Anti-Hero? Qu'est Que C'est Andrew James Paterson


Tell Your Mother - Andrea Cooper, Song of the Anti-Hero - Istvan Kantor, Crap Days - Kenneth Doren, Mr. Nobody - Tanya Read, Sweet Interlaced Transvestite - David Frankovich



I see the phrase "antihero" and obviously I see the root word "hero". Can an antihero not also be a hero by default? If one defines oneself against a prototype or dare I say an icon, can one sustain that self-definition without becoming the dreaded opposite, without becoming just a necessary but harmless mirror?


If heroes are grandiose, are antiheroes also larger than life, or do they by definition function on a smaller scale? If heroes are mythical, then are antiheroes anti-mythical? It would seem to be not so, since many famous and infamous individuals throughout recorded histories have been designated "antiheroes". They may be antagonists rather than protagonists, destructive as opposed to creative, and so on. Surely such antiheroes are themselves heroes- counter-heroes, perhaps?


Anti-hero? Qu'est que c'est?


If heroes are distinguished by their actions, are antiheroes as well? If heroes are active then perhaps antiheroes are passive. If heroes make things happen, then it would seem that things happen to antiheroes. However, many renowned antiheroes enjoy their reputations by virtue of their activities, their insurrections or nefarious exploits or crimes or whatever.


Many antiheroes have exhibited or continue to exhibit heroic traits or characteristics. This begs the question of non-heroes? Does the non-hero excel through never engaging heroic vocabularies or affecting heroic pretensions? And why the masculinist assumption in all of the words containing "hero"? How often does the phrase or term "anti-heroine" surface in the realms of popular culture or mainstream journalism or even classic film theory? While certainly not wishing to get trapped in any pseudo-essentialist gender stereotyping, there are individuals who have dome quite nicely for themselves by functioning passively- by permitting things to happen to them and subsequently experiencing pleasure.


A binarism concerning "hero" and "anti-hero" is that of social vs. anti-social. Heroes do things that serve and preserve society. Witness firemen, war heroes, relatively anonymous citizens who sacrifice themselves for honourable causes and others who attain elevated individualities through their actions of behalf of the social collective. Antiheroes have traditionally been considered anti-social. Witness criminals, psychopaths, self-styled "non-conformists", members of "deviant" subcultures, and so on. Anti-social, parallel to antihero, can only be defined in relation to its root word. Many individuals who have been labelled antiheroes have also been designated social misfits- not adept at mixing in groups or sustaining friendships and other working relationships. Many of them are not easily defined in binary identities considered essential to both self and social definition.


The five videotapes selected for Trinity Square Video's "ANTIHERO" residency programme offer varying definitions of the phrase "anti-hero". Istvan Kantor's Song of the Anti-hero lies the closest to expectations of insurrection and terrorism and delinquency and other tropes of both the bad boy artist and anarchic/radicalism. Kantor's bad boy pop/art star is a shit-disturber, knocking over obstacles on a path leading to both desirable disorder and a lucrative career. The artist/performer is indeed within a venerable tradition- think Caravaggio and then Iggy Pop. Yet Kantor's lyrics make it clear that the man was born to be bad- he is not the way he is by choice but rather by biological destiny or some other determinist force. And of course Kantor has his tongue planted quite firmly in cheek- he knows that bad boy artists and rebel pop stars are a dime a dozen. Kantor has built a formidable art career as a Neoist, an art terrorist and a thorn in the sides of institutions, but he is also a player in those institutional structures. Propaganda has always tended to deploy promotional languages, so Kantor combines the performative promotional music video with his signature rapid-fire montage-editing. While Kantor the editor is certainly controlling the technology, he as performer is being digitally bounced from background to background- out of rather than in control.


Kenneth Doren's Crap Days focuses on English football fandom- its colours, flags and songs. Football songs help themselves to accessible popular tunes and match them with frequently ribald lyrics praising the favourite team and slagging off rivals. Football or terrace hooliganism has of course been one of Dear Old Blimey's scourges. Young men in particular form drunken crowds who act out at the expense of citizens who merely want peace and quiet and who are neither rooting for the favourite team nor very keen on football to begin with. However, Doren counters the testosterone and aggression. He shoots actors or performers individually (never in a group or crowd) singing their team's songs. Doren's performers are hardly football types- they are young men and women, some of them are rather androgynous, and many are immigrants not singing in their first languages. Football crowds enjoy a duality- they can be threatening to bystanders or pedestrians but they can also provide a sense of belonging for those who have not felt any sense of inclusion. And the refashioning of show tunes and other familiars can indeed be read as a working-class appropriation of more privileged trappings. Removed from a group or crowd, the performances become tentative and endearingly awkward. Without the group, there goes the rhythm and the aggression. The football fan in a group finds activity through passivity, through surrendering individuality by wearing the team colours and singing designated lyrics. Fans become antiheroes in the context of cheering on their heroes.


