"[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

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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Swine at the Rave: Erotics and Humiliation in Lady Gaga’s Schandmaske

By Roland Betancourt

In Lady Gaga’s “Swine” performance at the iTunes Festival, we may have seen a sketch for the rumored “Art Rave” that Lady Gaga has allegedly been planning with Jeff Koons. The flashing lights, the raging punk-esque tones, and the muzzles-cum-spray-paint donned by her dancers (who produced impromptu art projects on lowered canvases, some of which were later tossed into the audience) – these all suggest a model of an ideal art rave in Lady Gaga’s vision.

But within this art-production hedonism there lies the menacing grotesque narrative of Gaga’s untold story of pain and abuse – which she chose not to share with the audience, but which certainly alluded to many figures from her rise to fame who used and abused her. Figures like Perez Hilton come to mind; or perhaps even closer associates and loves, like Bob Leone and Luc Carl, whose separations from the pop star have led to rumor, slander, and myth causing one to wonder what precisely happened behind the mask. The punk or screamer rock aesthetic of the song might even suggest a direct tie to those Rivington Street days at St. Jerome’s where the burgeoning pop-star was surrounded by her then boyfriend, Luc Carl’s, rocker friends, while being slowly drawn into other spheres by the fairy-godmothers of pop, Lady Starlight and Darian Darling, for example. 

This art rave, however, was also haunted by the ever-present grotesque images of Swine – by the very figures the song commemorates and embraces, and simultaneously distances itself from in an attempt to work past. This produces an interesting disjuncture that is worth exploring: the song, which is a sort of confession that functions to move through the pain, brings to the forefront the swine as a trope. But, the swine do not merely populate some othered, dystopic landscape of pain; instead, they occupy the art rave itself, which one would imagine is the utopia of the ARTPOP project.

Her dancers emerge onto the stage clad in all white, with large swine-like gasmasks covering their heads. Their bodies are equipped with fog-machines and spray-paint packs, and these apparatuses give them an almost insect-like form – as if some sort of cross between the filthy swine and the flies upon their wretched, putrid flesh. Those large, condiment-shaker-lid eyes soldered into that bestial head, muzzled with that long, gasmask-canister snout. Oh, what a sight of post-apocalyptic horror, where human-animal hybrids make art and seem to have been bred not just across species, but across humans, animals, and the very debris and detritus of war and industry – the gruesome flesh of man merged with swine and speckled with the accoutrements of the war-industry complex. Those jet-packs of noxious, gassy fog and hissing paint, sprayed onto those canvases are like poison spat-out from some dilophosaurus, like in that famous Jurassic Park scene, some creature from the terrifying dawn of creation. It is truly a horrifying scene.

And yet, these swine make street-art upon canvases! What joy! What strange pleasure!

They bounce upon the stage like some hobby horse, while still reminding us that just earlier Gaga herself was suspended upon those bungee cords. But when she was up there during “Aura,” she did not bounce, she did not float. She was fastened into some sort of late-medieval torture chamber, a hanging cage or coffin in the vulgar shape of a human body – or corpse – left to be pecked alive by flesh-devouring birds, left to die slowly and visibly. She was strung up to be publically and viciously humiliated by the inhuman townspeople, by the criminal humanity of the public sphere.

I’d like to imagine those jet-packs of mist and color as not contributing to the polymorphic hybrid of the human-insect. I’d like to think that these jet-packs and masks do not protect these foul beasts of a waning creation. I’d like to think that these jet-packs and masks do not give them the endurance of life behind the salvific shield of a gas-mask.

Instead, I wanted to imagine these jet-packs and masks as those of the exterminator who sweeps your home with noxious fumes so as to rid the domestic world of pest, pestilence, and the unwanted bloody flesh of all those creatures that creep, crawl, and claw their way across the manmade sludge of the earth. I want those jet-packs to lift us up from that unbearable horizontality, that base materialism, which Georges Bataille so generously embraced. Our salvation from this civilly uncivilized world comes precisely through the gruesome humiliation of those insects and these swine – all those that must be humiliated and bullied off the face of the earth, off the brink of existence.

