“I would like to welcome you on my rape anniversary,” says a young artist, Samira Elagoz, in a very composed manner at the beginning of her provocative multimedia theater piece, Cock, cock.. Who’s There? (2016). “This piece is not about the rape itself,” she added, referring to the rape incident, which took place in 2014, “but about actions after it” that eventually evolved into a large ongoing project, Strangers Project, a Gesamtkunstwerk of sorts.
Markedly, since the rape incident took place, Elagoz has been completely immersed in the project. The feature-length documentary film Craigslist Allstars (2016) represents a snippet from Strangers Project and a partial outcome. The endeavors of the feature-length fragment of her gargantuan documentary, or hybrid docufiction, verges on the social experiment, mapping the Zeitgeist of the beginning of the 21st century, and performance art and happening.
Elagoz is of Finnish-Egyptian origin, and despite her latest work in filmmaking (she is a one-woman film crew) and multimedia art, she studied Choreography at the Amsterdam University of Arts and graduated in 2016. “I went from technical ballet to trashy performance art, from cinematic theatre to documented real encounters,” she says, while relating the trajectory of her interdisciplinary development until she bumped into the vision that doubles as an art concept and began pursuing it. “I wanted to make a work that was unscripted, unrehearsed, and co-starred with people I had never met before. This meant I’d be highly dependent on people who are willing to reveal themselves in front of the camera without being too self-conscious,” she explains.
The documentary performative piece Cock, cock.. Who’s there? acknowledges its autobiographical origin in the incident and (re-)tells it through a variety of talking heads and authentic self(ie)-confessional clips shot on a phone. Testimonies delivered by people from the artist’s inner circle, including her mother and grandmother, roll on the big screen. The recountings center on how rape transcends issues of non-consensual relations, along with much broader debates that permeate gender politics and stereotypes. Craigslist Allstars opens the gender dimension as the spotlight shifts from the artist onto subjects she interacted with as she abandons the autobiographical venture and embraces mediated reality. The film was co-created by volunteers who are part of the docu-reality experiment, featuring as both co-producers and subjects.
The Young and Willing
However, despite the transition from auto-(biographic)-documentary style to that of performative documentary, Cock, cock.. Who’s There? and Craigslist Allstars maintain a high degree of autonomy (as does the installation appropriately titled The Young and Willing , rounding up encounters from hook-up app Tinder, more innocent as Elagoz seeks only a first kiss) while continuing to be organically conjoined by virtue of the larger enterprise of Strangers Project. “I have a rather expansive collection of material, obtained through meetings via various online platforms like Tinder, Craigslist, Chatroulette,” she reveals, and the hours of footage are being divided and implemented into different mediums and formats on the spectrum of theatre, cinema, and installation. She preserves the main inventory of motifs, and, concurrently, as well as resolutely, tackles issues such as loneliness, man’s place in cyberspace and reality, female sexualization, and all the elements introduced into the simplicity of a paradigmatic formula of “a man meets a woman.”
Elagoz used different platforms, demographics, and resulting materials to build her project and its myriad of strands. For instance, she had an ad put out at the beginning of Craigslist Allstars with the message, “I’m a 24-year-old girl making a short documentary film, and I am looking for strangers. The concept is, I meet you in your home and film how we get to know each other. There are no specific directions for you. We shake hands, the camera is on the table for you to use, or me :). It is quite open and will be a different experience with each of you. I hope for many contacts.” For a person unversed in the practicalities of online dating resulting in a social interaction engaged online and consummated in real life, the result may come as surprising. The encounters extend on a spectrum—from the platonic to the sexual and bizarre ones.
People from different age groups, nationalities and, most of all, personalities ensure that while the formula stays the same, the outcomes could not be more different from one another. Moreover, the mosaics of a modern man emerges, hard to pin down to a single label, materializing a guerrilla social docu-reality that, according to Elagoz, leads to “a vérité-esque observer that is also being observed. This approach breaks down the boundaries between the artist and her subject, director, and performer; between objective observation and subjective interpretation.”
Elagoz as one of the agents of social happenings turns into a social chameleon in Craigslist Allstars, adapting a more fluid personality. In one part of what was observed in Cock, cock.. Who’s There? Elagoz confronted random users of Chatroulette donning her unabashed female (and provocative) sexuality, producing a patchwork of male reactions. As the general framework of Craigslist Allstars expands beyond the sexuality into the social, cultural and psychological dimension based on intrisinc subject of the particular encounter unearthed in the process (e.g. exhibitionism, transvestitism et cetera), followed by leitmotifs of narcissism, universal male stereotypes but also loneliess, she remains very conscious of her body, the raw footage is rich in variety.