Andrea Cooper discovered and became intrigued by the character Tom upon viewing an NFB documentary called The Things I Cannot Change. Some of Tom's external and internal monologues were adapted from the documentary, but actor Stephen Lush performed character improvisations which Cooper decided to retain. Her videotape, Tell Your Mother, is claustrophobic in its framing- Tom is confined to a fraction of his kitchen. He is proud of how clean he keeps his kitchen and the teacups he has stolen from his wife and mother-in-law, because he cannot clean up the rest of his mess. His wife has left him, taken the (several kids) and now lives with her mother. The man is unemployed, not computer-literate or particularly skilled, and he's too old to pack up and go west. He has a history of cocaine abuse and still drinks, feeling a need to conceal his drinking from controlling mother-in-law who is still a third person within his past-tense marriage. Tom at surface level seems to be devoid of redeeming qualities. Yet he did stay home (albeit while unemployed) and spend quality time with the children- he was not a bad father and he is not a violent man. Tom is a guilty man lacking self-esteem- unable to assert himself and break his cycle. While he attempts to talk to the ghosts of his wife and her mother, inner dialogue interrupts him and creates an unresolvable cacophony. If heroes are those who initiate and execute actions, then Tom is an antihero due to his fatalistic passivity. Can an antihero in fact be so defeatist in character?


If Tom's passivity is negative, then Mr. Nobody's is stoic. Tanya Reid's Super-8/digital video hybrid Mr. Nobody centres on her eponymous character, who has starred in many of the artist's previous animations and exhibitions. The Mr. Nobody character has provided a blank slate for the artist, whose previous analogue animations have inserted her not quite cat-like figure into comic situations. (Read has long been fascinated by cartoons and animations, "especially the often strange and surreal stuff from the 20s-30s - Fleischer Studios, etc.", email correspondence with artist, 15/01/10) However, Read's freshly hybrid work ups the ante for the "expressionless" character. In Mr. Nobody, the cipher becomes confronted by situations both more threatening and less definable, by virtue of Read's digital processing and/or collaging. Mr. Nobody walks through abstract shapes that may or may not morph into more recognizable shapes or forms. Instead of slowly but surely landing in a harmlessly deadpan situation, Mr. Nobody progresses towards a void. Some find voids delirious and some find them frightening- often simultaneously. Immersion in a fragmented digital landscape poses the question as to whether or not Mr. Nobody can maintain his non-heroic façade and not resort to quasi-heroism.


A digitalization of familiar images can indeed jeopardize analogue elements remaining within those images. However, digitalization processes can contain their own seductively messy excesses. Within the "sweet transvestite" production number from the camp classic Rocky Horror Show, David Frankovich focuses on "dirty frames" , resulting from the 2.3 pulldown necessary into the conversion of 24 fps. film to 30 fps. video. (David Frankovich, residency proposal, Sept. 2009) The even and off fields within these questionable frames originate from two different frames of film. Editors are required to at least minimalize these frames as they are prone to flickering and jittering, especially when frozen. However, in Sweet Interlaced Transvestite, Frankovich locates and then maximalizes these dirty frames. He considers them analogous to the space between hero and villain hosting the source film's antagonist- Frank-N-Furter. What Frankovich calls "dirty frames" could also be labelled "shaky frames". When he stretches the lengths of these single frames, the images begin to destabilize. Those who are cool and composed become visibly nervous, and those who are already nervous become hysterical. Dr. Frank-N-Furter induces the jitters by captivating his not unwilling guests in a space both seductive and terrifying, one between but not outside of the binaries of Male/Female, Gay/Straight, and Hero/Villain. The good doctor may well be an antagonist within the classic narrative structure of the camp classic source film, but then that's merely narrative. And innocent lambs Brad and Janet have also been (further) destabilized and they're simultaneously terrified and fascinated.


Among the works comprising Trinity's "Antihero" residency programme, there is a dichotomy between orality and technology. Orality is a liability for Tom in Tell Your Mother- Tom implores his deserted wife and mother-in-law because he can't do anything else, while the football singers in Doren's Crap Days quite confidently appropriate a problematic oral tradition. Kantor rants his Song of the Antihero, flaunting his inflammatory lyrics. But of course words are ultimately just rhetoric, or posture. Actions speak louder than words when it comes to heroism. So does antiheroism denote passivity? What can be truly heroic in a technological landscape in which bodies don't seem to possess their former agencies? Dr. Frank-N-.Furter in Sweet Interlaced Transvestite may be a practitioner of social engineering, but the technologies into which he has proudly immersed himself have now destabilized his body- he now shares a technologically-induced vulnerable playing field with his intended victims. And Mr. Nobody is confronted by digitalized demons that threaten his deadpan passivity. Paradoxically, of all these antiheroes, Mr. Nobody stands the closest to the strong silent hero tradition. And Mr. Nobody is mute as well as being a cipher- he never had agency to begin with.


Both technology and postmodernism have problematized, if not completely destroyed, classical notions of hero. Technology introduces uncontrollable viruses while postmodernism troubles aura. Is there really, in the 21st century, such an entity as an indestructible hero- a knight in shining armour? Not only the Net but also tabloid culture persistently cut potential heroes down to size. So… are heroes automatically reduced to antiheroes? Can antiheroes still be oppositional to heroes when heroes are themselves by definition flawed? Perhaps one can best clandestinely commit heroic acts while maintaining a non-heroic façade or public image, by preserving anonymity within crowds, or by appearing comical when actually being extraordinarily serious, and therefore heroic.


Anti-hero? Qu'est que c'est?



Published in the catalogue ICON VILLAIN ANTIHERO, Trinity Square Video, 2010, pp. 35-41