Cecilia Corrigan’s Blonde Ambition
Cecilia Corrigan’s Blonde Ambition
By Felix Bernstein
An essay on True Beige (Trafficker Press: February 2013), Titanic (forthcoming, &NOW Books: September, 2014), Full Disclosure (performance, Cage 83: December 7th, 2013)
I’m genuine trouble—
A terrible flirt!
And bursting your bubble
Did cause me no hurt
–Cecilia Corrigan, Titanic
Have you seen poet Cecilia Corrigan read lately? She is tipsy, turvy, and bubbly, nearly falling over while she delivers her poems (or are they jokes?). Some people, at recent readings, at prestigious universities (like Yale), have been confused. Others, while amused, are surprised to find out she is a poet. But, no, Corrigan is not drunk and yes, she is a poet! Her blonde-on-blonde drag is actually meticulously crafted, as are the words in her first chapbook True Beige, which displays a virtuosic command of the vomited up “not not-self” that her contemporary Trisha Low has essayed about. Corrigan is making fun of herself, of white girl talk, of poetry talk, but she is also voraciously indulging.
In her recent performance, Full Disclosure at Cage 83 with poet MacGregor Card and sound artist Cammisa Buerhaus, she takes her genre send-ups to a new height, convincingly portraying herself as a young post-language hybrid poet, a stand-up comic, an overcharged self-indulgent star, as well as a pretentiously serious poet fumbling through her abstract phrases. Audience confusion gives way to amazement. She shifts from bit to bit (including a full song and dance number) with uncanny ease, not just because she is able to gracefully transition through streams-of-consciousness vis-à-vis girly tangents (a skill that has always been apparent in her poetry), but more importantly because each bit holds up as being almost professionally precise.
Corrigan, having written for HBO but also having received the Plonsker prize for her first book,Titanic, has a rare understanding of what it takes to succeed within territories that run from the avant-garde to the mainstream. She can, therefore, jump, parodically, into a tactic from conceptual poetry to a tactic from stand-up comedy to a tactic from language poetry to a tactic from teen-girl attention whoring. This gives her a freedom, due not only to her ferocious talent, but also to her willed reluctance to conform to any one predetermined formula. She is just as unwilling to conform to the formula of avant-garde iconoclastic experimentality, as she is to conform to the formula of stand-up comedy. But this is not to say that she stands above the genres that she uses. She isn’t some crafty sophist who has learned to pass but is a virtuosic artist, able to really slip into and onto all sorts of both crazy and normal things.
Her forthcoming book, Titanic, starts with an off-the-cuff introduction that when you’re not looking somehow veers into telling a love story, a novel of sorts that begins with a scripted dialogue between talk show host Corrigan, and her sidekick Paul; this moves into poems, spastically lineated, and continually interrupted by random lists, descriptive prose, letters written by historical figures, net code, complex absurdist diagrams, Buffy fan fiction, jokes, and references that span from an Anne Hathaway interview to Levinas. But this summary does injustice; you must read the book yourself (or better yet hear Corrigan read it) to see that despite its eclectic scope the book was neither machine generated nor written by manatees juggling “cultural reference” balls (which is how the writers of Family Guy are depicted on South Park).
Within the context of her contemporaries, who are seemingly stifled by prefabricated norms, having been churned out of the factory of post-conceptual art (the major categories including conceptual poetry à la Kenneth Goldsmith and Rob Fitterman, straight Internet aesthetics à la Corey Archangel, gay Internet aesthetics à la Ryan Trecartin); Corrigan’s done more than just figure out how to make works that meet those criteria, she’s also shown a relentless drive to make works that exceed such criteria; therefore throwing a wrench in the cliquish mob mentality that forms around such practices.
Despite being born in the same year as Lady Gaga, queen of hipster art pop culture, Corrigan’s own list of influences suggests an idiosyncratic lineage that does not conform to the canons of conceptual poetry, gay Internet art, or straight Internet art. She lists: Vera Chytilová, Stanya Kahn, Jean Harlow, Dorothy Parker, Catherine O’Hara, Lisa Robertson, and drag culture (which Corrigan says, “It’s like the ‘conceptualist’s’ idea of reappropriation and content reframing except fun”) among others. One notes Corrigan’s lack of kinship with contemporary visual artists whereas, in contrast, the gallery sensibilities of pop art, art pop, and post-conceptual art sit nicely with the dominant group of net art/conceptual poetry hipster artists and poets. Indeed, this communion is nicely demonstrated in critic Claire Bishop’s ArtForum essay “Digital Divide,” that praises Kenneth Goldsmith (conceptual poetry), Corey Arcangel (straight net aesthetics), and Ryan Trecartin (gay net aesthetics).
There is something romantically stubborn about Corrigan’s idiosyncratic refusal to play by the rules of mob-sanctioned practices. And yet, all the same, her work is remarkably appealing, funny, and even accessible. It holds up within the various genres it challenges because of her commitment to precisely crafting the work. Additionally, as luck would have it, she can deliver the voice, mannerisms, and appearance that can pull the wool over our noses, that is to say, she looks the part she wants to play. The blonde white gorgeous female, topsy-turvy and tipsy, is expected to have a certain messiness, a certain befuddlement that can seem to accidentally conform to the demands of the avant-garde, i.e., the demand that you must slip in and out of the norms. And this is the uncanny humor that comes when a tipsy Corrigan slips in and out of flawless avant-garde tactics. Yet perhaps, her biggest threat is not that she exceeds the requirements of the genres she parodies, but rather that she manages to do so while having it spin out organically from her heart and hands and breath. Again, there is a romantic spirit to her work that makes it so that the lines she weaves are not alienated voices that she rolodexes through and appropriates to show heroic symbolic mastery (as in the work of Andrea Fraser or Vanessa Place).