It is a cruel panorama in which Lady Gaga has set this scene. Like painters coming to refurbish your home, her dancing swine have covered the stage in white so as to keep it all nice and clean while they dabble in the whitewashing fumes of vapor and color – making beautiful all that was once hideous through occult alchemical processes of industrial tints and dyes. But alas, these swine make beautiful that hideous landscape through the same machinations and devices we ourselves deemed basely inhuman, uninhabitable. These swine are both the artist and the butcher. They are an externalization of the hideousness that lies within, and yet that hideousness, which lies outside before our eyes, is also meant to be sublimated behind the flesh. Are they an externalization of the inner swine? Or, is the swine mask what we should push inside – so as to believe what we are told? All I see are men and women dressed as swine, but should I be forced to believe that they are in fact swine on the inside as well?

As the lyrics say, “You’re just a swine inside a human body.”

Yet we are not presented with foul and corrupt businessmen, we are not presented with a cruel and inhuman Wall Street banker or the ruthless tyrannical leader – all those who grace the conference room in the spotlight, and the torture halls when the cameras are asked to be turned off. Instead, they are what they are. Look! They are swine with their long snouts and pointy ears! Those round-insectile eyes, which are ever watchful, ever preying, ever waiting to nuzzle into one’s flesh and suck that which no longer lies within. And, yet we are told by their white coats of paint that this is not true flesh. This whiteness is again those canvases that float suspended around the stage, tossed into the audience; this whiteness covers that very stage, that site upon which the performance occurs. We are reminded always that these figures are not human, that humanity indeed is what lies within – not that which lies is outside.

As the lyrics say, “You’re just a swine inside a human body.”

What then is this foul art? Why then create art? Why are they the creators in this fantasia and not those whose flesh is being mangled and consumed for the sake of creation? Why are they not being punished, corralled, and strung up in a medieval torture device to be humiliated – rather than jauntily bouncing upon the stage and taunting us with their freedoms and liberties. The secret to Lady Gaga’s joyful hellscape is precisely this: They are being punished. We may not know the identities of the swine with which she had to dance, but they are there behind the mask – even if the mask operates simply as the negation of their image. Here, the swine grovel and squeal in public behind a swine mask.

Hence, it is fitting that Gaga resorted to a medieval torture chamber designated for use in the public sphere for her “Aura” performance. Someone has clearly been reading about medieval torture devices. It is therefore not surprising that these swine masks, coated in thick layers of white paint, bear a striking similarity to early modern humiliation masks. Such masks would be forced upon those who acted in ways deemed inhuman by some standard of humanistic morality of the time. They appear to be a late-medieval/early-modern device that gained popularity up through the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly in Germany for which reason they are often referred to in the scholarly literature as Schandmaske. Many of these masks deployed the image of the swine in an abstracted form as a moral reprobation, attempting to externalize through the artifice of art the base inhumanity that resided within that deceptively human flesh. The humiliation mask operates in a manner that reveals that it is not actually the mask that hides or conceals the truth; instead, the humiliation mask works to externalize that which allegedly lies behind the flesh, and therefore suggests that it is the flesh itself that masks the humiliation mask of metal and leather reveals the true image of the entity that pulsates within it. As such, Lady Gaga’s “Swine” quite acutely tackles this early modern method of humiliation.

We have seen Gaga deploy similar imagery before in her fashion and also, most prominently, in her SHOWstudio film for the “Manifesto of Little Monsters,” which featured gasmasks, gimp-masks, and a host of other such humiliation-oriented masks to produce a sadomasochistic iteration of possible systems of restraint and shame that appeared grotesque, while also being caught up into the very sadomasochistic erotics of the fame. Her bridle in particular bears striking resemblance to such implements used for scolding women in the early-modern period.

