Razi Mizrahi operates from the premise that beauty exists because we exist, and that it is the responsibility of the artist to notice that beauty and make it meaningful for viewers. The inspiration in Mizrahi's collages arises from her self-imposed limitations—primarily the prohibition against using newly manufactured materials. Nearly every element of her assemblages, from screws to wiring, has been culled from cast-offs. This limitation forces her to rely on the fortuity of discovering visually interesting artifacts of human life or alluring cabochon that spark memories common to us all. Since her earliest days in Berkeley, CA, to the materials used in her artworks have been dragged from the streets--increasingly from sites around the world, from New York to California, from Stockholm to Tel Aviv. The driving force of this force to be reckoned with is the endless (and likely fruitless) attempt to rescue the world, nurture the abandoned, and made relevant what has been relegated to obsolescence in compositions that contain humor and tragedy. As we strive to do in daily social life when interacting with each other, the compositions encourage viewers to quiet the mind's impulse to label and categorize as a way of understanding, and to release preconceptions about where things go and how things fit together. In this way, new meaning and renewed beauty may be discovered in what was once "damaged goods."
#MeToo, Pussy, and You
Aside from a range of acrobatic sex acts, what can be accomplished to stir human senses, to spark an important insight, in a room 20m/sq? Art history, including the history-in-the-making of contemporary art, offers an array of clues—from Phillip Guston's "impure, image-ridden" paintings that make the worst of recent human history even more repugnant by cataloging their symbols in mythical pinkish cartoons; Wafaa Billal's technological "remembrance of social conditions past" (or, rather, "passed"); Mernet Larson's disorienting geometric planes that reflect the drunken "vertigo of late modernity" described by sociologist Jock Young; or any number of artists whose on-site performances jarred or bored viewers with their show of vulnerability through exhibitionism. The common denominator among these examples is that each is intended to simultaneously touch disparate sensibilities: humor and sadness; admiration and shame; happiness and wistfulness. Like comedians whose most successful jokes make us uncomfortable even as we are overcome with laughter, the art we remember is deeply experiential, slightly disorienting, and as alluring as it is repugnant.
In this simple room, with its familiar "frame" of walls, a headboard, a mattress, and a door, there is only one way in.
The "safe space" of the bathroom, where visitors can close themselves off from the eyes of others, will be outfitted as a Grope Room, for which the visitor will have a limited amount of time to experience the space. Because groping requires that each visitor touch something a previous visitor also touched, visitors will be asked to wash with an anti-bacterial hand-wipe. This will not only ensure that their hands are germ-free, it will also indicate that other visitors have not left germs in the Grope Room.
What happens when the visitor enters the Grope Room?
Solitude: The visitor enters, and closes the door, sealing themselves in darkness. In addition to the time limit (approximately two to three minutes), the lack of light intensifies the visitor's experience.
Scaffolding: Visitors have been told that they will receive instructions once they enter the booth. This "scaffolding" will guide the visitor through the experience in the Grope Room. A tablet device at eye-level will flash three messages (in nine languages) individually. Each message will state one of the guidelines:
1. For a successful experience, please respect the installation. Do not adjust the fabric or tamper with items in this booth, other than as indicated by the signs.
2. This installation is participatory, but completely anonymous. Audio recordings in this booth will inform the next stage of the project. Please share your experience by narrating aloud your thoughts and observations. (Any identifying information inadvertently shared will be edited out of the audio recordings.)
3. You now have two minutes remaining in this booth to interact with its pussy, breasts, and penis.
Awareness: A strobe light (triggered by a motion sensor) flashes to give the visitor clues about the arrangement of the space. Visitors are surrounded by black sound-dampening fabric masking the walls and stalls. Only icon signage (no text) indicates where the pussy can be grabbed, where breasts can be squeezed, and where a penis can be viewed sprouting out of a pant zipper. (Attempts to move the drapes or look behind the fabric shielding the grope items will trigger loud bells; only the points-of-contact for groping can be accessed without the visitor indicating that they have violated the "rules.")
Demands on one's attention: To keep the visitor's attention engaged and ensure that the visitor is guided by the installation (not the other way around), the light continues to flash at uneven and sparse intervals. The strobe is a purple-red half-light—a color that can be interpreted, on a personal level, as the dark purplish-red blood of women's menstruation, or on a societal level as the red-blue of combative partisan politics seen around the world, or, telescoping out from the personal to the societal, the color may serve as a reminder that externalities, such as skin color, traditional garments, religious practices, etc., are merely veils over the blood all of humanity shares.
