‘Performance’: What is revealed about our gender when examining the fractures caused by sexual dysfunction

Performance is the working title for an ongoing project aimed at exploring notions of gender in the context of sexual intimacy. It is my believe that the fracturing of sexual performance offers a gimps into the foundations of individuals culturally enforces and biological shaped gender role.

On 7th November 2016, in a Critical Historical Studies workshop at the Royal College of Art, I presented some of the early material developed for Performance. During this session I asked who, out of the 14 attendance, had experienced erectile dysfunction themselves or been in an intimate moment with a sexual partner who was experiencing it. I also made it clear it was not obligatory to take part. Never-the-less roughly 50% of the class raised their hands. My intention for the project Performance provide my audience with the impetus to start their own discussions about sexual performance with hope that they attempt to understand the emotional implications and societal taboos surrounding the contention.

Automatic drawings

I drew for almost the entire coach journey when returning to London from the 2016 Encounters Short Film and Animation Festival. Touching pen to paper without any preconceived direction, I let the marks I cast on the page shape the ones that followed. The aggregated composition feels to me like a pertinent glimpse into my interests and anxieties. Following the surrealist tradition, I have identified a rich semiotic network of icons, each with a identifiable index linking them to specific concerns. Collectively they act as a reasonable portrait of my mindset at on that day. Some of my interpretations revealed themselves during the drawing process, other’s were spotted over a month later.

Automatic Drawing, is a script for a short vignette featuring a thinly veiled protagonist speaking to his therapist. The ‘service user’ explores his interpretations of his drawing which bares a remarkable resemblance to the one I created.

School of Communication Basement-20161106162613

Therapist: Why don’t you describe what you see in your drawing?

Service User: The big angular frog man is me. And I’m sitting on a bed with closed body language. All my limbs are protected and my hands are covering my crotch. I’m sitting on the bed with a woman. This woman is right on the edge of the bed so maybe that means I was worried about whether or not she was comfortable. Behind her is this huge, weird looking donkey which is eating worms. He’s surrounded by a sinister black halo. Behind me there is an open cosmos with floating pyramids each with an eye. It’s funny, it’s sort of chaotic behind the woman and peaceful behind me. I think it means I still have a lot of anxiety around sex, and there was no separating that from women, but I remember feeling like I was just starting to get over it. Starting to get my confidence back.

Therapist: There are lots of eyes in the drawing.

Service User: Yeah, what I didn’t realise is that they eyes are not looking at my character in the drawing, they were looking at me as I drew. I don’t think they are judging but I certainly feel a little watched. Exposed.

Therapist: Would you say there was any significance behind the horse chewing the worms and pulling them taut?

Service User: Obviously they represent floppy dicks. To me it looks like the feeling of when you’re trying to will your penis hard and it just isn’t happening. I’ve found myself in pulling on it in the past, as if that might make a difference… Now that you mention it, those pyramids actually look a little bit like Viagra pills. They’re blue and look sort of diamond shaped. 

Performance interview 1: Tessa

The week I spend at Encounters, writing for AnimatedDocumentary.com, afforded me the opportunity to meet a number of interesting festival staff and filmmakers. At the closing party I spoke to Tesssa, an artist documentary maker who’s candour matched my own. In now time at all gender politics and personal experience came into focus.

Tessa, a cis-woman, mentioned her ex-girlfriend who was transgender. I was struck by the difference between experiences she had with her ex-boyfriends and her transgender lover when negotiating moments of erectile dysfunction. She spoke as if the emotional rolacoaster men often experience when they weren’t able to performer seem to bee less to do with physical equipment and more connected to the ego and fragility associated with the male gender role.

A month later, while visiting Bristol I arranged an interview with Tessa. The two hour discussion proved incredibly fruitful although I was starting to see that my perception of sexual politics had been heavily blinkered by my position of privilege as a strait, white, middle-class male.

Seminar with Bunny Schendler and Sheena Joughin:

On Thursday 10th November Bunny Schendler and Sheena Joughin hosted a seminar at the RCA. They discussed the conception, funding and production of their animated documentary collaboration Men Talk About Mother (2016)

The recorded interviews with men talking about their mothers was initially conceived by Joughin as research for a novel. It became clear that there was so much lost in the transcription of these interviews that Joughin recruited Bunny Schendler to collaborate on an animated documentary. A consequence of these informal beginnings was that release forms were not signed by the participants until a late stage in the production. It could be argued that this was unprofessional as participants were afforded the power to blockade the film at any point, another way of emphasizing this is that the film makers were motivated to act ethically and ensure that the subjects were represented in a way that made them feel comfortable.

Andy Glynn, the founder of Mosaic Films, said on a panel discussion in 2015 at Factual Animation Film Fuss, that he prefers to separate himself from the process of getting release forms signed by sending round a kind-spirited production assistant to do the job before a shoot starts. Personally I have struggled with the forceful and emphatic language used in such forms. My dread surrounding this topic was partly to blame for the failure of the project PIGS, which I developed at the AniDox:Lab in 2015.