The humans in swine humiliation masks upon the stage during “Swine” were not the same as the flying piggies playing on the LED-screen behind the stage. Certainly, those art-ravers were not piggies, they were swine. And they were being made to pay for their injustices, while nevertheless being veiled – for now.

Clearly, there is an erotics at work here rooted in the fetish, in the sadomasochistic acts of bondage, and in the whole slew of activities that the acronym BSDM may encompass. Yet the erotic nature of this performance is not in the fact that there are hot, sweaty, sinewy dancer bodies clad under metal and rubber, gagged under gas-masks, in restraints, in one-piece suits, etc. This is not about getting turned on. This is not about what is actually happening or even just what is present on stage in those bodies. Instead, the performance, if we allow it to be about what Gaga said it was – about those people who were swine – operates on the logic of such erotics. It is not dependent on the manifestation of a particular fetish or action on stage. Instead, the performance is about the erotics of double-binds and fused binaries. It is about being caught within that back-and-forth rock of desiring bodies: of wanting and not having, of that which is verboten and that which is nevertheless enabled. These erotics are not about the rape fetish itself, where one might desire this horrific, forbidden act to be performed on them. Instead, it is about the very conflict that enables that desire – that literal medium across which the forbidden and the desired operate.

The logic of eroticism does not dominate any sexual practice or sexual desire, but rather the very methodology by which desire is enabled. It’s not even about how we experience desire, but rather about the very manner in which desire is able to occur: That push and pull between bug-eyed hybrids and their own exterminators; jauntily bouncing post-Apocalyptic bodies on the defense against noxious gases, while they themselves gas the audience; white bodies that ooze color.

“You’re just a swine in a human body,” she says.

But, that is not what we have on stage; rather, the inverse: a human inside a swine body-suit. And yet, if we read that mask as a humiliation strategy, then that sheer fact of the human within the swine is doubly inversed again into the swine in the human body – the mask now operating as an externalization of what is within. Yet the sad fact of the matter is, (or perhaps the most hopeful, optimistic, and forgiving fact of the matter is), that in destroying a person’s humanity, in attempting to expose some hidden ugly “truth” – or lie – that rumbles behind the flesh, all that is done is a strange mirage whereby we are inexorably confronted with sheer, unbearable humanity. It is the valley of the uncanny that has gone completely haywire, producing a realization of the human, rather than the artifice.

This is not to say that there is a mistake or an error here. Gaga is not wrong or misguided in saying, “You’re just a swine in a human body.” Instead, she manifests the futility of humiliation, its practical and ethical impossibility – not through the content of the song, but rather through the implications of it and its imagery. It is a manifesto composed through overtones and kneejerk reactions, not about the notes or stimulants that cause those effects to emerge.

Lady Gaga’s performance of “Swine” causes us to confront a very important fact: that the practices of humiliation, while a process of externalizing the perceived ugliness that lies beneath the flesh, only leads us to confront the dissonance between that hyperbolic truth and the sincerity of that flesh that lies below or beyond it. To humiliate someone is to tell a truth in such a deceitful fashion that all it does is force us to confront the human flesh that lies betwixt. Lady Gaga’s performance of “Swine” at the iTunes Festival is a manifesto of survival in the face of torture and humiliation – and as a manifesto, if you allow me to take this literally, its resonance with the Manifesto of Little Monsters is useful, a source that has already resurfaced in the ARTPOP project, as I have discussed here previously.

This performance thus leads me to point out a very important truth: “Born This Way” was a terrible song, and can now only be seen as huge failure. Yes, I am humiliating “Born This Way.” (You get what I am doing here, right?) “Swine,” however, is the greatest anti-bullying anthem ever written, because it does not attempt to teach us or indoctrinate us through words or content, but rather shows us the deep fallacies of our ways and sketches out an outlook for resistance and survival even in the moments when we must confront the deepest inhumanity: that inhumanity that is both thrust upon us as victims, and that is forged in our own image as victimizers.

