity. Eisenman asserts that the (homo)sexualized violence in the Abu Ghraib pictures exists in an iconographic continuum with Il Sodoma’s painting (65).

Writing on the erotic fascination with Nazi imagery in the post World War II period, Susan Sontag remarks that “a utopian aesthetics […] implies an ideal eroticism: sexuality converted into the magnetism of leaders and the joy of followers” (93). The idealized eroticism of Saint Sebastian thus resurfaces, as Eisenman argues (65), in the cruel and criminal power dynamic seen in the Abu Ghraib photographs. In both cases, the object of beautiful suffering is represented by and from the perspective of the master. Unlike in consensual S&M play between adults, there are no safe words that can turn the fantasy off in the Iraqi prison, as Gonick points out in an interview (Xtra). The paralleling of both allusions in No Safe Words visualizes the continuum of eroticized violence, historicizing the often-obscured connections between European colonialism and current Euro-North American international interventions. The use of Hitler and Pinochet as supposed football all-stars along with the references to prisoner abuse draws a link between totalitarianism and brutal sexual iconography. Showing the video in the outdoor screens names out loud the politics that structure the aesthetics, implicating and probing the audience. Through this public naming, Gonick’s iteration of the formula of beautiful suffering becomes a critical gesture. It allows for the problem embedded in the acts of torture referenced, as well as in the act of representing torture itself, to become part of a much-needed public discussion.

The aforementioned scene of collective sadomasochistic dousing in Gonick’s film questions the role of queers in the conservation of oppressive political systems. In No Safe Words, the new water sports are not a reclaiming of the abject space homosexuals have until very recently occupied. Instead of urine that soils them, the bottled water that is poured on the young men serves to wash their beautiful bodies. This symbolic washing can be said to illustrate the cleansing of a kind of gay identity that seeks to transform a vilified, outsider collectivity into a target niche-market demographic. The sanitation is manifested in the increasing corporatization of pride celebrations and exemplified by the prominent presence of police forces at the Toronto Pride Parade. Their participation occurs less than thirty years after raids on gay bathhouses sparked protests that served as a precedent for the parade itself (Gordon).

Footage taken by Gonick of a police car with a pride flag attached to the hood presents an idealized, harmonious relationship between queer people and the city’s police forces. Portraying uncomplicated harmony between the two groups aligns a particular sector of the GLBT community with authority and presents a lack of awareness of the history of police repression of sexual minorities in Canada. Such lack of awareness identifies what can be understood as a late capitalist gay identity. This identity keeps the contours of the Gay Liberation movement (the parade serving as a prime example), but leaves behind demands for social change, assuming that equality for sexual minorities has already been achieved. It supposes singular, linear and irreversible progress. These are not heterosexuals, but they sure would like to pass. The new water sports wash their bodies. What is then constructed is a gay subjectivity that seeks to un-queer itself, calling for a complete integration into dominant political and economic structures.

No Safe Words interrogates the role of mainstream gay culture within the larger socio-political landscape. It is important to remark that the task of examining and questioning dominant forms of homosexual identity does not undermine the legacies of the Gay Liberation movement in Canada. Those of us who benefit in our everyday lives from these legacies have plenty of reason to be proud of the activism of the pioneers who used visibility as a tactic to demand and achieve legislative protections for sexual minorities. Yet it cannot be said that an egalitarian utopia of liberation has been attained for all peoples, queer and otherwise. People in Canada who are recognized through gay rights are also touched by circumstances relating to their gender, race, age, ability, geographical context, culture and class, as well as migratory or First Nations status. In the face of a socially and economically conservative government, Gonick’s provocative gesture puts politics back into public gay discourse, maintaining the possibility of queerness as a platform for social change.

Works Cited

Eisenman, Stephen F. The Abu Ghraib Effect. Reaction Books Ltd: London. 2007.
Gordon, Rebecca. "Queers in Space: Communities, Public Places, Sites of Resistance." The Women's Review of Books 15.n6. March 1998
Hasselriis, Kaj. “Short film questions police role at Pride.” Xtra.ca. June 10, 2009.
Sontag, Susan. Under the Sign on Saturn. Farrar Strauss Giroux: New York. 1980.

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