Elagoz does not wield just the one pre-fabricated role—such as the sex object as bait to the male gaze segment of Cock, Cock.. Who’s There?—but keeps a flexible guise on Craigslist Allstars. Her empathy enables her to navigate the actual social constellation of an encounter based on the type of person on the opposite side, which eventually prompts a pattern to materialize, usually in the form of a social template of a “boy meets girl” and the stereotypes it affirms (sexual tension) or conditions (e.g. circumstances of non-sexual physical contact, psychological intimacy). This allows her to elegantly identify a role and efficiently deduce its character traits and motifs, steering the evolution of the encounter in a way so that audience can abstract universal motifs. Elagoz remains mostly a passive agent, thus demonstrating the power of influence of a female figure but occasionally exerts verbal prompts and nudges. The approach bears inherent value to fashion transparent structure so that the performance-meetings allow clearly identifiable social and psychological patterns and offer a key with which to interpret the happening since roles—archetypes—transpire in defiance of clichés and rather as tools with which to read the scenes and happenings. The archetypes become relevant not only formalistically but very much to the subject of the project, combined with its psychological, social and gender context along the (self-inflicted) position of men in the contemporary society and their perception of women within it.
Describing the basic setup and style of her docufiction, Elagoz explains that “Craigslist Allstars, for example, is not a collection of portraits per se, but of interactions between me and my subjects. I have been a comrade, a lover, a conﬁdante, a sidekick. A conduit for the subjects to express themselves through. The ﬂuidity and adaptability of my presence are essential. My main tool is a strong sense of empathy, so much so that I tend to emulate a person’s emotional state and attitude. I also allow the subject to become a collaborator, making grand decisions about what content we shoot.”
A two-phase method can be discerned:
· The field work. The actual performance art in the happening, taking place in real time and limited only by the camera lens.
· The actual curatorial process in the editing room, chiseling, not doctoring, the adequate representation of the outcome of each encounter.
In the individual segments, Elagoz disrupts any kind of defined hierarchy, acting on the same level as the other participant. This was done while switching between the regimes of voyeurism and exhibitionism, applied by being in the moment (and shot) of the ongoing interaction, thereby un-censoring herself and protecting the authenticity of the project even at the cost of warts-and-all guarantee. “It’s the authenticity of the interactions that are central to my project. I’m there without a crew; there are no distractions or intimidating setup, nor any particular reaction I’m hunting for. I don’t direct their attention to the lens and try to refrain from any professional attitude in favor of casualness. The unknowns of the situations are also a stylistic indicator. I know little to nothing about the person I ﬁlm, and proceedings are very much open to adjustment. I don’t tell them how long I will stay, or even what I’m looking for. They are encouraged to make their own assumptions,” Elagoz says of the behind-the-scenes operations of her proceedings. She remains conscious of the fact that there is nothing like an objective reality, and she continues to be interested in what she refers to as “a focused truth.” As such, the project deals with the mediated reality and simulacrums in which willing, authentic people (with or without agenda) are in charge of creating and replicating inherent social and gender paradigms.
Apparently, by virtue of the advertisement, the artist’s encounters tend to be limited to that of straight white males who answered and were willing to participate, with the exception of a Tokyo (ad)venture, where a part of Craigslist Allstars was shot. Nevertheless, the situation enabled under the heteronormative rule finds Elagoz in the influential and influencing role—not as a documentarist but a woman, sexuality being the leading, mostly implicit but occasionally unambiguous agent.
The passivity, in some cases in a literal sense, converts into an agent in the space defined by the female and male body: “The fact I am a young woman outweighs that I’m a documentarist,” comments Elagoz. Conscious of the odds, she continued, “I do wonder if it’s simply a part of woman’s body reality to always be an active-passive manipulator when with a straight man. In that sense, the situations are about exploration; a curiosity of what femininity provokes. Am I observing or manipulating? Of course, the subjects are also directing me, to no small extent. So, the feeling of who is being manipulated is shady.”
Craigslist Allstars transforms casual encounters into a theatre of sex and body politics, staging an argument over whether such a situation can unfold in a gender and sex vacuum. The piece also investigates the place and (somewhat predetermined) role of the female body in the space. Elagoz’s sprawling artistic effort pre-dates the Weinstein and #MeToo era. She ponders the concept of deeply rooted patriarchy and disturbed masculine entitlement in Cock, cock.. Who’s There?, and in Craigslist Allstars the effort additionally bundles a question of (self-)representation extended beyond macho narcissism. Furthermore, her work gains more relevancy as a product of altermodern, seamlessly stitching fiction and documentary strategies into a coherent narrative generating a dilemma of caricature (inherent comicality of subjects who think are conscious and in control of the creation of their identity), although the outcome has the opposite effect. However, Elagoz does not cast any moral judgements, she proceeds from one encounter to another as a social scientist and engineer eschewing outward mockery. Craiglist Allstars does not revolve around solely sexual, gender and social archeology but also tests formal limits of docu-reality setup and performance art.