Critiquing consumerism through the absurd by using bottle openers and blenders.
Artist Rosie Gibbens uses performance, photography and video art to explore her own identity, as both a female and consumer, whilst “interrogating the complexities of contemporary feminisms from a personal standpoint” through themes of voyeurism and objectification. The artist explores capitalist tendencies in her work by investigating the ways that bodies are used to advertise and sell products. Desire for commodities are often constructed through desire for bodies (and frequently female ones). To do this, Rosie subverts the function of objects, mentioning that this “questions learnt behaviours and inserts individual agency over the intentions of manufacturers”. The artist has a few staples in her practice, such as a pair of beige heels from New Look and a bottle opener. She also dresses herself with the uniforms of traditionally fetishised female roles within society, such as that of a nurse or air hostess, starting her performances in a poised and controlled manner that descends into chaos. This reflects the “explorative and empowering” nature of performance art, as Rosie mentions to me. The artist believes humour and absurdism to be key components in her practice, as these are believed to provoke debate through creating a reaction. To incite this, she often performs complicated methods of carrying out simple tasks in her pieces, such as using a food blender to apply blusher. Using items in this way further evokes questioning into issues around objectification. The euphemistic nature of much of her work stems from her natural ability to intellectualise everyday objects with her politics. I speak to Rosie about her exploration of gendered uniforms, how she rebels against an object’s function and the ways in which she plays with certain stereotypes in her works following her exhibition ‘Recreational Grounds V’ with us, where she explored the use of remote-controlled cars in a parking lot that is currently closed to vehicles.
During your BA in Performance Design and Practice at Central Saint Martins, you started making outfits that one had to wear in order for these to function. Was this the first time that your work developed from being solely a costume to being a performance in itself?
Yes. I had spent most of my degree working on set and costume designs for theatre but in my final year, I started activating costumes that I had made for live performances. It was super exciting to be freed from the confines of working with an externally imposed text or choreography! The history of Performance Art had always interested me and I began thinking more conceptually about the work I was making.
You recall taking it too far in one of your past performances, where you invited the audience to actively interact with a pedal-bin with cream placed on top, by stepping on it and as a reaction, the bin dispersed a cream on your body. Did this performance make you aware of becoming too much of an ‘object’? As a result, has your approach changed and do you now take complete agency of the work without other people imposing?
As someone whose work is engaged with issues around objectification, I am constantly testing the success of my performances in intelligently upsetting the gaze through which (cis, young) female bodies are often consumed. I think this can be achieved through absurdity or humour. However, there is a danger of contributing to images of fetishised passive females when playing with stereotypes in the way I do. The performance you’re referring to involved myself holding a still pose in which I had my back to the viewers with my arse out, ready to by ‘creamed’ by visitors. In hindsight, the power dynamics within this set-up felt too similar to misogynist ones, partly because the position meant I could literally not return their gaze and also because I had little control over what was done to me. Reflecting on the dynamics between performer and spectator has helped me develop my practice and I’m keen to experiment with audience participation further. I also try not to be too hard on myself because the process of performing feels explorative and empowering.
In one of your past works, you stamped your body with quotes from Ivanka Trump’s book ‘Women Who Work’. Does this work reference the idea of empowerment to sell products? Is your entire body of work concerned in exploring a consumerist lifestyle? And would you describe yourself trapped within consumerist behaviours to some extent?
I am intrigued by the appropriation of feminist ideals as a mantra to sell products. Ivanka Trump’s brand makes me particularly angry because she supports an institution that appears to have little interest in improving the lives of women who have different experiences to her own. To boil feminism down to wearing the right skirt-suit at work without talking about reproductive rights or domestic violence services (among many other issues) seems ridiculous. This performance was an attempt to respond to this frustration. By isolating phrases in the book from their contexts I was hoping to highlight their vapidness. I also find the ‘having it all’ mentality she encourages unhelpful and so in the performance I presented a ‘character’ who was totally failing at multitasking (hence the title ‘False Efficiency’). Within the rest of my work, I am very interested by consumerist desires. I see my use of objects in performances and films as perverse product demonstrations or advertisements. Bodies are often the landscape through which desire for commodities are constructed and so I repeatedly take this to an absurd conclusion by implying sexual relationships between these objects and myself (sex sells!). At the moment, I’m particularly fascinated by perfume adverts because they are selling something which can’t be experienced (smelled) via photographs. Despite awareness that advertising is manipulating us, I am still often seduced by products I’m told will make me more beautiful/ efficient/intelligent. Desiring something even though you know you don’t need it is a symptom of capitalist life which I find difficult to step out of. I’m interested by these internal ideological contradictions and hope the work goes some way in addressing it.