Silent but repeating "demands" implore the visitor to act: The strobe flashes in a slow-pulse, a gentle metronome that counts time while the visitor absorbs the meaning of the signage and formulates his/her/their next step.
Decision-making: The visitor must decide what to do next. The visitor has entered a space intended for a single blatantly-stated act: to grope and view genitalia. Although it seems that the decision-making process has thus already occurred when the visitor voluntarily entered the Grope Room, the visitor is still an actor whose decision-making is now essentialized. The visitor's internal dialogue is unlikely to be, "Will I or won't I?"; rather, the visitor may come to wonder, "Why would I (or anyone) do this?" The metronomic strobe may help the visitor slow down and consider his/her/their own emotional condition. The visitor may anticipate certain feelings, including the tactile experience, the sensuality (or repugnance), or the feeling of "getting away with something" taboo.
Facing one's discomfort: In the seconds between decision-making and acting, hesitations may begin to infect the visitor's mind: Am I being watched? Am I truly alone? Who or what is behind the curtain? Is the anatomy a life-like dummy or a real person? What will happen when I leave? Is this being live-Tweeted or is there a Candid Camera moment awaiting me? These are questions of trust, agency, confidence.
Action: The visitor reaches toward the "grope sites" and engages in an act that is likely to feel unfamiliar, awkward, perhaps "dirty." To "grab" the pussy, visitors will have to reach under a skirt hem and work their way through a layer of clothing (panties). Once the panties have been moved aside, they will be able to insert a finger into a warm, moist slit / hole. To touch the life-like breasts, visitors will have to pull aside an open shirt and slide their hands under a bra. The effort required to reach the "private parts" of the female anatomy is juxtaposed with the anatomical accessibility of male genitalia. This contrast is further highlighted by the relative ease with which the penis is viewed in the Grope Room. To encounter the life-like penis, viewers will merely draw back a curtain. These contrasts reflect the current revelations about men exposing themselves at work or online, and the stream of #MeToo stories that have begun to alter social norms about male-female power dynamics.
Adjustment: The visitor may experience a heightened sense of awkwardness in the aftermath of groping. The installation will offer no prompts or segues to the visitor during this period of adjustment.
Departure: Five seconds before the time limit is reached, the tablet will flash a message that reads, "You have five seconds remaining in your visit to the Grope Room." Then a countdown, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, will flash on the screen and the door will open.
What is this experience all about? For all of us—as complex social animals—this installation crystalizes the tensions between the private experience (in the Grope Room) of a very public debate about dynamics among the sexes. Yes, the project may hit the strikeplates of participants' life histories in divergent ways. But experiential art also draws on collective knowledge to generate new ways of "seeing" the world and ourselves as actors in it. In the installation, the themes ricochet between our individual interior states and our exterior social conditions.
When we hear the latest revelation about men groping women, men groping men, men greeting business colleagues in hotel bathrobes or masturbating into plants, and so on, we can't ignore the repetition of the themes: power, sex, money, intimidation, chattel, fame, inequality… Whether or not we have been groped or otherwise exposed to the unwanted sexual gestures of another, when we contemplate this thematic beguine, we must acknowledge none of us enjoys freedom from these dynamics.
The Grope Room draws attention to our shared knowledge by demonstrating the interdependency of our interior states-of-mind and social aspects of our interiority. If the oppositional features of this project can be understood as two ends of a see-saw, one can readily sketch some obvious interdependencies—i.e., between male and female power dynamics, sexuality and privacy, the public nature of reproductive organs and the boundaries around bodily integrity, and many other examples.
The fulcrum supporting these dynamics is the problem; this is what is taboo. Specifically, the act of groping another person. This taboo is an invasion of another's personal space and a violation of cultural norms in any society. Yet, these offensive acts have continued unabated, in part because they have been hidden or overlooked and not taken seriously. Public revelations in the form of personal narratives have opened a door to understanding the experiences. This project invites us in—not (as one might expect) as victim, but as actor—perhaps the more challenging of the two roles.
In this proposal, I suggest—no, I insist—that the space I create can (and should) "stir" and "spark" a new perspective in visitors. The job of the artist, among other things, is to discover a visual shibboleth that allows the artist to "speak" to complete strangers through the presentation. Because intellectual engagement should match the measure of beauty and balanced compositions, the use of the space must serve both ends. In my experience, visitors are drawn in by the visual stimulation, the curiosity of the art or the transcendent beauty, and they stay because of the intellectual challenges it presents.