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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Perceptual Marriage: Notes on “Yoü and I” and Future Work

By Roland Betancourt

In June of last year, the Internet was abuzz with the news of a mysterious new model posing for Vogue Hommes Japan. His name: Jo Calderone. Soon after, following much careful formal analysis and an interesting back-and-forth of Tweets by Perez Hilton, it was clear that this hot new model was Lady Gaga. It was in this exchange that Gaga first used the phrase “Born This Way,” and Jo Calderone inaugurated the Born This Way project as its indirect poster child. Since that moment, I have been waiting for Jo Calderone to reemerge, I have written a chapter on him for the upcoming Stigmata book, and I believe him to be crucial in Gaga’s articulation of technology and her body as a shared medium for visual (re)production.

While in London recently, I tried to view the film of the shoot at SHOWstudio right before the show ended. Mysteriously, I was turned away because the basement had allegedly flooded a few weeks previously. Jo Calderone’s Twitter account, which had been dormant for almost a year, tweeted again on 2 June. It seemed that the Jo Calderone project was back in full swing, possible for “The Edge of Glory” video. However, as we now know, the original video for that – which was to contain an Enrique Iglesias-type, mermaids, and plastic surgery – never happened. Now, the parallels between the Edge video that never was and the newly released “Yoü and I” are quite evident from what little we know. Was that basement really flooded? Did anyone see the Jo video in London? (I encourage responses from readers regarding this.) What is clear is that the Jo Calderone project suddenly withdrew from the private exhibition space (the video would only be shown in house), and reemerged onto the world stage. This signals an important shift in Gaga’s trajectory, particularly after various videos that, while visually interesting, were mainly driven by Laurieann Gibson’s choreography.

I would argue that the project is complete. Lady Gaga’s “Yoü and I” completes the Born This Way cycle. It all ends here. However, the fate of Jo Calderone is still left in question. Nicola Formichetti cited him as “Jo Calderone” in the wardrobe credits, along with Gaga and Taylor Kinney. Thus, the identity is still in place. When he reemerged on 2 June, Jo Calderone tweeted, “Society’s projection, should not be your reflection. If you’ve ever felt rejection, feel safe by my protection.” The rhyme scheme here suggests that this is most certainly a fragment from a new song. After all, Gaga did a similar thing with Judas lyrics months before the song came out. Thus, Jo Calderone who began the Born This Way album campaign, reemerged to complete it – and, perhaps, inaugurate the next phase in Gaga’s project.

The video also suggests an important shift in Gaga’s work, one that has always been there in statement, but lacking in visuals: the union of body and technology. The opening figure of Gaga is her new trajectory. Her feet are torn from her fashion, her body is inserted with implants, and her large hat echoes a geodesic solar panel. The image has some immediate parallels with the cyborg-like jewelry that Beyoncé donned as her alter-ego Sasha Fierce. Additionally, this potent image of the Gaga cyborg was foreshadowed the video for “Paparazzi,” when Gaga emerges from her wheelchair in Mugler body armor. Hence, we see in this proud heroic image that dominates the landscape an empowered technological Gaga, who has always tried to unify technology and fashion, and has noted the importance of social technologies in her craft.

The very idea of the cyborg, post-human body, is the unification of the organic sensorium with the distributed agency afforded by technological networks. Therefore, I would argue that Gaga is heading toward a deeper articulation of technology and social media – developing, of course, upon her BTW work that is centered on the body as a medium for infinite births. This is also a line of thought that has been of crucial interest to Nicola Formichetti, and that defined the structure of his Gothic-inspired, social media saturated Mugler show. Perhaps this will develop in fruitful ways that question the usual networks of circulation – like Björk’s exemplary new iPad-app album Biophilia.

The lyrics offered by the Jo Calderone tweet and his deployment in the video demonstrate an interesting train of thought: Jo Calderone as a personal projection. The projection has been an important, yet under-analyzed concept in Gaga’s work. Not only does the medium feature prominently in her concerts (particularly in the interludes and the “Dance in the Dark” opening of the Monster Ball), but it also appears in the Manifesto of Little Monsters. The Manifesto reads:

It is in the theory of perception that we have established our bond. Or, the lie, I should say, for which we kill. We are nothing without our projection. We are nothing without our image. Without the spiritual hologram of who we perceive ourselves to be, or to become, in the future.

