Don’t Smile You Are On Camera (1980)

Mona Hatoum’s performance recorded 36 years ago in Battersea Arts Centre (currently on view in Tate Modern) uses video image and audience bodies to explore and challenge our experience of gender, sex, identity and technology. The artist with video camera gazing at audience members broadcasts images onto a tv monitor facing the public in the gallery. It is a silent encounter that intrudes on intimate and personal experience of the body through trickery of the image. Layering x-ray and nude imagery over chest and groin area, shoes and hands of the people in the audience, the camera gives an impression as if it was actually capturing what’s under clothes: breasts, bones; sometime changing gender of the people on the screen. The body under scrutiny, surveyed live with a camera whose lens is uncomfortably close almost daring its target to stay still, is exposed. Yet while the body and its image are clearly not the same, the experience of the body through the gesture of being filmed, and the image that results from the broadcast mixed with pre-recorded film bring the two together…. Into what? What is it that the image and the body are constructed into?

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Experience of intimacy in public does not just create discomfort and embarrassment as was the case during this performance. It is not just about exposing and tricking. It engenders relations between the body-image-technology in public. A very specific set of relations that are executed in the moment, while camera is rolling and the gaze is turned back onto the viewer. Sometimes the body freezes when it is penetrated by the camera lens, another time the person leaves so as to remove their body and themselves from being subjected to this invasion of privacy. Yet, this intimate encounter does not occur here between the artist with the camera and the viewer, or there between the camera and a tv-monitor and live-mixing desk, but it takes place simultaneously here and there, while people, things and contexts are entering into unexplored and new relations. In Hatoum’s work these relations are tested and this experiment was about confronting this new order while risking hostility because of its direct challenge to the body. And today this work reveals its new depths as it already then defied the idea that privacy can be only created in proximity to the body, and that it can only be challenged by challenging the physical body.

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