A Quick Review of "Interior Semiotics"

The video for the performance art piece Interior Semiotics has made the Rocketboom list of “Top 10 Internet Memes of 2010” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l17Z9bfeXo0), winning the “effing hipster award.” Typical responses to the clip are along the lines of “wtf just happened?” amongst many other equally confounded proclamations. Despite (or perhaps because of) its tendency to bewilder, the video of the performance piece has had nearly one million views on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I9lmvX00TLY).


Much of the clip is focused on the reactions of the audience. A large number of online commentators have linked to the video in order to ridicule the hipster crowd who enthusiastically applaud the performance, even though most online viewers suspect that the art was actually meaningless fashionable nonsense. This response is understandable, partly because those who are unfamiliar with the history of the relevant performance art pieces referenced by Natacha Stolz’s performance may be prevented from understanding her artistic intentions (having said this, I tend to agree with some of the concludions drawn, but sometimes for different reasons). In what follows, I will identify the strong influence of earlier performance works on this piece in order to give some background information with which to assess Interior Semiotics.


Stolz’s performance of Interior Semiotics unfolds as follows:

[Setup: The audience is seated facing a small performance area containing a wooden board, on which lies a can of Spaghettios A-Z, and a can opener. Over to the left of the stage are a pot and a jug of water. Scissors are also present.]

0.00: Stolz walks in and picks up the can opener and attempts to open the can of Spaghettios.

0.10: The camera operator focuses on the audience reaction. The camera stays on the audience for the next 30 seconds. Stolz seems to be having difficulty opening the can.

1.10: Stolz rests the can on the wooden board and continues to open the can with effort. It takes another minute to finally open the lid of the Spaghettios.

2.25: Instead of Spaghettios, the can contains dark grimy material which is tipped into a pot.  Stolz pours water from a jug into the pot. The camera focuses on audience reaction.

2.45: Stolz recites a poem while mixing the contents of the pot with her hand: “Dirt is all around us, everything is shit. We apply meaning, value, and worth to the shit surrounding us. We live by this meaning, and by our words, we live by worth, and apply value, but, everything is shit.”

3.06: Stolz starts sounding out the following letters and letter combinations, while rubbing the black contents of the pot on her white t-shirt: “t, i, hs, s, i, s, i, g, n, i, h, t, y, r, e, v, e, t, u, b, s, u, d, n, u, o, r, a, l, l, a, s, i, t, r, i, d.”

4.00: Stolz grabs a pair of scissors and starts to cut a hole near the crotch of her jeans. She inserts her hand through the hole in the jeans and starts releasing fluids.

4.40: The camera pans to see shocked audience reaction. Sounds of fluid being discharged onto the board can be heard.

5.10: Stolz takes off her t-shirt and starts wiping the released fluid off the board. The open can is left in the middle of the board. The camera captures more audience reaction.

5.45: The performance ends with Stolz walking through the crowd. A long and loud applause follows.

6.35: The audience break up into a crowd. One of the hipsters can be heard calling out “yeah, art.” The camera continues to wade through the crowd until 7.42.


The series of events just listed may seem haphazard but the performance is actually structured around two earlier performance works: Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll (1975), and Martha Rosler's Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975).  Both of these feminist works involve explore and critique the role of women in society, the use and public perception of women’s bodies, and (in Rosler’s case) the commoditisation of food.


Semiotics of the Kitchen (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3zSA9Rm2PZA) is a performance and video work that parodies cooking shows. The video is set in a kitchen and consists of Martha Rosler naming, displaying, and using kitchen utensils in alphabetical order, starting with an apron. In this parody, Rosler explains, "an anti-Julia Child replaces the domesticated “meaning” of tools with a lexicon of rage and frustration." She uses each of the utensils in an aggressive and uncommon, sometimes humourous, manner. When Rosler reaches the letter “U,” she starts to use her own body as an instrument to imitate the shape of the rest of the letters of the alphabet.


Kitchen elements are also prominent in Stolz’s Interior Semiotics. Various utensils including a can opener, pot, water jug, and scissors are employed. These utensils are not named alphabetically but the label on the can is Spaghettios A-Z, and functions as a reference to Rosler’s earlier work. Also, Semiotics of the Kitchen was reacting against the commoditisation of food, and Spaghettios, a convenience meal in a can, serves as a clear case of food commoditisation. As for the semiotic element, Stolz explains that she was interested in "what sort of meaning is contained in alphabet soup, in that material. It’s this incredibly processed, condensed consumer product. I thought that was kind of similar to how we process language and how we use words; how we just kind of consume what’s given to us, what’s pre-processed, and just digest that." The end of the piece also has Stolz using her own body as an instrument used to pour fluids into the empty can.