Corrigan’s act does not need to pride itself on being subversive; it does need to play by the art-world theory rules of deadpan genre parody. It’s a hot mess, not a cool one, and yet it is still rigorously dialectical, and witty. Like early SNL and SCTV, the jokes are nearly irreconcilable with mass culture norms but they never rise to the sort of Pictures generation avant-garde cool subversive critique of mass culture—a brand of irony epitomized by Cindy Sherman that in many ways became the gallery norm over and against the playful wackiness of something like SCTV, or certain cult performance art sensations as Karen Finlay, Julia Heyward, Shelley Hirsch and later, in poetry, Nada Gordon and Sharon Mesmer; all of whom have a heat that contrasts starkly the cool and famous ‘performance artist’ epitomized by such huge stars as Cindy Sherman and Laurie Anderson, precursors to the art pop culture phenomenon Lady Gaga. Messy men, not surprisingly, have fared better, especially Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, who were largely inspired by sloppy and funny feminist performance art.
Corrigan may seem to be merely performing feminine messiness but her grasp on blasting apart signification means that she really makes a mess (of language, culture and expectation). Corrigan’s contemporary Trisha Low explains the distinction between a real and performed mess, as follows:
Performing a feminine mess involves all the markers of the grotesque, but that always seems somehow limited to the page or to a symbolic space. I was always more interested in making an actual mess not just via overdetermined referents (although I do love those) but in a contextual space, socially etc – in quite a literal way, the ways I want to make a mess are ways that are already so firmly disallowed or silenced that they are already illegible, and therefore can never be carried out to their completion, not visibly anyway.
Low’s darker and more structurally unified real mess pairs nicely with Corrigan’s light polyvarious imaginary messiness. Both pose brilliant rebuttals to the expectation of a light imitation of female messiness; a rehashed, commodified, conceptualized version of what Joan Retallack has called the “experimental feminine” tradition.
Despite not being an oh-so-cool conceptualist, Corrigan isn’t glued to her persona with the authentic preciousness of post-ironic new sincerity artists (Joanna Newsom, Lil B, Tao Lin, and Steve Roggenbuck) or queer essentialists (Antony Hagerty, Lady Gaga and her art-theory fan girls, and the run-of-the-mill Ashbery/O’Hara acolyte) Nowadays the avant-garde appropriations of pop culture are more reified than the pop culture itself but Corrigan isn’t appropriating pop culture from below or above, she’s playing in it from the center.
Corrigan is not post-ironic; that is, she is not updating irony to make it more sincere or authentic; she is still working through the games of irony, postmodernism, and dialectical thought, in a time when most of us have ceased to work it through, and have chosen a position that equally satisfies the demand to be pro-authenticity (queerness, new sincerity) and anti-authenticity (conceptualism), meanwhile tossing out the sort of idiosyncratic, playful skepticism towards any and all predetermined allegiances, that is so stunningly a part of Corrigan’s aesthetics.
What this means, in terms of her relation to the mainstream, is a reluctance to reify the prefab nature of surrealistic hipster culture’s manic pixie dream girl [MPDG] (a ‘noble’ update on the dumb blonde), epitomized by Zooey Deschanel, perhaps the uber-example of the commodified experimental feminine. Corrigan is in a rare league that is able to perform the MPDG cliché in a way that uncannily exposes the ideological constructedness of its alleged authenticity (and authenticity was tied to the creative, bipolar, female long before this current fad). The parodic bending of the MPGD so that she becomes too off-kilter to maintain her cutesy appeal (and off-kilter in such satirically poignant ways as to expose the ideological framework that demands the MPDG) is an aesthetic trait she shares with comedic actress Anna Faris and stand-up comic Maria Bamford, but also with a long history of brilliant “dumb blondes” (including Jennifer Coolidge, Victoria Jackson, Mary Vivian Pierce, Candy Darling, Marilyn Monroe, and crucially Madeline Kahn). But to draw her practice back into the avant-garde, the undermining of the MPDG is not so far off from the way that the conventions of cute surrealism were undermined by language poetry’s open-ended play with signifiers; or how Dali’s reductively Freudian plastic dreamscapes seem empty when compared with Magritte’s twisted irreducible deferrals of meaning.
Even though Corrigan’s deferrals and slips may resolutely congeal into various finished works of genre-fixed excellence, be it a book of poems, a Hollywood screenplay, or a stand-up performance, they maintain a real open-endedness vis-à-vis the romantic purity of her slips—they are neither ironically self-aware slips-on-purpose nor cutesy girlish accidents but rather, menacingly real slips into the burbling chaos of unchained babble. These slips give her readers a certain thrilling threat: there are forces and dynamics outside our symbolic grasp, that in the hands of a willful artist, can give rise to something totally new and actively counter-cultural; even within a world whose counter-cultural avant-garde seems fixed, static, prefab, and hopeless.
Low, Trisha. “not not me.” Purge Volume 1. Troll Thread. 01 Sept. 2001. Web. <http://www.lulu.com/items/volume_74/13170000/13170182/1/print/THRLTHRD_Trisha_Low_Purge_Book_Final.pdf>. (page 120).
Low, Trisha. “An Interview with Trisha Low.” Interview by Coco Papy. Book Slut. Dec. 2013. Web. <http://www.bookslut.com/features/2013_12_020428.php>.
Felix Bernstein’s criticism has been published or is forthcoming in The Brooklyn Rail, Htmlgiant, The Volta, and The Boston Review. His art has been featured in Gauss PDF and Imperial Matters. His film Unchained Melody can be viewed here, and his Notes On Post-Conceptual Poetry is forthcoming from ‘Poetry Will Be Made by All’.