"[Gaga Stigmata has] very modern, edgy photography to free flowing, urban narratives without censure to analytical essays, et cetera—like Gaga, imagination without ... limits. And the beauty is that anyone can submit work to the site, so artists and writers from all over the [world] have joined this experiment." -The Declaration.org

"Since March 2010, [Gaga Stigmata] has churned out the most intense ongoing critical conversation on [Lady Gaga]."
-Yale's The American Scholar

Sunday, November 21, 2010


"mad props" invitation #6

When visual artist Jon Rutzmoser submitted his first invitation to Gaga Stigmata back in September, politely asking Ms. Gaga to please piss on him, I was amused and intrigued. While we’d been garnering great creative work for the site, much of the artwork—poetic and visual—that had been submitted at that point operated either as creative “defense” of Gaga’s project, or as holographic, near-homage. Rutzmoser was doing something different, riskier—he was playing with the high art/pop border in a most Gaga fashion, but his project wasn’t ultimately about explaining Gaga. It was about performing what Rutzmoser calls an “aesthetics of vulnerability.” This echoes Gaga’s aesthetics of life-on-display, certainly, but in an open-wide fashion that courts the sort of embarrassment, failure, and categorical confusion that many of the very best works of art invite; the kind of embarrassment, failure, and categorical confusion that Gaga herself invited when she first strutted onto the scene totally pants-less, and Christina Aguilera called her a he-she.

I asked Rutzmoser if he would be interested in continuing his project mad props on our site in weekly installments, either until Gaga answered his plea to be pissed on—in which case he must spill the pee for us—or until he felt he had no choice but to issue a statement explaining himself. As Gaga has yet to respond to Rutzmoser’s request, you will find below a conversation between Rutzmoser and myself about mad props. Rutzmoser and I began our discussion by re-hashing the impetus of the series. I also asked him to frame some of his artistic influences for Gaga Stigmata’s readers.

Jon Rutzmoser: If I remember correctly, I sent you [Kate Durbin] the first image/invite and then you asked me if I would want to do a series, which I thought was a great idea.  This project was something that I was kicking around in my head for a while before submitting it to Gaga Stigmata.  It began with the goal to invite a bunch of famous female artists/theorists/pop icons to piss on my tattoo.  There were several contextual problems that kept popping up with the thought of such invitations.  When I saw Armitage Shanks I felt like Gaga handed me the context needed to pursue the project.  I had been a fan of G.S. for about a year and decided that your commitment to criticality would help feed the project’s goals. 

Gaga's "Armitage Shanks" project

In terms of the photos, I was specifically thinking about Mapplethorpe (invitation #2), Rrose Selavy/Duchamp (invitation #3), Chris Burden (invitation #4), Trixter Discourse (invitation #5) and Joseph Beuys (invitation #6) and Tracey Emin (invitation #7).  In terms of the invitation/performance request I continue to think about Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit and a lot of Miranda July’s work.  Vito Acconci is always circling in my head.  I am also really interested in the work of Shilpa Gupta, Chu Yun and Liz Glynn—not sure if there are really any explicit threads to these artists but they certainly inspire and shape the way I think.  

Miranda July's "One Pose Per Second" video

Kate Durbin: It's interesting that you want(ed) Gaga to piss on your tattoo--one of the things I noted as the project unfolded was that your tattoo was always visible. Being as it’s on the underside of your arm, this meant that you were often raising your hands up in an prostrate way, or like you were at a concert rocking out. 

I'm curious to know what were some of the contextual problems of inviting other female artists to piss on you, that you felt were alleviated when Gaga created Armitage Shanks? Was it primarily the direct Duchamp reference and Gaga's own irreverent toilet humor (Gaga wrote on the urinal: I'm no fucking Duchamp but I love pissing with you), or something more, perhaps something related to what you perceived the reception of the project to be? 

Jon Rutzmoser: Most of the problems in the beginning were located within the tension between sincere critical engagement and complete dismissiveness through a process of reduction, seemingly violent and sexual in nature.  I was finding it difficult to balance that tension. There are all sorts of structural dynamics at play between a white male aspiring ‘artist’ requesting that established/famous/successful female artists piss on him.  However, power is still intimately linked to sex/gender and authorship and I was finding that my imagined propositions were collapsing into privileged solicitations or exploitations.  This risk of collapse is important to me and I equate it to an ethics of vulnerability but it is important to me that the viewer and propositioned be given enough traces or clues to recognize and participate in that struggle. 

