New York

Laura Parnes

Participant Inc.

Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School (1978) is a messy novel filled with nihilistic divagations and high-theory musings, juvenile drawings of cunts and cocks, unstable characters on a bombastic path of nonbecoming. Genet has a lengthy cameo, as does Jimmy Carter; there’s a character named Mr. Blowjob. For all the dialogic chaos, it’s an easy text to thematize, to reduce to some glib scrawl lifted from some po-mo bad-girl diary. When putting the book to another medium, one could imagine any number of ways to make vulgar and vapid the pensive, difficult texts, subtexts, and intertexts that, when woven together, give the novel its gravity and callow charm.

Laura Parnes manages to sidestep such pitfalls in her fifty-minute video “inspired by” (and titled after) Acker’s novel. Rather than reconstruct or “adapt” the book, she distills it, quoting snippets of dialogue and fragments of text and imaginatively building these bits into scripts for a series of theatrical vignettes. (In an essay on the work, Chris Kraus approvingly calls Parnes’s video an “extrapolationist reduction.”)

A large-scale projection of the video was recently shown at Participant Inc., a nonprofit exhibition space on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, not far from some of the locales limned in Acker’s book. Whereas the novel is organized according to a collagist logic—with cues taken from William Burroughs’s “cut-up” technique—Parnes’s video follows a more measured, episodic pace, proceeding according to a trajectory of deliberately structured (if occasionally recondite) juxtapositions. The work intersperses six discrete allegorical scenes loosely derived from the book with archival footage from historic moments—the Jonestown massacre, Israel’s invasion of Beirut, the Iranian hostage crisis, and so on— that took place between 1978 and 1982, years during which Acker constructed her novel. (Though copyrighted in 1978, Blood and Guts is an amalgamation of texts written between 1975 and 1982; it was first published in 1984.) Each theatrical vignette (with titles like “Janie at Home” and “Janie Goes to Church”), features Janie, the work’s petulant yet passive protagonist, instructed, manipulated, pushed around, or generally oppressed by another character, including a sleazy pastor, a callous nurse, and a man variously addressed as both boyfriend and father.

The sets are elegantly austere, the framing remarkably succinct. (Parnes’s favorite shot is a claustrophobic high-angle close-up that places Janie’s antagonist in the frame over her shoulder.) Each line of dialogue is cushioned by an arch pause. There are no interruptions; everything is given due space. When there is sex, it is merely implied. When Janie does eventually shout and fly off the handle, the volume is muted. Parnes’s video is in many ways the obverse of Acker’s loud, anarchic novel, and in this sense the work is something of an unfaithful rendition. (Though isn’t infidelity the Acker way?) This dissonance is underscored by a discrepancy in the spelling of the protagonist’s name: For Acker, she is Janey; for Parnes, Janie. And indeed, at the end of Acker’s work, Janey dies; in Parnes’s, Janie’s captor is murdered, and she lives.

Within Parnes’s own rigid formal vocabulary, one can see nods to queer cinema, German Expressionism, and experimental theater (one of her actors is in Richard Maxwell’s company and has worked with the Wooster Group). Stylistic affinity can also be found with the work of Mike Kelley, especially his series “Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction,” 2000–; that Parnes (with Sue de Beer) mined the artist’s work once before in Heidi 2, 2000, a send-up sequel of sorts to Kelley and Paul McCarthy’s Heidi, 1992, is worth noting. Style aside, the most provocative wink might be to Jeanne Dielman (1976) and other films culminating in feminist homicide (for Chantal Akerman, of the john; for Parnes, of the archetypal policeman). Even here, though, in the midst of foul play, Janey is an ambiguous, passive figure—a cipher for ambivalence rather than heroics.

David Velasco