When you start a performance, this is usually quite composed, rigid and elegant, however by the end of it, it is completely defiled. Does your process always go from ‘order’ to ‘mess’? Are you interested in doing something that looks chaotic through a system that’s very regimented?
Yes, I often appear quite put-together and neat so that the ‘disorder’ is more unexpected. Every work has a regimented internal logic even if it appears random or messy. I often develop work from the point of view of someone trying to participate in modern life but misunderstanding how things are done. This can be a helpful structure for experimenting with objects in the studio too.
The objects that you use in your performances are often domestic, impersonal and mechanical, alluding to the ridiculous things that we make to consume, and that are meant to tidy our lives but end up in cluttering us up even more… Do you rebel against an object’s function through your work? The bottle opener seems to pop up in many of your works, do you have a niche with this item?
Changing the function of objects is a foundational part of my practice. To liberate things from their original design is a playful attempt to question learnt behaviours and insert individual agency over the intentions of manufacturers. For example, in ‘Auto Erotic Assimilation’ I use an electric drill to apply mascara, a jigsaw for lipstick and a food blender for blusher. Using complicated methods of doing simple things pleases me; partly because wasting time upsets the ethos of our efficiency driven society but also because it can make people laugh. Yes, I often come back to the bottle opener in my work. I like them because of their humanoid features which encourages anthropomorphism. I often think of the things I perform with as collaborators and the bottle opener has the most personality to me. I can also think of many different things to do with them. I’ve always wanted to remove a tampon with one but it’s too difficult!
Do you intend to propose something strange, absurd, funny and odd into a situation that one could see as ‘pornographic’? Is absurdity a good resource to deal with topics that are quite serious?
We are used to the naked or pornographic body being presented very humourlessly, usually in order to encourage desire. The objectifying process of some pornographic images can appear to erase individual agency and identity. I hope to insert unexpected oddities or humour in order to upset this gaze through which bodies are often consumed. Absurdity is a useful tool because I feel it can destabilise societal rules about how to behave. I am a firm believer that something can simultaneously be silly and serious and have found humour an excellent way to encourage debate.
Being blonde and white, it is not difficult to notice that a lot of the ways that products are sold to us are often through people that look like you. Where does the line strip between critiquing and reinforcing a stereotype?
This is something that I am constantly questioning and analysing in my work. My able, cis, young, relatively thin body conforms in many ways to toxic societal expectations of ‘desirability’. I aim to consciously play with this stereotype in attempt to highlight its prominence and problems. It is a weird feeling because I have to approach my body in the work from an objective critical position as well as from my subjective experience. When I started performing, it was simply because my own body was the easiest one to use for trying out my ideas. Over time, I have learnt to be aware of the visual cues and implications for a viewer in the way I look and I hope to use this intelligently.
I had a nice chat with you about the movements that you use from one performance to another. Do you repeat certain actions? Can you tell us more about how you catalogue these actions at your studio?
I approach actions as an index of gestures that I can re-use for different performances. I keep them written on long lists to look at every now and then. They can be everyday movements, object interactions or dance moves. For example, I have often re-used the ‘slut-drop’ in different works. I like this dance move because it’s supposed to be sexy, but I’m so bad at doing it that I think it becomes ridiculous.
Many of the actions that you undertake present a state of submissiveness. However, is this state highlighted from a position of power, dominance and control?
In BDSM, the submissive is in charge of the power play. They define the parameters and limits of what happens and the dynamic is based on control and trust. I feel similarly about my performances. They are orchestrated and built by myself, so although I often take positions that look submissive, I am never passive. Having agency over the use of my body is very important to me.
Uniforms of a nurse, waitress or spa-worker have come up in your recent performances. Do you always present yourself wearing clothes from the service economy? Does wearing these traditionally fetishised uniforms become a way of diminishing the autonomy of those roles, which are symbols of a sexualised work identity?