Duchamp's "fountain"

Gaga’s Armitage Shanks provided me with at least two really important pieces of context.  The first, which is obvious, was an explicit link to Duchamp’s fountain, and therefore to my body.  This however would also be present in an invitation to Sherrie Levine or Elaine Sturtevant, and although I hope to someday invite these woman to piss on me (a save the date of sorts?) it is important to me that my work strive to extend beyond aesthetic discourse and insert itself into the realm of popular culture.  So the second contextual offering by Gaga was her monopoly on pop, as well as her constant shifting between discourses (political, aesthetic, social, etc.).  Her extraordinary fame forces the sexual tension implicit in my invitations to be understood not only in terms of the male gaze but also in relation to complex notions of celebrity worship.  Your Free Bitch Feminism: The Post-Gender of Lady Gaga piece has since got me thinking even more about Gaga’s ability to piss the gender right out of me. 

As for the location of my tattoo, Meghan [Vicks] brought up that it is in the same spot on my arm as Gaga’s Rilke tattoo. I did realize that before the invitations went out and I enjoyed that connection, however, the placement for me was more about the perception of the tattoo which is contingent upon the student raising and lowering his hand/arm. The perspective shift that occurs is also similar to how Duchamp flipped the urinal.  I’m also a fan of constraints.   

Jon's tattoo and Gaga's Rilke tattoo

Kate Durbin: I, too, am a fan of constraints. I'm also highly interested in how projects evolve over time, when artists open themselves up to audience response and interface variables, such as the Internet. What you said so beautifully about the tension between dismissiveness and critical response seems particularly apt here. I remember when we first started talking about your project, and I posed to you that you might continue it indefinitely on our blog, we both were excited and unsure as to how Gaga Stigmata's audience would interact with the work (though I think we both knew that some people would be, ahem, pissed!). This of course is particularly interesting as we have a wide audience made up of scholars as well as everyday Gaga enthusiasts. There's even a good chance Gaga herself has seen it, since I am fairly certain her Haus reads our blog. So, like Gaga's pop/art, your work was read by a much more varied group than, say, by an art crowd in a gallery who would instantly be applying a framework to it and therefore not truly become vulnerable themselves as viewers. And so what I'm wondering is if your aesthetics of vulnerability applies to the audience/viewer as well? And if so, how so? 

Jon Rutzmoser: I am interested in developing relationships that hinge on a level of vulnerability. Therefore, yes, I hope that the viewer thinks about her or his vulnerability in relation to both my work and its reception.  Travis’ comment articulates this very well, “I agree that there is a level of awkwardness here that is hard to stomach. Embarrassing beyond words. An abject transmission, returned from the toilet of the blogosphere.”  Certainly here the awkwardness is directed at me, the pathetic, half-naked, hand raising ‘artist’ trying to be seen: i.e ‘look what I can do.’ However, the viewer is implicated on all sorts of levels. To be cognizant of being asked to look requires that one see oneself (not) looking. And thus, the awkwardness or vulnerability becomes one way in which the viewer may accept or reject this piece. Side note: For the most part, I rejected Lady Gaga until seeing the Bad Romance video.

Kate Durbin: You mentioned to me that you didn't want to frame the piece too soon, as you wanted it to remain dismissible and therefore sincere. This ties in again, I believe, to your aesthetics of vulnerability. Once one has framed the work it no longer seems sincere because the vulnerability has been removed from it. However, invitation number 5 featured a bag of Trix cereal. I thought this was an interesting move--it made me think immediately of Meghan Vicks' work on Gaga as Trickster of American Pop Culture, and I wondered if you could expound upon your trickiness as it relates to your vulnerability, as obviously the two things appear to be in some conflict. Or perhaps you won't want to, as that might reveal too much of your magic bag!