Gaga has paralleled one’s image to one’s own projection, a present and proleptic projection. The image, the projection, the reflection are triangulated in the ideological space of perception, that is “the theory of perception.”

This “theory” seems to be a coherent – or, rather, consistent – contemplation on filmic viewing that resonates strongly with Christian Metz’s theory of film perception. Metz writes,

There are two cones in the auditorium: one ending on the screen and starting both in the projection box and in the spectator’s vision insofar as it is projective, and one starting from the screen and “deposited” in the spectator’s perception insofar as it is introjective (on the retina, a second screen). When I say that “I see” the film, I mean thereby a unique mixture of two contrary currents: the film is what I receive, and it is also what I release, since it does not preexist my entering the auditorium and I only need close my eyes to suppress it. Releasing it, I am the projector, receiving it, I am the screen; in both these figures together, I am the camera, which points and yet which records.

This process of projection is crucial to the medium of film, which is distributed across the space of the auditorium, residing neither in the projector or the screen, but in the locus of experience: the viewer as receiver. Gaga develops this thesis as a structure for the articulation of identity. (Neil Leach has applied Metz for similar purposes in his article “Belonging: Toward a Theory of Identification with Place,” in the Mining Autonomy [2002] volume of the architecture journal Perspecta.)

Gaga’s work here takes on an interesting project by slowly inscribing identity onto the act of viewership, thus empowering her users as viewers. Through the act of viewing, the viewer “poaches” the text (to use Michel de Certeau’s term), making the narrative their own in their interpretation. However, there is also a bodily confusion between the screen, the camera, the projector, and the body. Thus, the cyborg image of Gaga is theoretically paralleled to the image of Jo Calderone, who is a reflection/projection of Gaga.

The video has a simple reading, one that helps this argument: “You will never find what you are looking for in love, if you don’t love yourself,” as Gaga tweeted with a preview still of the video. Quite simply, the video is “about” having to love oneself before one can love another. Hence, Jo Calderone standing in for her lover, Nebraska, is Gaga’s depiction of loving herself. After all, Jo Calderone has important resonances with Gaga’s (infamous?) boyfriend Lüc Carl in his stripped-down drinking, rocker look. However, what are we to say about that pale, white Gaga who smiles at the camera in a daze most of the times, noticeably not even singing the lyrics? Her body seems to echo a white canvas, the space of the representation of the image – this is a thesis that I have found crucial to the rule of Jo Calderone. Here Gaga and Jo Calderone are caught in a complex relationship of projection and screen (the perpetually absent body, of course, is that of Stefani Germanotta), but the act of performing and viewing Gaga is defined by their unified relationship. Her cyborg-self presents us with the same image, but in this viewing she is a compound of the technologies and social networks of (re)production through which we, as an audience in a global public sphere, view her.

This hybridity is again doubled by the image of the mermaid YÜYI, whose name I would argue is a unification of “Yoü and I” – the “and” replaced by a “y,” as in Spanish or merely phonetically, Yoü-y-I. As a hybrid creature, she serves precisely as a union of these tied opposites: fantasy and reality, projector and screen, body and technology, Gaga and Jo Calderone. She is a creation of the lover, but the lover creates various images or permutations of Gaga. As Gaga tweeted, the more you try to alter her the more powerful she becomes.

YÜYI is the marker of a resilient viral image who embodies the full virality of the spectator and the performer, whose image is subject to the manipulation of user-masses. In a telling moment, the lover strokes the glass of her framed fish-tank-like container. She is “still” human – although like “Bad Romance,” the video works against any clear narrative development and thus it would be unwise to carelessly assume a linear chronology to these images. The scene seems to echo myths of Narcissus and Echo, or even the Portrait of Dorian Grey. She stands as a framed image with a spectator that is also a lover and image-maker.

There is a sexualized image-poesis implied, as if the creation of images is a sexual act – the impending virality a desirable venereal disease. The barn house is the artist/lover’s workshop, replete with a model of his creation in the left background. The production is violent, torturous. The figure that emerges in YÜYI is haunting; her fused breasts almost look as if they’ve been seared together. Image production is a sexualized violence. However, one must remember that this is not image production in the traditional sense of a medium (e.g. sculpture or painting), but rather image production is the node of perception, of viewer-filmic interaction in the body of the viewer. We are all YÜYI.