I am interested by gendered uniforms such as those worn by nurses, air hostesses, American waitresses or female office workers. The fetishisation of these outfits amplify the importance of sexual attractiveness over the actual work performed and therefore contribute to patriarchal power structures in the world of work. In my performances, I often combine uniforms with actions that suggest sexual power play to highlight this fetishisation. These ideals have also become absorbed into female self-defined identity and authentic desire (including my own). I don’t want to make judgements about individuals but to question broader power structures.
Nude stiletto’s are a trademark item in your performances. Are these reused to highlight the illusion of glamour or elegance?
I really like wearing the beige shoes that I buy from New Look! I suppose they’re a bit of a comfort blanket in making me feel separated from my everyday life because I walk and stand differently in them. They’re re-used for different performances so can get quite bashed up. I like that they become a witness of different actions and I suppose there’s also a faded glamour about a patent shoe that’s falling apart.
I had the pleasure to see one of your recent performances, ‘Dirty Pillows’, which you have carried out both inside and outside of a gallery context. Can you tell us more about the experiences that you’ve encountered by taking your work outside of the white gallery walls?
I find that making work in public space can be a satisfying disruption to everyday life and often elicits interesting reactions from viewers. I recently went out in Wandsworth wearing the costume from ‘Dirty Pillows’ and chatting with people on the street. It’s exciting to gage people’s immediate reactions. They are usually confused, amused or a bit scared. Some people are totally unfazed though – especially if there’s a photographer there. I also performed a version of ‘Dirty Pillows’ in Folkestone the day before you saw it in London. There were some local kids who were watching from the window and I decided to perform mostly facing them. They provided a loud commentary on what was happening which was a brilliant disruption to the usual church-like atmosphere in the galleries I usually perform in. It’s interesting when spectator reactions become part of the work. Once, I performed outside a gallery in Hackney where some drunk men were making sexual remarks and gestures to me throughout. Although personally it wasn’t very pleasant, the charged atmosphere was quite incredible. They became collaborators in some ways because everyone was watching their ‘performances’ alongside mine.
Given that the topics that you deal with in your practice are so charged, including ideas around sex, identity, power or desire, does that make it hard for you to do things for the fun of it?
Not really actually. I try to avoid worrying too much about what every small thing means because otherwise it’s very hard to do anything at all. My process usually begins with messing around with objects, clothes or movements and then naturally I begin to intellectualise it in relation to my politics. When I write about the work, it always sounds very heavy going but the performances can be quite entertaining.
Is your practice all about trying to navigate your own identity and through this, explore ideas on feminist politics?
Yes. It’s fundamentally a way to explore my identity as a women and consumer. I’m not interested in being didactic but in interrogating the complexities of contemporary feminisms from a personal standpoint.
The colour composition seems very carefully thought about in your performances. Are you concerned with dragging your audience in by utilising aesthetically pleasing and/or seductive palettes?
I do consider aesthetics very carefully. I suppose this is partly a way to hook people’s interest and hope they’ll invest time thinking about the work. I’m also interested in upsetting coherent visual languages by combining aesthetic pointers from different realms of life such as the medical, domestic or corporate with the fetishistic. This is often done with colours and textures and is intended to make the domains of the mundane and erotic less distinguishable. For example, I might combine a black leather collar with clinical-green household rubber gloves. That being said, I also enjoy making intuitive design choices, especially with colour.
You once mentioned to me that “the work is ready to be performed because I have to perform it”. In that sense, is everything you do just a work in progress?
Yes, I always have ideas about how performances can be improved or extended. I think that one day I’ll set up a long event combining all the the different performances together in a big montage, maybe with other performers too. I’m also interested in re-doing things for different mediums e.g. film, publication, photography and performance.
Another great quote you mentioned in our recent conversation referring to the online audience that responds to your work was “when I have my body out, I get more likes.” How is your work received through social media and are you considering making works to exist solely through those platforms rather than existing physically?
Social media is definitely an interesting space to me and I’m intrigued by people using it experimentally. I feel conflicted about Instagram because the pictures have to function as visual ‘one liners’ which can feel inauthentic when they’re from time based work. Also, although I like getting immediate responses from people it often feels like a game in which certain images have higher social currency for reasons that are not necessarily based on artistic quality. That being said, I have just started a tinder account with photos from the ‘Dirty Pillows’ selfie series so that may become an online performance if interesting conversations are had.
Words by Vanessa Murrell