Invitation #5

Jon Rutzmoser: Typically, people go to galleries explicitly to look at (and judge…and sometimes to even purchase) art.  Because the internet does not have such a clearly defined purpose—in relation to the viewing, judging and or purchasing of art—questions concerning the telos of these images may begin to surface for the viewer.  Is it sheer self-promotion?  Is he some pervert looking to get off on the idea of Lady Gaga pissing on him? Is this a joke? etc. And although, I think these questions are present regardless of where these images are seen, they certainly risk more immediate and anonymous dismissal on the web.  This anonymity is something else that I link with vulnerability. The viewer may or may not care about the images, yet s/he finds her/himself (not) caring in relation to a direct address to someone else (unless you are reading this Miss Gaga). It is a message in a bottle to Gaga, intercepted by the viewer. And it is a love letter of sorts or something else entirely. And we are embarrassed for reading it. And we are embarrassed that anyone thought it worthwhile to put something into a bottle and throw it in the ocean. And yet the moment we read the message, we are immediately faced with the desire to make it about ourselves. As noted in Vanessa Place’s WAT IS GAGA (Sept. 20th 2010): “No guises but reality, no reality but the imaginary, no imaginary but the symbol, and the Symbol is of the Imaginary. Because, the truth is, I don’t exist either. Not really.”

For me, doing a series of images was important.  Repetition helps to validate the project in some ways.  As the images accumulate, they request more and more attention and therefore the call to be seen/heard is intensified. Regardless of the telos, pathos begins to play a factor and various other relationships may emerge.  Patterns occur, or at least the desire to locate patterns, from week to week. This accretion over time is somewhat different than say walking into a gallery and seeing a bunch of ‘finished work’.  I am not opposed to gallery shows at all; however I imagine if these images were to appear in a gallery, their pleas for piss would be fixed (possibly explained on a placard). It was really important for me present ideas as ‘openly’ as possible before framing them.  And if it is not entirely obvious, I am still hesitant to map out a singular reading.  Placing them on the web afforded the potential/threat for viral expansion.  At least in theory, any one of the viewers could have reposted/reblogged the images. And in reposting/reblogging the viewer tacitly agrees that s/he cares and therefore assumes the power to reframe them however s/he wishes.  

Again with the tension… who the hell cares? 

I have been thinking about notions of the Trickster for about two years now and much of my work engages with parody and play.  It would be weird for me to say I wanted to be a trickster but tricksters have historically functioned in really powerful and ethical ways—not so much by answering, but rather posing or revealing (reveling in?) questions.  I agree with Vicks’ analysis of Gaga as a trickster.  My explicit use of the Trix box in number five was an attempt to pay homage to this placeholder in our society.  It also functioned as a means to give some theoretical traction to any viewer concerned about my lack of critical commitment.  An armnote perhaps, another part to the (w)hole.

Kate Durbin: I like what you say about the potential for/threat of viral expansion that exists when this work is placed on the web.  The reactions to the piece in Gaga Stigmata's comment boxes have in effect spread much like a virus. With the first few invitations, there were occasional expressions of confusion along the lines of "you call this crap art?" punctuated by mostly silence, as if the virus were spreading silently beneath the surface. But then with your sixth invitation, an eruption of anger was directed your way. On the one hand, viewers felt the project was too hip art-elitist for them, yet on the flip, entirely too base and childish. Meghan Vicks pointed out that this anger, oddly enough, sounded a lot like Gaga's critics. "It's childish!" "It's derivate!" "It's not real art!" One woman even called the series chauvinist, though other commentators were quick to point out that it's really much more in line with male abjection than chauvinism--the male abjection of, say, an American Apparel ad. The commentator retracted her statement after that, but I am certain she was not the only viewer who saw a guy in his trendy underwear asking Gaga to piss on him and thought: "asshole." 

However, it also seemed that the fiercest anger came from people's frustration that the piece had continued on for so long, that it just wouldn't fucking go away, like a kid who keeps begging and crying for candy in a grocery store, saying please over and over, embarrassing and yet somehow implicating all the other patrons. What did you feel when you experienced all the loathing directed your way, some of which even became bizarrely personal? When were first talking about you writing a critical piece to go with the invitations after the fact, you called it an "apology." If you were to write an apology for your piece, what would you say? 