Author Bio:
Roland Betancourt is a doctoral candidate in the History of Art Department at Yale University. For more information, see his Academia.edu page


  1. This is really great. I think I've tried to express a similar reading of Gaga stuff in really different terms. She often tries to show the irresistible immensity of simply being; there's no such thing as just an object or just a person, there's only everything in the process of being (usually forcibly) turned into something else which is also necessarily itself. Humiliating isn't dehumanizing, because humans are ultimately just a fleshy flux - so treating them like trash or plastic is actually HUMANZING. When you get being as becoming, you become limitless precisely through your finitude, and attempts to reduce you only increase you.

    I dunno, help me out. When the whole world becomes just the same shit in different shapes, so that only the shapes (which are only fleeting ecstasies of matter) make anything knowable, anything becomes possible. The line between you and something else can and will shift, and then you'll be it and it'll be you.

  2. Yes. I think that's precisely it and what we are seeing in this logic, in the operation of this system of representing this idea (and just to note: whether that idea is indeed the message is irrelevant in my mind, but rather I am more interested in the system that emerges if we believe in my argument) is that very aspect of a medium condition that we witnessed in the "Applause" VMA performance and which we have been witnessing in her work from the very beginning. I do not want to sound like a broken record here in seeing all roads leading to some sort of medium reflexivity, but still Swine demonstrates at large the contours of a mechanics of perpetual flux. It is quite fascinating to think about the medieval aspects of this in particular and think about a book like Michael Camille's classic Image on the Edge (1992), because in his concern with the vulgar and the grotesque at the margins he was drawn by the way in which such figures avoid being but rather thrive on the perpetual flux of becoming -- and that's nearly a direct quotation from his intro. There we see really not only the deep history of such mechanics but a way of really considering medium for what it is -- an ontological treatise. While I am not particularly drawn to the grotesque and find the images of Swine quite displeasing, I was definitely drawn to the deep ethical undertones or overtones that emerged through it -- in the manner in which it lingered in my mind. I think this is why this piece of mine is in fact so different from most of my other writings, there is an element of poetry that emerged as I was writing it because I felt that much of what needed to be expressed was a manifesto or litany rather of free-associations and permutations of what in fact I was seeing and how those visuals got under my skin. I could say perhaps that in this ekphrastic turn I attempted to make beautiful that which I saw as so grotesque and in that process I only enumerated the very nature of that grotesqueness -- alas only going on to redouble or reduplicate the back-and-forth erotics of humiliation that I was describing. Suddenly I brought out poetic beauty as a mask over the ugliness of the subject matter that did not seek to conceal but rather reveal the intellectual beauty within only to make us all the more conscious of the imagery's various permutations of ugliness. In this sense, however, we have a model that is much more aligned to the valley of the uncanny -- in this chain of ricocheting signification we end at the unpleasant and the scary, in how it differs from the human when it almost becomes human. But what drew me to swine was how in seeking to manifest the inhuman rather than the human through artifice that uncanny valley's process was reversed -- and it allowed me to find solace in the confrontation of the beautiful at the end of the road -- despite the great irony that from the perspective of my methods that confrontation of humanity was only enabled by the parallel confrontation with the ugly. So this double bind which I hinted at but in a sense did not elaborate on occurs on two planes of operation -- in the content of my argument's resolution of humanity and in the resolution of my methodology's enumeration of ugly inhumanity. I think this state of being trapped between such a binary (on two intellectual levels or orders of separation) is really what enables for that condition of endless becoming. After all what is a medium if not the suspension of being and non-being in a hypothetical space where both may touch so as to enable for creation and generation to occur -- that process of transition from nonbeing to being. This is why I see Swine as a manifesto becomes it went so far beyond what was there, because it broached spaces of reason that seem somehow so distant and muddled that they can only exist as some primordial ooze, ever growing, expanding, and changing.


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