* * *

Lady Gaga is meant to make an important announcement on Thursday with the official release of the video. There are many things that she may well announce. Perhaps, a new song that involves Jo Calderone, probably the Born This Way Ball. However, given the strong themes of union and hybridity, I am left to wonder if there is not a big autobiographical secret encoded into this video: the video concludes with the wedding scene. A virginal Gaga is betrothed to her torturer, her image-maker, her lover. Most of the costumes featured in the video were, as usual, from major fashion houses, usual collaborators, and a few in-Haus designs by Perry Meek. One notable custom item is the veil, made to match the wedding dress. This wedding dress is credited by Formichetti on his blog as “WEDDING DRESS BY VINTAGE NORMA KAMALI (SPECIAL THANKS MRS GERMANOTTA).” The use of her mother’s wedding dress is a charged statement. Given the various articulations and structuring of union in the video, the blatant declaration of love for Nebraska, I cannot help but ask: Is Lady Gaga getting married? Or, perhaps, which “Mrs.” Germanotta is he referring to?

Writer’s Bio
Roland Betancourt is a PhD student at Yale University in the History of Art department focusing on Byzantine art and image theory, with an outside concentration in contemporary art and popular culture. Roland.Betancourt@Yale.edu 

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  1. If you watch Gaga's interview with Google, you'll same that she regards Stefani and Gaga as the same identity... she doesn't think she's hiding behind a performance, her performance IS herself. Of course, you are free to disregard authorial intent...

  2. for me, yüyi represents gaga's bi-sexual psycho et bi-reality between 'Lady gaga' and the real herself.

  3. To me, Yuyi is not a product of the lover, but of what the lover did. He tried to fix her. Yet this resulted not in what he had intended. He mourns the loss of the old Stefani, whom he had wanted. yet she becomes Yuyi instead (the new Stefani- Gaga),and he accepts this and the culmination of his acceptance is marriage. Gaga has said she wanted her boyfriend to rue the day he doubted her. It seems this is achieved by the video's end.

  4. I certainly do not want to go against the statements made by Gaga regarding her identity. Since these statements figure prominently in my argument regarding Jo Calderone in the book chapter. Instead, what I see is Stefani's body as the locus of perception. There is no differing identity, just a difference in terms of the provenance of that image/identity.

  5. Now at the risk of sounding crude, one thing that I did think upon watching the video for the first time was "Oh! Gaga FINALLY gets to have Sex in her video." Referring to the frustrated Gaga of Alejandro and previous videos who seemed to constantly be attracted to the 'wrong' people (Men who were gay and not interested in her (Alehandro), Men she set on fire (Bad Romance), or who killed her (Paparazzi), Jesus, Judas, etc). It seemed in this video, she had actually found a man who was truly compatible.

    Of course, I later realized the 'sex' scene of the video is between the man and her Mermaid self which (to put it bluntly) really has not the necessary woman parts for such a union.

    I'm afraid I'm unable to define the deeper meaning of this, but wanted to note that she is still (videowise) unsated in the lust/love/sex department.

  6. Further to your theory that the Born The Way era is now over...I see Gaga has been stepping out on cocktail dresses and surfing...

  7. To anybody that would like to answer this question:What do you think is the meaning of the blue and green shades in the film? Everything has a blue green hue. Thanks!

  8. An interesting missed bit about the name of Yüyi, which seems relevant to your analysis, is that it's exactly the Chinese/Mandarin word for "fish" (and when broken down into parts, "yü" means "water" and "yi" means "fish")-- which is why she made a specific reference to it while in Taiwan.

  9. Maybe a little bit too late for comment, but I've thought that maybe the idea of Mermaid came from Gaga's biography. As in the past she was signed to Mermaid Music and had some difficulties with her ex- producer Rob Fusari. Maybe she reflects her intense relationship at that time. In the interviews she is also speaking about meeting with the demons from the past, which were haunting her and she was trying to escape from them. But later she realised that those demons are also part of her. The line "I'd rather die without you and I" refers to appreciating everything you had, because it makes who you are. And without all horrible situations would be no art, would be no Gaga. (Of course this is just a surface meaning leading to deeper understanding).


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