At the start of the video Stolz spends a lot of time attempting to open the can. This has been a point of ridicule in a number of reaction videos and YouTube comments. But, in a subsequent interview (http://rhizome.org/editorial/3879), Stolz admits that a number of audience members were aware of details of her performance, and so the camera operator, who was a friend, probably knew what was going to happen. I am inclined to take the charitable interpretation that the struggle with the can opener was (at least initially) an intentional act, possibly to play on any audience expectations that a female should be able to work such kitchen utensils. This would provide an explanation for why a good thirty of the first forty seconds of camera time was spent watching the audience. If this is plausible, it would also provide a nice thematic link to Semiotics of the Kitchen.


The second work on which Stolz’s piece is based is Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll (http://www.caroleeschneemann.com/interiorscroll.html). Schneemann’s performance work starts with her positioning in various life-model poses wearing only an apron, whilst painting herself with black paint, and simultaneously reading from a book (which she had authored). She then proceeded to remove the apron, extract a scroll from her vagina, and read aloud from it. The following is a comment by Schneemann about the work:


I thought of the vagina in many ways-- physically, conceptually: as a sculptural form, an architectural referent, the sources of sacred knowledge, ecstasy, birth passage, transformation. I saw the vagina as a translucent chamber of which the serpent was an outward model: enlivened by it's passage from the visible to the invisible, a spiraled coil ringed with the shape of desire and generative mysteries, attributes of both female and male sexual power. This source of interior knowledge would be symbolized as the primary index unifying spirit and flesh in Goddess worship.


Whilst Stolz has foregone the element of life-model posing, she does recite a poem of her own invention. Additionally the black paint that Schneemann had applied to herself is paralleled by Stolz’s use of the black muck in the Spaghettios can. The unfurling of the scroll is not a feature of Stolz’s work, but in its place as the “final reveal,” Stolz’s performance involves the discharging of fluid into the can.


Having described the aspects of Stolz’s work that have parallels with the earlier performance pieces, there are also some original elements that Stolz brings to the mix. Her nihilistic poem conveys a simplistic message of hopelessness and meaninglessness. The seeming gibberish that she recites while painting her t-shirt that sounds like a reading of a bowl of Spaghettios A-Z does actually contain a meaning, though probably not to most of the live audience. If you reverse the order of these sounds it is possible to spell out the sentence “dirt is all around us, but everything is shit.”


The use of scissors to cut through the jeans comes across as an overly aggressive act, and one that relates well to the sometimes violent gestures in Semiotics of the Kitchen, whilst at the same time setting up for the comparable finale of Interior Scroll. The use of Stolz’s t-shirt to mop up the mess does not occur in either of the 1975 works, and seems to mimic the mopping up of a spill in a kitchen. This use of her clothing as a utensil, perhaps as an apron, provides another connection to both Interior Scroll and Semiotics of the Kitchen, and is yet another unusual use of an everyday object.


My final verdict on Interior Semiotics is that it is the performance art equivalent of a mash-up. It is less original than Internal Scroll. It is also less witty and more convoluted than Semiotics of the Kitchen. The ideas taken from these earlier works have only been developed with a modicum of creativity, as decisions about how these ideas would manifest in performance seem to have been dictated by the desire to fuse together as many elements from these two works as possible. If we consider Stolz’s original contributions, the combination of elements from the earlier works unfortunately generates a disharmonious unity when combined with her own overtly nihilistic message. The assertion in Interior Semiotics that, despite the meaning we invest in things, everything is shit, undermines the social critiques implicit in the earlier works. If everything that we value really is shit, it would seem futile to bother investing effort in social change. The nihilistic tone of the poem also leads us to question why Stolz would go to such lengths to get her message across (she does seem rather uncomfortable for the duration of the performance). The apparent conflict between the pessimistic message of Interior Semiotics and the impetus for social change in the works on which it is clearly structured unfortunately creates a contradiction that gives the overall performance an absurdist feel.