Jon Rutzmoser: Yes, the sixth invitation did get people talking which ultimately made me really happy. When the first negative comments were posted, I was a bit bummed, especially at the ones that were attacking me instead of just the work.  But these reactions were anticipated and like you said they might have been that which encouraged the silence to break and an interesting level of ‘critique’ to emerge.  When Vicks pointed out the correlations between Gaga’s critics and the angry comments things definitely shifted.  The value of words being exchanged became simultaneously more and less arbitrary. I had hoped that the title mad props would encourage this shift as well; that is, by locating anger and insanity and (colloquially) extreme support all within the propositions/invitations.

I love your analogy of the child in a grocery store.  I imagine the situation even further in my head. The parent of this annoying child, face turning red, turns and shouts, “Johnny, you are really pissing me off!” All of the implicated viewers forced to face their new reactions, different levels of implication and different forms of embarrassment.  Then, picture this, little Johnny responds, folding his arms calmly and forgetting about the candy; “Well, mother/father, it is certainly better to be pissed off than pissed on.”  The conceptual is childish in its rejection of the material.

I was excited when abjection entered the conversation.  Certainly the piss element of the project is congruent with what has been called abject art.  However, I struggle with the concept of the abject being attributed to any specific identity category.  Identities are symbolic, whether they are marginalized or not.  In which case, abjection—as a space between the subject and object—seems to be necessarily defined by a paradoxical dis/belief in the subject/symbolic, a reaction to the traumatic realization of our object-ness.  As expressed in one of the comments. “This picture is a lot like someone walking up to you and just looking you in the eye blankly. You wait, you say something, you wonder what's going on. You get frustrated because this behavior implies or requires explanation, and you don't know how to provide or acquire it. You're clearly being addressed but you don't know the code.”  And as Barthes reminds us, photographs are without code, (mad or tame). Thus, to take a self-portrait is to un-know oneself, to become ‘object’. And to become object is to become celebrity, which is to say, to become the highest form of a symbol (American Apparel model or Lady Gaga, the difference is in the degree of success). This is, I think, what the Gimme Some of That Bad Girl Meat Dress! discussion (Sept. 22) is about.   

I am interested in interrogating the ‘codes’ of masculinity, the ‘codes’ of advertising, the ‘codes’ of marginalization, the ‘codes’ of art and the ‘codes’ of celebrity.  I am also interested in interrogating the ‘codes’ of interrogation.  In such cases, failure is always inevitable, yet the inevitability of failure is never incasing, only incased.   

In terms of my apology, I was thinking more of a defense or justification of my actions rather than saying I’m sorry.  But I think that there is something in this relationship that highlights the level of responsibility that I hope to assume.  I am certainly not sorry for doing this project; however, I am sincerely sorry if it caused anyone any real trauma.  

Serrano's "Piss Christ"--a trauma-inducing work of art that did indeed get pissed on.


Kate Durbin is a writer and performance artist. She is the author of the poetry collections The Ravenous Audience (Akashic Books, 2009) and, with Amaranth Borsuk, Excess Exhibit, forthcoming from ZG Press. She has written several chapbooks including Fragments Found in a 1937 Aviator's Boot (Dancing Girl Press, 2009), FASHIONWHORE (Legacy Pictures, 2010), and Kept Women, forthcoming from Insert Press. She is founding editor of the journal Gaga Stigmata: Critical Writings and Art About Lady Gaga. She writes about celebrity style at Hollywood.com

Jon Rutzmoser (b. 1982) is an artist, writer and educator living in Los Angeles.  He recently received an MFA in Writing and Integrated Media from California Institute of the Arts. His work engages with notions of ethical subjectivity within a world of collapsed metaphor, linguistic slippage, and self-exploitation.  His blog is www.hystericallyreal.com.


  1. Heyyy ladies, I wanna be in on one of these epic conversations. Can we arrange that? Poss? Please poss on me?

  2. That is a fantastic idea! We'll definitely keep you in the loop, M

  3. I wanna have a conversation with y'all about why we all think Lady Gaga is our soulmate. Cuz I mean really.

  4. Just curious, but do the works about Lady G taking a piss have anything to do with the 1996 works of Gilbert & George?


  5. I am not familiar with Gilbert & George's work. A quick wikipedia search informs me that I should look more into them. They seem related certainly, but I wasn't personally referencing them. Thanks for the info!



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