Before interviewing Tessa we spoke on the phone about my intentions for the interview. I explained that I saw the release-form as an opt in or opt out decision that needs to happen at the very start. This yes or no moment is separate from the nuanced relationship and level of trust between documentary maker and subject.  I wouldn’t want to make a film that she was unhappy with nor would I want to give away so much power that she could put an end to the project. There is a delicate position of advantage a director needs to reach in order to securely make a film without risk of it collapsing. I feel these rights will only be handed over once the subject has understood your motivations and learnt to trust you.

What’s Up Doc? Workshop with Bunny Schendler

Bunny Schendler co hosted a Whats Up Doc? elective workshop with Sylvie Bringas the day after the Men Talk About Mother seminar. We watched an extract from John Smith’s Blight and discussed how voice recordings can be edited to produce evocative or even abstract outcomes. Smith arranges a small collection of phrases recorded by former tenants of a housing estate which was being demolished. Their brief verbal flurries are arranged rhythmically to match fast cut footage of the estate being dismantled by workmen.

Smith’s technique reminded me of the musician Pogo, who gleans fragments of dialogue from popular culture to construct beautiful music with a powerful sense of nostalgia.

During the workshop we were challenged to create a 1 minute edit from a 5 minute spoken word recording. I opted to use my own recording of Tessa and I. After the rough cut was complete we moved to the drawing studio. Each of our audio tracks loop one-by-one as we interpreted them through drawing. Our intention was to create an animatic in a day. Rather than filling the timeline full of static images I chose to film each drawing with my phone, drifting in and out of the compositions.

I was very pleased with the outcome of this film, as was Tessa. What I realised later was that at no time during the interview did she mention the penis being erect. I unwittingly twisted the dream into a hyper sexualised version which almost missed the point.  For her the penis was a horrible fleshy thing that just seem to be in the way. I think the question I asked about weather or not it made her feel powerful was a telling. It revealed our disparate perspectives on the symbolic meaning of the male sex organ.

Performance interview 2: Dot

I was discussing this project on a trian with Sandra Sordini, a colleague from the ‘What’s Up Doc?’ RCA elective. At one point I paused during the synopsis of Tessa’s narative to question weather or not “transgender” was the right term. Without hesitation a the person in the next see lent forward and added ‘Yes, that’s the right term’. After completing the story Sandra and I turned to to ask what our neighbor thought.  After introducing herself, Dot said that she had plenty to say on this topic and would love to be involved in the documentary. I tried to explain that the focus of my film was on sexual dysfunction but also then proved to be a topic she was interested in discussing. Tessa and Sandra were both interested in the prospect of filming an interview with Dot at what she affectionately referred to as the ‘Tranny House’. The four of us met on the 15th Novemeber 2016 to record what looked like panel discussion on two adjacent sofas in front of an enormous rainbow mural.


I eventually steered the discussion towards the topic of sexual dysfunction and immediately Dot fetched a prop. She returned with a generic brand packet of Sildenafil tablets, the chemical name for Viagra. Our discussion was extensive and very personal. Key to the issue was how much did Dot’s ambiguities about her gender relate to a sense of disconnection during penetrative sex.

Performance interview 3 and 4:

I intend of recording at least two more interviews. I am hoping to record a session with a therapist as I am interested in pushing myself to explore my personal interest in sexual disinfection. I am currently in negotiation with the Philadelphia Association, The Psychotherapy organisation, trying to find a suitable professional.

The 4th interview is a little more trick. I’m hoping to find a middle class, middle aged, white, strait male who would be willing to discuss his own experiences of erectile dysfunction.

Long form illustrated documentary film and drawing instillation: 

Rather than stripping down my extensive interviews to fit a 5 minute animation, I am hoping to make a much longer film, potentially up half an hour. I plan to record a single video take on using a Sony A7 camera with a 50mm lens which will produce an incredibly shallow depth of field. This will be timed to a pre-edited audio interview soundtrack. The visuals will consist of me moving the camera through a carefully lit studio, filled with chronologically ordered drawing and dioramas. One by one each image will be explored in a choreographed way to match the sound track. An added bonus to this method is that as I develop the film I will, by necessity, be creating an instillation which could be recreated to accompany the screening of the film in a gallery context.
The careful planning needed to create this film has prompted me to seek advice. I emailed Nicholas Rawling, the artistic director of Paper Cinema. 
The Odyssey, performed at Battersea Arts Centre in 2015, was an inspiring experience and has lasted as an influence. Despite touring China, Nic was swift in his reply, suggesting I take a look at the Prologue to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (created by The Mill for d. Burr Steers, 2016).
He also added that I should be open minded about adjusting the audio after the filming takes place. He anticipated that sticking to the exact timing will be hard so I must remain flexible with the audio if I am to insist that the video is a single take.
Finally, this gif from an unknowns source popped up on my Facebook feed. I think its satirical humor and simplicity is admirable. If a few seconds it illustrates the absurdity and pervasiveness our hyper-sexualised culture. I feel it’s also important to note that if the image wasn’t funny I don’t think it would have caught me attention.



Author: Alex Widdowson

Artist / Animator / Documentary Maker

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