Peeledbanana

What Fucking Clayton Pettet Teaches Us About Cultural Rhetorics

Going Bananas for a Boy on His Back in a Box

by Jon Wargo

In the days after what was supposed to be the so-called loss of Pettet’s “virginity,” I was awestruck by the lackluster coverage and mass disappointment his artistry and disavowal of anal penetration provided. People across Tumblr, Twitter, and even Facebook were heralding the performance as “awkward, anti-climactic, and only slightly erotic” (Merz). In fact, reflecting on the status of his April 1st banana-ram performance, I too was disappointed. I, after all, was slated to present on Pettet and theorize how this affective moment of spatiality and performance art signals new forays into cultural rhetorics and contemporary signs of queer performance. I was supposed to discuss touch, and the politics of art/istry. In sum, I felt perhaps, the same as Pettet was hologrammed to feel, shameful. In the weeks following what turned into a more “traditional” MFA carnivale of artistry to audience interaction, I thought about my initial response. Was I like the audience members Pettet talked about after his successful MFA defense? Was I curious about watching a young twink get fucked in front of my face; or, was I actually interested in the voyeuristic response it would elicit from the crowd and media?

Tweet from Les Hutchinson

Now, I will weave a quasi-rhizomatic read of Pettets’ performative piece to the politics of spatial affect and begin to theorize how shame thrives as an act of political and personal agency. I’ll conclude by asking: what does this teach us about performance, where does this leave us in relation to to this odd noun/verb “queer,” and how does Pettet, quite literally, invite us to take it?

Why Shame?

On his back in a box? In the aforementioned promo that commences this piece illustrates, Pettet, with the audio backdrop of the American news coverage spotlighting his event, crouches in what appears to be a room encased as a white box of sorts. In the last five seconds of this 15-second reel, he stands up, breaks a porcelain cup, lights fading to black, and then walks off stage. This moment, a visual metaphor and preview of what so many sought to see, acts as a palimpsest of Pettet’s own imaginary.

Tweet from Les HutchinsonHow can we theorize this break? This metaphor of the virginal seal construct, shattering before our very eyes. Is this shame? Do we feel this break? “The very physicality of shame,” according to Ahmed (2004), “involves the de-forming and re-forming of bodily and social spaces, as bodies ‘turn away’ from the others who witness the shame. . . . Shame involves a different kind of orientation from disgust towards the subject and others” (103-104). Shame acts as an agent through its capability to stimulate a response from our imaginary. Was Pettet’s token exchange of virginity a contract for his degree? An emergence into a field he felt displaced in; or, was it indicative of youth whose own sexuality would color him outside of the lines and into adulthood? What are the geographies of shame?

On Spatial Affect

Shame acts as an intermediary to the conceptual lens of spatial affect and Pettet’s performance. I, like countless others (e.g., Thrift, Soja, and Lefebvre), want to move away from talking about affect as merely the expression and reflection of a phenomenological experience. This type of narrative inquiry, while worthy, is often glued to empirical prowess that misguides reality. Instead, I want us to think about how spatial affect, the affective component that the politics of space and place may have on experience, is Pettet’s blueprint for emotive encounter. It may, however, be a worthy exercise to nuance these geographies of affect, as it is important to understand how they work across multiple fields of “human spatiality” (Soja 65), always stretched between the material and metaphorical, the physical and the mental, and the real and imagined.

Tweet from Les Tweet from Les HutchisonFor Pettet, (and for countless others) what was sure to be at first, a boy, on his back, in a box, this spatial affect was what first drew us to the experience he was interested in managing as art. Through discussions with our working group, I was curious, would I “feel backwards?” Would I think back to the boy on his back in my bed? A boy reconstructing his own loss of sorts? A virginity that I felt all-too-real at the time. Pettet moved from performance artist to experience architect. However, in this design of affect, larger groups and bodies became interested in the project. Nations and people began forecasting how this, an act by a 19-year old who in so many ways was selling his anal virginity for a degree, would speak to their own constructions of youth, of sexuality, and art (The LipTV). How could Pettet, a singular student with one blog post destroy and/or destruct ideologies concerning something as sacred as art and youth was impressive. This vertical alignment from emotive moment to national disaster and shame scare was the experience Pettet, penultimate to his actual day of duty, was interested in creating. Or was he?

At the Risk of Feeling Space; Or, When the Audience is Given a Face

While Pettet’s prose and narrative response with Dazed magazine acts as an interesting moment to highlight the feelings of artist, here I am more interested in exploring first person accounts from audience members of the encounter. Take, for instance, Suzanne Zhang’s tweet following the performance:

Tweet from Suzanne Zhang

Zhang, as Kathleen mentioned above, could be read as “feeling” Pettet’s failure. Moreover, she dismisses the call and response to sexuality, noting how the zenith of her experience was her own hunger. I would query, hungry for what? In comparison to Zhang, Nik Thakkar from Karl Is My Unkle provides a much longer narrative, one that I want to share with you as we embark on this reflective 1st-person account of Pettet’s piece:

We entered the industrial open space of Theatre Delicatessen on Marylebone High Street, mobile phones confiscated and seated in a space with no formal stage, just an extension of the floor with a steel bowl and raw broom head. After about fifteen minutes…silence fell upon the room, a near nude Clayton enters, dressed in just black boxer briefs with smears of paint on his body spelling out words such as VIRGIN, BUTT and the lettering of NSFW. Members of the audience are…escorted in groups to a small baby blue/lilac room on the lower ground floor – the walls of which are covered in the words of the world’s media written in a felt pen. Individually, we are picked out one by one from the room to experience Clayton seated cross legged in a hut surrounded by ripe yellow bananas, we are asked to enter and sit with him. He asks, eye contact locked to me “I want you to penetrate my mouth six times with this banana.” The penetration takes place, and Clayton politely asks you to leave. His manner was almost aggressive ironically leaving me with a bitter taste in my mouth.

Conclusions & Provocations

Tweet from Les Tweet from Les Hutchison

I want to highlight the emergent and sophisticated performative pleasure and shame Pettet creates for his audience as a cultural experience architect. The affective component, felt and illuminated by the geographic and ephemeral space and place of his exhibition (temporally catalogued by a finite amount of time and bounded, literally by steel bars and bananas), is a catalyst for new forays into how we may conceptualize queer and queering art. Perhaps, when archiving the affective experience of “feeling queer” and spatial affect, we should pay less attention to the disorientation of the “feeler” and, rather, trace the construction of experience back to the architect of the affect. What would re-readings of this type of performance theory look like? How could we re-read Munoz’s read of Nao Bustamante, of Carmelita Tropicana? While the blueprint of Pettet’s original project may have looked quite different than the exfoliant banana purge that commenced, the experience was the same. Pettet created the piece as a rise to speak back to the “shame” that was put upon him. Moreover, Pettet made bodies recognizable. Spatial bodies, too. By hailing and incorporating the interactive component to the performance, the audience was given a face. This interaction forefronts the subjectivity of the viewer as active participant rather than passive voyeur. The focus thus became about how one engaged with the performance and how one began to see and feel the art and self from that place, rather than any notion of what a body (or art for that matter) unchangeably or authentically is. Thus, Pettet meandered his way from the so-called bottom, and instead, fucked us, willfully leading us to the experience he imagined from the top.