Archive: Issue No. 101, January 2006

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Scot Kaplan at The White Box on the Red Square, Stellenbosch University
by William Scarbrough

American Artist Scot Kaplan exploits boundaries of infliction in his new performance piece, Control Room. Pitching his performance somewhere between hilarious and horrifying, Kaplan leaves his audience in an endless circle of introspective discomfort.

Imagine walking down the street and stumbling upon a room into which you are invited, and inside stands a man at attention willing to do anything you ask of him. Scot Kaplan, an Assistant Professor at The Ohio State University in the United States, was a visiting artist at Stellenbosch University late last year, and it is in front of the library on that campus, that I had the awkward experience of entering just such a space.

I stumbled upon his odd construction en route to the student centre where I was to meet someone for a quick lunch. As I walked past, an individual wearing a t-shirt displaying the title of the piece confronted me with the rules of engagement. A paper was placed in my hand inviting me to enter the room and to, well, control Scot Kaplan. He will do anything I ask of him for three minutes. All I needed do was go inside.

So I go.

I enter the room to find a small area partitioning me from Kaplan who stands at attention, waiting for my command. I pick up a small microphone hanging in front of me and instruct him with my desire. I look through the one-way Perspex that separates us, comforted by the fact that my voice will be distorted and my identity hidden. Emboldened by anonymity, my mind races into the perverse, intimate and absurd.

My command is made and Kaplan turns to press a digital time clock, strategically pointed directly at me. The clock starts its countdown of three minutes as Kaplan abruptly begins his task. I find myself growing more and more uncomfortable: self conscious at my request. The clock crawls toward my release. No longer interested in voyeurism, I want out.

Three minutes has passed and I exit the room, blinded by unwelcome sunlight. I feel naked, embarrassed, somehow ashamed as crowds of willing participants come into focus. A girl approaches me, asking, 'What�s it like to be in total control of someone?' I avoid her and promptly walk away.

As I reflect on my control over Scot Kaplan, I can't help but think of American soldiers involved in the Iraqi Abu Ghraib abuse case where prisoners were presumably shamed, abused and even killed while in custody. And I think of peep shows, the women performing behind the glass, and the relationship between them and the men they entertain. Perhaps comparing these two scenarios sheds light on the disturbing success of Control Room.

To me, there is an obvious relationship between Kaplan's piece and the abuse of prisoners in Iraq. Both become a commentary of inflicted control, of power out of bounds. The prisoners at Abu Ghraib were forced to do whatever their captors require of them, ever mindful of violent retaliation if they refused. There is a group dynamic involved where no single individual can be wholly responsible for wrongdoing. All remain free from personal blame.

Because the experience inside Control Room is anonymous, and it is Kaplan who is forcing himself to oblige all commands, the audience is not required to take responsibility for violations of Kaplan's body or humiliations to his psyche. But we still must leave the room alone. There is no safety in numbers. The isolation of having to 'keep the secret' of what you requested Kaplan to do inside the room creates guilt, shame and embarrassment - all very unexpected emotions. At the same time you find yourself wanting to confess to someone, just so they don't think you asked Kaplan to do something inappropriate.

Kaplan therefore accesses the taboo of a peep show where one trades coins for the anonymous experience of watching a woman on the other side of a glass partition, trying to beat the clock before the curtain comes down. She will do anything requested of her and what happens in the booth remains in the booth. It is only the excruciation of having to enter and leave the peep show expressing the line where intimacy and perversion converge. This embarrassment exposes an unavoidable question: Who is controlling whom?

The performance took place on Wednesday October 25 and 26 at The White Box on the Red Square, Stellenbosch University.

William Scarbrough is an internationally-known New Media Artist from New York who recently relocated with his family to Cape Town